Amazing, isn't it, the number of times we tell kids things and they just don't seem to get it. They are our children, and therefore they must be brilliant, good-natured, and wonderful – so why don't they listen? They seem to be able to listen and "get it" when their friends talk! Is there something wrong?
Yes, there is!
Words Are Not Enough
I was once approached by a parent who was having problems with his six-year-old. I asked what he had tried before seeing me. He said that he would lecture his child and tell him in no uncertain terms that what he was doing was wrong. I asked him if this had helped when he, the parent, had been a child, and he said that it hadn't. He also admitted that this approach wasn't working with his child either. Why continue to do this? I asked. He said he didn't know what else to do.
Of course we need to talk to our children. We use words all the time, speaking to even very young children, even infants. But we must remember that talking is not the primary way that we communicate our most important messages to our children. Because they are more emotional than adults, children react more readily to nonverbal messages.
This does not mean that we shouldn't speak to our children. Certainly words are ultimately a primary way of communication, but even verbal communication has strong nonverbal components.
Rav Shlomo Wolbe, z"l, in a remarkable exposition on speech, refers to proper speech as a harp. Just as when someone plays a harp, a combination of many factors give the sound its proper resonance, so effective speech is made up of a combination of the words spoken, the emotion behind the words, and the character of the speaker. The emotions and the character of the speaker are powerful nonverbal components in maximizing the effectiveness of our speech.
If our words carry greater import when the nonverbal parts of speech are utilized in communication between adults, then certainly this is true when we speak to our children. It is important, therefore, to define the nonverbal parts of speech that can give impetus to our words. Let us mention the most important ones.
Tone of voice
The Talmud tells us that the members of our household accept authority when words are spoken softly. A soft tone of voice suggests self-control, and people are more likely to follow someone who is in control of himself. A person may shout hysterically that he is in control of himself, but the nonverbal message is far more powerful, and it is the one that will leave its mark.
Rav Yitzchok Hutner, zt"l, tells us that a person's emotional reality is apparent in his eyes, as the saying goes, "The eyes are the window to the soul." When we make eye contact, we are accessing the deepest recesses of the person. It is for this reason that a look into someone's eyes is considered an emotional message, whether of love or hatred. Let us make soft, loving eye contact with our children when we speak to them. Not an unrelenting stare, but enough to transmit our nonverbal emotions to them.
The Vilna Gaon teaches us that touch is a primary means of transmitting emotion. When touch is coupled with earnest words, it has an enormous effect. Touch is so powerful an emotional tool that the Torah has placed special stress on where and how it can be used. This topic is beyond the scope of this work, but for our purpose, parents certainly need to be aware of the importance of harnessing the power of touch to communicate with their children.
With older children, if there is a strain in the relationship, touch must be used cautiously. It is very personal and could be considered invasive or aggressive if employed by someone to whom the child does not feel close.
Before speaking with anyone, take the time to feel deeply what you are about to say. This is doubly true with children. This brings to mind the famous saying "Words that come from the heart enter the heart."
Children can sense very quickly how sincere you are. This has to do with your honesty, with how much you believe in what you are saying, and with the degree to which you are prepared to back up your words. The most eloquent words will be ineffectual if the child senses that you are not really ready to stand behind your words and enforce them or that you do not really believe in what you are saying. In either case, your words will be flouted with impunity; worse, you will be considered a hypocrite in the child's eyes.
Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt"l, explained that we must be sincere and be true models of what we want our children to be based on God’s demand that we be a holy nation since He is holy. God is saying, so to speak, that I can demand holiness from you, because I Myself am holy.
Yes, sometimes we may fall short from what we aspire to be, but certainly we must be totally in line in our hearts, totally sincere, in what we say to our children. Otherwise, we are teaching them hypocrisy, and we are sure to eventually lose their respect. From there to losing them to the street is but a short step.
The Prophet tells us that a person's facial expression is a powerful guide to the emotions that are behind his words. It says, "The face testifies against them." It is no coincidence that the Hebrew word for "face," panim, is related to the Hebrew word penim, "inside," for the face tells us what the person is thinking and feeling.
The Talmud teaches us that it is better to show another person "the white of your teeth" (i.e., give them a smile) than to give him a drink of milk. Rav Avigdor Miller, zt"l, says that this means that even when a person has come in from a long walk on a hot day, and he really needs a drink, a smile does more than a cold, refreshing glass of milk.
Young children are especially sensitive to our facial expressions, and they react to what they see on our faces long before they comprehend what we are saying to them. Children are emotional beings, and the sense of sight touches their emotions before they can even understand the words we're saying to them.
All this is a powerful argument for paying special attention to the nonverbal components that come with the words we utter.
It is told that Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, zt"l, avoided using a telephone for important conversations. The nonverbal parts of speech that we have mentioned are far more powerful in person than over the phone.
In addition to the five nonverbal elements just mentioned, there are other factors that can affect the success or failure of your communication with your child. They are also nonverbal and deeply influence how your words will be taken. For instance:
1. Be conscious of the setting. Our surroundings deeply affect what goes on in our heads. Just as a child is less likely to open up to a principal when he is seated on the other end of a huge mahogany desk than if the principal takes him out for pizza – or at least sits next to him on the same side of the desk – so would a parent do well to pay heed to the surroundings that he chooses when talking to a child.
Not only is the child affected by the location where the conversation is taking place – so is the parent. At home the parent is often distracted and can't give the child full or continuous attention. This lack of attention is a deep nonverbal message. When a person is given full attention, the respect he is accorded encourages him to express his feelings more freely. If I feel respected, I feel hopeful that my words will be respected, and that encourages me to open up.
Also, the fact that the parent went through the trouble to go to a setting more conducive to communication sends a powerful message to the child. He realizes how important he is to the parent.
Take a child out when you need to speak about something sensitive. Turn off your cell phone; even better, make sure your child sees you turn it off. He needs to see that you consider the time with him important and you don't want to be disturbed. Try to make the environment as relaxing and nonthreatening as possible. And remember, don't save these kinds of encounters only for lectures; otherwise, the child will get uneasy just at the suggestion of a "little talk" outside the home.
A nine-year-old stole his aunt's cell phone and then denied it. His mother, who enjoyed a generally good relationship with her child, drove to a place that was quiet and green. Then she began to cry. When her son asked what was wrong, she said she was hurt he had lied to her. The child, in those calm and beautiful surroundings, apologized and promised never to lie again. There is no question that if there had not been a good relationship in place, the tears and the environment would not have helped, but there is also no doubt that the serene surroundings contributed to an atmosphere that fostered openness and closeness.
2. Be calm, focused – and listen! It is important to put other matters out of your mind when you are talking to your child. This helps the child to relax and open up. It also lets you to see matters with more perspective. Thinking about stresses at work will not help you be patient as you discuss a behavioral issue with your child.
Cultivating calmness and focus also helps you be a better listener, which, ironically, is an enormous factor in good communication. The best way to be a good conversationalist is to be a good listener first! Listening is in itself a powerful, vital element in establishing a good relationship with a child. It is part of the effort that we make to show our children that we are trying to understand them. One of the greatest compliments that we can give our children is to make the sincere effort to understand them. Then there is a great hope that they will make the same effort.
Turning Ideas into Action
Find ways to show your child – nonverbally – that you have heard and respected what he said. A couple of examples of nonverbal messages:
1. Ask the child about something she said to you yesterday or, better yet, some time before. It can be an idea the child stated or a worry or any other emotion that the child shared with you. Your remembering what she said sends a powerful nonverbal message that you hear and respect her.
2. Repeat to the child what he shared with you and how much you enjoyed or found meaningful what he told you.
This has been excerpted from Turning Ideas into Action by Rabbi Noach Orlowek, published by ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications. It is one of 32 “mindsets” – short, Torah-based chapters, each dealing with an important aspect of our lives and self-development. Rabbi Orlowek is famed for his parenting classes, and his “Parenting Mindsets” are critical to anyone raising children in today’s fast-paced, often bewildering world.
A respected educator, author and speaker, Rabbi Orlowek taught for 16 years in Aish HaTorah Jerusalem, and is currently mashgiach in Yeshiva Torah Ore, Jerusalem. He is a well-known speaker and counselor, specializing in parenting, personal growth, and interpersonal issues. He is the author of My Child, My Disciple, My Disciple, My Child, Raising Roses among the Thorns, and Turning Ideas into Action.
- Pelech HaShetikah V'Hahodayah ("The Art of Silence and Praise"), Elul 5739 (1979).
- Gittin 6b; Shabbos 34a.
- Rav Hutner cites this well-known aphorism in a letter published in Iggros U'Kesovim 136.
- Chiddushei Aggados, Berachos 6a.
- This phrase doesn't appear in the Talmud but seems to be an application of the gemara in Berachos 6b: "Whoever has yiras Shamayim, his words are heard." See Michlol HaMa'amarim V'Hapisgamim (Jerusalem: Mossad HaRav Kook, 1961), vol. 1, p. 502; see also Shirah Yisrael by Rav Moshe Ibn Ezra, p. 156, where this saying appears.
- Derash Moshe, Kedoshim, p. 22.
- Yeshayahu 3:9.
- Kesubos 111b.
- Sha'arei Orah, vol. 2, p. 105.
- See Guardian of Jerusalem (ArtScroll History Series, 1983).