I stumbled upon a rave review of a book, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk.

I read the book in one night and it was so good that it fundamentally transformed my relationship with Charlie within 24 hours. There are so many nuggets of wisdom in this book that I thought it might be helpful to walk through them one blog post at a time.

Tip #1: Stop giving your kids advice

The authors (Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish) talk a lot in the book about how you shouldn’t say “no” or give a lot of advice to your kids. That really scared me, because sometimes I feel like 95% of what I say to Charlie involves the word “no” followed by an explanation of what he should be doing instead (or advice on how he could be doing something better).

The book gives a few examples of how adults usually don’t like to hear advice right off the bat. As they put it:

When I’m upset or hurting, the last thing I want to hear is advice, philosophy, psychology or the other fellow’s point of view. That kind of talk only makes me feel worse than before … Most infuriating of all is to hear that I have no reason to feel what I’m feeling. My overriding reaction to most … responses is, “Oh forget it . . what’s the point of going on [with my story].”

But let someone really listen, let someone acknowledge my inner pain and give me a chance to talk more about what’s troubling me and I being to feel less upset, less confused, more able to cope with my feelings and my problem.

The process is no different for our children. They too can help themselves if they have a listening ear and an empathic response.

I work really hard to be empathic, but sometimes when Charlie is whining it can be hard. But I decided to take the book to heart and try it out with Charlie (Olive can’t talk yet).

The very next day, we went to the local grocery store to pick up some sandwiches for a picnic. Charlie saw a cupcake in the display case and asked for one. And by asked, I mean that he started saying “I want a cupcake!” over and over, and increasingly frantically.

I thought back to the book, which gave a four part process for helping kids with their feelings:

1. Listen with Full Attention
2. Acknowledge their feelings with a word – “Oh” … “Mmm” … “I see.”
3. Give their feelings a name.
4. Give them their wishes in fantasy

So I picked up Charlie in my arms, and looked at him in the eye. Our conversation went like this:

Charlie: I want a cupcake!!
Dad: You want a cupcake.
Charlie: Yes!
Dad: You really want that cupcake, huh.
Charlie: Yah. (sadly)
Dad: You want to eat it so badly but you can’t. That must be frustrating.
Charlie: (sadly) I want a cupcake.

I figured by this point, I had listened to him, acknowledged his feelings and given them a name (frustration). So I moved ahead into the fantasy part of the conversation, although I was pretty darn sure it would backfire.

Dad: How many cupcakes do you want?
Charlie: (brightens up as he realizes a cupcake may be in his future.) One!
Dad: Just one cupcake? How about two?
Charlie: No, one.
Dad: You don’t want two cupcakes?
Charlie: (thinks about it) Ok. Two cupcakes!
Dad: How about ten cupcakes?
Charlie: (confused) Ten?
Dad: Let’s count to ten and then you can tell me if you want ten cupcakes. (starts counting) One… two… three… (finishes counting to ten)
Charlie: (counting along with me, until we get to ten… getting increasingly excited the whole time)
Dad: Wow, TEN CUPCAKES! Mmmm… eating them would be SO delicious.
Charlie: (with huge excitement) Yeah!
Dad: Would you eat them slow and lick the frosting off… or would you just eat it fast and have it all at once?
Charlie: FAST!
Dad: You would just rip the top of the cupcake off, wouldn’t you?
Charlie: YAH!!
Dad: Wow, you sure ate that cupcake fast didn’t you!
Charlie: YAH!!! (looks satisfied, like he just ate a cupcake and possibly ten cupcakes.)
Dad: (in disbelief that this may have worked) Ok, let’s go see where Mommy is ok?
Charlie: Ok! (happily, with no mention of cupcakes)

I was pretty floored! Here’s how those conversations usually go, based on painful experience:

Charlie: I want a cupcake!!
Dad: Charlie, look at these yogurts that we got for you! (A feeble attempt at distraction)
Charlie: I want a cupcake!! (increasingly fervently)
Dad: Do you want to eat the yogurt now or later? (i.e. the yogurt distraction gambit is all I’ve got.)
Charlie: I want a cupcake!! Right now!
Dad: (setting firm boundaries) No.
Charlie: (crying, possibly melting down.) I WANT A CUPCAKE!!
Dad: No Charlie, you can’t have a cupcake now. You can have a snack when we get home. (etc. etc., basically a long explanation of why he can’t have what he wants, which usually ends with a meltdown but with Dad feeling good that he’s established firm boundaries.)

Basically my distraction techniques have been getting more elaborate, and Charlie’s been wising up to them.  But wow, the fantasy technique really worked! I didn’t tell Charlie no, I didn’t give him an explanation or advice… I just acknowledged his feelings, named them, and gave him his wish in the form of a fantasy.

Seriously, I felt like Dad of the Year! Also, like I had been doing parenting “wrong” for most of Charlie’s toddler life.

In the next two days, I didn’t say no to Charlie once… instead, I listened to him like I had never listened to him before. Most of the time when he’s asking for things, he’s not actually asking for them. He just wants to communicate that he wants it… and that’s it. He only really gets frustrated when I don’t acknowledge his feelings.

Holy cow, it feels like Charlie’s love for me has grown so much since he knows that I’m truly listening to him. I asked him for a “best friend hug” today and he gave me the biggest tightest hug he’s ever given me in his life! (I’ve trained Charlie to do a bunch of things, and one of them is to hug me on demand… one of the perks of having raised dogs as a kid is the ability to train your kids to do tricks.)

This book has really helped me with parenting, and to be honest it’s helping my other relationships too (at work and at home). If your kids can talk (or will talk soon), I strongly recommend that you buy a copy asap!

*The cupcake Charlie is eating is not the cupcake from the story.

Parenting Books part 4 of 9

1. Sleep Training Books by Guides
2. My Favorite Parenting Books by Mrs. Hide and Seek
3. My Pre-TTC Toolkit by Mrs. Blue
4. The Best Parenting Book I've Ever Read by Mr. Bee
5. Pregnancy Literature by Mrs. Pen
6. Deliberate Motherhood by Mrs. Hide and Seek
7. Baby Reference Guides by Mrs. Tea
8. My Favorite Books on Baby Sleep by Mrs. Pinata
9. Favorite Parenting-Related Books by Mrs. Stroller