The Fine art of Communication


My son, 4 years old, doesn't listen. At home, there are times when I have to ask him to do something (or not do something) several times. His preschool teacher says the same thing. She will call him two or three times from the play yard and will finally have to walk over and get him. This concerns me since there may be situations where I will need his immediate attention (e.g. crossing the street or an earthquake), and I'm afraid that he will not listen at a critical time. We have tried time out, yelling, whispering -- you name it, we've done it. This is also starting to rub off on his three year-old sister. What do you suggest?
Covina, California

Dr. Greene's Answer

Sometimes when we talk to our children, it feels like a surrealistic play, where we repeat ourselves over and over, and no one seems to hear. This kind of communication is frustrating for us and unhealthy for our children.

Your son is jumping on the sofa. Happily.

Scenario 1:

“Stop jumping on the sofa!” (no response) “I said – Stop jumping on the sofa!!!” (no response) “How many times do I have to tell you? If you don’t stop right now you’ll get a spanking!” (no response) “Why can’t you be more like your sister?” (no response) “STOP THAT!!!!” (he shrugs and walks away)

Sound familiar? Occasionally, there is a physical problem. If you are concerned that your son is unable to hear, understand, or attend well, take him to his pediatrician for evaluation. Otherwise, you are experiencing a trial faced in varying degrees by most parents. But why do children who can hear perfectly well, tune us out?

Kids are passionate about a great many things. It is all too easy for our voice to come to represent nothing more than an unwanted intrusion into their world: “Stop that . . . Stay in your seat . . . Keep quiet . . . It’s time to stop playing . . . Don’t climb on the chair . . . Get in bed.”

Children are full of energy, wanting to play, to move, to explore – drunk with freedom. As adults, we are anchored by responsibilities, wanting peace, courtesy, safety, order – haunted by the way things should be. These agendas collide. We feel frustrated; they feel nagged; we all grumble.

The grand adventure of parenting is learning to bring these two marvelous worlds together in a creative union. Practice seeing events from both perspectives. As you become skilled at ‘bi-empathic vision’ (a new word created just for you to describe seeing and feeling both worlds simultaneously), new ways of speaking to your son will suggest themselves to you.

Have you seen the recent 3D posters and books that don’t need glasses for viewing? They can take a little practice, but if you let your focus soften so that your two eyes see the page independently, a previously invisible 3D image will pop into view. With practice, you can let your focus soften with your son. Let one ‘eye’ continue to see what you as a wise parent see, while with the other you try to see what he as a child sees. A hidden reality will emerge – for both of you! Bi-empathic vision is the best way to teach your son what he needs to know to succeed in this world.

Let’s look at how you both feel after Sofa Scenario 1:

You are frustrated, angry, concerned that you’re losing control, and worried that he won’t respond in an emergency. He feels hurt, squelched, misunderstood, and angry. He thinks the sofa is more important to you than he is, he resents his sister, and he wants you to leave him alone. Worst of all, he learns nothing positive.

Now let’s try the Sofa Scenario again, using bi-empathic vision as communication:

You might say, “Jumping on the sofa is sooo fun! I love to jump – but jumping hurts the sofa and it might hurt you. Let’s go jump on an old pillow!” (You scoop him up, or take him by the hand, put an old pillow on the floor, and jump together, giggling.)

How do you both feel this time?

You enjoy your son, and you spend less time and energy than in Scenario 1. He is giggling, feels understood, and realizes you think he’s important. He wants to listen to you. This time he learns that jumping hurts the sofa, there are better places to jump, and “Mom loves me.”

This is a long process. There will be many moments of exasperation. Still, nothing compares to the thrill of bringing your two worlds together in a burst of creativity. Not only will you raise your son well, but he will raise you – to new levels of empathy, compassion and wisdom. Your life will never be the same. Hooray for communication!

Part ll – When Communication Gets Stuck

Last medical review on: February 06, 2008
About the Author
Photo of Alan Greene MD
Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.
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