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Communication is Relationship
It's true in all relationships, but especially among family members. How we communicate with each other defines our relationships. Communication is the first indicator of building a relationship. The style and depth of communication tells you the level of emotional intensity and bonding being developed. Both nonverbal and verbal communication are equal partners in building healthy relationships. Conflict puts relationship under duress, and effective communication is the balm that soothes relational conflict. Active listening, the primary communication tool of healthy relationships, paves the royal road to Christ-centered parenting.
As we embark on this journey of learning how to grow kids and teens God's way, an immutable truth and the first principle of parenting is this: Communication is relationship.
Our Fully Human Example
The Christian faith accepts Jesus Christ as both fully divine and fully human. He, as God, is the alpha and omega. He has been from the beginning and will be with us into eternity. He, as human, provides us with an example of perfection. As we read about Jesus, the man and ministry in the Bible, we can see examples of all that is right and good with God's creation.
As Jesus chose and taught his disciples, He gave us an example of effective parenting. He laughed and played with them at the wedding at Cana (John 2:112). He taught them patience, tolerance, and the joy of children (Mark 10:1316). He taught in parables, which gave his disciples opportunity to wrestle with the lessons, think for themselves, and incorporate the teachings into their daily living. When the disciples didn't get it, Jesus explained his teachings.
He dealt with sibling rivalry and was longsuffering with their shortcomings and foibles (Matt 18:1-3). When his children strayed, Jesus rebuked but did not reject (Luke 10:38-42). He even got angry. His anger, however, came in the form of righteous indignation (Matt 21:13). He held evil accountable, actions speak louder than words, but reserved judgment (Matt 12:33-37).
Jesus is our example for Christ-centered parenting and effective communication. His words conveyed his heart. His words and actions matched. He sought teachable moments with his children and spent his life building a legacy, an example for us to follow.
Building Blocks of Relationship
Communication is the first building block of relationship. I just welcomed my second grandchild into our family. We were there when our daughter gave birth. Holding a newborn in your arms is a daunting task. She is fragile. She is weak. She is dependent. She is launched into a hostile and threatening environment when birth brings her from the womb to the world. I am a part of a loving network, along with her parents and other extended family, who are charged with keeping her safe and protected, while helping her grow.
Before her birth, she listened to her mother's heartbeat. She heard her mother breathing. Now, she has suckled from her mother's breast and looked deeply into her mother's eyes. Her grip around my one little finger is sure and strong. We are communicating to her by voice, by touch, by warmth, by comfort. She is communicating to us by sight and by her cries. She has "I'm poopy" cries, "I'm hungry" cries, "I'm tired" cries, and "I hurt" cries. She also coos when she is content, and she is beginning to visually track us in her surroundings. We are communicating to each other. We are building relationship.
The style and depth of communication is indicative of a developing emotional intensity and bonding experience. A famous research study and its follow-up in mother- child bonding(Harlow, 1958; Jeddi, 1970) let a rhesus monkey spend time with either a cloth covered monkey mannequin or a wire-meshed monkey mannequin. The young monkey instinctively and repeatedly chose to spend time with the cloth covered mannequin. This seminal work defined the concept of "contact comfort" in bonding and building parent-child relationships.
Even though Skype computer technology gives children opportunity to see and talk to their parent via computer link when the parent is off to war or away on extended business trips, such long distance relationship never takes the place of being there for your child as much as you can. Proximity increases the depth of communication.
The intent and content of communication defines your style in building healthy relationships with your child and family. Emotional intensity and bonding experiences are developed as you vary time and opportunity to be with your child. In addition to Directional Communication, that helps our children be safe, and Instructional Communication, that helps them learn and grow, parents more often overlook opportunities to have Check-In Time with their children. Finally, as a Christ-centered parent, you want to be ever vigilant to spot Teachable Moments when interacting with your child.
Saturday Morning at the Bowers
After handling the crises of Friday evening, with Emily helping her sister, Grace, clean up from her cuts and go to bed, while Jim collared his son, Jason, to help him settle down and get his schoolwork needs met, the Bowers all went to bed and then woke up Saturday morning. This was usually their most leisurely morning of the week and they had made a habit of having a family breakfast. It was one of the few mornings in the week the kids could enjoy their dad's famous "the works" omelet or their mom's scratch pancakes smothered in syrup. Some got up early, others later, but all made a point to be at the table for a 10 AM breakfast with hungry appetites in hand. Jim and Lauren sat by the ends of the breakfast table after serving the family. Emily sat to her dad's left and beside Grace, while Jason slouched in his chair opposite his sisters.
"Mm mm, Mama, these pancakes ... are ... delicious." Emily raved between mouthfuls.
"Hey, no fair," Grace chimed in. "I want some too. Pass those babies this way," she directed her father. She reached toward her dad to snag a pancake off the serving plate.
"Now Grace. Settle down," her dad cautioned. "You'll get your pancakes when it's your turn." He turned to his son and continued, "Jason, pick your pleasure. Pancakes or omelet for you this morning?"
Jason grumbled and began to uncoil from his slouch. His mom wanted to correct her son's table manners, but decided to hold off for now.
"What's this stuff in the omelet?" Jason groused.
"That's peppers. Pieces of red peppers and green peppers, you know, to give the omelet a festive look and to perk up the flavor."
"Yuck." Jason glided back into his slouch.
"Okay, then," his dad continued undaunted, "pick the pancakes this morning." He started to slide the spatula under two pancakes on the serving platter and transfer them to his son's plate.
"Dad, why do you have to be so upbeat? It's still the middle of the night."
Jason's mom chimed in, "Don't be such a grump, Son." His dad finished transferring the pancakes and smiled, without comment.
"Grump. Grump. Grumpy grump." Grace sing-songed across the table. "My turn for pancakes, Pop." Jim turned to serve Grace.
"Grump this, you twerp," Jason barked at his little sister. "I was up until 3 AM last night trying to get to the top level on my computer game, but I kept getting outsmarted by the enemy. So leave me alone."
"Yeah." Jim noted, sneaking in a teachable moment, "The enemy will outsmart us at every turn if we let him. We can't take him on alone."
"What are you talking about?" Jason blurted out of his fog.
"3 AM, huh? His mom added, "and yet you knew that breakfast would be at 10 AM regardless. Hmmm." She paused for effect and concluded, "no wonder you're tired, but, you know, Jason, that still doesn't give you the right to bark at your sister."
"Yeah." Grace added, and then stuck her tongue out.
"I think you owe Grace an apology, Son," Lauren directed before cutting her eyes at Grace.
"Sorry." Jason spit through gritted teeth.
"And, Grace," Lauren continued, turning toward her younger daughter, "I think you owe your brother an apology for teasing and baiting him."
Grace looked dumbstruck. She sputtered, "but ... but ..."
"Grace ...?" Jim concurred with his wife.
"Okay, fine. Sorry, Jason," she offered an unfelt apology.
The Bower family ate in stunted silence for a while before Jim changed direction. "Well, that was fun." Nobody laughed or even looked up. "So, let's talk about plans for the day."
Each family member spoke in turn about their expectations for the day. Jim and Lauren encouraged the discussion and asked questions about how their plans could be accommodated and coordinated. Each then carried their dishes to the sink, rinsed them, and put them in the dishwasher. The morning was off and running.
Directional, Instructional, Check-In, and Teachable Moments
This little slice of the Bowers' Saturday morning is offered to illustrate several points. First, family communication is never easy or smooth. Family moments of moods, attitudes, and expectations all aligning in perfect synchrony are rare. They are the picture of "life doesn't get any better than this." This vignette is more the norm than the exception. Second, the depth and variation of communication in relationship is constantly changing. As parents, we are to be aware of those constant changes, adapt accordingly, and hold on for dear life. The four levels of communication in families can be present in ever-changing fashion. As parents, we are to take advantage of opportunities to direct, instruct, check in, and teach each and all of our children.
Offering direction to our children comes most easily to us. Of course we want them to be safe. The younger they are, the more direction they require. When Jim told Grace to "settle down, you'll get your pancakes when it's your turn," he was both directing and instructing. The meaning within his words reinforced that families take turns and are patient. Direction and instruction are the most conflict-free components of healthy family communication.
When Jim explained to Jason what those "red and green things" were in the omelet, he offered instruction. Instruction is a natural use of the parent as the resident expert on matters. Young children hunger for instruction and will often come to the parent for help. Teens, on the other hand, are not as easy to instruct. When you bump up against attitude from your teen (or youngster for that matter), ask permission before you instruct. For example, a mom might see her young teen struggling with make-up and ask, "You know, I'm a regular make-up whiz. Can I offer some pointers?" If your child declines your help, respect her wishes and add, "maybe later," or, "Well, if I can ever be of help, let me know, okay?" In this way, you are leaving the door open for her to come to you later.
Check-in communication gives you opportunity to keep current in your child's life. The Bowers' Saturday morning breakfast ritual provides them with a context within which to check in with each child. After the meal is ideal, in that, hopefully, the children are sated, comfortable, and more likely to comply. Check-ins are questions designed to find out "what's up" with your child. In addition to daily events and expectations, questions like, "How's that lit project coming?" and, "Do you have the clothes you need for tomorrow?" are check-in moments.
In addition to finding out plans for upcoming events, check-ins also include what I call the "How was your day, dear?" time. In essence, this is a debriefing on events of the day. You can follow up on morning expectations, as well as give your child opportunity to talk about anything that is on his mind related to how his day went. Check-ins keep all relationships current and vital. Healthy marriages make a habit of checking in with each other frequently as well.
When my son was a teenager, we would banter over check-ins. Often, it would go like this:
"Hey, son. What's up?"
"How was school today?"
"What did you learn about today?"
"What kind of stuff?"
"You know, stuff stuff."
"Was it mostly yellow stuff, or oblique stuff?"
"Okay, Dad, now you're weird."
Although sometimes that was the extent of our conversation, I tried and he responded. We connected. The hidden message in check-ins is that we care.
Teachable moments are the lifeblood of effective parenting. Christ-centered parents are always on the lookout for them. We even sneak them into the conversation, as Jim did when he commented on Jason's difficulty getting past the bad guys on his computer game to succeed to the next level. More often, though, teachable moments are crafted from our experiences. They, too, are usually better received by asking permission before launching into your mini-lesson.
If Emily were to come home from a bad date and her mom caught her before she tumbled into bed, she might bend her mom's ear for a while about her date. Lauren could seize the teachable moment with a summary comment like, "Sweetheart, I'm so sorry you suffered through this date with a jerk. It sounds like a wasted evening. Some guys just don't get it and stay in jerk mode. Thankfully, all guys are not jerks. Hang in there. God has Mr. Right for you somewhere out there."
Such teachable moments are outside of the classroom, have no reading assignments and no discernible exam. They happen in life, in real time, and they have immediate and lasting impact. The outcome is less important than the process. You may not be able to relate to what your child is experiencing and you may not have the right answer for her. You are, however, there for her. Your efforts to help provide the emotional bonding of the teachable moment.
Learning the Concept: Exercise 1, Types of Communication
Four types of basic communication apply in parent-child relationships. When you are telling your child what to do, you are using Directional Communication (DC). When you are giving your child information that will help broaden their knowledge base and help them learn, you are using Instructional Communication (IC). When you want to connect with them in the moment, you are defining Check-In Time (CI). When you have your child's full attention to give him some of your wisdom with the intent and context in which to use it, you have defined a Teachable Moment (TM).
Beside each of the items listed below, mark DC, if the item is an example of Direct Communication. Mark IC if the item is an example of Instructional Communication. If the item conveys an opportunity for you to Check-In with your child, mark it CI. If you see the beginnings of a Teachable Moment with your child, mark TM.
1. ______ Be careful, Sweetheart. Don't go too close to the water. It's way over your head.
2. ______ Dude, what's up?
3. ______ Okay, now, put the worm on your hook like this, so it won't wiggle off.
4. ______ Boy, when I was your age, my dad used to tear up my butt for the least little thing. Now, I don't do that with you. Do you want to know why?
5. ______ Rise and shine, big guy. We've got work to do.
6. ______ Here, Sugar. Let me help you tie that shoe.
7. ______ Hey, Darlin'. How was your day?
8. ______ What makes you think you're ready to learn how to drive?
9. ______ You know, sharing works really good. First, when you share, you make a friend. Also, sharing helps you enjoy giving, instead of just getting all the time.
10. ______ When you want to make a good choice, write down all the pros and cons, and then go with the longer list.
11. ______ Hello. Earth to Tommy. Put up your Gameboy and come to the table to eat.
12. ______ Are you okay in there?
13. ______ Put your shoulder down and drive your defender. The lower lineman wins the battle.
14. ______ So, which homework subject do you think you'd like to tackle first?
15. ______ Who wants to help me make cookies?
16. ______ Hey, Punkin. Rough day at preK?
17. ______ So, what makes a good boyfriend these days?
18. ______ You know, what helps me stay on track is keeping "to do" lists.
19. ______ Now, why do you think I would tell you, first cut the grass, then get paid?
20. ______ Use your magic words, please.
Verbal and Nonverbal Communication
Verbal communication in relationship building gets all the press. Nonverbal communication is often seen merely as the backdrop for verbal communication. However, each is vital and instrumental in creating emotionally healthy relationships. With children and teens especially, facial expressions, posture, gait, breath, and gaze all convey meaningful nonverbal communication. If you only zoom in on his words, you will miss vital information to help decode what your son is trying to say.
Nonverbal communication also is a portal into deeper feeling. Later in this book I will explain why children never mean what they say. As parents, it's up to us to decode their words. Tuning into their nonverbal language gives us the tools we need to decode. Perceptive parents will find themselves noticing disparity between your child's words and actions. "I hear what you are saying, but your actions don't match your words. What else is going on?" A shuffling gait can mean "I don't want to go." An eye roll or shoulder shrug can mean "Leave me alone." A vacant gaze can mean "All I hear right now is blah, blah, blah. I'm not getting it, or I don't want to."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Teachable Moments"
Copyright © 2016 JONATHAN C. ROBINSON, PH.D..
Excerpted by permission of Morgan James Publishing.
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