Book Notes: How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen

I’m adding more book notes to my website, taking the highlights from the books that I read, condensing them down, editing them out, and putting them into a blog post. To see all my book notes and recommendations, check out the books category on this blog.

Last month I read “How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen: A Survival Guide to Life with Children Ages 2-7,” and it struck me that while this book is ostensibly a parenting book for small children, it could be tweaked to be a great management book, too.

The key? Listen to people’s emotions, and, when replying to them, describe what they’re feeling and why they’re feeling it. It’s the trick to better communication for everyone. Rather than telling someone why they shouldn’t feel the way they feel, or skipping straight to fixing problems, simply telling someone that you see how they’re feeling works wonders.

“The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.” —Peggy O’Mara

Here are the greatest quotes and highlights from the book:

“The point is that we can’t behave right when we don’t feel right. And kids can’t behave right when they don’t feel right. If we don’t take care of their feelings first, we have little chance of engaging their cooperation.”

We can’t behave right when we don’t feel right. It’s so hard as an adult, too!

“We don’t want to accept negative feelings because they’re so . . . well . . . negative. We don’t want to give them any power. We want to correct them, diminish them, or preferably make them disappear altogether. Our intuition tells us to push those feelings away as fast and hard as possible. But this is one instance in which our intuition is leading us astray.”

Lean into the negative feeling, and work with it, not against it.

“When their feelings are acknowledged, people feel relieved: She understands me. I feel better. Maybe it’s not so bad. Maybe I can handle it.”

How beautiful is it to be understood? But here’s how to do it in action:

1. Grit your teeth and resist the urge to immediately contradict him!
2. Think about the emotion he is feeling
3. Name the emotion and put it in a sentence.

“You are giving your child a crucial vocabulary of feelings that he can resort to in times of need. When he can wail, “I AM FRUSTRATED!” instead of biting, kicking, and hitting, you will feel the thrill of triumph!”

“Just accept the feeling. Often a simple acknowledgment of the feeling is enough to defuse a potential meltdown.”

So what if you make a mistake? Well, you’re human. Here’s how to do it:

“The good thing about being a parent is that if you blow it the first time, you almost always get another chance.”

“My mother used to gesture wiping a slate clean and say, “Erase and start again!” But that’s old school. She’s from the generation of chalkboards. Have kids even heard of a chalkboard these days? Some parents in my groups have used the word Rewind! as they walk backward out of a room and then reenter with more accepting words. Even that has an old-fashioned sound now that cassette tapes have become a thing of the past. What would be the modern equivalent of asking for a second chance? Perhaps yelling “Control Alt Delete!” or “Reset!” with the motion of a finger pressing an imaginary button?”

“A child’s emotions are just as real and important to him as our grown-up emotions are to us.”

“We do these things automatically—protect against sad emotions, dismiss what we see as trivial emotions, and discourage angry emotions. We don’t want to reinforce negative feelings.”

“Without having their own feelings acknowledged first, children will be deaf to our finest explanations and most passionate entreaties.”

“Children depend on us to name their feelings so that they can find out who they are.”

Our voice gives recognition and awareness and truth to the people around us.

“Children need us to validate their feelings so they can become grown-ups who know who they are and what they feel. We are also laying the groundwork for a person who can respect and not dismiss the needs and feelings of other people.”

“Even gentle questions can feel like an interrogation when a child is in distress. He may not know why he is upset. He may not be able to express it clearly in words.”

“The gift we can give them is to not get in the way of their process by jumping in with our reactions: advice, questions, corrections. The important thing is to give them our full attention and trust them to work it out.”

“So our kids get told what to do. All day long. That’s the reality of being a kid. And they should listen, because we’re in charge and we’re just trying to do what’s best for them, and keep them from killing themselves, or at least protect them from stinkiness, rotted teeth, malnutrition, and exhaustion.”

Sometimes we just need someone to listen and nod, not boss us around, or tell us what we’re feeling isn’t the right thing to be feeling.

“The problem is, nobody likes to be ordered around. A parent in one of my groups put it succinctly: “Even if I want to do something, as soon as somebody tells me to do it, I don’t want to do it anymore.”
Kids often respond well when we give them the words they can use to get what they want. The younger the child is, the more explicit you can be about giving him the language you prefer to hear.”

“Study after study has found that young children who are not constantly ordered around are much more likely to cooperate with simple requests from a parent—for example, cleaning up toys when asked—than children who are micromanaged and controlled much of the time.”

I found this next part about punishments and consequences fascinating. They advocate problem-solving over any form of punishment—at all. My little one is too small to know whether or not this works, yet, but I’m really curious to learn more about it.

“As for logical consequences, the “logic” is highly debatable. If you continually arrive late for my workshop, despite my warning that lateness is unacceptable, I may find it “logical” to lock you out of my classroom. Or perhaps it would be more “logical” to keep you locked in after class for the same number of minutes you were late. Or maybe my “logic” demands that you miss out on the snacks. As you may be starting to suspect, these are not true exercises in logic. They’re really more of a free association, where we try to think of a way to make the wrongdoer suffer. We hope that the suffering will motivate the offender to do better in the future.”

“It is kind of stunning how much our kids really do want to emulate us. And how much they focus on our overall strategy. It’s a tired old phrase but true: children will do as you do, not as you say.”

“The best way to inspire a child to do better in the future is to give him an opportunity to do better in the present.”

“Taking action to protect yourself and those around you is an essential life skill for adults and a powerful way to model for our children how to deal with conflict.”

“One of the keys to successful problem solving is to wait for a time when the mood is right. It can’t be done in the midst of frustration and anger. After the storm has passed, invite your child to sit down with you.”

“Chances are that if your child participated in coming up with solutions, he’ll be eager to try them out. You’ll find yourself at the park, feeling good, with a cooperative child who is getting valuable practice in solving the thorny problems of life. You skipped the whole punishment phase of the parenting journey and went directly to solving the problem.”

“Instead of thinking, “How can I control this child?” we can think of our child as being on the same team and invite his help and participation.”

Punishments and rewards don’t always work as well as we think.

“One study found that when people are offered large monetary rewards to complete a challenge, their creativity and engagement in the task plummets. Rewards helped people perform well on some very simple mechanical tasks, but as soon as they needed cognitive skills, rewards interfered with their ability to function.”

“Creating a family atmosphere of seeking solutions rather than inventing punishments will still stand you in good stead in the long run.”

“The most powerful tool you can wield is their sense of connection to you. The fact that you are willing to consider their feelings and solicit their opinions will keep their hearts and minds open to your feelings and opinions.”

“But when we use words that evaluate, we often achieve the opposite effect. As you probably noticed when reading the scenarios above, praise that judges or evaluates can create problems.”

“The first rule of praise is that it’s not always appropriate to praise.”

“All kids want to connect, all kids want to be understood, all kids want a say in what they do and how they do it.”

“When we demonstrate generosity of spirit by accepting feelings, we help our children become more resilient”

“We need to meet basic needs before any communication tools will work for us.”

“One of these is the biological need for recovery time. When we get angry, our bodies are flooded with hormones.”

“The need not to be overwhelmed.”

“Kids can’t act right when they don’t feel right.”

Amen. True for adults, too.


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