More Than Words

“Children learn to be empathic by seeing the ways in which we emotionally respond, not just by the words we say.”
–Daniel J. Siegel and Mary Hartzell, Parenting from the Inside Out

I’ve always been particularly drawn to the aspects of the Educaring® Approach (or RIE®) that have to do with how we talk with and to children. In the courses I co-facilitate for moms of young babies, we talk in depth about how powerful the language is that we use with our children starting at birth, as it becomes their internal dialogue.

Who among us hasn’t heard a tiny voice inside us that we realize with alarm is actually the voice of one of our parents, speaking from the past? What we say to our kids matters.

 A moment of connection.

A moment of connection.

But in talking with some folks about RIE over the past few months, one particular question keeps coming up, and it relates to this core principle of how we communicate. The question goes something like this:

“I don’t know. . . RIE seems so cold, the way you just talk to your kids without any feeling. What’s up with that?”

I’m paraphrasing here, but you get the idea. What IS up with that?

I think I know. The Approach offers many powerful practices for talking with children. We talk about "sportscasting," which helps give babies and toddlers words to explain their world to them—their experiences and emotions.

We talk about how to set limits with respect—what to say when toddlers, in particular, are doing what toddlers should do (i.e., pushing boundaries), and we need to stop them.

We even talk about how to remain calm in these moments, and, as RIE® Associate Janet Lansbury puts it, “unruffled.”

In using these tools, we sometimes take a step back in order to see more clearly who our child is, and what she is trying to communicate. We want to understand.

I love these practices, and I have seen firsthand how powerful they are with children. And I also think that sometimes we forget to talk about how we’re communicating in these moments when we’re not using words.

What we say to children with our body language, our facial expressions, and our eyes can be as important as what we say in words.

Imagine for a moment that you see your partner for the first time after a long and difficult day. You mention how challenging the day was, and your partner says all the things you want and need to hear, using empathic language.

Now imagine that your partner says all of this while looking at his or her phone.

We need to be there with our whole bodies when we communicate. Hearing the right words without feeling connected doesn’t feel good to us as adults, and it’s doubly unsettling for our children.

Worse, if we present one way nonverbally but say something that communicates the opposite (for example, gritting our teeth with frustration but saying “everything’s fine!!”) we risk confusing our child’s intuition and budding ability to read emotions and intent.

Learning to respond to our children respectfully starts with attunement. We have to listen well, take time to really see. In doing this, we give our babies the space to teach us about who they are.

When we respond, we teach our babies who we are. If we only respond with our words, we’re missing an opportunity to share with our child our attention, tenderness, and empathy—in short, the full range of who we are.

What would it be like to challenge yourself to pay more attention to your nonverbal communication—and your child’s—in the week ahead? Here are some simple practices to try:

  1. In a moment of connection with your child, when you’re feeling the warmth of your bond, see if you can stop for a moment and scan your body. Are your eyes communicating how you feel? Is your body language conveying your connectedness?
  2. In a quiet moment, when you have a few minutes to spare, spend two to five minutes observing your child—at play, at breakfast, or even while she is resting or in a moment of upset. What do you notice about her body language? Does her facial expression seem to match her experience? What can you learn about her in this moment of focused attention?

When you allow yourself to communicate with your child with more than just words, you might find that you actually need fewer words to convey your feelings. You can say so much with a loving look, a smile, or a warm hand—especially if your heartfelt attention is behind it.

Magda Gerber, the founder of RIE and a master at communicating holistically with infants and toddlers, wrote:

There is one thing all of us value and desire. It is real attention, not fake; authenticity, not pretense. Maybe if we could train ourselves to pay attention, full undivided attention for just a short time every day . . . we could learn about the other person. We would have to pay attention to facial expression, tone of voice, body language, posture, tension or relaxation, etc. And as we get sensitized and skilled in the art of observing, we may try the greatest challenge: to look inside—to see, observe and learn about ourselves. (Dear Parent, p. 74)