When Words Are Not the Way to Go

“Actions speak louder than words.” Years ago, that was a common saying. In recent years, at least in our interactions with our children, this adage seems to have been replaced by a diametrically opposed philosophy, namely, “Let’s talk.” The basic idea seems to be that talk is by far the preferred route to enable our children reach the highest levels possible.

The emphasis on language offers many advantages. However, as often happens, the pendulum seems to have swung too far. I regularly see parents, for example, talking with preschoolers as if they were conversing with peers. It’s as if having recognized the importance of language, we think there is little that cannot and should not be part of our discourse with them.

The pitfalls of this approach were dramatically brought home to me in a rather unexpected setting—namely, while waiting for a train on a New York City subway platform. As a safety measure, the station platforms are set up with yellow borders about 18 inches wide. Big enough for a person to stand comfortably, but certainly not very wide. The yellow border ends with is a steep drop directly down to the train tracks.

Among the many waiting passengers was a young father with a child about two years of age. The child, bright eyed and bushy tailed, started to run to the yellow border. Not a surprising move–especially given the fact that the yellow was bright and attractive and the youngster had all the curiosity that is such a delightful part of childhood.

At that point, the father said, “No, don’t go on the yellow part.” Amazingly, he made no other move to stop the child; he relied solely on his words. Fortunately a good Samaritan grabbed the child’s hand and pulled him back to his father. Even at that point, the father continued to rely on language and did not secure the situation by taking the child’s hand.

This example, while somewhat extreme, is far from unique. Over the past several years, my experience with young families is that the parents rely on language for communication in any and all situations. Many situations would be better served if this were not the case. In particular, when the goal is achieving a particular behavioral goal, it is far easier, faster and more effective to simply use non-verbal, rather than, verbal communication.

A central part of non-verbal communication is physical contact. In other words, had the father gently but firmly held the child’s hand, the same message would have been sent (i.e., “do not go on the yellow portion”). But there would have been a key difference; namely, the effectiveness of the message would have been assured. Instead, the father set up the situation so as to rely on hope that the child’s self-control was in great, indeed extraordinary, shape. Hope is a lovely emotion, but not a wise one to use in this setting.

The advantages of using non-verbal communication are wide-ranging and reach into a huge range of daily encounters that affect the quality of daily life. For example, a common complaint voiced by parents is “He never listens until I finally lose my temper and yell.” If you find yourself experiencing this type of situation, try the following.

After making a request, just go over and gently hold your child’s hands. Then just wait. He or she may produce all kinds of utterances from “Let me alone” to “What are you doing?” Your response? Just wait and then calmly repeat your request. If you do this on a consistent basis, you are likely to find that actions truly do speak louder than words—at least in certain situations. Fortunately they are situations that can make family life far more comfortable for everyone.