Talk so your kids will listen

Do any of these sound familiar?

Stop crying.

Calm down.

Knock it off.

You’re fine. There’s nothing wrong with you.

Be quiet.

Shut your mouth and do what I told you to do.

You’ll get over it.

It’s nothing, stop whining.

Unless you live under a rock with no children, these are probably a staple in your everyday conversation.

That is not the tragedy, the real tragedy is that when you talk like that your children don’t listen. If they did, you wouldn’t be reading this.

Most parents would give an arm AND a leg to have their children listen to them consistently. Sporadic obedience is welcomed but what truly delights us is consistent good behaviour.

In this short and highly effective guide, I will share with you my top 5 tips that will allow you to talk in a way that your kids will listen.

Let’s get straight to it.

5 basic tenents of parenting.

1) Grow your toolbox. If the only parenting tool you have is a hammer, very soon everything starts looking like a nail and you’ll break more things than you fix.

2) Every moment is a teaching moment.

3) Pick your battles. You DON’T need to grab every teaching moment by the throat. Follow the 80/20 rule. 20% of your behaviours will gain you 80% of the results you want in your children.

4) Assume the best, prepare for the worse. The Pygmalion effect will take care of the rest. Don’t know what the Pygmalion effect is? People rise to the level of your expectations.

5) Emotions trump logic, every single time.

Ok, with that out of the way, let me share with you my best ‘arrow’ – The win-win question.

The win-win question

Ingredients:

  • Minimal acceptable behaviour
  • Phrased in a question that provides the ‘illusion’ of choice
  • Calm and consistency

Time required:

  • 2 minutes

Effectiveness:

  • Off the charts

This is a wonderfully effective and gentle technique to help your child choose what you’d like them to do.

This question provides the ‘illusion’ of choice.

Here is one that I use with my daughter almost every day.

‘Would you rather put on the pink or purple dress today?’

My objective is to get her dressed, so no matter what choice she makes, we both win. She gets to feel in control and having contributed to decision making and I get to avoid a dressing meltdown.

As you read and thinking about this technique, you start to realize that you can phrase the most common parenting questions this way.

For example, during dinner time instead of barking out ‘come and sit at the dinner table!’, you can say something like this, ‘James, would you like to walk to the table by yourself or would you like to walk with daddy?’

You might be thinking to yourself, that won’t work but I challenge you to try it. You’ll be surprised how effective your communication becomes.

Ok, that is the simplest win-win question that obviously has limits.

The most glaring one is as your child develops more complex reasoning skills they will start to push back and refuse both choices. Then what should you do?

In the face of strong resistance, using the win-win will still result in a better outcome, like when you are late and your child refuses to get into the car to go to school. You simply say, ‘Jamie, it’s time to go to get in the car, would you like to get in yourself or would you like me to carry you?’

Your child wants a choice, they want control, give it to them.

Practise makes permanent, use the win-win question as many times as you can throughout the day. Even if something has no options, like brushing your child’s teeth. ‘Would you like me to brush your teeth slow like a tortoise or fast like a buzzing bee?’

This is only the beginning, combine the win-win question with the other techniques here and your friends will wonder how you became a parenting god with saintly children in such a short time.

The perfect day story

Ingredients:

  • Minimal acceptable behaviour
  • Story – either made up or true
  • Vivid details make them believable
  • Be age appropriate, use language your child understands
  • Show cause and effect e.g. this happened then this
  • Give the story characters behaviours you want your child to emulate

Time required:

  • 5 minutes

Effectiveness:

  • 5 stars when done well. But you’re likely to get 3 right off the bat.

Story telling is one of the most powerful parenting tool in your toolkit.

You already do this naturally.

Remember the last time you told your child a story that captured their full attention?

Children brains are wired differently than adults.

Their consciousness is a continuous stream. It is a story from the time they wake up till the time they go to sleep.

There are no discrete times of day, periods of time.

It is awake and asleep.

Use this knowledge and tell them a story when before they go to bed.

Reinforce the story in the morning and watch the day as it unfolds, you will be surprised what happens.

I used this technique on my daughter when she was having night terrors.

We just had our second baby boy, it was the second and third day. My daughter had what seemed to me like a perfectly normal day. But, that night, she went to bed as normal only to end up screaming and yelling at the top of her lungs 2.5hrs later.

She was completely inconsolable. I would hold her and she’d trash her arms and legs about. I’d speak to her softly and she’d continue screaming at the top of her voice. This went on for 15 minutes until she finally calmed down and was able to sleep.

Then it happened again the next night.

When something happens twice, that is my limit for intervening.

On the third night, we went through her normal routine of bath, book then bed.

In between her 3 story books, I started telling her a story.

‘Jessica, you’ve had a nice day today. I saw you having fun at the park, you ate dinner and now we are having bedtime stories.’

She nods in agreement.

‘When you drift off to sleep tonight, you will dream about wonderful, playful and fun things that you want to dream about. You can dream about daddy and mummy and even your favourite teddy. If anything that you don’t like comes into your dream, just say bye bye and it will disappear in a puff of smoke. If it comes back again, you can give it a big blow like when you blow out a candle and it will float away. When you wake up in the morning, you feel happy and a smile pops out on your face.’

She smiles.

We continue reading books and I repeat essentially the same story three times.

Since then, no night terrors.

And she greets me in the mornings with a smile now.

One of the most common frustrations of parents is at dinner time and how to get their child to finish the meal.

Tell them a story.

Start with obviously true statements like. ‘You are here sitting at the table, holding a spoon in your right hand, listening to mummy’s voice.’

Then transition into a story.

‘Let me tell you about a little puppy who lived with his parents behind Mrs Smiths home.’ Add details, colours, smells, make it vivid so they can see what is happening.

‘The puppy didn’t like eating his dinner and would always fight.’ Then I would create a story line that shows how one day, there was no food, the puppy got very hungry and couldn’t go do whatever your child’s fun activity is.

Finish the story with the ending that you want in real life. The puppy ate all his food and had plenty of energy. He could then go out and jump on the trampoline, etc. The puppy was very happy because he had eaten so well and he could play for longer.

The story is silly, yes.

Does it have to make sense? Only to your kid.

Will it work? You bet.

In this example of meal time though, you’d have to tell the story during bedtime before you get to the meal.

You need to plant the seed of behaviour you want before it can be created.

Remember, tell vividly detailed stories about behaviours you want your child to learn. Tell stories often, like all skills, the more you practise the better you get at them.

Shorting the tantrum

Ingredients:

  • Awareness
  • Connect emotionally
  • Redirect the emotion

Time required:

  • 10 minutes

Effectiveness:

  • 9 times out of 10, 5 stars. Sometimes the bomb still explodes.

Tantrums are a part of every growing child and are the bane of every parent’s existence.

I used to hate tantrums, until I finally understood what purpose they served.

You see, children are growing and learning what emotions actually mean. When an emotion surfaces like joy, they may feel a sudden burst of energy and run wild jumping over furniture, people and just generally being an energizer bunny.

Or when they become upset and start throwing things around. They might still be running at a million miles per hour and throwing their bodies around but the facial expression and emotion behind it is very different.

Emotions are expressed through actions.

Tantrums are simply emotions that are confused and have no outlet.

The great thing about tantrums is that you can usually spot them coming.

Pay attention to your child’s behaviour and pick up on the warning signs.

Before your child goes from being happy to upset, there are plenty of cues that are just begging for your attention.

This normally takes the form of a build-up, you notice that the child’s movement pattern changes, their voice tone and pitch changes, their sentences shorten.

When you notice these changes, the fuse of the explosive tantrum has been lit and you need to act fast.

Catch it in time and you have the opportunity to defuse the behavioural bomb. Miss that window and you are left picking up emotional shrapnel that is likely to hurt many more people in the process (think spouse/guests/your own feelings)

So, being aware is key.

Next, you need to cut the burning fuse. This can simply be achieve by a 2 step technique – connect and redirect.

To connect, use your whole body to communicate that you want to understand what is happening

Lower yourself to eye with the child, check the tone of your voice and ensure it is warm and inviting.

Describe what you see. ‘I can see you are not happy’ or ‘I can see you are upset’ depending on your child’s understanding.

If you got the description right, they will agree by way of a nod or yes.

Then redirect by asking a question, ‘It seems like you are having some trouble, would you like to feel happy again by playing with a toy or going outside?’

Did you see what just happened there?

That’s right, the win-win question.

I can’t sneak anything pass you J

What did you do here?

  • You noticed the countdown timer to the behaviour explosion
  • You connected deeply with your child, signalling to them that they are being listened to
  • You severed the fuse by redirecting using the win-win question

Your child feels heard, they feel safe that you are there for them even when bad things happen and you’ve avoided an explosion (which is always a good thing).

Turn off the interrogation spotlight

Ingredient:

  • Observational skills
  • Statements of fact

Time required:

  • 2 minutes

Effectiveness:

  • 5 stars

This was a hard one for me to learn. All throughout my medical training I am thought to ask open ended questions.

Questions that have endless possibilities to them like, ‘How can I help you?’

It was ingrained into me that questions invite answers and open conversations while statements close it down.

If you are familiar with negotiation techniques, you no doubt have heard the saying, he who asks the questions is in control.

Guess what, that is exactly the problem.

Remember in the win-win question technique you provide control to the child by allowing them to choose between two similar answers. With open questions, the child is quickly conditioned to think that there is one right answer. This increases anxiety as they don’t want to be wrong.

Rhetorical questions like, ‘Is that the right way to use your spoon?’ is even worse as it builds resentment in the child. It is both belittling and degrading to their self-esteem as they know the answer you want is not the behaviour they are displaying and they feel bad for knowing the answer!

How about the open question. Well, when you ask a child an open question, you are likely to get this answer.

‘I don’t know’ or worse yet, silence and a shy look away

To keep children from feeling like they are being interrogated, don’t ask questions. Simply make observations.

Say you see a child playing, you can simply say, ‘I see you are busy playing.’

The child might look at you and smile, they might invite you to play, they might say, ‘Yes, I’m making breakfast!’

The child has complete control over what they want to do.

No forced interaction. No interrogation spotlight shining on them disrupting their play.

When you use observations, the child’s stream of thoughts continue unencumbered. They are free to express themselves.

I had a child come into the emergency department one day. The mother way telling me what had been happening and how the child was sick. The child was standing beside her looking down at her toes.

I knelt down side ways and said, ‘you have toes’.

The child looked at me, pointed to my shoes and said, ‘you have shoes’!

It then became a to and fro of, you have black hair, you have a funny thing around your neck, you have an Elsa dress (frozen character, how could you not know?).

A simple observation made me a friend.

5 minutes later, a nurse came in and asked, ‘Hello, what’s your name?’ just to have the child hide behind mother and stare at the floor.

Same child, difference response.

Observation – 1 : Question – 0

Taking away your no

Ingredient:

  • Stop saying ‘no’
  • Give into your child’s request with imagination

Time required:

  • 2 minutes

Effectiveness:

  • 5 stars

A technique that will blow your mind.

How many times have you fallen into the logic trap when your child asks you for something and you say, ‘No’? Then you proceed to give them a logical reason as to why the ‘no’ is justified.

Boum…Boum…

Wrong answer.

It plays out like this

‘Mum, can I have a cookie?’

‘No dear, it is almost dinner time, if you had a cookie now you won’t eat your dinner.’

‘MUM, but I want a cookie.’

‘After dinner.’

‘MUUUUMMMMMMM, I want the cookie now.’ (whinging voice activated)

‘Sharon, no means no. If you keep asking you won’t get any cookies, before or after dinner.’

‘Wah…you are so mean! I hate you! Daaaaaad…’ (running to find support from father)

Now, imagine you had said yes instead.

‘Mum, can I have a cookie?’

‘Yes darling. It is almost dinner time and I wish I could give you a cookie now. In fact, I wish I could give you a cookie as big as your face so you can wear it while you eat it.’

‘Hahaha…mum you’re so silly.’ (Child smiles and walks away)

I wouldn’t have believed how remarkably effective this technique was until I tried it out on my daughter.

We were in a car trip and I forgot her almond milk.

Half way through our trip she said, ‘Dad, can I have an almond milk drink, pleaaaaaaase?’

‘Yes daddy would love to give you almond milk but I forgot to bring some. I wish I could give you a huge bottle that you could drink with 10 straws.’

’10 straws? Why 10 straw daddy?’ she asked

‘The more you can enjoy the drink with.’

‘Oh daddy, I only need one. You give me one straw when we go home, ok?’

That’s it. No meltdown, no tantrum, no argument. A playful, age appropriate conversation that didn’t end up with me trying to force logic down her 3 year old brain when all she wanted was a drink.

Use this today and walk away feeling like a super hero.

HB

HB is a roller coaster father, one minute he is ecstatic about his children, the next he wonders if life will ever get any better. A long standing member of the 'I yell at my kids' club, he writes with passion and an analytical mind. Dissecting and separating the nuanced strategies that make a good parent great. He experiments with parenting techniques on his 3 year old so you don't have to.

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