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

2| Engaging Cooperation

PART I

By this time, your children have probably presented you with numerous opportunities to put your listening skills into action. Kids usually let us know—loud and clear—when something is bothering them. I know that in my own house any day with the children was like a night at the theater. A lost toy, a “too short” haircut, a report due for school, new jeans that didn’t fit right, a fight with brother or sister—any of these crises could generate enough tears and passion for a three-act drama. We never lacked for material.

The only difference is that in the theater the curtain falls and the audience can go home. Parents don’t have that luxury. Somehow we have to deal with all the hurt, anger, and frustration and still retain our sanity.

We know now that the old methods don’t work. All our explaining and reassuring bring no relief to the children, and wear us out. Yet the new methods can present problems, too. Even though we’re aware of how much more comforting the empathic response can be, it’s still not easy to give. For many of us the language is new and strange. Parents have told me:

“I felt so awkward at first—not like myself—as if I were playing a part.”

“I felt phony, but I must have been doing something right, because my son, who never says more than ‘Yup,’ ‘Nope,’ and ‘Do I have to?,’ suddenly began to talk to me.”

“I felt comfortable, but the children seemed uneasy. They looked at me suspiciously.”

“I discovered that I never listened to my kids before. I’d wait for them to finish talking so I could say what I had to. Real listening is hard work. You have to concentrate if you’re not just going to give a pat response.”

One father reported, “I tried it and it didn’t work. My daughter came home from Sunday school with a long face. Instead of my usual ‘Why the sour puss?,’ I said, ‘Amy, you seem very upset about something.’ She burst into tears, ran to her room, and slammed the door.”

I explained to that father that even when it “doesn’t work,” it “works.” Amy heard a different sound that day—one that told her that someone cared about her feelings. I urged him not to give up. In time, when Amy knows she can count on an accepting response from her father, she’ll feel it’s safe to talk about what’s bothering her.

Perhaps the most memorable response I heard was from a teenager who knew that his mother was attending my workshops. The boy came home from school muttering angrily, “They had no right to keep me off the team today just because I didn’t have my gym shorts. I had to sit and watch the whole game. It was so unfair!”

“That must have been very upsetting to you,” she said to him with concern.

He snapped at her, “Oh, you, you always take their side!”

She grabbed his shoulder. “Jimmy, I don’t think you heard me. I said, ‘That must have been very upsetting for you.’”

He blinked and stared at her. Then he said, “Dad should go to that course, too!”

Until now we’ve been concentrating on how parents can help children deal with their negative feelings. Now we would like to focus on helping parents deal with some of their own negative feelings.

One of the built-in frustrations of parenthood is the daily struggle to get our children to behave in ways that are acceptable to us and to society. This can be maddening, uphill work. Part of the problem lies in the conflict of needs. The adult need is for some semblance of cleanliness, order, courtesy, and routine. The children couldn’t care less. How many of them would, of their own volition, take a bath, say “please” or “thank you,” or ever change their underwear? How many of them would even wear underwear? A lot of parental passion goes into helping children adjust to societal norms. And somehow the more intense we become, the more actively they resist.

I know there were times when my own children thought of me as the “enemy”—the one who was always making them do what they didn’t want to do: “Wash your hands . . . Use your napkin . . . Keep your voices down . . . Hang up your coats . . . Did you do your homework? . . . Are you sure you brushed your teeth? . . . Come back and flush the toilet . . . Get into pajamas . . . Get into bed . . . Go to sleep.”

I was also the one who stopped them from doing what they wanted to do: “Don’t eat with your fingers . . . Don’t kick the table . . . Don’t throw dirt . . . Don’t jump on the sofa . . . Don’t pull the cat’s tail . . . Don’t put beans up your nose!”

The children’s attitude became “I’ll do what I want.” My attitude became “You’ll do as I say,” and the fight was on. It got to the point where my insides would churn every time I had to ask a child to do the simplest thing.

Take a few minutes now to think about what it is that you insist your children do, or not do, during a typical day. Then list your personal daily dos and don’ts in the space below.

In a single day I see to it that my children (or child) do the following:

IN THE MORNING

IN THE AFTERNOON

IN THE EVENING

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I also make sure that my children (or child) don’t do the following:

IN THE MORNING

IN THE AFTERNOON

IN THE EVENING

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Whether your list is long or short, whether your expectations are realistic or unrealistic, each item on that list represents your time and your energy and contains all the ingredients necessary for a battle of wills.

Are there any solutions?

Let’s first look at some of the methods most commonly used by adults to get children to cooperate. As you read the example that illustrates each method, go back in time and pretend you’re a child listening to your parent speak. Let the words sink in. What do they make you feel? When you have your answer, write it down. (Another way to do this exercise is to have a friend read each example aloud to you as you listen with closed eyes.)

I. Blaming and Accusing

“Your dirty fingerprints are on the door again! Why do you always do that? . . . What’s the matter with you anyway? Can’t you ever do anything right? . . . How many times do I have to tell you to use the doorknob? The trouble with you is you never listen.”

As a child I’d feel

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II. Name-Calling

“It’s below freezing today and you’re wearing a light jacket! How dumb can you get? Boy, that really is a stupid thing to do.”

“Here, let me fix the bike for you. You know how unmechanical you are.”

“Look at the way you eat! You’re disgusting.”

“You have to be a slob to keep such a filthy room. You live like an animal.”

As a child I’d feel

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III. Threats

“Just you touch that lamp once more and you’ll get a smack.”

“If you don’t spit that gum out this minute, I’m going to open your mouth and take it out.”

“If you’re not finished dressing by the time I count to three, I’m leaving without you!”

As a child I’d feel

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IV. Commands

“I want you to clean up your room right this minute.”

“Help me carry in the packages. Hurry up!”

“You still didn’t take out the garbage? Do it now! . . . What are you waiting for? Move!”

As a child I’d feel

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V. Lecturing and Moralizing

“Do you think that was a nice thing to do—to grab that book from me? I can see you don’t realize how important good manners are. What you have to understand is that if we expect people to be polite to us, then we must be polite to them in return. You wouldn’t want anyone to grab from you, would you? Then you shouldn’t grab from anyone else. We do unto others as we would have others do unto us.”

As a child I’d feel

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VI. Warnings

“Watch it, you’ll burn yourself.”

“Careful, you’ll get hit by a car!”

“Don’t climb there! Do you want to fall?”

“Put on your sweater or you’ll catch a bad cold.”

As a child I’d feel

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VII. Martyrdom Statements

“Will you two stop that screaming! What are you trying to do to me . . . make me sick . . . give me a heart attack?”

“Wait till you have children of your own. Then you’ll know what aggravation is.”

“Do you see these gray hairs? That’s because of you. You’re putting me in my grave.”

As a child I’d feel

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VIII. Comparisons

“Why can’t you be more like your brother? He always gets his work done ahead of time.”

“Lisa has such beautiful table manners. You’d never catch her eating with her fingers.”

“Why don’t you dress the way Gary does? He always looks so neat—short hair, shirt tucked in. It’s a pleasure to look at him.”

As a child I’d feel

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IX. Sarcasm

“You knew you had a test tomorrow and left your book in school? Oh, smart! That was a brilliant thing to do.”

“Is that what you’re wearing—polka dots and plaid? Well, you ought to get a lot of compliments today.”

“Is this the homework you’re bringing to school tomorrow? Well, maybe your teacher can read Chinese; I can’t.”

As a child I’d feel

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X. Prophecy

“You lied to me about your report card, didn’t you? Do you know what you’re going to be when you grow up? A person nobody can trust.”

“Just keep on being selfish. You’ll see, no one is ever going to want to play with you. You’ll have no friends.”

“All you ever do is complain. You’ve never once tried to help yourself. I can see you ten years from now—stuck with the same problems and still complaining.”

As a child I’d feel

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Now that you know how the “child” in you would react to these approaches, you might be interested in finding out the reaction of others who have tried this exercise. Evidently, different children respond differently to the same words. Here are some sample reactions from one group.

Blaming and Accusing. “The door is more important than I am” . . . “I’ll lie and tell her it wasn’t me” . . . “I’m a yuk” . . . “I’m shrinking” . . . “I want to call her a name” . . . “You say I never listen, so I won’t.”

Name-Calling. “She’s right. I am stupid and unmechanical” . . . “Why even try?” . . . “I’ll fix her. Next time I won’t even wear a jacket” . . . “I hate her” . . . “Ho hum, there she goes again!”

Threats. “I’ll touch the lamp when she’s not looking” . . . “I want to cry” . . . “I’m afraid” . . . “Leave me alone.”

Commands. “Try and make me” . . . “I’m frightened” . . . “I don’t want to move” . . . “I hate his guts” . . . “Whatever I do, I’ll be in trouble” . . . “How do you get transferred out of this lousy outfit?”

Lecturing and Moralizing. “Yak yak yak . . . Who’s even listening?” . . . “I’m dumb” . . . “I’m worthless” . . . “I want to get far away” . . . “Boring, boring, boring.”

Warnings. “The world is scary, dangerous” . . . “How will I ever manage by myself? Whatever I do, I’ll be in trouble.”

Martyrdom Statements. “I feel guilty” . . . “I’m scared. It’s my fault she’s sick” . . . “Who even cares?”

Comparisons. “She loves everyone more than me” . . . “I hate Lisa” . . . “I feel like a failure” . . . “I hate Gary, too.”

Sarcasm. “I don’t like being made fun of. She’s mean” . . . “I’m humiliated, confused” . . . “Why try?” . . . “I’ll get back at her” . . . “No matter what I do, I can’t win” . . . “I’m boiling with resentment.”

Prophecy. “She’s right. I never will amount to anything” . . . “I can too be trusted; I’ll prove him wrong” . . . “It’s no use” . . . “I give up” . . . “I’m doomed.”

If we as adults experience these feelings just from reading some words on a page, what must real children feel?

Are there alternatives? Are there ways to engage our children’s cooperation without doing violence to their self-esteem or leaving them with such a backwash of bad feelings? Are there methods that are easier for parents, that exact less of a toll from them?

We’d like to share with you five skills that have been helpful to us and to the parents in our workshops. Not every one of them will work with every child. Not every skill will suit your personality. And there isn’t any one of them that is effective all the time. What these five skills do, however, is create a climate of respect in which the spirit of cooperation can begin to grow.

To Engage Cooperation

1. Describe. Describe what you see or describe the problem.

2. Give information.

3. Say it with a word.

4. Talk about your feelings.

5. Write a note.

I. DESCRIBE.

Describe what you see, or describe the problem.

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It’s hard to do what needs to be done when people 
are telling you what’s wrong with you.

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It’s easier to concentrate on the problem 
when someone just describes it to you.

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When grown-ups describe the problem, it gives children 
a chance to tell themselves what to do.

II. GIVE INFORMATION.

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Information is a lot easier to take than accusation.

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When children are given information, they can usually figure out for themselves what needs to be done.

III. SAY IT WITH A WORD.

Look at the contrast between the effect of the 
long paragraph and the effect of a single word.

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In this case “less is more.”

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Children dislike hearing lectures, sermons, and long 
explanations. For them, the shorter the reminder, the better.

IV. TALK ABOUT YOUR FEELINGS.

Make no comment about the child’s character or personality.

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Children are entitled to hear their parents’ honest feelings. 
By describing what we feel, we can be genuine without being hurtful.

Notice, when parents are being helpful they talk about their feelings only. They use the word “I” or “I feel . . .”

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It’s easier to cooperate with someone who is expressing 
irritation or anger, as long as you’re not being attacked.

WRITE A NOTE.

Sometimes nothing we say is as effective as the written word. The note below was written by a father who was tired of cleaning his daughter’s long hairs from the sink drain.

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This was written by a working mother 
who taped it to the family TV set.

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This note was hung on the back of a bedroom door. It was 
a two-sided sign that netted two tired parents an extra hour of sleep on Sunday morning. When they were ready to let
 
the children in, they flipped the sign over.

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This father got tired of yelling and finally decided 
to let a note do the talking for him.

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Mother flew in a paper airplane with words on it to her son 
and his friend—neither of whom could read. They ran in to 
ask what the words said, and when they found out 
they ran back to put away their toys.

There you have it—five skills that encourage cooperation and leave no residue of bad feelings.

If your kids happen to be in school now or in bed or are, by some miracle, playing quietly, then this is your chance to fit in a few minutes of practice. You can sharpen your skills on some hypothetical children before your own descend on you.

Exercise I. You walk into your bedroom and find that your freshly bathed child has just thrown a wet towel on your bed.

A. Write a typical statement that might be made to the child that would not be helpful.

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B. In the same situation show how each of the skills listed below could be used to invite your child’s cooperation.

1. Describe:

(Describe what you see, or describe the problem.)

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2. Give information:

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3. Say it with a word:

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4. Talk about your feelings:

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5. Write a note:

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You’ve just applied five different skills to the same situation.

In these next situations, choose the one skill that you think would be most effective with your own child.

Exercise II. Situation A. You are about to wrap a package and can’t find your scissors. Your child has a pair of scissors but is constantly borrowing yours and not returning them.

Unhelpful statement:

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Skilled response:

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Skill used:

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Situation B. Your youngster keeps leaving his sneakers in the kitchen doorway.

Unhelpful statement:

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Skilled response:

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Skill used:

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Situation C. Your child has just hung his wet raincoat in the closet.

Unhelpful statement:

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Skilled response:

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Skill used:

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Situation D. You realize your child has not been brushing his teeth lately.

Unhelpful statement:

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Skilled response:

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Skill used:

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I remember my own experience when I first experimented with these skills. I was so gung ho to get this new approach going in my family that I came home from a meeting, tripped over my daughter’s skates in the hall, and sweetly told her, “Skates belong in the closet.” I thought I was wonderful. When she looked up at me blankly, and then went back to reading her book, I hit her.

I’ve since learned two things:

1) It’s important to be authentic. Sounding patient when I’m feeling angry can only work against me. Not only do I fail to communicate honestly; but because I’ve been “too nice,” I wind up letting it out on my child later on. It would have been more helpful had I bellowed, “Skates belong in the closet!” For that, my daughter might have bestirred herself.

2) Just because I don’t “get through” the first time doesn’t mean I should revert to the old ways. I have more than one skill at my disposal. I can use them in combination and, if necessary, in increasing intensity. For example, in the case of the wet towel I might start by calmly pointing out to my daughter, “The towel there is getting my blanket wet.”

I could combine that with “Wet towels belong in the bathroom.”

If she’s off in one of her daydreams and I really want to penetrate her thoughts, I can increase the volume: “Jill, the towel!”

Suppose she doesn’t budge and my gorge begins to rise. I can get louder still: “JILL, I DON’T WANT TO HAVE TO SLEEP IN A COLD, WET BED ALL NIGHT!”

I might want to save my voice. I could conceivably drop a note onto her ever-present book: “Wet towels on my bed make me see red!”

I could even imagine myself getting mad enough to tell her, “I don’t like being ignored. I’m putting away your wet towel, and now you have a resentful mother!”

There are many ways to match the message to the mood.

You might want to apply these skills now to the realities of your own home. If so, take a second look at your list of daily “dos and don’ts” on page 51. Is it possible that some of the “musts” on that list could be made easier for you and your child by using the skills you worked with just now? Perhaps the skills in Chapter 1, on how to accept a child’s negative feelings, could also help to ease the situation.

Give it some thought and write down the skills you think you might like to try this week.

      THE PROBLEM     THE SKILLS I MIGHT USE

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Some of you may be thinking, “But suppose my child still doesn’t respond, what then?” In the next chapter we’ll explore some more advanced skills for engaging our children’s cooperation. We’ll be talking about problem-solving and other alternatives to punishment. Your assignment for the coming week will help you solidify what you’ve been working on today. In the meantime I hope that the ideas in this chapter will make the days ahead a little easier for you.

ASSIGNMENT

I. One unhelpful thing I did not say this week:

(Sometimes what we don’t say can be as helpful as what we do say.)

Situation:

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I didn’t say:

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II. Two new skills I put to use this week:

Situation 1.

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Skill used:

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Child’s reaction:

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My reaction:

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Situation 2.

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Skill used:

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Child’s reaction:

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My reaction:

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III. A note I wrote:

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IV. Read Part II of “Engaging Cooperation.”

A Quick Reminder . . .

To Engage a Child’s Cooperation

1. DESCRIBE WHAT YOU SEE, OR DESCRIBE THE PROBLEM.

“There’s a wet towel on the bed.”

2. GIVE INFORMATION.

“The towel is getting my blanket wet.”

3. SAY IT WITH A WORD.

“The towel!”

4. DESCRIBE WHAT YOU FEEL.

“I don’t like sleeping in a wet bed!”

5. WRITE A NOTE.

(above towel rack)

Please put me back so I can dry.

   Thanks!

   Your Towel

PART II: COMMENTS, QUESTIONS, AND 
PARENTS’ STORIES

Questions

1. Isn’t “how” you say something to a child just as important as “what” you say?

It certainly is. The attitude behind your words is as important as the words themselves. The attitude that children thrive on is one that communicates, “You’re basically a lovable, capable person. Right now there’s a problem that needs attention. Once you’re aware of it, you’ll probably respond responsibly.”

The attitude that defeats children is one that communicates, “You’re basically irritating and inept. You’re always doing something wrong, and this latest incident is one more proof of your wrongness.”

2. If attitude is so important, why bother about words?

A parent’s look of disgust or tone of contempt can hurt deeply. But if, in addition, a child is subjected to words like “stupid” . . . “careless” . . . “irresponsible” . . . “you’ll never learn,” he’s doubly wounded. Somehow words have a way of lingering long and poisonously. The worst part is that children sometimes pull out these words at a later date and use them as weapons against themselves.

3. What’s wrong with saying “please” to a child if you want him to do something?

Certainly for requesting small favors like “please pass the salt” or “please hold the door,” the word “please” is a common amenity—a way of taking the sting out of the otherwise crude commands: “pass the salt” or “hold the door.”

We say “please” to our children to model a socially acceptable way to make a small request.

But “please” lends itself best to our more relaxed moments. When we’re really upset, a gentle “please” can lead to trouble. Consider the following dialogue:

MOTHER: (trying to be nice) Please don’t jump on the sofa.

CHILD: (continues jumping.)

MOTHER: (louder) Please don’t do that!

CHILD: (jumps again.)

MOTHER: (suddenly slaps child hard) I said “please,” didn’t I?

What happened? Why did this mother go from politeness to violence in a few seconds? The fact is that when you’ve extended yourself and have been ignored, anger follows swiftly. You tend to think, “How dare this kid defy me after I’ve been so nice? I’ll show him! Wham!”

When you want something done immediately, it’s a good idea to speak forcefully rather than to plead. A loud, firm “Sofas are not for jumping on!” would probably stop the jumping a lot sooner. (If the youngster persists, he can always be removed—swiftly, with a sternly repeated “Sofas are not for jumping on!!”)

4. Is there any way to explain the fact that sometimes my kids respond when I ask them to do something and sometimes I can’t seem to get through?

We once asked a group of schoolchildren why they sometimes didn’t listen to their parents. Here’s what they told us:

“When I come home from school, I’m tired, and if my mother asks me to do something I pretend I don’t hear her.”

“Sometimes I’m so busy playing or watching TV, I really don’t hear her.”

“Sometimes I’m mad about something that happened in school and I don’t feel like doing what she tells me.”

In addition to the children’s thoughts, here are some questions you might want to ask yourself when you feel you’re not “getting through”:

Does my request make sense in terms of my child’s age and ability? (Am I expecting an eight-year-old to have perfect table manners?)

Does he feel my request is unreasonable? (“Why does my mother bug me to wash behind my ears? Nobody looks there.”)

Can I give her a choice about when to do something, rather than insisting upon “right now.” (“Do you want to take your bath before your TV show or right after?”)

Can I offer a choice about how something is done? (“Do you want to take your bath with your doll or your boat?”)

Are there any physical changes that could be made in the house that would invite cooperation? (Could some hooks be placed low in the closet to eliminate the struggle with hangers? Would some additional shelves in a child’s room make cleanup less overwhelming?)

Finally, are most of my moments with my child spent asking her to “do things?” Or am I taking out some time to be alone with her—just to “be together”?

5. I must confess that in the past I’ve said everything to my daughter you’re not supposed to. Now I’m trying to change and she’s giving me a hard time. What can I do?

The child who has had heavy doses of criticism may be supersensitive. Even a gentle “your lunch” may seem to her like one more indictment of her “forgetful nature.” This child may need to have a lot overlooked and a great deal of approval before she can begin to hear anything resembling the slightest hint of disapproval. Later on in the book you’ll find ways to help your youngster see herself more positively. In the meantime, there will very likely be a transition period in which she might react suspiciously and even with hostility to her parents’ new approach.

But don’t let your daughter’s negative attitude discourage you. All the skills you’ve read about are ways of showing respect to another person. Most people respond to that eventually.

6. Humor works best with my son. He loves it when I ask him to do something in a funny way. Is that all right?

If you can reach your child’s head through his funny bone, more power to you! There’s nothing like a little humor to galvanize children into action and to perk up the mood in the household. The problem for many parents is that their natural sense of fun fizzles out from the daily irritation of living with kids.

One father said that a surefire way for him to put a spirit of play into the task ahead was to use another voice or accent. The kids’ favorite was his robot voice: “This-is-RC3C. The next-person-who-takes-ice-and-doesn’t-refill-tray-will-be-orbited-into-outer-space. Please-take-affirmative-action.”

7. Sometimes I find that I’m repeating myself about the same thing over and over again. Even though I use skills, I still sound as if I’m nagging. Is there any way to avoid this?

Often what makes us repeat ourselves is a child who acts as if he hasn’t heard us. When you are tempted to remind the child about something for the second or third time, stop yourself. Instead, find out from him if you’ve been heard. For example:

MOTHER: Billy, we’re leaving in five minutes.

BILLY: (doesn’t answer and continues to read the comics.)

MOTHER: Would you tell me what I just said?

BILLY: You said we’re leaving in five minutes.

MOTHER: Okay, now that I know you know, I won’t mention it again.

8. My problem is that when I ask for help my son says, “Sure, Dad, later,” and then he never follows through. What do I do then?

Here’s an example of how one parent handled that problem:

FATHER: Steven, it’s been two weeks since the lawn was mowed. I’d like it done today.

SON: Sure, Dad, later.

FATHER: I’d feel better if I knew just when you plan to get to it.

SON: As soon as this program is over.

FATHER: When is that?

SON: About an hour.

FATHER: Good. Now I know I can count on the lawn being done one hour from now. Thanks, Steve.

Comments, Cautions, and Anecdotes 
About Each Skill

I. Describe. Describe what you see, or describe the problem.

The best part of using descriptive language is that it takes out the finger-pointing and accusation, and helps everyone focus on what needs to be done.

“The milk spilled. We need a sponge.”

“The jar broke. We need a broom.”

“These pajamas are torn. We need a needle and thread.”

You might want to try each of the above statements on yourself, only this time start each sentence with a “you.” For example, “You spilled the milk . . . You broke the jar . . . You tore your pajamas.” Notice the difference? Many people claim the “you” makes them feel accused and then defensive. When we describe the event (instead of talking about what “you did”), we seem to make it easier for the child to hear what the problem is and deal with it.

I was furious when my two young sons came to dinner covered with green watercolor paint, but I was determined not to lose my temper and scream at them. I turned to my list of skills that I had taped to the pantry door and used the first one I saw: Describe What You See. Here’s what happened next.

ME: I see two boys with green paint on their hands and faces!

They looked at each other and ran into the bathroom to wash up.

A few minutes later I walked into the bathroom and was ready to scream again. The tiles were covered with paint! But I hung on to my one skill.

ME: I see green paint on the bathroom walls!

My older boy ran to get a rag, saying, “To the rescue!” Five minutes later, he called me in to look again.

ME: (sticking with description) I see that someone helpful cleaned all the green paint off the bathroom walls.

My older boy beamed. Then the younger one piped up, “And now I’m going to clean off the sink!”

If I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t have believed it.

Caution. It is possible to use this skill in a way that can be irritating. For example, one father told us he was standing near the front door on a cold day and said to his son, who had just entered, “The door is open.” The boy countered with, “So why don’t you close it?”

The group decided that the boy experienced his father’s descriptive statement as, “I’m trying to get you to do the right thing—hint, hint.” The group also decided that descriptive statements work best when the child feels that his help is genuinely needed.

II. Give information. What we like about giving information is that, in a sense, you’re giving the child a gift he can use forever. For the rest of his life he’ll need to know that “milk turns sour when it’s not refrigerated,” that “open cuts need to be kept clean,” that “fruit needs to be washed before eating,” that “cookies get stale when the box is left open,” and so on. Parents have told us that the skill of giving information isn’t hard. What’s hard, they say, is leaving off the insult at the end, such as “Dirty clothes belong in the laundry basket. You’ll never learn, will you?”

We also like giving children information because the child seems to experience it as an act of confidence in him. He says to himself, “Grown-ups trust me to act responsibly once I have the facts.”

Monique came home from her Brownie meeting and was wearing her uniform. She started to play in the garden. I must have yelled at her three or four times to change into a pair of slacks. She kept saying, “Why?”

I kept saying, “You’ll rip your uniform.”

Finally, I said, “Slacks are for playing in the garden; uniforms are for wearing to Brownie meetings.”

To my amazement she stopped what she was doing and immediately went in to change.

A father shared this experience about himself and his newly adopted five-year-old Korean son:

Kim and I walked down the block together to visit a neighbor and return his ladder. As we were about to ring the bell, a group of kids who were playing in the street pointed to Kim and yelled, “He’s a Chink! He’s a Chink!” Kim looked confused and upset, even though he didn’t know what the words meant.

A lot of thoughts rushed through my mind: “They haven’t even got the right country, the little stinkers. . . . I’d like to give them hell and call their parents, but then they’d wind up taking it out on Kim. For better or worse this is his neighborhood, and he’s got to find a way to live in it.”

I walked up to the boys and very quietly said, “Name-calling can hurt feelings.”

They seemed taken aback by what I said. (Maybe they thought they were going to be yelled at.) Then I went into my neighbor’s house but left the door open. I didn’t insist that Kim come inside. Five minutes later I looked out the window and saw Kim playing with the other kids.

I looked up to see three-year-old Jessica on her tricycle following her eight-year-old brother, who was cycling down the street. Luckily, no cars were in sight. I called out, “Jessica, two wheels can ride in the street. Three wheels belong on the sidewalk.”

Jessica got off her tricycle, solemnly counted the wheels, and walked her tricycle onto the sidewalk, where she began to ride again.

Caution. Refrain from giving the child information she already knows. For example, if you were to tell a ten-year-old, “Milk turns sour when it’s unrefrigerated,” she might conclude either that you think she’s stupid or that you’re being sarcastic.

III. The One-Word Statement. Many parents have told us how much they appreciate this skill. They claim it saves time, breath, and boring explanations.

Teenagers we’ve worked with have told us they too prefer the single word, “Door” . . . “Dog” . . . or “Dishes,” and find it a welcome relief from the usual lecture.

As we see it, the value of the one-word statement lies in the fact that instead of an oppressive command we give the child an opportunity to exercise his own initiative, and his own intelligence. When he hears you say, “The dog,” he has to think, “What about the dog? . . . Oh, yeah, I didn’t walk him yet this afternoon . . . Guess I’d better take him out now.”

Caution. Don’t use your child’s name as your one-word statement. When a child hears a disapproving, “Susie,” many times during the day, she begins to associate her name with disapproval.

IV. Describe What You Feel. Most parents are relieved to discover that it can be helpful to share their real feelings with their children, and that it’s not necessary to be eternally patient. Children are not fragile. They’re perfectly capable of dealing with statements like:

“This isn’t a good time for me to look at your composition. I’m tense and distracted. After dinner I’ll be able to give it the attention it deserves.”

“It’s a good idea to steer clear of me for the next little while. I’m feeling irritable and it has nothing to do with you.”

One single mother who was raising two young children said that she used to be upset with herself because she often had no patience with them. Finally, she decided to try to be more accepting of her feelings, and let her children know about them—in terms they could understand.

She started saying things like “I have as much patience as a watermelon now.” And a little later on, “Well, right now I have as much patience as a grapefruit.” And still later she would announce, “It’s about the size of a pea now. I think we ought to quit before it shrivels.”

She knew the children took her seriously, because one evening her son said, “Mom, what size is your patience now? Could you read us a story tonight?”

Still others expressed concern about describing their feelings. If they shared their honest emotions, wouldn’t that make them vulnerable? Suppose they said to the child, “That upsets me,” and the child answered, “So, who cares?”

It’s been our experience that children whose feelings are respected are likely to be respectful of adult feelings. But there could well be a transition period in which you might get a fresh “So, who cares?” If it comes to that, you can let the child know, “I do. I care about how I feel. And I care about how you feel. And I expect this to be a family where we are all caring about each other’s feelings!”

Caution. Some children are very sensitive to their parents’ disapproval. For them, strong statements like “I am angry” or “That makes me furious” are more than they can bear. In retaliation they’ll belligerently answer, “Well, then, I’m angry at you, too!” For those children it’s best just to state your expectations. For example, instead of “I’m angry at you for pulling the cat’s tail,” it would be more helpful to say, “I expect you to be kind to animals.”

V. Write a Note. Most children love receiving notes—both those who can read and those who can’t. Little ones are usually thrilled to receive a printed message from their parents. It encourages them to write or draw notes back to their parents.

Older children also like receiving notes. A group of teenagers we worked with told us that a note can make you feel good—“as if you were getting a letter from a friend.” They were touched that their parents cared enough to take the time and trouble to write to them. One young man said that what he appreciated most about notes was that “they didn’t get any louder.”

Parents report that they too like using notes. They say it’s a quick, easy way to get through to a child, and one that usually leaves a pleasant aftertaste.

One mother told us that she keeps a pad and an old coffee mug filled with a dozen pencils on her kitchen counter. Several times a week she finds herself in a situation where either the children have heard her make the same request so often they’ve tuned her out or she’s about to give up on them and do the chore herself.

At those moments, she says it takes less out of her to pick up a pencil than to open her mouth.

Here’s a sample of some of her notes:

DEAR BILLY,

  I HAVEN’T BEEN OUT SINCE THIS MORNING.

GIVE ME A BREAK.

 YOUR DOG,

 HARRY

DEAR SUSAN,

  THIS KITCHEN NEEDS TO BE PUT BACK

IN ORDER.

PLEASE DO SOMETHING ABOUT:

  1. BOOKS ON STOVE

  2. BOOTS IN DOORWAY

  3. JACKET ON FLOOR

  4. COOKIE CRUMBS ON TABLE

THANKS IN ADVANCE.

 MOM

NOTICE:

  STORY TIME TONIGHT AT 7:30 P.M.

  ALL CHILDREN WHO ARE IN PAJAMAS

  WITH TEETH BRUSHED ARE INVITED.

 LOVE,

 MOM AND DAD

A light touch with notes isn’t necessary, but it can certainly help. Sometimes, however, the situation is not funny and humor would be inappropriate. We’re thinking of the father who told us that his daughter ruined his brand-new CD by leaving it on the floor, where it got stepped on. He said that if he hadn’t been able to vent his anger in writing he would have punished her. Instead, he wrote:

Alison,

  I’M BOILING!!!

  My new CD was taken without my

permission and now it’s full of scratches

and doesn’t play anymore.

 MAD DAD

A little later the father received this note back from his daughter:

Dear Dad,

  I’m really sorry. I’ll buy you

another one this Saturday and whatever

it costs you can take it out of my

allowance.

 Alison

We never cease to marvel at how children who cannot read manage to “read” the notes their parents write to them. Here’s the testimony of a young working mother:

The worst time for me when I get home from work is that twenty minutes of trying to prepare dinner while the kids are running back and forth between the refrigerator and the breadbox. By the time the food is on the table, they have no appetite left.

Last Monday night I put a crayoned note up on the door:

KITCHEN CLOSED 
UNTIL DINNER

My four-year-old immediately wanted to know what it said. I explained each word. He was so respectful of that note, he wouldn’t even put his foot in the kitchen. He just played with his sister outside the door until I took the note down and called them in.

The next night I put the note back up again. While I was making the hamburgers, I heard my son teaching his two-year-old sister what each word meant. Then I saw her point to each word and “read”: “Kitchen . . . Closed . . . Until . . . Dinner.”

The most unusual use of a note was told to us by a mother who was a part-time student. Here’s her story:

In a weak moment I volunteered to have a meeting at my home for twenty people. I was so nervous about having everything ready on time that I left school early.

When I got home, I took one look around the house and my heart sank. The place was a mess—piles of newspapers, mail, books, magazines, dirty bathroom, beds unmade. I had a little over two hours to get everything into shape and I was starting to feel hysterical. The kids were coming home any minute, and I knew that I didn’t have it in me to cope with a single demand or any of their fighting.

But I didn’t want to have to talk or explain. I decided to write a note, but there wasn’t an uncluttered surface in the house to put anything down on. So I grabbed a piece of cardboard, punched two holes in it, stuck in a string, and hung a sign around my neck:

HUMAN TIME BOMB 
IF IRKED OR IRRITATED
 
WILL EXPLODE!!!!
 
COMPANY COMING
 
HELP URGENTLY NEEDED!

Then I went to work like a fury. When the kids came home, they read my sign and volunteered to clear their books and toys. Then, without another word from me, they made their beds—and mine!Unbelievable.

I was about to tackle the bathroom when the bell rang. I panicked for a moment, but it was only the man delivering the extra chairs. I motioned for him to come in and wondered why he didn’t move. He just kept staring at my chest.

I looked down and saw the sign still there. As I started to explain, he said, “Don’t worry, lady. Calm down. Just tell me where you want the chairs and I’ll set them up for you.”

People have asked us, “If I use these skills appropriately, will my children always respond?” Our answer is: We would hope not. Children aren’t robots. Besides, our purpose is not to set forth a series of techniques to manipulate behavior so that children always respond.

Our purpose is to speak to what is best in our children—their intelligence, their initiative, their sense of responsibility, their sense of humor, their ability to be sensitive to the needs of others.

We want to put an end to talk that wounds the spirit and search out the language that nourishes self-esteem.

We want to create an emotional climate that encourages children to cooperate because they care about themselves, and because they care about us.

We want to demonstrate the kind of respectful communication that we hope our children will use with us—now, during their adolescent years, and, ultimately, as our adult friends.