And Listen So Kids Can Talk

Two Million Copies have been sold of the book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. Published in the early ’80s, I was given this book by two Professors at UMASS Amherst whom I am a Teaching Assistant for in the undergraduate education course TEAMS (Together Everyone Achieves Success).

As a mom of three, I knew I’d find strategies in this parenting book. Strategies for communicating better with our children are welcomed to the open minded parent committed to improving relationships or maintaining healthy relationships throughout all the stages of development we go through as parents. Often the relationships parents have with their adult children is built on the dynamic set in the younger years, so it’s important to establish early on (but never too late to re-establish dynamics).

I have three reactions to receiving feedback on my parenting:

  • primary emotion of initial willingness
  • secondary emotion of denial then resistance or objection
  • tertiary emotion of reluctant acceptance and embracing.

In between the aforementioned stages, before I embrace the new methods, in the cavities of my brain are synapses firing off a series of rationalizations and philosophical debates over my old methods, why I did what I did at this moment, or with this child, or said this or that.

What matters most: everyday is an opportunity to try, try again in the world of parenting, whether to fix errors or revisit unresolved conversations.

One of my favorite quotes in the book:

“Every time a parent says to himself, “I sure muffed it that time. Why didn’t I say…,” he automatically gets another chance. Life with children is open ended. There’s alway another opportunity – later in the hour, day or week – to say, “I’ve been thinking about what you told me before…” Compassion is always appreciated. whether it comes sooner or later.” (Faber and Mazlish, 33)

8 Typical Responses

The premise of the book is (in the absence of strategies to deal with difficult emotional states with our children) we rely on 8 types of typical responses we actually learn from and rely on with relationships with other adults. The author suggests there is a connection between the responses we are used to relying on in communication with other adults and how we respond to our children. By exploring our personal reactions to adults, we can identify what message we send our children. Here are the 8They are listed and followed with examples of we use each type of reaction in parenting):

  1. Denial of Feelings: “There’s no reason to be upset.” “Smile.” “Your brothers and sisters don’t feel this way.”
  2. The Philosophical Response: “Life is like that. Nothing is perfect. Problems are gateways to opportunities.”
  3. Advice: “You know what you need to do? Tomorrow, go in there and say this. Write this to them.”
  4. Questions: “What exactly led you to do that? Didn’t you realize this was going to happen? What did you expect? Then what happened? What did you do after that?”
  5. Defense of the Other Person: “I can understand why he reacted like that. You’re lucky it wasn’t worse. Imagine how he or she feels.”
  6. Pity: “This is terrible! You poor thing! I feel so sorry for you!”
  7. Amateur Psychoanalysis: “Has it occurred to you that you’re projecting? Did you consider how this experience is playing out from unresolved childhood experiences?”
  8. An Empathetic Response: “Boy that sounds rough. To be subjected to that! After everything you’ve been through!”

Instead, the authors suggest there’s only one method to adopt: ACCEPTANCE. Only accept the feeling as it is, without defining or judging it or categorizing it, will give the other person the ability to then arrive at their own solution naturally.

But the language of empathy does not come naturally to us. it’s not part of our “mother tongue”. Most of us grew up with having our feelings denied. To become fluent in the new language of acceptance, we have to learn and practice it’s methods. (9)


Before we get to the new method, there is an exercise for parents to connect to their own inner child. Try to consider how you’d feel (or have felt) and react to these go-to parent responses.

Consider when each of these responses was used on you and how you were left feeling:

  1. Blaming and Accusing: “You did that again!”
  2. Name-calling: “You’re lazy.”
  3. Threats: “If you don’t___, then you I’m going to___”
  4. Commands: “Do it now.”
  5. Lecturing and Moralizing: “You wouldn’t want someone to do that to you.”
  6. Warnings: “You could get hit by a car. You could fall.”
  7. Martydom Statements: “Why are you doing this to me?”
  8. Comparisons: “Your sister never cares about that so the problem is you.”
  9. Sarcasm: “Well that was a brilliant thing to do.”
  10. Prophecy: “If you grow up doing that, you’ll become that person.”


The goal is to learn to develop more effective communication that doesn’t result in the residue of negative feelings left after the encounter. Three strategies are as follows:

  1. Listen with full attention*
  2. Acknowledge their feelings with a word “Oh” or “Mmm….” or “I see…”*
  3. Give the feelings a name.  (The Clueberry Book helps identifies 22 predominant emotions and states of mind).
  4. Give children their wishes in fantasy.

*Listening with Full Attention
Watch body language, eye contact, be fully present free of distractions such as looking at the phone, TV or multi-tasking. Five minutes of full attention (it’s often less) goes a very long way in its effects on a child’s ability to resolve their own problem.

*Acknowledge with One Word
At first, this sounds patronizing. I thought so, anyway. The authors bring up many parents resisting this strategy, who were being very conscious about the authenticity and tone of the “one word.” However, it’s not a vacant reply. It’s a genuine and sincere acknowledgment without labels. A benign word acknowledges without defining.

To engage cooperation, the author suggests five actions to practice these new communication, small shifts to replace your old methods with new methods:

  1. Describe. Describe what you see, or describe the problem: “I see a dog who is pacing near the door wanting to be walked.”
  2. Give information: “Walls are not for writing on. Paper is for writing on.”
  3. Say it with a word: “Your homework.”
  4. Talk about your feelings: “I feel frustrated when I start to talk but am interrupted.”
  5. Write a note: “Before you turn on this TV, think “Have I done my homework or practiced music?”
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Final Reflection

To circle back to the introduction of this post, when we read educational materials that aim to help support us in doing a better job in teaching and parenting, we often go through a few stages that range from initial willingness to to self reflection that brings about shame about how we have made mistakes, then resistance and finally (if we don’t give up and want to change) acceptance of the new ideas and willingness to try.

To reflect on the strategies, the author asks us to consider how it feels to be really listened to. Shifting out of old patterns of communication has two benefits, not only allowing our children to move through solving or learning to cope with their own problems, but also models for our children how they can be present and listen to others.  The text states, “let someone listen, let someone acknowledge my inner pain and give me a chance to talk more about what’s troubling me and I begin to feel less upset, less confused, more able to cope with my feelings and my problems.”

To see the illustrations and hear the true personal accounts from parents in her research and support groups, buy the book on amazon. Every deck of communication strategy cards or book written on this subject probably was derived from this one. There’s also two other versions, one for teens and one for teachers.

Explore the topic of Praise and Punishment here.

About the author: chrissyjane
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