Cynic’s Self-Help Book Club: Can a Book Teach Parenting?

“How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk” by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

First we tackled our homes, reading and discussing Marie Kondo’s bestseller, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” We embarked on a purging frenzy, donating books, clothes and housewares at breakneck speed. Many of us are still at it and have seen some changes in our lives.

This time the Cynic’s Self-Help Book Club turned our collective attention to a parenting oldie, but goodie: “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk” by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. That title has a lot to live up to — is it possible to advise, direct and mold our kids while also maintaining a positive relationship that has them wanting to share details of their lives with us? This 35-year-old book says “yes, and here’s how.”

Structured like a therapy session, the funny pages and a workbook rolled into one, each chapter opens with a concept then provides real-life scenarios (some so like my own life that it stressed me out just to read them) followed by fill-in-the-blank questions. Next a series of animated panels offers sample exchanges between parents and kids. The book instructs: “Instead of this, try this.” Lastly, we are sent into the real world to try out our new skills with our kids.

Key Messages

We can hurt when we “help”

The authors offer a laundry list of responses we often give our children then asks us to reconsider the ramifications of each. For example, if our child says she’s sleepy, we might say, “You can’t be tired, you just napped!” thus denying her feelings. We might jump to offer advice like, “Then go to bed early” or pepper her with questions, “How late were you up last night? Were you playing on your phone?” and so on.

The text made me realize just how frequently I deny my children’s statements with my own, like, “Don’t get so upset” and “It’s bad but it’s not the worst thing that could have happened.” I’ve been inadvertently teaching them not to trust their own gut feelings.

Practice active listening

Instead of your usual knee-jerk responses, try listening — really listening — to your children. They don’t need to have their feelings agreed with, just acknowledged. Give your full attention (don’t look down at that text that just came in!) and acknowledge your child’s feelings so she feels heard, as in, “You sound exhausted. It’s hard to make it through the day when you’re tired.”

Two different readers noted that their children were initially thrown off when they practiced listening intently. One said that her daughter asked, “Why are you looking at me like that? Why aren’t you saying anything?” This book has since become that mom’s favorite on parenting. Another mom said her daughter gave her a funny look when she affirmed her with “I understand.” But then her daughter opened up about her whole day. New responses are also an adjustment for our kids, but a positive one.

Active listening works outside of the home too

One dad said that the book’s coaching on concentrated listening “definitely helps at work as well as with spouses and kids” when he can “muster enough patience to be mindful and do it.” Another mom said that she started utilizing the skills at work in client settings and is amazed by the deeper connections and stronger results she’s experienced just by putting her own agenda aside in meetings and empathizing.

We don’t have to (and shouldn’t) solve every problem

“Once [children] have the words for what they’re experiencing, they can begin to help themselves,” say Faber and Mazlish. “When we give children advice or instant solutions, we deprive them of the experience that comes from wrestling with their own problems.” A mom reported trying this with her son. She avoided putting thoughts in his head about her own opinions or how she’d handle his situation and instead asked short questions and affirmed his answers. Pretty soon he’d developed a few solid ideas of his own. Instead of teaching him to rely on her, she’s helping him learn to help himself.

Another way the book suggests to encourage your child’s involvement in solving a problem (especially one you’re involved in) is to listen to his or her feelings and needs then share your own. Brainstorm a list of ideas together then find some solutions you can both agree on. I tried it with my son when he didn’t want to come with our family to a Hanukkah party because there wouldn’t be other boys his age. He was pretty worked up but calmed down when I channeled his attention into coming up with solutions. Finally we agreed that he would go and after 45 minutes, if he was miserable, I’d drop him at home. He ended up staying the whole time and enjoying himself. I wouldn’t have come up with that idea on my own — it took both of us discussing our mutual needs.

Another reader noted that she read this book when she started teaching and that it changed her whole approach. “It takes the responsibility to solve problems or conflicts off the parents and teachers.” We don’t have to know it all!

Engage cooperation without arm-twisting

Part of helping your child become a happily functioning adult is teaching responsibility. Yet kids often push back so much that we are exhausted by the effort that goes into getting them to do work. Five solutions to try:

  • Describe the problem (“There’s a wet towel on the bed.”)
  • Give information (“The towel is getting my blanket wet.”)
  • Say it with a word (“The towel!”)
  • Describe what you feel (“I don’t want to sleep in a wet bed!”)
  • Write a note (“Please put me back so I can dry. Thanks, Your Towel”)

Choose your method based on the situation or escalate through methods if one doesn’t work. I’m wordy by nature, but I found the third idea to be a life-saver. I would usually say, “Guys, let’s get the table cleaned up quickly so that we can snuggle in and watch a show together before it gets too late.” Now I say, “Kids, plates.” And done. For real! I’m not as worn down from over-explaining and imploring. One dad happily deemed these methods, “Jedi mind tricks.”

Alas, the great paradox of parenting is that it leaves very little time for considering how to do it. Often after a long day of engaging, encouraging, convincing, enticing, nagging, begging, rewarding, complimenting and adoring our children, we don’t want to crawl into bed and read about them. It’s a busman’s holiday. As such, many of us didn’t finish the book. No matter, even the parts we read became indispensable and we agreed that it’s a book we’ll return to for advice as situations arise (as they always do).

The authors themselves say, “Read the book slowly. It took us more than 10 years to learn the ideas in it.” They suggest we change a little at a time rather than all at once — which fits our pokey pace. No worries, we should have this whole parenting business mastered in time to help our kids choose a college (or is that a problem they’ll solve on their own?).


The Cynic’s Self-Help Book Club will begin 2016 by reading about creating stronger love connections with “The Five Love Languages” by Gary Chapman — just in time for Valentine’s Day! Read along and join our group on Facebook to comment on your experience with the book.

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