Smart Talk: Six Ways to Speak to Our Kids

Find out how you can make every discussion count by using the "tender" approach.
Table of contents

In this article, you will find:

The TENDER approach to communication

Smart Talk: Six Ways to Speak to Our Kids

This excerpt is from How To Say It to Your Kids by Dr. Paul Coleman.

Kathy glanced at the wall clock. Only 15 minutes until the school bus arrived! Her two children were dawdling, trying to delay the inevitable moment when they must grab their belongings and head down the driveway for their first day back at school.

"Mark!" Kathy cried. "Why aren't your supplies in your book bag where they're supposed to be?"

Before he could respond, eight-year-old Jenny dropped a box of cereal on the floor, scattering its contents.

Kathy sighed loudly. "Jenny, aren't you finished with your breakfast? The bus will be here any minute!" She yelled to her ten-year-old son, "Mark, I need you to help your sister clean up. I'll get your book bag ready. Hurry!"

"But I didn't spill anything," he protested.

"I never said you did. Just help her, please. Now!"

Mark made a face and walked over to his younger sister. While she was bent over scooping up the cereal, he hit her just hard enough behind her knee to cause her to fall. "Mom," Jenny called. "Mark pushed me!"

"I did not!"

"Then why am I on the floor?"

Mark whispered back, "Because I hit you. But I didn't push you."

Kathy huffed back into the kitchen and stood over her arguing children. She felt like screaming. She just wanted her kids to be ready on time, and she wanted them to be in a reasonably good mood for school. The vision she'd had of giving them warm hugs before they left had vanished. The only wish that would come true now was that they would make it to the bus with seconds to spare. But she'd have to act like a drill sergeant to make it happen.

What could she possibly have said to improve the situation?

The Three Outcomes of All Communication
Talking to your kids isn't hard. But talking smart takes some forethought and a little practice. Communicating with children is an essential and important job of parents. Done well, it can bind a family together and prevent or heal many problems. Not done well, family life can be tense and confusing, and the child will venture into the world inadequately prepared to cope with all life has to offer.

Most parents overestimate the amount of meaningful conversation they have with their grade-school children. Recent findings at the University of Michigan showed that household conversation (just sitting and talking with children) had dropped nearly 100 percent in 1997 compared to 1981. One reason was that kids spent more time at before- and after-school activities, and family mealtime declined by an hour per week. Also, the time kids spent visiting with friends or talking on the phone tripled.

If you're like most busy parents, chatting with your children is brief and usually begins with one of the following:

"How did you sleep?" ("Fine...")
"How was your day?" ("Fine...")
"Where are you going?" ("Outside...")
"When will you be back?" ("Later.")
"What did you do at school today?" ("Nothing.")
"Did you finish your homework?" ("I didn't have any.")
"Stop that!" ("But she started it!")
"How many times have I told you..." ("Oh, Mom!")

For many parents, these comments and others just like them make up the bulk of conversation on most days. Whether parents realize it or not, any communication attempt will have one of three consequences:

1. It will bring them closer to their children.
2. It will start an argument.
3. It will lead to avoidance or withdrawal.

Be honest. Do the majority of your conversations encourage closeness with your kids? Arguments are sometimes unavoidable, but they need not be poisonous to the relationship. As often as not they can end positively or at least without one or both sides feeling frustrated.

In too many families, conversations with children have a neutral effect at best. No harm was done, but neither was anything accomplished. The goal is to talk so that the parent-child relationship is enhanced, discipline is more effective, and your children will want to talk to you -- not avoid you -- when they have a problem. By knowing all six ways of communicating (instead of relying on just one or two) you can achieve those goals.

Kathy, the exasperated mom who was worried that her kids would miss the school bus, used -- or, rather, misused -- three of the six approaches to communication. Yes, she was able to get them to the bus on time, but at a high emotional price. She, Jenny, and Mark felt angry and put upon. What a way to start the school year. Had she used the approaches properly or in the right combination (a few seconds of forethought was all she needed), it still might have resulted in a mad dash for the school bus -- but without the irritation and bad feelings that tainted everything.

The TENDER ways of speaking are Teaching (criticism is a negative form of teaching), Empathizing, Negotiating, Dos & Don'ts (commands, household rules), Encouraging (including praise), and Reporting (neutral comments, statement of facts, reporting your thoughts and feelings).

When stressed, overtired, or preoccupied, parents are prone to responding to their children in limited ways. For example, four hours into a six-hour road trip, weary parents of bickering children might understandably yell, "Knock it off!" or, if trying to sound adult-like, they might say, "Must you fight like that!" (Dos & Don'ts command). Will it work? Anyone who has been there will probably say, "Not for long." The main problem is that parents instinctively select a response without considering the alternatives, which are usually more effective. In fact, most stressed parents overuse some styles of talking (commands and criticism) and underuse others (especially Empathizing).

Even when not stressed, parents may be unsure of how to respond to a child's question or handle a predicament, and so they fall back on standby clichés and hope the child gets the point. One father, surprised when his son didn't win a trophy in a martial arts competition, didn't know how to console his son. "Life's not always fair," he finally said. Chances are that if the father knew more about the six ways of communicating, he would have come up with a more effective response.

When Kathy, the frazzled mom, said to Mark, "Why aren't your supplies in your book bag where they're supposed to be?" she was not really asking a question. She was criticizing Mark for his dawdling. The criticism was justified, but it complicated Kathy's situation in two ways. First, Mark thought she was being unfair, and he got angry. He'd intended to get his supplies together, but why did it have to be on his mother's timetable? Second, Kathy was not being clear about what she wanted. She really wasn't interested in why his book bag was still empty. She wanted it filled, but she didn't say that.

Similarly, when she said to Jenny, "Aren't you finished with your breakfast?" she gave the appearance of asking a simple question (Reporting) but in fact it was a veiled criticism. Imagine if instead she had said, "I'm sorry, Jenny, but we're running late. I know you are still hungry, but you can't have a second bowl of cereal. Grab an apple if you'd like." That would have been a clear statement of what Kathy wanted Jenny to do, and it would have been without the criticism.

When Kathy told Mark to help his sister clean up the spilled cereal, she was issuing a command (Dos & Don'ts). Commands are fine and important, but in this case it only added to the tension that Kathy feared was already spoiling the morning. Empathizing or praising ("You're a big help to me, Mark") might have taken the sting out of her command. Furthermore, and perhaps just as important, her choice of words might have lessened Kathy's irritation, too.

The more aggravated our speaking tone and the more harsh our words, the more upset we will become. The more we can speak calmly and pleasantly, the less upset we will become. So if Kathy had used Reporting to express her concern about being late for the school bus, without criticizing, and if she had balanced her commands (Dos & Don'ts) by empathizing or encouraging, then the first-day-back-to-school blues might have been avoided.

Increasing Your TENDER Repertoire

At first glance you might believe that you regularly use all six communication styles. After all, what parents haven't praised or empathized or taught or negotiated with their child, right? Guess again. When you run through the following list of common expressions that exemplify each of the six approaches, you may discover that you favor one or two approaches more than others. While it is easy to shift from one style to another when all is calm and the household is happy, people under stress tend to overuse certain styles. They might criticize more or bark out commands, or they might be overly sympathetic and lenient and not inclined to enforce rules.

Interestingly, some couples balance each other out: One spouse emphasizes two or three styles while the other emphasizes the remaining styles. Together they are a complete set, but alone they lean to the left or right and then blame the other when matters get out of hand.