A common experience for many of us growing up was learning how to respond to certain cues we got from our parents regarding our behavior. For me, it was the single raised eyebrow that appeared on my mother's face when I was getting dangerously close to being in trouble. That eyebrow, which sometimes barely moved, was an unmistakable message that I had better move in a different direction or pay the consequences. It was a very potent nonverbal communication that my mother established with me early on, and even today, the family jokes about mom's raised eyebrow.
This practice which my mother engaged in, and many parents still use, is called "cueing." It is a special means of communication - a sort of disciplinary technique that not only aids in managing behavior, but also actually increases the intimacy between parent and child. Unfortunately, cueing can also be a source of confusion if the signals given are mixed and contrary to each other. Let's see how this works.
First off, what is cueing? It is a signal sent from one person to another to evoke in that person a feeling, thought, behavior, fantasy or all of the above. It may be as overt and dramatic as directly yelling a command, or as subtle as a tone of voice or a look in the eye. We are all familiar with the sound of a powerful adult (dad or the boss) clearing his throat before he says something which implies we need to do something different; or mom banging pots in the sink at the end of a long day. That, but the way means, "Don't make another sound!" The number of cues people use and their various meanings are enormous and can open the door for considerable misunderstanding and frustration. On the other hand, if the cues are acknowledged and responded to, they can lead to feelings of deep understanding, unique closeness and playful cooperation.
Now, how does all this relate to adult and child relationships? Well, I'd like to approach this from two directions, one having to do with discipline and the other having to do with intimacy. First, let's look at discipline. It has been my observation over the years that problem children respond very accurately to cues from adults. Furthermore, the child is often responding to cues that the adult may not be aware he or she is sending. I'll give you an example: Let's say Johnny is seven years old and hates to clean his room. Nonetheless, his mother has instructed him to clean his room each Saturday before he is allowed to play. What actually occurs each Saturday morning is that mom spends the entire morning nagging Johnny, who actively resists cleaning his room until finally she yells at him in frustration. He responds by crying and possibly saying "I hate you" or "You don't love me." Mom then feels guilty and more frustrated, not to mention somewhat worn down by the whole affair. What's the result? Finally, after more tears and more guilt on mom's part, they make up and the room gets cleaned, often with mom pitching in and helping to get the chore completed. All goes well until next Saturday at which time the whole process is repeated.
What's the problem here? Very simply, Johnny acts with little self-control or self-discipline because he is picking up some very inconsistent cues from mom. As she goes through her Saturday litany of "I mean what I say - you'd better pick up your room right now," she also is silently saying that if Johnny can hold off long enough, she will end up helping him and relieve him of the responsibility of cleaning his room by himself. In actuality, she doesn't mean what she says - not really. I suggest she develop a new system of cueing that makes it clear to Johnny that she means what she says. I propose she tell Johnny what she wants him to do, how many times she will remind him, the consequences for not obeying her, and then carry through with her plan - period! If he bucks (and he will for the first month or two), she should prudently increase the consequences, tell him why she's doing it, remind him of what happened the last time and how he can keep the penalty at a minimum.
Well, you may be saying, "That's a bit too harsh for my taste and I'm not comfortable with it." This is where my thoughts about intimacy come in. Remember, we are trying to develop the process of cueing and that encompasses both the spoken and the unspoken - that is, language without words. The reason that strikes all people as profoundly intimate is because it has its origin during the first years of life when our mothers literally read our minds. To be understood that way remains one of the strongest and fondest longings in all human beings. Though the practicalities of life force us to give it up, we search for it evermore. I am suggesting you purposefully establish that mode of interaction with the child in question because you understand the need, but shape it in such a way as to be mutually beneficial to both you and him. For instance, you tell Johnny if you raise your eyebrows or use a mutually agreed upon magic word, he is coming dangerously close to a penalty. You should also help him by saying with a very particular tone of voice, "Remember?"
By doing the above, you will be forging a very intimate and unique bond with your child that you both grow to treasure and rely upon. Additionally, you will help him develop his memory, ability to anticipate, judgement, self-control, and perhaps most importantly, his ability to maintain self-esteem by learning to do what you expect of him. A major source of self-esteem in children is the feeling they are able to live up to their parents' expectations. If these expectations are vague, contradictory or changeable, the child is cut adrift in a sea of doubt, conflict and impulsivity. Thus, through this system you are offering the child strength and closeness at the same time.