I’ve been told by my wife and sons that I often repeat myself in messaging, primarily, when I’m trying to teach something. I credit this to, or blame this on, my past experience in the workforce, as well as what I was taught over and over in graduate school. There’s an expression in marketing called the Rule of 7’s. It says a message has to be seen or heard seven times by the consumer for him or her to remember and act on it. I know personally, this has probably happened to me on several occasions. In our high-tech, automated communications world we’re processing so many different messages minute by minute that it’s easy to forget what you looked at mere seconds earlier.
My first real lesson in the power of repetitive messaging, however, came when I was a young teenager. I love the beach, probably because every year since I was born my parents would take me there for our vacation in the summer. I began to relate summertime to beach activities, hotels, carnival rides, cotton candy, amusement park games, T-shirt shops, ice cream parlors, heavy traffic with loud music blaring from hot rods, crowds on the boardwalk, the smell of suntan lotion, delicious food in fun-themed restaurants, and of course, the Atlantic ocean.
Along the way, I kept seeing one message in particular that resonated with me. I saw it in the hotel room flyer; I saw it in discount coupon books. I read it on signs by the roadside, and finally, at the entrance to pathways to the sandy beach. It related to the danger of ocean tides, specifically in terms of what is called “the undertow.” The term is officially defined by Merriam-Webster.com as “The current beneath the surface that sets seaward or along the beach when waves are breaking upon the shore. An underlying current, force or tendency that is in opposition to what is apparent.” The last sentence is the one that gets you.
Over my many trips to the beach annually, I re-read these repetitive messages. Even when I thought I was too young really to understand them. I didn’t think much of it. These warnings of a monster current weren’t something I thought much about, much less feared. Even after hearing my sister’s own story of a late-night gathering of youths on the beach, many of whom ventured into the water. She did the same. It happened to be a stretch that had only cottages, and there was no lighting to maintain your sense of direction. She got caught in the current and couldn’t find her way out. The others formed a human chain and moved back and forth in the water until the last one out touched her hand and pulled her back in. To me, at the time, it was just a good story, and a lesson never to go into the ocean at night.
But one day, while body surfing the waves, I was caught up in this monster undertow. The same undertow that had taken the life of a swimmer that same summer. Initially, as the rip current pulled me further out into the ocean, I swam harder to shore in an exercise in futility. For every couple of feet I gained, the ocean pulled me back out three yards. I panicked. I knew I couldn’t keep up and I could barely see the shoreline intermittently between the breaking waves. All of a sudden I remembered the signs, the flyers, the repetitive messaging. “When caught in the undertow, remember to swim parallel to the shoreline until you swim out of it.” That’s the simple message so many didn’t know and drowned as a result, attempting instead to swim directly to shore. With a renewed fervor, I began swimming parallel to the shoreline. The ocean continued to pull me outward at first, but, believing in the message, I persisted. Eventually, I made it out of the rip current, and the waves once again began pushing me back to shore. Once I reached the beach, I was several hotels down from my own, so I had a long walk. It didn’t matter though, because I was safe on the sand now.
Ironically, when I got back to my family I never mentioned my experience. I think I was embarrassed that I panicked at first. I didn’t want to appear cowardly. A typical sign of youth. The lesson, however, was learned. The power of repetitive messaging couldn’t have been stronger for me. In the words of the old Chinese proverb, “I hear and I forget. I see, and I remember. I do, and I understand.” Of course, I also learned first-hand never to go swimming alone.
So, when you think your child isn’t listening; they’re acting bored, appearing to ignore you, etc., don’t be dismayed. If your message is important, repeat it, over and over if necessary. It could very well save their life someday.
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