Communication Begins with Children

A Lifespan Communication Sourcebook

by Thomas J. Socha (Volume editor) Narissra Maria Punyanunt-Carter (Volume editor)
Textbook X, 328 Pages

Table Of Content

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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.

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Historically, from birth, humans have been learning how to communicate primarily by what can best be described as an informal, ad hoc, system of socialization. Young communicators learn primarily through mere exposure to the everyday communication episodes modeled by whomever they are exposed to including parents, siblings, significant adults, friends, media personalities, and cartoon figures (Bandura, 1986). These people and media figures, as sources of children’s informal communication learning, vary in their levels of communication competency. Some individuals may skillfully model effective, appropriate, and eloquent communication. However, others may or may not even be cognizant of the myriad “communication lessons” they are conveying to their young audiences about what to say, to whom, when, and how, let alone how to do so effectively, appropriately, and positively (e.g., see Socha & Pitts, 2013; Socha & Yingling, 2010). And, at a more basic level, they may or may not even know whether or not their own messages to children (and others) are effective and appropriate. That is, they may not understand how to effectively and appropriately model an array of human communication skills for children of varying age-levels, as well as how to advance children’s nonverbal, verbal, and media-related communicative abilities through skillful communication modeling. And, as for the myriad media persona to which children are exposed, their messages, driven largely by commercial interests, are more concerned with teaching children to be effective consumers, rather than modeling effective, appropriate, and eloquent communication.

Thus, unless adult communicators have formally studied communication (in college, or least high school), and/or the creators of commercial mass media programs have relied on communication education experts, they must draw upon on culturally-inherited, informally-taught folk understandings to inform and guide their communication with children. For example, from 1968 until 2001, the children’s television show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, delivered 895 episodes presenting an exhaustive array of occupations and ways of earning a living (see Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, 2018; and see Rogers, 2001). Fred Rogers was graduate-educated in child development and carefully crafted every episode to teach children about myriad subjects including difficult ones like divorce, death, and inter-racial understandings. To the extent that the children who watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and shows like it, can later recall the content of these shows, provides evidence that early childhood communication certainly can shape future communication behaviors far beyond an initial viewing. The stark reality is that the totality of many adults’ communication educations—the communication legacies they will pass along to the next generation—rests upon their recollections of informal, historically-situated communication (from relational or electronic ←12 | 13→sources) that may, or may not, have been effectively and appropriately communicated to them in the first place, let alone mastered. Yet, these sources of informal communication learning continue to function as the world’s primary and often sole source of children’s communication education.

To be considered “educated,” citizens typically require an understanding of arts, history, literature, math, science, (e.g., STEM, STREAM, etc.) and more. However, today it is abundantly clear that our everyday lives are also affected to a large extent by the quality of communication experienced at home, school, work, in social and mass media, and more. Thus, we argue that society needs to improve the quality and delivery of communication education (formal and informal) so that the world might benefit from the latest theories, research, and efficacy-tested communication practices, coupled with critical abilities necessary to communicate effectively, appropriately, and eloquently.

Some may also ask, are not children and young adults already being exposed informally to effective communication learning in schools modeled by their teachers and other similar adults as they communicate with them? Is that not enough? Why should it be formalized? It is true that many classroom teachers can and do model effective and appropriate communication and sometimes eloquence as they teach. However, this kind of communication learning is indirect, informal, and viewed as secondary to the lessons of math, science and so on. And, to the extent that not all teachers are award-winning communicators, the current arrangement perpetuates an ad hoc system where some children may get lucky and learn from teachers who communicate effectively while others will not. More importantly, when communication is not taught as a graded subject, classroom communication learning resides in the shadows with the added implicit message that communication is not all that important. For example, in elementary schools, interpersonal communication skills are taught, indirectly, as a component of a more general language-arts curriculum. And, digital literacy may be taught as a sub-unit in a computer education class. However, in both contexts, interpersonal skills and digital media literary are not assessed and hence do not count.

If children are not formally taught which particular communication practice to emulate, how will they ever hope to discern what effective communication even looks like? Some high-school students, in some states, for instance, may take a public speaking course as a graduation requirement or as an elective. While including such a class certainly moves formal communication education in a productive direction, a course about public speaking may not contain lessons about relational communication. And, similarly, although many college students may take a required course in public speaking (to fulfill an oral communication general-education requirement) that course too does ←13 | 14→not provide instruction in relational communication and group communication. Although public speaking is vitally important for professional success, practically-speaking, we spend more of our lives communicating in relationships and groups. And, how long with the learning in a single course last?

Ultimately, Emanuel (2011) concluded the current system of communication education (even at the college level) is inadequate:

(1) Today’s college students are not getting adequate oral communication education. (2) Oral communication education is being relegated to a “module” in another discipline-specific course. (3) When an oral communication course is included in the general education curriculum, that course tends to be narrow rather than broad in scope. (4) An increasing number of college faculty who teach oral communication courses do not have a graduate degree in the discipline. These concerns may be indicative of similar issues affecting oral communication education throughout the United States and beyond. (p. 1)

Simply stated, US students in grades Pre-K to 12 are not receiving an adequate formal education in relational and digital communication. Although we are now well into the 21st century, an age of communication and information, society continues to rely on an outdated system of informal, accidental, and incidental communication learning to prepare its members for the many and varied communication challenges they face at each of life’s stages.

It is our contention that today, in 2020, most Americans (from kids to senior citizens), lacking an adequate formal education in relational communication and digital media literacy are, at worst, unprepared, and at best under-prepared to face many of life’s communication situations and difficulties as they navigate increasingly complex educational, familial, occupational, and relational demands. Indeed, the cry of “failure to communicate” continues to be a common scapegoat upon which society heaps lots of blame for many of its ills. And an often-heard refrain is “If we could only communicate better, we would not have all these problems!” Furthermore, formal communication education is a key tool of resilience that empowers members of society to optimally manage what are inevitable problems (Beck & Socha, 2015). Thus, if educating societal members to communicate effectively and appropriately in relationships as well as digitally across the lifespan is to become a priority, there are several matters to consider.

Children Are the Beginning of Communication

First, because leaning the fundamentals of communication education begin at birth, the communication field must pay greater attention to early lifespan ←14 | 15→communication education during infancy and childhood. Currently, less than 4% of all the research articles published in the field of communication have studied children’s communication (Miller-Day, Pezalla, & Chestnut, 2013). And even in outlets where readers might reasonably expect to find communication studies of children, like the Journal of Family Communication, studies of children make up less than 6% of the articles appearing in that journal (Miller-Day et al., 2013). Additionally, the most recent relational communication book focusing on children (other than the current volume) was published a decade ago (Socha & Yingling, 2010). And, a most-recent volume on children and media appeared in 2014 (Strasburger, Wilson, & Jordan, 2014) (see Chapter 2, this volume).

Second, the current adult-centric curricula of communication departments in American universities must be reimagined to include communicators from all stages of life. That is, Departments of Communication around the globe should adopt an age-inclusive lifespan communication approach as championed for decades by Penn State University Communication and Father of Lifespan Communication, Professor Jon Nussbaum (see Nussbaum, 2015). College courses in communication today are aimed almost exclusively at emerging adults, and communication departments in US universities offer few (if any) courses that specifically focus on children or adults in later life. Our informal online search found only nine US communication departments currently offer at least one college-level course on children’s communication (whether relational, media, or a combination): Athabasca University, Bellarmine University, Humboldt State University, Old Dominion University, San Francisco State University, Stanford, University of California at San Diego, the University of Montana at Missoula; and the University of New Hampshire. Old Dominion University’s Department of Communication & Theatre Arts does offer an undergraduate, age-inclusive, concentration in “lifespan communication” as well as a fully age-inclusive and communication medium-inclusive MA degree in Lifespan & Digital Communication.

Third, professional communication associations must assume active leadership roles and champion lifespan communication education. The communication of children and adolescents, as well as seniors, should become routine foci of papers presented at professional conferences across all divisions. Over twenty years ago, a group of members of the National Communication Association (NCA) developed a plan and a curriculum outline for K–12 communication education (that included standards and goals, see NCA, 1998). However, unfortunately, to date, that work went largely unnoticed by the mainstream communication field. And, at one-point NCA’s website (under the tab K–12 resources) replaced this prior work with two items: a guide for ←15 | 16→middle and high school teachers on the first amendment and social media (Social Media, the Classroom and First Amendment, 2011) and the following endorsement:

The College Board has published content standards for middle school and high school English Language Arts and Mathematics and Statistics. The College Board Standards for College Success define a developmental progression of rigorous learning objectives for six courses in middle school and high school that will lead all students to be prepared for AP or college-level work. NCA members Sherry Morreale, John Heineman, and Mary Bozik served on the writing team for the Communication Standards, which were endorsed by the Executive Committee as a replacement for NCA’s K–12 Standards. (National Communication Association, 2016)

Fourth, because learning about relational communication undoubtedly begins at birth, communication researchers and educators must pay greater attention to early lifespan communication including the informal relational communication learning taking place during early childhood as well as formal communication learning in the nation’s preschools. The context of “home” functions as our first informal communication “classroom” and our first communication “teachers” include parents, household members, welcomed and unwelcomed others, as well as media figures (Socha & Yingling, 2010; Strasburger, Wilson, & Jordan, 2014). Extending this metaphor, unlike formal communication education where an efficacy-tested communication curriculum is delivered by certified communication teachers, our first communication “curriculum”—the foundation for all future communication learning and development—is informal, anecdotal, ad hoc, and delivered by household members whose formal communication educations can vary from no formal communication education, to perhaps taking a public speaking class in high school, to taking one or more communication classes in college, to individuals holding undergraduate and graduate degrees in communication. Thus, the inherited communication skills of our early communication “teachers” comprise the totality of a communication-education legacy, or the available content of communication learning (informal and formal) that can be passed along from one generation of communication “teachers” (parents, caregivers) to the next generation of communication learners (who then become communication teachers). And, currently, an efficacy-tested curriculum of formal communication instruction for children ages 2–5 attending preschool in the US has yet to emerge.

Skeptics may ask, “Is informal communication learning taken place in early childhood at home and on the playground really all that bad?” Although ←16 | 17→hard data about the current state of informal communication education taking place in US households is not available, anecdotal data point towards conclusions that mirror the anemic state of formal K–12 communication education. That is, many adults in US households and preschools are not likely to be fully equipped with formal educations in communication that are sufficient to effectively instruct and coach children in both relational and digital-media communication competencies necessary to succeed in our communication-saturated worlds. A poll from ABC News offers an illustrative example.

Sixty-five percent of Americans [adults] approve of spanking children, a rate that has been steady since 1990. But just 26 percent say grade-school teachers should be allowed to spank kids at school; 72 percent say it shouldn’t be permitted, including eight in 10 parents of grade-schoolers (ABC News, 2015, November).

These conflicting opinions regarding corporal punishment fly in the face of extensive, research-based, and compelling evidence that argues against the use of corporal punishment entirely (see Straus, Douglas, & Medeiros, 2014; Wilson & North, 2012). According to the late Professor Murray Straus (2015), “more than 20 nations now prohibit spanking by parents. There is an emerging consensus that this is a fundamental human right for children. The United Nations is asking all nations to prohibit spanking.” Professor Straus is joined by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (2013), the American Psychological Association (2012) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (2015a) who all argue that parents and caregivers should use verbal communication to direct children’s behaviors (and for that matter the behaviors of all others) and not beat, hit, paddle, punch, or slap. Yet, some Americans continue to strike their children and believe that doing so is somehow good for their children.

Another example of the need for formal lifespan communication education can be found on the digital side of the communication field. Despite warnings from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) (2015b) about exposing children under age-2 to screened-media and limiting exposure to digital media entertainment to no more than 30-minutes to 1-hour per day (e.g., by creating screen-free zones at home), examples of young children playing endlessly with iPads, smartphones, as well as interactive games on parents’ laptops, and watching hours of television are commonplace. Some parents who purchase iPads for their 2-year-olds to play with are doing so on the assumption that they are doing a “good” thing. “Look. My two-year-old can operate an iPad better than me!” However, unless their pre-K curriculum (or home schooling) includes instruction in digital media literacy, children’s ←17 | 18→digital media literacy instruction will continue to be learned by happenstance. That is, the development of contemporary digital media competencies that include being able to create, interpret, and manage messages (e.g., composing, uploading, interpreting) using various social media platforms (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Vine, etc.) are learned by a largely informal, ad hoc, and often self-taught system with the occasional assistance of knowledgeable household members (often older siblings), aided by You-Tube videos, and/or an occasional trip to an Apple store. During the current pandemic, and out of necessity, children in grades K–12 are being shifted to online learning where the short- and long-term effects of doing so are largely unstudied. Of course, moving to online assumes that a household owns or has access to the internet and adequate digital communication devices and technologies. Although such communication technologies are seemingly everywhere, globally, the digital divide persists (Livingstone & Helsper, 2007).

Thus, with the possible exceptions of children who attend a pre-school that may offer a some sort of formal pre-K curriculum (which may or may not specifically teach communication skills development) and/or children living in a home with communication-educated members, the curriculum and delivery system of early childhood communication education remains informal, ad hoc, and likely replicative of communication values of a households’ members (often unrecognized and poorly understood). Further, because informal communication learning taking place today is based largely on what was learned decades earlier it is also likely to be outdated as well as driven by a poplar media culture that may not support prosocial communication values (e.g., see Socha & Stamp, 2009).

Besides learning relational communication competencies and digital communication literacies, children are also learning communication values, that is, preferences for which forms of communication are desirable and which are not. Although the content of today’s mass media may run counter to this conjecture, experience suggests that, for example, polite communication continues to be valued by many members of society, and that teaching children politeness is a good thing to do. That is, if politeness is valued in a household, its members’ message choices are likely to reflect politeness as they go about making simple requests, depicting others, and so on. However, given the coarseness of social media and mass media today, the extent to which politeness is valued and practiced in US households seems in doubt. For example, a CNN special report about social media use among a group of 13-year-olds (#Being Thirteen: Inside the Secret World of Teens, 2015) suggested that lessons about politeness may be lost on some teens. Examples of these teens’ language choices, viewed in the episode, in their social media exchanges with ←18 | 19→their “friends” (real and virtual) were decidedly anti-social: “I’m going to whip the s**t out of you,” “Most of these bitches at Rodney Thompson middle bru, goddamn, u dirty bitch, u dirty bitch, u dirty bitch,” and “lemme hit” (referring to marijuana). Further, viewers of this CNN special learned about “TBR” (i.e., “to be rude”), where teens purposively post vulgar, shocking, and highly negative depictions of others (including their “friends”) via social media for “fun.” Although the teens professed to not use such messages at home or with adults, no evidence was presented to the contrary. Viewers of this broadcast are left with lingering doubts about the extent and depth to which these teens value politeness and prosocial communicative forms. Further, adults who use “polite” forms of discourse have also come under fire by those claiming that “polite” discourse somehow obscures “meaningful” communicative exchanges (a process labeled “political correctness”). Such claims are not supported by research and also illustrate a lack of understanding about the simultaneous relational communicative discourse occurring alongside the instrumental (Burgoon & Hale, 1984). Further, those advocating a disdain for, and avoidance of, speech labeled politically correct often contemporaneously value aggressive forms of communication (dark-side) over prosocial (positive). Of course, if a given communicative form is valued and modeled by adults at home, it follows that we will likely see similar patterns of use in children’s and adolescents’ discourse. Sadly, in the future, especially due to the high rates at which children and adults are participating in unrestricted social media, whether society will be collectively-embarrassed or jointly-proud when hearing F-bombs coming from 5-year-olds remains an open question.

On the positive side, Rasmussen et al. (2016) found that prosocial parent-child communication helps foster prosocial behaviors. If children are exposed to positive prosocial behaviors, they are more likely to emulate those behaviors, especially if the parent reinforces those behaviors. Further, his findings also suggest that although learning about prosocial skills benefits all children, there might be special added value for children from low-income families in learning and using prosocial discourse forms as they seek empowerment by increasing their social capital. Thus, how parents interact with their kids can significantly influence their children’s future lives (e.g., Socha & Yingling, 2010).

Given the complexities of contemporary relational and digital communication, and the need for competent communicators in all sectors of society, this volume argues that the US and the Communication discipline can no longer afford to leave lifespan communication education to chance, and with all due speed should develop formal lifespan communication education ←19 | 20→systems starting with early-childhood education, following into elementary, high school, and collegiate contexts, as well as developing continuing education for adults extending into later life. In this volume, we have gathered together a group of early lifespan communication scholars who stand ready to help by offering a preliminary foundation upon which to build lifespan communication-education systems.

The Need to Take Development Seriously

Learning to communicate effectively is of course highly complex and multifaceted but it must be first acknowledged that all communication competencies (relational and digital) start at some point and develop over time (like saying “no,” discussed earlier). That is, all communication processes have a developmental arc which extends across life’s developmental stages. Second, communication processes change as individuals change and mature across the human lifespan. Communication can get better (become more effective and appropriate) or can also worsen over time. It should not be assumed that communication will automatically get better simply due to its frequency of use. And, third, as we change, the world is changing along with us and our communication should follow suit. Communicating with infants (around the world) in 1958 is not the same context as communicating with infants in 2020. Before the field of communication can begin to create and offer a lifespan communication curriculum, it must take a critical first step by acknowledging that all forms of communication must be studied developmentally and globally. Like the teaching and scholarship of lifespan developmental psychology, we need the teaching and scholarship of global lifespan developmental communication.

To illustrate why it is important to study communication developmentally let’s consider humorous communication. Typically, for most of the world’s children humorous communication learning begins very early in childhood as rudimentary nonverbal play sequences (e.g., peek-a-boo), transitions into playful sound exchanges (e.g., exchanges of silly noises), and with the acquisition of language morphs into simple verbal messages (e.g., simple riddles, simple jokes), and later evolves into increasingly complex humorous messages and message sequences (e.g., humor that involves contextualized surprise such as playing with language, timing, sequencing, meaning, and more; see Socha, 2012). Although some aspects of the developmental arc of humor communication may be universally invariant (i.e., paralleling typical communication development such as learning nonverbal humor occurs before ←20 | 21→learning linguistic humor), not all the developmental arcs of humor communication skills follow the same pattern for all individuals in all cultures. That is, although humor communication skills may universally start for all of us in early childhood, for some of us they may peak during middle childhood and may (or may not) continue relatively unchanged across the lifespan (e.g., some adult men may stand accused of having an adolescents’ sense of humor, and see Shafer, 2015). It is clear that among adults there are wide-ranging individual differences in humor communication competencies such that some adults can effectively communicate in humorous ways (they can tell a joke) while others cannot.

Other communication skills, such as formal argumentation, may begin with the onset of negation (saying “no”) around age 2 (Socha & Yingling, 2010), become more complex during early and middle childhood, and may (or may not) increase in sophistication during emerging adulthood and later life. Still, other communication skills may follow an oscillating pattern of elaboration and diminution both across and within lifespan-developmental stages (e.g., humorous communication skills might blossom during early childhood, be dulled by increasing seriousness through middle childhood, adolescence and on into emerging adulthood, and be rediscovered during early adulthood perhaps at a comedy workshop).

Although communication scholars will undoubtedly tacitly agree that communication does develop over time, for the most part, unfortunately, they are likely to continue to study communication statically, where communication’s past development will be ignored, and its future development taken for granted (Socha & Yingling, 2009 chapter 2). In short, unless development is fully included in communication thinking, communication scholars will continue to ignore the development of communication before age-18 and assume, erroneously, that all communication skills from age-18 onwards continue invariantly through our final conversations.

What might explain why the field of Communication has ignored (and continues to ignore) individuals from birth-to-age 18 and those beyond age 26? First, some communication scholars complain that they do not study children because of cumbersome Institutional Review Board (IRB) policies and procedures that apply when studying children. Although, in practice, seeing a children’s communication study through an IRB review can pose challenges, on the positive side doing so compels researchers to fully consider participants’ needs and to closely examine the fit of their methods and approach to their participants. Great care must be taken to do no harm, especially to children, and working with parents to secure their permission can ←21 | 22→be challenging (see Socha, Chapter 3, this volume). However, the benefits of doing so far outweigh the costs.

Second, others blame the lack of children’s communication studies on the overuse of samples of convenience (i.e., white, college-age folks). Admittedly, it is more difficult and costlier to recruit beyond the classroom, but those researchers who can do so, should. And, finally, some communication scholars and educators say they do not study children because their undergraduate and graduate communication educations ignored childhood (and later life), and they profess to lack knowledge about communication’s early developmental stages. Instead, they prefer to leave the study of children to other communication specialists. Unfortunately, the choice to leave the business of studying children’s communication to specialized others has reached a crisis point. Today, there are so few “specialized” others in the field of communication who study children (see Socha, Chapter 2, this volume) that unless our call to adopt a lifespan approach and to bring the study of children to forefront of the communication field is successful, the field of communication will continue to take a back seat to the fields of developmental psychology and education when it comes to early lifespan communication, or worse, it will become completely irrelevant when it comes to having something to say about children, adolescence, and communicators in later life.

Indeed, children have been studied in the communication field (albeit mostly in media studies) but unfortunately this work has largely gone unnoticed in the broader communication field due in part to the communication field’s adult-centric, white, masculine hegemony (see Socha, Chapter 2, this volume). And, as you will read in the next chapter what research has been undertaken about children has not been inclusive, that is, it has largely focused on white, heterosexual children. The current volume seeks to begin to offer at least a partial remedy to the exclusion of those under age-18 by presenting a primer of what is known about children’s communication as well as a issue a call to adopt an age-inclusive, lifespan communication agenda featuring all the world’s children.

It is our collective hope that readers of this volume will begin to view children as an integral part of everyone’s communication past and everyone’s communication futures and become more aware of issues pertaining to children as well as more informed about this area of communication study and education. We hope to inspire and motivate communication scholars young and old to expand their vision and understanding of communication by including children, to provide information that will be helpful and meaningful for communication scholars interested in the study of children, as well as to put children’s formal communication education on the map within the ←22 | 23→general field of childhood education and child development. Communication begins with children.

Overview of the Chapters

Nest in section one, “Foundations,” a chapter that highlights some of the harms communication’s neglect has caused children and a critical-experiential review of children’s communication research is offered (Socha, Chapter 2, this volume). This is followed by a chapter that gives an overview of research methods used to study children (Socha, Chapter 3, this volume). The second section of the book. “Relational Communication Development,” examines children’s communication in children’s personal and social relationships. Gary Beck and Kristen Carr (Chapter 4) lead the section with a discussion of resilience and fostering children’s in communication between children and parents. Malinda Colwell and Elizbeth Trejos-Castillo then explain socio-emotional development in Chapter 5. Closing the first section, Paula Tompkins (Chapter 6) presents the latest update about moral development and children.

The third section of the book covers children’s digital communication development. Alexis Lauricella, Fashnia Alde, and Ellen Wartella (Chapter 7) present the latest findings about children and technology. Robin Duffee, Sydney Cox, and Narissra Punyanunt-Carter (Chapter 8) discuss parasocial relationships and children and Andrea McCourt and Jillian Yarbrough (Chapter 9) examine how media consumption affects body image and eating behaviors. Then in Chapter 10, Danyella Jones examines the contested boundaries of childhood by focusing on the portrayal of gay marriage in the children’s educational television show, Arthur. Ronda Scantlin (Chapter 11) closes the section with an overview of media literacy.

The fourth and final section of the book looks at some of the developmental communication challenges children face. John Chetro-Szivoc, Marit Eikaas Haavimb, and Kimberly Pearce (Chapter 12) use Coordinated Management of Meaning theory (CMM) in an educational program to help kids make better social worlds. Jenna LAFreniere (Chapter 13) examines communication, children, and lingering issues of divorce. Jason Wrench and Wendy Bower (Chapter 14) discuss the social (pragmatic) impairment of communication development. And, finally, Michelle Miller-Day (Chapter 15) close the section with a discussion about children’s wellness and prevention programs for children.

We then close the volume with a Coda where we pose an urgent call for a global, inclusive, and comprehensive approach to the study of communication the recognizes children are the beginning and the foundation.

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Communication Begins with Children: A Lifespan Communication Sourcebook proposes a radical departure from the communication field’s past by calling for acceptance of the fact that communication begins with children. The volume begins a necessary and important conversation about comprehensive communication development, beginning with children’s relational communication and digital media (infancy through adolescence) with an emphasis on optimal communication development. This book features well-known veteran scholars who are either working on or have researched communication behaviors with children as well as newcomers who are studying the latest in children’s comprehensive communication development. Indeed, the volume is foundational in Peter Lang’s Lifespan Communication: Children, Families, and Aging book series, as it focuses our collective attention on the very beginnings and the very foundations upon which a lifetime of communication is built.


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2. End the Neglect of Children and Transform the Field of Communication

A Critical-Experiential Review and Research Agenda


Old Dominion University

This chapter, like this lifespan communication sourcebook, is offered as a touchstone for all who wish to transform the field of communication by repositioning children to its beginnings and its foundation. The chapter opens by framing the historic invisibility of children in the field of communication as a problem of symbolic “child neglect” attributed at least in part to white, male privilege. Next, the chapter offers a critical-experiential review of the past 40+ years of communication literature about children that covers the highlights and points out the costs of child neglect not only for this literature but for the entire communication field. Finally, building on the review, I argue that going forward the field of communication should adopt a comprehensive, functional, lifespan (CFL) meta-theoretical approach to communication theorizing, research, and education that has the potential to give the field of communication a second chance at becoming a more comprehensive, inclusive, and developmental field of study that champions all communicators.

Communication’s Neglect of Children

Throughout my 36-year career as a professor of communication, I have argued for the inclusion of children in communication theorizing, research, and education, especially in family communication (e.g., see Socha & Stamp, 1995; Socha & Yingling, 2010). Unfortunately, while it is universally ←29 | 30→acknowledged that children do in fact communicate, and with the exceptions of those whose work is reviewed in this chapter and cited in this volume, as well as the work of members of the Children, Adolescents and Media Division of the International Communication Asociation, children remain largely invisible in the larger field of communication. Why is this? My charitable response is that the literature of children’s communication has failed to capture the imagination of all communication scholars. Over the years, I have heard communication colleagues acknowledge that although studies of children are “interesting,” they fail to see how this work is relevant to their own. Other colleagues find children’s communication research to be too specialized as well as dull and boring. And, still, other colleagues find the extra steps needed to get a children’s communication study through an IRB review to be burdensome. And, even those who profess to work under the banner of lifespan communication have shared with me that they focus mostly on later-life communication in part because it is easier to recruit and study senior adult participants.

So, why is it that children have yet to capture the communication-field-at-large’s imagination? My honest, albeit disquieting response is that, again, with the exception of members of the Children, Adolescents and Media division of the International Communication Association, as a result of historic white, male privilege in the field of communication (e.g., see Chakravartty, Kuo, Grubbs, & McIlwain, 2018), along with its neglect of women and people of color, the broad field of communication is guilty of child neglect.

I can appreciate that sometimes reading publications about syntax acquisition of young children can require specialized knowledge and may be dull. And, yes, there are more IRB obstacles to studying children than studying senior citizens. However, the communication field’s systematic and ongoing neglect of children is indicative of a deeper and far more serious problem. Failing to consider children and communication development in its theory-building, research, and pedagogy, failing to prioritize the study of children’s communication, failing to fully share its existing understandings about children’s communication (however limited) for the benefit of the world’s children, and failing to fully use the power of the communication field to prevent the harming of the world’s children (although for important exceptions see Wilson, Shi, Tirmenstein, Norris, & Combs, 2006; Wilson & Whipple, 1995), the field of communication is responsible, at least symbolically, for child neglect. Although it certainly cannot be claimed, nor is there any supporting evidence that the field of communication has been abusing children, there is abundant evidence that it certainly has been neglecting them. Of ←30 | 31→course, outside of academia real “child neglect” is a crime. Here is the technical framing of the concept of child abuse and child neglect (i.e., failure to act):

The Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), as amended and reauthorized by the CAPTA Reauthorization Act of 2010, defines child abuse and neglect as, at a minimum, “any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation (including sexual abuse as determined under section 111), or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm” (42 U.S.C. 5101 note, § 3). (Child Welfare, 2019, p. 2, italics added)

Certainly, some readers will push back. “You cannot be serious! How can the field of communication be held responsible for damaging children because it failed to fully include them in its theory-building, research, and education? Is the field of communication really responsible for the world’s children?” My response: Communication is a fundamental part of the human condition and the field of communication is morally and ethically obligated to study and educate all communicators. However, historically, the field of communication has been selectively choosing to study and educate mostly college-aged adults in universities. Some might say, “OK, so what if the communication field has not been studying or educating children about communication? What real harms, if any, have resulted from not doing so?” My response: There is no way to fully ascertain the extent of harm the field of communication has caused children due to its neglect. However, in order to bring the problem of communication’s neglect of children into relief, let’s consider how many children are being abused and the potential role of communication in their abuse as well as neglect. According to DoSomething.org (2019), “Approximately 5 children die every day because of child abuse … [and] 2.9 million cases of child abuse are reported every year in the United States.” Further, child neglect and child abuse take a toll on children’s lifespans. “Children who experience child abuse and neglect are 59% more likely to be arrested as a juvenile, 28% more likely to be arrested as an adult, and 30% more likely to commit violent crime” (Dosomething.org, 2019). Thus, because communication is integral in all humans’ development (e.g., Socha & Yingling, 2010; Socha & Beck, 2015), it is not a stretch to conclude that the world’s children would be better off today had the communication field, from its very beginning, joined numerous other academic fields and helped to care for, protect, educate, and empower children through its research and communication education.

And, why blame white, male privilege for communication’s neglect of children? Although I am a white, cishet male, white males have been at the ←31 | 32→editorial helm of the field’s books and journal publications throughout most of the communication field’s intellectual history. They have been deciding and limiting what the field should read. And, how do I know that such limiting has been happening with respect to children? Beside studies that empirically demonstrate that the literature about children comprises a very small part of the total communication literature (Miller-Day, Pezalla, & Chestnut, 2013), I know this because I have experienced it professionally.

Years ago, I sought to publish a study about children’s humorous communication development (in grades K–8) only to have it systematically rejected by most of the communication field’s journals. Like all scholars, I am used to rejection. I appreciate and am happy to work with reviewers’ feedback to improve a work’s quality. And, I am also able to admit when a study is a bust and should not see the light of day. However, what was telling with this particular manuscript was that all of the white, cishet, editors gave the exact same reason for rejecting the manuscript (sometimes without sending it out for review). They wrote that the study was “interesting,” well-executed, and when there were reviews, they were mostly positive. However, all the editors, uniformly, concluded that the manuscript would not be a good “fit” to publish in their respective communication journal. Rather, the manuscript would be a better “fit” to publish elsewhere, specifically in a child development journal, and they urged me to send it there. One editor even wrote that the readers of “their” journal would have zero interest in the topic of children’s humorous communication and their moral development. Ultimately, the manuscript was later accepted, without revision, and published in a child development journal (Socha & Kelly, 1994). This is not an isolated case. Other communication scholars who study children have shared similar stories with me. My then-department chair also commented that he was glad I had finally found the “right audience” for the study. I assumed this to mean people who cared about children. Although my anecdotal evidence is nowhere near as systematic as “disciplining the feminine” (Blair, Brown, & Baxter, 1994), it does offer similar evidence of white, male, privilege supportive of the larger argument that “children” do not seem to have been in the province, purview, or interest of many white, males in positions of editorial power in communication. A sad conclusion that I am certain will resonate with women and people of color who have experienced far worse for far longer.

Over the years, I have remained and will continue to remain resolute in my beliefs. Communication is inherent in the universal human condition. Communication is a lifespan process (e.g., Nussbaum, 2015). Communication matters in all humans’ survival and thriving (Socha & Beck, 2015). And, all communication occurring during childhood (or early lifespan) is consequential ←32 | 33→to the development of subsequent communication taking place during all of life’s stages (e.g., Socha, & Yingling, 2010). For better or worse, we all bring our communication pasts forward into the future, and unless we are mindful, our pasts can ride roughshod on our present. Finally, as the title of this volume asserts, lifespan communication absolutely and unequivocally begins with children’s first words and ends at the close of their final conversation.

Thus, it is high time to hit the reset button and give the communication field a second chance to reposition children at the beginning of communication theorizing and research, to make children a valued and integral part of the consciousness of mainstream communication theorizing, and not a topic that “other people” should care about. We are all responsible for children’s communication because like us all they are communicators too and so goes our communication, so goes theirs.

In the next section, I offer a critical-experiential review of the children’s communication literature. I add the term experiential because I have professionally and personally lived and contributed to these works. And, as I review these works, I will endeavor to point out the highlights as well as some of the costs of communication’s neglect of children. The purpose of the review is also to acquaint, or reacquaint, readers with what I regard as the pioneering shadow-work taking place in the communication field concerning children. That is, as the hard and essential work of everyday childcare continues to take place in societal shadows, the work of children’s communication scholars has also been taking place in the shadows of the field.

A Critical-Experiential Review of Children’s Communication

Before I begin the review, I must again fully and openly acknowledge my privileged status as a white, cishet, male. I fully acknowledge that I did, and do, benefit from white, male privilege. Yet throughout my career, I have also honestly valued inclusion and have consciously tried to walk the talk as a cultural ally, to all, in all of my scholarly pursuits. I did not enjoy economic privilege during my childhood. I was raised in a lower-middle-class family in an inner-city neighborhood that was home to immigrant neighbors of Puerto Rican as well as Polish descent. I had to pay for my higher education entirely on my own (through the Ph.D.). During school, I worked year-round (manual labor, office work, and summer farm work) and am ever grateful to have been supported by essential scholarships and graduate assistantships that made my higher education possible. I understand and continue to admire those working their way through school as I did.

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First, I will examine the communication field’s books about children. Second, I provide an overview of some of the published review essays about some of the understudied topics concerning children. Finally, I close the section by identifying key topics that are missing from this work. Throughout this review, where relevant, I will also interject experiential insights from my professional experiences and my own communication education.

Children’s Communication Books

Figure 2.1 displays a chronological list of 23 books about children’s communication written and edited by scholars in the field of communication. Although I have attempted to be comprehensive, I chose these volumes primarily because they are among the key works in my education, research, and teaching concerning children. To my understanding, it is a fairly complete list of the field’s major books about children, although, I may have missed a particular work.

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Figure 2.1 Books Published about Children in the Field of Communication (in Chronological Order)



Let me begin by pointing out a few general patterns that characterize these 23 works.

First, the academic field of communication began in 1914 with the founding of what today is the National Communication Association (NCA, 2019). Yet, the field of communication did not publish a book about children’s communication until over six decades later when the first children’s communication book appeared in 1976, Barbara S. Wood’s (1976), Children and Communication: Verbal and Nonverbal Language Development (see reviews by Higginbotham, 1976; O’Keefe, 1976). I first read this book in the early 1980s when I was an MA student in Professor Wood’s children’s communication class at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Second, the communication field’s books about children can be organized into at least three conceptual groups (arranged chronologically): (a) children’s communication development, (b) children’s television (media), and (c) children’s communication at home. And, third, these three conceptual groups have developed independently of each other. They rarely, if ever, cite or mention work from another conceptual group (i.e., volumes about children’s TV do not cite volumes about children’s relational communication and vice versa). There has also been little formal connection between these three groups inside the communication field and fields of outside the field of communication such as: developmental psychology, educational psychology, and juvenile justice studies, other than these communication volumes cite the work of these allied fields.

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Fourth, most all of the communication scholars (that thankfully does not yet include me) who have authored and/or edited these volumes about children’s communication have passed away, retired, or no longer write about children’s communication. Today, in 2020, the field of communication is literally at a crisis point. If the study of children’s communication is to advance, an immediate infusion of many more scholars is needed to join the authors of this volume and take up the study of early lifespan communication. Let’s take a closer look at the topics covered in the volumes that span these three conceptual groups (discussed in the order in which these volumes appear historically).

Children’s communication development. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a few pioneering communication scholars, starting with Barbara S. Wood, recognized the need to study and write about children’s communication. However, because white male privilege was assuredly at work during this time, and because the field of communication had no history of publishing books about children’s communication, publishers and scholars alike were forced to accept that the primary market for children’s communication development books was limited to women who were teaching in elementary schools. That is, children’s communication development books sought to inform an almost exclusively female and largely white audience of early childhood and elementary school teachers about how to best communicate with the children in their classes as well as how to help the children in their charge to learn to communicate effectively. However, it is critically important to add that to date in the US. communication has yet to be taught to children as a stand-alone academic subject in pre-K or elementary school but does ←36 | 37→continue to be viewed as an important topic to include in teacher education and teacher training programs.

Experientially, when I took Professor Wood’s children’s communication course in the early 1980s, during my MA program in Communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle campus (as it was called back then), I was one of a very few males enrolled in her course. Also, for the past 32 years, I have been teaching an undergraduate and beginning graduate-level course on children’s communication that also continues to enroll mostly females as well as a handful of males. Similar to Professor Wood’s students in her class, students who have been taking my children’s communication classes are pursuing degrees in early childhood and elementary education, speech pathology, and counseling, as well as some undergraduate and graduate students pursuing degrees in communication. It is only during the past nine years that students have been taking this course as an integral elective in the lifespan communication graduate degree offered at Old Dominion University (that started in 2011).

Table 2.1 compares the content of the chapters in the communication field’s first three books about children’s communication development written by the field’s pioneering children’s communication scholars: Barbara S. Wood (1976), Rita Naremore and Robert Hopper (1990), and Beth Haslett and Wendy Samter (1997). Barbara Wood (retired) was a professor of communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Although Rita Naremore was a professor of speech and language sciences at Indiana University, she co-wrote this particular volume with the late communication professor, Robert Hopper (University of Texas at Austin). Finally, Beth Haslett (currently a Communication professor at the University of Delaware) once told me that she has been emphasizing organizational communication in her more recent work and no longer is active in researching children. Her co-author Wendy Samter (currently a Communication Professor and Dean at Bryant University) has been also working in administration. Further, it is important to note that Haslett and Samter’s important volume was published 23-years ago. All three volumes are no longer in print.

Table 2.1 Comparison of the Content of Three Foundational Children’s Communication Books

Wood (1976)

Naremore & Hopper (1990)

Haslett & Samter (1997)

Child as a Communicator

Children’s Eloquence

Basic Concepts

Intrapersonal Forces

Speech as a Biological Process

Interpersonal Forces

Language-Learning Environments

Family influences



Language Development










Nonverbal communication



Communication Situations


Verbal Communication Development

Communication Instruction

Learning to Communicate Teaching Communication to Children

Developing Communicative Knowledge Parenting

Analyzing Children’s Communication

Participating in Children’s Communication

Doing Friendships
Children’s Friendship

When Language goes awry

Speech and Literacy

Language Diversity

Although the audiences for these three volumes do include communication scholars, they are primarily targeted for use as classroom textbooks in upper division communication courses. All three volumes provide similar overviews of children’s communication development that include: the child as a developing communicator, communi-biological foundations of communication development, language development, verbal communication development, and contexts and individuals affecting verbal communication development that include families, parenting, and schools. Two of the ←37 | 38→volumes include nonverbal communication (Wood, 1976; Haslett & Samter, 1997) and one includes a chapter on speech and literacy, a chapter on communication problems, as well as a chapter on language diversity (Naremore & Hopper, 1990). For the most part, the chapters contained within these volumes are organized by developmental age and include age-related examples of communication development. They also offer age-related touchstones of communication development, or what communication looks like for children of varying ages (infancy through age 5). All of three of the volumes focus extensively on children’s language development (with a heavy focus on pragmatics) and all three volumes draw upon the classics of developmental psycho-/sociolinguistics (e.g., Chomsky, Bruner, Piaget, Vygotsky, etc.). Professor Wood’s ←38 | 39→ground-breaking volume does attempt to offer an integrative emphasis on how children develop their personal “communication power” throughout its chapters. That is, how we can equip children with the communication tools needed for them to thrive. The outline of Wood’s volume also was somewhat duplicated in the two subsequent volumes in Table 2.1.

As to cultural inclusion, although Wood’s volume explicitly argues that diversity does exist in the development of children’s communication (e.g., acknowledging that children learn to communicate in a variety of contexts and with a variety of people), and she does mention ethnic culture, the volume offers few specifics about ethnic cultural diversity (similar to Haslett & Samter, 1997). And, although Naremore and Hopper (1990) devoted an entire chapter to “linguistic diversity,” unfortunately they focused their discussion on learning, speaking, and correcting “non-standard dialects” (i.e., correcting Black speech and Hispanic speech that assumes White speech to be the “standard”). Not surprisingly, none of these volumes mentions LGBTQ children.

Back then, because communication was a newcomer to the field of children’s studies, these three volumes also devoted considerable space to theories originating outside the communication field in order to discuss and explain children’s communication. However, an important exception is the theoretical perspective of constructivism that was birthed by communication scholars at the University of Illinois (e.g., Professors Jesse Delia and Ruth Ann Clark). Constructivism emphasizes cognitive complexity’s role in message production and message interpretation (e.g., see Burleson, Delia, & Applegate, 1995). Constructivist work is cited and discussed throughout Haslett and Samter’s volume.

In addition, and in my opinion, Haslett and Samter (1997, pp. 4–13), articulated one of the most comprehensive definitions of communication to date. They included ten elements in their definition. And, of particular importance to children, all 10 elements are subject to learning and developmental forces. That is, communication is: (1) inferential, (2) intentional, (3) conventional, (4) jointly negotiated, varies by (5) context and (6) language user, (7) involves commonsense knowledge, (8) systematic, (9) interpretive, and (10) varies according to participants social relationships. These 10 elements appear throughout their volume. I continue to use their definition in all of the communication classes that I teach.

A related, but somewhat different volume also appearing in Figure 2.1 also requires mention in this section. It was co-edited by Purdue communication scholar, Howard Sypher and, constructivist, children’s communication scholar, and current, Executive Director of the Illinois Board of Higher ←39 | 40→Education, Dr. James Applegate (Sypher & Applegate, 1984). Although it is not a book about children’s communication development per se, the volume is unique insofar as it compares and contrasts children’s and adults’ communication. It was organized into four sections (two devoted to children and two devoted to adults). With respect to children, the volume features chapters about (a) children’s prosocial processes including prosocial cognition (Eisenberg & Silbereisen, 1984), perspective taking (Barnett, 1984), and comforting (Burleson, 1984, 1994), and (b) children’s influence processes that include social reasoning and persuasion (Forbes & Lubin, 1984), conflicts of interest (Oden, Wheeler, & Herzberger, 1984), and sociability skills (Rubin & Borwick, 1984).

An important, primary, and a shared goal of all four of these volumes, although focused on early childhood and elementary-school years, was to explicitly connect communicators’ ages and levels of cognitive, linguistic, and social development to the production and interpretation of messages. Such a goal should also be among the major objectives of all lifespan communication research (birth through end of life). That is, a major objective of the field of communication, as related to early lifespan, should be to understand and explain age-related communication and its development from birth until adolescence.

The three early volumes also aptly point out that human communication development begins with nonverbal communication, onto which is scaffolded language development (that features mostly the face-to-face medium, but may include digital media), as well as verbal communication development (communication pragmatics) into a continuously expanding array of communicators, contexts (in relationships, groups, organizations, and public), media, and situations.

All four of these books, however, are also communication-medium exclusive. That is, they all focus exclusively on face-to-face communication and make no mention of electronic media. An important point to make here is that today’s introduction of digital screened media to pre-linguistic children is changing the “natural” course of human communication development and the consequences of doing so are not yet understood. However, based on what is known, the American Academy of Pediatrics cautions that children under the age of 2 should not be exposed to screens (AAP, 2019). Let’s turn next to examine books about children’s television and media that were also appearing at the same time as books about children’s communication development.

Children’s media. Unlike books about children’s face-to-face communication development that confronted the problem of needing a specialized ←40 | 41→audience of women teachers (i.e., those who would purchase books about children development), books about children’s TV seemed to have an easier time gaining attention and garnering a wider audience. Everyone watches TV, and among TV viewers, from the very beginning, children have been seen as vulnerable audience members requiring special protections. This framing sets the stage, paternalistically, for white males (and female allies) to not only be the inventors of new communication technologies but also to be the protectors of children from the allegedly numerous harms and ills caused by exposure to television and more recently digital media. An important and sharply contrasting note here is that none of the children’s human communication development volumes (reviewed in the previous section) mention any harms that children can potentially encounter in their face-to-face interactions. Whereas, books about children’s television and media focus heavily, and sometimes almost exclusively, on numerous harms that can arise from viewing television. It is certainly the case that children are at least equally likely, if not more likely, to be harmed, and harmed more severely and in more lasting ways, during their face-to-face communication with the people they live with, than from watching TV or playing a video game (a point I will take up later in this essay).

Because TV is ubiquitous, it is no surprise that volumes about children’s television and media outnumber children’s relational communication development. These volumes have been written and edited by the field’s pioneering children’s media scholars, like Ellen Wartella (Northwestern University, see Chapter 7, this volume) and the esteemed media scholar, Jennings Bryant (emeritus, University of Alabama). Most of the volumes about children’s media appearing in Figure 2.1 focus on children and television (i.e., in chronological order, Bryant, 1983; Clifford, Gunter, & McAleer, 1995; Wartella, 1997; Canter, 1998; Jordan & Hall Jamieson, 1998; van Evra, 1998, 2004; Canter, 2004; and Bryant, 2006). Most of these volumes situate the child as a vulnerable member of TV audiences and examine how TV-viewing affects many aspects of children’s development. For example, the volume by Gunter and McLear (1997) examined the effects of children viewing TV on children’s knowledge, social roles, aggressive behaviors, good behaviors, consumer behaviors, health orientations, and school performance. Van Evra (1998, 2004) examined TV’s impact on violence and aggression, cultural diversity, advertising, family relations, health, and social-emotional issues, while also considering how children process information from TV as well as how this affects children’s language development, reading, and academic achievement. Another important topic appearing throughout these volumes is children’s media literacy (see Scantlin, Chapter 11, this volume) and features intervention strategies that include use ←41 | 42→of program rating systems, technological aids, as well as parental mediation to manage what are considered to be TV’s harmful effects on children. There is also a national professional association devoted to media literacy (see the Association for Media Literacy, http://www.aml.ca).

Other volumes appearing in Figure 2.1 include Zillman, Bryant, and Huston (1994), Calvert and Wilson (2008), and Strasberger, Wilson, and Jordon (2014) that all focus more comprehensively on children’s media (as well as families), including the internet, video gaming, and much more. Indeed, the volume by Strasberger et al. (2014) is a most comprehensive volume to date about children’s media and includes chapters on: children as unique members of media audiences; advertising; prosocial and educational media; media violence; sex, sexuality, and media; obesity, eating disorders and media; the internet; social media; video games; family and media; media literacy and media education; as well as children’s media policy. An additional note is that similar to the communication-medium exclusive volumes focusing on children’s relational communication (i.e., that do not mention media), these children’s media volumes are also communication-medium exclusive, that is, they do not cite the literature of children’s relational communication development (even in chapters that specifically focus on families).

Going forward, emerging topics in this conceptual group include the convergence of media onto narrowing digital platforms, a plurality of varied forms of electronic media (as seen in the Strasberger et al., 2014, volume), and the expanding use of mobile digital media (smartphones) in everyday relational communication (e.g., see Breuss, 2015). This suggests that in the future there is a need for greater communication-media inclusiveness (relational and digital) when studying children and indeed all forms of communication. I see the future of the field of communication as featuring the convergence of face-to-face, digital media, and cultures as central to the theorizing and research of lifespan communication development. To their credit, these children’s media volumes do explicitly consider ethnic-cultural diversity when writing about audiences.

Regarding media-inclusiveness, experientially, I had my own professional struggles and offer the following anecdotes. In the mid-1990s, my then department Chair, Professor Gary Edgerton (a renowned media scholar and historian) communicated his appreciation for my children’s communication course, but also urged me to include children’s television. Until then, drawing upon my two graduate communication courses in children’s communication (during my MA program from Barbara Wood at UIC and during my Ph.D. program from the late Dr. Julie Burke at University of Iowa), my children’s communication course was primarily focused on children’s relational ←42 | 43→communication development. As a part of Edgerton’s efforts to convince me to include media, he treated me to a children’s television conference held at Washington DC’s National Press Club that was sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communication. At the time, I was reluctant to incorporate work on media alongside relational communication in part because there was no guiding model of how to do so. However, after attending the conference and later co-planning a children’s film and media festival at ODU, I accepted the necessity to think more comprehensively about children’s communication worlds and subsequently widened the focus of my course to include children’s media. From that point on, I have been offering what I label a course about children’s global and comprehensive communication development that includes the development of numerous communication competencies of children from around the world: nonverbal communication, language, verbal communication, relational and group communication, children’s media, and media literacy.

Later, I attended a subsequent Annenberg Children’s Television Conference (this time on my own). At the time I was beginning my tenure as the founding Editor of the Journal of Family Communication. The keynote speaker for the conference was Fred Rogers (Mister Roger’s Neighborhood). It occurred to me as I listened to Fred’s moving speech, what a cool idea it would be if he would write a point-of-view article about children, families, and television for the inaugural issue of JFC. It could help to garner interest in the journal but also serve as a potential bridge for those who studied family relational communication and those who studied family media. After Fred’s speech, an incredibly long line cued to meet him. It took well over 45 minutes to work my way to him. We shook hands. I introduced myself, informed him of my new role as the Founding Editor of the Journal of Family Communication, and asked if I could call him later to talk about writing a journal article for JFC. Instead, Fred preferred to sit down at a nearby table and begin a conversation with me. Fred was especially excited by the name of the journal, saying that “family” was so central to his work with children that he named his television production business, Family Communication, Inc. He said that he had never written an academic journal article, but if I was open to helping him to learn how to do it, that he’d be happy to write it. Meeting Fred and briefly getting to work with a children’s TV legend is an experience and memory I will always cherish. Not to mention that it cemented the idea that the field of communication should be more medium-inclusive in our teaching and research about children’s communication. Thus, relational communication scholars/educators and digital media scholars/educators should play nice in the sandbox of ←43 | 44→early lifespan communication and across the lifespan as they have much to learn from each other.

Children’s family communication. In 1982, the very first family communication book was published (Galvin & Brommel, 1982) and over a decade later this was followed by several books that focused on children’s relational communication within families. Let’s review these volumes about children that focus on family communication including: (a) communication between children and parents (in chronological order, Stafford & Bayer, 1993; Socha & Stamp, 1995, 2009; Socha & Yingling, 2010; Pettigrew, 2014), (b) children’s ethnic-cultural communication at home (Socha & Diggs, 1999), and (c) communication in children’s relationships at a daycare (Meyer, 2003).

The largest sub-area focuses on communication between children and parents. It is important to note that while all of the volumes and the chapters featured in this conceptual grouping are in some way significant in their own right, some of the chapters appearing in the parent-child communication volumes are truly ground-breaking and are counted as the very first publications in the family communication field about their respective topics. Further, many of these works stand as a testament to the field of family communication’s commitment to inclusiveness (i.e., culturally and sexually). For example, a full twenty years before the legalization of same-sex marriage, Socha and Stamp (1995) included the communication field’s first published work on gay/lesbian parent-child communication (West & Turner, 1995). Later Socha and Stamp (2009) featured the communication field’s first chapter on gay and lesbian foster parental communication (Patrick & Palladino, 2009). And, although not solely focused on children (they appear throughout the volume and are the explicit focus of a few chapters), Socha and Diggs (1999) co-edited the communication field’s first book on Black/White/Bi-Racial family communication that was not only co-edited by a African American female and a white male, but also features chapters co-authored by African American and European American Communication scholars. Further, Socha and Stamp’s (2009) subsequent parent-child communication volume added to the complexities of the contexts of children’s communication by focusing on parent-child communication in the contexts of education, health and wellness, media, and evolving child caregiving roles of grandparents and stepfamilies.


Collectively, the children’s books in these three areas of inquiry offer a rich foundation upon which future work in early lifespan communication can be ←44 | 45→built. However, unless and until the content of these pioneering books about children is brought into the consciousness and imaginations of all contemporary communication researchers and educators, and most importantly shared with current students of communication, there is a danger that this work will be lost to history and that with the exception of children and media, the communication field will remain childless. I acknowledge and fully understand that much work lies ahead in making this shift. I also understand that some may argue that repositioning children to the start of the communication field is a far too daunting of a task, requiring far too much work, and perhaps it is better for the communication field to remain childless. I will counter that an inescapable fact is that as we communicate with children today, we are actively creating communication legacies for future generations who will one day become parents as well as our caretakers in later life. The quality of all of our futures depends heavily on having citizens with effective, appropriate, and optimal communication skills. It is therefore in all of our interests to ensure that the quality of early lifespan communication is as high as we can make it.

Widening the Lens on Children’s Communication

These aforementioned books about children played an important role in staking out the field of early lifespan communication to include children’s communication development, children’s media and children’s communication within families and friendships. However, today, the contemporary field of communication is far broader and includes, for example, group communication, organizational communication, intercultural communication, public communication, as well as persuasion that must also be considered in light of children. There are also many other important topics appearing in the children’s literature in other fields that may also appear in the children’s communication literature that deserve consideration. Therefore, we must reframe the study of early lifespan communication to also fully include all those areas that are a part of mainstream theorizing, research, and education of adults’ communication. Towards this goal, I offer a selected list of overview essays of some of these topics. Second, I will discuss important areas needing further development that include: children in communication theory development, communicatively abusing children, informal and formal communication education, communicating with children of varying levels of abilities, as well as children in global cultures.

Selected overview essays. Figure 2.2 offers a selective list of publications that provide overviews of some of these topic areas that seek to connect children’s communication to the work of adult communication. Like ←45 | 46→this chapter, these entries are intended as a primer of readings about these topics for those seeking to learn more as well to those who wish to begin to merge the current “adult” communication literature with early lifespan. All of these works intentionally frame communication as occurring developmentally over the lifespan regardless of context. That is, as children communicate with families during dinners, as children make mistakes and engage in antisocial behaviors, as children communicate while playing team-sports, and as ←46 | 47→children communicate in social groups like scouting and church, they are also learning communication lessons that they will carry forward as they one day become parents who are communicating during family dinners, parents and caregivers orchestrating and implementing children’s behavioral changes, coaches communicating during children’s team sports, and leaders communicating with scouts and church members. Formal education must occur in these contexts as well as with communication development, media, and families.

Figure 2.2 Children’s Communication: Selected Overview Essays


Children in communication theory construction. At an NCA conference, the esteemed late communication professor, theorist, researcher and friend, Charles (Chuck) Berger (then retired) flagged me over to join him for a beverage. During that conversation, I asked him about the development of his Uncertainty Reduction Theory (URT). Had he ever thought about children in the URT’s development? He admitted that he had not but was nevertheless delighted to think that his theory could be considered a lifespan theory. I believe he said something like, “You are right! We start out incredibly uncertain [expressed in my more polite terms] and we must battle uncertainty our entire lives. Who knows if we ever successfully manage it?” Similarly, like URT, it is my belief that most of the theories developed thus far in the field of communication have also not considered children, nor lifespan development, nor global culture, and that a sea change in thinking would take place if children and lifespan communication development were incorporated. Although admittedly radical, I believe that such a change is necessary to strengthen our field’s already strong, albeit adult-centric theories.

Communicatively abusing children. During my own early lifespan (late 1950s and early 1960s), I recall hearing adults say, “Children should be seen but not heard.” As a child, I recall understanding this expression to be an admonition to stop speaking and to refrain from speaking. It also served as a notice that whatever I had to say as a child was unimportant, irrelevant, and back then, a warning that physical punishment would follow if I continued to trespass into the adults’ world. Given that children are largely invisible in communication, it seems to me that many in the field of communication may have also internalized a version of this unfortunate expression. As children communicate while at home, at school, on the playground, in the homes of friends and relatives, and while watching digital media they are likely to encounter messages from parents, teachers, relatives, and other children that will harm them as well as empower them. Works by Steve Wilson and colleagues (cited earlier) studying negative physical child abuse takes the lead here in helping us to understand communication processes and preventing physical child abuse. Back as a student when I read the children’s relational communication literature and even today as a communication scholar ←47 | 48→working in this area, it seems as if no harms ever come to children through their relational communication. This, of course, runs contrary to my professional assessment of the state of children today as well as my personal experiences as a child. However, when I read the children’s media literature, it seems that lots of harms (and little good) befall kids watching TV and playing video games. Going forward both the positive and dark sides of communication must be considered in studying children’s communication regardless of communication-media (see Socha & Beck, 2015). And, it goes without saying that the communication field must work harder to prevent children from being physically as well as communicatively harmed, abused, and worse as they communicate with the adults charged with their care and development.

Children learning communication (informally and formally) at school. Although children in the US are not yet being taught using a formal communication education curriculum in grades K–12, nevertheless, they are informally being taught about communication. We need to learn more about what children are learning informally about communication while they are at school because these lessons will facilitate and/or inhibit their optimal communication development and will also form a lasting foundation for their future interactions. For better or worse, we all have stories of communication learning in early our lifespan that should be told, analyzed, and included as a part of lifespan communication learning that may or may not continue into college. I was fortunate that besides majoring in communication, earning a high school teaching certificate and teaching communication in high school, I also took two graduate-level communication courses that focused on children (with Barbara Wood at UIC and the late Dr. Julie Burke at the University of Iowa). Taking two graduate-level communication classes about children is unique because today most Ph.D.’s in communication graduate with no classes that focus on children, even among those who study families. Undoubtedly, our academic communication experiences (Kindergarten through graduate school) shape our understanding and love of communication as well as help to hone our communication abilities. All lifespan communication learning starts during early childhood and continues through adulthood: from show-n-tell in Kindergarten classrooms to “show-n-tell” (with PowerPoint) in classrooms and boardrooms. We all have communication education stories that need to be told so that we can begin to connect our pasts with our presents. And, more importantly, our informal communication education (and formal communication to the extent that it occurs) happens mostly by luck (or not luck) and by happenstance (i.e., We get what we get).

Children of varying communication (dis)abilities. In the commonly used database, Communication and Mass Media Complete, when entering the search terms “children” and “disabilities” and limiting the search to ←48 | 49→scholarly peer-reviewed journal articles 2876 entries appear. These articles, in general, focus on communicating with children of varying: sensory abilities (e.g., eyes, ears, touch), speech abilities (e.g., fluency, non-speaking), physical abilities (e.g., mobility, facial and mouth movement, body movement, hand movement, head movement), physical appearances (e.g., head shapes, facial features), intellectual abilities (e.g., cognitive, memory, learning), as well as multi-leveled and complex conditions (e.g., Autism, Asperger’s, Down’s Syndrome) and the intersections of race, ethnic culture, and varying levels of abilities. In truth, all children have varying levels of human abilities that can have wide bandwidths and variabilities. Some children have complex communication needs that require augmentation, support, therapies, and medical interventions, while others require less. It must be acknowledged that children with complex communication needs do require communicators with specialized training (e.g., American Sign Language or AMESLAN as a second language) and sometimes specialized equipment is necessary in order to be fully inclusive. Communication inclusiveness is also an important part of raising the consciousness of the field to include all children.

Children and global culture. It cannot be assumed that the material, societal, communicative, and geographic circumstances in which the world’s children develop their communication are all the same. Both similarities and differences exist that should be considered as a part of global, comprehensive communication education. For example, many parents around the world sing their children to sleep (see World Sings Goodnight, 1993), but they are doing so in their native languages (that aid in teaching children the foundations of phonetics in their native tongue) and also with content that features their cultures’ values, histories, and geographies. In an online newsletter, for example, Ralph (2015), highlighted at least 20 ways that parenting differs around the world, for example, allowing children to go hungry from time to time as a way to teach self-discipline (Korea), communicating between parents and children as equals (Sweden), leaving children unattended in strollers outside a restaurant while parents dine inside is OK (Denmark), getting paid by the government to parent (Germany), as well as having children care for children (Polynesia), and more. Of course, the experiences of children in rural, sub-Saharan Africa, for example, are not the same as children of rural southern USA. However, the field of communication has not yet tapped the cultural communication experiences of the world’s children, but in doing so it would find that communication is, universally, a necessary force that has far-reaching consequences in terms of human development.

Communication and LGBT youth. Important research and an educational frontier for children’s communication pertain to LGBT youth. It is essential to study this area if we are to develop a full and complex ←49 | 50→understanding of the development of human sexuality and identity. To date, doing so, unfortunately, has not been without dangers and controversy (see Chapter 11, for a discussion about the boundaries of sexuality in childhood focusing on a children’s television show depicting a gay wedding). Going forward it is important for the field of communication to more fully examine relational and mediated communication in all of the contexts of LGBT youth’s development and also to build on existing research from allied fields (e.g. see US Government, http://youth.gov; American Institutes of Research-LGBT Youth, https://www.air.org/topic/health/lgbtq-youth; and American Psychological Association-LGBT Youth Resources, https://www.apa.org/pi/lgbt/programs/safe-supportive/lgbt/).

Looking to the Future

Formal Lifespan Communication Education

Instead of leaving lifespan communication education to chance, if communication education is to become fully inclusive and fully comprehensive, the field’s overall approach to lifespan communication education must start by becoming formal and systematic from the very beginning. That is, early lifespan must become a formal part of all communication education. Second, it follows that graduate and undergraduate communication curricula should include at least one early lifespan communication course in all graduate communication degree programs especially those focusing on families. Third, all introductory human communication texts for undergraduates in the US should include at least a chapter about early lifespan communication and should also integrate the topic of lifespan communication development into the fabric of their courses. Finally, as this review makes obvious, all early lifespan communication education must be far more ethnically and sexually inclusive than the predominantly cishet, whiteness that I experienced in my formal and informal communication development.

Towards Comprehensive Functional Lifespan Communication

In my opinion, the greatest potential to transform the field of communication lies first in incorporating a lifespan meta-theoretical approach to communication theory, research, and education—one that features and champions communication development at all stages but particularly early lifespan. Specifically, I propose that the field of lifespan communication return to ←50 | 51→consider a functional communication approach (Dance & Larsen, 1976) to develop a framework for comprehensive functional lifespan communication.

Communication scholars, Frank E. X. Dance and Carl Larson (1976) argued that communication has three primary functions: linking, mentation, and regulation. The linking communication function is how humans use communication to connect to the changing worlds of each other and their environment. It involves constructing, sharing, and accepting/rejecting the construal of selves. Mentation refers to the role of communication in higher mental processes and involves “memory, planning or foresight, intelligence or cognitive insight, thinking, judgment, and speech communication and its derivatives of reading and writing” (p. 93). It also involves decentering. “Whatever terms are used to describe this operation—it has assumed such labels as empathizing, role-taking, interpersonal understanding, and person perception—the concept of decentering takes us to the core of a unique phenomenon, interpersonal understanding” (p. 116). Lack of decentering is linked to interpersonal violence and interpersonal distrust. Finally, regulation refers to the use of communication to create, maintain, and change the beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, and routines of self and others. For example, it highlights work in the area of interpersonal persuasion (Wilson, 2002).

All three communication functions (linking, mentation, regulation) are subject to developmental forces (e.g., communi-biological, cognitive, emotional, relational) across the entire lifespan and are shaped by unique obstacles at all of life’s stages [i.e., early lifespan (childhood), adolescence, early adulthood, adulthood, and later life]. For example, humor is a form of entertainment that functions to link people (e.g., see Chapter 1 this volume). Throughout the human lifespan, humor communication functions can change and develop (e.g., may flat-line, augment, or diminish) as communicators confront unique, historically situated individual, contextual, and relational communication conditions. Of course, communication functions all start in primitive forms. For example, a 3-year old might cry loudly and demand a cold drink on a hot day (regulation). Over time, individual development (cognitive, linguistic, communication) will take place accompanied by informal and formal communication education where communicators can learn to deploy a communication function with greater sophistication. For example, a 30-year old can mention that it is hot outside and suggest that perhaps a cold drink would be welcomed. Of course, sometimes communication’s development can be arrested, and primitive forms (whether effective or not) may continue to be used. For example, a 30-year old can cry, loudly, and demand a cold drink on a hot day (regulation).

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There are many conceptual and methodological advantages to a functional lifespan communication approach. First, it provides a way to integrate the study of communication at all of life’s stages. That is, with some modification to measurement (see Chapter 3, this volume) we can study all of the communication’s primary functions at all of life’s stages using comparable metrics to chart lifespan development. We can ask important research questions like: Are adults communicating in ways that are more sophisticated than kindergartners? What does the developmental arc of a given communication function look like across the lifespan for individuals and what sorts of individual, relational, contextual, and historical qualities are making a difference in development? Can formally teaching positive communication skills to 3- and 4-year old children, for example, not only help to improve their communication during this time but does doing so also carry forward into primary education (K–3) and help to prevent and manage to bully? Across the lifespan how far can these early lessons be carried and what formal communication education is necessary along the way to keep them increasing in sophistication and complexity?

Second, this approach grounds foundational textbooks and classes in an integrative framework that includes contexts but does not tie the study of communication exclusively to contexts. That is, it focuses on what all those who study communication have in common (unifying) as well as the role communication functions play in many contexts (persuasion in relationships, groups, organizations, public). Contexts, of course, matter, but when imagined as a part of human communication development are viewed differently as when adopting Bronfenbrenner’s bio-social ecological (Bronfenbrenner, 1979) model where varying spheres exert varying kinds and degrees of influence on proximal development.

Third, and finally, a functional approach allows for findings in the field of communication to link more readily with findings from education, developmental psychology, and more. For example, we can add to the literature about early lifespan education by more closely examining the unique contribution of early lifespan communication’s role in facilitating and inhibiting early childhood learning (mentation function and regulation function) over and above socioeconomic status, and so on.

In summary, we must work to move the field of communication from being childless to child-centered, from being adult-centric to lifespan-focused, and from excluding some communicators to welcoming all communicators from their first words to their final conversations.

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3. Studying Communication during the Early Lifespan

Rationale, Approaches, and Methods


Old Dominion University

Undergraduate and graduate courses in research methods are commonplace in today’s communication curricula. For undergraduates majoring in communication it is often a single course (sometimes two) that provides students with foundational instruction in quantitative and qualitative social scientific methods as well as critical-rhetorical methods. For those students pursuing MA and Ph.D. degrees in communication, the research methods bar is naturally set higher and includes multiple quantitative, qualitative, and critical-rhetorical methods courses offered at advanced levels. Graduate courses in quantitative communication methods are often accompanied by a series of courses in advanced statistics. However, unfortunately, as discussed previously in Chapters 1 and 2, like all undergraduate and graduate courses in communication, courses in communication research methods are also adult-centric. That is, undergraduate and graduate courses in communication research methods as well as accompanying textbooks focus exclusively on how to study 18- to 26-year-old+ communicators. Undergraduates and graduates taking these courses receive little to no instruction in how to study communicators under age 18 especially those in early and middle childhood, or for that matter adult communicators in later life (see Harwood, 2007). Although a few scholars in the field of communication have recognized and acted on the need that methods courses become lifespan-inclusive (e.g., see Pitts & Hummert, 2014), most continue to focus on adults and exclude children. And, as discussed previously, this situation stands in stark contrast to fields like psychology and sociology that have long-studied children and developed sub-specialties such as developmental psychology featuring research methods specifically developed to study children.

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Future Communication Research Must Change

There are pragmatic, important, and immediate reasons to include children in the communication field’s research methods education. Starting in 2019, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) began to enforce a new policy—Inclusion across the Lifespan—that states the NIH will no longer fund research studies which are not explicitly focused on the human lifespan (NIH, 2018):

The purpose of the Inclusion Across the Lifespan Policy is to ensure individuals are included in clinical research in a manner appropriate to the scientific question under study so that the knowledge gained from NIH-funded research is applicable to all those affected by the researched diseases/conditions. The policy expands the Inclusion of Children as Participants in Clinical Research Policy to include individuals of all ages. The policy also clarifies potential justifications for age-based exclusion criteria and requires participant age at enrollment to be provided in progress reports (NIH, 2018).

The rationale for the NIH policy argues that diseases, for example, are experienced across the lifespan, and by leaving out children, adolescents, and the aged, research studies testing the efficacy of treatments and cures based on adult-centric testing may result in ineffective interventions when offered to individuals other than adults. Further, one-size-fits-all (i.e., adult-centric) medical remedies and therapies may be toxic and harmful especially to younger populations.

By extension, the NIH’s rationale applies aptly to all of the social and behavioral sciences including communication. That is, like one-size-fits-all adult-centric medical remedies and therapies seeking to respond to disease, one-size-fits-all adult-centric prescriptions, interventions, and educational curricula seeking to help communicators manage social, relational, and digital communication problems may be inappropriate for children and adolescents and could conceivably create additional harms and problems (especially given the absence of basic research backing up these choices). Thus, going forward it is critically important that the field of communication, like all social sciences, adopt an age-inclusive or lifespan communication framing for its future research studies (especially if researchers wish to seek NIH research funding). Also, by including children and adolescents, communication theorists will enrich and expand the field’s understanding of its adult-derived, medium-exclusive, theories, conceptualizations, and methods.

This chapter seeks to begin to assist the communication field in a move towards greater lifespan-inclusiveness and media-inclusiveness by providing an outline of communication research methods as applied to children. The chapter concludes with a call to communication researchers and educators, ←58 | 59→especially those who administer undergraduate and graduate communication curricula, as well as authors of communication research methods textbooks, that all communication students at all educational levels should receive a lifespan-inclusive education in communication research methods that fully incorporates children and adolescents as well as seniors.

Researching Children Communicators

When researching children communicators there are at least five elements that require special consideration. These include: (1) understanding and accepting children’s unique points of view, (2) developing an awareness of age-related verbal and non-verbal communication development, (3) properly adapting adult-centric research methods to fit children’s attention spans and developmental levels, as well as (4) assessing children’s changing communication abilities, and (5) protecting children’s rights in the planning and executing of children’s communication studies.

Understanding Children’s Points of View

According to Heywood (2001), a historian, “childhood” is a socially-constructed period of human development where conceptions of “children” have varied widely at different points in history. For example, according to Heywood, in humans’ early history (e.g., 1600–1700) children’s points of view were considered “deviant” and required physical “disciplining” (i.e., us of the “rod”) in order to become properly adult-like (and less like a spoiled child), a sad trend that persists today among those who use corporal punishment. And, for the greater part of the very early history in academia, it is also the case that children were not deemed worthy of serious academic study. It is only more recently (late 19th century) that the period of childhood has been conceptualized by civil society as a critically important time in human development. Not only one that is worthy of academic study, but also a critically important time in human development requiring extensive child protections (legally enforced) and specialized means of care. Developmental psychologist Miller (2007) concluded by asking an all too apparent question: “What could be more obvious than the need to study how people develop?” (p. 1).

Authors of developmental research methods textbooks outside the field of communication (e.g., see Miller, 2007) conceptualize children as autonomous agents, and have consistently emphasized that children’s experiences should not be studied as derivative of adults’ experiences, or as somehow less than adults, but rather as early, primary, and foundational links in what ←59 | 60→is a chain of lifespan human development. Following this line of reasoning, developmental scholars crafted research methods specifically to study children as children. For example, seeking to understand children’s behavior on their own terms, Pellegrini (2009) developed a variety of methods to study naturally occurring play including an ethogram (a kind of socio-behavioral map) used, for example, to study children’s playground behaviors. Based on hundreds of hours of direct observation, Pellegrini found that children’s patterns of behavior often do not follow adult norms and their patterns may only make sense when seen from the points of view of children. That is, children may physically congregate by a jungle gym in part because of its proximity, but more so because they collectively agree to perceive it as a pretend “center” (e.g., rocket ship, space station) that organizes their play experiences. In another example, Socha and Socha (1994) compared the group decision-making communication of college-aged students to 6-year-old children using comparable and age-graded decision-making tasks (e.g., choosing what objects to bring to a picnic). Not surprisingly, college students played little during group decision making while the children played more (i.e., college students were found to be more task-oriented). However, the children reported to actually like their group’s communication far more than their college-aged counterparts (who score higher in group hate, e.g., see Myers, & Goodboy, A. K., 2005). Socha and Socha accepted the premise that children will understand and approach processes like group decision making differently than adults, but this does not necessarily mean that children will be less effective at group decision-making tasks. Yet, another example of child-centeredness in the field of communication is John Meyer’s (2003) extensive and rich research treatise that captures children’s everyday communication from their point of view. Myer, a communication scholar, spent years in a daycare facility mapping communication behaviors and patterns of children and their adult caregivers. As readers might imagine the daycare center featured in his book is perceived differently when viewed from the day-to-day eyes of its children the adult staff members and the children’s parents.

Thus, when studying children, their point of view matters. There is little doubt that children’s points of view are indeed unique and are accompanied by varying levels of developmental communication abilities as well as potentialities (see Socha & Yingling, 2010). Of course, in order to capture children’s unique views and ascertain their communication abilities in valid and reliable ways, not only are special research methods necessary but more fundamentally communication researchers must first understand children’s lifespan-developmental communication abilities.

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Increasing Awareness of Age-Related Communication Development

Socha and Yingling (2010), and before them Wood (1976), as well as Haslett and Samter (1997) collectively, argue that all communication abilities are age-dependent. It is obvious to adults, for example, that communicating with a 3-year-old is different than communicating with an 8-year old, or a 13-year-old, or a 60-year-old. In order to communicate effectively with children of any age, an understanding of their age-related communicating abilities is required. That is, what are children of varying ages capable of understanding and presenting? It is beyond the scope and space of this chapter to offer a comprehensive discussion of children’s communication development (e.g., see Haslett & Samter, 1997; Socha & Yingling, 2010, and Chapter 2, this volume). However, a few key general features related to the selection and use of research methods in communication studies of children are discussed.

Nonverbal communication. Humans are born with innate nonverbal communication abilities (e.g., crying) to signal adults to help them to satisfy their needs. Language comes later. Thus, the study of communication of pre-linguistic children must focus exclusively on elemental forms of human nonverbal communication—hearing, touching, space-use, scents, and tasting, and a bit later seeing. But what are pre-linguistic children capable of encoding and decoding nonverbally? Socha and Yingling (2010, pp. 46–48) summarized some of these nonverbal developmental communication features (i.e., face, eyes, body, gesture, and space) from birth to age-4. For example, with regards to the development of facial communication, although infants may not realize that they are smiling, children can present a smile at age 6–8 weeks. They will continue to present a smile until around 3–6 months when they are capable of beginning to engage in mimicking the smiling of others in a kind of call and response pattern. At ages 6–12 months (along with the onset of language) smiling will develop into a primitive communicative response of emotion (e.g., signaling a positive affective state). Smiling, now as communication, continues through ages 2–4 and acquires adult-like qualities. Smiling will continue as communicative and for some may eventually include presenting and understanding more complex types of smiles such as the wry smile or the sarcastic smile, as well as forms of smiling that require advanced socio-cognitive abilities of perspective-taking and meta-communicating (which will occur during middle childhood ages 6–12). By age 12, although varied among individuals, many children will be able to present, engage in, and understand smiling just like adults. However, this does not mean that by age-12, or for that matter even among adults, that communicators have ←61 | 62→become fully competent smilers. Rather, it means that the developmental arc of smiling as a communicative process may peak (become fully adult-like) at a certain developmental point (e.g., during middle childhood). And, unless there is further education or training, smiling abilities will remain unchanged through the rest of their lives (unless a person should choose to work at Walt Disney World where smiling is a job requirement and, arguably, elevated to high art, e.g., see Bajgrowicz, 2018).

Methods used by developmental psychologists to study some aspects of the nonverbal communication of pre-linguistic children often feature indirect approaches to ascertain what children may be experiencing (see Schroeder, 2014, November). For example, the rate of sucking a pacifier (when differing from a base rate), as well as computer-assessed looking time (gauged by eye-tracking and pad touching), have been used to study infants’ interest in a given stimulus. Northwestern University’s Infant Cognition Lab (e.g., see https://sites.northwestern.edu/infantcognitionlab/our-research/) is one of many similar labs around the US employing these and many more methods to understand the world of the pre-linguistic child. Of course, communication studies should follow suit especially when it comes to addressing critically important questions such as the early prolonged exposure to screened media, interfacing of screened media and interpersonal communication skills development, and learning the foundations of interpersonal communication via screened media.

Language. “Reaching becomes pointing; sounds become words; words are combined syntactically to form sentences. This build-up of meaning occurs over about two years [ages 1–2]” (Socha & Yingling, 2010, p. 30). Assuming sensory and cognitive development is within normal ranges (e.g., see Olsson, 2004, concerning children with multiple disabilities), children will utter the first word (e.g., dada, mama, goggie or hi) around 9–12 months and then it is off to the linguistic races with rapid language acquisition and development. Ages 2–4, or the pre-school years, is a time of discovery of new vocabulary and learning communicative forms and routines where children are eager to try out their new and amazing abilities. And, as all adults who have ever cared for children in any capacity can attest, children will repeat everything they hear. Of course, the more often they hear something, the more likely it will be added to their vocabulary and, unless communication education intervenes, words, expressions, or routines will continue to be available to them for their communicative use (and often at the most inopportune moments).

Children are exposed to so many prosocial and antisocial communicative words, expressions, and routines (often for the first time) during the Pre-K years, it baffles us why communication theorists and researchers have almost ←62 | 63→completely ignored this pivotal period of communication firsts. Analogous to computer coding at the machine-level, for better or worse, the foundations of our lifespan communication processes and routines are laid down during early childhood. And, unless communication education (formal and informal) is successful at teaching children effective and appropriate communication during this time as well as throughout their educations, patterns that take hold may not only be undesirable but will also become increasingly difficult to unlearn and relearn later. For example, most parental advice websites (e.g., see the Australian parenting site: https://raisingchildren.net.au/preschoolers/behaviour/common-concerns/swearing-toddlers-preschoolers) feature articles, blogs, and discussion boards about managing the problem of potty talk of children ages 3–5. Although perhaps surprising to those outside of early childhood education, many Pre-K and early elementary teachers have classroom stories about frustrated children lobbing F-bombs at their peers as they work on group projects. According to a Washington Post article (Wright, 2015) bad language seems to be starting earlier (age 3) and, is more commonplace than in the past due in part to children’s increasing exposure to broadcast media (e.g., viewing primetime national speeches of a United States President freely using terms like “bullshit,” see Nelson & Fredricks, 2020).

Because the field of communication has devoted such little time to studying communication during this developmental period it has yet to develop and formally test the efficacy of communication curricula for Pre-K students. Thus, a great deal of work lies ahead. But, on the plus side, this also means that the field of early childhood communication theory and research is wide open for inquiry and has tremendous potential to shape future communication development of generations to come.

When studying children’s communication, whether verbal message production or message reception, communication researchers must carefully consider developmental linguistics and ask a critically important question: How many years of education are needed in order for a participant to a study or comprehend the words a communication researcher is using? Here, we extend the concept of understanding printed text (readability) to understanding oral speech and employ the Gunning Fog Index of Readability (Gunning, 1952, and see the free, online calculator see http://gunning-fog-index.com/index.html). This is a systematic method to assist communicators in language-level approximation as they communicate with children. Here is how it works. Consider the sentence: “The house is big.” Submitting this sentence to the computer-based Gunning Fog Index, we find that 1.2 years of education (1st grade, second month) is needed to understand the sentence’s semantic and syntactic meaning. However, in order to make sense of the parallel sentence, ←63 | 64→“The domicile is of gargantuan proportions,” 22.4 years of education (graduate-level) is needed. Why is this so? The Gunning Fog Index is based on the assumption that easy-to-comprehend sentences contain few words and simple words (1-syllable). Adding more words to a sentence (increasing syntactic complexity) and more complex words (i.e., three-or-more-syllables to increase semantic complexity), increases the education level needed in order to comprehend a given sentence. Thus, when adult communicators are speaking to children ages 5−6 (first grade), if he/she wants to be understood then he/she should take into account the general maxim that for these younger children, simple words used in short sentences have a better chance of being understood than bigger words used in longer sentences. This is especially an important insight for researchers to consider when seeking to empirically measure and systematically study children’s communication, and to do so in such a way to yield valid and reliable results.

Communication researchers, especially those studying child-age participants, must ask, are the study participants able to decode the linguistic meanings of any prompts, scales, and questions used in a study? This means that prior to a study, communication researchers should not only use the Gunning Fog Index on their instruments but should also consult with Pre-K and elementary school teachers in order to check the overall approach as well the language of the instruments. And then they should also pre-test the measure with children of the targeted age to make sure that the approach and level of language will have a good chance of yielding valid and reliable results. Thus, lesson one of studying children’s communication: Make sure they can understand you at a linguistic level.

Adapting Existing Research Methods for Children

Survey studies of communication using questionnaires that contain empirically derived measures are commonplace in adult communication studies. But can the same kinds of methodological approaches yield valid and reliable data when studying children? It is obvious that language-based approaches like survey methods cannot be used with pre-linguistic children. But what about children during early and middle childhood? Can children communicate a valid and reliable response using a Likert scale? Research studies in psychology commonly show that children (ages 3–6) are capable of making and communicating valid and reliable dichotomous choices about concrete stimuli such as: yes/no, I like it/I don’t like it, or smiley face/yuk face. In an important study, Mellor and Moore (2014) found that using numbers (rather than words) produced low concordance among children ages 6–13. That is, ←64 | 65→using words are better than using numbers, and further, the dichotomous response yields what they refer to as the gold standard of children’s responses. Further, their ability to make concrete dichotomous judgments not only continues throughout the primary grades but can become refined over time. That is, as children’s language skills advance (in middle grades 4–6) they become increasing able to also understand and report what “neutral” or “not sure” means and can make increasingly finer distinctions (very much, very little) that are a common feature of Likert scales.

The field of communication is certainly replete with adult-targeted, Likert-type measures of thousands of communication concepts that are integral to understanding, explaining, and predicting communication in a wide array of contexts and relationships. In order to move the communication field towards a lifespan approach, an admittedly massive task facing the field of communication (far larger than available space to be addressed adequately in this chapter) is to ascertain the extent to which any given communication measure used to study adults can be extended (at all or with modification) to study children. If the field of communication is to develop lifespan theories and explanations, a sine qua non is that it must develop methods to assess children’s developing communication abilities as well as that of teens, young adults, and seniors.

Given what is already known from past research, it is safe to say that in early childhood most children can make gross, dichotomous judgments about communication stimuli (smiley or yuk). However, it is important to also conduct communication studies to ascertain children’s message production abilities so they may be normed. For example, Socha and Kelly (1994) gathered humorous messages from children in grades K–8 and found that very young children (K–3) do have a primitive understanding of what sorts of messages they believe can potentially make other children laugh (e.g., making silly faces, fart sounds, etc.) and that the humor of some children can become increasingly sophisticated as they move into middle school. Unfortunately, their study also showed that not only can children (ages 6–12) tell jokes, but that some children (i.e., boys in about 4th grade) may also acquire adults’ anti-social humor communication habits of racist, sexist, and ageist joking. We will have more to say about this agenda item later in the chapter.

Assessing the Changing Communication Abilities of Children

When studying children, researchers must also attend to another measurement problem that is often hidden when studying the communication of adults. That is, communication is constantly developing and changing. During adulthood, communication changes often take place over long periods of ←65 | 66→time making changes less noticeable. Whereas during childhood, changes take place in far shorter periods of time and are often far more dramatic. For example, at the start of first grade (ages 5–6), most children enter as emergent readers, yet after less than one year, most will leave first grade able to read and comprehend 2nd and 3rd-grade level texts, as well as compose sentences (along with performing lots of mathematical operations and more). We know from past research that development of any sort does not necessarily follow a straight line. It may cycle through stages of progression and regression that include learning, unlearning, and relearning. An example that will resonate with those teaching at the college level is that all college students write their very first grammatically-correct sentences in 1st grade and continue to write sentences throughout K–12 education. Yet, an often-heard complaint of those teaching writing to first-year college students (age-18) is that their students cannot write grammatically correct sentences! Children’s communication abilities might even change for the better within the course of participating in a research study but any gains may also disappear quickly if they are not reinforced.

The field of communication is replete with one shot, short-term studies, but lags far behind other fields in studying communication over time. For example, it is useful to empirically demonstrate that a given educational intervention is effective at immediately changing a communication skill or habit, but without longitudinal studies (over years) whether or not the effect can be sustained is left open to serious question, whether studying children or adults. Here too the field of communication lags far behind other fields in studying communication over time. We will also have more to say about this as an agenda item at the close of the chapter.

Planning and Executing Children’s Communication Studies

An often-heard complaint (used as an excuse to avoid studying children) heard from researchers is “I don’t have access to children,” or accessing children is far more difficult than working with college students. There are of course good reasons for this. No parent wants strangers to have access to their offspring. Educators do not want day-to-day educational processes disrupted by a researcher and his/her study, especially if the educational benefit to children in doing so is unclear. Sadly, trusted others who have had access to children have taken advantage of this trust and harmed them, such that today everyone who works with children are now screened for criminal backgrounds. So, yes, it is more difficult today to conduct research about children’s communication than in years past. But this does not mean children ←66 | 67→should be completely abandoned. Rather, researchers should work with children’s organizations, institutions, groups and individuals to understand how they can become partners and allies of children and assist in advancing children’s development with these organizations and demonstrate that we in the field of communication do have something to share that is of mutual benefit. Researchers should not enter the worlds of children seeking only to benefit themselves but rather should partner with those working with children for the mutual benefit of all. But how should this be done?

First, communication researchers seeking to study children must become better friends with childcare workers, child educators, child professionals, and administrators of children’s programs and understand their needs and concerns. For example, when invited, I have provided my services as a guest speaker to local pre-schools, elementary and middle schools, as well as organizations that support schools, including a large annual conference for school nurses run by a local medical school and children’s hospital as well as local groups of fathers. At these events, I have shared research findings and best practices from the communication literature as well as my recent studies about smartphone use and children. I have also given talks to parents about an array of topics such as positive communication development, media literacy, talking about sexuality, and more. I have taught online classes for an organization that helps to provide continuing education for pre-K teachers (at no cost) as well as afterschool talks for a parent education program for Pre-K parents. My wife is also a primary grade teacher and administrator. I have learned that there are many needs in education that the communication field can help those in education to meet and there is a willingness to partner and share resources if partnerships are the primary goal and not simply data collection.

Second, today, after-care and before-care child programs are commonplace. Children arrive early to school and stay late after school before heading home. During after-care and once homework is done, children are afforded free time until their pick-up time. This free time can range from 30 minutes to a couple of hours. It is during free time that communication researchers would stand a good chance to be granted access by parents and program administration to work with children in grades Pre-K to 5th or depending on the school PreK to 8. The reasoning here is that participation in a research study during what otherwise would be downtime can be viewed as a learning experience that will not detract from any of the children’s other learning experiences during the regular school day. And, because children’s school days are complex with lots of moving parts, it is far easier to work with parents and what is often a single aftercare program administrator than several school officials and teachers.

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Third, during the summer, when children are out of school, they are often enrolled in day camps of many kinds. Similar to the regular school year, summer camps may also include a before camp and after camp care component. Many camps often span 5 days that will include inevitable unscheduled times. Communication researchers can partner with parents and day camp directors to include children’s participation in research studies during these unscheduled times as well as before and after camp times. Going further, with some imagination, planning, and work it may even be possible to create summer “communication camps” where children of all ages could come to work on public speaking skills, group communication leadership skills, interpersonal communication skills, conflict management skills, media production skills, media literacy and, more. Such a camp would not only add important value to children’s lives but with proper parental permissions would offer an ongoing lab in which to conduct communication research studies of children.

Finally, gaining access to a diverse population of children is challenging. Depending on their geographic locations, the populations of the aforementioned aftercare and summer camp programs may overrepresent children of middle and upper socioeconomic standings as well as possibly oversample white children (limiting generalizability). Here are some suggestions to manage this important problem. First, choose to partner with Head Start programs, inner-city youth programs, rural 4-H clubs, the YMCA, and other similar programs that include a wide variety of children. Second, partner with a variety of churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques that sponsor youth programs. Children from only one religious denomination will, of course, skew the sample. And, coming from religious organizations may also skew a sample depending on what is being studied. Organizations like the Boys/Girls Clubs and Scouting might also be helpful. Finally, researchers might also want to elicit the help of college students to recruit their brothers, sisters, cousins, and friends. Although still non-random, this kind of approach might be useful in generating a sample of children.

Human Subjects Protections and Children

Children are unable to give legal consent and therefore written permission of a parent/guardian is required before researchers can seek the assent of a person under age18 to participate in a research study. Further, children are a specially protected class of human subjects and as such researchers must take extra care when working with children to make especially certain that no harms arise in the course of a given study. Because of this, it is also not ←68 | 69→possible for college-level Human Subjects Review Committees to consider studies involving children for an exempt review. Studies with children must be reviewed by a university’s full IRB. This, of course, requires detailed paperwork and extra time. In the experience of the first author, researchers should allow 30–60 days to complete the IRB review process for a study involving children. It is often quicker but how long will depend in part on the agenda of the IRB (some months are busier than others).

To increase the chances of success with the IRB, here are some tips. First, include a written statement from the program administrator that the researcher has permission to conduct the study with his/her cooperation. Second, in creating the informed consent document for parents be very clear about what exactly the child will be asked to do in the study, step by step. Paint a very clear picture. Third, offer the children a meaningful incentive. In the experience of the first author, university swag (e.g., pencils, etc.) is preferred over empty-calorie snacks. Fourth, once parental permissions are secured, at a minimum, verbal assent is required from the children to participate in the study. Gathering written children’s assent is typically waived by the IRB to afford children anonymity, but this is a matter to negotiate with the IRB. Children who say “no” to a study are thanked, reassured, and returned to free play. Tell the IRB this in the proposal. Fifth, seek the assistance of the program’s administrator in gathering parents’ signatures on informed consent documents. Program officials usually have systems in place for distributing and managing parental permission slips and lots of documents. As a part of this process, an administrator might ask a researcher to attend scheduled parent meetings to talk about a study and gather signatures there. Flexibility is needed for success. Finally, as a part of the process researchers should be clear about what he/she/they is(are) willing to do for a program in exchange for help. In the experience of the first author, lectures (about the study or another topic of interest) at PTA or similar parent meetings are often most welcomed. And in order to develop long-term partnerships for his graduate students and him, the first author has also participated in faculty in-service days by giving workshops and guest lectures about children’s communication and more. Programs and schools are more likely to provide assistance if they are partners in research.

The process of getting any study through IRB review is an important and necessary part of conducting good research. The extra steps necessary in order to conduct research with children in terms of human subject protections are really not all that much onerous than conducting any study that involves risk. And just like any study success involves planning, review, and proper execution.

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Research involving children may take a bit more time, planning, and paperwork. But it is not all that much more effort than planning and executing any good research study. And, once good community partnerships are formed, the process of conducting research studies with children is made far easier for researchers and graduate students. Further, these kinds of partnerships may also result in creating new research studies about topics that scholars might not have considered. Going forward, teaching graduate and undergraduate students how to conduct communication research with children should be a standard part of all communication research methods courses so that children can be fully included in communication. Children are communicators too.


Bajgrowicz, B. (2018). 30 ridiculous guidelines Disney parks employees have to obey. Retrieved from https://www.thegamer.com/disney-parks-guidelines-employess-trivia/

Gunning, R. (1952). The technique of clear writing. McGraw-Hill.

Harwood, J. (2007). Understanding communication and aging: Developing knowledge and awareness. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Haslett, B. B., & Samter, W. (1997). Children communicating: The first five years. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Heywood, C. M. (2001). A history of childhood. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

Moore, K. A. (2014). The use of Likert scales with children. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 39(3), 369–379.

Meyer, J. C. (2003). Kid’s talking: Learning relationships and culture with children. Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield.

Miller, S. A. (2007). Developmental research methods (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Miller-Day, M., Pezalla, A., & Chesnut, R. (2013). Children are in families too!: The presence of children in communication research. Journal of Family Communication, 13(2), 150−165.

Myers, S. A., & Goodboy, A. K. (2005). A study of grouphate in a course in small group communication. Psychological Reports, 97, 381–386.

National Institutes of Health (NIH). (2018). Inclusion across the lifespanPolicy implementation. Retrieved from https://grants.nih.gov/grants/funding/lifespan/lifespan.htm

Nelson, S., & Fredricksm B. (2020, February 6). Trump calls Russian probe ‘bullshit’ in post-impeachment remarks. New York Post, retrieved from https://nypost.com/ 2020/02/06/trump-calls-russia-probe-bullshit-in-post-impeachment-remarks/

Nussbaum. J. F. (Ed.). (2014). The handbook of lifespan communication. New York: Peter Lang.

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Olsson, C. (2004). Dyadic interaction with a child with multiple disabilities: A system theory perspective on communication. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 20, 228–242.

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Pitts, M. J., & Hummert, M. L. (2014). Lifespan communication methodology. In J. F. Nussbaum (Ed.). The handbook of lifespan communication (pp. 29–52). New York: Peter Lang.

Schroeder, S. (2014, November). Exploring infant cognition. Association for Psychological Science Observer, retrieved from https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/exploring-infant-cognition

Socha, T. J., & Kelly, B. (1994). Children making fun: Humorous communication, impression management, and moral development. Child Study Journal, 24, 237–252.

Socha, T. J., & Socha, D. M. (1994). Children’s task group communication: Did we learn it all in kindergarten? In L. Frey (Ed.), Group communication in context: Studies of natural groups (pp. 227–246). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

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Wright, T. (2015, August 7). Kids are learning curse words earlier than they used to: And it’s all because they hear you using them. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost. com/posteverything/wp/2015/08/07/kids-are-learning-curse-words-earlier-than-they-used-to/

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4. Children, Parents, and Resilience

Exploring Challenges and Potential of Communication’s Contributions to Developmental Thriving


Old Dominion University


Texas Christian University

For decades, scholars across a variety of disciplines have attempted to explicate the often-detrimental consequences of adverse childhood experiences. As a result of this extensive focus, we know that children who endure stressful, nonnormative, and adverse events early in childhood are often more likely to face a variety of social and emotional issues later in life (Benson, 1997; Richardson, 2002). Yet despite these potentially negative consequences of childhood adversity, a small but significant subset of children emerge from adverse childhood circumstances as happy, healthy, and well-functioning adults (Werner & Smith, 1992). When children are able to anticipate, respond, and recover from significant early-life circumstances, we call them resilient.

Resilience is defined as the “successful adaption to adversity” and is often investigated as an individual response to stressful experiences (Zautra, Hall, & Murray, 2010, p. 4). Understanding and promoting resilience in children is particularly important because it provides an opportunity to shape and benefit their later-life functioning as adults. If children develop the early ability to respond resiliently to adverse childhood experiences, it likely becomes a pattern that is built upon and carried into adulthood. Yet increasingly, childhood experiences present numerous and varied sets of challenges across multiple domains with the opportunity to evoke a resilient response to each as they develop.

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It is an understatement that in today’s society, children are faced with complex challenges. A landmark study examining adverse childhood experiences (ACEs, a cross-section of middle-class adults of varied racial backgrounds and education levels reported that nearly two-thirds of children experienced some type of abuse, neglect or other traumatic experience prior to the age of 18 (Felitti et al., 1998). More than half reported two or more types of childhood adversity, with nearly 60% reporting some form of abuse, 25% reported emotional or physical neglect, and 80% reported one or more household challenges such as parental divorce, parental substance abuse, and/or domestic violence (Felitti et al., 1998). Even in the absence of these more severe forms of adversity, children face other issues originating from a variety of sources. For example, over 60% of children indicate that they witnessed two or more incidents of bullying in the last month (Gulemetova, Drury, & Bradshaw, 2011), 38% of 12th graders reported using alcohol in the past month (Johnston, O’Malley, Miech, Bachman, & Schulenberg, 2016), and 47% are eligible for free or reduced lunch as a result of their family’s socioeconomic status (Glander, 2015).

Some people argue that in an ideal world, childhood would be an easy, idyllic experience, markedly absent of these or any types of adversity. However, given that these stressors cover a wide variety of social and economic issues that continue into adulthood, it seems nearly impossible (and potentially detrimental) to completely shelter children in this way. Additionally, there is some evidence to suggest that early exposure to manageable levels of adversity provides tools to more effectively respond to stress later in life (Lyons & Parker, 2007). The question then becomes, how can we best promote resilience in children, and more specifically, what communication practices contribute to this process?

For children and adults alike, Luthar (2006) summarizes nearly four decades of resilience inquiry by concluding, “resilience rests, fundamentally, on relationships” (p. 780). Because most adverse events have a social component in that we tend to discuss them with others, communication in close relationships plays a significant role in developing a resilient response to stressful events across the lifespan (Carr & Koenig Kellas, 2018; Montpetit, Bergeman, Deboeck, Tiberio, & Boker, 2010). Yet, understanding how communication might promote resilience in children requires an acknowledgment that innovations to our social connections, shifts in modern family structures, and corresponding social, political, and economic uncertainty present contemporary challenges to child development. A common theme across these challenges is that they concurrently create opportunities to clarify the role of communication in the development of children’s resilience to stress, adversity, and difficult situations.

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When children are faced with adversity, communication often functions as a reflective process associated with incremental learning and experience in a variety of ways. For example, perspective can be offered as a sense-making mechanism from older to younger generations (Lucas & Buzzanell, 2012), and allows for a more mindful approach with more complex schemas and procedural knowledge through advice-giving (MacGeorge et al. 2004), mentorship (Walker, 2007), and a variety of memorable messages (Kranstuber, Carr, & Hosek, 2012; Waldron et al., 2014). Drawing from resilience theory, communication scholars have started to identify the collaborative and fundamental roles of both communication and resilience in successfully responding to challenging life circumstances (Afifi & Keith, 2004, Afifi, Merrill, & Davis, 2015; Buzzanell, 2010; Beck & Socha, 2015; Carr, 2015; Frisby et al. 2012; Wilson et al., 2014). Most recently, Brian Houston and Patrice Buzzanell have served as guest editors on two different issues of the Journal of Applied Communication focused on communication contributions to resilience (Buzzanell & Houston, 2018; Houston & Buzzanell, 2020).

Collectively, this body of developing literature illustrates that resilience can be effectively viewed as a process that emerges between people, rather than simply within them. Shifting our focus from a primarily psychological perspective focused on resiliency (i.e., a personality trait) to resilience (i.e., the outcome of a communicative process) highlights the unique contributions of communication to the interdisciplinary concept. Thus, in this chapter, we examine how various communication phenomena promote or compromise the resilient development of capacity for children to deal with stress, adversity, change, uncertainty, hurt, and failure.

Potential for Resilience and Communication

In an effort to identify a more specific framework for the roles that communication plays in the lives of children and their families, four fundamental (but overlapping) areas of inquiry emerge as salient. First, how does communication function in promoting resilience in children’s lives (e.g., development, well-being, health, and happiness)? Second, in what ways do those with connections to children (i.e., the proverbial “village”) communicate in ways that contribute (both positively and negatively) to child development? Third, how does communication manifest itself? What messages or forms of communication are commonly used to promote and support resilience, and what needs to be used more? Finally, how might we communicatively undermine the resilience in our children, or provide impediments towards the opportunity to develop resilience on their own (e.g., counter-productive communicative acts & habits)? The following subsections address these questions with answers ←77 | 78→supported by theory and research representing both interdisciplinary and communication perspectives.


Much of the early child development research in resilience focused on competence, or effective functioning in the world. At that time, the goal of resilience research was to identify relevant areas of aptitude, often using relative developmental benchmarks or standards of behavior (see Masten & O’Dougherty Wright, 2010). Age-related communication competencies for children include uttering first words, labeling objects, participating in early interaction sequences, displaying empathy and perspective taking, making friends, initiating complex requests, and developing complex models of the other (Miller & DeThorne, 2014; Socha & Yingling, 2010). These general competencies, as well as additional others across various life stages, have been conceptualized as developmental tasks (e.g., Bruner, 1966; Elder, 1998), and their achievement signifies comparison points relative to those in one’s cohort (e.g., “She’s advanced for her age” or “He’s behind his classmates”). As children mature, the standard for evaluating competence similarly evolves, reflecting the more complex social structures embedded in relationships and workplace effectiveness (Haslett & Samter, 1997; Masten & O’Dougherty Wright, 2010).

Indeed, the lifespan progression in competence standards reflects the integral role of communication in support of lifelong success and the promotion of social and emotional well-being. Success in one developmental period often leads to success in others. For example, the social skills developed at age 4 in forging early friendships help children identify what qualifies as a “best friend” at age 8, and perhaps what characteristics are desirable in a potential romantic partner in the teenage years (e.g., Haslett & Samter, chapter 7, 1997; Meyer, 2003). It follows that a lack of these opportunities to learn, enjoy successes, and even fail has the potential to create a “knowledge gap” or deficiency, which could be compounded in later years (i.e., “developmental cascades,” Masten et al., 2005). Therefore, these deficiencies can have a cumulative effect, creating sizeable differences between a child and others in their developmental cohort.

Accepting these communication competency milestones as related to fostering resilience suggests the need for attention to how we address these well in advance of the challenges that typify late adolescence, teenage years, and young adulthood. Some communication behaviors serve as effective in both times of heightened distress and less challenging routine, “day to ←78 | 79→day” functioning. For example, modeling general social practices and efficacious interaction patterns (Bandura, 1979), positive communication and habits (Socha & Pitts, 2012; Socha & Yingling, 2010), practicing mindfulness (Manusov & Harvey-Knowles, 2015), and engaging in effective conflict management (Wilmot & Hocker, 2013) typify fundamental characteristics of strength-promoting communication regardless of context.

To this point, ongoing communication has an iterative function in helping family members (children included) coordinate meaning, make sense of the routine and the unexpected moments in life, and actively create a sense of balance and predictability in each other’s lives. Such communication practices function in a manner that generally benefit all members in a system (Bowen, 1974), operating in interdependent and corresponding ways to preserve the system as it reacts to both internal and external disruptions.


A central premise to interpersonal, relational, and family communication research is the role of interdependence. In close relationships, the communication choices we make are not conducted in a vacuum; rather, they are impacted by and have an impact on those closest to us. As noted above, family systems theory (e.g., Bowen, 1974) invokes a web of influence and interdependence among family members and extended network members in the sense making and relevant interaction before, throughout, and following significant life events (Galvin & Young, 2010; Theiss, 2018). As such, the individual potential for resilience is inherently tied to the meaning we create and continue to co-construct with close others including children.

Uri Bronfenbrenner’s socio-ecological model is a useful framework for considering the child (or parent-child relationship) at the center different levels of influence that shape developmental outcomes and wellbeing (Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Ungar, Gazinour, & Richer, 2013). Rather than simply focus on the individual, more inclusive and sophisticated theorizing can account for the complexity of the social ecology in which individuals are imbedded. After mapping current resilience work across Bronfenbrenner’s model, Ungar et al. (2013) derived three patterns important to a socio-ecological view on resilience: Equifinality (i.e., multiple different factors can have an effect on outcomes given the circumstances), differential impact (i.e., resources function in different ways: compensating, buffering, mediating, and so on), and cultural moderation (i.e., access and utilization of particular resources is filtered through cultural expectations and value-systems). Thus, interrelationships between the micro, macro, and social and historical context ←79 | 80→emerge as a byproduct of the extended system in which the resilience process and those it affects are imbedded (Bogenschneider, 1996). Importantly, this also implies that depending on context and culture, communication’s effectiveness or purpose may vary across families and children.

Consistent with this recognition of multiple contributors across a social ecology, communal coping is a conceptual model that accounts for the variety of factors in response to a serious stressor. Those that are coping with a stressor or challenge communally often use shared interpretations and resources to coordinate their responses (Krouse & Afifi, 2007; Lyons et al., 1998). Through this process, stressors are not solely experienced as isolated individual level phenomena (e.g., “my issues” or “your challenge”) but instead, as something to be faced together (“our struggle”). With open communication within and across families, children and their parents are not struggling alone, but instead share the challenges and uncertainty with a larger community. Indeed, when families communicate to maintain a balance of both family cohesion (i.e., emotional bonding) and adaptability (i.e., flexibility in family roles), they are better able to promote resilience, regardless of the amount of adversity they experienced (Carr & Koenig Kellas, 2018).

Scholars have attempted to characterize how communication in both close relationships (e.g., communication characterized by tact, respect, civility, partnership, tension release, and discretion; see Beck, 2016) and families (e.g., family communication patterns, e.g., Ledbetter & Beck, 2014; maintenance and coping strategies, see Afifi et al., 2015) has the potential to promote resilience. Family communication patterns, in particular the conversation dimension (i.e., encouraging openness, dialogue), was found to contribute to family strengths (Thompson & Schrodt, 2014). Those families found to have been assessed with higher levels of family strengths can be characterized by (a) regular expressions of affection and appreciation, (b) a commitment to the wellbeing of each family member, (c) positive communication and the ability to resolve conflict constructively, (d) a tendency to enjoy quality time together, (e) a sense of spiritual well-being, and (f) an ability to effectively manage stress and unexpected crisis (DeFrain & Stinett, 2003).

While such a list may seem in some ways like an idealized (utopian) family checklist, it does suggest that most of these characteristics are proactively established patterns of interaction during “normal” or typical day-to-day experiences. Promoting positive communication, finding moments to enjoy life and each other, and appreciating children, parents, and extended members of the family are all things that can be developed and established as part of typical family functioning. Perhaps only two, (c) “… resolving conflict effectively” and (f) “… managing stress and unexpected crisis,” are more ←80 | 81→deliberately about handling stressors or negative experiences, or more standard “reactive” conceptions of resilience. Across all of the above representations of family and relational communication, an emphasis on engaging in positive and respectful communication plays a particularly relevant role in children’s communication development. Looking more specifically as particular communication practices and messages that manifest within these contexts highlights the benefits of specific, targeted investigations.


From birth, children receive a variety of messages that promote developmental competencies and support the development of resilience. Perhaps the most significant sources of resilience-supporting messages come from both regular and meaningful family interaction (Socha & Yingling, 2010). Indeed, families provide the first lens through which children see the world, and communicative behaviors that emerge in family interaction–whether good or bad–often have long-ranging effects for children (Socha & Yingling, 2010). Thus, to account for how resilience-promoting messages enter our children’s lives from the sources that influence them, the sections below summarize theories and perspectives that examine the incremental modeling and scaffolding (e.g., Bruner, 1966) of fundamental social skills: Social cognitive theory, media effect theories, storytelling and family narratives, redemption and contamination sequences, coping and support, memorable messages, and advice.

Social cognitive theory. As one of the central theories of development, social cognitive theory (SCT) provides an explanation for how children learn by watching the actions of others, and then modeling those behaviors (Bandura, 1979). The theory remains one of the most popular theoretical frameworks for investigations of children’s communication (Miller-Day, Pezalla, & Chesnutt, 2013). Within a resilience framework, children consistently observe how their family members interact, cope with life’s challenges, and recover with varying degrees of effectiveness, all while innately internalizing schemas and procedural knowledge. SCT is commonly used to investigate the degree of impact of negative media messages, such as the internalization of the “thin ideal” (Te’eni-Harai, & Eyal, 2015) and sexual content (Bond & Drogos, 2014).

Media effects theories. Aside from more routine, daily forms of parent-child interaction, the average day for a modern child is beset with a preponderance of media messages. Data from the Kaiser foundation (Rideout, Foehr, & Roberts, 2010) suggests that children ages 8–18 spent approximately ←81 | 82→seven and a half hours per day viewing media. After accounting for sleep and school, this doesn’t leave much time for regular meaningful or substantive family interaction. However, media consumption has the potential to promote prosocial behavior (Mares & Woodard, 2007), school readiness (Fisch, 2004), and general thriving and flourishing (de Leeuw & Buijzen (2016; and see Webb, 201, for an overview of digital and social media in families).

Storytelling and narratives. According to narrative theory, humans are “homo-narrans,” or inherently storytelling creatures (Fisher, 1984). We talk about past events, experiences, or significant times to others in the form of narrative stories as a way to make sense of difficult experiences (Bochner, Ellis, & Tillmann-Healy, 1997). Narratives can be particularly beneficial in coping with adversity and promoting resilience in children because as we tell stories, we think about ourselves and enact certain behaviors according to what we believe to be true about ourselves, based on the narratives we tell. One example of narrative sense-making that may be salient in understanding the development of resilience in children is the process of joint family story-telling.

Families can be enormously influential in helping children make sense of difficulty through the way they frame and jointly tell stories about their collective challenging experiences. For example, Koenig-Kellas and Trees (2006) reported that in family triads (which included at least one child and one parent), families were able to reach a shared conclusion regarding the meaning of a shared difficult experience when the telling of these stories reflects family members’ higher level of engagement, perspective taking, turn-taking, and expressed interpretations.

Yet another way that a narrative perspective can inform the development of resilience in children is through the creation of redemption sequences in our life stories. McAdams (1990) argues that during the creation of our life stories, we are both “history and historians–storytellers who create the self in the process” (p. 151). Yet, beginning at a very early age, individuals can, and do, communicatively alter the tone of their life stories. For example, young adults who were able to “re-story” negative life experiences as redemptive enjoyed increased life satisfaction and well-being, regardless of the degree of negative affect present in their original story (McAdams, Reynold, Lewis, Patten, & Bowman, 2001). In addition, narratives often include both factual details and personal interpretation of events, affected by those who listen to them (Pasupathi, 2001) Thus, it seems that the way children frame themselves in their life stories is ultimately more influential in the development of their resilience than the events that actually occur.

Coping and support. In the context of managing adversity, social support is defined as “the process of interaction which improves coping, esteem, ←82 | 83→belonging, and competence through actual or perceived exchanges of physical or psychosocial resources” (Gottlieb, 2000, p. 28). Theoretically, there are two ways of conceptualizing the impact of social support in developing children’s resilience. First, the main effects model suggests that social support is beneficial to the physical and psychological wellbeing of an individual, irrespective of whether that children are experiencing stress. According to this model, a sense of integration within a larger social network such as a family or community may provide children with regular positive interactions and the feeling that they have a safety net to fall back on should adversity occur. In contrast, the buffering effect model posits that social support, though generally helpful, is particularly critical in times of acute stress as it serves as a protective buffer from its negative effects. In this model, social support alters children’s appraisal of stressful events, such that even significant adverse occurrences seem less negative in the presence of supportive interaction. Although there is empirical support for both models, the distinction between them (and, indeed, the importance of communication) is highlighted by examining variations in the nature of the supportive message.

All supportive messages are not created equal and, consequently, all support is not equally beneficial to children. The concept of person-centeredness assesses the degree to which a support provider communicates to validate a person’s feelings and encourages him or her to talk about the adverse or stressful event (Burleson, 1994). Highly person-centered messages invite distressed individuals to explicitly verbalize their feelings surrounding the stressful event, and to examine why they are experiencing those emotions. In contrast, low person-centered messages often avoid the discussion of emotions surrounding the stressful event, and instead offer dismissive “quick fix” solutions that minimize the presence of the problem. As one might expect, highly person-centered messages often have a direct beneficial effect on emotional improvement, but also encourage individuals to verbalize their thoughts and emotions, which allows them to reappraise stressful situations in ways that are beneficial in facilitating emotional improvement (Jones & Wirtz, 2006) and resilience in children.

Memorable messages. Memorable messages (Knapp et al., 1981; Lucas & Buzzanell, 2010) often function as intergenerational transmissions of prescriptive insight that people hold onto across time. Numerous communication scholars have expanded upon Knapp and colleagues’ (1981) initial conceptualization, adding forms and functions such messages can take: Moral messages (Waldron, 2014), cultural indoctrination (Stohl, 1986), revelations, universal truths, and aphorisms (Merolla, Beck, & Jones, 2016), and guidelines for behavior (Smith & Ellis, 2001). Regardless, these messages are often ←83 | 84→reported as received by those younger (e.g., children) and deemed additionally memorable the more they are seen as credible and positive. Indeed while a receiver’s hindsight bias may prefer to report messages that match positive views of the past, these messages and their retention at all seems to suggest an overall preference at the time of reception for messages that promote positive views of the world.


X, 328
ISBN (Book)
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.


Title: Communication Begins with Children