Once, when my son was about nine months old, a friend who is a teacher came to see me.
She still had no children, but she loves them dearly and more than once I’d asked her advice, aware of her having studied, with great passion, pedagogy and educational disciplines.
That day I expressed to her one of my greatest difficulties as a lover of dialogue and clarity: the lack of communication that I often felt between my son and me , since he was still too young to speak and to understand what I said to him.
"The problem is that he still cannot communicate..." I told her.
"It’s not true that he doesn’t communicate - she told me - children so young don’t speak, but they communicate..."
That reply embarrassed me: me, a graduate in Communication, I had reduced a person's ability to communicate to words alone. I had associated the success of a dialogue to verbal communication only.
"You're right, - I corrected myself - the problem is that he doesn’t speak and so we often don’t understand each other. But it is absolutely true that he communicates... "
After that episode, I found myself feeling particularly reflective on the ways babies express themselves and furthermore, I can say that I have learned the real "rules" on non-verbal communication: the teachings that the children – in regards to why they do not speak – can offer us adults, who often focus too much on what to say, neglecting aspects that are nevertheless very important for achieving a fruitful and effective mode of communication in the family and beyond.
Here, then, are five rules on non-verbal communication that, I think, we adults should learn from babies.
1. The fact that you are present, counts more than what you say and what you do
Very young children have not yet reached a degree of rationality as to understand words and concepts, nor can they understand the meaning behind many of our gestures or movements.
But they listen to us, of course, and they observe us because they need it to make their both tiny and great daily progress, and there are many things that "slip" in the first years of life.
There is something, however, that children are able to understand from the first day of life, that is , if those on whom they depend take care of them or not, if they are considered important, loved, or neglected.
They are able to understand whether or not their crying interests us. In short, they are able to sense our presence and our absence.
How often, even in relationships with other adults, we worry about giving advice (which often is more than just a couple sentences), we worry about "doing something," but aren’t able to really stand next to the people who need us without showing empathy?
The baby then tells you very clearly that the thing that matters more than anything else, if you want to help someone or simply show him affection, is your presence, your closeness. What you say or do is important, yes, but is secondary in regards to the gift of your time.
2. Don’t just show love with words. Show it
You can tell a six-month-old baby: "I love you" upwards of eighty times in a single day, but he will not understand it.
He will understand very well, however, that you love him if you help him fall asleep, if you get up at night when he wakes up thirsty or in pain, if you rock him when he's nervous, if you feed him because he cannot do it alone.
It seems obvious, yet it is not: love shows itself first of all with deeds.
What I have just said, doesn’t it also apply to relationships between adults, spouses, brothers and sisters, friends or colleagues? Don’t deeds say much more about our care and attention, than our words?
The baby tells us very clearly: it is not enough to say "I love you," for the other person really feeling welcomed, loved. The sacrifices we make, the patience we put into the relationship, the ability to put off our tiredness to take care of the other, are much, much more eloquent than words.
3. Do not reply in the same manner: if they’re screaming, you tone it down
When babies have to show disappointment, they cry and scream. They do it uncontrollably, just to make us understand how sad, disappointed, or frustrated they may be, and to implicitly ask for help.
The parent, then, especially when faced with a tantrum, may be tempted to scream back – maybe even louder. And here we end up in a whirlwind of nervousness: a tirade begins with shouting that cannot be defused by the child and that, on the contrary, will make his already state of discontent even worse.
It would be much more beneficial for the parent to maintain a balanced attitude without giving in to the child or raising his voice.
It’s normal to lose control from time to time, but we should remember that a calm voice can also soothe the child: screaming only generates more screaming, calmness instead has the extraordinary power to lighten the atmosphere.
Doesn’t this also apply to adult relationships? How many times, those who cannot talk scream in order to be heard? How many conversations go awry because of strident tone of voice?
So young children teach us this : if someone is in your face screaming, get down on their level instead of trying to “fix” the situation by coming back in the same way.
4. Nervousness is contagious; the smile is as well
Aggression generates more aggression; screaming only lead to louder screaming. On the contrary, calm generates calm, and smiles generate other smiles.
I remember when I brought my son to the nursery school for the first time; the teacher asked me what temperament my child had. I replied that he was a lively child, very sociable and always smiling. Yes, I told her: "He smiles at everyone."
I thought it was a part of his character - and maybe it is - but what amazed me was that her reply: "So it means that he is surrounded by people that smile”.
We are not an idyllic family, it’s true that it’s not all butterflies and sunshine in our home, but, thinking about it, she was right: very often, although we were not always in a good mood, we "got over" our state of mind and we smiled. And this did not happen just with us parents, but also with grandparents, uncles, and friends. Each of us, in front of a child, puts his own problems aside and smiles at that little goon. Even furthermore, maybe it was his very smile and carefree attitude that made us forget out bitterness and problems for a few hours. This positive attitude, according to the teacher, also led the child to be positive and confident in regards to the outside world.
Here, then, is another lesson in life: let's remember to smile, because just as nervousness is contagious, as is a smile... We can really make the environments in which we find ourselves brighter if we try to smile, despite the problems that afflict us.
5. Never give up on music
We all know: music acts a bit like a magic wand for parents when it comes to wiping away tears and fixing bad moods. How often do very young children wake up in the middle of the night upset, and then go back to sleep happily thanks to their mother's song? How many times are they bored, sad, nervous and then they quiet down listening to a song?
Music has the power to relieve stress, to calm us down. The enchanted, relaxed gaze of the children when they listen to a melody should invite us, then, to resume – if we have lost it – the routine of enjoying good music.
And you? Have you learned any other communication rules from babies? If you want, write them in the comments! Certainly the list that we have proposed can be further enriched.