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Estimated read time : 9 minutes

Photo Credit: PIxabey

By Adele Faber & Elain Mazlish

My eight-year daughter was visibly upset about messing up the class quiz in Math. As she threw up her hands in frustration, she declared that she was terrible at Math, and that she would never amount to anything. It was heart wrenching to see her beat herself up like this and my instant reaction was to say that’s not true, you are being terribly hard on yourself. You have always done well in Math, mistakes happen, you learn from them and try and do better next time.

In a bid to make things better for her, I broke the cardinal rule of engagement – acknowledging the person’s feelings. I had jumped straight from ‘listening’ to solving the problem for her, motivating her. ‘Acknowledgement of feelings’ is a critical bridge to build in any meaningful conversation and a very hard one for most of us, regardless of the role we play — parent, leader, doctor, teacher, mentor.

‘With more than five million copies sold (20 of which were bought by me) How to talk so kids will listen and listen so Kids will talk’ is a bible for anyone, particularly parents who want to build and sustain a strong and rich bond with children. The biggest takeaway from the book is that there is a direct connection between how kids feel and how they behave. When kids feel right, they behave right. The book is dedicated to aiding parents and educators understand how to help children feel right. Here’s a run-down of the top five takeaways for parents –

1. Listen with full attention

If there is one big takeaway from the book, it is this – when your child is speaking to you, pay full attention, keep away your device, put that call on hold, look your child in the eye and listen. This simple but hard to execute advice, (specially in the humdrum of buzzing notifications on our many devices) will go a long way in keeping the lines of communication open with your child and helping you stay connected with him/her.

Listening with Half Attention: It can be discouraging to try to get through to someone who only gives lip service to listening

Listening with full attention: It is much easier to tell your troubles to a parent who is really listening even if you do not react. Often a sympathetic silence is all a child needs.

While most of the conversations with our children is series of casual exchanges and don’t need deep listening, it is mostly the negative emotions that require parents to overcome our natural temptation to ignore, deny or moralize. A very powerful example is from a father who became more sensitive to his son’s emotional needs when he began to equate the boy’s bruised, unhappy feelings with physical bruises.

2. Remember to acknowledge

There is immense power in small tokens of acknowledgment like ‘Oh’, ‘Hmm’, ‘I see’, ‘ Really’ . It is signal that you are listening and understanding the pain or dilemma that your child is experiencing.

There is a lot of help to be had from a simple ‘Hmm’, or ‘I See’. Words like these coupled with a caring attitude are invitations to a child to explore her own thoughts and feelings and even come up with her own solutions.

After reading ‘ How to Talk’ I realized how ineffective my motivational speech with my daughter had been that evening, however heart felt and well meaning. I took her feelings, rolled them into a ball and threw them out of the

window. I made the error of jumping straight from listening to problem solving without building the bridge of acknowledgement.

3. Engage Cooperation

Listening and acknowledgement are fine but what about getting them to behave in an appropriate way. One of the built-in frustrations of parenthood is the daily struggle to get our children to behave in ways that are acceptable to us and society. They don’t make it easy. There is a conflict of needs; adult need if for semblance of order, cleanliness, courtesy and routine, children couldn’t care less. As such it is important to deal with our negative feelings as we solicit their cooperation and commitment without leaving them with a back wash of bad feelings.

When a child is doing something that you do not approve of then instead of venting out your anger and frustration, try describing the situation or framing the problem.

Describe the situation instead of venting frustration

The second thing to remember when soliciting cooperation is that children dislike hearing lectures, sermons and long explanations (which is something I am sure you can vouch for). So, it is best to keep the reminder short and crisp.

Lastly, if something is bothersome to you as parent, express it as your feeling rather than an attack on his/her behavior. Notice the contrast in the interaction below

What is wrong with you? You always leave the door open (Focus on the child’s inability)


It bothers me when the door is left open. I do not want flies on our food (Focus on how you feel)

4. Encourage Autonomy

It is a known fact that when people including children 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. This unhappy truth presents a big dilemma for us as parents. As such, it is important that we focus on helping children become self- reliant. The first step is to let children make choices however hard and time consuming it might be. This provides a valuable practice in making decisions that they would have to make as adults — career, lifestyle, partners.

Let Children make choices: Choices give children a valuable practice in making decisions that they would have to make as an adult — career, lifestyle, mate

The second path to autonomy is a simple mantra — Let your child struggle. Easier said than done. We know that failure is the best teacher but there is nothing more heart wrenching than seeing your child fail or struggle. Having said that self-struggle is the only way they will gather the courage and confidence to do things by themselves.

5. Freeing Children from Playing Roles

All Psychology courses warn against the danger of the self fulfilling prophecy of labeling. If you label a child shy, then she will begin to see herself as shy. if you label a child as stubborn, then he will begin to embrace the identity of being obstinate. The way parents see their children can influence not only the way children see themselves but also the way they behave. It is hard to not have an image of your child but it takes effort to stay clear of establishing the constraining boundaries of a specific role for your child early on.

A powerful approach is to grab opportunities to show the child a new picture of himself or herself.

Helping children see the small feats they accomplish goes a long way

Another strong technique is to train ourselves to give credit where it is due. When a child overhears you say something positive about what he/she did, it goes a long way in reinforcing his/her belief in self.

While I have attempted to summarize the book, the power of its effectiveness lies in the myriads of exercises that the authors make a parent do and the numerous examples and situations that they describe from the hands-on parents workshops they conduct. So if any of the parts resonate with you then, I recommend that you get a copy to experience the full richness of the book. Also please feel free to write to me if you have a specific challenge in mind that you would like to discuss.

This article was originally published on Pooja’s Medium profile and has been used here with her permission

Pooja Goyal

Pooja is an acclaimed educator working to transform early childhood education through application of neuroscience research to learning in the early years. She is the founder of Intellitots Learning (acquired by Founding Years) which is known for its ground breaking work in the field of early childhood education and care. Pooja is an angel investor and a mentor to many start ups, business leaders and educators.


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