Joanna Faber didn’t set out to write a sequel to the best-selling “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk,” co-written by her mother, Adele Faber, and Elaine Mazlish in 1980. In fact, she resisted it.
“Those are big shoes to fill,” said Faber, herself a parenting expert and educator who uses the “How to Talk” concepts in parenting workshops. The book, which detailed parent-child communication methods, sold more than 3 million copies.
But Faber, along with colleague Julie King, wanted to offer practical advice geared specifically toward young children. “We heard from so many people, saying, ‘I love this approach, but what do I do when my 2-year-old won’t put his shoes on?’ ” Faber said. “It’s hard to translate theory into action, especially when you’re in the midst.”
The result is their new book, “How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen: A Survival Guide to Life With Children Ages 2-7.” We spoke with Faber about why kids tune out parents, the power of playfulness and why giving commands can backfire.
Washington Post: How is your book similar to or different from your mom’s book?
Joanna Faber: The principles are the same, the feeling is the same. The driving force is based on finding ways to build relationships that respect the needs of the adults and the needs of the child.
It’s different in that we took those tools and put them into chapters by common challenges. If you have struggles at bedtime, you can go right to the bedtime chapter. And we added a chapter on kids with special needs: Often these parents don’t see themselves represented, so we collected a whole bunch of stories of parents using these skills in a modified way based on the developmental level of their child.
WP: How can we resolve conflicts with our kids?
JF: There are ways of making kids feel cooperative. That is key. It’s always about how you feel. If you don’t feel right you are probably not going to act right. We can use problem-solving. They might have a meltdown, but you can come back and reconnect with your kid. You are teaching a way of life; when we have a conflict what do we do? When someone does something you don’t like, do you think of a way to hurt them — smack them? Or think of a way to have them suffer a little — lock them in their room with no dessert? Or do you talk to them and listen to each other and figure out how to solve the problem? That goes much deeper than getting your kid to do something at a specific time.
WP: Many times parents feel their kids just aren’t listening to them.
JF: We adults are so profoundly interested in things kids are not interested in. We’re obsessed with time — we need to get out of the house so we’re not late; little kids couldn’t care less about time. We’re obsessed with cleanliness. We want that sticky-haired, smelly kid to get in the bathtub; kids don’t care, they’ll happily have sticky hair and be smelly. We want them to pick up their toys; kids are happy to live in chaos. So it’s a real difference in needs and perceptions.
WP: What’s a quick strategy parents can use if they need kids to do something?
JF: Kids love it if an adult can be playful. One way is making an inanimate object talk. Instead of clamping down on your 3-year-old’s leg and saying ‘stop squirming’ when trying to get a shoe on, if you can animate the sock and say ‘I feel so flat and empty, won’t someone stick a nice warm foot in me?’ all of a sudden the kid is delighted to stick his foot in the sock. The mood has changed. Instead of fighting we are working together. We are doing it through play.
WP: What’s another technique parents can use?
JF: Give a choice instead of a command. Instead of ‘Hurry, we’re going to be late’ you can say ‘How do you want to get to the car? Do you want to walk forward or backward? Hop like a kangaroo or slide like on roller skates?’ Sometimes it’s being given the little choice instead of that little command that makes a kid feel cooperative.
WP: Why not just tell the child to put away their jacket or to stop whining?
JF: Imagine you come home from work and your partner says, ‘Oh, good, you’re home. Take off your coat, hang it up, sit down and eat your food. Hurry up, did you hear me, I said sit down.’ Even if the food smells great and you’re tired, there is something in you that is going to resist because nobody likes being told what to do. Kids get told what to do all day long, and they have the same resentful feelings adults get when people tell us what to do.
WP: Parents might feel too tired to go through a rigmarole.
JF: You’re working toward a greater good. It’s not as burdensome as it sounds. Once you start doing stuff like this you find you’re enjoying life a little more and your kids are feeling more cooperative. You’re getting through the day with fewer battles and more fun and more good feelings. What looks like more work at first will turn out to make your life easier.
WP: Some parents might feel like everyone else is doing a better job than they are.
JF: We’re stuck in our little nuclear families and we don’t know what kind of struggles are going on. Everyone thinks their kid is the only one who melts down over having to draw four things that start with a B. But all over town kids are crying hysterically over their kindergarten homework. In our book we try to re-create that sense of community so you can peek in on all the parents who are dealing with the same challenges in the same human, imperfect way.
WP: What advice do you have for moms who are feeling exasperated?
JF: Sometimes you have to take a timeout for yourself. Say, ‘I see you want me to look at your picture and you need this, but I can’t do that right now. I need five minutes to sit and drink my tea.’ A 2-year-old can’t understand you, but a 4-year-old who has been talking with the language of feelings can understand. You are not saying, ‘You are being bad, you are pestering me, leave me alone.’ You are saying, ‘I feel grumpy and tired and I need a little time.’
WP: What’s one more piece of advice?
JF: Be as kind and forgiving to yourself as you are to your kids and give yourself just as many chances as you give your children. Treat yourself lovingly. It will set a good example for your child to see that.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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