It’s an ever burning question: what in the world are kids thinking? And how do they communicate those thoughts with us?
You know this, but humans are communicating 24/7. We do this with:
Children do the same thing, albeit less articulately. They use cries, whines, voices, bodies - OK honestly, they use everything they can. The way they behave is an expression of their feelings, needs and desires. In case you forgot, we used to be like that when we were children. Over time and with the help of knowing adults, we learned words, manners, and social rules. We still have those tantrum-inducing feelings, but we, for the most part, control their expression.
Children can’t do that yet. They feel something and it comes right out of their little bodies. Such pure unadulterated truth. For sure, sometimes we don’t want to hear it or have it exhibited in public but …enjoy it now. When they get older, it all starts stacking up inside, filtered and hidden. If you have a teenager, you know this. You may learn more things about them through their social media presence than you’d like to. When they were four, they truly left nothing to be desired. They laid it all out for you, every interest, every question, every dream.
So let’s take it from the top. Communication from children goes something like this.
First, they have the feeling. Something like, “I don’t want to be here and I want to leave this room.” Keep in mind, you won’t see this first. What you’ll see first actually comes second.
Second, the behavior takes a form. Think crying, running towards the door, whining. Remember here that kids are incapable of malice. They will not cry or portray a feeling just to annoy or befuddle you. When you see the behavior, this is the time to note what change in the environment just took place.
Children’s bodies will do what their brain feels. Their face cries and their feet run for the door. How much more clear can that get?
When you watch a child behave, always always remember that they’re telling you something. And no, it’s not always obvious, because this is a language we haven’t spoken since we were little. But that’s the whole point of caregiving - to understand someone well enough to know what they mean, what they need.
It’s like in Spanish class when you start by learning some basic greetings. ¿Cómo estás? ¿Qué tal? ¿Qué pasa? They’re all different ways of greeting someone with virtually the same message. The more you practice and listen, the more you understand the differences with context and intention.
The more you watch your child and learn their language, the easier you’ll be able to listen, translate and respond appropriately, rather than only addressing their behavior, or the symptom of the feeling.
What are some tangible ways to do this?
Label the feelings: “I see that you don’t want to be here.”
Respond to the feelings: “But if we want to cook dinner, we need to be in this store to buy food.”
Offer a solution: “Why don’t we see what they have for us to eat?”
Praise them for being cooperative: “Good job for staying calm while I ordered dinner. I saw that you sat down and listened to us quietly.”
Now all this takes time. It takes repetition. Until one day, they will cooperate on their own and you’ll know that all that time you spent translating was not for naught. You helped them build the muscles of resilience, cognitive understanding, and verbalization.
And these muscles, they stay to be built upon later. Trust that these skills are waaaay more useful than tactics that force their cooperation because they have no choice or because you said so or because they will get TV time if they do. Remember that you’re making a person, not a deal.