Smart Parenting for Busy & Imperfect People

Narration: An Essential Communication Strategy

What frustrates you the most about spending the day with young children?  Chances are that your response incorporates the element of communication.  You just asked a child to put their shoes away and they are laying on their back playing “explosion” and crashing the shoes instead.  You suggested a child use only their spoon to eat pudding and instead, they used their tongue, by extension their face, to devour a bowl of chocolate goodness.  Need I go on?

Young children think, act and communicate very differently than adults, which is why you may feel frustration, even rage at times, when trying to communicate with young children.  The negative instances where communication is needed to discipline or correct a child may stand out in your mind, but communication is also fundamental for demonstrating love, learning, and logistics to young children.

Ineffective communication with young children can cause them to not understand the adult’s message, what is expected of them, how their actions affect others, other’s expressed love and appreciation, discipline, etc…  The cure?  Use a simple and effective communication tool called narration.

What is narration?

Narration is an essential communication tool that employs the use of simple, obvious and non-judgmental statements about life.  In story books, the narrator offers a summary of events and his observations.  He usually has a bird’s eye view of the plot and offers the reader insights from his enlightened post.  Adults can act as a narrator to a child’s experiences.  We understand more than they do about life and we can share our wisdom, without personal affront, but making strategic, factual comments about what we observe.

Effective narration labels emotions and states experiences and observations.  For instance, “You look angry.  I did not allow you to eat dessert, because you chose not to finish your vegetables.  You are screaming on the floor.”

Why is narration important?

1) Develops a child’s internal dialogue:    Often children protest with their actions and not their words because they don’t know how to express in words what they are feeling.  Narration helps a child practice recognizing a feeling and/or experience and the emotions attached to them.   Eventually, the child will learn how to silently (internally) assess his experiences and feelings, before acting upon them (just as adults are expected to do), thereby avoiding tantrums.  Tantrums are the result of the child being overcome by unknown, scarry feelings, leading to a desperate final attempt to communicate, externally, their powerless rage and confusion.  Narration models a productive use of words because it helps a young child disencumber their internal processes and helps them to asses, organize and retrieve the right words for effective communication.

2) Develops language and intelligence:  Research demonstrates that a baby’s IQ is strongly correlated with the amount of words spoken in the home.  The more opportunities to listen to words and attempt to form and use words to communicate, the more intelligent the child will become. Think of each mundane conversation you have with a child as an opportunity to teach vocabulary, logic, grammar, etc… through your communication.  The more you talk about what is happening (or narrate), the more your child will learn and develop.

3) Develops emotional intelligence (EQ):  Young children are egocentric.  Their perspective is focused inward.   Adults are tasked with teaching a child to see themselves as part of a whole rather than The Whole.   Doing so requires the development of empathy and other important skills.  Recognizing body language,  facial response, tone of voice, etc… requires practice.  Narration offers direct labeling of these otherwise confusing basic human displays of emotion, building EQ and a child’s ability to effectively respond and communicate with others.

4) Validates feelings, behaviors and experiences:  Children are a bit self-conscious about their size.  They are aware that the adult world is more important than their little toddler world and they long to be validate by adults.  Narration verbally acknowledges their experiences and concerns so that they feel heard and, more importantly, known.  Being known is a fundamental human desire (hence Facebook’s immense popularity).  Every human has an innate sense they are are Somebody and we want others to see us for our unique thoughts, attributes and significance.  Narration communicates to a child, “I see and hear you.  You are important and will not go unnoticed.”, whether or not their behavior is positive or negative.  It recognizes without judging.

5) Presents a creative & effective approach to praise: You may have heard that you should not say “good job” to a child too often.  This is because “good job” transfers an universal, adult assessment onto a child, who may or may not agree with a statement.  A more beneficial approach that has proven to motivate and offer more substantial and specific feedback to a child’s work, performance, behavior, efforts, etc… is narration.  Instead of, “I love that painting!”; try, “You used red paint for the house.  It really stands out with the red paint!”.  Offer perspective, instead of assessment.

How do you use narration with young children?

Narration is simple and does not require a degree in psychology to undertake.  Just state the obvious.  Stating the obvious means highlighting facts that offer perspective or specific feedback, instead of offering a judgment.  To get started, imagine yourself reading a storybook to a child.  Use similar cadence and speech, just as though you are narrating a story.

For instance, “I see you working hard on buttoning your shirt. You are getting stuck on the third button.  You really want that button to fit in the hole!  You look frustrated.”  

These statements are thoughts the child is likely already having internally, but in a young child’s mind they may be jumbled and unclear.  His feelings may be masked by his fixation on wanting to solve his problem and being unable to.  Your narration can offer him perspective   His problem may not seem as insurmountable after hearing you state it.  He knows that your are aware of his trouble and distress and your involvement gives his confidence that he can face his problem with your support.

A positive narration may look like this:

“You worked hard to clean up your toys!  I appreciate your hard work.  I don’t like cleaning up toys all by myself.  You put all the trucks into the basket.  That took persistence.  You didn’t give up!”

The narration is very specific.  Instead of just hearing that you love and appreciate him, the child hears exactly why this is true.  It helps him to know what he did well so that he can repeat those same steps in the future.

It may feel silly when you first start narrating, but once you get the hang of it you’ll enjoy the new and effective way to communicate with young children.  It will be even more rewarding when you hear the child being to narrate to quietly to themselves and to others.  We always joke that my son is “parenting” my younger daughter when he uses narration to communicate with her.  Very rewarding!

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