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

7| Putting It All Together

Parents have pointed out to us that the process of freeing children from playing out roles is a complicated one. It involves not only a whole change of attitude toward a child but also requires a working knowledge of many skills. One father told us, “To change a role, you’ve really got to be able to put it all together—feelings, autonomy, praise, alternatives to punishment—the works.”

In order to illustrate the contrast between the well-intentioned parent and the parent who relates with skill as well as love, we’ve written two scenes (based on characters in Liberated Parents/Liberated Children). In each of these, seven-year-old Susie tries to play out the role of “The Princess.” As you observe how Mother copes with her daughter in this first scene, you might want to ask yourself, “What else could she have done?”

The Princess—Part I

MOTHER: I’m home, everybody! . . . Hi, Susie! . . . Don’t you say hello to your mother? (Susie glances up sullenly and continues to color, ignoring her mother.)

MOTHER: (putting down her packages) Well, I think I’m almost ready for tonight’s company. I’ve got rolls, fruit, and (dangling a paper bag in front of her daughter, trying to coax a smile from her) a little surprise for Susie.

SUSIE: (grabbing the bag) What’d you get me? (pulling things out one at a time) Crayons? . . . That’s good . . . pencil case . . . (indignantly) a blue notebook! You know I hate blue. Why didn’t you buy me a red one?

MOTHER: (defending herself ) It just so happens, young lady, that I went to two stores for you and neither of them had red notebooks. The supermarket was all out, and so was the stationery store.

SUSIE: Why didn’t you try the store near the bank?

MOTHER: I didn’t have time.

SUSIE: Well, go back. I don’t want the blue.

MOTHER: Susie, I’m not going to make another trip just for a little notebook. I’ve got a lot to do today.

SUSIE: I won’t use the blue notebook. You just wasted your money.

MOTHER: (sighing) Boy, are you spoiled! Always have to have everything your own way, don’t you?

SUSIE: (turning on the charm) No I don’t, but red is my favorite color. And blue is so yucky. Oh please, Mommy, please!

MOTHER: Well . . . Maybe I can go back later.

SUSIE: Oooh good. (Goes back to coloring.) Mommy?

MOTHER: Yes?

SUSIE: I want Betsy to sleep over tonight.

MOTHER: Now that’s out of the question. You know Daddy and I are having dinner company tonight.

SUSIE: But she has to sleep over tonight. I already told her she could.

MOTHER: Well, call her back and tell her she can’t.

SUSIE: You’re mean!

MOTHER: I’m not mean. I just don’t want children underfoot when I’m having company. Remember the way you two carried on last time?

SUSIE: We won’t bother you.

MOTHER: (loud) The answer is no!

SUSIE: You don’t love me! (starting to cry)

MOTHER: (distressed) Now, Susie, you know perfectly well I love you. (cupping her chin tenderly) Come on, who’s my little princess?

SUSIE: Oh please, Mommy, pretty please? We’ll be so good.

MOTHER: (weakening for the moment) Well . . . (shaking her head) Susie, it won’t work out. Why do you always make it so hard for me? When I say “no” I mean “no!”

SUSIE: (throws coloring book on floor) I hate you!

MOTHER: (grimly) Since when do we throw books? Pick it up.

SUSIE: I won’t.

MOTHER: Pick it up this instant!

SUSIE: (Shrieks at the top of her lungs and throws new crayons on the floor one at a time.) No! No! No! No!

MOTHER: Don’t you dare throw those crayons!

SUSIE: (throwing another crayon) I will if I want to.

MOTHER: (slapping Susie on the arm) I said stop it, you little brat!

SUSIE: (shrieks) You hit me! You hit me!

MOTHER: You broke the crayons I bought you.

SUSIE: (crying hysterically) Look! You made a mark.

MOTHER: (Very upset, she rubs Susie’s arm.) I’m so sorry, sweetheart. It’s just a tiny scratch. It must have been my nail. It’ll be better in no time.

SUSIE: You hurt me!

MOTHER: You know I didn’t mean it. Mommy wouldn’t hurt you for the world. . . . You know what? Let’s call up Betsy and tell her she can come tonight. Will that make you feel better?

SUSIE: (still teary) Yeah.

As you can see, there are times when love, spontaneity, and good intentions are simply not enough. When parents are on the firing line, they need skills, too.

As you read this next scene you’ll see the same mother with the same child. Only this time she uses all her skills to help her daughter behave differently.

The Princess—Part II

MOTHER: I’m home, everybody! . . . Hi, Susie. I see you’re busy coloring.

SUSIE: (not looking up) Yeah.

MOTHER: (putting down her packages) There, I think I’m set for tonight’s company. By the way, I picked up some school supplies for you while I was out.

SUSIE: (grabbing the bag) What’d you buy me? (pulling things out) Crayons . . . that’s good . . . pencil case . . . (indignantly) a blue notebook! You know I hate blue. Why didn’t you buy me a red one?

MOTHER: Why didn’t I?

SUSIE: (hesitating) Because the store didn’t have a red one?

MOTHER: (crediting Susie) You guessed it.

SUSIE: Then you should have gone to another store.

MOTHER: Susie, when I go out of my way to buy something special for my daughter, what I’d like to hear is: “Thanks, Mom . . . Thank you for the crayons . . . Thank you for the pencil case . . . Thank you for getting me a notebook—even if it isn’t the color I like.”

SUSIE: (grudgingly) Thank you . . . but I still think blue is yucky.

MOTHER: No doubt about it, when it comes to color you are a person of definite taste!

SUSIE: Yeah! . . . I’m making all the flowers red . . . Mom, can Betsy sleep over tonight?

MOTHER: (considering the request) Daddy and I are having company tonight. But she’s certainly welcome another night. Tomorrow? Next Saturday?

SUSIE: But she has to sleep over tonight. I already told her she could.

MOTHER: (firmly) As I see it, Susie, the choice is tomorrow night or next Saturday. Whichever you prefer.

SUSIE: (her lip quivering) You don’t love me.

MOTHER: (pulling up a chair next to her) Susie, now is not the time to talk about love. Now we’re trying to decide the best night for your friend to visit.

SUSIE: (teary) The best night is tonight.

MOTHER: (persistently) We want to find a time that meets your needs and my needs.

SUSIE: I don’t care about your needs! You’re being mean to me! (Throws coloring book on floor and starts to cry.)

MOTHER: Hey, I don’t like that! Books are not for throwing! (Picks up book, dusts it off.) Susie, when you feel strongly about something, tell me your feelings with words. Tell me, “Mom, I’m angry! . . . I’m very upset! . . . I was counting on Betsy sleeping over tonight.”

SUSIE: (accusingly) We were going to make chocolate chip cookies together and watch television!

MOTHER: I see.

SUSIE: And Betsy was going to bring her sleeping bag and I was going to put my mattress on the floor next to her.

MOTHER: You had the whole evening worked out!

SUSIE: We did! We were talking about it all day in school today.

MOTHER: To look forward to something and then to have to change your plans can be pretty frustrating.

SUSIE: That’s right! So can she come tonight, Mommy, please . . . please . . . pretty please?

MOTHER: I wish tonight were good for me because you want it so much. It isn’t. (Stands up.) Susie, I’m going into the kitchen now—

SUSIE: But, Mommy . . .

MOTHER: (as she leaves) And while I’m preparing dinner I’ll be knowing how very disappointed you are.

SUSIE: But, Mommy . . .

MOTHER: (calling out from kitchen) As soon as you decide what other night you want Betsy to visit, please let me know.

SUSIE: (Picks up the phone and calls friend.) Hello, Betsy. You can’t come tonight . . . My parents are having some dumb company. You can come tomorrow or next Saturday.

In this second dramatization, Mother had the skills she needed to keep Susie from playing out the role of “Princess.” Wouldn’t it be wonderful if in real life we too were able to always come up with the kind of responses that were helpful to our children and helpful to ourselves?

But life isn’t a neat little script that can be memorized and performed. The real-life dramas that children engage us in every day don’t give us time for rehearsal or careful thought. However, with our new guidelines, though we may do and say things we regret, we have a very clear direction to which we can return. There are basic principles we can depend on. We know that we can’t go too far wrong if we take time to listen to our children’s feelings, or talk about our own feelings, or work in terms of future solutions, rather than past blame. We may be thrown off course temporarily, but chances are we’ll never lose our way completely again.

One final thought: Let’s not cast ourselves in roles either—good parent, bad parent, permissive parent, authoritarian parent. Let’s start thinking of ourselves as human beings first, with great potential for growth and change. The process of living or working with children is demanding and exhausting. It requires heart, intelligence, and stamina. When we don’t live up to our own expectations—and we won’t always—let’s be as kind to ourselves as we are to our youngsters. If our children deserve a thousand chances, and then one more, let’s give ourselves a thousand chances—and then two more.