Friday, September 10, 2010

What we have here is a failure to communicate

Teaching children how to communicate is not an easy task. The proof might lay in how utterly ineffective many adults are at communicating with their peers, colleagues or even spouses - the truth is, many adults haven't developed the kinds of communication skills necessary to hold a job, advocate for their children or self, or to avoid unnecessary conflicts and confusion.

Let me be clear, I'm not just pointing the finger here - I'm very much a part of this indictment. Here's what I mean.

For some time now,  my 3 year old daughter Kayley has taken to being awfully grumpy when we leave her grandparents house, a play date, or any other fun event. She just doesn't want to leave. After tons of running and laughing, there does come a time when we have to go home, and so while I strap Kayley into her car seat for the trip home, I like to ask her if she had fun. Kayley's response lately has been a rather stern "NO!".

Now I know this isn't really true. After all, my wife and I have seen her run and play and laugh and jump and talk and yell... we know she's had a good time, but we just couldn't figure out why she was saying no and being so grumpy about it.

That's when I thought of an excerpt from Carol Dweck's book Mindset:

No parent thinks, "I wonder what I can do today to undermine my children, subvert their effort, turn them off learning, and limit their achievement." Of course not. They think, "I would do anything, give anything, to makem y children successful."Yet many of the things they do boomerang. Their helpful judgments, their lessons, their motivating techniques often send the wrong message.
In fact, every word and action sends a message. It tells children - or students, or athletes - how to think about themselves. It can be a fixed-mindset message that says: You have permanent traits and I'm judging them. Or it can be a growth-mindset message that says: You are a developing person and I am interested in your development. 
It's remarkable how sensitve children are to these messages, and how concerned they are about them. Haim Ginott, the childrearing sage of the 1950s through '70s, tells this story. Bruce, age five, went with his mother to his kindergarten. When they arrived, Bruce looked up at the paintings on the wall and said, "Who made those ugly pictures?" His mother rushed to correct him: "It's not nice to call pictures ugly when they are so pretty." But his teacher knew exactly what he meant. "In here," she said, "you don't have to paint pretty pictures. You can paint mean pictures if you feel like it." Bruce gave her a big smile. She had answered his real question: What happens to a boy who doesn't paint well? 
Next, Bruce spotted a broken fire engine. He picked it up and asked in a self-righteous tone, "Who broke this fire engine?" Again his mother rushed in: "What difference does it make to you who broke it? You don't know anyone here." But the teacher understood. "Toys are for playing, she told him. "Sometimes they get broken. It happens." Again, his question was answered: What happens to boys who break toys?
Bruce waved to his mother and went off to start his first day of kindergarten. This was not a place where he would be judged and labeled.
You know, we never outgrow our sensitivity to these messages. Several years ago, my husband and I spent two weeks in Provence, in the south of France. Everyone was wonderful to us - very kind and very generous. But on the last day, we drove to Italy for lunch. When we got there and found a little family restaurant, tears started streaming down my face. I felt so nurtured. I said to David, "You know, in France when they're nice to you, you feel like you've passed a test. But in Italy, there is no test."
Parents and teachers who send fixed-mindset messages are like France, and parents and teachers who send growth-mindset messages are like Italy.
At first, my wife and I asked each other why our daughter would lie about not having fun at Grandma-Grandpa's. You'll notice that our frustration was born out of a rather gross assumption - we were assuming that Kayley was in fact lying.

That's when my wife asked Kayley for some clarification. She asked her "Kayley, do want to leave?" Kayley lowered her head, started to cry and said, "No". Then I asked, "but did you have fun?" She reluctantly nodded yes.

The problem wasn't that she was lying. The problem was that her answer (No) was not for my question (did you have fun?). Her answer was for a question I never asked but one she was thinking of (do you want to leave?).

I'm sure we can all think of adults who don't say what they mean or hear what we say. Miscommunication is rampant among adults so we can only imagine how often it happens with children. Teachers and parents need to remember that they are the adult, and it is often their responsibility to diagnose items of miscommunication.

Conventional discipline programs tend to encourage adults to conduct triage on behaviours. The problem with this approach is that people are more than their actions. Kayley wasn't lying any more than Bruce was being impolite. Treat the (mis)behaviors and we risk merely treating the symptoms while ignoring the real problems to be solved.

Choosing to discipline Kayley, or enact some kind of consequence or punishment on her for lying would have been a massive exercise in missing the point. In addition, could you imagine how our relationship might suffer under such ignorant tactics?

If we truly care about being an authentic part of our children's development, we must take great care in understanding how and why working with kids will always trump doing things to them.


  1. I like the personal, conversational tone of this post. Sometimes thinking through it all with our own children can help make sense out of how we feel as educators.

  2. Hey Mr. Joe Bower i really like how use this post to pose the question of how to respond with children and was wondering if you had any suggestions to help parents improve upon this kind of think?

  3. I work with children everyday that are about your daughters age. I teach 4k. With children, there is a huge verbal communication limit. You have to be able to watch and understand their body language to know what they are talking about much of the time.

    When you said that about your daughter I was thinking, “Oh she’s just upset she was leaving where she was having fun and didn’t have any other way to express what she was feeling.” Not that she was lying. Maybe it’s because I’m around it everyday?

    I think she was expressing her frustration in the way she knew how (by giving you a negative response) without physically acting out. This was the best way she could express herself!


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