The most powerful way to engage with your child on a daily basis is to shift your communication gear from ‘Transactional to Interactional’. Let’s face it, communication under time pressure becomes transactional rather than interactional, and life ends up being ‘clock in, clock out’ for the most part.
The difference between transactional and interactional
A transactional encounter is one where you’re going through the motions to get the task or the discourse done. Maybe you’re texting, talking on the phone to someone else or just preoccupied. The bottom line in this dynamic is that you’re not engaged with the other person or the process.
If you are focused on merely transacting, conversation is minimal because it’s the task that’s important, not the person. Get the job done, move on. The implied message behind the message can be interpreted as “I don’t have time for you or what’s important to you.”
So, how does one turn the tide from a transactional conversation to an interactive conversation with our kids?
Understand that conversations require participation. It’s more than “just the facts.” Chatting about the weather or the latest sports scores are ok, but unless you’re a meteorologist or sports broadcaster or sports coach, you’ll get more mileage with an interaction that is focused on the child, their world and the most thrilling (or penalising) things within it.
Authentic interaction is heartfelt and comes from a place of caring and wanting to connect and make a difference. It’s about leaving the child feeling glad they had the interaction with you. Even difficult conversations can be authentic and caring, and leave your child feeling respected and valued.
So, what are the ways to communicate with your children?
It starts with one conversation at a time.
Start by really listening to the conversations that you’re having with your child.
Honestly ask yourself: Are you approaching it like a transaction or an opportunity for authentic interaction?
If you’re merely up for transactions in any given day, recognise that it’s a choice and it doesn’t have to be this way tomorrow. Know that you’re missing out on opportunities to make a difference in your child’s life and potentially closed to the possibility that they might make a difference in your life that day.
It’s just a choice. And you can choose to change it with your next conversation.
Praise is king…
Often we are unwittingly too critical of our kids. We know from research that persistent criticism not only breeds resentment and defiance in kids, but also undermines children’s initiative, self-confidence and sense of purpose.
This week, try to ‘up your praise-to-criticism ratio’.
Here’s the bad news – even a 1:1 ratio is not going to cut it, as ‘balance’, or an equal ratio, of praise and criticism has been shown to be unhealthy, both in marriage and in parent-child relationships.
So, praise your kids often. Research tells us that the optimal ratio of praise to criticism to achieve growth and deepen relationships is around 6:1 (that’s 6 praise to 1 criticism).
Make the praise about things other than your child’s appearance. Try something like:
- “I like the way you’re thinking….”
- “I’m loving how generous you were to Max today…”
- “I’m proud of how you solved that problem with Emma…”
- “I respect your decision on that one”
- “I’m so impressed by the choice you made.”
Aim to use a consistent language that empowers independent thinking and diverse decision making in your kids.
Use one of the million times a day that your kids ask for your help or opinion to experiment with the power of choice and responsibility by saying something like:
- “Today, it’s your choice how we are going to do this.”
- “It’s your responsibility to find a way…. you tell me what to do and I’ll do it.”
- “I know you’ve got big ideas… you think of one way and I’ll think of one – we will do it together.”
Give them the control stick for a while….
Spend a walk (or even just 30 minutes at home, or 5 minutes while grocery shopping) giving your child 100% directorial power. You can say something like:
“I’ve been thinking that I often tell you how things should be done. How about for the next X minutes I do everything that you say for us to do – where to walk, what speed to go, where to stop (or what to buy while shopping or what to wear on a weekend day!).”
Kids get such a kick out of this opportunity to guide the way things roll! Ask them how it felt to be the one ‘steering the ship’.
Help them make associations between their behaviour and the emotion driving it….
Give your kids feedback on their behaviour that helps them understand the emotions that drive them and why you’re giving a particular consequence. Say something like:
- “When you’re rough with Sarah like that, you’re telling me that you’ve probably played too much Nintendo today.”
- “When you speak to me in that bossy voice, you’re telling me that you’re spending too much time with Alex and we will have to cancel the playdate tomorrow.”
- “When you slam doors like that, you’re telling me that you’re watching too much Nick Jnr.”
Help them know when they assume a role that’s not theirs!
Give them feedback when they adopt a role/responsibility that is not appropriate for them. Sometimes you need to protect your kid’s autonomy…and even more so, protect your kids from their sibling’s ‘parenting’ or ‘coaching’ style!
Try something like:
- “It’s not your job to tell your sister to go to time out.”
- “It’s not your job to tell Evie that she needs to go to bed now.”
Let your yes be yes and your no be no!
Kids thrive on consistency. Try to give them an unambiguous answer (and some rationale if need be), when they ask for something that you’ve already made a decision on.
Using responses like “we’ll see”, or “maybe” may seem like an easy out, but it often creates uncertainty in younger children and leads to escalation of requests and pleading behaviour.
By answering their request in a honest, empathic way, you’ll allow them to process the information in real time (and redirect them to their next request!).
If pleading and begging persists – label it as a behaviour that you don’t accept in your family…say something like “that’s a one for pleading” (the one applies to a 1-2-3 warning system that gives your kids an opportunity to stop / modify their behaviour before a consequence happens).
Make it known that it’s OK to question the referee (but not abuse them!!!!)
Start to make self-regulation the gold standard in your household.
When there is a decision made (or a limit set) that your kids don’t agree with, allow them some latitude to ‘question the referee’.
To explain this to your kids, you can use the analogy of tennis (or soccer, or any sport that fits the bill).
Here, a player is allowed, with some restrictions, to argue with an umpire’s call. However, if the ‘player’ gives abuse after the umpire has given them a warning – they are out of the game (after a 1-2-3 or yellow / red card warning system).
This analogy teaches several critical life lessons about self-control, namely:
- respectful, non-abusive communication is a principle of reasonable dialogue (in every personal relationship they’ll encounter in their life);
- it recognises that other people have feelings and that it’s ok to express them; and
- that we can’t say abhorrent things and expect people to do what we ask.
Recognising the consequences of our actions and learning from them is the hallmark of emotional maturity. You can say something like: “when you want to talk to me or complain about something, I’m always willing to listen. You can express whatever feelings and opinions you want…but only when you speak calmly and respectfully.”
Make the difference between consequences and punishment crystal clear!
Research tells us that serious behaviour problems (especially problems of motivation and effort) are never solved by punishment.
The threat of punishment is, for a child, only a very small part of learning discipline and self-control.
Consequences drive future decisions in a strong way.
Help your child to understand the consequences that lay ahead of them so that they can start to adjust their next step accordingly.
You can introduce a 1-2-3 alerting system (similar to the 1-2-3 magic approach used in many private schools in Perth), to give your child the ‘heads up’ that if they don’t adjust the behavioural direction they are heading, there will be a specific consequence.
You can say something like:
- “I’m going to help you make wise decisions about what happens next, by giving you a clue that you’re heading down the wrong path. I’ll say “that’s a 1 for being rude to mum…on 3, you’ll lose your technology for a day….””
- Then, if they persist with the behaviour, quickly state, “That’s a 2 for rudeness – you’re choosing to lose your technology.”
- And if they persist, “And that’s a 3 for being rude to mum – you’ve chosen to lose your technology until after school tomorrow.”
Remember, when deciding on consequences, they will be most effective when they are:
- known to children in advance,
- delivered without anger,
- of short duration, and
- partnered with a chance to start over.
Weave some of these tips into your weekly life and see how it changes the dynamic at home.