As a mother of three sons, I would sometimes ask them during their adolescent years, “Are you practicing to be ventriloquists? Is that why you don’t open your mouths when you speak?”
Eventually, I understood that, since teenagers are often expected to stop saying what they mean, and instead say whatever the adults think they should say, most of them just shut up for about five years.
Kids will choose for their integrity.
One of the first things we communicate to our children is that there are times when it’s inappropriate to say what they think. We even teach them that there are times when it’s preferable to tell lies.
It’s a lot for them to process, especially since they have a huge need to communicate and share what they’re thinking, because it helps them develop their speech and language.
Then we complicate it further by telling them things like: “Don’t do that.” “It’s not nice to say that.” “You shouldn’t think that.” “Stop crying.” “You’re not hurt.”
We tell them to be and do something other than what they’re feeling – and something other than what they’re thinking is right for them to be and do. So we challenge their sense of integrity.
It’s not possible to tell a lie without telling the truth at the same time. So our true intentions always reveal themselves. We’ll find a way to communicate the truth through our voice, our facial expression or our body language.
And it’s especially true with children. They’ve developed a coded language for disguising what they mean when they don’t feel comfortable saying it.
It’s called kid-code.
They start out as young children expressing freely. And then we begin to correct and censor them, so they begin turning their message around backwards.
They learn to talk in a code to protect their vulnerabilities and their feelings of alrightness. And if we don’t understand the code, we’re likely to react in unsupportive ways. So we need to learn to consider opposites, which is one of the keys to unraveling the code.
How kid-code works.
If a child has an appealing toy, our child might say, “What a stupid toy!” which could mean, “I wish I had that toy, but I don’t think my parents will get it for me.” Or “I want to play with your toy, but I think you won’t let me, so I’ll act as if I don’t want it.”
Or if a child makes a good drawing, our child might say, “That’s ugly!” which could mean, “That’s a good drawing, and I’m afraid I can’t do as well, and I don’t want to look bad, so I’ll pretend I know better.”
“Do you love me?” might mean, “Am I important to you, and will I get to always be with you?”
“Did you bring me something?” might mean, “Did you think of me while you were away, so that I know I’m still important to you?”
“I hate you!” might mean, “You’re disapproving of me right now, and I can’t stand the feelings, so I hate myself.”
“I hate my life!” might mean, “I don’t understand what’s going on, and I’m afraid of what will happen next.”
Acceptance and understanding are driving forces.
We all want to be accepted and understood. It’s an incentive in all our communications and interactions. And understanding occurs more often through empathy than through logical thinking.
When we care so much about what our kids want to say that we forget about ourselves, we’re able to discover not only what they think and feel, but also why they think the way they do.
It doesn’t work to simplify our kids’ problems or make them unimportant, when what they want is understanding.
We’ve all had a child come to us with an impossible situation: Someone broke her toy, we can’t fix it, and the other child can’t replace the original one.
“See, it’s hopeless!” is our child’s message. If we say, “Well, it’s not that important. We’ll buy another toy,” she’ll probably say, “No! I don’t want another toy!”
That’s kid-code, and the true message is masked. She’s right that, for her, the big issue is not a new toy. What she wants is our understanding that the old toy was important to her. If she feels heard and understood, she might say, “Oh, it’s all right. I don’t need that toy anymore.”
Figuring out the code.
If we can’t figure out our children’s codes, it can help to sit down and ask them what they mean, because they’ll probably give us their truth, in the best way they’re able to express it, if they feel safe to do so. “How do you feel about that?” works better than “What are you trying to tell me?”
When we’re communicating with our kids, it’s important to watch for all their signals in order to realize the whole message. The secret is in caring about what they want to say and why they want to say it. And taking the time to ask, “What does that mean?” without feeling threatened by what it means.
Our children might not even know what they mean or what they’re trying to say. So guiding them, by asking questions, can help us discover their concerns and anxieties, and what they’re trying to work out in their minds. Not as an interrogation, but rather, friendly and loving questions, for the purpose of helping our children express themselves honestly, without discomfort or fear. Then they won’t feel the need to come at the truth from the opposite side.
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Pic by Mike Ricioppo