Young Children and Effective Communication
Written by: Catie Chun
Effective parent-child communication beginning in early childhood sets the stage for trusting relationships and development of self-esteem. Researchers have even been able to predict life satisfaction based on the strength of parent-child communication!
When we communicate orally with children, we are not just saying words — we are also communicating our values, expectations, and beliefs. With this in mind, it is important to consider what unspoken messages we are sharing. When we set our children up for success, praise their strengths and show them that we are listening, they receive the message that they are capable and worthy.
Using Effective Commands Tells Children “You Can Do It!”
Young children want to do a good job. As a caretaker, giving clear instructions makes it more likely that your child will follow through as instructed. We want to make our commands as effective as possible to set children up for success!
Give direct commands to eliminate confusion and to make it clear that the child, not you, should complete the task.
• Direct: “Pick up your toys.”
• Indirect: “Let’s pick up your toys.”
State commands positively and tell the child what to do instead of what not to do.
• To do: “Sit in the chair.”
• Not to do: “Don’t climb on the table.”
Break up multi-step directions into several single tasks so it is easier for your child to remember. This also gives you more opportunities to praise your child!
• Single: “Put your shoes in the closet.” Give praise. “Make your bed.” Give praise.
• Compound: “Put your shoes away and make your bed.”Single: “Put your shoes in the closet.” Give praise. “Make your bed.” Give praise.
Be specific and let your child know exactly what is expected. This can make it easier to decide whether the child has followed through.
• Specific: “Please walk.”
• Vague: “Behave!”
How Using Specific Praise Tells Children “You Are Working Hard!”
Young children crave their caretaker’s approval! To sweeten the deal, be sure to name the action that you like. Naming the quality or action in your praise increases the likelihood that your child will repeat the action in the future. To promote a growth mindset, it is important to praise the process and the effort that your child puts into a task rather than the outcome.
• “I love the way you are sharing with your younger sibling. You are being so kind!”
• “Way to push yourself out of your comfort zone and introduce yourself to a new friend! That is really brave.”
• “Thanks for giving your best effort at saying these numbers — I can tell you were working your hardest!”“I love the way you are sharing with your younger sibling. You are being so kind!”
DO praise immediately: praise is most effective when delivered immediately after the action.
DO praise frequently: the golden ratio is five praise statements for each command.
DO praise enthusiastically: young children respond to energy and encouragement!
DON’T tag on criticisms, reminders of past failures, or requests for future performance: praise should be a celebration of the child’s work, period.
DON’T praise undesired or inappropriate behavior: this is confusing for children — wait for something more constructive, then praise positive behavior.
DON’T be vague: your child is more likely to repeat the desired behavior when they know what you liked!
Using Your Listening Skills Tells Children “You Are Important to Me!”
Consistently engaging in meaningful conversation with your young child shows them that their words and thoughts matter to you. Using some of these listening skills can help emphasize that you are listening.
Ask open-ended questions to encourage your child to elaborate on their answers. Questions that begin with “what,” “where,” “whom,” or “how,” are helpful tools to start conversations with young children.
Acknowledge your child’s feelings and let them know that it is okay to feel that way. Children need to have their feelings supported by their parents to feel understood.
Let your child talk! One-sided lecturing and nagging is not a meaningful conversation. Use these communication builders to open the lines of communication:
• “I’d like to hear about it!”
• “Tell me what that’s like.”
• “Go ahead. I’m listening.”
• “I understand.”
• “What do you think about… ”
• “Would you like to talk about it?”
• “Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?”
• “That’s interesting.”
• “Explain that to me.”
• CDC’s Essentials for Parenting Toddlers and Preschoolers: Communicating with Your Child
• The REACH Institute at Arizona State University has brief videos on Making Clear and Effective Requests and Using Positive Praise and Incentives
• Boys Town Guide to Communication Skills