The Pew Research Center recently showed parents across America a list of 10 skills, asking the question: "Which of these skills is most important for a child to get ahead in the world today?" The winner, by far, was communication. In fact, not only was it chosen as the most important; it beat out traditional favorites, such as reading, writing, teamwork and logic.
Perhaps this is not surprising given our over-connected, always-on world. Yet parents often don't realize how large of a role they actually play in developing and nurturing this skill. In my book, "Ten Powerful Things to Say to Your Kids: Creating the Relationship You Want with the Most Important People in Your Life," I stress that effective conversation—what you say, how you say it, when you say it—is one of the only tools parents have in creating lasting and meaningful relationships with their kids.
As the father of two adult children and a grandfather to 13 in my blended family, I know that parents must be conscious of what they say and how they say it. Negative comments can often shape a conversation in a way we don't realize and it's important to be aware. Your words and conversations create your reality, your future and your relationships. What you talk about—or don't talk about—defines your relationship. The primary conversations that surround your children are your conversations—both with them directly and with others while your children are present. And those are the conversations you have the power to change.
And you can start by using my list of the 10 most powerful things you can say to your kids:
1. I like you.
This is a different statement from "I love you." This statement says, "I like who you are as a person." Use them both.
2. You're a fast learner.
Learning is natural. Young children are amazing at it. Learning is play to them. What you say to them early influences how they relate to learning later in life, when it can be more difficult or frustrating.
3. Thank you.
Simple courtesies are a sign of respect. Social skills are critical in life, and the best training for tact and grace starts early.
4. How about we agree to...
This is about establishing a few basic agreements that set the stage for how you work together within the family. Having agreements in place helps avoid common issues and provides a framework within which to solve problems when they do arise.
5. Tell me more.
This is a request for your children to share their thoughts, feelings and ideas with you. It also involves learning to listen, which is always a gift because it signals that you care.
6. Let's read.
Reading to your kids brings so many benefits. It helps them build skills they need for success in life. It enriches your relationship and instills a love of learning. And books provide a gateway to the world—people, places and ideas.
7. We all make mistakes.
Problems happen. No one is perfect. Dealing with problems and learning from mistakes are vital life skills. When you have a moment in which you don't live up to your own standards, it's an opportunity to show your children how to take responsibility for mistakes and move on. Kids can beat themselves up over not meeting your expectations or not being perfect. Giving each other a little room around this is a gift for both of you.
8. I'm sorry.
It's something you can learn to say. Better yet, learn to catch yourself before saying something that might later require an apology.
9. What do you think?
Asking for input and giving kids a chance to be part of family conversations lets them learn to exercise their decision-making skills and begin to take responsibility for their choices. Expressing what you think and asking for what you want are fundamental skills that will serve your children throughout their lives.
While I do think "no" is still a viable option at times, too often parents are "a 'no' waiting to happen." If you create a pattern of "yes" in your family, you'll find that "no" doesn't need to be said as often as you think.
Paul Axtell has two adult children and 13 grandchildren in his blended family. He also has more than 35 years of experience as a personal effectiveness consultant and corporate trainer. He has spent the last 15 years designing and leading programs that enhance individual and group performance within large organizations.