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Cool Communicators

During my 30 years as a pediatrician, I've been impressed by how much better some of my little patients speak than others. They look me in the eye, speak clearly, and get their point across. And I've noticed an interesting correlation: Their parents are also good with words. Of course, children are the world's best copycats, and communication skills are more easily caught than taught. What comes out of your mouth and how you use your hands, face, and tone of voice will influence your child's early verbal development like nothing else.

Why are these abilities so important? Learning to express herself with confidence at a young age can help your child forge friendships, do well in school, and, down the road, land a job and marry. And as your child's first and most important communication teacher, there are eight ways that you can effectively model these skills.

From the book The Successful Child: What Parents Can Do to Help Kids Turn Out Well, by William Sears, M.D., and Martha Sears, R.N. Copyright © 2002 by William Sears and Martha Sears. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.

How to Connect With Your Child

1. Narrate Your Life

Children learn to talk by imitating what they hear, so make a point of conversing with your baby even before he understands you. When you're diapering him, for example, you can describe what you're doing: "Mommy [or Daddy] is taking off your diaper, patting your bottom dry, and putting on a nice clean diaper." As your baby gets older, keep up the running commentary. Tell him about the plans for the day, what you're shopping for at the grocery store, and what you see on your walks together. The more you talk to your child, the better. You're not just teaching him how to talk  -- you're setting an example that it's important to speak your mind, no matter the topic.

2. Listen Up

As a parent, you should try to listen at least as much as you talk. And the way you do so shows your toddler how you want her to listen to you and others:

Be attentive. Besides listening closely, be expressive  -- nod your head when you agree with something your child's said and smile or look sad when it's appropriate. This lets her know that you not only hear her but are also mulling over her words.

Listen empathetically. If you chime in with brief comments like "I understand," "You must really hurt inside," and "That's great!" you'll show that you think her conversation is important to you and you'll demonstrate empathy.

Don't interrupt. Some kids are born chatterboxes. However, if you cut your child short, she might feel insecure about sharing her thoughts and feelings with you. Instead, during a pause in the conversation, try to divert her attention so that she doesn't ramble on too long  -- and, in turn, drive you crazy. For instance, tell her what you're making for dinner or ask her about her favorite television character.

3. Keep It Simple

When you want to get your little one's attention quickly  -- you're trying to resolve a conflict, for example  -- short phrases are usually the most effective. (The younger the child, the shorter your sentence should be.)

When our kids were small, my wife, Martha, started to practice the first-sentence rule: Put your main point first because that may be the only one your child listens to. For example, open with "I want you to put your toys away," and then explain why. If you start with "I don't like a mess" or "Leaving toys on the ground is dangerous," you might lose his interest by the time you ask him to clean up.

After you've made your point, ask your child to repeat it back to you. If he can't, the way you phrased your request was probably too long or complicated.

4. Connect Before You Direct
Instead of hollering "It's time for dinner!" from another room, walk over to your child and join in with whatever she's doing for a minute or two. Then ask her to stop playing or turn off the TV. Your presence conveys that you're serious about your request, yet you also respect what she's doing.

5. Keep Body Language
In Mind Gestures  -- slumping shoulders, crossed arms, a furrowed brow  -- often speak louder than words. Your example will influence how your child uses his body to get his message across: Look him in the eye. Before talking to your little one, get down to his level. This lets him know that the information you're about to share is important. Teach him to look at you (and focus on what you're about to tell him) by saying, "I need your eyes." But glance away occasionally, to send the message that you're trying to communicate with him, not control him.

Reach out. A hand on your child's shoulder or an arm around his waist is a tangible sign of your attention and can generate a stronger sense of love and concern than your words alone. Don't be shy about being physical with your child  -- especially as he gets older. Stroke his hair, rub his back, or cuddle up on the couch while you talk.

How to Foster Successful Communication

6. Ignore Little Mistakes
To learn how to communicate, children have to experiment with language without worrying too much about how they're using it. I always tell my patients' parents, "It's important for kids to learn to speak comfortably before they learn to speak correctly." If you try to make her use perfect grammar before she's developmentally ready, she can develop speech problems or stop speaking up altogether.

But no matter how ungrammatically or little your child speaks, you should speak "adult talk" back to her to teach proper grammar. If she says, "No want juice," you might say, "You don't want juice? You can have milk instead."

7. Name It
When I was young, my grandfather taught me the importance of using a person's name in conversation as a way to convey interest and respect. It's a wonderful way to connect with others. Whether you're on the phone or talking to a neighbor, let your child hear you address the person by name. And don't just say your little one's name when you're angry or about to reprimand him  -- use it at the start of all conversations.

8. Watch Out For Bad Role Models
Though you may be a great example, your efforts could be sabotaged by outside influences. Kids who hear too many discouraging words, loud, angry voices, and put-downs may conclude that this is the way people talk out in the real world.

Try to observe what messages your child is picking up from others  -- whether they're friends, neighbors, a caregiver, or TV. If you hear someone you know using offensive or improper language, you can turn the situation into a teachable moment. Later, when you're alone, you can ask your child, "Do you enjoy listening to that person? How do his words make you feel?"

Whenever you can, keep in mind the golden rule of communication: Talk to your kids the way you want them to talk to others. Then you'll be well on your way to raising children who are secure enough to speak their mind.