Need Parenting Help? Get to the Zoo
The animal kingdom has surprisingly strong lessons to share on communicating with the young
Getting kids to listen is often a struggle for parents. Whether it’s a toddler squealing like a jet engine or a tween who pretends she doesn’t hear you, family communication can bring out the worst in us. We know yelling isn’t productive — but what else can a parent do to make sure her message gets across?
From tiny insects like crickets, all the way up the food chain to whales — animals have all sorts of ways to communicate. Humans don’t do much flaring of feathers or emitting strong odors, but if we pay attention to how animals vocalize, we can learn some tricks to improve our own communication skills. See if these ideas from the animal world work for you at home:
All whales in an area sing the same song, even hundreds of miles apart.
Giant South American river turtles teach patience. These guys are huge and can seem silent, but that’s just because they take their time. Researchers (very patient ones) discovered the river turtles make a sound and can wait three hours until their next grunt. No word on how that impacts scheduling for feeding the little ones.
Human lesson: Ask a question, wait two seconds, then ask another. Sound familiar? Kids need some processing time to think about what you have asked and to determine how to respond. After you pose a question, try counting to six before saying anything. In other words — be patient. It will pay off.
Classroom teachers can testify to the power of silence. It can be terrifying or annoying to wait, but filling up empty conversational spaces is not the solution. Just wait. Breathe. Wait time is especially important if you have kids who get overwhelmed easily.
Vervet monkeys teach tailored warnings. These primates make four different warning sounds, depending on which predator is nearby. There’s a different sound for eagles — you want to hide low from a flying threat, while a threat from a leopard means you want to climb somewhere it can’t get to you. That gets a different sound.
Human lesson: All dangers are not alike. You need a different conversation and different punishments for varied behaviors, like drug and alcohol use, versus a missed homework assignment. Tailor your warnings to the situation rather than a blanket “Do what I say” guideline without explanation.
If all your warnings are end-of-the-world level, kids won’t be able to detect serious danger for themselves. Not taking out the trash is lame, but it isn’t on the same scale as sharing personal information with an internet stranger.
Whales teach staying the course. All whales in an area sing the same song, even hundreds of miles apart. Over time, the song changes and the old pattern of sounds is never used again.
Human lesson: Move forward. Don’t bring up past issues that have been resolved. Rehashing fights or mistakes does nothing positive. Remember that you all have the same goal — to build a cohesive family where everyone feels like part of the team.
You’ve done something dumb in the past, right? If you were a bad driver back in 2007 and keep hearing about it from family members, you can relate to your child — and how she doesn’t need a discussion about that time she wouldn’t bring a coat.
Cats teach the value of a pause. A feline’s communication is pretty complicated, and cats have several ways they get their message across. Typically, if one cat is staring down another, they each feel threatened. With a group of humans, a cat tends to go up to the one person that isn’t paying them any attention. This is because they don’t like eye contact.
Human lesson: Give everyone a breather when things get tense. Sometimes instead of “staring one another down,” parents and children (especially teens) need time to cool off. Let your child come back to you when he is not so upset; he will be drawn toward the parent who isn’t as visibly upset about the matter at hand.
Your child is dealing with hard stuff all day long, no matter his age. Let your reunion moments be an easy and pure.
Dogs teach pure, heart-strong affection. When a dog is happy to see you, there’s no mistaking it. There’s full-body excitement, coupled with barking or whimpering, tongue out and tail going wild. Any bad day goes away pretty quickly when you open a door and are greeted by your canine.
Human lesson: Light up when you see your kids after time apart. Don’t start off negatively, even if things need to be dealt with between you. Smile, greet your children (no matter how old) with a hearty welcome, and mean it.
Take your dog’s enthusiasm as a cue: Open every encounter with love. Your child is dealing with hard stuff all day long, no matter his or her age. Let your reunion moments be an easy and pure interaction among all the others. A big smile, hug, or even a slobbery kiss speak volumes.
Eliana Osborn is married, has two children, and lives in the Southwest. She writes about higher education topics and parenting.