How To Talk So Kids Will Listen, a review 

I joined a parenting book club. I hate reading, but I love comparing notes with other parents, and this book club (started by a friend) was advertised as reading optional. That’s the kind of commitment I can handle. Our first book was How to Talk so Kids Will Listen, and Listen so Kids Will Talk by Faber and Mazlish. I’ll give you a brief review of the book in my not-so-humble opinion, and then in true book report style, a summary of the book in case you want to not actually have to read the book to know what it’s about. 

Review

Like the title says, this is a book about communication. Someone in the book club said that it could have been called “How to Talk to People” because it covered such basic communication skills. The skills taught in the book do seem basic, upon first glance. 

“I would never talk to my kids like that,” I think to myself indignantly.  Right off the bat, I found the examples the book used to be obvious no-nos (like don’t tell your kid they can never be an engineer or an astronaut,  or some other cool career path, because they’re too stupid). But the book comes with exercises so you can role play and work out what you would actually say in a scenario (a really helpful inclusion), and I started to realize that hindsight is 20/20. One day, when my kid is a little older and having a tantrum in the middle of the grocery store for the 10th time that week, I might snap and say something that new-mom-me without the benefit of hindsight might think is a completely horrendous thing to say to a child. So I gave the book a chance and considered that we are all capable of stooping to hurtful, damaging phrases shouted out with quivering, wits-end tones of voice. We can all learn from this book. 

Actually, that leads me to one of the things I liked about the book. It assumes that we will slip up sometimes. The lessons for communication it offers are great to have in your toolkit and to practice as often as you can, but you will probably still slip up sometimes and belittle your child as you choke back tears of frustration. When this happens, the authors advise to be honest with your child about your feelings (maybe after taking a breather and stepping away for a bit). It’s OK to say, “Johnny, I wish I hadn’t spoken to you in that way last night. I was feeling very frustrated and angry and I lost my ability to speak calmly with you.” Having this transparency with your kid should mean that, eventually, when they lose their cool in the future, they’ll have the wherewithal to say “sorry, let me take a step back and process my emotions.” Maybe. 

Although the book is very 1980s with its examples (Johnny, put your records back in the record sleeves or they’ll get scratched), the communication skills are timeless and relevant. I took a Counselling and Communication Skills course in my undergrad and I saw a lot of parallels. I think, in order to find the book useful, you’ll need to be the kind of person who values emotional intelligence and who cares about making people around you feel heard. 

I liked the book. It was easy to read, full of real-life (albeit dated) examples, and it has awesome comics illustrating each new communication skill. This book might even improve your relationship with other adults, too. 

Summary

The book breaks down communication with your kids into 6 skill sets:

  1. Helping children deal with their feelings
  2. Engaging cooperation
  3. Alternatives to punishment
  4. Praise
  5. Freeing children from playing roles

The first skill, helping children deal with their feelings, is about accepting kids’ feelings and validating them. Like a lot of the skills taught in this book, I felt almost offended by being told not to snap at my kid when they tell me they’re sleepy/angry/scared and saying something like, “oh you’re fine.” Of course I’d never do that that. But then again, there’s this thing in psychology known as the “hindsight bias,” where things seem obvious only after you’ve heard about it. Anyway, the gist of this skill, like many of the skills in this book, is all in our ability to actively listen. Use paraphrasing to show your kid you hear them. 

Kid: “I’m scared… I want to sleep in your bed tonight.” 

Parent NOT being helpful: “You’re fine. There’s nothing to be scared of.” 

Parent responding in a positive way that acknowledges the child’s feelings and helps them deal with their feelings: “You’re feeling scared and don’t want to be left alone? It can be scary sometimes when we start sleeping on our own”…and then you use the rest of the skills to complete the situation. 

The second skill is to engage cooperation. This skill comes in handy when your kid is doing something annoyingly unhelpful, like not taking the garbage out after you’ve nagged and nagged to no avail. The book outlines ways to foster cooperation rather than turning your kid into a resentful rebel; instead of making threats, commands, lecturing, warning, etc., try:

  1. describing the problem (e.g., The garbage is still sitting by the front door); 
  2. give information (e.g., if the garbage doesn’t go out by 7 o’clock we’ll miss the garbage truck);
  3. say it with a word (e.g., Johnny, garbage) 
  4. Talk about your feelings (e.g., I feel frustrated when I see the garbage sitting by the door. I don’t like the smell wafting.)
  5. Write a note; e.g., 

The third skill gives you alternatives to punishment. Punishment (like spanking, grounding, or taking away games or electronics or something) is something the authors believe doesn’t necessarily teach the child anything (besides “my parent is mean”). It may make you feel better to let off some steam, but the authors urge that you try alternatives. My favourite alternative is the skill of problem solving. The book goes into great detail on how to effectively problem solve with a child, but the gist of it is to: 

  • talk about your child’s feelings and needs
  • talk about your feelings and needs (model that good behaviour of expressing emotions!)
  • brainstorm together to find a solution, write down all ideas without evaluating them on the spot (even the ones the kid throws out there that are completely unreasonable)
  • and then decide which ideas work for both of you by each crossing out ideas you don’t like, one at a time, from the list. 

It seems to me that this approach would take a lot of patience, when your kid has been misbehaving a lot lately and you are already tired of nagging/yelling. But taking a step back and finding out why the kid is misbehaving (e.g., maybe they are being aggressive with a younger sibling when forced to share toys), you might be able to work out a mutually agreeable solution (e.g., maybe the kid will be satisfied with a special toy that they don’t share, or more one-on-one play time with their parent without that annoying sibling hogging all the attention).

The fourth skill, encouraging autonomy, is really quite simple. Sometimes we have to sit back and watch them struggle as they take 20 minutes to tie their shoelaces. The key tactics to encourage autonomy are:

  1. Let children make choices (e.g., would you like to have your bath before or after dinner?) 
  2. Show respect for a child’s struggle (the shoelace thing, and maybe say something mildly encouraging like “Tying our own shoe laces is something big kids do. Look at you working on a big kid skill with such persistence) 
  3. Don’t ask too many questions (e.g., trust that they weren’t out smoking drugs behind the bleachers and instead of grilling them with 20 questions about where they were, who they were with, and what they were doing, just ask “hi honey, how was your day?”)  
  4. Don’t rush to answer questions (e.g., if they ask where babies come from, turn the question back on them to see if they can figure it out…obviously if they start spinning an explanation about a man’s rib bone being removed and cloned into a baby, interject with some fact) 
  5. Encourage children to use sources outside the home (e.g., if you really don’t want to explain sperm and eggs and intercourse to your kid, encourage them to ask their gym teacher… or probably better yet, your friendly, local sexual health educator) 
  6. Don’t take away hope (this is one of those tips I was offended by having to be told. When your kid says “I want to be an astronaut,” say “awesome!” instead of “you need to be good at math for that, sweety. How about aiming for something more realistic.” –see what I mean? Who the hell would say that to their kid?) 

The fifth skill deals with giving praise. I’m a heavy praiser. My baby sticks her foot in her mouth and I’m all like “good motor skills, honey!” The authors value an appropriate amount of praise as a way to correct behaviour. For example, if your kid is always forgetting their lunch when they go to school, instead of nagging and berating, try praising them for remembering things. “Johnny, I’m so pleased with how you remembered to bring your lunch container home.” This is supposed to encourage them to try harder to please you in the future.

The other thing with praise is to describe the Praise-worthy thing your child is doing rather than just saying “great job!” or “beautiful painting!” It is apparently more genuine and constructive to say things like “I really like how you used contrasting colours to make the painting really dramatic.” I have a baby, though, so my examples will probably be more like, “good job getting the food somewhat close to your mouth!” 

The sixth skill is a tricky one for me because it’s so engrained in me as a product of my socialization. It deals with not putting your kid in a box, or assigning them to personality roles. For example, when my baby wouldn’t take the bottle, I assigned to her the role of “stubborn.” But she’s a baby… She’s not a stubborn personality – her personality hasn’t even developed yet. And the really sneaky thing about assigning roles to your kids is that negative roles are used way more often than positive. We’re more likely to say “she’s a really whiney kid” than “she’s a really generous kid,” I think because humans are hard wired to gripe and complain to each other as a mechanism of social bonding. We don’t feel comfortable tooting our own horn about how great our parenting skills must have been to make this perfect child. But especially when talking to your children, be conscious of pointing out the positive roles they take on, like generous, patient, kind, etc., and try to avoid labeling with words like spoiled, princess, complainer, etc. The authors believe that children will live up to the roles we see them in – it’s the curse of the self-fulfilling prophecy. 

One thing I like about the book is that it includes comments, cautions, and anecdotes about each skill. For example, the authors address when a skill might not work so well on a moody teenager who is prone to back talking, or when humour might work but to steer clear of sarcasm. 

Be prepared to roll your eyes, and then later, in a conversation with your kid or partner or someone else, come to the sobering realization that you are acting out the very faux pas you had rolled your eyes at. This book has a lot to offer and I recommend it to parents, and even to people who are just having trouble maintaining a healthy relationship with a fellow adult. Six steps. Anyone can do it. 

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