Thursday, July 3, 2008

What You're Not Saying That Says So Much

Early in my teaching career I learned about a concept that first got me thinking seriously about just how important our use of language can be when talking to kids. I overheard a skilled, veteran teacher making a mistake with a kid. I remember clearly that it was a group of first graders walking down the hallway. One of the kids was messing around in line. His teacher walked up to him, took him by the arm and escorted him to the back of the line. While she was walking him, she said something along the lines of "Since you can't behave yourself, you can go to the end of the line." Even as inexperienced as I was at the time, it occurred to me, "You know, I think she just told that kid that he can't behave himself. I'm not sure that's really a message that is in her interest to give to him, much less in his interest." As I reflect on this, I think just hearing that interaction and realizing its importance was probably a major influence to my deciding to change my career to working more closely with children, families and adults as a parent coach and therapist.

Now like all of us, at some of my, shall we say, less than stellar moments, I make this exact sort of mistakes. Lots of times I'll even be aware that I'm doing it and still not be able to pull it together in the moment. What is going on in these interactions, often below the level of what is actually said, is that there is an implicit message. The gist of that message generally says one of two things. It says either, "You're a capable kid," or "You're not capable." Now any single sentence said to a child is not likely to harm her over the long term. The problem would seem to come from repeatedly hearing You're Not Capable messages, and hearing relatively few of the other sort.

To get more of a handle on this principle lets look at an example with a younger child. You could say, "If you don't start eating politely, you're going to be heading to your room." You could even add "Mr." to the end for emphasis. Not quite as bad as the one in the teacher example above, but still not in the You're Capable camp. An alternative way of saying something like this might be, "We'd love to have you eating here with us as long as you're using your manners." Notice that both ways of stating this are getting at setting the exact same limit with the child, about eating at the table. But the second not only sounds more inviting, it implies that the child has good manners and has an option of whether to use them or not. On a side note, it also sounds like the adult wants to be with him. Most importantly it implies that he's capable and in control of his behavior, a message we want him to hear again and again.

Another variation on the example above is to use the Up and Out of the Kid principle that I originally heard described by Betsy Geddes, a former Portland Elementary School principal and a colleague of Jim Fay's. I'd heard other use the strategy, but no one seemed to call it anything or have a name for it. I've used that phrase ever since to describe the idea to clients.

Up and Out means rather than simply telling a child something (which often tends to slide into unhelpful lectures filled with inadvertent You're Not Capable messages) asking a key question that brings the answer up and out of the child's nervous system. This might sound like, "Geoff, if the goofing around at the table continues, what's your best guess about what might happen?" said in a friendly, confident voice. This not only invites the child to think through likely results of his behavior giving a chance to change course, it also sends a subtle and powerful message, "Geoff, I think you are a responsible and smart enough kid that you can figure this out with just a brief prompt. I don't need to spell it out for a sharp kid like you."

A big way that you can incorporate this into your parenting or work with kids is to start out by just listening to how you and others talk. When you have a sense that a You're Not Capable message was imbedded in what was said, try to imagine what the alternative way of phrasing it might be. If you can't think of it in the moment, write it down and post it as a question in the comments section and we can brainstorm You're Capable alternatives right here at Awareness * Connection.

And don't get down on yourself when you find yourself giving your child You're Not Capable messages. The most highly trained of us still do it. We all do from time to time. The first and most important step is simply increasing awareness (note the name of the blog). If you give yourself credit for that first step of just awareness, you'll likely move on to become increasingly effective in communicating with children in ways that invite long term responsible behavior.

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