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

I just finished reading How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. And because I best retain information by regurgitating what I've read, here's a summary of the book.

I must, however, note that while this book has some great advice, I wouldn't use it as a primary foundation for parenting for two reasons. One: I get the impression that Faber and Mazlish don't believe people are born selfish. And two: I get the impression that Faber and Mazlish are uncomfortable with the idea of authority, submission, and respect.

I believe our views of authority and our propensity to selfishness can greatly affect our parenting philosophy. So here's my report on How to Talk so Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk with a grain of salt.

Faber and Mazlish argue that "When kids feel right, they behave right" (1). Listening and accepting children's feeling helps them process their daily frustrations and make their own good choices. The hard part for a parent is to not get sucked into the child's emotions and become defensive, angry, afraid, or an instant-problem solver.

"Mommy! She messed up my lego tower!" "I can't find my shoes!" "The kids at school laughed at me." "I can't do it right! I'll never try again!"

Faber and Mazlish suggest parents first listen and acknowledge what they've heard with "Oh," or  "Hmmm," or "I see." Then the parents can give their children's feelings a name or help their children process their emotions through fantasy.

"Sounds like you really want to go to Disneyland. It's so fun going there. Wouldn't it be fun to go to Disneyland every day?"

Once children feel they've been heard, they often come up with their own solutions or let the emotions go. I think this is an excellent way to listen to children when they come to us with their problems. However, I don't think this is a good technique to use when obedience and respect is what we really need.

Too frequently, I've listened to my children's reasons for not obeying, thinking I was being a nice and good parent when I was just allowing them to delay obedience or disobey. I was assuming they were considerate and reasonable little humans who would care about my needs and wants as soon as I did the same to them. This was not the case, and tiny seeds of resentment were sewn in me.

When encouraging cooperation from children, Faber and Mazlish frown upon threats, guilt-trips, accusations, name-calling, lecturing, comparisons, sarcasm, moralizing, and making a martyr of oneself. I agree with them here. But they also discourage warnings and outright commands.

Faber and Mazlish argue that because commands and warnings can make children feel defiant, small, dissatisfied, scared, or powerless, that commands and warnings shouldn't be used. However, I don't think my children's feelings should be my guide in this area. It's natural for my children to feel defiant or powerless when I ask them to obey. I feel this way myself when people tell me what to do, but this doesn't mean that those people are out of line, especially if they're my boss. It just means that I'd rather be the boss. I get the impression that Faber and Mazlish are uncomfortable with the idea of bosses in authority over others. They probably would hate the military.

My children don't have to like it, but they do have to obey me because: one, I'm the boss; two, I'm responsible for them; and three, I better understand the world. I don't have to be rude to my children when I ask them to do something. I also don't think I have to carefully craft a command in order to avoid hurting their feelings.

"I need you to get in the car right now. You can tell me all about your feelings after I hear your buckles click."

On the other hand, ordering my children about all day can be tiresome. Faber and Mazlish suggest a few great alternatives to vary our instructions to our children. Here they are in two examples.

Example 1: The wet bath towels are left on the floor

1) Describe the problem: "I see wet towels on the floor in the bathroom."
2) Give information—something unknown to the child: "Wet towels don't dry when they're left in a pile."
3) Say a word: "Lee, bath towel."
4) Talk about your feelings: "I get so frustrated having to pick up after your bath."
5) Write a note: "Please hang me up so I don't smell bad."

Example 2: Rose still eats with her hands at meal times.

1) Describe the problem: "You're eating with your hands and they're getting greasy."
2) Give information: "Greasy fingers make marks on walls and clothes."
3) Say a word: "Rose, spoon."
4) Talk about your feelings: "Rose, it bothers me when you eat with your fingers because it makes more work for me around the house."
5) Write a note: "I'm called a spoon. Use me!"

The goal 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" (Faber and Mazlish, 87).  I would also add to not forget that children, like us, are naturally selfish, and if they can get what they want by making us bend over backwards, they'll try to do it. We must be on our guard against overstepping our boundaries of self-respect.

When children don't cooperate, Faber and Mazlish suggest a variety of suggestions as alternatives to punishments. "We see punishment as the parent deliberately depriving a child for a set period of time or inflicting pain upon him, in order to teach him a lesson" (Faber and Mazlish, 111-112). While I believe this definition is accurate, Faber and Mazlish don't adhere to their own definition. 

Their examples of punishment are angry parents lashing out with spankings and spur-of-the-moment decisions to inflict discomfort or pain on their children. As an alternative, they suggest parents discipline by explaining their frustration to their children or having their children clean up their own messes or removing the child from the situation or giving the child a choice to either obey or suffer a consequence.

These alternatives are indeed far more desirable. However, I don't appreciate their muddling the definition of punishment. Especially as they then quote a number of sources who condemn punishment as a method of discipline. There is nothing wrong with punishing our children for disobeying just so long as we aren't lashing out in anger. Perhaps the modern world—or the world of the 1980's which was when this book was published—didn't like to say punishment because it infers children have done something wrong and deserve a penalty. I'm not sure. I'll have to do some more research on that word.

The next section of the book is entitled "Alternatives to Punishment," and suggests talking about the child's feelings, talking about our feelings, and inviting the child to work on finding a mutually acceptable solution (Faber and Mazlish, 122). This is a great way for two peers or coworkers to solve a problem. I particularly like giving my children the chance to come up with an idea on how to handle their own discipline, especially when I have run out of ideas. But again, we can't forget that we are the adults, and this is not a democracy. 

If at a particular time, I need something done without question, I need to be able to ask for it without having to explain myself or hear everyone's feelings. Sometimes, things just need to get done in order to keep Mommy from going crazy.

"The key word is respect—for the child, for myself, and for the unlimited possibilities of what can happen when two people of good-will put their head together." (Faber and Mazlish, 122)

Chapter four, "Encouraging Autonomy," begins by focusing again on how children's dependence on parents causes them to feel.  ". . . when people are placed in dependent positions, along with a small amount of gratitude, they usually do experience massive feelings of helplessness, worthlessness, resentment, frustration and anger" (Faber and Mazlish, 139). Thus we should seek ways to minimize our children's feelings of dependency by encouraging children to rely on themselves.

Again Faber and Mazlish are justifying a good thing, namely encouraging a child's independence, for a questionable reason, that is to avoid making our children feel bad. This is their basis for all their instruction: avoid saying these things because they make children feel undesirable feelings, and when children feel bad, they behave badly. But I would argue that no one can make another feel right except God, the ultimate authority, the one who can cure us of our selfishness, and the one to whom we are dependent for any ounce of goodness. Our primary job as parents isn't to give our kids good feelings.

What is our primary job as parents? Haven't worked that one out yet. Maybe it's to love our children as Christ loved us, creating an environment where that is modeled and taught. I'll be on the lookout for a biblical perspective on that.

Despite faulty reasoning, Faber and Mazlish give some good suggestions on how to encourage autonomy:
1. Let children makes choices.
2. Show respect for a child's struggle.
3. Don't ask too many questions.
4. Don't rush to answer questions.
5. Encourage children to use sources outside the home.
6. Don't take away hope.  (Faber and Mazlish, 139).

"There is no value judgement more important to man, no factor more decisive in his psychological development and motivation—than the estimate he passes on himself . . . The nature of his self-evaluation has profound effects on a man's thinking processes, emotions, desires, values and goals. It is the single most significant key to his behavior." (Faber and Mazlish as quoting The Psychology of Self Esteem, 173). Amen to that—although, perhaps how we view God is even more important. Let's remember as parents that our children's estimation of him or herself isn't entirely our responsibility. That is God's work. He only can give our children eternal worth and unconditional acceptance. 

On the chapter on praise, Faber and Mazlish give a list of ways that ill-phrased praise can cause distress and pain in a child. Faber and Mazlish suggest that parents: "Describe what you see . . . Describe what you feel . . . and sum up a child's praiseworthy behavior with a word" (187).

"Are you helping Rose eat her dinner? Oh, I like to see you do that. That's called helping." 

The chapter on "Freeing Children From Playing Roles," has a similar structure as the previous chapters. First Faber and Mazlish list the many ways we can label our children and cause them grief. Then they suggest ways 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 accomplishments.
6. When the child acts according to the old label, state your feelings and/ or expectations. (Faber and Mazlish, 219)

All these suggestions, I found great. But the way in which Faber and Mazlish frown upon so many other options is rather stifling. I agree that calling our children names is not the best way to love them and teach them how to grow. But Faber and Mazlish also frown upon saying, "Stop being so bossy," because that might make them feel labeled, and "I'm so proud of you" because that shifts the focus from the child to ourselves, and, "You always look so nice," because that might make child feel pressured into always looking nice, and, "What's taking so long?" because that doesn't respect a child's struggle to do things quickly. The list of don't's goes on and on and is quite ridiculous for several reasons.

First: not every child will have these reactions. And secondly, if I'm fretting about what my child might feel every time I speak, I'm trying to bear a huge burden that wasn't meant for me to bear. To fret so much about our children's feelings is not a form of selfless-mommy-giving. Rather, it's a lack of self-respect. It's making a non-entity of ourselves and our own wants and desires. We weren't made to bear our children's emotions like this. They need to be able to handle that themselves. I think trying to do all these things for our children can lead to resentment in our hearts that the same respect isn't reciprocated.

Not only that, but we, as Christians, don't have to worry about parenting perfectly: saying things the "right" way or validating all our children feel. We'll never get it all right and that's okay. Because when we realize our weaknesses, we can fall upon the Lord and allow him to demonstrate his power. If we are in Christ, he takes all our efforts and makes them beautiful. We can trust that what is out of our control, namely our children, is in his control.

By all means, I think we must search out new ways of becoming a better parent. But let's not fall into the trap of thinking it's all up to us. God's got this under control. Let's trust him.

Faber, Adele and Elaine Mazlish, "How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk." Avon Books, New York, 1980.

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