Imagine a language with no prepositions, so it is necessary to replace clauses with gestures. For example, if an object is close, the gesture is small; if the object is far away, it’s exaggerated.
American Sign Language (ASL) has no prepositions. Relational concepts are communicated entirely through gestures and facial expressions. Indeed, about 90 percent of what is said in ASL is expressed through how each specific sign is emphasized or not.
English, of course, has prepositions, but it is more similar to ASL than most people realize. Consider the word “sure.” It can mean, “Absolutely!” “I guess,” “Yeah, right,” or, “If you insist”—and that’s only when using it as an interjection. It has half a dozen other meanings as an adjective or adverb.
Just like with ASL, we discern a speaker’s meaning by expression, tone of voice, and body language. “Sure” can be accompanied by a smile, a sneer, or an eye roll, indicating enthusiasm or that the word means the exact opposite of its real meaning.
Children read tone, too. If a parent cheerfully announces that it’s time for bed, the children might ignore it because they know the parent is not uptight about it yet. After a while the parent says it more firmly, but the response is still the same. Only when the parent uses much more emphasis do the children feel it’s time to comply before they’re disciplined.
What was the difference? It wasn’t the words; it was the tone of voice. Even positive words can have a negative meaning when spoken in an unkind tone. Sticks and stone may break my bones, but voice inflection can really hurt, even more than words.
Children are especially affected by this. They can tell immediately if Mom is really interested in how their day went, or if she is just asking because it is expected of her. A child asking his father if he would like to come shoot some hoops can tell if Dad really wants to or if it’s an intrusion on his time.
As parents, we need to be extremely aware of how we communicate non-verbally with our children. Their feelings are sensitive and they pick up on more than we might realize, but without the frame of reference to apply a variety of meanings to it.
If in response to the child who wants to play basketball, Dad sighs, “I guess,” the child may not understand that Dad is merely tired and doesn’t have the energy to play right now. Instead, the child interprets the tone to mean Dad doesn’t want to spend time with him. Heard often enough, the child may feel like he or she really ought to stop asking altogether.
Instead of saying, “No,” or, “Just for a minute,” or, “Maybe in a while,” one alternative is to explain what you really mean in a positive way and remember to smile: “Sure, I would love to. But I am really tired and I have to get these dishes finished. Maybe you could help me get them done really fast, and then we can take a few minutes to play ball.”
The child gets some time to play ball; you get some help with the dishes; and, as an added bonus, while doing the dishes together, you can talk and find out how things are going in your child’s life.
Children mimic what they see and hear, so one of the best rewards of using this form of communication is seeing them speak this way to each other. If we speak unkindly and impatiently, they are more likely to treat each other the same way. If we try to be considerate and remind them to be nicer, they will treat each other much better.
However, we cannot expect of them what we are not willing to do ourselves. We cannot be rude or sarcastic and still demand kindness from them. It generally won’t happen.
Think of how you treat your spouse, your own parents, or your in-laws. Do you call them names and roll your eyes? Do you criticize them in front of your children? Do your children sense impatience in your voice? Do you grumble about having to visit with them on the phone?
How you treat others will be mirrored in your children’s behavior. Be the kind of person who treats people the way you want to be treated, no matter how they behave towards you. Think of what your words and actions are portraying. Be considerate of others’ feelings, and remember that actions—and body language—speak louder than words.
Donna Howard is a mother of ten children—yes, ten—a grandmother of six, and has served as a foster parent. She has a bachelor’s degree in clarinet performance and composition. She teaches elementary music methods to education majors and owns her own band instrument repair business.