Diana Boggia: Keep conversation with kids simple by ‘making sandwiches’

Diana Boggia

When we have something to say to our children, they often “turn off” or “tune out” long before we’ve been able to make our point. We have a tendency to talk too much, over explain, or give much more information than some of the young ones are even able to process.

I recall a funny story about a 5-year-old asking where babies come from. The mom painfully explained some basic biology, as the child squirmed and fidgeted.

The mom was careful with her wording, but the explanation was involved.

At the end of the explanation, the mom said, “So, do you understand where babies come from?” and the child said, “I don’t really know, because my friend said he came from the hospital!” 

When teaching a child, providing information or giving a directive, keep it simple. Young children process information very well when it is clear and precise.

Using the back door

Sometimes we send a “back-door” directive, a very round-about message. Instead of “It's time to get your PJs on and get ready for bed,” we say, “Well, it’s time to start to think about going to bed, because we know how cranky you can get when you have’t had enough sleep, and then tomorrow you will be miserable, so I think it might be a good idea if you start to think about changing into your PJs.”

We say way too much, perhaps because we want to convert them to our way of thinking.

A favorite quote of mine is, “It’s not what you say, but how you say it.” I am a very firm believer in sending a clear message, with a connective physical touch, to send a multi-sensory message that is concicely communicated.

I’ve educated many parents on the skill of “sandwiching” their message, which makes it “more palatable” for a child. I’m working with a family with a 6-year-old who gets easily frustrated and whines loudly or breaks down into a loud cry when he doesn’t get what he wants. The mom has been telling him to stop whinning for quite some time, but that has not changed his behavior. I suggested she “sandwich” her message. 

1. First, “Get up and go” to him and make a gentle connective touch.                                                  

2. Start to layer your sandwich. Offer the bottom piece of bread by saying, “I can tell that you are really upset.” When a child feels that we are empathetic, it often diffuses some heightened emotions.

3. Next comes the precise message you want to send, the meat of the sandwich. “I’d like to be able to help you, but I can’t understand you when you are whining or screaming."

4. Finally, finish your sandwich with a wonderful, soft piece of fresh bread. Tell your child that when he comes to you quietly, and is able to whisper, you’ll be happy to help him. Then give him a little loving touch on his face or head, and walk away. Initially, this may be difficult to do, but with practice on both your parts, you soon will have remarkable success.

That’s not calm

Please note that telling a child to calm down is not a clear message. It is abstract. Children will scream, “I AM CALM!” Better to suggest that when they can whisper to you, you’ll be there for them.

It may take a little practice, but everyone loves a good sandwich.

Diana Boggia, M.Ed., is a parenting educator in Stark County, Ohio, and a contributor to The Repository in Canton, Ohio. Send your child-rearing questions to FamilyMatters@cantonrep.com or The Repository, c/o Family Matters, 500 Market Ave. S, Canton OH 44702.