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Published December 05, 2012, 11:35 PM

Positively Beautiful: Helpful tips for good parent-child communication

So much has been written about talking and teaching our kids, as if we are a fire hose of information, blasting them into submission with facts and instructions about how to behave.

By: Dr. Susan Mathison, Areavoices.com, INFORUM

So much has been written about talking and teaching our kids, as if we are a fire hose of information, blasting them into submission with facts and instructions about how to behave.

The first time I asked my 5-year-old son Grant to behave, he said “Who is Have?” in a very serious voice. He had never met Have, so why would he want to be Have? After I laughed so hard I cried, I thought about his profound statement.

We want so much for our children. We want them to be smart, healthy, kind, strong, productive and, of course, we want them to behave.

I’d love to share some strategies I’ve come to appreciate as a mom and a doctor (these strategies can be helpful with husbands, too):

  • Address the child by name.

    Dale Carnegie taught us that the sound of a person’s name is music to his or her ears. Use your child’s name frequently in praise and in teaching moments. Regardless of age, it gets attention.

  • Make eye contact and use our body language to connect.

    For the little kids, squat down to their level, use a gentle hand and help them focus by asking them for their eyes and ears as you speak in a calm manner. As your child grows and maybe surpasses you in height, try other strategies to connect at eye level to enhance communication.

  • Repeat.

    Make the main objective of a lesson short and sweet. For smaller children, one sentence is optimal, repeat if necessary, then ask them to repeat it so that you make sure they heard you. Older children will tune you out if you ramble, so don’t get side tracked and ask them for feedback and repetition to clarify understanding.

  • Be a role model.

    Be polite, be respectful and speak to your child in the way you would want them to speak to you.

  • Begin with I. Use phrases like “I would like …” and “I am so pleased when you …” instead of “You need to …”

    “I” messages are non-threatening and non-accusing. They give a reason for the request instead of an order to be obeyed.

  • Don’t end with a question mark.

    Will you please clean up your room? Let’s finish the puzzle, OK? Both imply that a negative answer or action is an option.

    “I want you to clean your room, please,” makes your expectations crystal clear in a firm but pleasant manner.

  • Make an offer the child can’t refuse.

    Get dressed, so we can go to the park.

  • Give choices.

    Having choices gives kids a sense of power and mastery, something we all crave. The red shirt or the blue one?

  • Write it down.

    Lists, reminder notes and chore lists can be fun and humorous ways of encouraging and rewarding good behavior without repeated verbal reminders that are perceived as nagging.

    I wonder how my husband will feel about the gold stars on the fridge for him.

As your children grow up, making a habit of good communication opens things up for crucial conversations.

Health, finances, spirituality, drugs, alcohol, sex, pregnancy, bullying and even suicide are difficult topics that can be broached in a calm and loving way. Expect the eye-rolling and resistance, but even a short conversation lets them know that these are topics you’re willing to discuss.

Begin with a little story during a shared activity like making a meal, so the conversation is natural and less intimidating. Take a trip down memory lane and think back to your awkward young self. Tell them about your pimples, boy/girl problems, the disastrous prom date you thought you’d never survive, mistakes you’ve made, loneliness you’ve felt and even how you dealt with your own parents. Looking back, what advice do you have for your kids?

You can’t shelter them from all pain and disappointment, but by sharing you encourage them to do the same.

Dr. Susan Mathison founded Catalyst Medical Center in Fargo and created PositivelyBeautiful.com.