How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk

In this oldie-but-goodie (first published in 1980), Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish attempt to translate their successful “communication skills” seminars into a how-to guide for parents of toddlers and teenagers alike. In some ways the book is just one more in the pile offering now-accepted wisdom like employing empathy and offering choices, but a few features stand out: (1) some of the more dated parts are a total trip, in a fun way (like advice on how to get your kids to put the covers back on their records and treatment of corporal punishment as a popular alternative in need of thorough debunking); (2) the organizational structure that Faber & Mazlish employ makes their core suggestions easy to remember and utilize; and (3) the authors’ willingness to expose their own imperfections makes their advice go over easy (e.g., “I could be very accepting about most of the feelings the children had, but let one of them tell me something that made me angry or anxious and I’d instantly revert to my old way” and “Sounding patient when I’m feeling angry can only work against me. Not only do I fail to communicate honestly; but because I’ve been ‘too nice,’ I wind up letting it out on my child later on.”).

The following descriptions pretty much sum up the “How to Talk” philosophy:

  • When frustrated with your kid, replace blaming and accusing, name-calling, threats, commands, lecturing and moralizing, warnings, martyrdom statements, comparisons, sarcasm, and negative prophecy with “describe the problem” (“I see you’ve got bare feet and we’re leaving the house”), give information (“When there’s snow on the ground, bare feet tend to get frostbite”), say it with a word (“Shoes!”), describe what you feel (“I’m scared that you’ll get sick”), and write a note (self-explanatory).
  • When you encounter resistance ask yourself: “Does my request make sense in terms of my child’s age and ability? . . . Does he feel my request is unreasonable? . . . Can I give her a choice about when to do something, rather than insisting upon ‘right now’? . . . Can I offer a choice about how something is done? . . . Are there any physical changes that could be made in the house that would invite cooperation? . . . [A]re most of my moments with my child spent asking her to ‘do things?’ Or am I taking out some time to be alone with her – just to ‘be together’?” (Also consider giving your child a physical outlet like exercise, biting a stuffed animal, or drawing his emotions.)
  • Instead of using punishment (which “could lead to feelings of hatred, revenge, defiance, guilt, unworthiness, and self-pity”), point out a way to be helpful, express strong disapproval (without attacking character), state your expectations, show the child how to make amends, give a choice, take action, allow the child to experience the consequences of his misbehavior, and problem-solve (together). After all, “[w]e hope that later on in life, as an adult, when he does something he regrets, he’ll think to himself, ‘What can I do to . . . set things right again?’”
  • In order to encourage autonomy, let children make choices, show respect for a child’s struggle, don’t ask too many questions, don’t rush to answer questions, encourage children to use sources outside the home, and don’t take away hope. Also try to let her own her own body, stay out of the minutiae of a child’s life, don’t talk about a child in front of him, let a child answer for himself, show respect for your child’s eventual readiness, watch out for too many “no’s,” and preface your suggestions with “How would you feel about . . .” or “Would you consider . . . .”
  • Instead of a knee-jerk “no,” try giving information, accepting feelings, describing the problem, substituting a conditional “yes,” and giving yourself time to think.
  • When it comes to praise, instead of evaluating a child, describe what you see, sum up the child’s behavior with a word, and/or describe what you feel (though be wary of saying “I feel so proud of you” or “I knew you could do it,” because “somehow the emphasis [shifts] from your [child’s] accomplishment to her [parent’s] pride”; instead try “you must be so proud of yourself”).
  • In order to free children from playing roles, “1. Look for opportunities to show the child a new picture of himself or herself. 2. Put children in situations where they can see themselves differently. 3. Let children overhear you say something positive about them. 4. Model the behavior you’d like to see. 5. Be a storehouse for your child’s special moments. 6. When your child acts according to the old label, state your feelings and/or your expectations.”

Though not every piece of advice resonated with me (e.g., as a fan of the timeout as a last resort, I wasn’t totally on board with this perspective: “What Bill needs is not time out but private time with a caring adult who will help him deal with his feelings and figure out better ways to handle them”), I found myself nodding in agreement pretty much the entire time. Afterwards, I began using the “describe what you see” and “offer silent support” strategies frequently. I wouldn’t put “How to Talk” up there with “Happiest Toddler on the Block” in terms of sheer richness of helpful tricks and tips for dealing with kids on a daily basis, but it definitely makes the top ten list, somewhere near “Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child” and “Love & Logic.”

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