A few months ago I crashed headfirst into my most frustrating parenting problem to date: My daughters were ignoring me. I could tell them five times to do anything -- get dressed, turn off the TV, brush their teeth -- and they either didn't hear me or didn't listen. So I'd tell them five more times, louder and louder. It seemed the only way I could inspire Blair, 6, and Drew, 4, to action was if I yelled like one of The Real Housewives of New Jersey and then threatened to throw their blankies away.
This was not the kind of parent I wanted to be. But their inability to obey or even acknowledge my husband, Thad, and me made us feel powerless. While walking through Target one Saturday, I heard no fewer than five parents say some variation of, "If you don't start listening, we're walking out of this store right now!"
I recognized that at least part of the problem was me. After much lamenting about my lame parenting skills, I got lucky: A friend's mom mentioned what she calls "the Bible" on the subject: How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. When I checked it out at fabermazlish.com, I saw that there's an accompanying DIY workshop for $130 (both were updated last year in honor of the book's 30th anniversary). Granted, the authors are moms, not child psychologists or toddler whisperers. But the book was a national best-seller, and parents continue to host workshops using the authors' ideas.
To see if their advice still held up, I wrangled four equally desperate mom buddies and ordered the workshop. I got two CDs and a guide with directions for leading the group. We met every Tuesday night in my living room for seven weeks, spending much of our 90-minute sessions talking about our struggles with listening-challenged kids as if we were in a 12-step program. We followed along as actors played out scenarios on the CD, did some role-playing of our own, and completed weekly homework assignments, such as reading parts of How to Talk and Liberated Parents, Liberated Children, by the same authors, and then applying our new communication skills. Not all of Faber and Mazlish's advice rang true for us. Their suggestion to post a to-do list on the fridge so we wouldn't have to keep reminding our kids of their responsibilities, for instance, didn't pan out (especially because I had to keep reminding my girls to look at the note!). But other tips truly got our kids to start paying attention -- and, better yet, got us to stop screaming at them. Carrie, the mom of a 6-year-old, summed up our collective reaction by the end: "This really works!"
Say it With a Single Word
The situation My daughters have only one assigned chore: to carry their plates to the sink when they're done eating. Still, not a night went by when I didn't need to tell them to do it, sometimes three times. Even that didn't guarantee they would -- and who would finally clear them? Take a guess.
The old way After they ignored my repeated commands, I'd sit Blair and Drew down and preach for ten minutes about how I wasn't their servant and this wasn't a restaurant.
The better way Kids usually know what they're supposed to do; they just need some simple reminding. "They'll tune you out when you go on and on," Faber told me. "Instead, try just one word to jog their memory."
The result After dinner one night, all I said was "plates." At first the girls looked at me as if I were speaking in an alien tongue. But a second later, they picked them up and headed for the kitchen. After roughly a month of reinforcement, I don't need to say anything; they do it automatically. "Teeth!" works equally well for getting them to brush, as does "Shoes" to replace my typical morning mantra: "Find your shoes and put them on; find your shoes and put them on". And when I hear Blair screaming, "Give me that!" I simply say, "Nice words" (okay, that's two words). I practically faint when she says, "Drew, would you please give that to me?"
Empower Your Kid
The situation My friend Michele had just served lunch when, as was her habit, 2-year-old Everly jumped off her chair, climbed back on, turned around, stood up, and then stomped on the cushion.
The old way When Everly wouldn't respond to a patient "You need to sit still," Michele would get annoyed and say something like, "How hard is it to understand? You must sit down!" Everly would cry but still not sit. In the end, she'd get a time-out, which didn't change her behavior.
The better way State the facts instead of always issuing commands. "Who doesn't rebel against constant orders?" asks Faber. (I know I do.) Kids aren't robots programmed to do our bidding. They need to exercise their free will, which is why they often do exactly the opposite of what we ask them to. The trick is to turn your directive into a teaching moment. So instead of, "Put that milk away," you might simply say: "Milk spoils when it's left out." This approach says to a child, "I know that when you have all the information, you'll do the right thing,'" Faber explains.
The result The next time Everly played jungle gym at mealtime, Michele took a calming breath and then said, "Honey, chairs are meant for sitting." ?Everly smiled at her mother, sat down, and then started eating. "That never happened before," Michele reports. She still has to remind her daughter now and then, but in the end, Everly listens. The technique applies to other situations as well. Rather than saying, "Stop touching everything," Michele now points out, "Those delicate things can break very easily." Ditto for "Legos belong in the green bin so you can find them the next time you want to play with them" and "Unflushed toilets get stinky."
Give Your Child a Choice
The situation Three days after our final session, Joan took her kids to Orlando. At the Magic Kingdom, she handed them hats to shield the sun. Her 6-year-old put hers on willingly. Her almost-5-year-old, Sam, refused.
The old way "I'd try to persuade him to cooperate," Joan says. Inevitably, she'd end up shouting, "If you don't put it on, you can't go on any more rides." Then he'd bawl his eyes out, and no one would have any fun.
The better way Offer your child choices. "Threats and punishment don't work," Faber explains on one of the workshop CDs. "Rather than feeling sorry for not cooperating, a child tends to become even more stubborn. But when you make him part of the decision, he's far more likely to do what's acceptable to you."
The result Joan left it up to her son: "Sam, you can put your hat on now or after you sit out the next ride." Sam still wouldn't comply. "But after he missed out on Peter Pan's Flight, I said, 'Sam, here's your hat,' and he put it right on," Joan says.
State Your Expectations
The situation Amy let her kids turn on the TV before they left for school. After one show was over, she'd take Adrian, 4, to get dressed while Angela, 7, kept watching. But when it was Angela's turn to get ready, she'd whine, "Just ten more minutes. Please? Pleeeeeeeaaase!"
The old way Amy would yell: "No, you've watched enough. That's it." Angela would complain some more. Amy would yell, "I said no!" Then, after more begging, she'd add, "You've already had more TV time than Adrian. You're being ungrateful."
The better way Let your kids know your plan ahead of time. Amy should tell Angela something like this: "After you've brushed your teeth and are totally dressed and ready to go, you can watch a little more TV while I get your brother dressed. That way you'll be on time for school."
The result The first time Amy tried this tactic, Angela turned off the TV without saying a word. But the second morning, she refused and started bellyaching again. Amy quickly realized she hadn't reminded Angela of the plan in advance this time. So the following morning she stated it again clearly: "When I leave with Adrian, I expect you to turn off the TV." Success. She finds the strategy equally effective for other situations ("No starting new games until the one you've just played is put away").
Name Their Feelings
The situation Carrie's daughter Tatum, 6, was happily blowing bubbles with a friend. Suddenly, Tatum stormed into the room, wailing, "Mina's not giving me a turn."
The old way "I'd say something like, "There's no reason to cry over this," Carrie says. What would Tatum do? The opposite -- cry more and likely ruin the rest of the playdate.
The better way Parents need to listen too. "Everyone wants to know they've been heard and understood," Faber argues. Telling a child to stop crying sends the message that her feelings don't matter. Kids often cry (or whine, yell, or stomp) because they can't communicate why they're upset or don't know how to deal with the emotion. "You need to give them the words to express it," Faber says.
The result Next time, Carrie looked Tatum in the eye and described what she thought her daughter was feeling: "You seem really frustrated!" Tatum stared at her in surprise and then announced, "I am." Carrie held her tongue to keep from giving advice ("You need to ?"), defending her friend ("Mina deserves a turn too"), or getting philosophical ("That's life"). Instead, she said, "Oh." Tatum kept talking: "I wish I had two bottles of bubbles." Carrie asked, "How can we work this out so it's fair to you and Mina?" Tatum said by taking turns. Carrie suggested they use a kitchen timer, and Tatum explained the plan to Mina. Everyone wound up happy. "It's hard to stop yourself from saying too much," says Carrie. She's right. Phrases like, "You never listen to me" and "How many times do I have to tell you?" become ingrained in our brain. During the workshop, my friends and I realize that it's going to take a bit of practice to stop uttering these expressions. But that's the entire point: to change the way we talk to our kids, so they not only understand what we're trying to say but actually want to listen.
Originally published in the January 2013 issue of Parents magazine.