The Most Important Things Your Child Hears Aren't Anything You Say Out Loud

by Gail Cornwall

“Booty smack, booty smack!” my 4-year-old cackled as she chased her older brother, swinging a plastic snake at his naked rear-end. “Absolutely not,” I hollered, paying lip service to the notion of bodily sovereignty. She stopped and turned, but after noting my bright eyes and repressed laughter tore off down the hall after him.

On a different day, my 9-year-old started the morning by elbowing that same brother for “going in my room,” which just so happens to also be his room, and spat “I hate P.E.” when she’d waxed enthusiastic about the class’s bowling setup just the week before. Desperate to be out from under the cloud of negativity, I gave her a little nudge toward the front door. “I love you! Have a great day!” I said with gritted teeth and a tight smile. Stomping down the stairs, she tossed back: “You don’t mean it. You think I’m a horrible child.”

On a surface level, my speech was positive, but she heard something else. The nonverbal ways we communicate with our kids include tone, pitch, volume, and rhythm of voice, as well as body language, like posture and gesture (officially referred to as “kinesics”). There’s also eye contact and facial expression, plus proxemics (increasing or decreasing personal space) and physical touch (fancy name: “haptics”).

Research shows that messages sent through these mechanisms have a bigger impact on a child’s brain development, emotional wellness, and social skills than their words do. Much more, in fact. To that end, Romper spoke with a handful of experts, who dished up helpful tips that apply from birth through the school years and even into adulthood.

Babies: Serve & Return

Dr. Jack P. Shonkoff, M.D., director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, talks about a concept for infants called “serve-and-return.” The idea is pretty simple. Babies babble and cry. When adults respond “much like a lively game of tennis, volleyball, or Ping-Pong,” neural connections are built and strengthened.

Why? The verbal side of things is easiest to explain. If they make a sound and you offer a gentle tone or caress in return, they’re encouraged to make more sounds. Voila! Language pathways in the brain. If they reach their arms up and you lift them, their act of social expression — of asking for help, seeking to connect — is positively reinforced. The feeling of stability and support that results leads to attachment, confidence, and ultimately resilience. “You smile, they smile; you coo, they coo,” explains Dr. Harvey Karp, M.D., author of The Happiest Baby on the Block, “and you start this dialogue, which seems like a silly little game but it turns out to be incredibly important.”

Shonkoff’s Harvard group offers parents more detailed instruction. First, notice the child’s serve. Are they pointing at something? Kicking their feet? Grunting? Then respond by making “a sound or facial expression — like saying, ‘I see!’ or smiling and nodding to let him know you’re noticing the same thing.” Then give it a name (e.g., “Yes, that’s a necklace.”). Wait for the baby to holler back with another noise or gesture, and then repeat the noticing, responding, and naming, back and forth, back and forth. Do this until an infant seems done with the interaction and then stop, going about your business until you notice another serve.

Toddlers: Use Toddlerese

Though Dr. Karp is widely known as a baby whisperer, his book Happiest Toddler on the Block contains advice for the tough years that follow infancy. At this age, the serve-and-return concept still applies, but the mirroring required shifts to be more emotional than transactional. When your incensed child says something like, “He took my ball!!!” Karp says to bend down to their level, make eye contact, and infuse your response with about a third of the emotion they’ve used: “He took your ball! You feel angry! You want the ball back!”

The same thing goes when your child is brimming with joy. Don’t calmly say, “Very good sweetheart, Mother is so proud,” Karp warns. Though these words are kind and reflective, they don’t communicate that you really understand and, frankly, that you give a damn. Instead, he recommends using toddlerese: “Look at what you did! You used all the colors!”

It’s tempting to treat kids with less warmth as they age. That 'she should know better' feeling, for me, can translate into eye rolls, mimicry, loaded sighs, crossed arms, and negative proxemics, like backing up during a conversation.

It works, Karp says, because when it comes to both accepting and defusing big emotions in right-brained toddlers, “how you say the words matters much more than the words you say.” Speaking to children with respectful acknowledgment “is the real disconnect among parents today,” he claims: “As a matter of fact, it’s dangerous. It’s unhealthy, which sounds very bizarre and counter-intuitive, but it’s true.”

"How you say the words matters much more than the words you say," says Dr. Harvey Karp, M.D. Photo credit: Stocksy

Preschoolers: Establish Family Ground Rules

By the time kids reach school, parents should have a system of nonverbal signals, says Katherine Reynolds Lewis, author of The Good News About Bad Behavior. When I’m talking to a friend and my child tries to interrupt, I unfurl my pointer finger. Time and again, I’ve told them, “The ‘wait finger’ means ‘I hear you, I want to know more, just give me a few minutes, and I’ll find you to talk about it.’” They know the difference between my “please keep this a secret” wink and my “you’re so freaking cute” wink. The baby signs for “please” and “thank you” also continue to be helpful, maybe even more so now that my oldest can be embarrassed by the mere utterance of her name.

It’s tempting to treat kids with less warmth as they age. That “she should know better” feeling, for me, can translate into eye rolls, mimicry, loaded sighs, crossed arms, and negative proxemics, like backing up during a conversation. Karp says when kids worry about these responses, they won’t have “the trust and the confidence to share what happened to them at school or how they were made fun of.”

Use enthusiasm to convey that you care about the topic because they care about the topic.

As children reach elementary school, it’s also important to go from modeling nonverbal communication to discussing it outright. Watch the movie Inside Out and the short films For the Birds and Bao with your kids and talk about how the characters’ emotions manifest themselves with no words at all.

School-Age Kids: Answer Bids For Connection

When our children get big enough to settle onto the couch with Charlotte’s Web and cross the street alone, we tend to forget two things. First, serve-and-return, reciprocal emotional investment, and family codes continue to be necessary and affirming. Second, parenting translates to adult relationships. That’s why Doctors John and Julie Gottman have applied the concept of the “bid for connection” — an idea developed for strengthening marriages — to managing big kids.

A bid is simply a verbal or nonverbal, subtle or forceful, request for attention, affection, or acceptance. Think anything from “Mom, did you hear the new Taylor Swift song?” to “You’re the worst parent on the planet.” Turning toward a bid (responding positively) builds closeness while relationships are undermined by turning against (responding negatively) or turning away (not responding at all). The practical steps for turning toward should now sound familiar: notice it by responding with full attention, including open body language and eye contact; use enthusiasm to convey that you care about the topic because they care about the topic; and avoid contemptuous facial expressions and icy posturing.

Positive nonverbal communication doesn’t just help parents form tight bonds with their children, it also helps kids become good communicators and responsive listeners, says Lele Diamond, a developmental psychologist in San Francisco.

I was reminded of that when I asked my 7-year-old to pick up the scraps of paper he’d let fall to the ground as he finished trimming his counterfeit money. He held up a finger as he walked right on by. I took a deep breath and stayed silent. After returning from the bathroom, he grabbed the dustpan, turned to me, and said, “Thanks for being patient when I used the wait finger, Mommy.”