Visuals over verbals

July 17, 2020 • 7 min

For better or worse, we’ve been spending a lot more time together as families. 

As parents, we’re serving not only as moms and dads, but also as teachers, playmates, coaches, camp counselors, barbers, and cooks. Now more than ever, we’re the primary role models for our kids with multiple opportunities to teach and train them (all day, everyday). 

Obviously, our words and instructions are important during these interactions, but it’s helpful to consider our demeanor as well. In fact, developmental research shows that visuals (our behavior and attitude) can be even more influential than verbals (our advice), when it comes to teaching our kids. 

The visual cliff design

Let’s consider how this plays out with different ages of children, beginning with babies. 

By God’s perfect design, infants are wired from birth to be attuned to their parents’ voices and facial expressions. Some interesting studies, using the “the visual cliff” design, involve placing a baby of crawling age on a plexiglass surface. Under the glass is a four-foot drop or “cliff.” 

The parent is positioned across from their child, beckoning them to crawl. The babies are naturally tentative because of the visual drop, but many will cross to their parent if their mom or dad has a positive, encouraging facial expression. In contrast, few babies will ever cross the glass if the parent shows any kind of fearful expression. 

When the babies perceive fear, they back up and often start crying without the parent saying a word. 

Is something wrong here?

Along these same lines, toddlers react to facial expressions as well. 

Separation Anxiety is a common and normal developmental phenomenon between fifteen months and three years of age. During this period, toddlers become anxious and upset to be away from their parents. Parents can become equally upset to see their children in distress. 

Unfortunately, when parents make a worried face in these moments, it only escalates the upset. Our toddlers see us and think, “Uh oh, something is really wrong here!” 

So just remember next time you drop off your toddler (if you ever get to do that again), try to maintain a positive, confident expression—even when his teacher is peeling him off of you.

Kneel to their level

Moving on to the preschool years, visuals can overpower verbals when it comes to body language and body position. 

Have you ever tried to have a conversation with someone who is sitting behind you in the car or facing away from you? Or with someone who keeps glancing at their phone or computer? 

It can feel both frustrating and demeaning, yet often this is how we interact with our preschoolers. We tower over them when they’re trying to talk to us, we wash dishes or fold laundry without looking at them, and we become distracted by our phones. 

It’s easy to fall into these habits because our little people can talk a lot! But as often as possible, we should try to kneel down to their level, use full eye contact as we listen, and even hold their hands or touch their face to show them that we’re paying attention. 

These simple acts help improve children’s language skills, have a calming effect on their behavior, and best of all, give them a wonderful sense of being valued.

To be like us: What are we modeling?

How about elementary-age kids? 

First of all, this stage of development is often considered the most pleasant due to children’s improved language and social skills, greater physical coordination and strength, and increased feelings of competence and self-sufficiency. 

Elementary kids are sensitive to others’ feelings, and thus more receptive to learning about values such as kindness, respect, and patience. They greatly admire and respect authority, especially their own parents, and they actually want to be like us! 

So let’s take advantage of this teaching opportunity and consider the example we are setting. For instance, if we want to teach the value of patience, how are we acting in traffic or long lines? 

If we want to teach kindness, how are we modeling it in our home and community? 

If we want them to learn respect, how do we treat our own parents and extended family? 

Our actions speak volumes!

Lives that speak louder than lectures

Now, we’ve arrived at the infamous teenage years. 

As we’ve all heard (or experienced) this age can be a challenging stage due to tremendous growth in every area, namely: brains, bodies, and hormones. 

As a result of these monumental changes, teens start pushing away from us as they form their own sense of identity. They often argue about rules and values, and they crave privacy. They act like they don’t want to be with us, and definitely don’t want to be seen with us! 

Yet, interestingly, we know from large-scale teen interviews that they actually do value connection with their parents and are watching to see if we truly practice what we preach. 

If we tell them to dress modestly, do we dress modestly? If we say don’t drink and drive, do we follow the same guidelines? Do we get enough sleep? Do we have healthy eating habits? Do we have a prayer life? Are we faithful to our commitments? 

Our teens will be the first ones to call us out when they see any discrepancies or hypocrisy. Ugh! This is so convicting, but a much-needed reminder that our lives are speaking louder than our lectures

On discipline and family routines

Looking across all of the ages and stages of childhood, let’s consider two big areas of parenting where our actions speak louder than words on a daily basis: discipline and family routines. 

First with discipline, think about this—if we are overly harsh or punitive with our kids (either physically or emotionally) then we are simply modeling anger and aggression. If our children comply in these moments, it’s often because they are afraid, not because they have learned any positive lessons. 

Likewise, if we are overly lenient with our children—acting wishy-washy about the rules or trying to be their buddy—then we send the message that the values we’re trying to teach must not be that important. 

On a brighter note, if we can discipline out of love, in a firm manner but under control, then we model integrity, self-control, and kindness (and yes, we can remain firm in our discipline and still be kind). 

Our positive demeanor is a powerful example of the very things we’re trying to teach with our words, and above all, it demonstrates our love and care for them.

A second area where visuals overshadow verbals is within our family routines. 

For instance, if we have (or had) a weekly routine of going to church on Sunday mornings, what is our demeanor as we make our way to church? Are we patient and cheerful, or are we resentful, impatient, and just downright stressed? Are we yelling at our kids, “Stop fighting!” or “Get your shoes on now!” as we send them off to learn about a sweet, loving Jesus? 

Fortunately (or unfortunately) our children’s interest in faith-related matters can be more affected by our own attitude surrounding these events than by any teaching they may receive along the way. 

This applies to other routines as well, whether they be family devotional times, family vacations, or family dinners. Numerous studies, across multiple disciplines, have found that the simple act of eating together as a family is critical to children’s emotional well-being, yet once again, parental attitude sets the tone.

Are we in a hurry or irritable? Are we bored or distracted by our phone? 

Hopefully not! Hopefully we’re showing our kids how much we love them by being engaged in the moment, modeling gratitude, laughing, and having fun. 

Lead them well

Within my own family, some of these routines haven’t always been pleasant. Sometimes they’ve felt chaotic or have ended in upset and hurt feelings. 

But my prayer has always been that there would be more love than anger, more laughter than tears. 

Hopefully for all of us, we can earnestly model the love and joy of Jesus in the midst of our day to day family life. Remember, visuals are powerful—our kids are watching. 

Lord, please let us be an example that leads them to you.


About the Author:

Nell Bush

Dr. Nell Bush is a Child Development Specialist who speaks to parenting groups and conducts teacher-training workshops throughout North Texas. She has her doctorate in Child Development from the University of Texas at Austin, where she taught undergraduate family and marriage courses for several years. After moving to Dallas, she served as a parenting consultant at the Family Life Counseling Center. She also has served as an educational consultant for the children’s video series, “Boz the Bear”; and co-authored The Parenting Survival Guide. She has served on the Boards of ChildCareGroup and National Charity League, Inc. First and foremost she enjoys spending time with her husband, Shelby, and their four almost-grown children.

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