Children become the messages they get the most. And as a parent, your words, attitudes, and actions are constantly sending your children messages, creating their earliest ideas about themselves, others, and the world around them. Now, parenting expert Dr. Jim Taylor describes the vital opportunity you have to shape your children (even when they may not appear to be listening) and guides you to answer this crucial question: “How can I be sure I’m sending the healthiest messages?” If you consciously send your children the right messages, the benefits for them will be profound. Your Children Are Listening offers:
- Nine essential messages all children need to hear—on love, competence, security, compassion, gratitude, nature, respect, responsibility, and emotion
- Why these messages are so important
- The different “conduits” through which children receive your messages
- “Message blockers” that can prevent them from getting through
- And fun catchphrases and activities you can use to send these messages every day!
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The Why and the What of Messages
For you to send the healthiest possible messages to your children requires that you fully buy into my notion that children become the messages they get the most. Though I think it is a pretty intuitive and reasonable concept, I feel the need to thoroughly convince you of the profound value of messages to your children's development. To really win you over, I want to explain the why and the what of messages.
I've always been a bit of a tech geek and first adopter and, for some time, I've been blogging on the psychology of technology for a variety of Web sites. One concept that I come across frequently in the technology world is "default." For those of you not familiar with what a default is in tech-speak, it's defined as a "preset option: an option that will automatically be selected by a computer if the user does not choose another alternative." Although I didn't understand why for some time, the idea of defaults has always resonated with me and struck me as meaningful on a psychological level.
You may be wondering what a computer default has to do with raising children. Well, in raising your children, whether you realize it or not, you're creating a set of default options for just about every aspect of their lives. To paraphrase the computer definition above, these defaults are "automatically selected by children if they do not deliberately choose another option." In other words, your children's defaults are reflexive responses to their life experiences, including their first thoughts, emotions, decisions, and actions in any given situation. Defaults, whether healthy or unhealthy, are very important for children because they are the first options that will arrive in their "inbox" when they are faced with a choice. If you can "install" healthy defaults in your children, you are increasing the chances that they will choose the healthy option over other alternatives that might be more attractive to them, but would also be potentially harmful.
The Importance of Defaults
There are several reasons why defaults are so important for children. The cognitive sciences have demonstrated that people in general attempt to be as efficient as possible in choosing and taking courses of action. This means that whatever mechanism will enable children to come to a decision most quickly will likely determine the course they choose. Defaults provide that efficient mechanism.
Also, recent neuropsychological research has shown that the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with so-called executive functioning — such as impulse control, risk/reward comparisons, future planning, and decision making — is still developing well into children's teenage years. This means that, without proper defaults, children are not only more likely to act without thinking, but also more readily swayed by external forces, such as peer pressure and popular culture. In other words, children will usually have knee-jerk reactions to, rather than make deliberate decisions about, the situations they face. Whether children have healthy defaults, unhealthy defaults, or no defaults at all will, to a large extent, dictate what their reactions will be.
How Defaults Develop
Defaults develop early in your children's lives from several sources. Role-modeling from parents, peers, and other people visible in the lives of young children provides them with their earliest exposure to defaults. When your children see influential people in their lives — and you are, by far, the most important people in their lives — act a certain way in various situations, they internalize those reactions as their own defaults. You can see the power of this role-modeling effect in simple ways, such as the body language and vocabulary your children pick up from you. Once your children develop language skills, you can shape their defaults by discussing appropriate behavior after teachable moments that arise in situations and in conversations. Ultimately, defaults are instilled through sheer repetition; the more your children see and hear the same messages, and act and react in the same way themselves, the more deeply ingrained those defaults become and the more likely those defaults will direct their behavior in the future.
Types of Defaults
The values that your children internalize can act as defaults because values will be the first "gatekeeper" in choosing a particular course of action. If your children's default values include honesty, responsibility, and generosity, then when they are faced with situations that trigger these value defaults, they will be more likely to, for example, tell the truth, accept blame, and help others. And, given all of the bad values in the messages that they are getting from popular culture these days, it is an immense challenge to instill healthy values in your children. Unfortunately, once your children leave the nest, most of the values to which they are exposed, for instance, those conveyed by popular culture, will not be healthy ones. If you can inculcate positive values through good messages early in your children's lives, you'll be setting value defaults that will make them more impervious to the unhealthy values they will confront once they enter the larger social (and digital) world.
The attitudes that your children develop about themselves — self- esteem, self-respect, confidence, willingness to take risks, patience, and hard work — will become defaults when they face challenges in different aspects of their lives, such as in school and relationships. These attitudes are initially created through the quality of your relationship with your children and the messages you send them about your attitude toward them.
Defaults related to children's physical health become habits that guide their physical life. Eating, exercise, and sleep defaults can set the stage for their long-term physical health (or ill health). When you look at the unhealthy diets and lack of physical activity among so many children these days, and the unhealthy defaults that get established at such a young age, you can understand why obesity among children has reached epidemic proportions.
How children occupy their free time (For example, do they read or watch television?) and how they play early in their lives (Do they play tag in the backyard or video games indoors?) can set their default for how they spend their playtime and respond to boredom in their later childhood years. Early use (or overuse) of entertainment and social media — for example, television, computers, smart-phones, and video games, all of which have become so prevalent in recent years — is creating an entirely new set of defaults that were simply unavailable in generations past.
Early social patterns also become defaults that will affect their relationships in later childhood and into adulthood. The messages young children get about how they interact with others determine whether their social defaults trigger, for example, kindness, compassion, respect, and cooperation, or selfishness, antipathy, rudeness, and contention.
No Guarantees, But ...
Even if your children develop healthy defaults, does this ensure that they won't do anything stupid, mean, or unhealthy? Of course not. Just as computers have bugs, glitches, lockups, and crashes no matter how well they are programmed and maintained, your children will need to be refreshed and updated periodically. But if your children are well programmed from the start, then you can be hopeful that those darling little "computers" will function productively and happily for many years to come.
Defaults for Parents, Too
The notion of defaults doesn't just apply to children. They can also play a big role in your parenting as your children get older. Think of it this way. In the first years of parenting, you send a variety of messages to your children through many different conduits. The quality and quantity of messages you send and the specific conduits through which you send them become internalized and, as a result, become your defaults for what messages you send and how you send them as your children develop.
Let's be realistic. Sending positive messages is, in many ways, easier when your children are young because they remain inside the "family bubble" with few outside influences, either on them or on you. But once they enter the social and cultural world of school, the number and intensity of messages from the "real world" ratchet up a great deal for both of you. Your children are exposed to many messages from their peers and popular culture that aren't healthy. That is obviously where the importance of early positive messaging from you comes in; those messages establish healthy defaults that will help your children resist the later noxious messages.
But you, too, are exposed to many messages from your peers and popular culture that are equally harmful. You will feel pressure from these messages to "keep up with the Joneses," for example, to push your children to get better grades or win more in sports, which may leave you vulnerable to sending them messages that you don't really believe. Here is where the real benefits of early beneficial messaging and creating healthy defaults in you come in. When you create positive defaults for the messages you communicate to your children and the conduits through which you send them, you gird yourself against the toxic messages that you will surely receive as your children get older.
The most important thing that you can do to ensure that your children get the right messages is to know what those right messages are. This understanding is not a given for new parents. To the contrary, expectant and new parents often don't give much thought to this aspect of their young children's development simply because they have other more pressing priorities in caring for their children, namely, managing their sleeping, crying, feeding, and pooping. Before parents know it, their infants become children and, because raising children doesn't get any easier, other priorities arise and parents still don't seem to have the time or energy to devote to these all-important developmental concerns. Without deliberate consideration of what messages you want to communicate to your young children, the result is that, at best, the messages you do send will be random and largely missed by them. And at worst, you will send an entirely wrong set of messages to them.
The question that you have to ask yourself is: How do we figure out what the right messages are? Before I share a process you can use to flesh out those messages, I thought that you might find interesting the findings of a survey that asked children four to eleven years old what they wanted from their parents. First, they wanted more attention from their parents and for their parents to be more available. The children wished they had more solo time with each parent and that they could choose what they did with them. They said that they definitely wanted rules even though they often resist them. The children in the survey wanted their parents to protect and love them in more noticeable ways, so they would feel safer in a world which they feel is out of control. For example, they really liked spontaneous expressions of love and being checked on at night. These children did not like being yelled at by their parents. Finally, they said that they enjoyed "family rituals, routines, and predictability." As the saying goes, "Out of the mouths of babes ..."
In-depth discussions about parenting philosophies and styles should be prerequisites, ideally, before couples have children (or even before they get married), but realistically, if you have these conversations any time before your children reach toddlerhood, you are ahead of the game compared to most parents. In my practice and my group of friends with children, I'm amazed at how little discussion there is about parenting approaches and the lack of consensus that many couples have in how they want to raise their children.
A good place to begin this discussion is to each share your own experiences as children, since most of us either copy or try to do the opposite of what our parents did with us. Examine what messages each of you received as children, how those messages played out in the formation of who you are in adulthood, and how they might affect your parenting:
What was the emotional tone and style of your family life when you were a child? For example, was it calm and reserved or expressive and chaotic?
What values were expressed in your family, such as faith, charity, achievement, or fitness?
What attitudes or beliefs were evident in your family, for example, humility, compassion, hope?
What activities and experiences did your family share, for instance, sports, games, or gardening?
What healthy messages did you receive as a child that you want to pass along to your children?
What unhealthy messages did you receive as a child that you don't want your children to get?
Note that I used rather positive examples, but the above list could just as easily include anger, bigotry, selfishness, and alcohol abuse.
Then, talk about the messages that each of you believe are most important to instill in your children. Ask yourselves the following questions:
What values do you most want to instill in your children?
What beliefs about themselves do you want your children to gain?
What attitudes toward others and the world do you want your children to develop?
What values, beliefs, and attitudes do you want to protect your children from?
What activities and experiences can you share with your children to communicate healthy messages and obviate unhealthy messages?
Based on both my professional experience and the answers that Sarah and I arrived at in response to these questions, Your Children Are Listening offers what I consider to be nine of the most important messages that young children need to get from you: love, competence, security, compassion, gratitude, Earth, respect, responsibility, and emotion. At the same time, I encourage you to explore messages that may differ from mine. Though I believe that my nine messages transcend individual and cultural differences, the reality is that people's values, beliefs, and attitudes, which act as the source of the messages, can vary based on upbringing, culture, faith, and any number of other factors. As your own ideas about the messages you want your children to get become clear, you can substitute or complement those that I have offered. Regardless of the messages you decide to emphasize with your children, you can use the information and strategies that I offer in this book to convey them in the most effective way.
Of course, this discussion won't conclude in one sitting, but rather should be an ongoing conversation as you gain new information and perspectives, have fresh ideas, and as your positions shift and the messages that you value most become clarified and prioritized. Your goal is to establish an agreed-upon set of messages and create a powerful and united front that will increase the chances of your children getting the messages that you want them to get.
One important benefit of having this discussion early and often is that you can frequently resolve conflicts before they arise. For example, before we had Catie and Gracie, Sarah and I read a lot of parenting books and talked to many parents about how they were raising their children. Though we were of like minds on most things, we didn't agree on everything at first — for example, how much popular culture to which we should expose our girls. Where there were differences, we discussed them and found consensus. We were able to prevent a lot of potential disagreements and create a unified front about how to raise Catie and Gracie before they were even born. Once they were born, when conflicts arose, we reminded each other of our earlier discussions and considered any new information or experiences that might have changed our views, which minimized our disagreements about our messages.
There may not always be middle ground or compromises on message issues; you and your spouse may just disagree. In this case, someone has to give, otherwise your children will get mixed messages, which will not do them a bit of good. One of you should accede to the other in the name of a cohesive message if one feels strongly about an issue and can offer a compelling argument for his or her position. This kind of conflict can be particularly touchy on fundamentally important messages, for example, those related to religious belief (e.g., Christian vs. Jewish), exposure to popular culture (video-game player vs. book reader), and health and eating habits (vegetarian vs. omnivore). There is not necessarily a right choice in these types of message disagreements. What is most important is to place the interests of your children ahead of your own and to consider each position as it relates to their long-term health and development.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Your Children Are Listening"
Copyright © 2011 Jim Taylor.
Excerpted by permission of The Experiment Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part I Get the Message 1
1 The Why and the What of Messages 2
2 Are Your Messages Getting Through? 21
3 What Can Block Your Messages? 35
Part II I Like Myself 57
4 Message #1: Love Is Your Child's Wellspring ("Sooo Much") 59
5 Message #2: Competence Is Your Child's Strength ("I Did It") 80
6 Message #3: Security Is Your Child's Safe Harbor ("I'm Okay") 111
Part III I Like Others 135
7 Message #4: Compassion Is Your Child's Hands ("Sharing Is Caring") 137
8 Message #5: Gratitude Is Your Child's Heart ("Mo' Grat") 154
9 Message #6: Earth Is Your Child's Home ("We're a Green Family") 165
Part IV Others Like Me 177
10 Message #7: Respect Is Your Child's Measure ("The Look") 179
11 Message #8: Responsibility Is Your Child's Shoulders ("That's the Job") 201
12 Message #9: Emotion Is Your Child's Palette ("Feel Good, Feel Bad") 220
About the Author 263