As a type A, high D, ENTJ, Captain America personality type, acquiring new skills and trying to get better at them is what I’m all about. From sports as a kid to business as a young adult to taking surfing lessons in my 30s, I’m constantly seeking out ways to grow my repertoire of skills with the hopes that someday I will actually become James Bond.
Yet for the most important and most difficult skill I’ll ever use in my life, parenting, I’ve just been winging it. I mean I haven’t looked for any parenting skills training, at least not in any formal way. In fact, I’ve been mostly just digging in and trying more of the same ineffective approaches while my kids have become more and more “energetic”.
It wasn’t until our 1,100 mile Christmas 2016 road trip that I realized I need to invest learning some parenting skills.
Every year since we moved to Virginia we have traveled to visit family between Christmas and New Years. Every year we look forward to catching up with family members and celebrating our holiday traditions. Every year it’s tough on the kids, but we get through it and there are usually more good times than bad. But this year it felt like the kids were hard, and as a parent, I felt we had more bad times than good.
On that long car ride home I had some time to reflect on the holiday week of tantrums, yelling, and madness, and that’s when it hit me. As a self-proclaimed leader, I take ownership of outcomes in every other area of my life. I needed to own that fact that my kids’ behavior is the outcome of my parenting skills.
I realize now that there are no bad kids, only bad parenting.
Our first full day back home I noticed Kelly bought “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen, And Listen So Kids Will Talk” by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. Kelly remembered the book from her days as a clinician (apparently it’s a classic). I downloaded the audiobook on Audible so we could read it together.
The term “game-changer” is so overused today, but I can’t overstate how much parenting has changed for me since listening to “How to Talk”. I’m still very far from perfect but here are some of the biggest changes I have noticed in myself:
- I have reduced by 80% or more all of the “wrong” techniques I was using like punishments (time outs), not listening fully, and unintentionally locking my kids into “playing roles” with negative feedback loops. Pretty much everything the book says not to do, I was doing and I’ve stopped.
- I feel more confident as a parent now that I have a plan and some tools. I don’t feel hopeless anymore like I did at Christmas time.
- Nearly all of the interventions in “How to Talk” have proven to be extremely effective, even though I am probably only executing the techniques at like 10%.
- I’m surprisingly good at some of the more out-there techniques that I never thought I’d be able to do and I never thought would even work, like giving kids wishes in fantasy.
In less than a month our house and kids have made a complete 180. Bedtime, dinner time, mornings before school, all former tornadoes of chaos and screams have turned into mostly peaceful scenes that seem too good to be real. Any uprisings only temporarily set us back rather than causing us to spiral out of control. Jack has been doing really well in kindergarten and Gracie was just asked to move into the advanced gymnastics program.
But our victories have not been easily won. Nearly all of my gut instincts as a parent confronting a child in conflict are wrong. It takes a tremendous amount of focus and effort to try to say the right thing all of the time. It is exhausting, even for me, the type-A change and self improvement junkie. And imagine how difficult it is being my wife when I’m trying to “help” her say the right thing in every moment.
But the hard work is worth it, of course.
On another one of those long car rides I heard a saying on the podcast “Start Up” (S4E3, incredible) that has haunted me ever since. It went something like this.
If we aren’t strong enough to conquer our demons then our children our doomed to inherit them.
I cannot recommend this book strongly enough to anyone who wants to be a better parent. The audiobook performance, by Susan Bennett, made the experience even better (probably the best audiobook performance I’ve heard). We’ve found it helpful to have both the audio and print versions in the house.
Here’s a quick summary of the main chapters. You’ll need to buy the book to actually learn this stuff. What follows is mostly to help me remember these techniques in the future:
1. Helping children deal with their feelings: This is the foundational technique in the book. Faber explains how important it is to listen closely to children and to validate their feelings by saying things like, “I see you’re exhausted. It’s hard work being a kindergartner sometimes.” Beginning with this skill can turn small disturbances into learning opportunities rather than situations that escalate out of control.
2. Engaging cooperation: This chapter provides techniques on creating order in the daily routine like giving information instead of advice (“I see dirty clothes on the floor”), talking about your feelings as a parent (“I don’t like being talked to that way”), or using a written note, which has proven to be a fun way to create high-impact communication in the house.
3. Alternatives to punishment: Some research says that punishments (i.e. consequences) may not be effective. “How to Talk…” offers alternatives like stating your expectations (“I expect everyone to treat each other with respect in this house”), showing the child how to make amends (“You can make it up by putting Barbie’s head back on her body and saying ‘sorry’ to your sister.”), or an advanced and very effective problem solving paradigm too long for this summary (buy the book!).
4. Encouraging autonomy: Good parenting allows children to separate themselves from their parents so they can become their own independent people someday. Faber shows how to let children make their own choices, show respect for a child’s struggle, teach children how to find their own resources, and give children hope for the future.
5. Praise: My favorite chapter, and perhaps the highest impact section for me and my kids. Effective praise builds self-esteem, which is a harbinger to a child’s overall behavior. But good praise is much more than saying “great job”, it’s about encouraging future behaviors. Faber shows how to describe what behaviors you observe and sum up the behaviors with a word the child can internalize. For example: “You got dressed all by yourself this morning. Now that’s what I call being responsible.”
6. Freeing children from playing roles: This chapter was deep. How parents think about their children can reinforce negative behavioral patterns. If a parent thinks of their child as messy, they may playfully say something like, “Oh, you’re such a slob”. Over time, theses labels reinforce behavior patterns and trap kids in loops that parents unintentionally helped to create. This chapter talks about how to reverse that cycle.
7. Putting it all together: Each chapter includes a useful skill set, but it doesn’t take long to realize how the techniques blend and work together. It also doesn’t take long to realize that this book is about more than parenting tricks. It’s about being a better person and helping to create a better next generation.