Have you noticed that sometimes your children just need to hear a message once and they get it? And, frustratingly, you can send a message dozens upon dozens of times and it is as if they had never sent the message at all? Well, welcome to the real world of parenting where nothing goes as expected, what is supposed to work doesn't, what isn't assumed to work does, and what does work only works intermittently or only works for a limited time. It takes detective work and a real understanding of your children to figure out why some messages get through easily and others, despite your best efforts, don't seem to get through at all.
Even if you understand the messages you want to communicate to your children, even if you know which conduits through which those messages are conveyed, and even if you have strategies by which to send those healthy messages, you can't be sure that those messages will get through. Every time you send a message to your children, it will likely have to navigate its way through a maze of "message blockers" that can deflect, weaken, contaminate, or outright destroy your intended messages to your children. If you can understand these message blockers, you can lessen their impact and increase the chances that your messages will make it into your children's psyches.
Overly Complex Messages: "Huh?"
One of the challenges of communicating messages to your children is ensuring that they actually understand the messages you send. The key to this understanding is conveying messages in ways that are appropriate for their level of development. I see many parents who send messages that seem perfectly clear to them and then can't understand why their children aren't getting those messages. Even worse, parents then blame their children for not getting their messages. The problem is that parents see their messages through their own eyes rather than through those of their children. But your children don't think the way you do. You have years of experience during which you have honed your ability to interpret and understand the world. In contrast, your children are still relatively undeveloped when it comes to how they perceive, interpret, analyze, and make decisions about their world, whether a toddler, preschooler, elementary schooler, or beyond. This is why you have to walk in your children's shoes. Ask yourself, if you were them, what message would you be getting.
Disconnect Between Send and Receive: "But I Didn't Mean That."
A disconnect between sending and receiving can occur in several places. You may intend to send one message, but end up sending another. The disconnect here is between your intention and your action. For example, you may intend to communicate to your children the message that they should eat their vegetables because they will help them to grow big and strong, but the actual message that you send is "I get mad at you when you don't eat your vegetables."
The disconnect can also occur between what you send and what your children receive. Don't think about the message you mean to convey, but rather the message your children will likely get. Ask yourself: How clear is my message? If I were three years old, for instance, what message would I get? Here's an example. You work very hard at a job for which you earn a good living and that affords your family a comfortable lifestyle. You want to send the message to your children that you love your work and taking care of your family is important to you. But the message they get is that "my momma cares more about her job than she does about me." Certainly two very different messages with very different ramifications in your children's perceptions of your work and how you feel about them.
Infrequent Messages: "How Many Times Have I Told You?"
Messages can have a powerful impact on children, if they get through. Some messages are so potent they can get through with just one or two expressions. For example, children don't need to touch a hot stove twice to get the message to stay away from it. But with most messages, the more you "click the send button," the better chance your children will get them. So if you don't send your children each message with sufficient frequency, it may not sink in.
Everyday life, for most parents, is incredibly busy, with a long list of daily priorities including work, meals, housekeeping, family care, and shopping. And because you're so busy, it's easy for your messages to fall through the cracks. As you're dashing around with too long a to-do list and not enough hours in the day, you might fleetingly think that you'll get to those important messages. But, because family life rarely slows down, they continue to be pushed farther down the priority list until those messages are no longer on the list.
Here's what is necessary to keep your messaging on track and consistent: You need to keep your messaging on your radar screen as much as possible. Clear off the clutter on your fridge and post the important messages that you want to send your children. On your smartphone, set your alarm to remind you throughout the day. Have your spouse prompt you on a regular basis and you need to do the same for him or her.
Too Many Messages: "Do this, that, and the other thing."
One thing you have to be careful of when you commit to conscious messaging is message overload, in other words, you try to convey too many messages to your children at one time. You may get so excited about all of the great messages you can communicate to your children that you start hurling as many messages as possible at them at once. Several problems arise when you become overzealous about sending messages to your children. First, the messages, rather than being distinct, may amass into an incomprehensible jumble that loses all of its value. Second, your children may be so bombarded by messages that they won't be able to focus adequately on any single message. The worst case scenario is that, to avoid being overwhelmed by the messages, your children actively resist them and may actually do the exact opposite of what your messages tell them.
The best strategy is to choose and focus on a few messages that are most appropriate to your children's current level of development and life situation. Life has a way of letting parents know what their children need to learn at any given time. For example, if your son isn't sharing with his younger sister or your youngest daughter is hitting her older sister, you are presented with a ready-made "teachable moment" in which to send messages about generosity and kindness, respectively.
Inconsistent Messages: "You Can This Time."
Though we may not like to admit it, many of us as parents aren't as consistent as we should be. Too often, we allow our children to do some things sometimes - usually when it's expedient - but not other times. What's the message that your children are getting with these inconsistent messages? At best, they don't get the messages at all. At worst, the contradictory messages confuse them so much that they choose for themselves which message works best for them, even if it isn't the one you want them to get. Or even worse, they get the meta-message that being inconsistent is okay.
Conflicting Messages: "But Daddy Said..."
If you and your spouse send conflicting messages, you pretty much guarantee that a message won't get through to your children. Not only will your children not get the best message, but they will be confused by the contradicting messages from such credible sources and may become paralyzed with uncertainty about what your message really is and what you want them to do.
To reduce conflicting messages, parents need to look at their parenting beliefs and explore where the conflicting messages are coming from. As I mentioned in Chapter 1, in-depth discussions about parenting philosophies and styles should be prerequisites to identifying and resolving possible conflicts in the messages that you send to your children. In an ideal world, you want to come to some resolution long before the messages are communicated to your children. In the real world, the sooner you can regain consistent messages, the better it will be for your children.
Note: This post is excerpted from my latest parenting book, Your Children are Listening: Nine Messages They Need to Hear from You.