Listen, don’t lecture: How to increase your parenting IQ

It will take time to integrate the skills from Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish’s books into your parenting toolbox.

Being a parent has always been the hardest job I’ve ever had — and probably the most rewarding. Our first child was good-natured, a member of the get-along gang, and mostly happy. She was a stellar big sister who fell in love with her baby sister from the get-go. To this day, at 39 and 37, each with kids of their own, they’re still best buddies.

But our younger was a trial by fire. She was a contrarian by nature. Her basic attitude was “take no prisoners”— after all, if you take prisoners, you have to feed them. She couldn’t see the point of sitting on the line in kindergarten or taking a nap in pre-school. So, she didn’t. She helped us push beyond our basic parental skills.

Along the way, my wife and I attended a workshop by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, authors of my favorite parenting book — ancient though it may be now — “How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk.” Their book changed my parenting life.

Their follow up book, “How to Be the Parent You Always Wanted to Be,” (a title that all of us moms and dads can relate to) is worth a read. They wrote this book because readers and workshop participants often gave them the same feedback: “We love your approach, but somehow, after a few weeks, we revert back to our old ways.”

I get it. Sometimes the simplest things are the hardest to do. Most of the down-to-earth, respectful approaches are counterintuitive. They are the opposite of what we want to do.

Their main points:

Kids get more upset when we don’t acknowledge their feelings. Joey: “I made a fox in school and it broke.” Dad: “That’s nothing to get to upset about. It’s only the tail that’s broken. You can make a new fox.” Joey cries: “I don’t want a new a new fox. I want the old one.” Parents want to soothe children and fix their problems. When we do that, it often makes matters worse. It’s more helpful to acknowledge their feelings: “Oh, I’m sure you were upset that your art project broke. You must have been mad.”

Say it with one word. I was often guilty of going on and on about something one of our kids did. Better to say it with one word: “Toys”— code word for remember to pick up your toys. “Brush”— remember to brush your teeth. “Jacket”— hang up your coat. This reduces the non-verbal communication of irritation, which usually triggers upset in your youngster.

Don’t bottle up your anger. From their book: “Every morning I vow that today will be different. Today I’ll be a kind, patient, loving parent. And every morning I turn into a horrible, screaming maniac.” Yeah, I’ve been there. Faber and Mazlish get that parenting is a high-stress job and emotions will run wild. Finding ways of expressing those negative emotions is a must. Keep them inside, and they will boil over and burn everyone around you.

Some kinds of praise can make kids feel worse. I remember asking my grandmother, who lived with us, if I was handsome. Of course, she said I was. But I never believed her, after all she was my grandma. It’s always best to be specific about what you are praising and how it makes you feel. Describe the behavior you see. “Wow, I love the way you stuck with that hard math problem” rather than “You’re so smart.”

Faber and Mazlish keep coming back to basic themes — listen, don’t lecture. Reflect back to kids what they are feeling. Encourage them to come up with their own solutions. Don’t try to solve their problems.

These skills take time to integrate into your parenting toolbox.

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at

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