For most parents, it takes more than a few dozen major spills and messes before they get the feeling that their adventurous toddler isn't quite understanding the emphatic "NO! NO! NO!" that is uttered just a little too late. That's because kids aren't always listening to our words. Surprised? Probably not. A good chunk of communication between humans, regardless of age, is non-verbal. That means your children are listening even when you're not speaking. Being cognizant of the non-verbal communication between you and your child not only helps build his or her emotional intelligence and ability to communicate, but can also keep your sanity intact (whatever is left of it, that is).
1. Facial expressions: Recent research conducted at Concordia University indicated that children as young as 18 months can accurately read facial expressions -- so much so that they can even tell when you're faking it, and when you really mean business. They use "social referencing" to gauge whether you approve of what they're doing. So, the next time you find your toddler comfortably seated on the bathroom floor covered in shaving cream, the look of genuine disapproval on your face may be far more effective than a lengthy lecture.
2. Gestures: It doesn't take long for your baby to understand that different gestures convey different messages. Parents who have used Baby Sign Language rave about the positive impact it has had on their ability to communicate with their infants. Even if you haven't used BSL with your child, the use of everyday, common gestures (such as an open palm for "stop") can be incorporated when interacting with your child. Start by using the gestures while speaking the words, and then you can drop the words altogether. The best part? Blowing your child a kiss from across the park when you see him or her share a toy or let another child use the slide first. You'll be reinforcing and encouraging their positive behavior without uttering a single word!
3. Body posture: A closed posture, like when your arms are crossed or when you're hunched forward, is unwelcoming and indicates unfriendliness. Whether you're reading a book together, playing with blocks or tossing around a ball, an open posture will show your children that you are receptive to their needs, responsive and willing to engage in learning with them.
4. Proximity: The physical distance between you and your child sends an important message. When you see your child engaging in independent play, take a few steps back. The implicit message you send is that you trust him enough to play responsibly on his own. When you see that your child is eyeing the toolbox that is sitting atop the counter, move closer to her. Children are very aware of your presence, and will respond immediately.
5. Touch: Skin-to-skin contact doesn't end in the delivery room. Children's sense of touch is very sensitive as it plays a critical role in exploring the world. Make a connection with your child that goes beyond words by extending a gentle, supportive touch on the shoulder to encourage, or a firm grasp to keep him or her close -- and, of course, lots of hugs and kisses to show love and affection. These acts come naturally to most parents when their kids are young, but we need to remember that the benefits of skin-to-skin contact transcend age and are an important tool in communicating with our children even as they grow older.
Our kids are born without a user guide, and parenting is an ongoing learning process. One day, I'm on top of the world thinking I should be receiving my Mom of the Year nomination any day now; the next, I feel like the worst mother in the world. It's just that kind of job. The best we can do is try different approaches and techniques to improve communication with our children. Because, at the end of the day, good communication is the foundation of any strong bond.