With Kids, the Importance of Being Literal

As a former teacher and therapist, who worked in-home with kids and their families, I primarily assessed social and communication skills. With the support of a team, I facilitated lessons, sessions, and experiences designed to assist in the learning process. The treatment plans for each child were as unique as the children themselves, as were the strategies and methods of structuring sessions. No two sessions, even with the same kid, were ever identical.

When You Teach Kids, They Teach You

There were many things I learned from this work that I intend to share over time, but one lesson remains with me on a daily basis. It informs my incidental interactions with children (and even adults) and has strengthened my own social capital and confidence. It’s a lesson that’s apparent where ever parents interact with their children — shopping in the grocery store, walking through the park, driving in the car, getting ready for bed.

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It may sound like a trivial piece of advice. It may seem obvious. However, I can promise, if you dedicate more attention to this one tenet, you will see positive results.

Say what you mean and mean what you say.

I Mean Literally

This was the lesson I repeated to parents again and again- parents who struggled to limit screen time, to hold a firm bedtime rule, to navigate dinner table disagreements, among other difficulties. Say exactly what you mean.

Often the things that seem obvious to adults are not actually obvious at all.

Before I offend anyone, I’m not saying there’s never a time not to tell the truth to kids, or that by speaking literally everything will be different. Modeling what you expect from kids is critical in their development. By being literal, you’re showing them that you expect their words to hold weight too. And awareness of the potential to miscommunicate across a language comprehension divide is huge — and knowing their comprehension level is key. Like so many of us who speak conversationally with kids, what is said, what is meant, and what is heard could be three different truths.

When I worked with kids who struggled with figurative language, autistic children and others, I learned to hone in on phrases that were confusing, vague, or misleading. Some subjects came up in more often than others.

Approximating Time

“Just a second, I’ll be right there!” Parent calls out when Child requests help from the other room.

Does Child understand that Parent means actually now, or a minute, a few minutes, ten minutes? Maybe, if this is a constant in the dialogue.

But does the literal clocked time of “a second” in this context shift based on the scenario, time of day, type of request, reigning emotion? Likely.

Will the child use the same technique back at their parent when they’re about to miss the bus, when they’re late to brush their teeth, when they don’t want to stop playing a game, or whenever it feels as if they’re stalling? Definitely.

The parent models. The child follows.

Instead, it is much more effective to be direct and honest as often as possible. Here are some examples:

“I will be there in 2 minutes. Please wait for me downstairs and we can talk then.”

Dinner is in 13 minutes. In 6 minutes, I’m going to ask you to set the table.”

“YouTube time is limited to 45 minutes today and then I will hold your phone while you put your shoes on.”

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Time Awareness is Learned, Not Intuited

Many of the parents I worked with reported that their child had ‘no sense of time’. This wasn’t referring to clock reading (although that is also a typical cause of parental concern), but Time Awareness — the ability to mentally track or estimate a specific amount of time in between two events.

It came up in a lot of “behavioral” situations when parents described their kids’ behavior. For example, they woke up for school, hit snooze, and demanded five more minutes repeatedly. It led to lateness, arguments, unruliness, and general angst. It started the day off poorly and was something of a routine. Now what?

Some kids learned time awareness faster than others. It could be picked up through game play, curiosity, recreational sports, or music play. But not every child learned it at the same speed, if at all. And there were strategies I used to help children learn this critical skill. (I’ll explain those strategies in a later entry.) Suffice it to say, time awareness was something that could be learned. To start, parents should focus on modeling expectation and using direct language.

The change to literal time language will be critical. One success story stands out in my mind.

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Jim was a 12-yr-old soccer player and liked to watch videos of kids playing soccer and doing soccer tricks on his phone. Liked to might be an understatement. Watching these and other types of videos was getting in the way of dinnertime, homework, and bedtime routines. Despite his mom’s typical prompting (something like “off the phone, now”), he could not or would not put the phone down.

After working with me (and me teaching his parents), Jim started using more direct language, asking for “3 more minutes” on a video (because he became aware of the time remaining), much to his mom’s delight. Before, Mom would say “Now,” and he would repeat or parrot phrases like “be right there,” “I’m coming,” “just a second,” which had become a refrain that meant nothing literally. One video would play into the next and Jim couldn’t understand that he wasn’t actually ‘right there’ at all. Mom replaced Now with Soon with 5 minutes and at the end of this video, giving more lead time and appropriate prompting, and Jim learned to be much more aware and direct.

Time as a Vague Command

“You’re in time-out until I say so.”

If the child is too young to understand time, this is an arbitrary, flexible, and mostly meaningless statement. When will you say so? Now? Is it over yet? Are we there yet? The child likely complains the entire time, asks to get up, moves around. If there is a lesson to be learned with the time-out, or if it was intended to assist in calming, the focus has shifted entirely to the child demanding to be free and ramping up emotionally in louder ways.

If this was the experience of a time-out, time-outs may not have been effective at all, as some parents communicated to me. If utilized with literal exactness and intention, however, time-outs can be incredibly effective.

Time-Outs Require Practiced, Calm Directions for Calming Results

Instead of until I say so, a better approach to proffer a time-out is:

“It is not okay to [explain undesirable behavior calmly]. Sit -describe location- for -exact time in minutes-, and then time-out will be over and [desired behavior].”

Then set a visible timer — a digital timer, a kitchen timer, a marked analog clock, even an hour glass — and do not respond to the child until the time frame has passed. If they leave the seat, silently steer them back and reset the timer. Ignore yelling, name-calling, and other verbal time-out demands. (Silence was never requested in the time-out directions. If quiet is an important part of the time-out, and the child is capable of being quiet, make that expectation clear in the directions as well.)

It is vital that the language used to initiate the time-out is delivered calmly and directly. A rule was broken, and there is a measurable consequence to breaking it.

Likely, the first attempt will be like the previous, but with repeated effort on a parent’s part, this can work wonders.

It’s also important to adjust the time given accordingly for the child’s abilities and for the particular misdeed. Depending on the child, sitting for a full 60-seconds might require a lot of focus, and that minute could suffice as a starter time-out. Time-outs should fit the child’s developmental ability, the delivered instruction, and the circumstance of the misbehavior — in that order.

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Additionally, some kids are truly not able to sit in time-out, or time-out may not be appropriate, and different tactics and techniques may be required. Consult with a care professional for appropriate alternatives. It is never okay to use physical discipline. Do not ever restrain, spank, or harm a child as a consequence or punishment- research and human decency have shown us how harmful and ineffective those parental choices can be.

Hate & Love

“I really hate my boss for making me work late today.”

Hate is a very strong emotion, especially in a child’s mind, though we use it colloquially in all sorts of situations. It represents the pinnacle of anger and dislike. Unfortunately, unlike on scripted TV, kids don’t usually ask, “Do you really hate your boss?” offering a family-friendly opportunity for the parent to explain more in-depth. Hate becomes a less-than-powerful word, hosting many meanings, when modeled in this way.

Then, when the child is in a class with a teacher who assigns homework, the language erupts forcefully, I hate you, Mx Soandso, and I hate school! While it wasn’t the parent’s intention, they’ve helped pattern their child’s behavior, and now the kid’s relationship to their learning environment suffers as a result.

Exact language is carried with a child into every part of their world.

“I love this show, it’s the best!”

Love is also a strong word, perhaps the strongest of the positive emotions. The people, animals, and objects we LOVE are those we care for and never wish to part from. Some children may understand inherently that when their parents tells them they love them, they love in a different way than when they say they love true crime dramas, but other children may not.

Then the problem may arise like this:

Parent: It’s time to get into bed.

Child: But I LOVE this show.

It gets more complicated when parents insist verbally that their child loves or hates something. Most children have volatile emotions — primarily because their brains are still developing sensory processing, emotional processing, coping patterns, and comprehension structures. A child may seem to hate something one day, but love it the next, and needs the modeled leeway to move freely through these states as they begin to use newly forming reasoning skills. If a child has a strong reaction to a certain toy, love and hate may not really be the issue. Try not to assign a word the child hasn’t used or one emotion may be cross-comprehended as something else entirely.

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Take this example from my caseload:

Ray was given a toy truck with flashing lights and loud sounds for her 4th birthday. She had asked for it many times at the store and her Dads wanted her to enjoy it as much as she seemed to want it. She played with the truck a few times and really seemed to enjoy it. Then, a week after her birthday, Dad Bryan offered the truck to her, pressing the button to flash the lights and make the sounds, and Ray began to scream.

Bryan responded with You hate this? I thought you loved this? You love this truck. Then he pressed the buttons again hoping Ray would react differently. Ray became inconsolable. Bryan said, I guess you hate this, then took the toy away, and told Dad Mike that the child hated the toy and started to joke openly around the house about how fickle little Ray was about gifts. In actuality, Ray’s reaction likely had little to do with the toy itself.

Mike understood that Ray’s reactions aren’t always tied to the things we think they are. He told Bryan, Okay, we’ll play with this toy another day, in earshot of Ray. Then Mike left the truck in the toy room and offered something different to Ray, this time a truck without lights or sounds. Mike assumed that Ray’s reaction was not specifically tied to ‘loving’ or ‘hating’ the toy.

Mike was right. The next day, Ray was feverish. The day she hated the truck was the day she was developing an ear infection, with no outward sign. When she recovered, Mike and Bryan offered the truck toy again, and Ray accepted it gleefully, as though the screaming had never happened.

Instead of love and hate for less-than situations, use like and dislike where appropriate, and give reasoning whenever possible.

Shades of preference are best developed early and modeled often.

Instead of loving this show and hating my boss:

“I dislike working late because I miss spending time with you.”

“I like watching this show because …”

In this way, modeling more exact language and more patterned reasoning skills develops a hierarchy of preference. Love and hate should be reserved for the most extreme and literal circumstances.

When it comes to identifying a child’s preference, instead of you love and you hate in assumption, better phrases are:

“It seems you don’t want this truck today.”

“When I talk to you and you don’t answer, I feel sad. It seems that you enjoy your phone, but I love talking with you.”

Literally, this.

The language we use is full of exaggerations, allusions, and shades of meaning. The interpretation and comprehension of the words we say varies widely — for cultural, developmental, and personal reasons, among others.

Often, we expect that kids will understand our meaning — catch the drift — read between the lines — and this expectation leads to strife and future miscommunication, often patterned early by parents and repeated later by their children.

Photo by Sai De Silva on Unsplash

Nothing is permanent, however. I’ve seen many times how a willing parent, attending to their exact words, can literally change the relationship they have with their child, reduce angst, and improve communication.

It may take weeks but it is worth the effort for the ones you love and the reactions you hate.

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