How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk is a book by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, which I can highly recommend. I do like their style and easy to digest approach to parenting. They have also written the very excellent Siblings Without Rivalry, but that’s for another post.
Having grown up as a non-talker I wondered how I could do things differently with my kids. So I ordered HTTSKWLaLSKWT about a year ago and read it cover to cover in a week. Ooh, I thought enthusiastically, that makes SO much sense, of course I will follow all the principles within forthwith! And promptly forgot all about it.
Fast forward to a fortnight ago. We’ve been having some awful mornings with Alfie; the meltdown starts from the moment he wakes up and everything, but EVERYTHING is wrong. “Not Daddy, not Daddy, only Mummy, GO AWAY Daddy, go away, No mummy, don’t open the door, only wait, take your T-shirt OFF Mummy, NO T-shirt, not that one, CARRY ME, NO not there, here, carry me HERE, no, no NO, NO!” And so on. The sobbing and shouting and crying reaches a crescendo and we haven’t even left his bedroom and there’s still the whole morning routine before nursery to go.
We try every which way to lessen his distress but we are not getting anywhere except exhausted and frustrated, which has absolutely the opposite effect. So one day I pick up the book again, browse listlessly and read about half a chapter. Bingo! Adele and Elaine say that kids behave right when they feel right. Which makes sense, right? So clearly Alfie is not feeling right, none of us are.
The basic principle, in a nutshell, is listening with empathy, which takes a lot more work than it sounds. We are locked into an automatic response to negative behaviour, for example my default reaction of trying to explain rationally and logically why we have to do something/go somewhere etc. or the easy dismissal/denial – “it’s not that bad, it’s not worth crying over, you’re just tired..” and so on. It’s like we’re afraid to give a voice to the feelings and behaviour of our children in case we make it worse (and God knows, in a lot of families even having feelings is taboo). But rather than try to explain the whole book here, let me give you a couple of examples of what happened when I put Adele and Elaine’s ideas into action:
1. It’s bedtime (what else?) and Daddy brings Alfie upstairs for his bath. All the way upstairs he’s saying “I want to go downstairs, I want to go downstairs” like a mantra. Sure enough it escalates to the point of tears and he doesn’t even get to enjoy his bath, insisting on coming out as soon as he’s got in, now sobbing his heart out. Like Pete I’m tempted to rationalise; tell him we do bath and bed every night, or distract by playing a game, using a silly voice etc. But he’s properly on the verge of a tantrum now and runs into my arms, hoping, I guess, that I will relent. But instead I remember the book and take a deep breath. I hold him tight and say “You really want to go downstairs don’t you?” There is a pause and a muffled “Mmm”. We sit like that for a while. His sobs subside while I frantically try to recall what to do next. “Because downstairs is where all the fun is?” I venture. He looks at me for a fraction of a second, says a resounding “Yes!” and promptly crawls on to our bed to play with his baby brother and proceeds to get ready for bed with good humour and smiles.
Honestly? It feels like I just waved a magic wand.
2. I turn the iPod off, as agreed, at the end of the Chuggington episode he’s been watching. Alfie is livid, roaring and shouting at me, properly angry, distressed and sprouting a fountain of tears. I force myself to remain calm and NOT react, but listen instead. I take him into my arms and say “You really want to watch Chuggington don’t you?” (I know, I know, hardly original.) But feeling brave I carry on; “I bet you’d like to watch Chuggington ALL day wouldn’t you? No breakfast, lunch or dinner, just Chuggington? No nursery, no swimming, no running or playing, just Chuggington all day every day…” And so on. I take it slowly at first, while the sobbing stops and I can feel him breathing normally, even chuckling a little bit. Then I carry on until the fantasy concludes with him being a Chugger and me discovering a train in his bed one morning instead of a little boy. By now he’s roaring with laughter and joining in, like it’s the funniest thing ever. As the giggles subside, he looks at me and says “Shall we go for a little swim?”
3. Time to go to nursery. Our neighbour’s car is waiting (she takes her daughter and Alfie in the mornings, I pick them up). Alfie has been running around the house playing dragons and dragon warriors and as I say brightly “Let’s get your shoes on” he runs in the opposite direction and says firmly “Don’t want to go to nursery”. Of course he does, because he loves it there, but what he’s really saying is that he doesn’t want to stop playing dragons and having a nice time at home. Perfectly understandable, I think sometimes the transition from one place/person/game to another takes much longer than we as adults realise. So quick as a flash, feeling more confident now, I look up at the ceiling and shout “Right you dragons, no more flying and playing because Alfie has to go to nursery now. You can have a sleep until he gets back and you can play again. Thank you.” By which point Alfie is already half way out of the door, dying to tell Yasmina all about the pink dragon warrior. Result!
OK, I’ve tried at other times and not got anywhere and I’m still practicing of course (and now reading the whole book all over again). But it was like a lightbulb going off for me and I wanted to share it with you. I’m sure we’re a much calmer household already. Two things I have noticed already – being silent (whilst actively listening) is more effective than I had realised, as I’m usually tempted to chatter away to Alfie all the time, which only leads to him tuning me out. And I feel a lot closer to him and more connected than I have in ages. Feels good! Oh, and those horrible mornings? Gone. For now at least…
So go on, get the book out of the library/borrow it off a friend/buy it on Amazon and tell me what you think. As Good Housekeeping said; “No peace-loving parent should be without a copy.”