Without Saying a Word
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
When I silently hold out my hand in a high five signal toward my son while I am on the phone, he understands that I need five more minutes to talk and then I will find out what he needs. He knows because we’ve worked this system out ahead of time. I taught him that signal in preschool and we have used it with much success ever since. It’s power lies in the fact that I am communicating with him nonverbally. Body language has five times the impact as verbal communication according to Allan and Barbara Pease, authors of The Definitive Book of Body Language. And because nonverbal signals are such strong communicators, we can use body language to better understand our children’s feelings and motivations and also communicate and inspire cooperation.
Parents have used sign language with much success in helping their babies communicate before they are ready to speak. And even if you didn’t use the formal sign language, you likely pointed and gestured your way through communicating with your nonverbal baby. It happens naturally. And because it is such a natural part of how we express our feelings and thoughts, it can be an effective tool to use with children in gaining cooperation and helping routines play out smoothly through the day.
Interestingly, there are very few cultural differences when it comes to basic body language signals. Animals and humans alike sneer when they are displeased for example. People smile to signal genuine happiness or approval. They turn away from offensive sights or smells. And they shrug their shoulders when they don’t know something. We can tell children are lying when they immediately cover their mouths after they’ve said something untrue. And though the body language may change slightly as they grow older and are
more aware of those reflexes, it never goes away. The more obvious signals become “micro-gestures” but still can be read. Adults tend to place a finger by their mouth when lying, trying to cover it up. Pease’s book uses the following picture to illustrate their point beautifully.
The Definitive Book on Body Language suggests that there are three aspects of reading body language that are critical to getting it right.
1. Read the movements in clusters – One move could be misinterpreted but several are typically indicative of a particular feeling or thought.
2. Look for congruence – Do the gestures support what the person is saying? If the body language is in conflict with the words coming out, then there is typically an untruth being told. Also the authors claim that body language cannot be faked because although bigger gestures may reinforce your words, but the micro gestures, like eye glances or twitching, will give away the truth.
3. Read gestures in context – There are multiple meanings to any one body movement. Shrugging your shoulders could mean you are freezing cold or you don’t know something or you are confused. Take the context of the situation into consideration when “reading” signals.
We can heighten our own effectiveness with our kids, inspiring thoughtful reflections and choices, by becoming more aware of our own postures and facial expressions. Trained coaches use what’s called somatic awareness to heighten their listening abilities. You too can recognize what signals you are sending to your child by simply noticing in the moment your child is speaking how your face and body are oriented. If your thoughts are miles away and face is clenched with tension, she is receiving a clear message that you are either not listening or you are disapproving. So practice. The next time your child is recounting a school story, notice your facial muscles. Notice your body position. Ask yourself, what message do my gestures send? And then relax and adjust yourself according to how you want to appear when listening and inciting positive behaviors. Here are some further ideas for using body language in your parenting. The key to success with all of these is agreeing upon and practicing the signal first so you are ready to use it when the moment is right.
Waiting for Your Attention – Particularly with multiple children, giving kids the attention they need can be a challenge. Kids can begin to misbehave as they seek any means – positive or negative – to fill their need for your attention. Agree together on a signal for the need for them to wait for a few minutes while you finish what you are doing and then later turn your attention to them. You could use the high five sign like we do or point to your eyes and his eyes acknowledging his need for you and your need for a few more minutes. Another option would be to place your hand on his shoulder and smile as if to say, I’ll be with you in one moment. Then make sure you respect the signal and only take those few more minutes to turn your attention.
Gaining Attention – When you need to gain the attention of a crowd at play, you might use an instrument to make a sound. You may turn out the lights as teachers have done for ages. Teacher also use a clap pattern with those who are listening repeating the pattern until all are listening. Or you could raise your hand with the peace sign with the expectation that others will give you the peace sign in return.
Inciting Cooperation – When you need to gain a child’s cooperation even in moments when there’s time pressure, get down on their level, remain calm and make direct eye contact. That move signals you are serious about gaining their cooperation.
Getting Quiet – When you need silence, you can put your palms down and sink to the ground in a sitting position. You could use the traditional index finger to mouth with eyes open wide, mouth shut. You could also raise your hand or use the peace signal.
Reinforcement for Positive Behaviors – Whether I am noticing a positive behavior I want to reinforce or I’ve corrected my son for a poor choice and I can see he is trying to do the right thing, I make eye contact and give him a thumb’s up. He knows I recognize his actions and I don’t need to say a word.
Listening – Practicing and modeling body language that supports active listening can be helpful for all family members. Make eye contact. Check that you have an open body posture (versus arms closed over your chest). Also use the “Me Too!” rule so each person can complete a thought without interruption. Agree with family members that when someone is saying something that is true for them as well, they make the “Me too!” sign – shake your thumb pointing back at yourself and pinkie pointing out at the other person.
Imagine your family communicating with one another as intently and effectively as a pitcher on the mound does with the catcher signaling the type of pitch. Sometimes words just can’t do the job that a signal or gesture can. Utilize the power of body language in your parenting and enjoy the experience of feeling in tune with your family members without saying a word.
Pease, Allan & Barbara. (2004). The Definitive Book of Body Language. NY: Bantam Books.