Communication Begins with Children

A Lifespan Communication Sourcebook

by Thomas J. Socha (Volume editor) Narissra Maria Punyanunt-Carter (Volume editor)
©2021 Textbook X, 328 Pages
Series: Lifespan Communication, Volume 8


Communication Begins with Children: A Lifespan Communication Sourcebook seeks to transform the field of communication, arguing that the field must stop neglecting and segregating children and instead adopt an age-inclusive lifespan approach that fully includes and fully considers children in all communication theorizing, research, and education from infancy and throughout the human lifespan. One-size-fits-all, adult-centric communication theorizing, researching, and educating is inadequate and harms the communication field’s potential as a social force for positive change for all communicators. The volume contains four sections (Foundations, Relational Communication Development, Digital Communication Development, and Navigating Developmental Communication Challenges) that showcase state-of-the-art chapters about the history of children’s relational and digital communication studies, methods used to study children’s communication, media literacy development, communication and children’s health, and much more. A must read for all communication researchers, educators, and students and an important addition to advanced and graduate level human and digital communication courses.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • SECTION ONE: Foundations
  • 1. Comprehensive Communication Development during Childhood: First Steps in Positive Lifespan Communication: THOMAS J. SOCHA, NARISSRA M. PUNYANUNT-CARTER
  • 2. End the Neglect of Children and Transform the Field of Communication: A Critical-Experiential Review and Research Agenda: THOMAS J. SOCHA
  • 3. Studying Communication during the Early Lifespan: Rationale, Approaches, and Methods: THOMAS J. SOCHA
  • SECTION TWO:Relational Communication Development
  • 4. Children, Parents, and Resilience: Exploring Challenges and Potential of Communication’s Contribution to Developmental Thriving: GARY A. BECK, KRISTEN CARR
  • 5. Socio-emotional Development in Childhood and Adolescence Through Communication: An Overview: MALINDA J. COLWELL, ELIZABETH TREJOS-CASTILLO
  • 6. Communication and Children’s Moral Development: PAULA S. TOMPKINS
  • SECTION THREE:Digital Communication Development
  • 7. An Historical Look at Children and Media Research: Lessons Learned and Questions Revisited: ALEXIS R. LAURICELLA, FASHINA ALADE, ELLEN WARTELLA
  • 8. Parasocial Relationships and Children: ROBIN DUFFEE, SYDNEY COX, NARISSRA MARIA PUNYANUNT-CARTER
  • 9. Family Communication, Media Consumption, and Teens’ Body Image and Problematic Eating Behaviors: A Review: ANDREA MCCOURT, JILLIAN YARBROUGH
  • 10. Arthur, Gay Marriage, and Contesting the Boundaries of Childhood: Socially Constructing Sexuality in Children’s Educational Television: DANYELLA B. JONES
  • 11. Media Literacy Education as a Context for Children’s Communication: RONDA M. SCANTLIN
  • 12. CosmoKidz: Helping Children Make Better Social Worlds: JOHN CHETRO-SZIVOS, MARIT EIKAAS HAAVIMB, KIMBERLY PEARCE
  • 13. Lasting Impressions: Exploring Communicative Legacies of Children’s Experiences in Divorced Families: JENNA R. LAFRENIERE
  • 14. Social (Pragmatic) Impairment: The Impact on Communication Development: JASON S. WRENCH, WENDY BOWER
  • 15. At the Crossroads of Prevention: Promoting Children’s and Adolescents’ Health: MICHELLE MILLER-DAY
  • Coda: The Urgent Need for Global, Inclusive, and Comprehensive Lifespan Communication: THOMAS J. SOCHA, NARISSRA MARIA PUNYANUNT-CARTER
  • About the Co-editors
  • About the Authors
  • Author Index
  • Subject Index
  • Series Index

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Old Dominion University


Texas Tech University

June 2, 2020

As we complete work on this volume, we are experiencing an unprecedented global pandemic as well as national racial unrest in the US. Over the past few months (since March 2020), and likely for the foreseeable near future, the Covid-19 virus has radically changed the everyday life of the world’s children. It has moved children out of their preschools, daycare centers, schools, playgrounds, sports fields, and recreational facilities and away from their caregivers, teachers, coaches, and adult leaders and into their homes and to their parents, along with expectations of continuing their development. Caught-off-guard educational systems are racing to speed-deliver make-shift digital classes into children’s homes in hopes of satisfying students’ and parents’ needs for continuing knowledge, information, and formal education. Over-taxed supply chains and delivery systems are struggling to speed-deliver groceries and prized toilette paper into homes, in an effort to keep children and families fed, sanitized, and safe. Taken-off-line broadcast media companies are also streaming archived content to bored children and families needing unprecedented lengths of diversion and escape. At the same time, families are celebrating graduations, birthdays, and more via Zoom, Google Meets, Skype, and other similar digital platforms.

While the global Covid-19 pandemic rages, the US is also coping with the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the protests and riots that have followed this racial hate crime. Here too children are watching and listening along with their parents to news reports and social media postings about curfews, national guards, violent clashes and ←1 | 2→calls for peaceful justice. As the world struggles and changes, it is important that we not lose sight of the fact that the world’s children are watching the grownups and learning (or not) about positive coping, wellness, caring (for themselves and others), resilience, and more as they communicate with their families and interact with media. And, many children are also afraid and need comforting and reassurance that they will be kept safe.

The global pandemic and unceasing racial struggles in the US are taking a massively devastating toll, economically, educationally, socially, and more on all in the world. In terms of this volume, the timing of these events again brings into stark relief a foundational and chronic problem that has long plagued the communication field: the neglect of children and their vital role in creating better futures. Twenty-one years ago, Socha and Diggs (1999) wrote about the role of communication in managing “race” at home where children play a key role in the development of better, brighter, and inclusive futures. A decade ago, Socha and Yingling (2010) wrote about children’s communication development at home. And today, this volume argues, once again, that the field of communication can no longer afford to focus exclusively on studying the communication of what has been mostly white, young adults, along with preparing and delivering collegiate courses of study to what has been mostly white college students. Instead the field of communication must adopt a fully inclusive lifespan approach that places all the world’s children at the beginning of communication research and education, as well as connects communication in each lifespan stage to the next. We cannot predict the future, but we can work in the present to increase the chances that tomorrow the world will be better for future generations by educating and communicating with our littlest communicators, today. It is in this spirit and hope that we offer this volume.


Socha, T. J., & Diggs, R. H. (Eds.). (1999). Communication, race and family: Exploring communication in Black, White and Biracial families. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Socha, T. J., & Yingling, J. A. (2010). Families communicating with children: Building positive developmental foundations. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

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1. Comprehensive Communication Development during Childhood

First Steps in Positive Lifespan Communication


Old Dominion University


Texas Tech University

Children around the world are quarantined in their homes due to the coronavirus pandemic. As of July 8, 2020, Covid-19 infected 11,662,574 people and ended the lives of 539,057 others (Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Research Center, 2020). Proportionately, the elderly and African Americans are bearing the brunt of the Covid-19 virus, but children have not been immune including enduring the stressors of quarantine and more (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020). As the world has turned to connecting online and socially-distancing, we must also look to the horizon to a future time when our everyday communication lives will resurge, albeit in a new key. We must use this time productively to pause and take stock of our core values and beliefs, especially those related to the world’s children and their futures. What are our hopes and beliefs for the world’s children?

First, we believe that all the world’s children should live long lives. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) (2018a), the world’s average life expectancy at the time of birth is age-72. Life expectancy in the US is age-78 and by comparison in South Africa it is age-63 and in Chad it is age-54 (WHO, 2018a). Living a long life is dependent on myriad factors: communicative, cultural, economic, educational, environmental, familial, genetic, geographic, medical, military, political, relational, social, and more. Although desired, for most of us, making it to a ripe old age is not ←5 | 6→easy and trouble can start early. According to the US Central Intelligence Agency (2018), infant mortality in the US is 5.8 deaths per 1000 live births, in South Africa, it is 31 deaths per 1000, and in Chad, it is 81 deaths per 1000 (Central Intelligence Agency, 2018). And, many medical factors can affect infant mortality including: “infections (36%, which includes sepsis/pneumonia, tetanus, and diarrhea), pre-term birth (28%), and birth asphyxia (23%)” (WHO, 2018b), as well as the quality of medical care. Mothers’ education and medical support are also among the most critical factors affecting the neonatal quality of medical care.

According to WHO figures from August 2011, newborn deaths, that is deaths in the first four weeks of life (neonatal period), account for 41% of all child deaths before the age of five. That share grew from 37% over the last decade and is likely to increase. The first week of life is the riskiest for newborns, but many countries are just starting postnatal care programs to reach mothers and babies at this critical time (WHO, 2018b).

Second, we believe that all the world’s children should live healthy lives. Unfortunately, here too children’s health and wellness around the world varies widely and like adults, children face many health challenges. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) (2018c):

In 2016, an estimated 41 million deaths occurred due to noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), accounting for 71% of the overall total of 57 million deaths. The majority of such deaths were caused by four main NCDs: cardiovascular disease (17.9 million deaths; accounting for 44% of all NCD deaths); cancer (9.0 million deaths; 22%); chronic respiratory disease (3.8 million deaths; 9%); and diabetes (1.6 million deaths; 4%).” NCD’s are linked in part to “… tobacco use, air pollution, unhealthy diet, physical inactivity and harmful use of alcohol—as well as improved disease detection and treatment. (p. 7)

Of course, some health and wellness factors facing all of us are beyond our abilities to control such as inherited genetics, air quality, the availability and quality of water sources, pandemics, as well as access to safe and adequate food supplies and of course quality medical care. However, some health and wellness factors are controllable, manageable, and affected by education and individual choice, such as vaccinating children against communicable diseases, teaching children to exercise, avoid overeating, never smoke, never experiment with illegal drugs, avoid risky situations (e.g., dangerous stunts, underage drinking, unprotected sex), and so on. There are indeed many factors that affect children’s health and wellness, but it is important to remember that many of these factors are under the control of the adults who care for them.

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Finally, third, we believe that all the world’s children should live happy lives. Like health and wellness, global happiness varies widely and does not come easy for most. According to the World Happiness Report (2018), a couple years back the happiest people in the world (ranked #1) live in Finland. By comparison, the US ranked #18, South Africa ranks at #105, and Chad at #131. The measurements used by Gallop to assess happiness are complex. They are linked to longevity and health and include GDP, life expectancy, social support, freedom to make life choices, generosity, perceptions of corruption, as well as daily perceptions of people’s positive and negative affect. Although a combination of genetics (estimated to play a 50% role in personal happiness) and social/geographical circumstances (estimated to play a 10% role in happiness) contributes 60% to total happiness, individuals exert considerable direct control over as much as 40% of their personal happiness (Seligman, 2012). That is, what we do and what we say, especially to the world’s children, can facilitate or inhibit individuals’ happiness (Socha & Beck, 2015).

So, where are the world’s people living the longest, the healthiest, and the happiest? Costa Rica, Loma Linda, California; Okinaw, and Sardinia are counted among the world’s geographic areas where a relatively higher proportion of residents enjoy health and happiness beyond their 100th birthday. These areas are called “Blue Zones” (Buettner, 2008, 2010, 2015). And, what is making a difference in these zones that might account for long, healthy and happy living? Buettner (2008) identified nine qualities. Predictably, four blue-zone qualities involve diet and exercise (i.e., moderate physical activity, semi-vegetarian, eating moderately, and moderate alcohol intake). However, five blue-zone qualities are dependent upon positive communication: (1) having a sense of purpose, (2) effectively managing stress, (3) participating in spirituality/religion, (4) engaging in positive family living, and (5) engaging in positive social living. Although communication scholars have yet to undertake studies of everyday communication taking place in the Blue Zones, there is little doubt that people who are living long, healthy, and happy lives in the world’s Blue Zones are using communication to help children and themselves satisfy their basic human needs of belonging, feeling loved, feeling safe and secure, self-actualizing, and more (see Socha & Beck, 2015, for an overview of positive communication and human values). And, consistent with findings in the Blue Zones, contemporary communication studies are also suggesting that communicating effectively, appropriately, and positively across the entire human lifespan can promote happiness (Socha & Pitts, 2012), facilitate health and wellness (Pitts & Socha, 2013), and may even add to longevity (e.g., Buettner, 2015; Nussbaum, 2015).

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In addition to the blue-zone factors that depend on communication, communication qualities such as articulateness, eloquence, empathy, expressiveness, humor, persuasiveness, and synchrony also serve as important forms of social capital (Burleson, Delia, & Applegate, 1995) in commerce, education, entertainment, government, as well as at home (see Socha & Stoyneva, 2014, for a discussion of the upper bounds of positive communication). That is, in terms of communication, we value individuals who can dazzle us with their stories, make us laugh, share with us optimal choices that are in our best interest, and in general, communicate in ways that reassure us, and leave us happy.

Finally, as people face life’s many, varied, challenging, and unavoidable problems, like Covid-19, their resilience depends in large measure on how well (or how poorly) they manage messages before, during, and after these episodes (see Beck & Socha, 2015; and see Elder, 1999, for a longitudinal study of children of the US’s great depression). In sum, communicating effectively, appropriately, and positively from the start of life and throughout all of life’s stages plays an important part in an individual, relational, organizational, and societal thriving, and, as suggested by evidence from Blue-Zone dwellers, may even help to extend human life.

Reaching the heights of communication development is a lifelong endeavor that encompasses continuously experiencing, learning, and refining communication in relationships, groups, organizations, cultures, publics, and media during each of life’s stages. All human communication learning begins at birth. We first experience, acquire, and learn foundations of basic nonverbal communication and basic verbal communication from infancy through early childhood at home (Socha & Yingling, 2010). We first experience, acquire, and learn increasingly complex and varied forms of communication across contexts beyond the family (relational, group, organizational, cultural, digital) throughout childhood and adolescence. We then continue to experience these forms of communication, and some of us may refine and master some of them as well as experience, acquire, and learn new “grown-up” forms of communication. From middle childhood through middle adulthood we of course continue to experience some adult communication firsts and may even polish and master some of these early communication abilities as well as acquire and learn new ones. Finally, later in life, we experience and adapt (nor not) to the many communication challenges as senior citizens.

The developmental arc of some communication skills spans human lifetimes. For example, saying “no” is initially acquired in early childhood (around age-2 when children discover linguistic negation) and we continue to say “no” across the entire human lifespan. Saying “no” effectively and ←8 | 9→appropriately is an important lifespan communication skill because it can potentially play a lifesaving role as when children and adolescents face invitations to smoke, drink alcohol, take illegal drugs, abuse firearms, and/or engage in risky sexual behaviors (Hecht, Colby, & Miller-Day, 2010). Even at the very end of life, saying “no” can determine how one is treated during his/her final days.

Although individuals vary considerably in their levels of overall communication mastery, many of life’s “adult” communication abilities are experienced, acquired, learned, and mastered (by some) by the close of adolescence (Socha & Yingling, 2010). That is, some individuals may continue to refine some of their communication abilities (e.g., take a public speaking course in college) and some individuals may even master some communication skills at very high levels of proficiency early on and maintain them. Indeed, many vital communication abilities, that is, those linked to longevity, wellness, and happiness, stretch across the entire human lifespan including creating moments of communication beauty (Baxter, Norwood, & Nebel, 2012), managing communication ethically (Socha & Eller, 2015), using communication in service of laughter (Socha & Kelly, 1994), managing communicative and cultural synchrony (Kim, 2012), and much more.

Communication researchers are only beginning to identify and understand which human communication skills might achieve blue-zone-like importance in supporting a lifetime of health, wellness, and happiness. However, a critical element in facilitating the development of effective, appropriate, and even eloquent communication across many contexts over the human lifespan is communication education (informal and formal). It is safe to say that without some form of communication education, individuals’ communication skills across contexts could persist in a primitive state and may prove inadequate as they are plied across life’s later stages (e.g., adults may exhibit child-like communication skills including displaying a childish sense of humor, throwing temper tantrums, etc.).

Because communication plays such a vital role in living long, healthy and happy lives, in human flourishing (Seligman, 2012), it is vitally important that all members of society learn to communicate effectively, appropriately, and even eloquently to meet the varied communication demands of all of life’s stages. And because communication development commences in infancy and continues until the end of life, it is imperative that societies of the world provide high-quality, culturally appropriate, communication education systems (formal and informal) that can support achieving effective, appropriate, and eloquent lifelong communication at every stage of life.

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The Consequences of Neglecting Children

To date, the communication discipline has primarily studied young adults (ages 18–34; see Miller-Day, Pezalla, & Chestnut, 2013) and developed formal communication education programs mostly for college students (and see Chapter 2, this volume). Thus, when viewed through a lifespan lens, in actuality, very little formal communication education is taking place in the U. S., other than in university classes offered by departments of communication. Of course, informal and indirect communication education is also taking place in grades K–12, as well as sporadic communication training of some adults in business and in some senior centers. Taking a closer look, even within universities, unless a student chooses to major or minor in Communication, his/her entire formal communication education might consist of a single college-level course in public speaking. In some states, this might also include a survey-of-communication course taken in high school or a perhaps a high school speech and debate class taken as an elective. Thus, today, in 2020, most US citizens under age 18, or over age 34, especially those who have not attended college and/or are not employed in communication-specific industries, are not receiving the benefits of formal, research-based, communication education programs delivered by communication-education professionals. Further, if formal communication education is to be comprehensive, to include the development of relational, group, organizational, cultural, and public communication competencies and, most importantly, digital media literacies, the current state of formal communication education in the US, especially given the rise of digital media, is alarmingly lacking.

Many reasons could be advanced to explain today’s lack of formal communication education at any lifespan stage. Some may argue “most people have been doing OK without formal communication education and some are even doing well. K–12 curricula are jammed packed. So, even if we could add communication education, do we really need it?” Others may contend, “The folks in the Blue Zones have done pretty well without formal communication education. Would it make a difference for them?” The editors and authors of this volume collectively argue that although our system of informal communication education may have (arguably) provided many members of society with some sort of minimal levels of communication competencies and emerging digital literacy skills, as we go forward into increasingly complex, communication-dependent, and information-oriented futures, our past informal, ad hoc, delivery system of communication education is inadequate to equip all societal members with effective and appropriate, let alone eloquent, relational and digital competencies to levels that are necessary to manage society’s ←10 | 11→ever-expanding communicative demands. And, although octogenarians who currently dwell in the Blue Zones may have been living well without the benefit of formal communication educations, going forward, the communication demands facing young Blue-Zone dwellers are far more complex, weightier, and certainly set a much higher bar for communication competencies and media literacies than the past.

In sum, we pose a large question that is motivating this volume. Are we as a society genuinely pleased with the current state of communication competencies and digital media literacies of our citizens of all ages? Or, do we envision room to improve the quality of relational communication, group communication, organizational communication, cultural communication, public communication as well as media production and consumption for people of all ages? Collectively, the editors and authors of this volume seek to sound a clear and clarion call that the quality of society’s relational communication and media literacy—from first words to final conversations—requires high-quality, formal, lifespan communication education.

Purpose of the Volume

This volume has two primary purposes. First, the volume seeks to raise readers’ awareness of the need for formal, comprehensive, lifelong communication education starting in early childhood. And, second, it offers an overview of children’s communication, the methods used to study children, as well as some of the kinds of communication learning taking place during the critically important developmental period of childhood and early adolescence. The book not only shines a spotlight on some of the intricacies of children’s communication and its development but also advocates for the critical need to develop formal, comprehensive, communication education systems starting with the world’s preschoolers. Formal communication education in early childhood, backed up by informal communication education at home, is essential if the world is to build a solid foundation upon which the future development of relational communication competencies and digital media literacies can rest. Formal pre-K communication education should then be followed by formal communication education from Kindergarten through college. Undoubtedly, we are living in an information and communication age that demands that all the world’s citizens possess increasingly sophisticated communication educations to be able to meet increasingly many and varied communication-centered societal goals. This can only happen if the world and the field of communication pay greater attention to childhood as the foundation of lifelong formal communication education.


X, 328
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (March)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. X, 328 pp., 8 b/w ill. 3 tables.

Biographical notes

Thomas J. Socha (Volume editor) Narissra Maria Punyanunt-Carter (Volume editor)

Thomas J. Socha (Ph.D., University of Iowa) is University Professor of Communication at Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia, specializing in family communication, children’s communication, and positive communication. He is the Founding Editor of the Journal of Family Communication and recipient of numerous awards for his research, teaching, and student mentoring. Narissra Maria Punyanunt-Carter (Ph.D., Kent State University) is Assistant Dean of International Affairs and Professor of Communication Studies at Texas Tech University specializing communication in interpersonal relationships, CMC, fathers-daughters, and media and romance. She is an award-winning teacher, extensively published scholar, and energetic leader.


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