Why face-to-face, human communication still really matters

The ability to communicate is a profoundly important skill for human beings because we are wired to be social beings who live together in families within larger units or systems called communities.

For us to be able to cooperate and exist with some degree of harmony, we must be able to communicate effectively.

Given how important relational safety is in our homes, schools, workplaces and communities, it is crucial that we nurture and develop effective, respectful communication in real life and online.

I have been told about almost 20-year-olds struggling more with social anxiety, even ordering a coffee. That’s a sign that the digital natives of today are being impacted negatively in terms of communicating in the present moment, especially in real time.

Much of the toxic online behaviour would not happen if the person was in the physical presence of the person they are attacking – the disinhibition effect. Also, the tendency to attack a person, rather than disagree with their idea, is a sign that conflict resolution using measured words and thoughts, has become a dying art.

Learning to be an effective communicator starts early

Recently I have been having some very deep conversations with my 6-8-year-old grandchildren. And I mean really deep! We talk about ageing, death, the universe and so often, and to be perfectly honest I have had to say in response to their questions, “I don’t know.”

Knowing all the answers isn’t what matters in these moments, it’s having a two-sided conversation – while hearing their questions and exploring possibilities, and using words – that really matters.

I remember having similar deep conversations with my farmer dad, driving around in the ute, checking sheep. We had so many long and interesting conversations about life, the first moon landing, how to get rid of blowflies and maggots off sheep, the difference between fine merino wool and other wool, how crops grow, which tool is best to loosen a tight nut, and listening to my dad tell stories of his own childhood. Oh and we spent a lot of time telling jokes especially knock, knock jokes and shaggy dog jokes! Who would know that later on research would show that those numerous words would help me not only become literate and to love learning – but to become an author! Sadly my dad missed seeing the publication of my first book.

“The foundations for learning to read are set down from the moment a child first hears the sounds of people talking, the tunes of songs, and the rhythms and repetitions of rhymes and stories.”
— Mem Fox, Reading Magic (2001)

Over the last decade, one of the key concerns of teachers of five-year-olds, is the drop in verbal language that children have. Children are turning up to big school with less words to use and we need to be concerned. A significant longitudinal study published in the American Educator shows that how many words children hear before they start school deeply impacts their ability to transition optimally into our school systems.

Quite simply the more words that children hear before they are five the better. The digital distraction of devices, laptops, screens and smart phones is stealing precious moments of verbal communication with our kids. It is not only the technical aspect of having vocabulary, it is the social and emotional impacts that can really cause children difficulty later in life. This is partly because an individual may find it difficult to express unmet needs and ineffective communication can be a blocker for genuine authentic human intimacy.

Feeling safe on all levels is one of the keys to having healthy relationships. Forming friendships in childhood and adolescence is an incredibly important part of coping and becoming a resilient adult.

Let’s start at the very beginning – hopefully some of you will recognise the words of the famous song! Babies need sounds and indeed have been absorbing those sounds from within the womb. Even before they can see well, they turn their head towards the sound of someone familiar whose voice they have heard before they emerged into our world. Then we begin this crazy unique language we didn’t even know we had called ‘parenteze’. This is when we speak in much softer and slower and melodic tones often repeating things  – like: “Are you a  beautiful baby ? You are beautiful – yes you are a beautiful baby !!”  Neuroscience can now show that this is when our baby’s brain can start laying down ‘verbal tracts’ or processing neuro–highways. When combined with the repetition and sequencing the brain needs, it is like creating the fertile soil required to grow the future seeds of language and words.

Dr Martha Burns, a neuroscientist who specialises in reading, strongly affirms how essential nursery rhymes are in the development of phonological awareness — the building blocks for reading. They help build a sense of syllables in a natural, fun way. Sadly many parents of little ones tell me they can’t remember nursery rhymes!

Another worry is that using technology to simply play nursery rhymes or children’s songs in isolation is not sufficient to help children with their language and communication skills. Research shows that children under three have difficulty transferring learning from screens to real life, they do their most intense learning through face-to-face interaction with parents and other caregivers. So start singing along!

The reason for this is that babies and toddlers are biologically wired to learn whole communication, with facial expressions, with the shifting tones of voices and with the unique voices of people who are safe to them. We must remember that so much of communication happens without words and all that understanding is shaped in the earliest years of our lives by the moving human faces we see the most. Children who have parents who are more serious, and don’t smile a lot tend to model the same behaviour unconsciously: they are exceptional imitators.

The first three years are unbelievably important in setting a strong foundation for your children to become effective communicators with themselves, their friends and those in the world around them because auditory processing needs to occur gradually. This is why playing those verbal games while travelling in the car (like ‘I spy’), or creating stories by taking turns with a sentence at a time, doing tongue twisters and making up crazy rhymes can be really helpful for little ones before they start school.

When I heard Dr Burns present at a conference on “Reading and the Brain” she emphasised the unbelievable importance of language saturation, repetitive rhyming, and quiet environments for babies, toddlers and young children.

Too much visual and auditory stimulation can lead to delays in other areas of the brain’s development. We must remember that early brain development in all areas of growth for our babies, toddlers and young children is essential for children to be able to transition into preschool, then school and finally into life.

So it pays to be mindful in your home about background noise, like having a TV on while children play or you eat dinner as a family can confuse brain pathways of language decoding in the parts of the brain responsible for auditory processing. Some children only respond to background noise, like a car driving by the playground, rather than the foreground noise of the voice of an adult close to them.

Reading to your children as often as you can, even if it is the same book 100 times, really does matter in shaping your child as a human, capable of communicating effectively. Even those children who may struggle with dyslexia, decoding the written word and also writing words, can become highly competent in conversations and in expressing themselves verbally.

 “The brain needs the information-rich, give-and-take stimulation that only another human being can provide … Human learning in its most native state is primarily a relational exercise.”
— John Medina (2010). Brain Rules for Baby. www.brainrules.net

Further, research has also shown that the more a child uses hand-held devices, the more likely they are to have delayed language. Rather than giving babies and toddlers smart phones while out shopping, in a café or even waiting at the doctors, please use this as a golden opportunity to point out things in the world around them. Yes the colour of the light bulb, the spider web near the ceiling, the dots on your dress, how many fingers they have, how many cereals in the cereal aisle, which yoghurt they would like this week. In doing this, you will be giving your special little one fabulous opportunities to build the words they will be exposed to, before they turn five.

Grandparents can also be fantastically beneficial in this space if you are lucky enough to have them live nearby. They – the grandparents –  finally have an audience with whom they can share all their stories and they have more time to listen, to laugh and to be fully present when children of all ages visit.

Often in grandparent homes there is a ritual of putting on the kettle, bringing out the biscuit barrel and a sense of ‘now let’s catch up’ that kids can respond to.

Why language development really does matter

In The Oxford Language (2018) report ‘Why Closing the Word Gap Matters’, a couple of years prior to the global pandemic, teachers reported that pupils with lower levels of vocabulary were more likely to:

  • have low self-esteem
  • leave education and have trouble finding employment
  • show negative behaviour
  • find it difficult to make friends
  • have worse attendance.

The updated report in 2020 painted an even bleaker picture. It reported that 92% of teachers believe that the COVID-19 pandemic has widened the word gap with more children struggling due to lockdowns and disruption to learning.

Educators around the Western world have noticed an increase in disruptive behaviour in classrooms and playgrounds, young children struggling socially and that includes initiating and sustaining playing with other children.

A key contributor to this could be that during the pandemic, many children not only lacked the opportunity to play as often with other children, but perhaps they also don’t have an appropriate vocabulary with which to initiate play and to express ideas to resolve minor conflicts. Definitely some food for thought.

Communication in this digital age & post-COVID world

Today’s children are being given far more opportunities to explore their emotional world than previous generations – and that is fabulous. Rather than punishing children when they have meltdowns, we are helping them to calm, to co-regulate to help them understand the big feelings rather than punishing them for having feelings.

Also, many of our neurodivergent children have been able to use technology to find ways of connecting socially with other children that suits them better.

Where would we have been during all the lockdowns without Skype, Facetime or Zoom in connecting and communicating with our loved ones who we were stopped from being able to see and visit. So, the digital age post-Covid world is not all bad news!

Not only does creating space for these conversations matter enormously, it is an understanding that communication is so much more than words expressed verbally.

The art of listening, pausing before responding, noticing what is not being said and allowing our children who are not speaking verbally to still be heard and acknowledged needs to be addressed. Smiling, winking, leaning toward a child are all important ways of communicating that we often take for granted. I have written about how these forms of micro-connections really make a huge difference in families.

Modelling is still the most powerful way for children to learn the nuances of human communication, while expressing themselves rationally, creatively, and emotionally. It does this in ways that support and help them grow in their capacity to be a human who can, most of the time, nurture the relationships that matter the most in their lives.

It’s fundamental for every human to be seen, heard, accepted and valued exactly as we are. That is the highest expression of human communication and human connectedness, and that helps individuals create a healthy, meaningful experience in this crazy thing called life. And it starts before birth, and continues often beyond death, when we can continue to share the stories of loved ones who have left our world.

Communication is like a bridge between humans that ensures we feel we belong. Please make some time today to be fully present to a child or another adult, and allow them to be seen, heard, accepted and valued exactly as they are, with compassion and without judgement – knowing that in some small way you have made the world a better place.

Image credit: By tomwang /Deposit Photos 


For more on what your children REALLY need in the early years, check out Maggie’s book, 9 Things: A back-to-basics guide to calm, common-sense, connected parenting (birth-8). Maggie also has an online course based on the book, and you can watch a video seminar featuring content from the book.