May 12th, 2008

ozarque figure

Linguistics; verbal self-defense; kids...

All the way back on March 10th, elfwreck posted this comment:
"I'm annoyed that it seems that the only way to teach my child to defend herself from verbal bullies at school is to arm her with counter-attacks -- because even non-violent children don't often have the patience and tolerance to step away from a conflict directed at them. (And because children, unlike adults, don't necessarily stop when the conversation becomes pointless, and don't limit themselves to subtleties. The GASVD books don't have any advice about what to do when the verbal attacks consist of four kids in a circle saying 'you're stupid and fat and ugly and lazy.')"

And that has been worrying me ever since. [This is not elfwreck's fault; I am by nature a worrier, and have had seventy-one years practice.] What I'd like to do here, as a first step toward a response to the comment, is post a brief excerpt from some guidelines on pp. 161-162 of The Gentle Art of Communicating with Kids. Just in case that might be helpful.


1. Always remember that your language behavior is the model that the youngsters you interact with use to learn their language behavior.

Often this won't be obvious on the surface. You may feel that the children around you are as different from you as rabbits are from seals. But if you're someone constantly present in their language environment, even children who "wouldn't be caught DEAD!" using your slang or wearing your clothes or otherwise copying you will still acquire your language strategies -- your methods for handling conflict, for getting your way, for persuading others, and so on. The child will also acquire your nonverbal communication system, which carries almost all the emotional information and does most of the communication work. This gives you an awesome power, both to help and to harm. Use it wisely.

2. Don't lecture children to teach them something; model it instead.

The temptation is always just to tell. It's quick and easy to say to a child, "What Bill just said to you was an example of a verbal attack pattern. Here's what you should say back...." It's quick and easy to say, "The reason you're having trouble communicating with your math teacher is because you're touch dominant and she's sight dominant. Here's how you fix it...." It's harder and slower to make sure your own language behavior models the principles and techniques the kids need to know -- and to give them plenty of opportunities to see you demonstrating those principles and techniques. It's also much more likely to succeed.

In emergencies, when speed is the most important thing and there's no time to worry about the niceties, you may have to just say "This is how you do it. Say this:......" When a child asks you a direct question about the way you communicate, you should answer with explicit instructions and explanation. But always remember that that's not how language learning happens, not for youngsters.

You never told your children, "This is how you make an English yes/no question: Take the first auxiliary verb and move it to the immediate left of the surface subject position in the sentence." They learned how yes/no questions are made by observing the examples all around them and using their innate ability to figure out the rule from the raw data. They learned it so well that they'll never have to think about it again. The best way to teach kids communication is to provide the data and let them work out the rules on their own, so that they will internalize them the same way they internalized all the other rules of their grammar.