Book Review: How To Talk So Little Kids Will Listen
Way back in the ancient times of 1980, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlich wrote “How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk” (henceforth “Kids”). It turns out that kids and adults operate with mostly the same internal machinery, so you could perhaps more accurately call it “How To Talk So [Humans] Will Listen and Listen So [Humans] Will Talk” . This seminal work proved so useful that 42 years later it is still one of the most recommended parenting books¹, and is widely regarded as useful for adult-adult communication as well.
40 years ago is a long time though. It is long enough for Joanne Faber, daughter of the original author Adele Faber to grow up, have kids of her own, and put the skills her mother raised her with to good use herself. And in the much-less-distant past of 2017 Joanne, with co-author Julie King, wrote what could be considered a modernized update of her mother’s work, titled “How To Talk So Little Kids Will Listen” (henceforth “Little Kids”).
The core principles are the same, but the update stands on its own. Where the original “Kids” acts more like a workbook, asking the reader to self-generate responses, “Little Kids” feels more like it’s trying to download a response system into your head via modeling and story-telling. I personally prefer this system better, because the workbook approach feels like it’s only getting to my System 2 (sorry for the colloquialism). Meanwhile being surrounded with examples and stories works better for me to fully integrate a new mode of interaction. In fact, if I truly wanted to integrate it I would want 3 more books of anecdotes, a TV show, and a fiction book series to model after.
Structure and Philosophy
“Little Kids” is very goal-oriented. It explicitly asks “What are you trying to accomplish with this communication to your kids?”, and recognizes that oftentimes the answer is behavioral change, for example “I want Little Alice to stop hitting when she’s angry.”
After focusing on the goal, they then examine the effects of various types of responses. Situations faced by children are often hard to empathise with as an adult (e.g. really not wanting to leave the toy store even though it is time to go to dance lessons). “Little Kids” therefore creates scenes that are the adult equivalent of common childhood scenarios. Then a variety of responses are presented such as lecturing, you-poor-thing-ing, comparing to others, etc. and after each response the reader is asked to examine their own feelings if they heard it directed at themselves. This allows the reader to viscerally feel how upsetting certain types of responses are.
Ultimately, the optimum response in the majority of these situations is an acknowledgement of feelings. While listening to the book, and putting myself in the shoes of the person in the scenarios, I could really feel how validating and calming it felt to have my emotions acknowledged.
The philosophy in their work is that while all feelings are valid, not all behaviors are. This sounds like it should be obvious, but the Mommy Wars are real. On one side is the common practice of parents to negate or minimize children’s feelings (“Of course you don’t hate your sister! You don’t mean that! You love her!” or “No more crying… It’s just a little scratch. It doesn’t hurt that bad!”). These are the folks that implicitly claim that neither all behaviors nor all feelings are valid. On the other side are the strict NVC types who believe in focusing solely on connection and communication of feelings without actively trying to change any behavior unless necessary. These folks operate with the premise that both all feelings and all behaviors are valid.
The first half of their book focuses on their Problem Solving technique along with many tips and tricks for good communication. The second half of the book applies the lessons from the first half to various common problems such as eating, sibling rivalry, and getting ready in the morning.
Rationalists have mentioned “Kids” here and here, and you can find countless summaries with a quick Google. “Little Kids” is similar enough in overview that just summarizing it wouldn’t add much value.
The central proposal in the book is a process they call “Problem Solving”. This can be used for any kind of issue. It’s a bit of an undertaking, so it most frequently comes up with recurring issues.
Make Sure the Time is Right—This isn’t a thing to do when emotions are high. You should bring up the problem when everyone is calm and receptive, including yourself.
Acknowledge Feelings—This is the number one advice of the book. Even if you’re not in the middle of a Problem Solving session, the authors assert you can never go wrong with just describing what they’re feeling and why they’re feeling it: “It’s frustrating for you when I make you hold my hand. You want to run free!” ²
State the Problem—Next briefly state the problem, but don’t use the word “but....” as this invalidates all the good work you just did in acknowledging their feelings and making them feel heard. Instead try the phrase: “The problem is...”: “The problem is that there is a busy street nearby and I worry that you might get hurt.” ³
Brainstorm—Brainstorm solutions. There are no wrong answers. It can make it easier to come up with silly solutions at the beginning to get the ideas flowing. “What if instead of holding my hand, you held on to my sweater and we pretended we were a train?” Write down the ideas as you go, or use representative pictures if your child can’t read.
Select a Solution—Cross out solutions that are infeasible, and select one to try out of the remaining ideas. Solutions that the kids have come up with themselves work surprisingly often.
Try the Solution—Next time the situation comes up, try the solution.
Repeat as Necessary—If the first solution doesn’t work, move on to a different one, or try another round of Problem Solving.
Behavioral Change or Environmental Control
Let’s say you’ve tried Problem Solving multiple times. Still nothing works. Every time you take Little Charlie to the amusement park he runs away, tantrums, and/or causes destruction, leaving you a stressed and frazzled mess. Does this mean we just resign ourselves to Little Charlie’s Reign of Terror? Not quite!
There are times when no matter what we try, the problem persists. We just can not make it better. In these cases we recognize that we’re asking too much of our children at their current stage of development. It turns out that Little Charlie is just not ready for amusement park excursions yet. So we switch from trying to modify the behavior to trying to modify the environment. In the above example, it’s very simple! We just don’t go to the amusement park for a while, until we feel like Charlie might have grown in such a way that we can try again.
This concept is NOT strongly dwelled on in the book, but it is something I think about a lot with my reactive rescue dog. I do my best to socialize her, and we’ve had lots of success! But I also recognize there are situations where she is not ready for certain situations yet, and may never be. There, my job is to control her environment. If she finds children scary, I keep my eye out for kids and cross the street if I see them coming. When I do my job right, then from the outside she doesn’t look reactive at all. If she ever does appear reactive, that is a failure on MY part, not hers! This is a common practice in dog training.
I wonder how our lives would be different if we applied this same mindset to ourselves? What if instead of viewing our screw-ups as evidence of our own personal failures, we acknowledged that the thing we are trying to do is hard, possibly too hard for our abilities, and tried to arrange our lives so that we were setting ourselves up for success rather than failure? This runs counter to modern achievement-oriented pop psychology, but seems like some potentially useful reversed wisdom for a community that urges members to tackle Big Problems.
It seems like there are times where it’s better to keep trying and failing (eventually you will succeed!), and times where it’s better to accept temporary defeat and not dwell on an activity that will just fail anyways. I have some theories on when each tactic is more useful, but would be interested in what others come up with.
Yup, THAT Works on Adults Too...
The first half of the book is full of tips and tricks. Some of these are obvious to any parent, such as giving a choice: “Would you like to take a bath before dinner or after dinner?”, or turning it into a game: “Let’s see if we can pick up all the blocks before the timer goes off!” Many were novel though, and as I read I found myself mentally sorting various techniques into either “Good for All Ages” and “Just Good for Kids.”
One such technique is to “Write it Down”. Specifically, this can be used in stores when your child really, really wants the new dinosaur-themed Star Wars LEGO set. You are not going to buy them the LEGO set. You sense a tantrum coming on..… You pull out a pen and paper, and write down “Dinosaur-themed Star Wars LEGO set”. You start a list. Maybe occasionally, such as on their birthday, you get something from the list. You child is happy! They no longer are adamant you immediately buy the LEGO set. Crisis averted!
In my head, I filed this as a child-specific technique.
Then I saw a really cute-but-expensive puzzle box I wanted. I copied the link, added it to my Pinterest, and closed the tab.
Similarly, there is a technique where you give the child what they want in fantasy. “I wish you could have FIVE puppies! And they’d all sleep in your bed! You could take them to school with you and pull them around in a wagon!”
I couldn’t think of how useful this would be for adults.
Then I opened Zillow, and looked at Victorian mansions with elaborate hand-carved wooden stairwells.
Throughout this book, it was really interesting to see how almost every technique was just as useful for adults as for children, even when it didn’t initially seem that way. The window-dressing changes, but the core remains the same.
Critique: A and Not-A
Have you ever read one of those dating books where Chapter 8 says “Be Vulnerable”, and Chapter 9 says “Be Strong”, but somehow there is no Chapter 10 that tells you when to be vulnerable and when to be strong? I felt like that happened a couple times in these books.
Most egregious was in “Kids” where a very good chapter on giving praise talks about describing what you see (“I see all the toys put back in their bins!”) and not applying labels (“Wow! You’re so responsible!”). This chapter argues that a label can easily be taken away the next day with a reversal (“You’re so messy!”) but no one can take away the time they cleaned up after themselves without being asked. Don’t apply labels. Just describe.
Later in the book, there was talk about how powerful and affirming positive labels can be (“I never worry about you! You’re self-correcting”). Anecdotes were given about a complimentary label that held meaning for a person for years, and they’d keep coming back to it for years whenever they were doubting themselves.
These felt to me to be mutually exclusive, but that fact was never acknowledged. Maybe others find it obvious when you should apply a label and when you should definitely not do that, but if so it isn’t operationalized here.
The book isn’t centered around citing studies or randomized control studies. Instead it’s a collection of:”Huh, I hadn’t thought of it that way, but on reflection that seems correct!”; tricks that most parents recognize as working; and tricks that are worth a shot. It’s a better parenting book than most, but is not at all trying to emulate a hard science.
Given that the original is over 40 years old, and many of the techniques therein have since become common wisdom, I would expect that there do exist studies that have taken place in the intervening (or even preceding) years, but I did not do any epistemic spot checks.
1 - For a sanity check, I looked it up on Amazon Best Sellers under “Parenting” and the audio version was #19 and the paperback was #21.
2 - The book does a good job of giving the kind of specific instruction that can be useful if this kind of interaction doesn’t come naturally to you. For example, they mention the proper tone of voice. Bad examples include: flat tone (“You must be furious.”), overly dramatic (“OH NO!! You must be ABSOLUTELY FURIOUS!!1!!”), patronizing (“Awwwww, you must be sooooo fuuuurious!”). Your tone and emotion choice should appropriately match the felt emotion. “You must be furious!” They give this kind of breakdown for many skills, and so reading the whole thing can be useful for people who have difficulty intuiting the exact way to utilize the instructions.
3 - An interesting aside here is that it rarely works to just say “You might get hurt” or “You might hit your brother with it”, because then the inevitable response is “No, I won’t!” Instead say something like: “I worry you might get hurt” or “I worry you might hit your brother with it.” Not only is this owning your own feelings, but it is also much harder to be negated.