Let’s face it, you can’t possibly read every parenting book out there — your children would be fully-grown adults by the time you put even a small dent in the great heap of expert parenting advice on offer these days. And when it comes to parenting advice and learning how best to talk to little kids (or teens) so they’ll listen, quality is always more helpful than quantity.
The classic parenting book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk has been around more than 30 years and has been called “the parenting bible” by The Boston Globe (and a bazillion other outlets). The only thing dated about this advice is the testimonials from parents who claim that — before understanding authors Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish’s insights on communicating with kids — they would have simply “smacked” them. We’ve summarized these insights for you — in less than 1,000 words — so you can get back to actual parenting. Here are How to Talk’s most actionable takeaways.
1. Accept and Acknowledge Your Kid’s Feelings
The Way Kids Feel Affects Their Behavior
Emotions drive behavior, even when that behavior is baffling to you because you don’t understand why a carrot pointing the “wrong” way on a child’s plate is cause for a total meltdown (just an example). Identifying the emotion behind the behavior in question is the first step toward addressing any problems that behavior creates.
Denying a Kid’s Feelings Can Exacerbate Problems
You want them to trust their emotions, so don’t give them a reason to doubt themselves. Why the carrot is making them freak out is much more important than how ridiculous it is that they’re freaking out in the first place. Punishment is a top-down system that demoralizes when what you really want is to enlighten and instruct.
What You Can Do With This
- Imagine complaining to a friend about something at work and they respond by a) blaming you; b) questioning your reaction; c) offering unsolicited advice; d) offering fake pity; e) psychoanalyzing you — you’d probably be annoyed. So, yeah. Don’t do that to your kid.
- Show them you’re tuned into how they feel with non-judgmental verbal cues: “I see that shoelace is giving you a hard time.”
- Give their feelings names: “That stubborn shoelace is frustrating, isn’t it?
- View the situation they’re in from their perspective as opposed to your own, and they won’t see you as part of the problem that they’re acting out over.
2. Instead of Punishing, Encourage Cooperation
Bad Behavior Is a Problem, Not a Character Flaw
If your response to their misbehavior makes them feel badly about themselves, you’ve taken the focus off a situation that can be improved and put it on something a lot more complicated — or did you want to take a deep dive into their psyche while they’re trying to pull the tail off the dog?
Punishments Create More Problem Than They Solve
Contrived consequences like time-outs and grounding can modify behavior in the short term, but they don’t teach a kid much because you don’t get any buy-in from the kid. It’s a top-down system that demoralizes when what you really want is to enlighten and instruct.
What You Can Do With This
- Use descriptions rather than declarations. Instead of saying, “You better not throw that water on the floor,” try “I see a lot of water on the floor.”
- Give information about the problem rather than accusations. Instead of saying, “You’re ruining the floor,” try “Water on the floor can seep through and ruin the ceiling below.”
- Make it about you. Since you’re already talking to your kid about their emotions (you are, right?), talk about your own while you’re at it. Make sure they understand how their behavior makes you feel and how it affects you.
- Brainstorm solutions with them. Write down all the suggestions, even the ridiculous ones. Then eliminate the ones that definitely won’t work (“No, we can’t make your sister live in the basement”) until you can come up with a compromise.
3. Encourage Autonomy and Self-Confidence
Dependence ultimately fosters feelings of helplessness, resentment, and frustration — but you don’t need to be told that because you know some of these people as adults.
You Can Definitely Praise Too Much
Kids need affirmation to build a healthy degree of self-esteem but don’t overdo it or they could wind up feeling like the world owes them everything they want. There’s a spectrum that starts at “confident” and ends at “entitled” — aim for the former.
What You Can Do With This
- Empower them with choices. You don’t have to give them free rein; just a number of you-approved options, like when they’re picking out their clothes or starting a list of chores.
- Respect a kid’s struggle and encourage them to try. Doing it for them removes their agency in the world, which is even more frustrating than, say, a stubborn shoelace that won’t stay tied.
- Complex questions are an opportunity to explore something, so don’t brush them off with oversimplified answers. Ask them why they asked and what they think.
- Don’t bullshit them when you don’t know something; encourage them to ask friends or family who might have a better answer.
- Praise generously, but wisely. Be specific and descriptive when doling it out; instead of “You’re a great artist!” try “I like how the zig-zags follow the squiggles — how did you think of that?”
- Appreciate their work and effort, not their traits. This shows kids evidence of their own talents and lets them draw their own conclusions about what they might do with those talents. Otherwise, you’re confining them by telling them who and what they are.
Is there more to the book than this? Sure! But don’t you feel like you’ve already read it? Now, do yourself a favor and read something fun for a change.