THROUGH a close friend, I came to know a Zambian of Asian origin called Veejay. Veejay, at the time I was acquainted with him, had one child that was in upper primary school.
Often, we would talk about how similar some things where despite differences in culture when it came to issues of parenting.
Veejay pointed out how when he was growing up, he was able to interpret his mother’s mood simply by observing her body language.
For instance, when visitors were around and he was being mischievous and acting like a brat, a frown or cross eyes from his mum would convey a message that his presence was annoying and he had to make himself disappear.
More often than not, depending on the gravity of the ‘sin’ committed by a child, a stern look would often mean a beating was in store in the not so distant future.
So one day, Veejay tried the same non verbal communication his mother had employed on his son who was firmly planted in the living room watching television in the midst of visiting adult company.
Looking directly at his son, Veejay blinked his eyes successively at his son in a non verbal communication to tell him it was time to excuse himself.
The boy however, calmly looked at his dad and asked is there something wrong with your eyes? Veejay said no and he was met with but you keep on blinking at me.
But just how important is non-verbal communication between a parent and child?
When you communicate with your child, you might choose your words carefully, but most communication is without words. Non verbal communication includes facial expressions, body language, body contact, eye contact, personal space and tone of voice.
Giving positive nonverbal messages can improve your relationship with your child and boost emotional connections in your family.
Most children love being hugged and kissed, for example. This warm and caring body language sends the nonverbal message that you want to be close to your child.
On the other hand, negative nonverbal communication – for example, a grumpy tone of voice or a frown – when you’re doing something fun together might send the message that you don’t really want to be there.
So matching your verbal and nonverbal communication makes your words more effective. For example, a teacher might explain a maths problem using her hands to show size and shape.
But when verbal and nonverbal messages don’t match, your child might believe the nonverbal – after all, what you see is what you get. Your child learns a lot about nonverbal communication by watching you. For example, if you approach new people in a relaxed way, your child is more likely to do the same.
How you’re feeling can affect how you communicate with your child.
How to use body language and tone of voice
Here are some ideas for using body language and tone of voice to send helpful and positive nonverbal messages when you’re communicating with your child:
A touch on the arm says you’re interested and shows you care. A hug builds emotional connection.
Frequent eye contact says that you’re listening and ready to share feelings and connect with your child.
Facing your child says, ‘I’m giving you my full attention’ and ‘You’re important to me’. Bending down to your child’s level shows you want to be close and helps him feel more secure.‘Mirroring’ your child is when you use the same facial expressions or tone of voice as your child. You can choose to mirror your child when you like what she’s saying and doing.
This also sends the message that you’re trying to understand how she’s feeling. For example, if your child smiles at you, you smile back. This can also build up your emotional connection over time.
Being aware of your own body language and tone of voice as you talk to your child and others will also help your child to develop good nonverbal communication skills. For example, if you have a pleasant tone of voice and a relaxed body posture and facial expression, you’ll seem approachable to your child.
Everyday there’ll be times when you can guide your child’s nonverbal communication. These are called teachable moments.
For example, if your child is standing very close to a friend and the friend looks uncomfortable, or is stepping back, this is a teachable moment. You might gently remind your child to give his friend some space.
When you notice your child doing what you’ve asked – for example, at a friend’s party – praise her. For example, ‘Nelly, I like the way you gave Ininge some space to open her presents at the party’.
Nonverbal communication can be handy at times when distance or noise makes it hard to talk. For example, you might give your child a smile and a ‘thumbs up’ when he gets an award at school or helps a friend in the playground. If you see something you don’t like, you might shake your head or give a ‘thumbs down’.
If you need to discipline your child, you can use your tone of voice and facial expressions to show her that you’re firm and loving.
This can be easier said than done when your child does or says something that’s funny but also unacceptable – for example, ‘Mummy’s a poo-head’. It’s tempting to laugh, but your child will be more likely to understand that this behaviour isn’t acceptable if your words and your nonverbal signals match up.
So try keeping a straight face and saying something like, ‘In our family we speak to each other politely’.
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