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Communication and Family Culture

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” The two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’

This story told by class representative, David Foster Wallace, at the Kenyon College US graduation in 2005 has become internationally famous. Wallace was saying that often the things that affect us most, the things most important to us, are invisible to us. The young fish are unaware of the substance that sustains their existence! One of these invisible things to us is our culture.

All families and all classrooms are enculturated, even if they are completely unaware of it. Mostly culture is acted out in default patterns. But in their sphere of influence, parents and educators can embrace their power to forge a positive, unique culture and identity. And it all starts with communication.

The way we communicate with children can greatly influence their self-esteem and the way they engage with others in the world.

In the 1960’s Robert Rosenthal, a Harvard University professor, and Leonore Jacobson, an elementary school principal in San Francisco, published 'Pygmalion in the classroom: Teacher expectation and pupils' intellectual development'. What the elementary school study suggests is that we communicate subtle and unsubtle messages that inform children how we think they will perform or behave.

Not all the cues are verbal, or even conscious. ‘When we expect certain behaviours of others, we are likely to act in ways that make the expected behaviour more likely to occur.’ (Rosenthal, R & Babad, E. Y, 1985)

The substance and tone of our communication doesn’t arise out of a vacuum. Everything we say relates to our own mindset about our relationships. With young children and even older students, adults often take a stance which raises them to a position of authority. Of course, we are in a situation of responsibility. But this doesn’t mean a reduction of respect or a stripping away of young people’s agency. Communication can set us on opposite sides of situations or generate inclusivity.

Let’s look at some strategies for communication with children in different age stages.


Since they are non-verbal, babies use touch and eye contact to gather information

Although our words are incomprehensible to babies who are relying on sensory information, especially touch and eye contact, our voice already carries all our expectations for who they are and who they might be.

When infants have their needs met when they make them known, they learn they are important in the world. They have agency. Our role in these early months is not so much to teach them as to find out the best way for them to learn.

Be observant. Choose your times, choose your words, choose your actions so that they are in harmony with who you have inherited! If the child is impatient, understand that. Work with them to slowly stretch patience rather than demand it immediately. If they are uninterested, try to find the key to switch on their curiosity.

In this stage from birth to two years, it is important to enter into the child’s world, to share their gaze. If you add activity, resources, language, explanations and demonstrations to what they are already interested in they will be easily absorb learning.


Toddlers struggle with abstraction, so it is best to focus on the "here and now" with them

From two to three years old, children are just beginning to talk. What you may not know is there is a difference between receptive and expressive language.

Receptive language is their ability to understand what you say, and expressive language is their ability to articulate their thoughts, ideas and questions. Expressive language is more difficult and becomes sophisticated much later. So, we need to give extra focus to receptive language.

In receptive language, children are building not only their vocabulary, but also their understanding of how things in the world are related.

When you are peeling an apple, the child isn’t only seeing you do it, they are interpreting and anticipating that you are doing it so they can enjoy it. They see that you are using a knife, that apples have peels, that things are served on plates and that you need to sit still to eat so you don’t choke.

Toddlers are highly adventurous, but they don’t have the complete logic to understand consequences. They can also say words they don’t fully understand. They might make a promise, but have no idea that it is some kind of binding future contract.

We’ve all heard of the terrible twos. Toddlers know what they want and when they want it. Now. You can bypass some of the potential tantrums by creating routines with an ebb and flow between them getting their way and not getting their way.

Because their world is so circumscribed, there are ways we can predict and accommodate what they need. If they want to go to bed later, give them 15 extra minutes and a clock to watch. The clock becomes the arbiter not you. Let them take the clock to bed with them if they have to!

Toddlerhood is a time to expose children to as many words as possible, but in the immediate environment. Later on, you can try to explain more abstract idea, but what children can see, hear and touch makes more sense at this stage.


You can help your pre-schooler by narrating your life and the logic behind your choices

Three- to five-year-old children's language is developing exponentially. I love parents to be conscious that a lot of information about the world is invisible to children. As adults we know so much that no longer needs to be explained to us. But children gain a lot if we think aloud about what we are doing.

For example, when you’re baking something, it is great to explain that eggs are binding agents. When we add eggs, it’s like glue for the other ingredients and it helps the cake stick together when it comes out of the pan. Or that yeast is a raising agent etc. They won’t know the logical connections if they aren’t explained to them.

This is the perfect time to expand their knowledge of the world beyond the here and now.

Reading stories, taking them on excursions, watching films together, going to performances are all marvelous ways to expand their knowledge and understanding. Doing these things have the dual benefits of increasing their knowledge, but also starting to develop interests.

Part of each individual’s life is to find their centre and their true purpose. Oftentimes, the sense of purpose is allied to what captures our interest and what calls to us. At the zoo, your preschooler might become fascinated by tortoises or by the way a zoo attendant administers medicine or a diver feeds the sharks.

What children see and experience in these early years is already laying foundations for who they might become in later life. Even if our focus is on keeping them busy and learning in the present.

School aged children

School aged kids benefit from going on excursions to widen their experiences

Once children get to school you may be tempted to turn them over to their teachers so they can get on with it. But I encourage parents to continue always to be their children’s primary educator.

I’m not saying you need to be too involved, but keeping an eye out for how your children are travelling is important. Take account of their academic as well as their social and emotional experiences.

It is important to continue broadening children’s knowledge through reading and possibly even travel.

A key focus at this time is to support children to understand that people have different experiences, perspectives and ideas. We can indoctrinate our children to have narrow ideas, or we can encourage them to walk in another’s shoes. People who are able to embrace differences and expand their understanding are likely to be more successful in life.

Tweens and teens

Teens need space. Choose your time to have difficult conversations wisely.

When it comes to tweens, the nine- to twelve-year-olds and teens, the buzz phrase is to respect their space. As children mature through puberty, they are finding themselves, and unless you are extremely lucky, they are probably going to reject everything you say and stand for.

Choosing your time to talk is important because there are many hard conversations you have to have with them.

Research finds that often walking side by side is easier for a hard conversation. This is because there is no direct eye contact and people can point out things along the way and interim distractions before continuing the conversations. I have also found that being in the car, believe it or not, or in a doorway are great for teenage communication.

Once again, however, taking account of and supporting older children’s interests is important. And if they know you support them, they remain keen to talk to you about themselves.

Wrap Up

In general, what we want to do in our families as children grow up is expand their vocabulary, broaden their perspectives, encourage their interests and give them space to become who are they are meant to be in the world.

Communication is not always easy, but if we start out with the idea that we want children to be positive forces in life and to reach their potential, we will be guided about what to do and say and how to do and say it.

Lili-Ann Kriegler (B. A Hons, H. Dip. Ed, M.Ed.) is an education consultant and author of ‘Edu-Chameleon’. Lili-Ann’s primary specialisations are in early childhood education (birth-9 years), leadership and optimising human thinking and cognition. Her current part-time role is as an education consultant at Independent Schools Victoria, Australia, and she runs her own consultancy, Kriegler-Education.

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