When How to Talk . . . was first published back in 1980, we had our fingers crossed. We weren’t at all sure how people would react. The format was so different from our first book. Liberated Parents/Liberated Children was the story of our personal experiences. This book was basically a version of the workshops we had been giving around the country. Would parents find it helpful?
We knew how people responded when we worked with them directly. Whenever we’d present a two-part program (evening lecture followed by a morning workshop), we’d find that even before the morning session began parents would be waiting for us—eager to tell how, overnight, they had tried a new skill and how pleased they were with the results.
But that happened because we were there in person—role-playing with the audience, answering their questions, illustrating each principle with examples, using all our energies to drive home our convictions. Would readers be able to “get it” from the pages of a book?
They did. In numbers that astonished us. Our publisher informed us they were printing additional copies to meet the demand. An article in the New York Times reported that of the hundreds of parenting books flooding the market, How to Talk . . . was one of the “top ten sellers.” PBS produced a six-part series based on each chapter. But the biggest surprise came from the amount of mail that filled our boxes. Letters arrived in a steady stream, not only from the United States and Canada but from countries all over the globe, some so small or unfamiliar we had to look them up in an atlas.
Most people wrote to express their appreciation. Many described, in some detail, just how our book had touched their lives. They wanted us to know exactly what they were doing differently now—what was working with their children and what wasn’t. It seemed that parents everywhere, no matter how different the culture, were dealing with similar problems and searching for answers.
There was another theme that emerged in the letters. People spoke of how hard it was to change old habits: “When I remember to use my skills everything goes better, but too often I revert, especially when I’m under pressure.” They also expressed a desire for additional help: “I want this approach to be a more natural part of me. I need practice and support. Do you have any materials my friends and I can use to study these methods together?”
We understood their needs. As young mothers, we had sat in a room with other parents and discussed each skill, and struggled together to come up with the most respectful, effective ways to deal with the endless challenges presented by children. It was because we knew how valuable the group experience could be that we conceived the idea of writing a series of do-it-yourself workshops based on our book. We felt sure that if parents were given an easy-to-follow, step-by-step program they could learn and practice the skills together, on their own, without the help of a trained leader.
Our “master plan” worked. Parents organized groups, ordered our workshop materials, and really were able to use them successfully. But what we hadn’t anticipated was the number of professionals requesting and using the How to Talk . . . program. We heard from psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, educators, ministers, priests, and rabbis.
We were also surprised by the variety of organizations using our materials—domestic-violence crisis centers, drug and alcohol rehabilitation units, juvenile probation departments, the Boy Scouts, state prisons, schools for the deaf, Head Start, and military bases in the United States and abroad. Eventually, more than 150,000 groups around the world had used or were using our audio and video programs.
All during this time, we would receive a persistent request, mostly from social-service agencies, “Parents desperately need communication skills. Do you have any materials that could help us train volunteers to go out into the community and run your How to Talk . . . program?”
What an interesting idea! We wished we did. Maybe at some time in the future we could write a . . .
A phone call came from the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension. They had done it! Unbeknownst to us, and in partnership with the Wisconsin Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse, they had obtained a federal grant to create a leadership training manual for our How to Talk So Kids Will Listen Group Workshop program. It seems they had already used it to teach more than a hundred volunteers how to run our workshops for over seven thousand parents in thirteen counties. With great enthusiasm they described the success of their project and their dream of replicating it in every state. Would we look at their manual, make any necessary changes, and join them in a broader publishing venture?
After recovering from the shock of this “too good to be true” offer, we made plans to meet with them and work together. The training manual has just been published.
So here we are today on another anniversary of the book we launched with some trepidation so long ago. No one could have predicted then, certainly not us, that it would have such staying power or that it would take on a life of its own and recast itself into so many different shapes and forms.
Nevertheless, once again we found ourselves with questions. Would How to Talk . . . continue to withstand the test of time? After all, several decades had gone by. In addition to all the mind-boggling technological advances, the whole family picture was changing. There were more single, divorced, and stepparents, more nontraditional families, more homes where both mother and father were out in the workforce, more children in day care. Were these methods of communicating as relevant in today’s harder, harsher, faster world as they were a generation ago?
As we reread our book with an eye on the current scene, we both came to the same conclusion. The principles were more important than ever. Because parents, whatever their status, were more stressed and more guilty than ever—torn between the competing demands of work and family, pushing themselves to fit forty-eight hours into a twenty-four-hour day, trying to do everything for and be everything to all the important people in their lives. Add to that a consumer culture that bombards their children with materialistic values; television that exposes them to explicit sexual images; websites that offer them instant, sometimes unsavory companionship; video games that desensitize them to violence; movies that stimulate them with multiple murders in the name of fun and entertainment, and it’s not hard to understand why so many of today’s parents feel shaken and overwhelmed.
We know full well this book is not a total answer. There are problems that cannot be solved by communication skills alone. Nevertheless, we believe that within these pages parents will find solid support—strategies that will help them cope with the built-in frustrations of raising children; clear methods that will enable them to set limits and impart their values; concrete skills that will keep families close and connected despite pernicious outside forces; language that will empower parents to be firm and nurturing—nurturing to themselves as well as to their children.
We are delighted at the opportunity this anniversary edition presents. It gives us a chance to share with you our current thinking and some of the feedback we’ve received over the years—the letters, the questions, the stories, the insights of other parents.
We hope that somewhere in this mix you’ll find an additional kernel of information or inspiration to help you carry on with the most important job in the world.
I. The Letters
It’s always a great pleasure to hear from our readers, but the letters that are most gratifying are those where people share how they actually used the principles in How to Talk . . . and applied them to the complexities of their lives.
Your book has given me the hands-on tools I’ve been desperately searching for. I don’t know how I would have handled all the hurt and anger my nine-year-old son felt about his father and me getting a divorce if I hadn’t read How to Talk. . . .
Most recent example: Tommy returned from his day with his father all down-in-the-mouth because his dad called him a “turkey.”
It took all my willpower not to bad-mouth my “ex” and tell Tommy his father was the one who was the “turkey.” Instead I said, “Oh boy, that must have hurt. Nobody likes to be called names. You wish Daddy would just tell you what he wants without putting you down.”
I could see by Tommy’s expression that what I said helped. But I’m not going to let this drop. I’m going to have a talk with his father. I just have to figure out how to do it without making things worse.
Thank you for my newfound confidence.
I bought your book for four dollars in a used bookstore, and by now I can honestly say it was the best investment I ever made. One of the first skills I tried was “Describe what you see.” When I got positive results, I almost fell out of my chair. My son, Alex (four), is a very strong-willed child (my parents call him “bullheaded”), which gives me many opportunities to use the ideas in your book.
Here’s how the chapters on “Roles” and “Problem-Solving” helped me: Whenever I participated in Alex’s preschool co-op program, I noticed the teacher getting more and more annoyed with him, especially when he wouldn’t join the group for singing or anything else that didn’t interest him. If Alex is bored or restless, it’s hard for him to sit still. He rolls around, runs around, walks around. His teacher kept saying his name—“Alex, sit down . . . Alex, stop that! . . . Alex!!!” I saw him being put in the role of “troublemaker.”
One day after school I talked to him about what he didn’t like about the program and what he did. It turned out that he was tired of singing “Old McDonald” and having to listen to some of the same stories. But he really enjoyed the crafts and the games.
Then I told him how hard it was for the teacher to teach songs or tell stories to all the children when one child was running around disturbing the class. I was about to ask him to list some solutions when, out of the blue, he said, “Okay, Mom. I’ll be wild in the playground after class!”
I gulped and said, “Sounds good to me.” And since then the teacher hasn’t had anything to complain about. The more I use my skills with my son, the more positive changes I see in him. It’s as though a new little person has stepped out.
The elementary school counselor recommended How to Talk . . . when we were having behavior problems with our six-year-old son.
After reading the book, borrowing the videos from the Michigan State University Extension Office nearby, and teaching myself the parenting skills, several of my friends noticed such a change in our son that they asked what I was doing that made such a difference in his behavior and in my relationship with him. (He went from saying, “I hate you. I wish I wasn’t your son” to “Mom, you’re my bestest pal.”)
After telling my friends about the book, they asked me to teach them. I was able to get all the necessary materials from the Extension Office—the video series and the workbooks—and gave a six-week course to my class of twelve parents (including my husband!). Sometime later, the Extension office asked me if I would give it again and open it to the public, which I did. I’ve been teaching the series for several years now and have seen some incredible changes for the better in the lives of the children whose parents attended the workshops.
Lately, I notice it takes some parents a little longer to catch the spirit of the program. They’re under so much pressure; they want fast answers. Also, maybe they’ve been influenced by all the recent advice out there telling them that if they don’t get tough (punish, spank) to make their kids mind they’re not doing their job, not being responsible. But once they start actually using your approach and seeing for themselves how it works and how in the long run the kids are so much more cooperative, they become enthusiastic about the program.
As for me, when I look back I see that our son was becoming an angry and rebellious little boy. Finding your materials, learning and applying the skills in How to Talk . . . , has literally saved our family life and improved our relationship with our son one hundred percent. I firmly believe that as long as these skills are a part of our lives we can help prevent our son from becoming the type of teenager who could make some very deadly choices out of anger and rebellion.
Thank you for presenting what you had learned in such a clear way that it can be self-taught.
I found How to Talk . . . in our local library and must say it is the most worn-out book I have ever seen. In fact, I’m sure the only thing holding it together is the soundness of its contents.
It’s been extremely helpful to me in dealing with my ten-year-old daughter, who has recently developed an attitude. I don’t know where it comes from—her friends or TV—but she’s taken to saying things like “You never buy anything good to eat” or “How come you got me such a dumb video game? It’s for little kids.”
Thanks to you, I no longer defend myself or try to be understanding. Now when she gets “mouthy,” I stop her right in her tracks. I’ll say something like “Lisa, I don’t like being accused. If there’s something you want or don’t want, you need to tell me in another way.”
The first time I did this, I could see she was taken aback. But now I notice that when she starts out being fresh I don’t even have to say anything. Sometimes I just give her “a look,” and she’ll stop and actually make an effort to be civil.
Your book is the greatest thing to come along since the dishwasher and the microwave! Just this morning I was rushing to get the baby ready for day care and reminded Julie (four) that she needed to use her Nebulizer machine for her asthma before she got dressed for school. She ignored me and started playing with her Barbie doll. Normally I would have screamed at her and taken the doll away, which would have led to her having a tantrum and me being frantic and late for work.
Instead, I took a deep breath and said, “I can see how much you want to play with Barbie. I’m sure she wants to spend time with you, too. Would you like to turn on your Nebulizer or do you think Barbie would like to turn it on?” She said, “Barbie wants to turn it on,” at which point she walked over to the machine, let the doll “turn it on,” completed her treatment, and then got dressed.
Thank you from the bottom of my frazzled nerves.
From Parents of Teenagers
We’re frequently questioned about the “best” age to start using these skills. Our standard reply is “It’s never too early and never too late.” Here’s what parents of teenagers had to tell us:
People are always asking me how come my kids are so wonderful. I give my wife most of the credit, but I also tell them about How to Talk . . . because it’s helped me really “live” what I believe in. I explain that it’s not just a matter of saying or doing any one particular thing. It’s about a way of living together with real respect. And when you get that respect going, that’s what gives you whatever power or influence you have when they get to be teenagers.
I know there are no guarantees, and I’m not saying it’s easy. Recently Jason, my fourteen-year-old, asked me for money to go to the movies. It turned out he wanted to see this R-rated film that I had read about and didn’t think was appropriate for him. I gave him my objections, including the fact that he was underage. He said his friends were all going and he didn’t want to miss out. I repeated my position. He said I couldn’t really stop him because he was tall and could pass for seventeen, and if not, someone on line would get him in.
I said, “I know I can’t stop you, but I’m hoping you won’t go. Because from everything I’ve read, this movie is all about connecting sex with violence, and I think that is a sick connection. Sex shouldn’t have anything to do with one person hurting or using another. It has to do with two people caring about each other.”
Well, I didn’t give him the money and I hope he didn’t go. But even if he did, I have a feeling he’ll be sitting there with my voice in his head. Because of our relationship, there’s a good chance he’ll at least consider my point of view. And that’s the only protection I can give him against all the garbage out there in the world.
I want to let you know that your book has changed my life and thinking . . .
. . . and my children’s lives
. . . and my relationship with my husband
. . . and his with the kids
. . . and, most especially, our relationship with our teenage daughter, Jodie.
One of the things we used to get into fights over was curfew. No matter what time we set, she always managed to be late and nothing we said or did made any difference. It was a real worry, because in our town a lot of kids go to parties where there’s no supervision. Once the police were called in because a party attracted a lot of uninvited kids and neighbors complained about noise and beer bottles thrown on their lawns. Even when the parents are home, half the time they go upstairs to watch TV or sleep and have no idea what’s going on downstairs. One Saturday morning, my husband and I sat down with Jodie to see if we could solve the problem together. He told her if he had his way he’d move the family to a desert island for the next two years until she went to college. But since that wasn’t practical we’d have to think of something else.
I said, “Seriously, Jodie, you have a right to enjoy a night out with your friends. And Dad and I have a right to a worry-free evening. We need to figure out something that will satisfy all of us.”
Well, we did. Here’s what we finally agreed to: We’ll be responsible for checking to make sure there’s an adult in the house. Jodie will be responsible for coming home sometime between eleven-thirty and midnight. Since we go to bed early, I’ll set the alarm for twelve-fifteen—just in case something unexpected comes up. The second Jodie gets home, she’ll turn off the alarm. That way she’ll have her fun and her parents will have a peaceful night’s sleep. But if the alarm goes off, all our alarms will go off, and we’ll have to start tracking her down.
Our agreement held. Jodie has kept her part of the bargain and made it her business to “beat the clock” every time.
Thank you for your life preserver of a book!
Not for Children Only
Our purpose in writing How to Talk . . . was to help parents have better relationships with their children. We never expected that some people would use the book to change their relationship with their own parents or with themselves:
I was raised with no praise and lots of verbal abuse. After several years of escaping life through drugs and alcohol, I sought therapy to try to change my destructive behavior. My therapist recommended your book and it has been a terrific help to me—not only with the way I talk to my eighteen-month-old son but in the way that I now talk to myself.
I try not to belittle myself anymore. I’m starting to appreciate and give myself credit for all I do to make a life for me and my son. I’m a single mom and was terrified at the thought of repeating my upbringing, but now I know I won’t. Thank you for helping me believe in myself.
How to Talk . . . , my “Bible,” has helped me break a cycle of five generations of negating persons and feelings. It’s taken me a long time, but I’ve finally learned I don’t have to choke back my feelings—even the bad ones. I’m okay as I am. I hope my four children (seventeen, fourteen, twelve, and ten) can at some point appreciate the effort it took on my part (years of going to your parenting classes) to be able to raise the next generation of people willing and able to communicate instead of negate, negate, negate. P.S. I got your book when my seventeen-year-old was one. It’s been my salvation!
I am a forty-year-old mother of two boys. What has affected me most deeply about your book is the realization that I have been terribly damaged by my parents’ attitude toward me. My father still manages to say something hurtful to me every time we see each other. Since I’ve had children, these remarks are all nasty little digs about what a hopeless mother I am and what a mess I am making of my boys’ upbringing. I realize now that even though I’m an adult, part of me is still a child suffering from lingering wounds of doubt and self-hatred.
The weird thing is that I am a conscientious, hard worker, who has had relative success as an artist. Yet my father always paints a picture of a person who is completely the opposite of me.
After reading your book, I found the courage to begin to stand up to my father. Recently, when he told me I was lazy, I replied that he might see me that way but that I had another picture of myself. (He was nonplussed by that.) I have new hope now that I can heal the child inside me by giving it the parenting it never had.
At almost every conference, one or two teachers would take us aside to tell us how our books had affected them, not only personally but professionally as well. Some put their experiences in writing:
I read How to Talk So Kids Will Listen . . . nine years ago when I first started teaching. I was used to working with adults and hadn’t yet had children of my own. Your book may have saved my life. It has certainly helped me be a much better teacher to my seventh and eighth graders and a much happier person.
The most helpful shift in my thinking came from no longer asking myself how to “make” the kids learn or behave. Now I ask myself how I can motivate my students to take ownership of the problem. My most recent success came with Marco, a self-appointed class clown, who disrupted the other students and got zeros on tests. One day after class, I stopped him. I said, “Marco, I need to talk to you. What do you think would help you to learn?”
My question stunned him. I think he expected to be sent to the principal’s office. After a long silence he said, “Maybe I should take notes.”
The next day Marco not only began taking notes but he raised his hand and talked in class. One of the other boys said, “Hot damn, Marco. You know something!”
Over the years I have recommended, lent, and discussed your book with literally hundreds of parents and teachers. I usually keep a copy on my nightstand. Conscious attention to its precepts also helps me be the kind of father, husband, and friend that I want to be more often.
My students have all benefited from your chapter on praise. I have one boy who has ADD. In nine months he had turned in only three math assignments. After reading How to Talk . . . , I began to use descriptive language to point out his positives. I started saying things like “You figured it out” or “Oh, you caught your own error” or “You persisted until you got the right answer.” The next week he turned in every single assignment. He is so proud of his work he wants me to tell his mother at the next parent conference.
I have another student who has handwriting that is so bad even he can’t read what he’s written. His spelling grades have all been in the fifty-percent area. He goes to another teacher for extra help. I shared my book with her, and together we have stormed him with praise. We both described whatever was right about his handwriting and spelling. (“You remembered to put the silent ‘t’ in often.”) Today he burst into my room and announced that he got nineteen spelling words right out of twenty. It was his first A in spelling ever.
I am an educational diagnostician in a large school district in Texas. After years of training teachers and experimenting with a variety of different methods—behavior modification, reinforcement theory, increasingly severe punishments, loss of recess time, detention, suspension—my colleagues and I have come to the same conclusion: The principles and skills you write about in all your books are the skills we need to use and teach our teachers to use. We are convinced that when our classrooms really work, they work because relationships are working. And relationships work when communication is humane and caring.
Response from Abroad
We were fascinated by the feedback we received from foreign countries. That our work would be meaningful to people in cultures so very different from our own was a continuing source of amazement to us. When Elaine spoke at the International Book Fair in Warsaw, she asked the audience to explain the passionate response to our work in Poland (How to Talk . . . was a bestseller there). A father told her, “For years we have been under Communist rule. Now we have political freedom, but your book shows us how to be free within ourselves—how to give respect to ourselves and respect to our families.”
From China, a woman wrote:
I am a teacher of English in Guangzhou, China. While I was a visiting college student in New York, I was also a babysitter of Jennifer, a little girl of five years old. Before me, she had a babysitter from another country who was unkind to her. She was hit and locked in a dark room from time to time for being naughty. As a result, Jennifer grew to be more eccentric and unsociable. What is more, she often burst into hysterical cries.
For my first few weeks, I applied to Jennifer the traditional Chinese methods, which tend to tell children how they should behave. Yet such methods did not turn out to be effective. The little girl burst into hysterical cries more often, and she even hit me.
Jennifer’s mother was so sympathetic with me that she went to a psychological doctor for advice. He recommended to her your book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk. The mother and I read it eagerly and tried our best to use the knowledge we learned from it. It has proved to be a success. Jennifer began to talk more, and we gradually became good friends. “Xing Ying, you are so good at dealing with Jennifer,” said the grateful parents.
I am now back in China and have become a mother of a little boy myself. I have been applying the methods I learned from your book to deal with him and they have proved to be effective. Now my desire is to assist other Chinese parents to become more effective and happier in relation to their children.
From Victoria, Australia, a mother wrote:
I have used some of your suggestions with my children and found that they, especially my two elder, taciturn children, are talking to me more frequently. When they come home from university or school and I greet them with “I’m glad to hear you come in the door,” or something along those lines (and not “How was school/uni today?”), I get a smile. My elder daughter is actually instigating conversation with me and not avoiding me.
A social worker who ran our How to Talk . . . program in Montreal, Quebec, wrote to describe a visit to her in-laws in Capetown, South Africa:
I met with the head of a parenting centre in the area to see what work they are doing. The centre offers classes both for the middle-class people who live nearby and for the residents of the sprawling shantytown called Kayelisha, on the outskirts of town. In Kayelisha, families live in small tin houses, each house about the size of a bedroom—no electricity, no running water, no sanitation facilities. The people from the centre hold classes there, using How to Talk . . . as a basis and translating the cartoons into Afrikaans so the residents can understand. They said they have about ten copies of the book in their lending library, and that they are all worn out and dog-eared from use.
I will also be sending a copy of your newest book, How to Talk So Kids Can Learn, to a friend from Johannesburg who runs education programs for teachers who work far away from cities in tiny communities.
Thought you’d like to know the scope of your influence!
Parents Under Duress
Most of the examples in How to Talk . . . showed people dealing with everyday, run-of-the-mill problems. When a woman approached us after a lecture and described, with tear-filled eyes, how her relationship with her son, who had Tourette’s syndrome, had gone from hopeless and hostile to upbeat and loving as a result of our book, we were overwhelmed. Since then we have heard from a number of mothers and fathers who have used our work to cope with especially stressful or serious problems.
Almost always the writers credit us for the changes they’ve made. As we see it, the credit belongs to them. Anybody can read a book. It takes a person of great determination and dedication to study the words on a page and use them to triumph over heartache. Here’s what some parents had done:
My home is sometimes like World War III. My daughter (seven) is ADHD. When she takes her medication, she is for the most part manageable. But when it wears off we have this out-of-control child. (I know a lot of parents of kids with ADHD who have to go to “tough love.”)
When I read your book, I wondered if these skills would work with an ADHD child. Well, they do. Now I notice that if I talk to her in this new way when she’s on her medication, it helps her all through the day—particularly with her social skills. I feel sure that if I keep on this way, it will help her later in life as well. Thank you for your book.
My husband and I are both psychologists. Our son, eight, has recently been diagnosed with ADHD. We have had many troubling times with him. A friend introduced us to your books Liberated Parents/Liberated Children and How to Talk So Kids Will Listen . . . and we found them to contain the most useful approach we have come across to date.
We were both trained primarily in the use of behavioral methods, which were extremely counterproductive with our son. Your approach, based on mutual respect and understanding, has gradually helped us to get what we want from him without trying to control everything that happens. It has been a most welcome relief !
I feel that my knowledge of effective interaction patterns is only in its infancy, but I have been busy sharing what I have learned in my clinical practice. Your methods are effective in a wide variety of settings and with a wide variety of populations.
Thank you for your willingness to share all of your experiences and admit your weaknesses. It has helped your readers to admit their own.
My son, Peter, was discovered to have amblyopia at the ripe old age of six. His doctor made it clear that we had six months to work on “patching” with glasses or Peter would run the risk of severely impaired eyesight in his right eye. He was required to wear the patch four hours per day, during school hours.
Needless to say, Peter was embarrassed and uncomfortable. He tried to get out of doing it every day, and I was at my wits’ end. He complained that it gave him a headache and that he could see worse than ever and that it “hurt.” I acknowledged his feelings and was firm all at once, but his attitude did not improve.
At last, after five or six days of this, I was worn down. I said, “Look, Pete, I’ll put the patch on for four hours so I’ll know just what it’s like and then we can figure out ways to make it work better.” I only said this out of pity for him; I didn’t realize that it was going to have the effect it did.
Within twenty minutes I had a terrible headache. I lost depth perception, so that trying to do ordinary things like open a cabinet door, get the laundry out of the dryer, let the cat go out, or even walk upstairs were all incredibly difficult. By the end of four hours, I was a miserable, exhausted wreck who fully understood what this child was going through.
We talked. Although I couldn’t change the requirements, Peter and I recognized that we had experienced the same things. My affirming how hard it was and my obvious inability to handle it as well as he did was apparently all that he needed. From that point on, he was able to wear the patch religiously every day during school for the four hours. His sight was saved and he didn’t even have to wear glasses.
The lesson to me was, sometimes it’s not enough just to give lip service to what a child is feeling. Sometimes you have to go an extra step to “see things through his eyes.”
I have been running your How to Talk . . . group workshops for many years now. Since I picked up your first book in 1976 I have been an advocate of your work. At that time my first child, Alan, had just been born. He is twenty-two years old now and suffers from severe mental illness. This disease is a brain disorder that is hereditary in my family. Because of the skills I learned and teach, Alan’s prognosis is so much better than that of most of the other sufferers, and I am able to help him in his grief and acceptance of his disability. Also, I am able to manage the ups and downs of his emotional roller coaster that comes with the disease by using my skills.
As I attend support groups for other parents who have similarly disabled children, I realize that your methods have made my whole situation much more positive in outlook and manageability. Hopefully, we will be able to help Alan to continue to make progress in his life and, more important, prevent him from relapse and hospitalization, which so often occur.
I am so grateful for the seventeen years’ experience I have using these principles. Alan’s siblings suffer as well, from fear of getting the disease to the terrible imbalance of resources in our family in managing the disability. The skills help my husband and me to be empathetic and aware of their plight. Your work has been a great gift to our family.
II. Yes, but . . . What if . . . How about . . . ?
Not all the feedback we received was positive. Some people were disappointed at not finding more help for children who had serious or complex problems. Others were unhappy at not having their particular questions answered. Still others were frustrated because they had made a genuine effort to say or do things differently with little or no success. Their common refrain was “I tried it, but it didn’t work.”
When we asked what actually happened and heard the details of their experience, it was almost always easy to see what went wrong and why. Evidently, there were some ideas we needed to develop more fully. Here are some of the comments and questions we heard, along with our responses:
I gave my teenager a choice and it backfired. I told him he could either get a haircut and come to Thanksgiving dinner or he could have Thanksgiving dinner in his room and that it was up to him.
He said, “Fine, I’ll have it in my room.” I was shocked. I said, “What?! You would do that to me! And to your family?” He just turned his back on me and walked away. Maybe choices don’t work with teenagers.
Before you offer a child of any age a choice, it helps to ask yourself, “Are both of these options acceptable to me and likely to be acceptable to my child?” Or are these choices really threats in disguise? Will he experience me as using a technique to try to manipulate him? At its best, the subtext of a choice should be “I’m on your side. There’s something I want you to do (or not do), but rather than giving you an order I’d like to give you some say in the matter.”
What choice could you have given your teenage son about his hair? Chances are, none. Most teenagers experience almost any parental comment about their hair—the style, the color, the length, the cleanliness or lack thereof as an invasion of their personal space.
But suppose you can’t contain yourself? If you’re willing to risk moving into this sensitive area, approach with caution: “I know it’s none of my business; however, if you could consider the possibility of allowing the barber to remove just enough hair so that we could see your eyes, you’d have a thankful mother on Thanksgiving.”
Then make a quick exit.
What do you do if you give your child two choices and she rejects both of them? The doctor prescribed a medicine for my daughter that she hates, and I did exactly what you suggested. I told her that she could have it with apple juice or ginger ale. She said, “I don’t want either one,” and clamped her mouth shut.
When children have strong negative feelings about doing something, they’re not likely to be receptive to any choices. If you want your daughter to be open to the options you offer, you need to start by giving her full respect for her negative feelings: “Boy, I can see by the way you’re wrinkling your nose how much you hate even the thought of taking that medicine.” A statement like that can relax her. It says, “Mom understands and is on my side.” Now your daughter is more emotionally ready to consider your words. “So, honey, what could make it less awful for you—taking it with juice or ginger ale? Or can you think of something that would help—even a little.” Actually, the possibilities for choices are endless:
Do you want to take it fast or slow?
With your eyes open or closed?
With the big spoon or the little spoon?
Holding your nose or your toes?
While I sing or while I’m quiet?
Should I give it to you or would you rather take it yourself?
The point is, some things are easier to swallow if someone understands how hard it is for you, and if you have a small say in how it goes down.
Another communication breakdown occurred when consequences were included in the problem-solving process. One parent told us how disappointed she was when the one time she tried to work out a solution with her children they all ended up in a big fight.
I called a family meeting and told the kids what the vet said about our dog being seriously overweight and not getting enough exercise. We were going through all the problem-solving steps together and making good progress, deciding who would be responsible for what and at what time, when my middle son asked what the consequence would be if someone didn’t do his job. My oldest suggested no TV for one night. The other two said that wasn’t fair. To make a long story short, we all wound up in this big argument about what a fair consequence should be, with everybody mad at one another and no plan about what to do for the dog. I can only conclude that my boys just aren’t mature enough for problem-solving.
It is not a good idea to bring up consequences when you’re trying to solve a problem. The whole process is geared toward creating trust and goodwill. As soon as the idea of a consequence for failure is introduced, the atmosphere is poisoned. Doubt is created, motivation is killed, and trust is destroyed.
When a child asks what the consequence would be if he doesn’t do his part, the parent can respond, “I don’t want us even to think about consequences. Right now we need to figure out how to make sure our dog gets healthy and stays healthy. It will take all of us working together to make that happen.
“We understand there will be times when we won’t feel like doing our part. But we’ll do it anyway, because we don’t want to let one another or our dog down. And if someone gets sick or there’s an emergency we’ll take turns getting the job done. In this family, we all look out for one another.”
Alternatives to “But”
A number of parents complained that when they acknowledged their children’s feelings the children became even more upset. When we asked exactly what they said, the problem became clear. Each of their empathic statements included a “but.” We pointed out that the word but tends to dismiss, diminish, or erase all that went before. Here is each parent’s original statement, with our suggested revision that eliminates the “but.”
Original statement: “You sound so disappointed about missing Julie’s party. But the fact is you have a bad cold. Besides, it’s only one party. There will be plenty of other parties in your life.”
Child thinks: “Dad just doesn’t understand.”
Revised statement: (Instead of “butting away” the feeling, give it full value.) “You sound so disappointed about missing Julie’s party. You were looking forward to celebrating your friend’s birthday with her. The last place on earth you wanted to be today was in bed with a fever.”
If Dad is feeling expansive, he can express what his daughter might wish: “Don’t you wish someone would finally discover a cure for the common cold?”
Original statement: “I know how much you hate the thought of having a sitter again, but I need to go to the dentist.”
Child thinks: “You always have a reason to leave me.”
Revised statement: (Delete “but.” Substitute “The problem is . . .”) “I know how much you hate the thought of having a sitter again. The problem is I need to go to the dentist.”
What’s the difference? As one father commented, “‘But’ feels like a door slammed in your face. ‘The problem is’ opens the door and invites you to consider a possible solution.” The child might say, “Maybe while you’re at the dentist I could play at Gary’s house.” Mom might say, “Maybe you could come with me and read a book in the waiting room.” Then again, there might not be a solution that satisfies the child. Nevertheless, by acknowledging that there is a problem we make it easier for him to deal with it.
Original statement: “Holly, I can see how unhappy you are about your haircut. But you’ll see, it will grow. In a few weeks you won’t even notice it.”
Child thinks: “No kidding. Like I couldn’t figure that out for myself.”
Revised statement: (Delete “but.” Substitute “And even though you know.”) “Holly, I can see how very unhappy you are about your haircut. And even though you know it will grow, you still wish somebody would have listened to you when you said you wanted only an inch taken off.”
By prefacing your statement with and even though you know, you credit your daughter’s intelligence and make your point without dismissing hers.
“Why Did You . . . ?” “Why Didn’t You . . . ?”
Some parents complained because they felt that they went out of their way to be understanding of their children only to be met with a hostile response.
As a new stepmother I’m well aware of how important it is not to be critical of the children. I leave the discipline up to their father. But when he was out of town and the teacher sent a note saying my stepson’s report was overdue, I knew I had to handle it. I was very calm. I just asked him, in a friendly way, why he didn’t get his report in on time, and he exploded at me. Why?
Any sentence that begins with Why did you or Why didn’t you can feel like an accusation. The question forces a youngster to think about his shortcomings. Beneath your friendly “Why didn’t you,” he may hear, “Isn’t it because you’re lazy, disorganized, irresponsible, and a hopeless procrastinator?”
Now he’s on the spot. How shall he answer you? He’s left with two untenable choices. He can either own up to his inadequacies or he can try to defend himself and make excuses for them: “Because the assignment wasn’t clear . . . Because the library was closed, etc.” In either case, he becomes more upset with himself, more angry at you, and less likely to think about how to remedy the situation.
What might you substitute that would lead to a nondefensive reaction? You can turn the problem over to your stepson and offer your support. As you hand him the note from his teacher, you can say:
“This was addressed to Dad and me, but you’re the person who will know how to take care of it. If there’s anything getting in the way of starting or finishing the report, or if you want someone to bounce some ideas off, I’m here.”
Several parents were disappointed at reading the book from cover to cover and not finding anything about “time-out.” Initially, we were puzzled by the comment. We had raised six children between us without ever sending anyone to time-out. Then, little by little, we began to notice a groundswell of books and magazine articles advocating time-out as a new disciplinary method, a humane alternative to spanking, and instructing parents on precisely how to carry out the procedure successfully.
How could we not consider it? The explanation seemed almost reasonable. By sending the misbehaving child into another space or place, with nothing to distract him—no books, toys, or games—and insisting that he sit there for a specified amount of time, one minute for each year of his life—the child will soon see the error of his ways and return chastened and well behaved.
But the more we thought about it and the more we read about it in all its variations, the less we liked it. To us it seemed that time-out was not new or innovative but an updated version of the outdated practice of making a “naughty” child stand in the corner.
We wondered, suppose Billy hits his little sister because she keeps pulling on his arm while he’s trying to draw and Mom, in a fury, sends him to “do-time” in his time-out chair. She claims that’s better than hitting Billy for hitting his sister. But what might be going on in Billy’s mind as he’s sitting there? Is he thinking, “Now I’ve learned my lesson. I must never hit my sister again, no matter what she does.” Or is he feeling, “No fair! Mom doesn’t care about me. She only cares about my stupid sister. I’ll fix her when Mom’s not looking.” Or is he concluding, “I’m so bad, I deserve to be sitting here all by myself.”
It is our conviction that the child who is misbehaving does not need to be banished from the members of his family, even temporarily. However, he does need to be stopped and redirected: “Billy, no hitting! You can tell your sister, with words, how mad it makes you feel when she pulls on your arm while you’re trying to draw.”
But suppose Billy tells her and suppose she continues pulling? And suppose Billy hits her again? Doesn’t that call for time-out?
Sending Billy to “solitary” might stop the behavior for the moment, but it doesn’t address the underlying problem. What Billy needs is not time out but private time with a caring adult who will help him deal with his feelings and figure out better ways to handle them. Mom might say, “It’s not easy to have a little sister who’s always pulling at you to get your attention. Today she made you so angry that you hit her. Billy, I can’t allow either one of my children to hit the other. We need to make a list of things you can do instead if she bothers you again when you’re trying to draw.”
What are some alternatives to hitting?
• Billy could yell “Stop!” in her face—very loud.
• He could push her hand away—gently.
• He could give her her own piece of paper and a crayon.
• He could give her something else to play with.
• He could draw when his sister is napping.
• He could draw in his room with the door closed.
• If nothing else works, he can call Mom for help.
Billy can post his list of solutions wherever he likes and consult it whenever the need arises. He no longer sees himself as someone who acts so bad when he’s mad that he needs to be sent away but as a responsible person who has many ways to cope with his anger.
About Spouses and Significant Others
A number of our readers shared a common frustration. They found nothing in the book about how to get through to a resistant spouse.
I’m trying to change the way I talk to the children, but I’m being undermined by a husband/wife/partner who doesn’t go along with my new approach. Do you have any suggestions for me?
When the same question arose at one of our lectures, we asked people in the audience what they had done. Here are their responses:
• I talk to my husband about the changes I’m trying to make. That way, he feels included in the process but doesn’t feel any pressure to have to change himself.
• We keep the book in the car. Whoever isn’t driving reads a little bit aloud and then we talk about it.
• My husband won’t read books on parenting. He’s from the “what’s the difference what you say, as long as your kids know you love them” school. Finally, I told him, “Look, when we decided to have children we knew we wanted to do right by them. We wouldn’t think of dressing them in rags or giving them a diet of junk food. Well by the same token, why would we talk to them in ways that aren’t healthy—especially if there are better options out there? Our kids deserve the best—from both of us.”
• I try to involve my husband by asking his advice about the best way to handle certain situations with our two sons. I’ll say something like “Honey, I need to bounce this off you. This is an area where I have no experience, since I was never a little boy. Now, what would make you more likely to want to cooperate—if your mother said this to you or if she said that?” Usually, he answers right away, but sometimes he’ll think about it and come up with a suggestion I never would have thought of.
• My wife hates it when I tell her what to say or how to say it. It’s best if I just use the skills myself and say nothing. Something must be rubbing off on her, because the other morning as we were rushing to get out, my daughter refused to put on her jacket. Instead of arguing, my wife gave her a choice. She asked her if she wanted to wear it regular or backward. My daughter giggled, picked backward,and off we went.
The Power of Playfulness
Several parents took us to task for not including a chapter on humor. In our defense, we explained that when we were writing the chapter on “Engaging Cooperation” we actually did debate the pros and cons of including humor. We knew how doing anything offbeat or unexpected could change the mood in seconds from mad to glad. But how could we ask parents, with everything else they had to do, to “be funny.” So we limited ourselves to two short paragraphs about humor. Big mistake. Parents, we discovered, are funny. Even those who don’t believe they can be. Anytime we had a workshop, anywhere in the country, and asked the very serious, grown-up parents to get in touch with the playful, funny, silly, zany, kid part of themselves, they did. They came up with the most delightful examples of what could be done or what they had done to raise their own spirits and melt their children’s resistance.
Sometimes my three-year-old refuses to get dressed because he wants me to do it for him. When he gets in this mood, I put his underwear on his head and try to put his socks on his hands. He, of course, tells me I’m doing it wrong and then puts his underwear on and his socks on his feet. Then he says, “See, Mommy, this is how it goes.” I act completely surprised and try to put his pants on his arms or his shirt on his legs. The game always ends with laughter and hugs.
To get my son to brush his teeth we invented germs—Geraldine and Joe—who would be hiding. So we would brush each spot while they would sing, “We’re having a party in Benjamin’s mouth.” Then they would scream when he brushed them and yell when he spit them down the drain. They would call out, “We’ll be back!”
The challenge of maintaining a semblance of order in any home with children of any age seemed to generate the most creative solutions. Here’s what some parents did to motivate their children to help around the house or clean up after themselves.
We’re trying to establish some traditions to encourage our new “blended” family—her three (seven, nine, and eleven) and my two (ten and thirteen)—to get along better. Arguing about who does what chores has been a real sore point. Now every Saturday morning we write down all the jobs that have to be done on separate pieces of paper. Then we fold them, put each one in a different color balloon, blow them up, and throw all the balloons into the air. Each child grabs one, breaks it, does the job, comes back, and breaks the next. On it goes until all the jobs are done and we congratulate one another on our great teamwork!
I’m an at-home dad who recently came up with a new way to deal with all the mess the kids make. I take out my special deck of cards with all the high numbers removed. Then each boy picks a card that tells him how many things he has to put away. There’s lots of excitement as they count what they put away and rush back to see what their next card will be. The last time I did it, the whole cleanup was finished in twenty minutes and the kids were disappointed that the game was over.
SCENARIO: One room with two girls. Pieces from three puzzles all over the floor.
MOM: “Okay, kids, this is called Can you beat the music? I’m going to play this new album and the idea is to see if you can get all the puzzle pieces back in their original boxes before the first song ends.”
They went for it and finished the job in two and a half songs.
I’ve got four boys. At least fifty times a day I’m yelling at them to put their shoes away. The first thing they do when they come home is take off their shoes and drop them in the middle of the floor, and I’m always tripping over eight shoes.
INSPIRATION: I write shoes on a piece of paper, put a string through it, and hang it over the entrance to the kitchen, low enough so they’ll run into it when they come home.
Kevin, my eight-year-old, is the first to arrive. The note brushes his hair as he enters the kitchen.
KEVIN: What’s this?
ME: Read it.
KEVIN: Shoes? What’s that supposed to mean?
ME: What do you think?
KEVIN: Are we going to get new shoes today?
KEVIN: (thinking hard) Do you want us to put our shoes away?
ME: You guessed it.
Kevin puts shoes away! Comes back and explains the note to the next three kids who put away their shoes!!!
KEVIN: You should make a sign like that for washing your hands.
My teenagers hate cleaning the bathroom. (“Ma, it’s gross!”) I didn’t argue. I just posted a note on the mirror over the sink. Here’s the poem that did the trick:
Grab the Comet and a rag
Scrub-a-dub—Oh, what a drag!
Edges, ledges, nooks, and crannies
Don’t forget where sit the fannies
Yes, it does, it takes some time
But work well done is so sublime!
The mother who gave us this story titled it “Nothing Lasts Forever”:
I wanted all the trains and tracks cleared out of the den, so I walked into my son’s room and pretended to call him on the phone. Ring. Ring.
He pretended to pick it up and said, “Hello.”
I said, “Is this the Reilly Construction Company?”
He said, “Yes.”
I said, “I have this big job of removing some heavy trains and tracks to another location and I heard your company was the best.”
He came in and picked everything up. I tried it a second time and it worked again. Then one day I rang him up and asked, “Is this Reilly Construction?”
My son answered, “He’s out of business.”
III. Their Native Tongue
Our mentor, Dr. Haim Ginott, wasn’t born in the United States. He came to this country from Israel as a young adult. It was here that he studied for his doctorate, published his books, and ran parent guidance groups. When we first joined one of his groups, we remember complaining to him about how hard it was to change old habits: “We find ourselves starting to say something to the kids, stopping, tripping over our own tongues.” He listened thoughtfully and then replied, “To learn a new language is not easy. For one thing, you will always speak with an accent. . . . But for your children it will be their native tongue!”
His words were prophetic. Not only as they applied to our children but to our readers’ children as well. We heard from many parents how their youngsters were using this new language in the most natural way. Here are their experiences as told or written:
I’m a working mother and have a very tight schedule. My three-year-old hates to get up and is usually very irritable. So I usually say, “You’re feeling cranky this morning, aren’t you?” He says, “Yah,” and feels better and is more cooperative.
One morning I woke up feeling irritable because I was running late. He looked at me with concern and said, “Are you feeling cranky, Mommy? I still love you so much.” It amazed me that he was so perceptive. He made me feel better and my day was great!
My four-year-old, Megan, said to her brother, “Justin, I don’t like it when you kick me.” (Usually she kicks him back.) He said, “Okay, Megs.” And that was it! Then Megan came and told me she used her new skill and it worked. She was surprised and proud of herself.
I would have been institutionalized by now without your magic spells. Just to let you know how much I use your methods, my daughter (age almost five) recently said, upon being told it was bedtime, “But, Mommy, what are my choices?” (She loves it when I ask her if she wants to walk to bed or hop to bed.)
The other day we were playing and she was being the mommy and she said to me, “Sweetheart, here are the choices: You can have a Jeep or a sports car—pick one!”
My four-year-old son, Danny, is sitting on the floor with his friend Christopher. They’re playing with toy animals and having a pretend fight. Suddenly it turns into a real fight.
CHRISTOPHER: Danny, stop! You’re hurting my hand!
DANNY: You’re hurting me!
CHRISTOPHER: I had to! You were pressing my hand down.
DANNY: I had to, because you were pressing my hand down.
ME: (Thinking I should intervene, but not sure what to say.)
DANNY: Wait a minute. (sits back on his heels and thinks) Christopher, here are our choices: We can play with the animals and not press each other’s hands down . . . or we can not play with the animals and play a different game. Which do you choice?
CHRISTOPHER: Let’s play another game.
And off they ran! I know it’s hard to believe, but it really did happen.
One day after breakfast, I was walking toward my daughter’s room thinking about what else I could do instead of giving her a long lecture about not leaving milk out on the counter. But I was preceded by my son, eight, who was already outside her door saying, “Milk turns sour when it’s left out of the refrigerator.”
To my surprise the door opened, and out came my six-year-old, who immediately went to the kitchen and put the milk away.
I was in the living room and overheard this conversation between my ten-year-old daughter, Liz, and her friend Sharon, who was searching through a kitchen cabinet.
SHARON: (in a whiny voice) I’m hungry. Why does your mother keep all the snacks up so high? She never puts things where you can reach them.
LIZ: Sharon, in our house we don’t blame. Just tell me what you want and I’ll get it for you.
I stood there thinking, you try and you try and never know if you’re getting through. And then one day it happens!
The big thing I got from your book is that it’s okay to be angry—as long as you don’t say anything that hurts anybody. I used to try to keep calm and keep it all in and would always end up yelling stuff I’d regret. As a matter of fact, lately I’ve been letting the kids know early on when I’m even beginning to feel uptight or out of patience, or when I just need to take some time for myself.
Yesterday I got my reward.
I was shopping with Ryan, my thirteen-year-old, who had shot up during the summer and needed a new winter jacket. We went to two stores and found nothing he liked. We were on our way to a third when he said, “Let’s go home.”
ME: Ryan, when that first cold snap hits, you won’t have anything to wear.
RYAN: Mom, please. I want to go home.
ME: But, Ryan . . .
RYAN: Mom, I’m trying to tell you! I feel myself getting into a bad mood and I don’t want to let it out on you.
As we headed home, I felt so proud and so cared about. Thank you for giving my kids and me ways to protect each other when we’re about to “lose it.”
I’ve been attending your How to Talk . . . classes for the last month. Recently I had a conversation with my eight-year-old son that I had to share with you.
ERIC: (as he was getting off the school bus) Guess what happened at recess today?
ME: I’m all ears.
ERIC: Michael got into trouble ’cause he hit someone and Mrs. M. yelled at him. He started to cry and she told him to stop and called him a crybaby.
ME: That must have made you feel bad to see that happen to Michael.
ERIC: Yeah! I put my arm around him like this. (He curves his arm around an invisible boy and pats an invisible shoulder.)
ME: I bet that made Michael feel better.
ERIC: Uh-huh. Mrs. M. should go to those classes you go to, Mom.
I believe that the new way I’m talking and listening to my son has helped him become a more sensitive person who doesn’t just stand by when he sees injustice.
So far, we’ve been looking at children using skills. In this final letter, a woman describes her own journey to internalize this “new language.”
As I sit here feeling the tears of joy, revelation, and pride, I just have to write and say thank you. A thousand thank-you’s. Today I realize how much I have changed, how much I am putting into practice naturally. It was a small incident. My three-year-old’s cousin (age nine) was visiting. He was showing my son how to pile boards so that he could reach the top of the fence. I looked out and said, in a calm and friendly tone, “Hey, I see a pile of boards that is tippy and unsafe. And fences are not for climbing. Feet on the ground, please.”
Then I went away. I looked out the window a couple of minutes later and they had dismantled the pile and were playing at something else—safely! It struck me suddenly that I had gotten more than the desired result (just to get them away from the pile) without:
1. Having to first think about which of your skills to apply. The words just flowed, naturally.
2. Screaming like a banshee—the usual result of my gripping fear at the image of the harm that could come to my child.
3. Physically being part of the correction. Even after I said my piece, it was not a conscious decision to leave the scene. It just happened. I just walked away and let them decide what to do. So unconscious was leaving the scene that it didn’t even occur to me until I’d done it, until I sat down to write this letter! I’m really learning! I’m really learning! Hurrah!
Afterward, I reflected on, and will not print, how I would have handled that situation as little as a year ago. And I cringe. Then I cry to think of what my child’s life would have been like without your books. You have given the likes of me—a perfectionist, workaholic, adult child of an alcoholic—the incredible gift of communicating with my precious children in a loving, uncritical way.
My mother and I recently shed tears when she reflected on how she had talked to us as children: “When I hear how you speak to your son, I am ashamed of how I spoke to you kids.” I was quick to forgive. She is quick to learn. She’s also spurred on by the warm feelings that a parent or grandparent can bask in after a success.
My sister—having recently fled from an abusive husband—spoke to her children in such a demeaning tone that I reached the point where I could not be in her company. I felt so much hurt for her children that I just couldn’t listen anymore. I bought her How to Talk . . . and Siblings Without Rivalry and suggested that she just skim the cartoons for the gist, hoping she would be drawn in. My mother reports seeing a change in the way my sister communicates with her kids. The self-esteem of another two children is being saved by your books.
I truly cannot convey the depth of my gratitude to you for sharing your skills.
P.S. Alcoholism is ugly and my family can’t yet own up to it. I, therefore, can’t release my surname.
Thank you, Jane. Thank all of you who have taken the time to put your thoughts and experiences in writing. It is when we read letters such as these, from home and abroad, that we permit ourselves, once again, our fondest fantasy: The one where all of us together—parents, teachers, mental-health professionals, and workshop leaders—spread the principles of caring communication so far and so wide that the time comes when the children of the world grow up to be strong, compassionate human beings, confident in themselves and committed to living in peace with one another.