The Simple Art of Saying What You Mean (To Your Kids)

The more elaborate our means of communication, the less we communicate.
~ Joseph Priestley

As a parent, you might, once or twice, have found yourself making a comment — something like this:

“My child never seems to do what I ask! He always seems to do the very thing I ask him NOT to do!”

Well, you may be surprised to find that your child may have actually been doing exactly what you asked all along! Read on to uncover a simple language strategy that can help all parents communicate more effectively with their children.

preschool years

The Pre-School Years Are a Time When Language Blossoms!

During pre-school years, children experience rapid language acquisition. As they learn about the world, they experiment with language by ‘trial and error’.

Every parent knows how delightful it is to be around pre-schoolers who are experimenting with their newfound and fast-improving language skills. Learning language is skill that occurs so naturally, and yet it is neurologically very complex.

Consider that all humans first learn language by associating images of objects and living things with sounds. The brain creates an internal image of a thing and connects it with the sound.

Once learned, the information is stored in our brain, ready to be called up as needed. For example, once children learn and store what a tree is, you could ask them, ‘What is a tree?’ and they will access their created internal image of a tree and begin describing that particular image.

What is really interesting is that if you said to children ‘Do NOT think of a tree!’ they will still bring up an image of a tree in their mind. Once the object, thing or idea has been spoken, the mind automatically responds by accessing that image.

Try this experiment – I’m going to ask you NOT to think of a juicy mango. Did you just recall an image of a mango in your mind, even though I asked you not to?

Of course you did!

The Non-conscious and Conscious Minds – When ‘No’ means ‘Yes’

Saying What You Mean

The human mind has long been discussed in terms of having two main ‘divisions’ – the ‘conscious’ and the ‘non-conscious’ (or subconscious, or unconscious – the term are quite imprecise).

Alternatively, we could think of the conscious mind as the General and the non-conscious mind as the Soldiers who follow the orders of the General – most of the time.

Using the analogy of a computer, the non-conscious mind is like all the software programmes and files stored on the hard drive. The conscious mind is like the desktop – including the document or file you are actively working on at the moment.

The non-conscious mind is the storehouse of all the information that we have learned throughout our lives – and of all the automatic behaviours and reflexes which have been ‘hard-wired’ into us by our genes, through evolution.

Our conscious mind selects information from the non-conscious storage depending on what is needed. For example, all the language we acquire is stored in the non-conscious mind. So, when a child learns that an object with brown bark and green leaves is called a tree, the internal image and sound for ‘tree’ are stored in the non-conscious mind.

Only when we’re actively thinking and talking about a tree – or if we happen to be surrounded by trees – will the information we know about trees appear as it by magic into the conscious mind. It is important that our mind is organised into non-conscious and conscious, because it would be impossible to consciously think of all the things we’ve ever learned in our lives all at the same time – we’d go crazy!

We simply don’t have the capacity (the RAM) to think of everything we know. It would be the equivalent of opening up every programme, every document and every file on your computer simultaneously – the CPU gets instantly overwhelmed, and the system freezes.

Apart from the ‘day-to-day housekeeping tasks’ of constantly monitoring the body’s condition and states, and adjusting and fine-tuning every aspect of our physical function, the non-conscious mind has many other roles.

For example, it is designed to follow instructions in a direct, literal, non-judgemental and almost ‘robotic’ way. It does not make decisions because its job is to store and present information as requested. The non-conscious mind is also the storehouse of the imagination and emotions. There are so many functions within the non-conscious mind that it is no wonder scientists believe it accounts for more than 90% (some say 99%) of our brain’s functions.

Of all the things the non-conscious mind can do, there is one thing it does not do very well, especially when a human being is very young.

The non-conscious mind does not understand the words ‘not’, ‘no’ and ‘don’t’. So when we instruct it not to think of a tree, it still brings up an image of a tree.

Likewise, when we ask it not to run, it will think of running and send impulses to our legs to run. Luckily, as we get older, our lifetime of experience trains the conscious mind to become good at interpretation – at quickly ‘flipping’ the instruction to read:

‘If I shouldn’t run, then I should walk…’.

When children are young, however, they are inexperienced, so they have not yet developed this ability.

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2 thoughts on “The Simple Art of Saying What You Mean (To Your Kids)

  1. I have been experiencing a lot of my words coming back to me from my childrens mouths & it has really helped me with their behaviours, to simply change my own! Thank you

    1. Hi Jeanine, thank you for sharing your experiences with us. Feel free to let us know if there’s any particular topic(s) that you’d like us to cover for future articles.

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