12 powerful parenting phrases that make talking to kids easier
by Amanda Morgan
Several years ago researchers Alison Gropnik, Andrew Meltzoff, and Patricia Kuhl wrote The Scientist in the Crib: What early learning tells us about the mind. In it, they examine and explain how children develop their understanding of the world from birth through the preschool years. Babies, they explain, act like scientists: they observe, investigate, form hypothesis, and test them. And, like good scientists, they try to replicate the results of their tests. Simply put: babies learn from everything that happens and from everything they make happen. Baby throws food on the floor and learns about gravity (and, in some cases, that dogs like to eat some kinds of people food). Baby also learns whether Dad finds this behavior amusing or annoying or doesn’t notice it. Baby repeats the experiment—are the results the same? What if I try it tomorrow? What if I try it with Mom? The experiments and the learning go on and on and on.
The experimentation doesn’t end in preschool, it continues—potentially throughout our lives. The drive to learn and figure out how the world works is powerful. And when we figure something out for ourselves—what a rush!
The other day I reflected on a child’s innate need to learn while watching a seven-year old riding his bike. He was with his younger brother, a friend and some neighbors. He was meeting lots of needs: exercise, fun, socialization. He was experimenting with what he could do with his body while riding a bike and learning about physics. He also conducted another experiment by riding off briefly with one of the neighbors without checking with his mother (or his friend) first. An experiment in social relationships and impulsive actions.
When he returned, his mother reminded him of the ground rules for bike riding, redirected him to some other activities for a while, and explained that he would not be able to ride his bike if he didn’t follow the rules. She also pointed out that riding off with the neighbor was rude to his friend.
She didn’t over-react to the incident (he is a sensitive, conscientious child, and lives in a safe neighborhood).
She didn’t embarrass him.
But she didn’t ignore it, either—she gave him information that would help him to learn.
That’s another great thing about babies (and all of us)–we can learn from other people. We don’t need to experience everything ourselves.
Many parenting advisers talk about kids testing the limits of parental rules. Unfortunately, this is often phrased in terms of “parents vs kids” or “you have to show them who’s boss.” But, most of the time, kids are not challenging parental power or out to annoy their parents—they are experimenting with how things work. They are trying to learn.
All of us learn best when we respect and trust the people who teach us. We learn best when our teachers have confidence in our ability to learn—when they don’t over-react to our mistakes or embarrass us. We learn best when our teachers have patience and treat us with respect.
Children need parents for guidance and protection and limits and supervision–and yes, they annoy us a lot and we often do over-react. We’re experimenting, too. And learning, and learning, and learning.
In many parenting books and articles, I’ve come across the statement “you are not your child’s friend.” It always makes me wonder what the author’s definition of “friend” is. Because I do consider—and have almost from the moment they were born—my children as my friends. Why? Here is how I define friendship:
A friend is someone who I know and who knows me
A friend is someone I’ve experienced events or activities with
A friend is someone I can have fun with
A friend is someone I have common interests with
A friend is someone who I help and who helps me
A friend is someone I can share joys and sorrows with
A friend is someone I can trust
Here are some of the definitions of “friend” in the dictionary:
- a person attached to another by feelings of affection or personal regard.
- a person who gives assistance; supporter
- a person who is on good terms with another; a person who is not hostile:
- a member of the same nation, party, etc.
So why would some parenting experts advise against friendship? I assume it is because some friendships are unhealthy; and because friends often play a role (such as a confidant) that would be inappropriate in a parent-child relationship.
Examples of unhealthy “friendships” include:
- “Friendships” in which the fear of losing affection overrides concern for the safety or well-being of the other person or for yourself.
- Inappropriately exclusive and/or controlling “friendships.”
- “Friendships” where the needs of one person dominate, to the detriment of the other person.
These “Friendships” are familiar; most of us have been involved in one or more of them, particularly as we were growing up and experimenting with how to be in a relationship with another person. These mistakes helped us learn what not to do as a friend. Sometimes relationships survived these mistakes and became healthy friendships, other times we were able to form healthy friendships with new people.
What helped us to learn what to do as a friend? It’s not enough to learn what not to do. Parents who have healthy friendships with other adults provide a model for their children. I believe that having a healthy friendship with your child also helps him or her to learn about friendship.
So what is a healthy parent-child friendship?
- There are appropriate boundaries—the parent is still the parent and provides protection and guidance.
- The child is allowed to be a child, not forced into an adult role.
- The parent has adult friends and healthy relationships with them.
- The parent encourages and facilitates the child’s contact with and friendship with other children (and with other adults when appropriate).
My friendship with my children evolved as they grew into adults. There are still boundaries I’ve set, and additional boundaries they have set. I still have the urge to provide protection and guidance to them— they usually tolerate this, sometimes gently reprimand me about it, and occasionally request it. Our friendship will evolve still further as I age. I have good memories of times of fun and friendship with my own parents before their deaths. I hope one day my children will have similar memories of our friendship.
Originally published 3/3/15 on Parenting Success Network
Ask, Don’t Tell
Asking questions can help parents establish good communication with their children. Questions can help children develop life skills. But some questions may make a child reluctant to answer—or to answer truthfully. Here are some pointers for using questions effectively.
Questions can help a child to:
Think: “Why do you think the sky is blue?”
Be creative: “What would you make for dinner?”
Consider consequences: “What do you think will happen if you leave your ice cream on the floor?”
Problem solve: “You both want to mop the floor, but there is only one mop. How can you solve this problem?” (No kidding, my grandsons were fighting about this yesterday and solved it peacefully. Unfortunately, they later came to blows over the only tennis racquet before I asked a useful question.)
You can also use questions to help your child learn rules and routines:
“What is the rule about hitting?” “What do you do after you brush your teeth?”
Jean Illsley Clarke writes in Time In: When Time Out Doesn’t Work.
“First ask yourself, ‘What lesson does this child need to learn?’ Then ask yourself, ‘Is there a question that will help this child discover for herself what she needs to learn?’ ”
Other hints for using questions effectively:
Include some detail in your questions that will guide your child in answering:
“What was first thing that you did in school today?” rather than “What did you do in school today?”
Offer a few acceptable options: “I can play Legos or Uno—which would you prefer?” You may be open to other suggestions, but offering specific ideas can make it easier for your child to come up with suggestions.
Be patient—some children need more time to consider their responses. Be prepared to listen.
Thank and praise children for honesty and telling you important things. This doesn’t mean that there will not be consequences for misdeeds.
Asking permission if you aren’t going to accept No for an answer. Ending a statement with “Okay?” implies that you are asking for the child’s approval. A clearer wording might be “Do you understand?”
Questions that imply a choice when there really isn’t one: “Are you ready to go to bed now?” Instead you can use a question to draw attention to what you want the child to focus on: “Are you going to wear your blue PJs tonight or your red PJs?”
Asking questions that are really threats or warnings: “Do you want me to stop the car?” Try stating a consequence: “If the fighting doesn’t stop, I am going to pull over.”
Asking too many questions at once. Be patient.
Interrogating or asking questions when you already know the answer (or think you do). Instead you can state your assumption about the situation and move ahead to problem solving and/or listening: “I see the window is broken, did anyone get hurt? We need to clean this up carefully and then talk about how to fix it.” “I’m concerned because you seem upset, do you want to talk about it?” As author Mary Sheedy Kurcinka puts it, you want to “Listen for understanding, not for weakness.”
When you need to know more:
There will be times when you need to get information to help you figure out how handle a problem or find out there is a problem. Honesty about the seriousness of the situation, expressions of your love for your child, and respectful questions will help. Then be patient and ready to listen. What you hear may be painful—but thank your child answering.
Don’t always tell your child things. Ask questions that show your love, your interest in the child’s opinions, and your respect for his or her intelligence.
Esther Schiedel 7/17/14
Originally published on ParentingSuccessNetwork
What do you want to hear?
In a recent talk with a group of parents I asked the question, “What do you want to hear from your children?” Answers were: “Thank you.” “Whatever you say, Mom.” “I’d love to clean my room.”
We all laughed. Then I rephrased the question to “What do we want our children to be able to tell us?”
Their answers included: Their real opinions. When they are in trouble. Their angst. When we are wrong about something. What they are excited about and passionate about. Their anxieties. Their relationships with others. When they feel unsafe. What they admire about us. Their reactions to body changes; their body images. Who they are or aren’t.
Some of these things we love to hear about. But many are things that are difficult and painful to hear. There may be information that worries us or frightens us; that makes us angry or sad. Information that makes us feel powerless. Those feelings can be hard for us to deal with in everyday situations. When confronted with them as parent interacting with a child, the challenge is even greater.
I (and I suspect most parents) secretly believed that if I did my job right, my children weren’t going to have problems that I couldn’t fix. I wanted to make things better. I wanted to kiss the sore spot and make the pain go away. It was hard to accept the truth that I couldn’t fix everything. (My children are adults now and it is still hard!)
Unfortunately, that hard truth and that feeling of powerlessness interfered with my ability to listen to those things I wanted my children to be able to tell me. It wasn’t easy, and I messed up a lot, but here are some things that helped me to listen then (and still help me now).
- Giving myself empathy—acknowledging how painful and difficult it is to hear some things.
- Focusing my attention on listening and observing. Letting my child know I am listening—through touch, attentive silence, or short phrases like “I hear you” or “Oh.”
- Accepting disappointment, sadness, fear, grief and other emotions as real, natural and legitimate feelings that don’t need to be brushed aside or gotten over right away.
- Trusting that my child has many strengths, abilities, and resources to cope with challenges.
- Knowing that I have access to resources—people I trust that I can talk to and professional help if needed.
- My religious faith is also a resource.
- Trusting that really listening to someone is valuable.
I can’t fix everything—but I can listen.
Originally published March 5, 2014 on Parenting Success Network
In my years of parenting, I often acted and reacted to my children in ways that weren’t very effective and that sometimes made the situation worse. As I worked on making changes in my behavior I learned that changing behavior isn’t easy. Here are some ideas that have helped me—and continue to help me—I am still not a perfect parent or grandparent! These are research-based ideas, drawn from The Incredible Years, Nurturing Parenting and other parenting curriculums. They are also ones I have found helpful to me.
- Focus on one skill or change. Be as specific as possible: “I am going to spend 10 minutes playing with my preschooler every weekday at 9 am.” It’s fine to make other changes at the same time, but focus on one.
- Make it a positive action. You can’t do a don’t. Every relationship can benefit from you spending time focused on that person—playing, listening, doing something fun together, or working on something together. Relationship expert John Gottman recommends a ratio of at least 5 positive interactions to each negative interaction.
If you want to stop doing something—like yelling at your children—come up with a substitute action to do when you feel like yelling. Writing a note, doing jumping jacks, throwing ice cubes into the sink—you might want to brainstorm a list with a friend or with your children.
- Involve others. Explain your plan and ask for their help and support. Tell them what would be helpful to you as you make changes. Don’t waste time criticizing other’s approaches, but concentrate on your own efforts to change. Find or create a support group of others who are making changes—especially if those around you are not supportive. Parenting classes are a great place to get support and make friends.
- Expect resistance. Changes—even positive ones—can trigger negative responses from those around you. Family and friends may be skeptical or even outright hostile. Children may misbehave to get you to react the way you used to because that is what they know and expect from you. It can help to acknowledge their confusion while explaining your new approach and addressing any misbehavior calmly but firmly. “I know I usually yell at you. But I don’t enjoy doing that and I don’t think you like hearing me. You know how to listen to my quiet voice, too. The toys still need to be put away.”
- Use reminders: electronic or old-fashioned. Try notes, checklists, calendars, alarms, timers, friends, relatives, your children, etc. Create or request reminders that are polite and reaffirming.
- Track your progress. Praise and reward yourself for accomplishments—no matter how small. Star charts aren’t just for kids.
- Be nice to yourself. Keep your inner and outer self talk positive. When you mess up, you can admit it (and perhaps apologize) and say “_____ is hard to do but I am working on it.” When you are successful, celebrate that achievement.
- Learn from your mistakes and from the times that went well. What things interfere with and what things help your efforts to change? If you don’t seem to be able to make the change, step back and analyze the situation and the factors involved.
- Be patient. Real changes take time.
- Keep at it. According to researchers Prochaska, Norcross, and DiClemente, in their book Changing for Good, real, lasting change usually takes a spiral pattern—up, level, dipping back down, then around and up a little more.
We often wish our children would change their behavior, but for that to happen, we usually have to change our behavior towards them. Moreover, being a parent means our behavior has to keep changing because our children keep growing and changing. Change isn’t easy, but it is possible. You can do it.
Published on ParentingSuccessNetwork 1.6.15
Esther Schiedel 12/22/14
What happens when you make wishes with children? They believe that you understand their heart’s desire. In other words, that you have empathy for what they are feeling.
Having empathy for a child enhances your relationship and can make parenting easier. Having empathy for the adults in your life enhances those relationships as well. Having empathy for yourself helps you to be emotionally healthy and enables you to have empathy for others.
Empathy is the respectful understanding of what someone (yourself or another person) is feeling and experiencing. You accept that the feelings are real—not made up to annoy you, not a sign of a moral flaw. Don’t try to suppress or minimize the feeling(s), simply acknowledge them.
Empathy means you are able to see a situation from another person’s perspective. Empathy doesn’t mean that you always agree with the other person’s point of view, just that you acknowledge that it exists.
It can be extremely difficult at times to be empathetic. It can also be challenging to convey to the other person that you have empathy for them. In the classic book, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, authors Faber and Mazlish suggest using wishes as an effective way to convey empathy. Listen and think about what that person (or you) would wish for: “You wish ___(the fish was still alive; Dad didn’t have to be gone for work; all the children were snug and quiet in their beds).” Listen and describe a fantasy that the person would want: “You wish you could wave a magic wand and make it all better.”
I have found that using wishes is particularly helpful when what the other person would wish for is NOT something that is feasible or that I would want to be part of or help to make happen. Using “wish” implies that the desire may not be gratified, but that I respect that the other person really wishes it could be.
Some guidelines for using wishes.
Respectful tone of voice. Most of us have used the phrase “You wish” in an extremely unempathetic tone. Say it sincerely.
Make it positive. Not “You wish your brother would disappear” but “You wish your brother would leave your toys alone.”
Exaggeration can help. “I wish we were already home. I wish that the car could transform into a helicopter and fly over the traffic and land in our driveway!” Exaggerated wishes provide distraction and help the person transition to another activity. Exaggerated wishes can transform whining into a game.
Originally published June 9, 2013 on ParentingSuccessNetwork
Many parenting education programs talk about feelings—why the emphasis? Are they advocating that we let our feelings dictate everything we do? Or that we encourage our children to let their feelings be their only guide?
Actually, by identifying feelings we help children learn to control their actions, and to behave in responsible and socially acceptable ways.
Here’s why it works: When we aren’t consciously aware of our feelings, or when we ignore them, feelings are more likely to influence our actions than when we identify them. We may act without thinking. Identifying feelings helps us calm down and think about how to act.
One useful way of looking at feelings comes from Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent or Compassionate Communication https://www.cnvc.org/
He writes, “Feelings are like indicator lights on a car’s dashboard.” Unfortunately, feelings are not usually as specific as the light that signals the gas tank is almost empty. That’s why most of us need guidance and practice in identifying our feelings. That’s why most parenting education programs spend time on identifying feelings.
It may help to think of our brains as our emotional brain and our problem-solving brain. We need both parts of our brains. Feelings are in our emotional brain—our basic survival brain. They turn on like a warning light when something is important to our survival. When we let ourselves be aware of a warning light, we can use the problem-solving parts of our brains to figure out why it’s on, what we need, and what we want to do to meet that need.
Wait a minute—survival? My child is throwing a fit because her brother knocked down the tower she was building. That’s hardly a threat to her survival. Actually, from the emotional brain’s point of view, it may be. We all have needs: oxygen, food, safety, and many others. In order to get those needs met we have to have some control over ourselves and our environment. Children are born with a drive to gain control because that’s something they’ll need in order to get their other needs met. Not having control over that tower is a threat to her need for control. Because she is a child, her emotions and reactions are more primitive (that’s why she needs parents). According to Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, co-authors of No-Drama Discipline and The Whole Brain Child, at certain stages of development, the emotional part of the brain is more dominant, thus children are more likely to get upset.
Other threats to survival (hunger, fatigue, fear) contribute to an emotional reaction. And some people are more intense than others. (I confess to having similar reactions to trivial issues at times as an adult.)
Identifying feelings helps us (and our children) in several ways:
- It requires us to focus attention on the child (or ourselves). We can’t assume we know exactly what’s going on, and our response needs to be tentative, “sounds like you are really frustrated.” Just being attentive, without directing or demanding, helps us figure out what’s really going on and helps a child to calm down.
- Giving the feeling a name conveys that we understand what the child is experiencing and that we and others have experienced that same sensation. Learning that also helps the child calm down.
- Giving a name to an emotional sensation engages our child’s thinking brain. That helps the child calm down and be better able to think and choose how to act.
By acknowledging the emotion, by giving the feeling a name, you can help a child to learn to control his or her actions and behavior. According to research by Siegel and Bryson, when we help a child in identify feelings, we help that child’s brain develop.
Yes, sometimes we have to intervene immediately to protect children from hurting themselves or others—but, once everyone is safe, we can help identify feelings. We can calm down. We can use our problem-solving brains to figure out what needs to happen next.
Originally published on ParentingSuccessNetwork.org
Driven to Distraction
I was driven to distraction by my almost one-year-old grandson last year: I distracted him from the Christmas tree, the fireplace, my eyeglasses, the dog’s water dish, and so on. To distract him, I moved him to another part of the room, introduced other activities, and substituted interesting toys for the things I didn’t want him handling. My grandson and I both benefited from my use of distraction. I didn’t need to yell or say no to preserve my property (and sanity) and he was able to continue exploring and learning by focusing on objects that were safe for him.
Distraction is a valuable parenting tool—for all ages. With infants or toddlers, it is usually easy to direct their attention to something else by physically moving them to another location or substituting another object. With an older child or a teen, using distraction requires more thought and attention. This is a good sign, as it indicates the growing ability of the child to maintain focus on one thing. Distraction works best when parents involve the child in the process. By actively participating he or she will learn how to use deliberate distraction independently.
Deliberate distraction consists of helping a child to replace one behavior with another—playing with a toy instead of a dangerous object, for example. It can also help a child learn how to delay gratification by focusing on other activities while waiting for a desired activity, event, or object.
Partial distraction—having something else to focus on in addition what you are doing—is useful for:
*Making a boring or unpleasant task easier to do—setting a timer so getting dressed is a race against time;
*Staying on task to the finish —by using background music, taking frequent short breaks before returning to work;
*Getting through a difficult emotional experience—using physical activities such as going for a run and/or creative activities like drawing a picture or writing a letter.
Deliberate distraction is not about ignoring unpleasant feelings or situations. Instead, it can be a way to work through or cope with those feelings; or it can help calm emotions so that one can begin to problem-solve.
Before using distraction it’s helpful to identify and acknowledge what the child is currently focusing on and what the child may be feeling. You might describe the situation from the child’s point of view: “When Dad has to go to work you feel sad.” “You are having a lot of fun getting wet.” Ask your child what he or she is paying attention to. Or stay silent and wait beside your child for a while. Allowing time to acknowledge the situation shows respect and will help your child become aware that he or she is focusing on something—that awareness makes it easier to shift focus to something else.
Being able to redirect attention from one thing to another isn’t just a parenting tool. It is also a valuable lifelong ability. As adults we all encounter boring tasks, long waits, and challenging emotions. Deliberate, positive distraction can help us as well as our children.
Published on ParentingSuccessNetwork 2.13.13