The Best Messages to Send Your Children

July 21st, 2011

By Dr. Jim Taylor

"Your Children Are Listening" by Dr. Jim TaylorThe most important thing that you can do to ensure that your children get the right messages is for you to know what those right messages. This understanding is not a given for all parents. To the contrary, many parents don’t give much thought to this level of their young children’s development simply because they have other more pressing priorities in caring for their children, namely, sleep, 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 they still don’t seem to have the time or energy to devote to focusing on these all-important developmental concerns. The result is that, without deliberate consideration of what messages you want to communicate to your children, at best, the messages you do send will be random and largely missed by them. 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 right messages are? Before I share with you a process you can use to flesh out those messages, I thought that you might find it interesting to learn of the findings of a survey of children four to 11 years old who were asked what they wanted from their parents. First, they wanted more attention from their parents and to be more available. The children wished they had more solo time with each parent and 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 felt safer in a world in which they feel 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 these discussions is to share each of 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 impact your being a parent:

  • 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 ingrain?
  • 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 the unhealthy messages?

Of course, these discussions won’t conclude in one sitting, but rather should be an ongoing conversation as you gain new information and perspectives, have fresh ideas, 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 in having this discussion early and often is that you can often resolve conflicts before they arise. For example, before my wife Sarah and I had our two daughters, Catie and Gracie, we 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 kept disagreements about our messaging to a minimum.

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. Hopefully, one of you will 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 their position. This kind of conflict can be particularly touchy on fundamentally important messages, for example, those related to religious belief (e.g., Christian vs. Jew), exposure to popular culture (video-game player vs. book reader), and health and eating habits (vegetarian vs. carnivore). 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.

This open line of communication also enables you to adapt to situations in which, as the poet Robert Burns reminds us, “The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry.” Parenting theory often doesn’t jibe with parenting reality mainly because, though you’ve read all of those parenting books, your children haven’t. Reality has a way of throwing cold water on both specific messages we want our children to get and the way we send them. This oft-times disconnect between what parenting books tell you will work and what actually works demands that you remain flexible in your messaging.

You may want to develop some practical guidelines about the messages you want to communicate based on these discussions. For example, Sarah and I agreed that, before telling Catie or Gracie that something is okay to do, we first speak to each other to find out what is going on and to ensure that the girls aren’t trying to play us off of each other. Or we agreed that when a particular situation arose, for example, Gracie hits Catie, that we always send a specific message, that Gracie must not only apologize for hitting her sister, but also say precisely what she is sorry for (“I’m sorry for hitting you, Catie”) and give Catie a gentle touch.

You can also assign particular roles depending on your temperaments and styles. Some parents are better suited to be the bad cop (meaning a little more firm; that’s me in our family) and others to being the good cop (meaning a little more nurturing and patient; that would be Sarah).  In other words, play to your strengths. If you’re just not good at sending the message that you both have agreed on, better to send no message at all and send your children to your spouse for the message. In fact, different styles can be a strength in families because couples can provide a wider range of message conduits and styles available to get a message across to their children.

Note: This post is excerpted from my latest parenting book, Your Children are Listening: Nine Messages They Need to Hear from You.

(This article was also posted at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)

(Visit Dr. Jim Taylor’s YouTube channel to see TV interviews and Prime topic discussions.)

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