Four Surefire Ways to Send Messages to Your Children

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Note: This post is excerpted from my latest parenting book, Your Children are Listening: Nine Messages They Need to Hear from You.

There are four specific strategies that are the best way to transmit messages to your children. The aim of each strategy is to provide a pathway for your messages into your children's minds.

Catchphrases. For just about every message we want to communicate to our daughters Catie and Gracie, Sarah or I create a catchphrase or, even better, the girls come up with a catchphrase (e.g., for patience, "It's great to wait"). These catchphrases are usually jokey or goofy, easy to remember, and tangible; they're not ethereal theories or concepts, but down-to-earth ideas and actions. They're also "sticky," meaning the girls retain them. Our catchphrases are also often created spontaneously based on something one of us says or does. Because they are memorable and playful, Catie and Gracie enjoy repeating and making game out of them (e.g., returning to the patience catchphrase, "It's crate to gate. It's blate to nate, It's tate to zate!"). All of these qualities mean that the girls remember and connect them to the underlying message we want them to get. Each of the nine messages described in Your Children are Listening has a catchphrase associated with it and I offer several catchphrases in each chapter, so, as you progress through the book, you'll see plenty of examples of how to connect a message to a catchphrase.

Routines and rituals. Repetition is an essential part of ingraining messages and rituals provide that consistent replication. Routines and rituals communicate messages not only by what you say or do, but, more powerfully, by the actions your children themselves take. Plus, when they engage in routines and rituals, and experience their positive consequences, your children gain "buy-in" and ownership of the messages which is essential for their long-term adoption of those messages.

There is a significant body of literature that supports the importance of routines and rituals in children's intellectual, emotional, social, language, and academic development. Routines, such as those at meals and bedtime, have a practical focus that involve accomplishing necessary daily tasks. They offer children a predictable framework that helps them to organize and make sense of the steadily growing world in which they live. Routines allow children to gain practice at important competencies such as dressing, bathing, and grooming. They also provide children with a sense of familiarity, control, and comfort that instills the sense of security ands stability that is so fundamental to development.

Rituals, such as Sunday dinners with extended family and holiday celebrations, carry with them a deeper meaning, sending messages of connectedness and spirituality to children. They are often seen as special activities that are unique to individual families and, as such, encourage love, closeness, and support. Rituals create an emotional tone in a family that shapes how children experience, interpret, and express emotions themselves. Rituals also convey messages about what families value most, for example, religious ceremonies, family camping trips, or cultural pursuits.

We regularly establish routines and rituals that further ingrain the messages we want Catie and Gracie to get from us. For example, we want to send them the messages of tidiness and responsibility for their belongings, so, every evening before they go to bed, our girls pile their books on the coffee table in our living room and put away their toys in their bedrooms. Their morning routine involves their making their beds and getting dressed before breakfast on school days. The messages embedded in this routine are preparedness and cooperation on busy school mornings.

Rituals that we practice regularly are moments of gratitude before dinner, Tuesdays with their grandmother, and regular hikes on a nearby mountain. These rituals, which we convey to be special to Catie and Gracie, send messages of appreciation, connection to extended family, and reverence for nature and fitness, respectively.

One thing that I noticed with routines and rituals is that they seem to emerge, morph, and ultimately fade away, to be replaced by others. Out of no conscious decision on our parts, routines and rituals appear to run their course, most likely because new capabilities, thought processes, or experiences trigger new ones that replace the old ones that may have become stale. When you recognize that old routines and rituals have limited "shelf lives" and new ones evolve naturally, you can be sure that the messages that underlie them stay fresh and compelling to your children.

Activities. Because what you and your children do is more impactful on them than what you say, the most direct way to communicate messages is for your children to engage in activities that have the messages embedded in them. These message-laden activities exist everywhere in your family's lives: when you cook a meal, do chores around the house, play games, read books, go on outings, the list is almost endless. When you provide opportunities for your children to participate in activities that convey meaningful messages, you allow them to experience first hand their inherent satisfaction and value and observe their many benefits.

Outside support. You can't communicate all of the messages you want to your children alone. You need to enlist help from the world around you so that your children are enveloped in a cocoon of healthy messages before they leave that protective nest and venture out into a world that is full of anything-but-healthy messages. Outside support can come from your extended family and friends, the schools your children go to, the houses of worship your family attends, and the extracurricular activities in which they participate. The more sources from which your children receive positive messages, the more likely they will see their value and adopt them as their own. Research demonstrates the value that outside support provides parents in sending healthy messages to their children. For example, a study of children who participated in Boys and Girls Clubs of America, as compared to a similar uninvolved group, had stronger self-concepts, increased social skills, received more reinforcement for positive behaviors, engaged in fewer problem behaviors, and were less vulnerable to unhealthy influences.