Tone Tuning

Tone tuning illust

Pick a little, talk a little, pick a little, talk a little

Cheep, cheep, cheep, talk a lot, pick a little more.

–          From the musical, Music Man (1957)

It is easy to forget that the music of our speech, our tone of voice, communicates just as much as the actual content of what is said. In fact, we may often feel that what we said has not been heard but notice that the emotion behind it causes family members to react. A gentle, monotone, “The dishwasher is broken.” is very different than a stressed, high-pitched, “The dishwasher is broken!” We offer instructions, directives and corrections to our children all day. We require their compliance to get through our routines. So how does our tone of voice affect what our children hear and how they respond? And could our awareness of our tone of voice make a difference in everyday life?

Because children are learning and developing, because they may be clumsy or make poor choices, parents may correct their children many times throughout the day. School age children are being corrected and then come home to more. That feedback and particularly how it’s delivered can build over the course of day and lead to upset, non-compliance and a child who feels like he is not valued or that something is wrong with him. It may become an unintended cycle fed by children feeling negatively about themselves, misbehaving to gain your attention or to push you to negate their bad feelings about themselves and your frustrated reaction. tone tuning misbehavior cycle 001

Children and adults sometimes don’t distinguish between critical feedback and how a person feels about them in general. Interestingly, a respected researcher on marriages, John Gottman,[i] found that the commonality in successful marriages was not how partners fought or did not fight. The key was a five to one ratio of positive interactions to negative ones. That might be a helpful lesson in talking with our children as well.

Take the Tone Test. Mark your calendar for three days that are fairly typical days in cropped sticky notesyour family’s life. Place three sticky notes on the refrigerator with the headers “calm, non-emotional,” “negative,” and “positive.” Place a check mark on one of the notes each time you have a conversation with your child in which you are asking them to do something. You may not be able to capture every time but set a goal for capturing five interactions each of the three days. If you are gaining their compliance and not seeing upsets this exercise may not be needed. But if not, then how many of your interactions when you are correcting your children are negative? Are you balancing that out with five times as many positive interactions? How can you think about those moments to try to tune your tone a bit to gain their trust and compliance?

Use gentle reminders. Instead of waiting until the inevitable disaster you can see shaping up in the living room, give a reminder while the issue is still small. You are likely not terribly upset or angry yourself (yet!). Use a calm, non-emotional voice. Walk closer so that you don’t need to raise your volume. Put your hand on your child’s shoulder gently to engage her attention. Use as few words as you can and be direct. “Jenna, go move those toys so your brother doesn’t fall.”

Listen and paraphrase. As you hear a scream in the other room, you walk in to see your two children on the floor struggling with some toys. They may both run to you with great passion and tell you how the other behaved terribly toward them. Get down on their level. This is true for any size child or teenager. If they are sitting, sit at their level. Say, “I want to really hear you both so we are going to take turns. Jake, you go first and then, I will listen to Lydia.” Listen carefully and paraphrase their feelings and their perspectives.

“What are you feeling, Jake?”



“Because Lydia ripped my airplane out of my hands and when she did it, the blaster came off. Now it’s broken.”

“Okay. You are mad because Lydia took your airplane and the blaster broke.”


“Jake, now we need to let Lydia have a turn and listen to her. Lydia, what are you feeling?”

“So mad.”


“Because I was playing with the airplane first and I set it down but I wasn’t done with it. He took it and wouldn’t give it back. It’s not fair.”

“Lydia, you are so mad because you were playing with the airplane first and you weren’t done with it.”

“Lydia, what can you do to make things better?”

“He needs to give me back my airplane!”

“This is not about what Jake can do. Lydia, what can YOU do?

“I can take a turn with the airplane and then he could take a turn.”

“Jake, what could you do?

Use an approachable tone. If your child is beginning to get frustrated, calmly invite his communication. Let him see it’s safe to share with you what he is thinking and feeling. “I see you’re getting frustrated. What are you working on? How can I help? What do you think might happen if you move the puzzle piece over there?” It helps to get down to their eye contact level to make them feel more understood and in control.

Keep responses to misbehaviors brief. Your child may be baiting you for your attention and negative attention will be the payoff. If a child deliberately does something you know she is aware goes against the rules of the house, be brief in your response. Show confidence in your child’s knowledge of the right thing to do. Allow her to show you the right way. Get closer so that you do not have to raise your voice. In a calm, even tone, say, “Show me how we put away toys in this house.” Or “Show me how you should handle the dog.” Oftentimes, if we make a big deal out of a misbehavior with upset and a time out, it will feed the negative cycle of misbehavior.

Reinforce positive behaviors but do not shower praise. It is important to articulate when you have noticed a specific choice or set of behaviors that you want to encourage. Maybe you have been working with your child on taking responsibility for taking his plate into the kitchen at the end of a meal. When he remembers to do it, say, “I notice you remembered to take your plate in to the kitchen tonight. Glad to see it.” For more on ways to be specific versus the typical “Good job” that we so often hear, check out “In Praise of Specificity.”

And what if you have lost it? What if you are angry and can’t maintain a calm tone of voice? Model calming down strategies by using them yourself. It is the most powerful teaching tool for your children to watch you do what you need to do to calm yourself before interacting with them. Say, “Mommy is mad. I need a minute.” Walk away. Have a place in the house that you can sit alone to breathe for a moment. It may need to be close by if you have very young children that you can’t leave unsupervised. Have a strategy in mind ahead of time since you know, sooner or later, it will happen. Place your baby in the “Pack N’Play” where he’ll be safe for a few minutes and go sit in your bedroom. Breathe, calm down and formulate a plan before you return. Even a few minutes can restore blood flow to your prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain that helps you think rationally in those situations. You will be able to return and act as the better version of yourself.

Avoid sarcasm when you can. The expert educators at Responsive Classroom argue that sarcasm has no place in the classroom. I would say it has no role in speaking with children of any age in general. Even teenagers, though they may use it, have a difficult time understanding it. The reason it has no place is because the song of sarcasm, the tone that is communicated, is light and funny in direct conflict with the weighty message which is typically denegrating, shaming and the opposite of the intended meaning. Though we slip into it easily and it is a part of our cultural language, sarcasm is dishonest and does not model or teach children language that we want them to use.

I notice that when I turn on classical or jazz music softly in the house, there is a different energy that permeates. My partner will comment on it as he notices the difference. Thinking of your voice as the soundtrack of your family life, what do you want to serve as the backdrop your daily routines? Becoming more aware of your tone can help you make small adjustments to add calm sounds to your communications. All members of the family can benefit from your efforts.

[i] Gottman, J., & Silver, N. (1994). What makes marriage work? It’s how you resolve conflict that matters most. Psychology Today. Retrieved on 10/1/13.

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