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Elmo Vs. The Professor

I’m going to say it again. The way we talk to our kids matters. I’ve written a lot about the power of the words we choose, I even have a free download that gives parents five simple changes they can make to their language that will have a positive impact on their relationship with their child.

But there’s more to it than just word choice. Our delivery matters, too. So many of us, especially those of us who believe children are capable, and competent, have a tendency to talk to our children as though they were small adults. We try to approach things logically, and we inadvertently over-explain things to our kids. When we encounter a teachable moment, we go into what many parent coaches call “college professor mode”: we give our kids a full explanation when they might have only needed a sliver of that to match their curiosity.

We do this over and over again. When we’re trying to correct a behavior, when we’re trying to answer a question, when we’re trying to prepare our kids for a big transition. When our inner college professor comes out, our kids tend to tune out, and when that happens, we have no guarantee that they are hearing what we really want them to hear. They may even feel triggered and ashamed, in which case, they may tune out even more or just tell us what we want to hear so that we’ll move on and leave them alone.

If we want these moments to foster connection, growth, and real learning, we’ve got to take a different approach.

Think like Elmo.

Have you ever paid attention to the way Elmo communicates? Improper grammar aside, Elmo communicates in a way that meets his audience where they are. His sentences are simple and to the point. He says what he needs to say, and then he waits for the other person to respond. If the person he’s talking to doesn’t understand or asks a question, he clarifies, but he doesn’t assume that anyone needs a full explanation from the get go.

When we clean up our communication with our children and start to focus on what’s necessary and concise, a shift happens. Listening improves. We can see clearly which of our words are falling short, and we can address the disconnect cleanly. It allows us to move away from those frustrating thoughts, “I just told you that! Weren’t you listening to anything I just said?” and see what’s actually challenging our kids a little more clearly.

An adult example.

I’ll leave you with one more example. Imagine you know nothing about solar energy and you drive past a house with solar panels on the roof. You aren’t sure what they are, so you decide to ask a friend of yours who always seems to know these things.

You’ll likely be more engaged with their response if they answer your question, “Those are solar panels,” and then wait to gauge your interest before they elaborate. That may be all you need to know, or you might be curious about what a solar panel is, in which case, you’ll ask them to elaborate.

If you know nothing about solar panels, though, it’s unlikely that you will find a full explanation of what a solar panel is and how it works interesting. And it would be even more off-putting if your friend started to tell you that anyone who isn’t using solar power is destroying the planet and needs to get their act together.

Yet we do this to our kids all the time when we explain the consequences of their actions in great detail or answer their questions in depth before they ask us to. It’s important to be honest with our kids and to give them real information, but it’s equally important to meet them where they are.

How do you see this show up in your life? Do you ever catch yourself going into college professor mode? How can you start to embrace your inner Elmo?


For highly sensitive children, many of the behaviors we associate with pushing boundaries and testing limits are actually signs of an overburdened nervous system. Sometimes it’s easy to tell that overstimulation is the root cause of our children’s behavior, but sometimes the signs are more subtle. That’s why I’ve created this free guide to Overstimulation – how to recognize it and what you can do to help. Sign up for my email list to claim your free copy.

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