Summary of “How to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk”: With simple and practical methods to help you learn how to communicate in a new way with your children, this book is a bible of positive education; it enables you to quickly attain a more harmonious and collaborative family atmosphere.
By Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, 1980, 286 pages
Note: this column is a guest column written by Coralie from the blog les 6 doigts de la main, to progress on the path of positive parenting.
Chronicle and summary of “How to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk”:
Chapter 1: Help children deal with their feelings
The most basic and important point of this chapter is that we have a marked tendency to ignore our children’s feelings.
- “There’s no reason to get upset!”
- “You don’t really mean that.”
- “But you can’t be tired, you just had a nap!”
- “It’s okay, don’t worry about it…”
There are lots of phrases and things that we say, purely out of habit, which don’t make children feel any better or help a situation.
Let’s put ourselves in their position. Imagine that you are in the office, and your manager, for some reason, shouts at you in front of everyone, and ignores what you have to say. It still annoys you even after you leave work, and when you meet a friend, you tell them what happened.
These are eight potential responses from your friend. As you read each one, ask yourself how you feel.
- Denial of feelings: “No reason to get angry! That’s stupid. You’re probably tired…”
- Philosophical answer: “Look, that’s life. Get used to it.”
- Advice: “You know what? Tomorrow, talk to your boss, apologise, then just finish the job, and don’t repeat the mistake.”
- Questions: “Why didn’t you do what he asked you to do? Wasn’t it obvious to you that it would just make her/him angry?”
- Defend the other person: “I understand her/him too… She/he’s under a lot of pressure!”
- Pity: “Oh, poor thing! That’s awful!”
- Amateur psychoanalysis: “Perhaps you’re angry because your boss is really a father figure? When you were a child, you didn’t want to upset your father…”
- A supportive response: “Wow, that couldn’t have been easy for you…”
When you put yourself in this situation, you realise how many of these responses don’t help you feel better!
In fact, there is nothing better than empathy to help the other person feel better. Just let them talk, which is fundamental, because there is a direct link between the way a child feels, and the way they behave. So, it’s essential to learn the language of empathy, which isn’t straightforward.
They suggest 4 practical ways to deal with these emotions:
- Listen carefully
- Acknowledge how they feel. “Mmm…”, “I see.”
- Define the situation
- See things from their perspective
Let’s review each one, in order to fully understand them:
When our kids talk to us, we only catch some of what they say, as we prepare dinner, check our phone, change their brother’s nappy… If what they tell us is important to them, what they really need is for us to actually give them our full attention.
So, we need to stop whatever it is and listen to them. If it’s not possible at that moment, the best option is to say to them. “Wait, I can’t listen to you properly right now, so please let me finish this and then you can have my full attention.”
Acknowledge how they feel. “Mmm…”, “I see.”
When our emotions run high, often the best thing to do is just figure out the situation. We don’t need advice. So when we listen to our children, do just that, listen. A one-word comment encourages the child to continue their story, it won’t interrupt their flow and allows them the opportunity to work things out for themselves.
Define the situation
If you can define a situation, it is one of the most effective ways to deal with it. “You’re disappointed that he didn’t show up.”
It also enables the child to develop their vocabulary emotionally and physically.
See things from their perspective
One “technique” that works well with young children (from 2 to 7 years old) is to encourage them to use their imagination to achieve what they want.
If a child wants an ice cream, just say: “If you could have an ice cream, what flavor would you choose?” Because you picture it with them, it shows that you listen and it allows them to express what they want, which is far more effective than a negative answer and prevents an argument…
When I read that section, I wasn’t particularly convinced. However, I tried it. And this method proved to work wonders!
Important note: If you listen to and acknowledge the child’s feelings it doesn’t mean that you agree with the outcome. Feelings don’t necessitate agreement; emotion is just a fact. Its mere presence justifies it. The point of this process is simply to acknowledge it.
However, if the emotions are always justified, actions aren’t always so.
One can be very angry but it doesn’t mean that you hit someone because of it. Feelings and actions need to be differentiated.
Chapter 2: Encourage cooperation
Now that we have discussed children’s feelings, let’s focus on our own.
We get annoyed every day when our children ignore our requests. It’s basically down to a conflict of interests: we attempt to teach them the rules of society; hygiene, order, politeness, and they are not interested in those rules!
It seems that the usual methods we employ to achieve our aims don’t work very well, and cause frustration.
To help us understand children a bit better, these two exercises are suggested.
- 1st exercise:
Make a list of everything we ask our children to do, or not to do, over the course of the entire day. Often it will be quite long and consist of everything needed for a power fight…
- 2nd exercise:
Imagine you’re a child, confronted with the methods most often used to try to get children to cooperate.
Take the time to ask yourself the question: how would I feel?
- Blame and accusation: “You’ve scuffed the door again! How many times do I have to tell you? You never listen!”
- Insults: “It’s icy outside, and you want to wear a lightweight jacket? That’s really stupid!”
- Threats: “Touch that lamp again and you’ll get a smack.”
- Orders: “I want you to clean this room now.”
- Lecture: “Do you think that was a nice thing to do? I can see that you don’t appreciate how important it is to behave. You have to understand that if you want others to be nice to you, you have to be nice to them. You wouldn’t want anyone to do that to you, so don’t. Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want done to you.”
- Warnings: “Careful, you’ll get burnt.” / Don’t climb up there! You’ll fall…”
- Play the martyr: “Wait until you have children, you’ll see how difficult it is…”
- Comparisons: “Why can’t you be a little more like your brother? He always finishes his work on time!”
- Sarcasm: “You know that you have a test tomorrow, and you left your book at school. That’s clever.”
- Prophecies: “Continue to be selfish like this, and you won’t have any friends!”
Doesn’t this make you think that you should choose other options?
Here are 5 things that can help create a friendlier atmosphere that will encourage better cooperation:
- Describe what you see, or outline the problem
- Provide information
- Just say one word
- Describe how it feels
- Write something down
To illustrate the various techniques, use this example:
Your child left a wet towel on your bed.
One of the techniques above can be used to encourage our child to remove it and avoid the potential scenarios we are accustomed to.
Describe what you see, or outline the problem:
“There’s a wet towel on the bed.”
This approach eliminates the accusation altogether and gives the child the opportunity to amend the situation immediately. Simple.
“The towel makes the duvet wet.”
Information is a valuable technique because it allows you to highlight to them how to rectify a situation and learn from it.
For instance, “Milk goes sour when it is left out of the fridge.”
Just say one word
A technique that parents generally like: just use fewer words so that you don’t say things you’d regret. And it allows the child to think. “What’s the problem with the towel?” and work it out for themselves. This easy process will make it more likely that the situation won’t happen again!
Describe how it feels
“I don’t like to sleep in a bed with a wet duvet!”
What a sense of freedom to know that we can also talk about our own feelings… Yes, we are human, and there are certain scenarios that we don’t like very much. Sometimes it might just be that we’re stressed, and we can let our children know this too.
Write something down
“Please hang me up.” (above the towel rail)
As with a single word, the beauty of this technique is its simplicity. It means that our words take over our thoughts.
If children regularly forget to put their toothbrush away, it’s not to annoy us, it’s because it doesn’t matter to them. If they see it written down it allows them to think about it, and generally that’s enough for them to help things work in a better way.
Chapter 3: Substitute punishment
At this stage of How to talk so that kids will listen, the methods implemented from the first 2 chapters should already have started a subtle transformation in the home. But there are still times of frustration because some things don’t work as we would like them to. There is also still the inclination to punish our children!
But think back to your own feelings when you were disciplined as a child… Punishment is more likely to cause feelings of anger, revenge, or guilt…
In fact, in the opinion of Dr. Ginott (Faber and Mazlish’s mentor), punishment is a distraction: rather than feel sorry for what they have done, the child turns their attention to a desire for revenge! In other words, if you punish the child, you deprive them of the opportunity to address their bad behaviour.
So… What else can be done?
In fact, there are two distinct scenarios: one where the situation happened unexpectedly, and you attempt to prevent a confrontation that might lead to punishment; and the other where you are faced with a persistent problem.
In the case of an unexpected situation, these are the proposed alternatives:
- Suggest a way to be helpful
- Disapprove vociferously
- State what is expected of the child
- Show them how to do it properly
- Give them a choice
- Act on it
Again, let’s look at each point in a little more detail:
Suggest a way to be helpful
Sometimes we punish kids because we don’t understand the situation. The child gets bored and does things they shouldn’t… When this happens, rather than allow things to get out of hand, it is better to immediately suggest to the child how they can be helpful. Once the child is busy with an activity, things between you will improve.
As we discussed in the previous chapter, sometimes it is good to talk about ourselves and our feelings. For example, a strong “I don’t like the way things are going!” will give the child the opportunity to change things and improve the situation.
State what is expected of the child
To follow on from the previous point, generally, it’s beneficial to specify what your expectations are, as the child won’t always know.
“When we are at the table, I expect you to stay seated in your chair.”
Show them how to do it properly
There’s nothing better than an example. If a child spills their glass of milk, if you show them how to clear it up it will be far more effective than if you punish them!
Give them a choice
This is the moment when you demonstrate to the child what their responsibilities are. Make them aware of what the consequences of their choices are.
“You can play football outside, or you can play something else inside.”
Act on it
So, when it comes to this point (that of a consequence), the child knows why, and does not feel the injustice often linked to punishment.
You can simply just say “I see that you have chosen to stay inside” and take the ball away.
Ultimately, many of the situations we experience with our children repeat themselves… Always the same ones, always tiresome. So, when faced with a constant problem, the authors recommend an approach that will alleviate the problem.
(and this for me is a key skill of positive parenting).
The steps to solve a problem:
- Talk about the child’s feelings and needs
- Talk about your feelings and needs
- Look for an appropriate solution in a brainstorming session
- Choose something to keep both of you happy, and how to implement it
- Monitor how it is implemented
Some comments on these steps:
- Talk about the child’s feelings and needs: This section has to be carried out thoroughly. It is fundamental for what happens next: until a child has been heard, they will have no inclination to listen to side of things.
- Talk about your feelings and needs: Here, be concise. Short and to the point. But be truthful about how you feel.
- Look for an appropriate solution in a brainstorming session: In this step, don’t hold back. Take note of everything and if the child can come up with some of their own suggestions, that’s even better, so that they feel involved in the process! It’s a good idea to write everything down: it makes each task and each idea important.
- Choose something to keep both of you happy, and how to implement it: Don’t judge the ideas, don’t make accusations, but simply comment on whether they are suitable or not, in relation to each person’s need.
- Monitor its implementation: Sometimes, because we’ve found a solution, we assume that everything is solved. In fact, it’s always a good idea to monitor it. After a week, check that everyone is pleased with the situation. Or, if it doesn’t work, discuss it again. Check to see what has happened, if you need to persist or if it is better to change a few things around…
Note: for parents who have just started to change their methods, it is sometimes very difficult to envisage this new approach. And yet, I guarantee that it works, even with children who are not used to it. I tested it with a friend’s daughter: to talk is better than to punish!
Chapter 4: Encourage independence
Naturally we want to help our children become self-sufficient and to be independent. And in theory, we can help them achieve that.
Allow them do things on their own, to deal with their problems, to make mistakes, to come up with their own solutions.
However: that’s easier said than done!
As part of this approach to encourage self-sufficiency, the advice from Faber and Mazlish is as follows:
- Give them choices
- Show respect for the child’s endeavours
- Don’t ask too many questions
- Don’t rush to give answers
- Encourage children to look for answers outside of their own home
- Don’t shatter their dreams
Let’s take a look at what each of these things involves.
Give them choices
This encourages the child to make their own decisions. They become a participant instead of a spectator. From a very young age, you can give them the choice between the red or blue T-shirt, or to do their homework before or after the snack. When you offer them choices it shows them that they can make some decisions for themselves. They can choose a path without the need to follow our instructions (if they can avoid instructions, this is, to some extent related to chapter 2), and will help them on their way to independence.
Show respect for the child’s endeavours
When a child struggles to accomplish a task, if you offer help and say “I’ll do it for you”, it doesn’t encourage them to persevere. All you achieve with this is to convey a message that they need your help. It’s more beneficial to encourage them and acknowledge their endeavours:
“Ah yes, it’s difficult to open a new jam jar. Sometimes it helps when you tap the side with a spoon.”
Don’t ask too many questions
When we ask a child questions, because we are interested in what they have done, at times it can seem like an interrogation.
“How was it today? Did you have a check-up? On what? Who did you have lunch with? What did you play?”
The pressure of all these questions may trigger a safety shield to protect them from what they think is an interrogation and mean they stop any replies…. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask your children any more questions, but you should respect their space, and keep it simple when they get back.
“I’m glad to see you!”
Feel free to tell them about your own day, as this may well encourage them to talk about theirs!
Don’t rush to give answers
Independence in children is not only physical independence. It also relates to independence in thought and reflection. A good approach to this is to let them consider things before you give a reply to their question, so they can develop the skill.
“Daddy, where does the rain come from?
– That’s a good question, what do you think?”
This can also apply to everyday things that go through our children’s minds. To understand why someone sleeps rough, why we go to school…
Encourage children to look for answers outside of their own home
The child’s independence means that they are less and less dependent on the parent. When our children are taught that we as parents are not their only means of information when they aren’t sure of something, it helps them get to the point where they can look after themselves.
Encourage them to ask other people questions. Ask the pet shop owner how to care for the animals, ask the music teacher if she can suggest someone to give them guitar lessons…This is a great way to show our children how to find the things they need without our help!
Don’t shatter their dreams
If you want to succeed, you first have to try. So, in order to avoid disappointment for the children with an explanation as to why their idea won’t work (which will lead to disappointment anyway), just let them get on with it. Let them experiment. If their idea doesn’t work how they thought it might, they will still have learned something as a result of it. Added to this, they will have learnt it through their own efforts.
Chapter 5: Give compliments
Once upon a time there were two little seven-year-old boys named Bruce and David. Each had a mother who loved him very much. They started their day in very different ways.
The first thing Bruce heard in the morning was “Get up Bruce, you’re going to be late for school again.” Bruce would get dressed, and once downstairs, his mother would say, “What are those trousers? Go and change before you eat breakfast, I won’t let my child go to school with torn trousers!”
Then “Careful with your orange juice, don’t spill it as usual!”. “There you go! What am I to do with you?” …
Across the street, David’s mum woke him up: “David, it’s 7 o’clock. Do you want to get up now or do you want another five minutes?”
Then when David came downstairs: “Oh dear, your trousers are torn. Do you want me to try to sew them up, or would you rather change?” And when David spilt his orange juice: “The cloth is in the sink.”
Now let’s imagine these two boys, a few hours later, in the same classroom. The teacher asks for volunteers to show the parents around at an upcoming event.
Which one of them do you think is most likely to raise their hand?
It is obvious that there is a link between how children perceive themselves and the challenges they will be prepared to set themselves.
How can you, as parents, help them build their sense of self-worth and confidence?
Every time you listen to how they feel, every time you let them solve their problems, you help them with this. The fact remains that, for many parents, compliments are the most obvious way to develop their child’s self-esteem.
But the science of compliments is not so straightforward… Sometimes, when you think what you do is correct, you can trigger some unforeseen responses…
Judge for yourself:
- You have an unexpected guest for dinner, you heat up some canned soup and add some leftover chicken. They tell you, “You’re a great cook!”
- You go to a meeting, and engage in conversation. Afterwards, a colleague comes up to you and says, “You have a great spirit about you!”
How do this make you feel? Is it nice to get these compliments?
Or is it more along the lines of:
“What a liar!”, “Well, they obviously haven’t got a clue about it.” or “What will they say next time…??”
In fact, if the compliment is too “over-the-top”, i.e. it’s too overbearing to the person as a whole, it may seem rather insincere, or come across as a bit strange.
So that the message really helps the child create a positive sense of themselves, it’s best to keep it simple. They can then take what you say as a compliment, if they feel it’s right.
So instead of “I love the drawing you did for me, it’s so beautiful!”, you can say: “It’s crazy the number of colours you used for this drawing!” The chances are that this will go down much better and come across as more genuine and sincere.
You can also help to connect the child with what they do and the level of competence, with a few simple comments.
There’s always another way to describe something. We won’t say to the child, “How thoughtful of you!” but “You made a crown for your brother’s birthday, that’s very thoughtful of you.”
There’s a subtle but important difference: it is not the child, but a certain action that you reference, and the child can use this to build on, so that they avoid saying to themselves: “If she had seen me yesterday, she wouldn’t think that I’m considerate…” as that would mean they wouldn’t accept a compliment!
So, the advice in this chapter, in order to master the science of compliments, is :
- Describe what you see
- Describe how it feels
- Sum up your thoughts in one word
Personal note: from experience, I know it can cause a bit of confusion when you do figure it out. However, I can testify that the descriptive complement is really beneficial for the child’s sense of identity!
Chapter 6: Help children escape from social situations that hold back their development
The label trap: not a new concept in psychology.
As parents, we all have a tendency to label our children:
“My son is very stubborn”, “She doesn’t know how to stand up for herself”, and sometimes, compare them: “My older one is the more difficult child, the younger one is really easy”…
The problem here is: the more we label our children in a certain way, the more they will conform to that “role”. Rather than help to alleviate this trait, this reaction only serves to foster it.
This chapter covers not only how to not attach labels to your child’s character traits but also offers some techniques to help your child address them!
To do this, here’s a tip: treat the child as if they have already moved on from this trait!
The way we treat a child, the way we respond to their behaviour, will have a profound impact.
- Look for ways to give the child a different picture of themselves.
- Introduce a scenario which enables the child to view themselves differently
- Make it easy for them to hear the positive things people say about them
- Help to create the kind of attitude you believe they need
- Take note of their achievements
- When they behave in the way that you wish to try and change, make them aware of your expectations
In order to have a clearer understanding of these points:
Look for ways to give the child a different picture of themselves
The purpose of this is to highlight and remark upon situations when the child’s behaviour is different from what it usually is.
So, to a child who is normally a bit disorganised: “I see you’ve got your bag ready for tomorrow and have everything that you need, and I didn’t have to mention it.”
Or to a child who is often a bit aggressive: “I noticed that you had a nice chat with your brother earlier.”
Introduce a scenario which enables the child to view themselves in a different way
This may conflict with your instinct, but to not define the child with a certain character trait, it’s best to send a positive sign that you trust them to do something that goes against this trait.
If you have a child who is a bit clumsy, ask them to move a vase, if they are a bit selfish, ask them to share their snack.
Caution: you have to portray the message in a positive way. Don’t come out with a message that illustrates the trait and tie it to a negative phrase, such as “I trust you, don’t do what you normally do! “
Make it easy for them to hear the positive things people say about them
This is a very useful way for the child to see themselves in a different light. For instance, we can tell our partner: “Today the neighbour’s kid came round and wanted to play with Leon’s new truck. It was a little tricky for Leon, but he shared it with him, and they played together in the end.”
Help to create the kind of attitude you believe they need
Since children learn by example, so our behaviour can help guide them. Don’t be afraid to say it out loud, to make a point of it.
“I’ll put this sheet of paper in my bag right now, or I might forget it tomorrow.”
” Oh, boy, I wish I’d won… well, you can’t win ’em all.”
Take note of their achievements
Children love it when you recall events from their past. Reference things that correspond to their strengths: “I remember the day you managed to climb all the way to the top of the ladder that Grandpa had put against the wall! I was afraid you would fall, but you came back down very slowly and very carefully.”
When they behave in the way that you wish to try and change, make them aware of your expectations
In this instance, the idea is to not let the child get away with their usual behaviour. Make sure they know your limits, explain your expectations: “I don’t like it when you tear the pages of the book. When you turn the page, I want you to do it carefully and gently.”
To be able to change a perspective is difficult, from all sides. There’s a whole chain of events that need to be introduced, if the problem is deeply ingrained!
It’s worth the time to make some preparations in this instance, run through the exercise yourself and reply to these questions:
- Has my child been cast in a role?
- Are there positive things in this role?
- How would I like my child to perceive themselves?
Then, based on these questions, review each of the previous points and identify areas where you can put them into practice: points to emphasise when they behave differently, situations where they see things from a different angle, stories from their childhood that could help them change their self-esteem in relation to this area, ways to change their behaviour, etc…
Once you have fully thought about this, then you can confidently help the child evolve out of this character trait that other have locked them into!
Chapter 7: Put all this knowledge to good use
It would be fantastic to always be able to apply the advice given in How to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk.
That won’t happen.
Because in your daily lives, you will be caught up in your emotions and will not always reflect on what you will say, or how you react, to carefully consider your answers.
Here are some guidelines that can help with this:
- We now know that it’s important and helpful to spend time and listen to our children’s feelings, as well as chat to them about our own; think about the solutions for the future rather than blame them for their past behaviour.
- Even though you may not see it all the way through, you will no longer be totally overwhelmed by it all.
- Nor should you stick to the idea of the good or bad parent: we are humans, all able to evolve and change. Because of this, we permit ourselves, and give our children many opportunities and more.
Book critique of “How to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk:
It was a watershed moment for me when I read How to talk so kids will listen.
The discovery that there was another way to connect with my children that was not only kinder but also more respectful, was hugely beneficial.
It made me realise how little training we get to become parents, and that we just think that in order to raise children it is simply about natural instinct.
There is so much in How to talk so that kids will listen that I wish I could have discovered sooner.
In my opinion How to talk so that kids will listen is a great starting point to adapt the legacy of certain educational principles that have not been challenged until now: they are presented and explained without the need to go too deep into the psychological details, which makes them easy to read. (Although I feel that it is worthwhile to go deeper into the psychology of children and read other books that allow these principles to be examined!)
How it’s presented, as a list of skills in each chapter, makes it easy to follow.
Each skill is also illustrated with short cartoons to help understand how to apply them, and each chapter ends with examples from parents who explain how these approaches have impacted their children’s lives in a variety of ways.
Since I read it, I have read lots of other books and have been able to put all of these concepts, along with others, into practice, within my family (4 children aged between 3 and 15 years old), and this has changed the family atmosphere, in a positive way!!
Though I continue to learn, I can now share these principles with other parents, to help them in the everyday challenge that is the education of their children, but still focus on the long-term impact of how we raise our children.
As part of this process, I routinely recommend that they should read “How to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk”. Many parents have expressed their thanks to me for this!
- How to talk so that kids will listen is extremely practical, with list of the different points put forward chapter by chapter
- A step-by-step approach that allows you to put the advice into practice as you go along.
- The small cartoons to illustrate the tips are well done and make it easier to read.
- Plenty of parents’ stories help to put the theory into practice
- The exercises that you have to do yourself tend to interfere with how you read the book
- Not enough depth in relation to the psychological nature of the child
- Some parents (excluding me) report that they found it difficult to follow the suggested course on their own. For these parents, Faber and Mazlish workshops are to be found everywhere.
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