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Communication with Children: Poetry, Precision and Practice

Presentation given by Dave Mampel, aka "Daffy Dave" at The Ethical Society of St. Louis in Feb. of 2008. Reprinted for publication in The Pietisten, Volume 23, No.2, Christmas 2008

In his collection of kid sayings, Richard Lederer recalls: A kindergartner was diligently pounding away on a word processor. She told her teacher she was writing a story. "What's it about?" the teacher asked. "I don't know", she replied. "I can't read." This is why I love working with kids so much! They write novels even when they can't read them yet.

Another child, Ray, went on a field trip to the fire station. The firefighter giving the presentation held up a smoke detector and asked the class: "Does anyone know what this is?"

Ray's hand shot up and firefighter called on him. "That's how Mommy knows supper is ready!"

Enthusiasm and honesty: kids have these qualities in spades. So, with such passion and imagination running rampant with kids, what might be some effective ways to communicate with them? How can we get and keep their attention? How do we get through to children and inspire them to communicate with us, especially since they are so naturally enthusiastic and honest?

A child looks at his grandmother's varicose veins and wonders why "she has lightning in her legs." Another child gazes at a crescent moon and observes, "The moon is just waking up." "Close the curtains!" requests a two-year old girl sitting in a pool or bright light. "The sun's looking at me too hard."

Enthusiasm. Honesty. And, poetry! How do we communicate with these enthusiastic, honest little poets? Perhaps we need to get on their level? Maybe we could use more poetry when communicating with kids.

The late poet, Richard Hugo, said that poetry is saying the right things with the wrong words. Isn't that true? Poetry is filled with images and metaphors that refer to deeper truths behind the actual words themselves. William Butler Yeats says in his poem, "Dialogue of Self and Soul", "A living man is blind/ and drinks his drop/ what matter if the ditches are impure?/ What matter if I live it all once more?..." Obviously he's not saying that everyone is literally blind, but rather, that we, as humans have a limited perspective and can't apprehend the whole truth and meaning of our lives. Blindness is a metaphor for a deeper truth about our human limitations. Of course, I don't know about you, but I'm glad that Yeats pronounces hope in the midst of such "blindness". He concludes his poem by stating: "We must laugh and we must sing./ We are blessed by everything./ Everything we look upon is blest."

Ah, but what is my experience about the poetry of communicating with children? And what have I learned? What can I pass along? First, I submit, it's about wanting to say the right things to children and then attempting to say it in ways that kids understand things.

Here's how it's been working for me. I communicate my life values, and even my ethics, i.e. the "right things", by messing them up...like with poetry, by using the wrong words to say the right stuff...AND ALSO BY letting the kids show me, correct me. I've witnessed how kids, especially 4 and 5 year-olds, love to correct adults who do and say things the "wrong" way. In fact, my whole Daffy Dave Family Comedy Show is based on this overall formula of doing and saying the wrong things on purpose because, of course, it naturally compels children to laugh, pay attention, and then, (and here's the really awesome part)...to be empowered because the kids know the right way better than the clown adult up there on stage and, for once, they aren't being corrected by adults, they (the kids) are now doing the correcting: "No! Daffy Dave, it's not Ladies and Garbage Cans, it's Ladies and Gentlemen!" "Noooo! Daffy Dave, the underwear's not lost! It's on your head!" "Daffy Dave!!! Your pants fell down!" "Daffy Dave! You don't cook your laundry, you wash it!" And, on and on with loud voices and veins popping out of their little necks.

Kids laugh at my mistakes, (and, by, reflection, their mistakes, i.e., all of our human mistakes!) and, they cheer when I actually do the right thing. This whole comedy of errors entertainment process reinforces many of the basic human truths kids are starting to learn about life (although, it's probably more pre-conscious or subconscious since they're not really philosophers yet)...truths like the importance of cleaning up after yourself (ie, self-responsibility) or correct wording (i.e, communication) and, of course, laughing at our funny human mistakes, imperfections and shortcomings...in other words, the values of acceptance, forgiveness, a sense of humor, joy, and creativity.

Another important aspect of the poetry of communication (especially with children) is enthusiasm. I have found it to be true in my experience that if I'm excited about something others will be too. This is doubly true with children. If I want kids to listen, I have to be interested in what I'm saying or doing. If I want kids to sing, I have to love singing! If I want kids to clean up their rooms, I have to appreciate a clean room and clean up my own room too. If I want kids to read, I have to love reading and read books too. It's the old "teaching by example" phenomenon. If I want kids to get dressed...well...

One of my favorite ways to dress kids, especially to put on their socks and shoes when they don't want to (which is almost all the time for some kids I know), is to ask them to show me how to put on my socks and shoes. I start by trying to put my socks on my hands like mittens, then, on my ears, etc... Pretty soon, they're laughing and more receptive to me now trying to help them put on their clothes as we laugh along the way.

Of course, I don't always get excited about communicating with kids (I'm tired, not in the mood, etc.), so they're reaction can then become tepid or even a bit rebellious. Kids are so honest and transparent, they mirror back to us more readily our adult moods, etc. But, that's when I just grin and bear it, bite the bullet, fake it til I make it, and try my best to persuade, influence, inspire. That's also when I sometimes stop and listen to the kids more. What do they want and need? What can I learn from their perspectives? Sometimes, that's when I open up with them (especially when I'm teaching soccer, telling stories or leading them in songs at the schools I teach at in the Bay Area). And, let me tell you, the kids can sometimes reveal the most interesting, down to earth, close to the heart wisdom I still use in my own life. Kids say the darnedest things, right? They're just big spirits in little bodies. And, it helps me to respect and validate them when I can stay open to their vulnerable, innocent perspectives. For instance, an elementary school teacher once asked her class to fill in the second half of common folk sayings. Here's some great responses they had:

"A penny saved.....is not very much."
"You can lead a horse to water......but how?"
"Better safe than......pregnant."

Or, as Richard Lederer has recorded, a little girl attending a wedding for her first time whispered to her mother, "Why is the bride dressed in white?" "Because white is the color of happiness, and today is the happiest day of her life." The child thought about this for a moment, then said, "So why is the groom dressed in black?"

You see, not only can kids make us laugh with their perspectives, they can really make us stop and think: "Yeah, just how do you lead a horse to water? Never mind, the "get him to drink" part, how do we lead the horse to the water in the first place? Do we pull the reins hard, cajole, bribe, or maybe,...lead by example ?!" Who knows, it might work with horses too! Ok, it might be comical, but if it works, why not?

All kidding aside, we now come to the Precision of Communication. Can we be both poetic and precise in our communication? How can we say the "wrong" words to get to the right meaning, as in poetry, and also strive to be precise? To me, it's knowing when to be precise and when to be poetic. To be precise and exact with one's communication with children, seems to be especially important in the realm of conflict resolution. This is why you sometimes hear parents say to their children, in the heat of an angry outburst, "use your words" (as opposed to your hands!). "What are you mad about?" Or, if they're in physical pain, "Show me where it hurts". Or, if they are upset because they didn't get some need or want met, "Can you tell me what you want?" Sometimes, precision is required to diffuse an upsetting situation.

It has really helped me to explain the ground rules precisely with children in my soccer class, for example, and then, if any of the rules are broken, to precisely give them choices with regards to consequences. (Kids just want to know, what are the rules, who's enforcing them, and are they being enforced?) I repeat the rules every once in awhile too. What are the rules for soccer everyone? "When you hear the whistle: stop, look , and Listen." #2, Try Your Best, #3 Have Fun.

And, then, if a kid is acting out, distracting other players, and not participating in the game, I precisely say, "Ok, your choices are this: you can either try your best to play soccer with us or you can go to Teacher Ellie's office and take a time out. Which one do you want to choose? It's not perfect, and I try to say it firmly, patiently, and with love. Usually, it works. And, sometimes, I have to help the kid choose to take a time out (without shaming them, of course) explaining to them that perhaps they need to think about how their disruptive behavior is interrupting the game and come back when they're ready to have fun and play with us. This only happens rarely, but I find it helps to be precise and stick to your principles or else kids won't know what the boundaries are and it will become too chaotic and unpleasant. Boundaries are necessary, like in a basketball game, without the boundaries around the court, the ball could go everywhere and you couldn't play the game and have fun. Kids need boundaries to play the game of life! We all do.

Other ways I've learned to be precise with communication is to use "I Statements". "I feel upset when you don't listen to me, don't behave, etc." This puts the focus on the behavior and not the internal value of the child. I'm upset with an action, not the core child. This also helps the child listen and feel less defensive and not feel toxically ashamed of him or herself and therefore better able to hear me and consider their actions better.

My final point about Communicating with Children is Practice. Communication is a skill that requires habitual effort or practice, to improve it. And, when I'm in the mindset of practice, I ease up on myself. I'm just practicing. It's not the actual game. Just like when I was in Little League, practice was always less pressure than the games. Maybe not as exciting, but less pressure, and therefore, my mind was freed up to concentrate on developing the finer points of holding the bat, getting in front of the ball in order to catch it, keeping an eye on the ball when swinging the bat, etc, etc. During the games, we couldn't really work on those points over and over again, but we certainly tried to remember those new insights and then, when they worked, and we connected with the ball, caught a bouncy grounder, or hit a home run, we were so thankful that we had learned those skills by practicing them during the week.

My point is that learning anything well helps if we take time to work at it and work at it (hopefully with grace)...with an attitude that we're imperfect humans with limited understandings...so let's ease up and work at it with forgiveness and love and fun always there in the background. And, too, when communicating with children, it helps to remember it takes practice, mistakes will happen, feelings will get hurt, misunderstandings will arise. But, if our hearts are in the right place and we are willing to learn, listen, and try our best to get our points across, more natural, lasting bonds will be made with our children and the whole community will strengthen as a result.