Note: This post is excerpted from my latest parenting book, Your Children are Listening: Nine Messages They Need to Hear from You.
A key question you should be asking yourself is: "So how do I get healthy messages across to my children?" Before you can take actual steps to convey specific messages, you need to understand the various ways in which you communicate messages to them.
A recent study compiled a list of the top-10 competencies that decades of research has found to lead to children with positive outcomes, specifically, healthy relationships with their parents, health, happiness, and success. This study supports my belief that it is not only what you do for your children, but also who you are that makes a difference.
In the category of what you do directly to your children, the research found that, not unexpectedly, love and affection is the number-one predictor of raising healthy children. Also, not surprisingly, the study reported that parents are generally quite good at expressing love and affection. Other "parenting techniques" that emerged were teaching your children to be become independent, promoting learning and education, using behavior management strategies to reinforce good behavior, exposing your children to a spiritual life, and ensuring their safety.
Yet just as importantly, the study identified messages you send through modeling who you are rather than anything you do specifically to your children. In fact, after love and affection, the second and third most important parenting competencies were your ability to manage stress effectively and have a positive relationship with your spouse. It seems that how you handle crises and maintain relationships, respectively, send powerful messages to your children that translate into whether they develop those capabilities as well. A worrisome finding, though ,was that parents rate themselves rather poorly on these two essential competencies. Other skills that impact your children indirectly include providing for their basic needs, planning for the future, and leading a healthy physical lifestyle. A final result of the study that is worth mentioning is that parents who actively seek to educate themselves about child-rearing "best practices" tend to produce better outcomes, namely, parents have better relationships with their children and their children are healthier, happier, and more successful.
What you say. Your messages come from what you say to your children directly. For example, "What you did was not kind!" or "You were so generous in sharing your toys with Sofia." Before you tell your children something that you believe has an important message in it, be sure to consider what the real message you want to communicate is and if your words will best convey that message. For instance, a key message that I believe all children should get early and often is being helpful around the house. In response to their children being helpful, most parents say something like, "You are such a good boy (or girl)?" What message does this impart? When your children do good, they are good and when they don't, they are bad? Not a great message because it focuses on who the child is not on what he or she did to deserve that positive message? The purpose of messages is to encourage values, attitudes, and behaviors you want them to ingrain and repeat in the future. If you want your children to learn to be helpful, a better message might be, "You were so helpful. Mommy really appreciates what you have done." Be aware though that verbal messages have their limits with younger children because their language skills are still quite rudimentary. If they don't have a great command of language yet, they won't understand what you are saying and won't get the message. In this case, other message conduits, such as those described below, will be more effective.
What you feel. You send messages to your children through your emotional content, such as tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language. In fact, your emotional messages may be the most powerful because children, as yet not fully developed verbal beings, are highly attuned to their parents' emotions. Make no mistake about it, your children will pick up your emotional messages more quickly and more impactfully than any other message. If you are angry, they will get that message. If you are sad, they will know it. If you are happy, they will feel it. No matter what you say! Even if you say or do something that tries to cover up your emotions, it's likely your feelings will come through. And, if they get different messages through your words, emotions, and actions, your emotional messages will take precedence in your children's psyches.
That's why it's so important to make sure that your verbal, behavioral, and emotional messages are aligned. Especially with young children with limited language capabilities, you can say something and, though they won't understand the words, if the message is infused with the appropriate emotional content that is consistent with the verbal message, then they will get the deeper message. And if you can use multiple conduits, that is, combine words, emotions, and actions, you send a truly resonant message that your children won't likely miss.
What you do. The cliché, "actions speak louder than words," is as true with children, if not truer, as with anyone else. Young children are incredibly alert to what you do. They are watching and listening even when you don't think they are. I'm sure you've been in a situation in which your children mimic your facial expressions, body language, words, and behavior without even realizing that you express yourself in those ways. Put simply, your children want to do what you do. That influence bestows on you extraordinary power as a role model. But, as the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility. Yes, this realization might instill in you great fear that your children might pick up some of your less admirable messages. At the same time, you also possess the ability to model wonderfully positive behavior.
Who you are. When I talk about communicating messages to your children through your words, emotions, and actions, I don't just mean the messages that are aimed specifically at them for their particular consumption. In fact, the way you interact with the world outside of your direct relationship with your children, and the messages that you send to them inadvertently by just being who you are, may have an equally influential effect on them. For example, your relationships with others in your life, your work, avocations, and interests, your emotional reactions, your conversations with others in which your children are within earshot all convey powerful messages to your children.
This influence of who you are on your children can be two sides of the same coin when it comes to the messages you send them by just being you. The positive side of the coin is shiny and smooth, from which you have the ability to convey really wonderful messages. For example, if you devote your free time to work at a homeless shelter, are a voracious reader, stay calm in an emotional storm, or are a affectionate spouse, you send your children really healthy messages.
The other side of the coin, however, is more tarnished and rough. One thing that people often forget is that parents are, first and foremost, human beings who bring to their role as parents lots of good stuff, but also likely some baggage from their upbringing that can prevent them from sending the most positive messages to their children. These less-than-healthy messages are also expressed in the totality of who you are: how you describe the world, the emotions that dominate your life, and the behavior in which you engage in your daily life. For example, if you are critical and catty toward others, yell when angry, or treat your mother badly, you are sending decidedly unhealthy messages to your children. Your goal and challenge is to highlight and communicate the positive aspects of who you are and be aware of and mitigate the less-attractive qualities that you, like all parents, possess.
Recent neurological research is shedding light on the incredible power parents have as role models, why their influence is so potent, and what areas of development role modeling impacts. The "mirror neuron system" is believed to be an area of the brain that is activated when children simply watch others. It has been implicated in the healthy development of empathy, nonverbal communication, emotional recognition, social behavior, motor skills, and language. Damage to the mirror neuron system has also been suggested as a possible contributor to autism. What this research tells us is that the messages that your children get from you are not just "psychological," but rather can become hard wired into their brains and impact them for their lifetimes.
What your children do. Your actions speak louder than your words, but your children's own actions speak louder than your words or actions. What this means is that the more you can get your children to engage in words, emotions, and actions that represent the messages you want to communicate, the more directly and powerfully they will ingrain and adopt those messages as their own. In other words, when your children talk, feel, or act in ways that convey a message, for example, being loving to you, sharing with a sibling, or cleaning up their bedroom, they are actually sending a positive message to themselves that they can't misinterpret. These messages carry extra weight because children are both the sender and the recipient of the messages and acting on those messages is the best way for them to become deeply embedded.