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

6| Freeing Children from Playing Roles


I remember the moment when my son, David, was born. Five seconds had gone by and he still hadn’t breathed. I was terrified. The nurse slapped him on his back. No response. The tension was excruciating. She said, “He’s a stubborn one!” Still no response. A moment later he finally cried—that piercing sound of the newborn. My relief was indescribable. But later on that day I found myself wondering, “Is he really stubborn?” By the time I brought him home from the hospital, I had put the nurse’s comment in its place—foolish words from a foolish woman. Imagine putting a label on an infant less than half a minute old!

And yet every time during the next few years, when he kept on crying no matter how long I patted or rocked him, when he wouldn’t try a new food, when he refused to take his nap, when he balked at getting on the bus to nursery school, when he wouldn’t wear a sweater on a cold day, the thought would flit through my mind, “She was right. He is stubborn.”

I should have known better. All the psychology courses I had taken had warned of the dangers of the self-fulfilling prophecy. If you labeled a child as a slow learner, he could begin to see himself as a slow learner. If you saw a child as mischievous, chances are he’d start showing you just how mischievous he could be. Labeling a child was to be avoided at all costs. I agreed completely, and yet I couldn’t stop thinking of David as a “stubborn kid.”

The only comfort I had was in knowing I wasn’t alone. At least once a week, I’d hear some parent, somewhere, say something like:

“My oldest is my problem child. The youngest is a pleasure.”

“Bobby is a born bully.”

“Billy is a pushover. Anyone can take advantage of him.”

“Michael is the lawyer in the family. He’s got an answer for everything.”

“I don’t know what to feed Julie anymore. She’s such a picky eater.”

“It’s a waste of money to buy anything new for Richie. He destroys everything he lays his hands on. The boy is just plain destructive.”

I used to wonder how these children acquired their labels to begin with. Now, after years of hearing about what goes on inside families, I realize that the casting of a child in a role could start very innocently. For instance, one morning Mary says to brother, “Get me my glasses.”

Brother says, “Get them yourself, and quit bossing.”

Later she says to Mother, “Brush my hair and make sure you get out all the knots.” Mother says, “Mary, you’re being bossy again.”

Still later, she says to Daddy, “Don’t talk now. I’m watching my show.” Daddy responds, “Listen to the big boss!”

And, little by little, the child who has been given the name begins to play the game. After all, if everyone calls Mary bossy, then that’s what she must be.

You may be wondering, “Is it okay to think of your child as bossy as long as you don’t call her by that name?” That’s an important question. Can the way a parent even thinks about a child affect the way a child thinks about herself? In order to become more clear about the relationship between how parents see their children and how children see themselves, let’s try this experiment now. As you read the next three scenes, imagine that you are the child in each of them.

Scene I: You’re about eight years old. One evening you walk into your living room and find your parents working on a big jigsaw puzzle together. As soon as you see what they’re doing, you ask if you can do the puzzle with them.

Mother says, “Did you do your homework yet? Were you able to understand it?”

You say, “Yes,” and ask again if you can help with the puzzle.

Mother says, “Are you sure you understood all the homework?”

Father says, “I’ll go over the math with you a little later.”

Again, you ask to help.

Father says, “Watch carefully how Mom and I do the puzzle and then we’ll let you see if you can put in one piece.”

As you start to lower a piece into place, Mother says, “No, dear. Can’t you see that piece has a straight edge? How can you put a straight edge in the middle of a puzzle!” She sighs heavily.

How do your parents see you?


How does their view of you make you feel?




Scene II: The same. You come into the living room and find your parents working on a puzzle. You ask to join them.

Mother says, “Don’t you have something else to do? Why don’t you go watch television?”

Your eye suddenly spots a piece for the chimney in the puzzle. You reach for it.

Mother says, “Watch out! You’ll ruin what we’ve done.”

Father says, “Can’t we ever have a peaceful moment?”

You say, “Please, just this one piece!”

Father says, “You never give up, do you?”

Mother says, “Okay, one piece, but that’s it!” She looks at Father, shakes her head, and rolls her eyes.

How do your parents see you?


How does their view of you make you feel?




Scene III: The same. As you see your parents working on a puzzle, you step closer to look at it.

You ask, “Can I help?”

Mother nods and says, “Sure, if you like.”

Father says, “Pull up a chair.”

You see a piece that you’re certain is part of the cloud and lower it into place. It doesn’t fit.

Mother says, “Almost!”

Father says, “Pieces with straight sides generally go on the edge.”

Your parents continue to work on the puzzle. You study the picture for a while. Finally, you find the right place for your piece.

You say, “Look, it fits!”

Mother smiles.

Dad says, “You really persisted with that one.”

How do your parents see you?


How does their view of you make you feel?





Were you surprised at how easily you got the message of how your parents saw you? Sometimes it takes no more than a few words, a look, or a tone of voice to tell you that you’re either “slow and stupid,” “a pest,” or a basically likable and capable person. How your parents think of you can often be communicated in seconds. When you multiply those seconds by the hours of daily contact between parents and children, you begin to realize how powerfully young people can be influenced by the way their parents view them. Not only are their feelings about themselves affected, but so is their behavior.

When you were doing this exercise and your parents saw you as “slow,” did you feel your confidence begin to go? Would you even attempt to do more of the puzzle yourself? Did you feel frustrated because you weren’t as quick as everyone else around you? Did you say to yourself, “Why even try?”

When you were seen as a “nuisance,” did you feel that you had to assert yourself in order not to be pushed away? Did you feel rejected and defeated? Or did you feel angry—as if you wanted to mess up their stupid puzzle and get back at them?

When you were seen as a basically likable and competent person, did you feel as if you could behave in a likable and competent way? If you made a few mistakes, would you be tempted to give up or would you tell yourself to try again?

Whatever your reactions, it seems safe to conclude that the way parents see their children can influence not only the way children see themselves but also the way they behave.

But what if a child has already been cast in a role, for whatever reason? Does that mean he has to play out that part for the rest of his life? Is he stuck with it, or can he be freed to become whatever he’s capable of becoming?

On the next few pages you’ll see six skills that can be used by any parent who wants to liberate his child from playing out a role.

To Free Children from Playing Roles

1. Look for opportunities to show the child a new picture of himself or herself.

2. Put children in situations where they can see themselves differently.

3. Let children overhear you say something positive about them.

4. Model the behavior you’d like to see.

5. Be a storehouse for your child’s special moments.

6. When your child behaves according to the old label, state your feelings and/or your expectations.













The skills for helping a child view himself differently are not limited to the ones in this chapter alone. All the skills you worked on in this book can be useful to hold open the door to change. For example, one mother who used to call her son “a forgetter” wrote this note to help him think of himself as a person who could remember when he wanted to.

Dear George,

Your music teacher called today to tell me that you didn’t have your trumpet for the last two orchestra rehearsals.

I trust you’ll find a way to remind yourself to bring it from now on.


A father decided to problem-solve instead of calling his son a bully. He said, “Jason, I know it makes you angry when you’re trying to concentrate on your homework and your brother whistles, but hitting is out. How else can you go about getting the quiet you need?”

Does it seem difficult to you—this whole idea of helping a child view himself differently? I don’t know of any harder demand that can be made of a parent. When a child persistently behaves in any one way over a period of time, it requires great restraint on our part not to reinforce the negative behavior by shouting, “There you go again!” It takes an act of will to put aside the time to deliberately plan a campaign that will free a child from the role he’s been playing.

If you can take the time now, ask yourself:

1. Is there any role my child might have been cast in—
either at home, in school, by friends, or by relatives? What is that role?


2. Is there anything positive about the role? (For instance, a spirit of fun in the “mischief-maker”; the imagination of the “daydreamer.”)



3. How would you like your child to think of himself or herself? (capable of being responsible, capable of seeing a job through to the end, etc.)





By answering these difficult questions, you’ve done the preliminary work. The real campaign lies ahead. Take a look now at the skills listed below. Then write down the actual words you might use to put each skill into action.

A. Look for opportunities to show this child a new picture of himself or herself.





B. Put the child in a situation where he or she can see himself or herself differently.





C. Let the child overhear you say something positive about him or her.





D. Model the behavior you’d like to see.





E. Be a storehouse for your child’s finest moments.





F. When he or she behaves according to the old label, state your feelings and your expectations.





G. Are there any other skills you can think of that might be effective?





The exercise you just completed was one I did myself many years ago. What made me do it? One evening when I picked David up at his scout meeting, the scoutmaster signaled me to step into the next room with him. His expression was grim.

“What is it?” I asked nervously.

“I wanted to talk to you about David. We’ve been having our little problems.”


“David refuses to follow instructions.”

“I don’t understand. For what? You mean for the project he’s working on now?”

He tried to smile patiently. “I mean for all the projects we’ve been working on since the beginning of the year. When your son gets an idea in his head, you can’t budge him. He has his own way of doing things and he won’t listen to reason. Frankly, the other boys are getting a little fed up with him. He takes up a lot of the group’s time. . . . Is he stubborn at home, too?”

I don’t remember what I answered. I babbled something, herded David into the car, and left quickly. David was quiet on the way home. I turned on the radio—grateful not to have to talk. My stomach was in such a knot, it ached.

I felt as if David had finally been “found out.” For years I had been pretending to myself that he was just a little bit stubborn at home—with me, with his father, with his sister and brother. But now there was no running away from the truth. The outside world had confirmed what I had never been willing to face. David was rigid, obstinate, inflexible.

It was hours before I could fall asleep. I lay there blaming David for not being like the other kids and blaming myself for all the times I had called him a “mule” or a “stubborn ox.” It wasn’t until the next morning that I could put the scoutmaster’s view of my son in perspective and begin to think about how to be helpful to David.

There was one thing I was sure of. It was important for me not to jump on the bandwagon and push David further into this role. My job was to look for and affirm his best. (If I didn’t, who would?) Okay, so he was “strong-willed” and “determined.” But he was also capable of being open-minded and flexible. And that’s the part that needed validating.

I made a list of all the skills I knew for helping a child see himself differently. Then I tried to think of the kind of situation that had caused David to balk in the past. What could I say to him if anything like it happened again? Here’s what I came up with:

A) Look for opportunities to show the child another picture of himself. “David, you agreed to come to Grandma’s with us, even though you really wanted to stay home and play with a friend. That was ‘giving’ of you.”

B) Put the child in a situation where he can see himself differently. “Each member of this family seems to want to go to a different restaurant. David, maybe you can come up with an idea that could break the deadlock.”

C) Let the child overhear you say something positive about him. “Dad, David and I worked out a compromise this morning. He didn’t want to wear boots. I didn’t want him sitting around in school with wet feet. Finally, he thought of the idea of wearing his old sneakers to school and bringing along a pair of dry socks and his good sneakers to change into.”

D) Model the behavior you’d like to see. “I’m so disappointed! I had my heart set on seeing a movie tonight, and Dad reminded me that we had agreed to go to a basketball game. . . . Oh well, I guess I can put the movie off for one more week.”

E) Be a storehouse for your child’s special moments. “I remember how at first you had some strong feelings against going to that Boy Scout camp. But then you began to think about it, and read about it, and talk to some of the other kids who went there. And eventually you decided to try it for yourself.”

F) When your child acts according to his old label, state your feelings and/or your expectations. “David, to people at a wedding, old jeans seem like a mark of disrespect. To them it’s as if you’re saying, ‘This wedding isn’t important!’ So, as much as you hate the thought of wearing a suit and tie, I expect you to dress appropriately.”

G) Are there any other skills that might be helpful? More acceptance of David’s negative feelings. More choices. More problem-solving.

This was the exercise that changed my direction with David. It made it possible for me to see him in a new light, and then to treat him as I had begun to see him. There were no dramatic overnight results. Some days went very well. It seemed the more I appreciated David’s capacity to be flexible, the more flexible he was able to be. And some days were still pretty bad. My anger and frustration would drive me right back to square one, and I’d find myself in a shouting match with him all over again.

But over the long haul I refused to become discouraged. I hung on to my new attitude. This “determined” son of mine had an equally “determined” mother.

The little boy is grown now. Just recently when he wouldn’t listen to reason (that is, my point of view), I became so upset that I forgot myself and accused him of being “pigheaded.”

He seemed startled and was quiet for a moment.

“Is that how you see me?” he asked.

“Well, I . . . I . . .” I stammered with embarrassment.

“That’s okay, Mom,” he said gently. “Thanks to you, I have another opinion of myself.”

A Quick Reminder . . .

To Free Children from 
Playing Roles


“You’ve had that toy since you were three and it almost looks like new!”


“Sara, would you take the screwdriver and tighten the pulls on these drawers?”


“He held his arm steady even though the shot hurt.”


“It’s hard to lose, but I’ll try to be a sport about it. Congratulations!”


“I remember the time you . . .”


“I don’t like that. Despite your strong feelings, I expect sportsmanship from you.”


Here are the experiences of several parents who were determined to free their children from the roles in which they had been cast:

During the sessions on putting children in roles, I began to feel sick to my stomach. I thought of how disgusted I’ve been with Greg recently and about the awful things I’ve been saying to him:

“I wish you could see yourself. You’re acting like such a jerk.”

“Why are you always the one to hold everyone up?”

“I guess I shouldn’t expect any more of you. I should know by now how nasty you are.”

“You’ll never have any friends.”

“Act your age. You’re behaving like a two-year-old.”

“You eat so sloppy. You’ll never learn to eat properly.”

I thought of him as my “nemesis” and I never let up on him. To top it off I had a conference with his teacher this week and she complained that he was immature. Awhile ago, I probably would have agreed with her, but that day her words hit me like a ton of bricks. I figured the situation couldn’t get much worse, so I decided to try some of the things from our sessions.

At the beginning I found I was too angry to be nice. I knew Greg needed some positive feedback, but I could hardly talk to him. So I wrote him a note the first time he did something right. I wrote:

Dear Greg:

I had a nice day yesterday. You made it easy for me to get out on time for the Sunday school car pool. You were up, dressed, and waiting for me.



A few days later I had to take him to the dentist. As usual he began running all over the office. I took off my watch and handed it to him. I said, “I know you can sit still for five minutes.” He looked surprised, but he did sit down and was quiet until the dentist called him in.

After the dentist I did something I never did before. I took him out alone for a hot chocolate. We actually had a conversation. That night when I put him to bed I told him that I enjoyed the time we spent together.

I find it hard to believe that those few little things could have made a difference to Greg, but he seems to want to please me more, which encourages me. For instance, he left his book and jacket on the floor of the kitchen. Normally that would be my cue to scream at him. Instead, I told him that it made me mad to have to pick up after him but that I had confidence he’d remember from now on to put his things where they belong.

And at dinner I stopped criticizing his table manners every second. The only time I say anything is if he does something absolutely gross, and then I try to say it only once.

I’m also trying to give him more responsibility around the house in the hope that he will start behaving more maturely. I ask him to take clothes out of the dryer, to unload the groceries and put them away, and other things like that. I even let him scramble his own egg the other morning. (And I kept my mouth shut when some of the egg landed on the floor.)

I’m almost afraid to say it, but his behavior is definitely better. Maybe it’s because I’m better with him.

Heather is adopted. From the first day she came to us, she was a joy. And she continued to grow into a sweet, adorable child. I thought of her not only as my pride and joy but I’d tell her a dozen times a day what happiness she brought to me. It wasn’t until I read your chapter on roles that I wondered whether I might be placing too heavy a burden on her to be “good,” to be “my pleasure.” I also wondered whether there might be other feelings inside her that she was afraid to show.

My concern led me to try a number of things that were new. I suppose the most important thing I did was to think of ways to let Heather know that all her feelings were okay, that it was all right to be angry, upset, or frustrated. When I was a half hour late one day in picking her up from school I said, “It must have been irritating for you to have to wait so long for me.” (This was instead of my usual “Thank you for being so patient, sweetheart.”) Another time I told her, “I bet you felt like giving your friend a piece of your mind for breaking a date with you!” (Instead of my usual “Well, honey, other people just aren’t as considerate as you.”)

I also tried to model what I wanted for her. I began to allow myself to talk about my own negative feelings more often. The other day I told her, “I’m feeling crabby now and I’d like some time to myself.” And when she asked to borrow my new scarf I told her that I didn’t feel like sharing it just yet.

I tried to praise her differently. Instead of carrying on about how happy her schoolwork made me, I described what she had accomplished (“This is a clear and well-organized report”), and let it go at that.

The other morning was a first. Heather was in the shower and I was rinsing a few dishes. She banged on the wall and I turned the hot water down halfway. Later she came storming into the kitchen and yelled at the top of her lungs, “I asked you not to run the hot water. I had a freezing-cold shower!!”

If she had done that a month ago, I would have been shocked. I would have told her, “Heather, that’s not like you to behave that way!”

This time I said, “I can hear how angry you are! And I’m making a mental note not to use any hot water at all the next time you’re in the shower!”

I have the feeling Heather is going to be “expressing herself” a lot more in the future, and I’m sure I won’t like everything I hear; but in the long run, I still think it’s more important for her to be real than to have to continue being “mother’s joy.”

P.S. Now whenever I hear people telling me how “good” their children are, I’m a little suspicious.

Yesterday I was in the playground with my two daughters. About four times I heard myself call out to Kate, the older one (eight), “Keep an eye on Wendy.” . . . “Hold on to her when she walks up the slide.” . . . “Be sure to stay close to her.”

I began to wonder if I was casting Kate in the role of Responsible Older Sister. It’s true, I was giving her a lot of trust, but maybe I was giving her a lot of pressure, too. And yet, in practical terms, I often needed her help.

I also began to wonder if I was treating Wendy (five) as too much of a baby. I’m not planning to have any more children, so I guess I’m happy to treat her that way. After all, she is my baby.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that Kate is probably resentful. She’s been refusing to walk home with Wendy from summer play school, and she won’t read to her anymore. I also realized that at Wendy’s age Kate was doing things for herself that Wendy still isn’t doing, like pouring her own milk.

I haven’t done anything about it yet, but I’m slowly getting a conviction about what both my daughters need. Wendy needs to be helped to become more self-reliant, mostly for her own sake but also so there’s less pressure on Kate. And Kate needs to have a choice about whether she wants to take care of her sister, except when I absolutely need her help. And maybe I can give Kate a little babying too, once in a while. It’s been a long time since I’ve done that.

It was lucky for Neil that I made it to the group last week. When I came home that morning I got a call from my nextdoor neighbor. Her voice was shaking. She saw Neil pick three of her prize tulips on the way to school.

I was beside myself. I thought, “Here we go again!” He’ll deny that he had anything to do with it, just the way he did when he took the clock apart. (Later, I found the pieces in his room.) And the way he did when he told me he skipped a grade. (When I called the teacher, she told me no one ever skips anymore.) He’s been lying so much lately, even his brother has been saying, “Ma, Neil’s lying again!”

I know I haven’t handled it well. I always demand that he tell me the truth, and when he doesn’t I usually call him a liar, or give him a lecture on lying, or punish him. I suppose I’ve just been making things worse, but honesty is so important to me and my husband. I can’t understand how Neil could be this way.

Anyway, as I said before, I was lucky I had a session on roles, because even though I was very upset, I knew I didn’t want to put Neil in the role of “liar” again.

When he came home for lunch, I didn’t fence with him. (“Did you? Are you sure you didn’t? Don’t lie to me this time.”) I got right to the point. I said, “Neil, Mrs. Osgood told me you picked her tulips.”

“No, I didn’t. It wasn’t me!”

“Neil, she saw you. She was standing at the window.”

“You think I’m a liar. She’s the one that’s a liar!”

“Neil, I don’t want to talk about who’s lying and who isn’t. The thing is done. For some reason you decided to pick three of her tulips. Now we have to think about how to make amends.”

Neil started to cry. “I wanted some flowers for my teacher.”

I said, “Oh. So that was why. Thank you for telling me what happened. . . . Sometimes it’s hard to tell the truth, especially if you think it might get you into trouble.”

Then he really started to sob.

I put him on my lap. I said, “Neil, I can hear how sorry you are. Mrs. Osgood is very upset. What can be done?”

Neil burst into tears again. “I’m afraid to tell her I’m sorry!”

“Can you write it?”

“I don’t know . . . Help me.”

We made up a little note and he printed it (he’s in first grade).

I said, “Do you think that’s enough?”

He looked bewildered.

“How would you feel about buying her a pot of tulips to fill in the empty spot?”

Neil broke into a big smile. “Could we?”

Right after school we went to a florist. Neil picked out a pot with four tulips, and he delivered the pot and his note to Mrs. Osgood’s doorstep. Then he rang the bell and ran home.

I don’t think he’ll pick her flowers again, and somehow I don’t think he’ll lie so much anymore. I just know he’ll be more open with me from now on. And when he isn’t (I guess I’ve got to be realistic) I won’t put him in the role of liar. I’ll find a way to make it possible for him to tell me the truth.

One day, toward the end of a session on roles, a father started us reminiscing. He said, “I remember when I was a kid I used to come to my dad with all kinds of crazy schemes. He’d always listen to me very seriously. Then he’d say, ‘Son, you may have your head in the clouds, but your feet are rooted in the ground.’ Now, that picture he gave me of myself—as someone who dreams, but also someone who knows how to deal with reality—has been one that’s helped me through some pretty rough times. . . . I was wondering whether anyone else here had that kind of experience.”

There was a thoughtful silence as each of us began to reach into the past to look for the messages that had marked our lives. Slowly, together, we began to remember aloud:

“When I was a little boy, my grandmother always used to tell me I had wonderful hands. Whenever I’d thread a needle for her or untie the knots in her wool, she’d say I had ‘goldeneh hendt.’ I think it’s one of the reasons I decided to become a dentist.”

“My first year of teaching was overwhelming for me. I used to tremble whenever my chairman dropped in to observe a lesson. Afterward, he’d give me one or two pointers, but then he’d always add, ‘I never worry about you, Ellen. Basically, you’re self-correcting.’ I wonder if he ever knew what an inspiration those words were to me. I hung on to them every day. They helped me believe in myself.”

“When I was ten, my parents bought me a unicycle. For a month I mostly fell off it. I thought I’d never learn to ride the thing, but one day there I was pedaling along, keeping my balance! My mother thought I was remarkable. From then on, whenever I was worried about learning something new—like French, for instance—she’d say, ‘Any girl who can ride a unicycle will have no trouble with French.’ I knew she was being illogical. What did riding a unicycle have to do with learning a language? But I loved hearing it. That was almost thirty years ago. And, to this day, whenever I’m faced with a new challenge I hear my mother’s voice: ‘Any girl who can ride a unicycle . . .’ I may laugh, but that image still helps me.”

Almost everyone in the group had a memory to share. When the session ended, we just sat there and looked at one another. The father who had started us all remembering shook his head in wonderment. When he spoke, he spoke for all of us. “Never underestimate the power of your words upon a young person’s life!”