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

by Adele Faber, Elaine Mazlish

Troy Shu
Troy Shu
Updated at: April 13, 2024
How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk
How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk

Discover practical parenting strategies from the bestselling book "How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk". Gain insights on empathetic listening, problem-solving, and building your child's confidence. Actionable advice and reflection questions inside.

What are the big ideas?

Empathize Instead of Advising

The book emphasizes the importance of empathetic listening as a parent. Instead of offering solutions or advice, parents are encouraged to acknowledge and validate their children's feelings, helping them feel understood and supported.

Fantasy as a Coping Tool

Parents are advised to grant their children's unattainable wishes in fantasy. This technique allows children to experience the emotional satisfaction of their desires being recognized, even when the actual wish cannot be fulfilled.

Descriptive Praise Over Evaluative Praise

The book advocates for descriptive praise, which focuses on specific actions and efforts of the child, rather than making comparative or evaluative statements. This approach helps children build a realistic and positive self-image.

Problem-Solving over Punishment

Rather than resorting to punishment, the book suggests a problem-solving approach that involves collaboration between parent and child to resolve disciplinary issues, promoting understanding and effective behavior management.

Role-Free Parenting

Parents are cautioned against labeling their children (e.g., 'the shy one'). Instead, they should encourage children to develop their identities freely, minimizing the risk of negative behaviors becoming self-fulfilling prophecies.

Empowering Autonomy

Encouraging children to make their own decisions and solve their own problems is a key focus. This fosters independence and confidence, reducing dependency and promoting personal growth.

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Empathize Instead of Advising

Empathize, Don't Advise As a parent, it's crucial to empathize with your child's emotions rather than immediately offering advice or solutions. When your child is upset, the most helpful response is to listen attentively and validate their feelings, letting them know you understand how they feel. This creates a supportive environment where the child feels heard and respected.

Avoid the temptation to question, lecture, or try to "fix" the problem. Instead, use simple acknowledgments like "I see" or "That sounds frustrating" to show you grasp the emotional reality your child is experiencing. Giving their feelings a name can also be comforting, helping the child better understand and process their own internal state.

The goal is to help your child feel understood, not to provide unsolicited guidance. By empathizing first, you build trust and open the door for your child to work through the issue themselves or come to you for further support. This empathetic approach is more effective than jumping straight to advice or problem-solving.

Key Insight: Empathize Instead of Advising

The book emphasizes the importance of empathetic listening as a parent. Instead of offering solutions or advice, parents are encouraged to acknowledge and validate their children's feelings, helping them feel understood and supported. Examples from the context include:

  • The author describes how she initially responded to her children's expressions of feelings by denying or dismissing them, rather than acknowledging them. For example, when her child said "Mommy, I'm tired", she responded "You couldn't be tired. You just napped."

  • The book contrasts this dismissive approach with the recommended method of "listening with full attention" and "giving the feeling a name", such as responding "Oh, you sound really tired right now."

  • The book states that "it's much easier to tell your troubles to a parent who is really listening" and that "sometimes a sympathetic silence is all a child needs", rather than questioning or advising the child.

  • The book explains that "when children want something they can't have, adults usually respond with logical explanations of why they can't have it. Often, the harder we explain, the harder they protest." Instead, the recommended approach is to "give a child his wishes in fantasy", acknowledging the desire without denying it.

The key is for parents to focus on empathizing with and validating their children's emotions, rather than trying to problem-solve or change how the child is feeling. This empathetic approach helps the child feel heard and supported.

Fantasy as a Coping Tool

Granting Children's Wishes in Fantasy

When children express desires that cannot be fulfilled, parents can satisfy those wishes in fantasy. This allows the child to experience the emotional fulfillment of their wish, even if the actual request cannot be met.

For example, if a child begs for an expensive toy at the store, the parent can write down the child's "wish list" instead of refusing or giving in. This shows the child that their desires are heard and valued, without requiring the parent to purchase everything the child wants.

Similarly, when a child has an unrealistic fantasy, parents can engage with and validate that fantasy. This gives the child an outlet to explore their imagination and feel understood, without needing to make the fantasy a reality.

By granting children's wishes in fantasy, parents can meet the child's emotional needs while also setting appropriate boundaries. This technique helps children feel heard and satisfied, even when their actual requests cannot be accommodated.

Here are some examples from the context that support the key insight about using fantasy as a coping tool:

  • When Jason wanted a dinosaur souvenir at the museum gift shop, the mother wrote down his "wish list" instead of just saying no. This allowed him to experience the satisfaction of having his desire acknowledged, even though he didn't get the actual dinosaur.

  • The mother explains that she uses this "wish list" technique whenever Jason wants toys in the store, as it "seems to satisfy him" without her having to buy everything.

  • The context states that "What Jason likes about his 'wish list' is that it shows that I not only know what he wants but that I care enough to put it in writing." This demonstrates how the fantasy of the wish list fulfills his emotional need, even when the actual wish cannot be granted.

  • The passage emphasizes that the key is to "really let yourself go, to be 'far out' fantastic" in granting children's wishes in fantasy, even when they are unattainable in reality. This allows the child to experience the emotional satisfaction of having their desires recognized.

Descriptive Praise Over Evaluative Praise

The book emphasizes the power of descriptive praise over evaluative praise. Descriptive praise focuses on describing the specific actions and efforts of the child, rather than making comparative or judgmental statements. This approach helps children develop a realistic and positive self-image.

Instead of simply saying "Good job!" or "You're great!", descriptive praise involves observing and articulating what the child has done well. For example, you might say "I noticed you worked hard to organize your toys into separate boxes. That shows great organization skills." This allows the child to internalize and appreciate their own strengths.

Evaluative praise, on the other hand, can be less effective. Statements like "You're the best!" or "That's fantastic!" may feel empty or even pressure the child to live up to lofty expectations. Descriptive praise, by contrast, provides concrete feedback that the child can reflect on and feel proud of.

The key insight is that by shifting from evaluative to descriptive praise, parents and caregivers can help children build a stronger sense of self-worth and confidence. This lays the foundation for their continued growth and development.

Here are some key examples from the context that illustrate the benefits of using descriptive praise over evaluative praise:

  • When the author's young son brought home a page of scribbles and asked if it was "good", the author initially gave an evaluative response of "Very good." However, the author then remembered the advice to describe what they see, and said "Well, I see you went circle, circle, circle... wiggle, wiggle, wiggle... dot, dot, dot, dot, dot, dot, dot, and slash, slash!" This prompted the son to praise himself, saying "Because I'm an artist."

  • When the author's daughter Jill figured out that the cans of corn on sale were actually more expensive than the regular brands, the author used descriptive praise, saying "You figured out that the cans of corn on sale—the three-for-a-dollar ones—are actually more expensive than the brands that aren't on sale. I'm impressed." This led Jill to say "I got 'the smarts.'"

  • When the author's son Andy took a complicated phone message clearly, the author used descriptive praise, saying "That was a complicated phone message you took from Mrs. Vecchio. It was written so clearly, I knew exactly why the meeting was postponed, who I had to call, and what I had to tell them." This led Andy to say "Yeah, I'm a pretty dependable kid."

The key insight is that descriptive praise, which focuses on specific actions and efforts, allows children to recognize and praise their own strengths, rather than relying on evaluative statements from parents. This helps build a more realistic and positive self-image.

Problem-Solving over Punishment

The book advocates a problem-solving approach over punishment when addressing disciplinary issues with children. This approach involves collaboration between the parent and child to find mutually agreeable solutions, rather than the parent simply imposing their will through punishment.

The problem-solving approach has several key steps. First, the parent expresses their feelings strongly about the issue, without attacking the child's character. Next, they state their expectations clearly. The parent then shows the child how to make amends, offering them a choice in the matter. If needed, the parent may need to take action, but the goal is to ultimately problem-solve together to find a resolution that respects both parties' needs.

This collaborative approach teaches children that they are not simply victims or enemies of their parents, but active participants in solving the problems they face. It promotes mutual understanding and effective behavior management, rather than relying on punishment which can breed resentment and resistance in the child.

Here are some examples from the context that support the key insight of using problem-solving over punishment:

  • The mother in the first example used problem-solving instead of punishment when her daughter Marnie scribbled on the walls with crayons. Rather than punishing her, the mother calmly discussed the issue, had Marnie help clean it up, and then returned her crayons. This resolved the situation constructively.

  • The context describes a father who had an issue with his teenage son borrowing and damaging his sweater. Instead of punishing the son, the father had him write a note promising to be more careful, which led to the son being more responsible when borrowing the father's shirt later on.

  • The passage discusses how punishment can teach children to avoid guilt and simply repeat the misbehavior, whereas problem-solving helps children develop internal self-control and responsibility. It states that "punishment requires external control over a person by force and coercion" whereas "discipline requires mutual respect and trust."

  • The context provides an example of a mother using problem-solving with her 2-year-old son Brian, who wanted to play in a cradle that was too small for him. Rather than just saying no, the mother explained the issue and let Brian find a solution by putting his stuffed bear in the cradle instead.

The key is that the problem-solving approach promotes collaboration, understanding, and the development of internal self-discipline, rather than relying on external punishment. The examples illustrate how this can be effectively applied with children of different ages.

Role-Free Parenting

The key insight is to avoid labeling children with fixed identities. Instead, empower children to develop their own unique identities, free from restrictive roles or expectations.

When parents label a child as "the shy one" or "the troublemaker," it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The child may feel trapped in that role, limiting their potential. In contrast, role-free parenting creates an environment where children are free to explore and express their evolving selves.

By refraining from pigeonholing children, parents allow them to discover their true capabilities and interests. This fosters a sense of autonomy and self-determination that serves children well as they grow. The goal is to nurture children's intrinsic motivation to develop in healthy, meaningful ways, rather than forcing them into predetermined molds.

The key is to communicate with children in a way that affirms their inherent worth and celebrates their uniqueness. This empowers them to shed limiting labels and embrace the full breadth of who they can become.

Here are some examples from the context that support the key insight of role-free parenting:

  • The story of Nicky, who was mad at his friend Jeffrey for boasting, but the parent suggested inviting Jeffrey to the park instead of giving advice. This allowed Nicky to work towards his own solution.

  • The story of the first grader Douglas, who came up with his own creative strategies to handle a bully, rather than the parent reacting with "pure hysteria" and trying to protect him.

  • The example of a parent describing their son as a "forgetter" and then writing a note to help him see himself as someone who can remember when he wants to. This shows how parents can deliberately plan to free a child from a negative role.

  • The suggestion to "put children in situations where they can see themselves differently" and "let children overhear you say something positive about them" as ways to help a child view themselves in a new light, rather than being stuck in a certain role.

The key terms and concepts illustrated here are:

  • Labeling: Describing a child in a limiting way, like "the shy one" or "the forgetter".
  • Self-fulfilling prophecy: When a child's behavior matches the role they've been given, making it harder for them to break out of it.
  • Role-free parenting: Avoiding labeling children and instead encouraging them to develop their identities freely.

The overall message is that parents should be mindful of the roles they inadvertently assign to their children, and instead create opportunities for the child to see themselves in a more positive, open-ended way.

Empowering Autonomy

Empowering children's autonomy is crucial. Give them opportunities to make choices and solve problems on their own. This builds their self-reliance and confidence, reducing unhealthy dependency.

When children can exert control over their own lives, even in small ways, it reduces resentment and fosters a sense of personal agency. Avoid doing everything for them or rushing to provide solutions. Instead, show respect for their struggles and let them explore answers themselves.

Limit excessive questioning and advice-giving. This can feel invasive and undermine their independence. Encourage them to seek help from other sources beyond just you. This demonstrates they are not completely dependent on you.

Avoid taking away their hope and dreams in the name of protection. Disappointment is part of growth. By allowing them to experience setbacks, you empower them to develop resilience and the ability to pursue their aspirations.

Fostering autonomy is not about manipulation, but about nurturing children's self-esteem, problem-solving skills, and sense of responsibility. It prepares them to function independently as capable, confident adults.

Here are some key examples from the context that illustrate the importance of empowering children's autonomy:

  • Allowing children to make small choices, like whether to have a half or whole glass of milk, can reduce their resentment at having to do things they don't want to do. The context states: "If we can offer him a choice about how something is to be done, very often that choice is enough to reduce his resentment."

  • Respecting a child's struggle, rather than telling them something is "easy", can help build their confidence. The context notes: "We used to think that when we told a child something was "easy," we were encouraging him. We realize now that by saying, "Try it, it's easy" we do him no favor."

  • Avoiding over-questioning children and letting them use outside sources to solve problems can promote their self-reliance. The context provides examples like: "That's an interesting question. What do you think?" and "Maybe the pet shop owner would have a suggestion."

  • Allowing children to make mistakes and learn from them, rather than jumping in to fix things, can foster their independence. The passage states: "And how could I let my children make mistakes and suffer failure when all they had to do was listen to me in the first place?"

The key is to shift responsibility to the child gradually, without overwhelming them, to build their sense of competence and self-reliance. This empowers children to develop their own inner strength and confidence.


Let's take a look at some key quotes from "How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk" that resonated with readers.

I was a wonderful parent before I had children.

This quote means that the speaker had idealized expectations about parenting before actually having children. They likely believed they would be able to handle every situation perfectly and had a clear idea of how they wanted to raise their kids. However, the reality of parenting often presents challenges and complexities that can make even the best intentions difficult to carry out.

Let us be different in our homes. Let us realize that, along with food, shelter, and clothing, we have another obligation to our children, and that is to affirm their “rightness.” The whole world will tell them what’s wrong with them—loud and often. Our job is to let our children know what’s right about them.

As parents, it's important to provide a supportive environment where children feel valued and affirmed. While the world may often point out their flaws or mistakes, our role is to emphasize their strengths and positive qualities. By consistently recognizing and appreciating their uniqueness, we help build their self-esteem and resilience, preparing them for the challenges they'll face in life.

When we give children advice or instant solutions, we deprive them of the experience that comes from wrestling with their own problems.

The quote means that when adults provide children with immediate answers or guidance, it prevents children from learning how to solve problems on their own. By allowing children to struggle and find their own solutions, they gain valuable experience and develop important problem-solving skills. This empowers them to handle future challenges independently, fostering self-reliance and resilience.

Comprehension Questions

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How well do you understand the key insights in "How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk"? Find out by answering the questions below. Try to answer the question yourself before revealing the answer! Mark the questions as done once you've answered them.

1. Why is it important for a parent to listen attentively and validate their child's feelings when they are upset?
2. What should parents avoid doing when their child expresses uncomfortable feelings?
3. How can a parent show they understand their child's feelings without offering immediate solutions?
4. What is the benefit of giving a child's feelings a name when they express how they feel?
5. Why is it more effective for a parent to empathize first rather than offering advice when a child is dealing with an issue?
6. What is the purpose of satisfying children’s wishes in fantasy when the actual requests cannot be met?
7. How can parents use a 'wish list' as a tool to handle a child's unfulfillable desires?
8. How does engaging with a child's unrealistic fantasy benefit their emotional well-being?
9. What are the benefits of using fantasy to manage children's unattainable desires?
10. What type of praise describes specific actions and efforts rather than making comparative or judgmental statements?
11. What are the potential drawbacks of evaluative praise?
12. How does descriptive praise differ from saying 'Good job!'?
13. Why is descriptive praise considered more effective in building a child's self-worth?
14. What are the initial steps a parent should take when using a problem-solving approach to address disciplinary issues with their child?
15. What options does a parent give their child when employing a problem-solving approach to resolve behavioral issues?
16. How does a problem-solving approach affect the child's view of their relationship with their parent, compared to a punishment-based approach?
17. What are the potential long-term benefits of using a problem-solving approach in managing a child's behavior, versus using punishment?
18. What negative impact can labeling a child as 'the shy one' or 'the troublemaker' have on their development?
19. How does role-free parenting support a child's sense of autonomy and self-determination?
20. Why is it important for children to develop their identity free from predetermined roles?
21. What strategies can parents use to avoid negative labeling and affirm a child's inherent worth?
22. Why should children be given opportunities to make choices and solve problems on their own?
23. What are the benefits of allowing children to face disappointments and setbacks?
24. How can excessive questioning and advice-giving affect a child's sense of independence?
25. Why is it important to respect a child's struggles instead of offering immediate solutions?

Action Questions

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"Knowledge without application is useless," Bruce Lee said. Answer the questions below to practice applying the key insights from "How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk". Mark the questions as done once you've answered them.

1. How can you demonstrate active listening when your child is expressing their emotions?
2. In what ways can you validate your child’s feelings without solving the problem for them?
3. How can you adapt the 'wish list' strategy to manage your child's expectations for holiday gifts this season?
4. How can you incorporate descriptive praise into your daily interactions with children to enhance their learning and self-recognition?
5. In what ways can you observe and articulate the efforts of a child in a new activity to encourage their growth and confidence?
6. How can you implement a collaborative problem-solving approach the next time a conflict arises with your child?
7. How can you create an environment at home that encourages your children to explore and express their evolving identities without being confined to specific roles?
8. What strategies can you employ to let children handle their problems independently while still providing a safety net?
9. How can you create daily routines that include small choices for children, to help build their decision-making skills?

Chapter Notes

1. Helping Children Deal with Their Feelings

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Accepting Children's Feelings: Parents often deny or dismiss their children's feelings, which can confuse and upset the children. Instead, parents should accept and acknowledge their children's feelings, even if they disagree with the child's perspective.

  • Empathetic Listening: When a child is upset, parents should listen attentively and respond with empathy, using phrases like "That must be so frustrating" or "I can see you're really angry." This helps the child feel understood and supported.

  • Avoiding Advice and Questioning: Parents often try to solve their children's problems by giving advice or asking questions, but this can make the child feel defensive. Instead, parents should focus on acknowledging the child's feelings without trying to fix the problem.

  • Granting Wishes in Fantasy: When a child wants something they can't have, parents can acknowledge the child's desire by granting their wish in fantasy, saying something like "I wish I could buy you that 1,000-power telescope!"

  • Distinguishing Feelings from Behavior: Parents should accept a child's feelings while still setting limits on unacceptable behavior. For example, "I can see you're really angry, but I won't let you hit your brother."

  • Patience and Practice: Responding to children's feelings with empathy and acceptance doesn't come naturally to many parents. It takes patience and practice to develop these skills, but the benefits for the child-parent relationship are significant.

  • Acknowledging Feelings Helps Children Cope: When parents acknowledge and validate their children's feelings, it helps the children work through their emotions and find their own solutions, rather than becoming stuck in negative feelings.

  • Cautions: There are some pitfalls to avoid, such as repeating the child's exact words, responding with more intensity than the child, or criticizing the child for the feelings they express.

2 Engaging Cooperation

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Describing the problem rather than blaming or accusing: Describing what you see or the problem at hand, rather than blaming or accusing the child, can help engage their cooperation. This approach removes the finger-pointing and focuses the child on the issue that needs to be addressed.

  • Providing information: Giving the child relevant information, rather than lecturing or moralizing, can help them understand the situation and respond responsibly. This approach conveys trust in the child's ability to act appropriately.

  • Using a single-word statement: A concise, one-word statement can be more effective than a lengthy explanation in getting the child's attention and prompting them to take action.

  • Expressing your feelings: Describing your own feelings about the situation, without criticizing the child's character or personality, can help them understand the impact of their actions and foster a sense of mutual respect.

  • Writing a note: Leaving a written note for the child can be a quick and effective way to communicate your message, especially when you're unable to have a face-to-face conversation.

  • Avoiding unhelpful approaches: Techniques like blaming, name-calling, threats, commands, lecturing, and comparisons can undermine the child's self-esteem and make them less likely to cooperate.

  • Recognizing the importance of attitude: The way you communicate with your child, in addition to the words you use, can significantly impact their response and the overall emotional climate in the household.

  • Persistence and flexibility: Even if a particular skill doesn't work the first time, it's important to continue trying different approaches and not revert to the old, less effective methods. Combining and adjusting the skills as needed can help engage the child's cooperation over time.

3. Alternatives to Punishment

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Punishment is Ineffective: The chapter argues that punishment is an ineffective method of discipline, as it often teaches children to behave in the opposite way from what the parent desires. Punishment can lead to feelings of hatred, revenge, defiance, guilt, unworthiness, and self-pity in children.

  • Alternatives to Punishment: The chapter outlines several alternatives to punishment, including:

    • Pointing out a way to be helpful
    • Expressing strong disapproval without attacking the child's character
    • Stating expectations
    • Showing the child how to make amends
    • Offering a choice
    • Taking action (removing or restraining)
    • Allowing the child to experience the natural consequences of their actions
  • Problem-Solving Approach: The chapter introduces a problem-solving approach to address disciplinary issues, which involves the following steps:

    1. Talk about the child's feelings and needs
    2. Talk about the parent's feelings and needs
    3. Brainstorm together to find a mutually agreeable solution
    4. Write down all ideas without evaluating them
    5. Decide which suggestions to keep, which to discard, and which to follow through on
  • Effectiveness of Problem-Solving: The chapter provides several examples of parents successfully using the problem-solving approach with children of various ages, demonstrating its effectiveness in resolving conflicts and disciplinary issues.

  • Cautions and Considerations: The chapter also discusses some cautions and considerations when using the problem-solving approach, such as ensuring the parent is calm enough to begin the process, allowing the child to contribute ideas without judgment, and following through on the agreed-upon solution.

  • Ongoing Process: The chapter emphasizes that problem-solving is an ongoing process, and that solutions may need to be adjusted as the child's needs and circumstances change over time.

4. Encouraging Autonomy

  • Encouraging Autonomy: The chapter emphasizes the importance of helping children become independent, separate individuals, rather than seeing them as extensions of the parents. This involves allowing children to make their own choices, struggle with their own problems, and learn from their own mistakes.

  • Minimizing Dependency Feelings: When children are constantly dependent on their parents, they can develop feelings of helplessness, worthlessness, resentment, frustration, and anger. The chapter suggests ways to minimize these feelings of dependency.

  • Specific Skills for Encouraging Autonomy: The chapter outlines six specific skills that can help encourage a child's autonomy: 1) Let children make choices, 2) Show respect for a child's struggle, 3) Don't ask too many questions, 4) Don't rush to answer questions, 5) Encourage children to use sources outside the home, and 6) Don't take away hope.

  • Avoiding Advice-Giving: The chapter cautions against the tendency of parents to jump in with advice when their children are facing problems. Instead, it suggests ways to help children explore their own solutions, such as by restating the problem as a question or pointing out external resources.

  • Parental Conflicts: The chapter acknowledges the internal conflicts parents may experience when trying to encourage their children's autonomy, as it can be difficult to let go of the sense of being needed and the convenience of doing things for the child.

  • Gradual Transition to Independence: The chapter emphasizes the importance of allowing children to gradually transition to independence, rather than forcing it upon them. It suggests ways to shift responsibilities to the child without overwhelming them.

  • Respecting the Child's Physical Privacy and Autonomy: The chapter suggests that parents should avoid constantly fussing over their children's appearance and the minutiae of their lives, as this can be experienced as an invasion of their physical privacy and autonomy.

5. Praise

  • Descriptive Praise: Instead of using evaluative praise like "good" or "great", parents should describe what they observe and feel about the child's actions. This helps the child develop a positive and realistic self-image.

  • Two-Part Praise: Effective praise consists of two parts: (1) the adult describes what they see or feel, and (2) the child is then able to praise themselves.

  • Summing Up in a Word: In addition to descriptive praise, parents can add a word that sums up the child's praiseworthy behavior, such as "determination" or "resourcefulness".

  • Avoiding Evaluative Praise: Evaluative praise that hints at past weaknesses or failures can be counterproductive. It's better to rephrase the praise to focus on the child's present strengths.

  • Excessive Enthusiasm: Overly enthusiastic praise can interfere with a child's desire to accomplish something for themselves, as the child may feel pressure to meet the parent's high expectations.

  • Praise Invites Repetition: Descriptive praise can motivate children to repeat the praised behavior, so parents should use it selectively to avoid unwanted repetition.

  • Praising Difficult Situations: Parents can use descriptive praise even in difficult situations, such as when a child makes a mistake or exhibits challenging behavior, to inspire the child to do better.

  • Praise Builds Self-Esteem: Children who receive descriptive praise tend to develop a more positive and realistic self-image, which can help them cope with challenges and set higher goals for themselves.

6. Freeing Children from Playing Roles

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • The Power of Labels: Parents can inadvertently label their children with negative roles (e.g. "stubborn", "problem child", "bully"), which can become self-fulfilling prophecies and influence how the child sees themselves and behaves.

  • Changing the Narrative: Parents can actively work to show their children a new, more positive picture of themselves by:

    • Looking for opportunities to highlight the child's positive qualities
    • Putting the child in situations where they can see themselves differently
    • Letting the child overhear positive things the parent says about them
    • Modeling the desired behavior
    • Reminiscing about the child's special moments
    • Addressing the child's behavior while stating their feelings and expectations
  • The Impact of Parental Perceptions: The way parents think about and communicate with their children can profoundly impact the child's self-image and behavior. Children often internalize the roles and labels their parents assign to them.

  • Overcoming Entrenched Roles: Even if a child has been cast in a negative role for a long time, parents can use the techniques described to help the child see themselves differently and break out of that role.

  • The Power of Positive Reinforcement: Providing children with positive feedback, encouragement, and opportunities to succeed can be more effective than constantly criticizing or labeling them.

  • Parental Self-Awareness: Parents need to be mindful of the messages they are sending to their children, both explicitly through their words and implicitly through their actions and attitudes.

  • The Lasting Impact of Parental Messages: The way parents view and communicate with their children can have a profound and lasting impact, even into adulthood, as illustrated by the parents' stories in the chapter.

7. Putting It All Together

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Putting It All Together: Changing a child's role involves not only a change in attitude, but also the application of various skills, such as understanding feelings, promoting autonomy, using praise effectively, and finding alternatives to punishment.

  • The Princess - Part I: This scene illustrates a well-intentioned but unskilled parent's struggle to handle their child's "Princess" role. The parent becomes frustrated, defensive, and ultimately resorts to physical punishment, which escalates the conflict.

  • The Princess - Part II: In this second scene, the same parent uses a range of skills to address the child's behavior, including acknowledging the child's feelings, setting firm boundaries, and guiding the child towards a solution. This approach helps the child express their needs more constructively.

  • Importance of Skills: While love and good intentions are important, parents also need specific skills to effectively navigate the complexities of child-rearing. These skills include active listening, empathy, problem-solving, and setting appropriate limits.

  • Accepting Imperfection: Parents should not hold themselves to unrealistic standards. Like children, parents deserve multiple chances to learn and grow. Self-compassion is as important as compassion for one's children.

  • Avoiding Rigid Roles: Parents should avoid casting themselves in rigid roles, such as "good parent" or "bad parent." Instead, they should see themselves as human beings with the potential for continuous growth and improvement.

What’s It All About, Anyway?

  • Finding a Way to Live in Harmony: The chapter emphasizes the desire to find a way of living with one another that allows everyone to feel good about themselves and support the well-being of their loved ones.

  • Avoiding Blame and Recrimination: The method aims to help people communicate without resorting to blame or accusation, which can often be counterproductive.

  • Sensitivity to Feelings: The approach encourages being more attuned to and respectful of each other's emotions, particularly when expressing irritation or anger.

  • Balancing Needs: The method seeks to find a way for parents to be respectful of their children's needs while also being mindful of their own needs.

  • Fostering Caring and Responsible Children: The goal is to help children develop into caring and responsible individuals by breaking the cycle of unhelpful communication patterns.

  • Passing on a Legacy of Effective Communication: The method aims to provide a new way of communicating that can be used by children throughout their lives, with various relationships and in different contexts.

Many Years Later

  • Unexpected Success of the Book: The authors were unsure how the book "How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk" would be received when it was first published in 1980, but it ended up becoming a surprise bestseller, with high demand, a PBS series, and widespread international readership.

  • Feedback and Requests from Readers: The authors received a large volume of mail from readers around the world, expressing appreciation and describing how the book had impacted their lives. Readers also expressed a desire for more support and materials to help them practice the communication skills.

  • Development of a Workshop Program: In response to reader feedback, the authors conceived the idea of creating a series of do-it-yourself workshops based on the book, which could be used by parents to learn and practice the skills together. This program was later adopted by various organizations and professionals.

  • Expansion to Diverse Audiences: The authors were surprised to find that their "How to Talk" program was being used not only by parents but also by a wide range of organizations, including domestic violence crisis centers, rehabilitation units, schools, and military bases, both in the US and abroad.

  • Relevance in a Changing Family Landscape: As the authors revisited the book years later, they concluded that the principles and communication skills were more important than ever, given the increasing stresses and challenges faced by parents in today's fast-paced, technology-driven world.

  • Limitations and Broader Support: The authors acknowledge that the book and its communication skills are not a complete solution to all parenting challenges, but they believe the strategies and language provided can help parents cope with frustrations, set limits, and maintain strong family connections despite external pressures.

I. The Letters

  • Applying the Principles from "How to Talk...": The letters demonstrate how readers have successfully applied the communication principles from the book to various challenging situations with their children, such as dealing with divorce, strong-willed behavior, and teenage issues. The book has helped parents become more empathetic, set clear boundaries, and solve problems collaboratively with their children.

  • Effectiveness Across Ages: The principles in the book have been found to be effective not just for young children, but also for teenagers and even for improving relationships with one's own parents. The book has helped break cycles of negative communication patterns across generations.

  • Positive Impact on Teachers: Teachers have also found the book's principles helpful in managing their classrooms and motivating students, especially those with behavioral or learning challenges. The book has helped teachers shift their mindset from trying to "make" students learn to empowering them to take ownership of their learning.

  • Global Reach and Relevance: The book has resonated with readers from diverse cultural backgrounds, including China, Australia, South Africa, and Canada. The principles of respect, communication, and problem-solving have proven to be universally applicable, helping parents and educators create more positive relationships with children.

  • Coping with Exceptional Challenges: The book has also been helpful for parents dealing with exceptional challenges, such as children with ADHD, Tourette's syndrome, or severe mental illness. The principles have enabled these parents to better understand their children's experiences, empathize with them, and find collaborative solutions, even in the face of significant difficulties.

  • Transformative Power of Empathy and Understanding: A key theme that emerges is the transformative power of empathy and understanding, even in the most challenging situations. By putting themselves in their children's shoes, parents have been able to build stronger, more positive relationships, even when faced with behaviors or circumstances that initially seemed intractable.

II. Yes, but . . . What if . . . How about . . . ?

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Choices should be genuine options, not disguised threats: When offering a child a choice, ensure that both options are acceptable to you and likely to be acceptable to the child. Avoid choices that are really just threats in disguise.

  • Acknowledge negative feelings before offering choices: If a child has strong negative feelings about doing something, start by validating those feelings before offering choices. This helps the child feel understood and more open to considering the options.

  • Avoid introducing consequences when problem-solving: Bringing up consequences can poison the atmosphere, create doubt, kill motivation, and destroy trust. Focus on finding solutions collaboratively instead.

  • Eliminate "but" from empathetic statements: The word "but" tends to dismiss or diminish the feelings expressed earlier. Substitute phrases like "the problem is..." to keep the door open for further discussion.

  • Avoid "Why did you/didn't you" questions: These types of questions can feel accusatory and force the child to either own up to inadequacies or make excuses, leading to a defensive reaction.

  • Time-out is not recommended: Time-out can make the child feel banished, isolated, and ashamed. Instead, stop the misbehavior, redirect the child, and have a caring discussion to help them find better ways to handle their feelings and impulses.

  • Engage your spouse/partner in the process: Involve your co-parent by discussing the changes you're trying to make, reading the book together, or asking for their advice on how to handle certain situations.

  • Incorporate humor and playfulness: Using unexpected, silly, or playful approaches can quickly change the mood from frustration to laughter and cooperation.

III. Their Native Tongue

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Learning a New Language: The author's mentor, Dr. Haim Ginott, explains that learning a new language, like the communication skills taught in the book, is not easy, and people will always speak with an accent. However, for the children, this new language will become their "native tongue".

  • Children Naturally Adopting the New Language: The chapter provides several examples of children naturally using the communication skills taught in the book, such as offering choices, expressing feelings, and resolving conflicts, in their everyday interactions.

  • Transformative Impact on Parents: The chapter includes testimonials from parents who have internalized the communication skills and seen a profound impact on their relationships with their children, including becoming more self-aware, regulating their own emotions, and communicating in a more caring and effective manner.

  • Intergenerational Impact: The chapter highlights how the communication skills taught in the book have the potential to positively impact multiple generations, as parents and grandparents reflect on and change their own communication patterns.

  • Spreading the Principles of Caring Communication: The author expresses the hope that the principles of caring communication can be spread far and wide, so that children around the world can grow up to be strong, compassionate, and peaceful individuals.

The Next Generation

  • Acknowledging Feelings: The author emphasizes the importance of acknowledging and validating children's feelings, rather than dismissing or minimizing them. This helps children feel heard and understood, and can diffuse emotional situations.

  • Matching Emotional Intensity: When a child is expressing strong emotions, the author suggests matching their emotional intensity with your own, rather than trying to calm them down. This helps the child feel understood and can lead to a quicker resolution.

  • Problem-Solving: The author encourages parents to engage in collaborative problem-solving with their children, rather than imposing solutions. This empowers children to be active participants in finding solutions to their challenges.

  • Alternatives to Punishment: Instead of punishing children, the author suggests taking action to protect property, others, or the child themselves, while still allowing the child to be involved in the solution.

  • Engaging Cooperation: The author highlights the effectiveness of offering choices and being playful, rather than issuing commands, as a way to engage a child's cooperation.

  • Descriptive Praise: The author emphasizes the importance of providing descriptive praise, which focuses on the child's actions and efforts, rather than evaluative praise that compares the child to others.

  • Freeing Children from Roles: The author cautions against pigeonholing children into certain roles (e.g., "the shy one," "the picky eater"), as this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead, the author suggests using language that allows the child to grow and change.

  • Adapting Games and Activities: The author suggests modifying competitive games and activities to reduce the emotional drama associated with winning and losing, particularly for younger children.

  • Empathy and Connection: The author emphasizes the importance of empathy and connection, not just with children, but with all the people in one's life, as a way to build understanding and resolve conflicts.


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