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Book Review
How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk

by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish
Softcover, 242 pages
Available from LLLI
No. 62-7, $12.50 SALE $10.00

reviewed by Pam Young
Denair CA USA
From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 22 No. 4, July-August 2005, pp. 174-175

One of the more exhausting aspects of being a parent today is the sheer quantity of information available. It seems that every expert has written a book on how to be a better parent. At a recent Area Conference, I was standing near a two-foot stack of highly recommended books about communicating with children when a mother of young children came up and asked, "If you had to choose one of those books, which would you recommend?" The answer was easy. How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk. Reading the book and working through the exercises, perhaps with a few friends, will teach new skills, encourage you to practice them, and build a community of people with similar goals. It will lay a foundation strong enough to hold throughout the parenting journey.

Faber and Mazlish have written a 20th anniversary edition of their bestseller. The updated book has three new chapters that respond to letters and questions from readers. It is an effective teaching tool and more relevant than ever for parents, teachers, and therapists.

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk teaches parenting skills that preserve the dignity and humanity of both parents and children. What sounds like a lofty, abstract goal turns out to be very practical and accessible information. The reader is encouraged to read one chapter, use a pencil, and actually fill in the exercises. The best way to learn from this "how to" book is to do each exercise, try the suggestions at home, and get together regularly with one or more friends to discuss the outcomes. Working on one chapter per week is a good pace.

The book starts with an exercise that illustrates how it feels when someone's feelings are disregarded. An adult complains about something that happened at the office and a well-meaning friend responds. Eight possible responses are given, seven of which deny the woman's underlying feelings. These seven responses range from advice and questioning to defensiveness, pity, and amateur psychoanalysis. All sound like terrible things to say to a friend who is already frustrated but they are, indeed, typical responses and part of our native language. The eighth response, the empathic response, does not come as naturally to us. It is like learning a foreign language. This scenario effectively communicates one of the authors' most important points -- adults often speak in dismissive and disrespectful ways without even realizing it. Working from this premise, the authors present exercises on topics such as dealing with feelings, engaging cooperation, finding alternatives to punishment, encouraging autonomy, and offering praise.

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk is designed like the workshops taught by the authors. In the chapter called, "Engaging Cooperation," the reader is invited to make a list of things they expect their child(ren) to do and not to do in the morning, afternoon, and evening. "Whether your list is long or short, whether your expectations are realistic or unrealistic, each item on that list represents your time, your energy, and contains all the ingredients necessary for a battle of wills." Faber and Mazlish give examples of methods commonly used by adults to get children to cooperate including blaming and accusing, name-calling, using threats or commands, lecturing and moralizing, giving warnings, becoming a martyr, being sarcastic, and prophesizing.

New skills are introduced effectively using cartoons to illustrate. These skills include: describe what you see, or describe the problem; give information; say it with a word; talk about your feelings; and write a note. Those with little time to read will be happy to hear that the cartoons do a very thorough job of demonstrating the difference between the old ways of communicating and the new. These methods encourage children to cooperate without damaging their self-esteem. Faber and Mazlish acknowledge:

Not every one of them [the skills] will work with every child. Not every skill will suit your personality. And there isn't any one of them that is effective all the time. What these five skills do, however, is create a climate of respect in which the spirit of cooperation can begin to grow.

My favorite aspect of this book is the authors' humility and authenticity. One wrote:

I remember my own experience when I first experimented with these skills. I was so gung-ho to get this new approach going in my family that I came home from a meeting, tripped over my daughter's skates in the hall, and sweetly told her, "Skates belong in the closet." I thought I was wonderful. When she looked up at me blankly and went back to reading her book, I hit her.

What an honest way to teach the value of authenticity! It is frustrating to hear an angry parent using otherwise effective communication skills in a sweet, sing-song tone. It undermines the whole goal of genuine, respectful, and honest communication.

The reader is then asked to practice these new skills by writing responses to given situations. An additional assignment can be completed during the week. Each chapter contains a reminder sheet with the essential information distilled to a page that would be useful posted around the house.

There are many great books about communication skills. Some may have a more modern focus or global perspective than How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk. But most people learn better by practicing a new skill and not just reading about it, so this book is a good place to start. Faber and Mazlish open the book with an encouraging quote by Jose Ortega Y Gasset, "All we are given is possibilities -- to make ourselves one thing or another." Becoming a parent is one of those tipping points in life, full of possibilities to make ourselves one thing or another. Self-image can change, priorities can change, and communication skills can also change. With commitment to doing and practicing the exercises, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk will teach tools to improve the quality of all our relationships, not just with children.

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