August 28, 2012

Seeing What You Hear

By Angie Kendall
Community Education Manager
Child Abuse Council

Don’t think about purple elephants, flying zebras, a giant willow tree or yellow cars. Don’t think about running in the sun, red strawberries, or a pink poodle.

You thought about them didn’t you? You saw all of these things in your head; even when given clear instruction not to. This should have been an easy instruction since it is unlikely prior to reading the article you were envisioning a purple elephant. Even as I typed I imagined a zebra with enormous wings flying over a pink poodle decorating a Christmas tree. We don’t have a choice; the brain understands things in patterns and pictures. It is how we understand and process the world around us.

Using our knowledge let’s take a look at how we talk to our children. Here are some common statements that a child may hear daily:

• Don’t hit your brother
• We do not play with guns
• Smoking is bad for you
• Don’t cross the street
• Don’t jump on the couch
• Don’t be so bossy

When you read all of those statements, did you think about a gun, cigarettes or jumping on the couch? If we are honest with ourselves, I think we would find that we not only thought about it, but also thought about how fun it would be to jump on a couch again!

The truth is, children think in the same pictures. The challenge is that when they see a gun, they don’t imagine a big red “X” over it indicating it’s off limits nor do they have the maturity to understand all the responsibility that comes with guns. They see jumping on the couch to avoid hot lava and hitting their brother in retaliation for breaking their castle as a part of life, and often, as fun! It isn’t that children think that breaking rules, like running across the street, is a good idea. Rather, they simply think running is a good idea! They don’t understand that it’s unsafe, and what to do instead of running across the street. They want to get to the other side and running seems like the fastest and most fun way to do it-especially after you said it, and they saw that great picture in their head!

Imagine your boss, significant other, friends, or colleague telling you all about what you can’t have, do or be. No one wants to be told what they can’t do or how they shouldn’t be or act all day, especially our children. They are developing, growing and experiencing who they are and the world around them. They deserve the freedom to do this without constant reminders of how they can’t do it.

This doesn’t mean children don’t need rules, structure and high behavior expectations; these are very important and equally necessary for proper development. It does, however, mean that they deserve more than being reminded about all the rules and expectations stopping them in the world.

What if, instead, we tell our children about what they CAN do? It certainly doesn’t take any more time but can make a huge difference.

• Stop at the stop sign and we will walk across the street together
• Please sit in the chair; I know you will be patient while I cut up your apple
• Please use walking feet

Suddenly, the world got brighter! Instead of nagging and speaking in constant negative language we take on the role as teachers and mentors by guiding behavior. We also develop a respectful line of communication in our families as we eliminate negative talk and replace it with positive solutions.

For more information about the Child Abuse Council’s prevention, education and treatment programs, visit us at