Mixed Signals

An Army Interrogator On How To Use Body Language To Communicate Better With Toddlers

Everybody sends out signals with their body language. Crossed arms = defiant. Head nod = I understand. Head on the desk = please wrap up this meeting. But for toddlers, arm-waving, head-shaking, and chin-tilting are all they have until the whole verbal communication thing happens for them. Unless you’re a body language expert, you probably don’t know what messages your movements are sending. And that can get pretty complicated.

toddler in playground

That’s where Greg Hartley comes in. As a former Army interrogator and body language expert, Hartley’s the author of The Art of Body Talk: How to Decode Gestures, Mannerisms, and Other Non-Verbal Messages spends his days teaching Navy SEALs the fine art of non-verbal communication. “The ability to send false messages with your body is so innate,” he says. “We often see false cognizance — we see things that mean anything.” Here, Hartley explains how the minor movements you’re making might send the wrong signal to your kid — and some simple ways you can recalibrate.

Non-Verbal Communication Is All About Deviations

There is no such thing as “normal” human behavior. But each person, according to Hartley, has a normal range of movements. When they deviate from it, that’s where meaning can be found. This is basically the framework he used when interrogating people. Are they don’t something totally out of character. This also applies to communicating effectively with a kid, too.

Body Language Should Be Subtle

Even if you think you’re sending the right signals, you can freak out a kid (or anyone, really) by abruptly changing your demeanor. “If you’re square-shouldered and straight-laced and you suddenly seem whimsical, that kind of thing is off-putting,” Hartley says. Instead, you should aim to incorporate the right signs, but in a way that fits with your usual behavior. Basically, you should use the same technique you used when dating the woman who made you a father — playing it cool. Just refrain from negging. That was never cool.

Know The Difference Between Asking And Demanding

When a person is asking for something, their body language will be different than if they’re demanding something. This leads to some confusion. An ask will sound softer and lower; less obviously, the shoulders are rounded, giving a softer appearance. A demand usually looks like this: chin is thrust slightly upwards, the chest thrust out, and the tone of voice louder and harsher.

Hartley says the lesson here is to use the right body language when you mean it. “If you’re really serious about it, make a demand the first time,” he says. “If you’re demanding, demand. If you’re asking, then ask.” Remember that next time you’re having a clean-your-room conversation.

Be Sure To Keep Things Casual

Perhaps your child is relaying to you something that they think might alarm you. Maybe it was a baseball through the window or a fistful of crushed crackers sprinkled in the dryer. To keep them calm, you need to simply continue to nod and make unthreatening eye contact until your child’s finished talking (taking a deep breath helps, too). “Even if it’s gibberish. You’re giving them affirmation,” says Hartley.

Don’t Forget To Express Some Emotion

Especially for men, and more so for big, burly, or imposing dudes, it can be hard not to be intimidating or scary to a small child. (It’s not your fault, you rugged lumbersexual, you.) So how do you take the edge off? Point your eyes down to the right.

“Anytime we’re thinking about something emotional, our eyes drift down and to the right,” Hartley says. “When you do that your head tilts and it softens some of the sternness.” Turns out you don’t have to tap into emotions or any of this empathy hogwash. You just have to give that appearance. Although if you want to think of that episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where Picard gets to live out an entire life in one day, go for it.

Refrain From Shaking Your Head

When you’re scolding a kid, it’s pretty common to shake your head ‘no’. But Hartley says this makes them feel bad about themselves and not the thing they’ve done wrong. “If you’re trying to send a positive message about adjusting a behavior, keep your head static and make eye contact but don’t make it condemning,” he says. “That way the scold is about what they’ve done, not about them as a person.”

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