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updated: 10/3/2013 11:40 AM

Kids don't always understand what we mean

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Our daughter Amy (then 4) was busy demonstrating her Biblical knowledge one evening as we drove home.

After she told us the stories of "Noah," "the baby Jesus," and "God Is Love," she concluded by observing, "and, of course, there's Eve and Steve and all the kids."

Well, certainly. Who could forget that famous Biblical narrative!?!

Putting two and two together, we concluded we were talking about the creation story, Adam and Eve and their children. Come to think of it, "Eve and Steve and All Their Kids" is a catchier title.

This is but one example of a truism in communicating with children: what we say and what they hear can be (and often are) radically different.

We may see children's bodies in front of us, but somehow we assume there are adult brains inside them. And we seem to operate with the belief that these brains are like little computers that will correctly process everything we feed into them.

Neither assumption is correct. Children grow and develop in their ability to correctly understand what we say just as they grow and develop physically. And no one, child or adult, can correctly understand everything that is said to them all of the time (come to think of it that goes for computers, too).

For example, let's say we tell a 3-year-old: "Don't touch the radiator." Does that mean, "Don't touch the radiator now, but later is OK?" Or perhaps it means, "You can edge up as close to the radiator as you can, but don't touch it." For that matter, what's the radiator? What was it we said? See what I mean?

Another example: a 6-year- old asks, "When will we get there?" We respond, "In about half an hour."

Great. What's an hour, let alone half of one? To a 6-year-old, changes that are our adult measures of time have little meaning. Yet if that same child asks again a bit later, they will probably get a very frustrated reply.

The fact that children don't always understand what adults say is not all that important in most situations (like good old "Eve and Steve"). However, as the two other examples suggest, there are some situations in which it can be important for them and us that communication is clear. Let me suggest five things we can do to help this along.

1. Be specific. "Mike, this is a radiator. It is very hot and will hurt you if you touch it. Don't touch it or even stand close to it." When communicating with children, and even adults at times, it is a good idea to lay out step by step exactly what you want and why.

2. Keep it to the point. Don't try to talk about two things at once. Don't preface your statements with long-winded introductions, and don't talk forever. Think about what you need to say, and then say it.

3. Check it out. Ask the child what they heard you say. That doesn't mean an angry, "What did I say?" or "Did you hear me?" Rather, we might say something like, "Jenny, tell me what you heard me saying. Good! Thank you."

4. Keep communication (language, complexity, etc.) age appropriate. As we discussed above, a 6-year-old's sense of timing will not be the same as that of a 16-year-old. What you say about sex to a 14-year-old needs to be much more detailed than what you say to a 4-year-old.

5. Be patient. Every child is unique; we will have to learn from experience. And that means mistakes. We need to accept this and be extra-patient with our changing children, and ourselves.

Meanwhile, somebody still is asking, "Aren't we there yet?" Somebody else is edging closer to the radiator. And yet somebody else is getting ready to ask exactly how "Eve and Steve" got all those kids.

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