A Typical Conversation
At the moment there is not a lot of sophisticated communication with my 18-month old son. On our drive home from work and day care, the conversation will go something like this:
Me: “Yes that is a car”
Dylan: “Car Car Car”
Me: “Well it is rush hour traffic so you will see many cars all around us”
Me: “That is actually a bus, can you say bus?”
The parenting self-help books I read assure me that any interaction with babies and toddlers helps them to build language and communication skills. During our “Car” exchanges I really do wonder if that is true.
I have actually learnt to question a lot of advice and so-called wisdom from these books as I have found the theory and the reality don’t match up. This is what you are told to do…
Acknowledge Good Behaviour
I like the theory behind acknowledging good behaviour – that a positive response encourages and maintains the good behaviour. And I admit, it does work in some situations like eating vegetables, brushing teeth and wearing a hat outside.
However, take it from me, on the very rare occasion when your little angel is playing quietly with his toys, the absolute LAST thing you want to do is notice, praise and direct attention to it. Usually this is a recipe for stopping the ‘good’ behaviour and coming to see what mummy is doing.
Advice #1 – Acknowledge Good Behaviour = Plain Silly (in some situations).
Bad Behaviour – Ignore or Growl
I think the biggest parenting conundrum is do you ignore or growl when the behaviour is ‘bad’. The flip side to the ‘acknowledge good behaviour’ doctrine tells me to ignore bad behaviour. And again, I do understand that if you don’t direct your attention to it, the bad behaviour will not be reinforced with your attention and is likely to stop.
However, this is almost impossible to do in the following situations: Dylan has turned on the bath tap while I am in the shower thereby making my shower go cold, he has climbed onto the kitchen table and is now jumping up and down, he is wriggling away when I am trying to dress him. And these are just three examples before we even leave the house in the morning.
So instead I put on my ‘growly’ voice and tell Dylan to stop. Typically a growly voice leads to fits of mirth from my child. He will literally laugh in my face. Being laughed at is quite disarming and definitely not the reaction I am aiming for. Often the behaviour may momentarily stop, but will start once the laughing subsides.
So if I ignore the bath tap being on, then it is just continually on and I get a cold shower. Alternatively, if I growl, Dylan will stop for a moment then turn the tap on again, then stop for a moment when I growl again, then turn it on again. I thereby get intermittent bursts of cold water during my shower. I am yet to decide which is worse.
Advice #2 – Ignore or Growl at Bad Behaviour = Contradictory (and often unsuccessful either way).
Always Speak Positively
You are told to avoid saying “No”, “Don’t”, “Not” etc. The theory being that the child doesn’t actually hear the negative word at all. Therefore when you say “That is not a toy”, all they hear is “Toy”. I have a couple of problems with this.
Firstly, REALLY? Who has decided this? From a young age, children do understand and hear a ‘NO’. It is usually one of their first words. To say that the negatives are simply glossed over or not heard is very hard to believe.
Secondly, has anyone ever succeeded in this? It is extremely difficult to do. The first thing I want to say is, for example: “Don’t stand on the table”. I have had to forcibly try to retrain myself out of using negative language.
During my retraining efforts, I started to wonder why it is so hard to speak positively. I now realise that our lives are conducted in a sea of negativity. It washes over us all day. We thrive on hearing about celebrity break-ups and meltdowns. The news is pretty much always tragic and terrible. When asked how their day is going, people don’t even reply ‘Good’ anymore. Instead they say ‘Not bad’.
We all need to make an effort to say ‘Yes’ more often. Look for the positives in life. Really feel grateful for what you have. Compliment your partner/ friend/ mum. Ignore celebrity gossip. Switch off the news. And when someone asks you how you are, today, disarm him or her with a “Fantastic”. Then the next time you about to launch into a ‘No/ Don’t/ Not’ spiral of doom with your child, it may be just that little tiny bit easier to rephrase it to the positive. I have found that the sentence “Feet on the floor please” is a gem.
Advice #3 – Speak Positively = Almost Impossible (but I will keep trying).
Always Speak Nicely
The parenting books tell me to communicate in the following way to my toddler – listen attentively, show empathy, try to understand his feelings and speak in a quiet, calm soothing tone.
This all sounds amazing but isn’t this how everyone would like to be communicated to? It doesn’t seem so much as a guideline for talking to a toddler as a guideline for life. I would love it if all my interactions involved attentive listening, empathy and really trying to understand the other’s point of view.
Advice #4 – Speak Nicely = Obvious (to the point of not being useful).
What The Books Don’t Teach You
I am not sure how to reconcile the theory with the reality of raising a lively 18-month old boy. Of course I will try and follow these guidelines, but through trial and error I have worked out that the theory falls short all too often.
In the meantime, I have realised that Dylan is going to get a rich introduction to language that involves many sentences that may not get uttered regularly except in homes with toddlers. Sentences such as “No sitting on the cat”, “The banana does not go in the DVD player” and “DON’T JUMP ON THE TABLE!!” are said more than you may think.
So I have already broken every golden rule of communicating with a toddler and we haven’t even gotten to real proper tantrum stage yet. I sure am looking forward to reading the advice on how to deal with those.