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?"