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Never Say 'Use Your Words' Again With This Genius Communication Trick

Photograph by Twenty20

When the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., asked adults to choose the most important skill children needed to succeed in the world, the answer—above math, above science, even above teamwork—was communication. To be able to convey thoughts and intentions in a clear manner is a necessary talent. But all parents know that conveying anything clearly to a child, and getting them to actually understand and respond to you, is easier said than done.

Here's me, trying to get my children to communicate effectively:

Me: "Use your words."

Them: 1. Scream.

2. Throw fought-over object across room.

3. Throw body on floor.

Me: Silence. Eye roll.

As an English teacher, I'm prone to lecture. I can volley quips and well-placed pauses with the best of them. But it's lost on my kids. I see them already learning that epic teenage skill of tuning me out. Somehow, whatever it is I'm not doing or doing is deafening them to me. I can watch their attention spans fizzle out like a light while I'm mid-sentence. Against my best intentions, I'm cultivating a household of silences.

It's not like I haven't tried other approaches. I've done the emotional plea (the fake wounded act that's secretly real when they talk meanly to me or each other). I've cheerily asked how their day was, June Cleaver-style. I've cut to the chase, looked them straight in their crazy eyes and said, "What's the deal? I can't help if I don't know."

None of it really works. At least for long.

It wasn't like I was saying anything that different than I had been in all the years before. I just picked a time when they could best hear me.

Yet all the approaches in the world couldn't be wrong. And I wasn't ready to write the whole family off as incompatible when we hadn't even reached adolescence. There had to be another factor I wasn't considering. So I did a little experiment. I sat back and watched them for a day, becoming an observer instead of an active participant.

Observation #1: My son refuses to talk in the morning. He's not going to have a nice thing to say to anybody until the eye crusties are gone and the belly is full—an unsurprising similarity to his father.

Observation #2: My daughter is insane in the morning. She fast-talks like a Gilmore girl and runs irritatingly smaller and smaller circles around the rest of us until she collapses in the middle and asks what we're doing today. She's ready to go.

Observation #3: The two previous scenarios are completely opposite to what happens in the evening. As the day wanes, so does my daughter. She's quieter, whinier and much less willing to explain what's going on with her while my son cranks it up. He's yammering about the happenings in his own universe and fleeing sleep like it's his own personal villain.

In light of this new information, I made a course correction. I began to seek out my daughter in the morning and my son at night for life chats. We talked about the big stuff, like why you should never call anybody stupid; the medium stuff, like why you should always flush; and the small stuff, like why the dog can lick her own behind.

And it worked.

It wasn't like I was saying anything that different than I had been in all the years before. I just picked a time when they could best hear me.

My best advice when it comes to communication is not what to say or how, it's when. Know the timing of your kids. As adults, we already do this with our significant others. I wouldn't broach anything more serious than muffin vs. bagel with my husband until 10 a.m. And he knows better than to bait me with a serious topic after 10 p.m. Why would kids be any different?

Instead of constantly ordering them to listen, I found their prime times for tuning in and synchronized myself to them. And now we're talking on a regular basis at a normal volume about things other than what to eat and when to sleep.

It's just the magic of timing.

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