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Is It Possible to Talk to Your Kids Too Much?

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Lenore Moritz: Recently, two moms of teens told me they wish they had been less wordy with their kids when they were little, because now the kids debate everything. If, ten years ago, they had just said, "No hitting" rather than, "That behavior is unacceptable in this house, because hands are for clapping and hugging, not hitting," then today their teens would not be trying to filibuster every parental request. Hmm ... I don't know about that.
Personally, this concept of "fewer words" is so contrary to the way I do things. For one thing, my kids are little, so I'm constantly saying, "Use your words," because that beats tantrums and screaming as a form of communication. For another thing, I'm a talker. I was even awarded "Most Talkative" in seventh grade -- which I took great pride in, because I was very shy until I hit 6. And guess what my favorite band was in the early '80s? Talk Talk. (True!) 

At any rate, I'm not really buying the idea that overexplaining things to kids possibly leads to teens debating authority. Teens will be teens, and there's science that proves it. Teens have an undeveloped prefrontal cortex (the section of the brain that weighs outcomes, forms judgments and controls impulses and emotions) paired with a well-developed nucleus accumbens (the part of the brain that seeks pleasure and reward). This does not bode well for parents, no matter how mute you are when your kids are young. (It does, though, explain so much of what happened between my 13th and 20th birthdays.) 

However, being a parent means being open to assessing and adjusting, so I decided to dissect how I speak to my kids. For instance, I recently said this to my 4-year-old: "We don't throw hard balls around the house, because it can break things or hit your brother, and that would hurt; you wouldn't like being hit with a hard ball." The first thing wrong with that statement is that I used the word "we" when addressing an unacceptable behavior. Why am I being inclusive? I'm not the one throwing the ball. 

And what about all the words that come after "we"? Is it important for me to articulate cause and effect, or should I just be stating, "You do not throw hard balls around the house"? If Dr. Harvey Karp is right and our preschool kids are little Neanderthals, then fewer words -- or even pictograms! -- are the answer. If, however, the other school of thought is right and we should speak to our kids like they were little adults, then longer explanations might be more effective. 

As with many things in parenting, there's a lot of gray. You go with your gut and hope for the best, knowing full well that most teens are going to use their words (loudly) to fight the perceived injustice of having their cell phone taken away for some rule violation, just as they screamed when you took their dessert away when they were 4 ... and just as adults feel unfairly targeted and try to talk their way out of speeding tickets. 

Bottom line: It's human nature to talk our way through things. End of discussion.

next: Three Ways You Can Help a Mom With Autistic Children
6 comments so far | Post a comment now
Anonymous August 9, 2010, 1:12 PM

I vote for two steps.

1. Say something short and sweet adjusted to the kids’ language:

Stop throwing the ball inside.
Go outside if you want to play with the ball.
or No throwing balls in the house.

2. Once they stop, explain.
Balls could break something.
A ball could hit a person and hurt them.

And if you’ve told your kid the rule before, don’t bother explaining it again.

Sharon Nicholson August 10, 2010, 10:37 AM

I have raised 4 children & the feed back I have gotten over the years has always been you have to be 100% specific when you are speaking to them. The gray area is where you have left out even one word. A prime example is telling her yes she’s allowed to go to a friends house and be home at a certain time.I didn’t however tell her she was only to go to that friends house so she has not only gone to that friends house but a couple of others also. Her argument is you said I could go this friends house ,you didn’t say that was the only place I could go.Anyway, get my drift. You have to be so specific these days. That’s my experience. Sharon N.

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