Northwest NEWS

June 19, 2000


Guest Editorial

Tips on how to talk with kids

by Karen Lytle Blaha, Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory

   If communicating with adults seems occasionally thorny, talking with your kids can be like trying to meet them on the other side of the blackberry bramble. There are so many stickers--most of them hidden.

   There's a technique for bridging blackberry brambles to get to the sweet fruit: Lay large pieces of cardboard on top of the bramble to form a support to walk on. Like so, you can bridge hidden perils if you're supported by effective communication skills specifically designed to help you talk with kids.

   How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk (Avon Books) is a self-help book cited in Northwest Education, a free quarterly magazine published by the Northwest Regional Education Laboratory. It seemed worth taking a look.

   Authors Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish have many suggestions to help parents acquire a more effective arrangement of words, attitudes, and skills. They point out that it's not so much during the cheerful times that these skills are needed; it's when a child is feeling gloomy, hurt, or negative. The book first came out about 20 years ago, drawing on the work of child psychologist Dr. Haim Ginott.

   Their next book, How to Talk So Kids Can Learn At Home and In School (Rawson Associates), written with teachers Lisa Nyberg of Oregon and Rosalyn Templeton of Illinois, came out in 1995. It incorporates, adopts, and expands the same strategies and techniques as the first book.

   Most parents would be surprised to learn that often their choice of words and advice, while offered with intent to help, may backfire. Children need their feelings respectfully acknowledged, just as adults do. Yet, without realizing, we tend to dismiss or demean these feelings.

   To help kids deal with emotions, the authors suggest that you "listen quietly and attentively," replying with words or sounds that neither interrupt nor advise, but do recognize the child's feelings. Look at the child who is talking, listen and respond with utterances such as, "Oh. Mmmmm. I see."

   They also suggest naming the feeling, couching it in responses such as: that must have been embarrassing; that must have been upsetting; that sounds frustrating. Kids typically don't know what they're feeling. Naming it helps them to put it in perspective and deal with it.

   One example involves a child who gets a lower-than-hoped-for grade. The child says, "Just because of a few careless mistakes, I only got a seventy." Most parents would think that this might be an encouraging response: Don't worry. You'll do better next time.

   A better response, say the authors, is to identify the child's feelings with observations such as: "You sound very disappointed. It can be upsetting when you know the answer and lose points for careless mistakes." Responses such as these often help children to open up and lead the way to figuring out solutions to their problems. Problem solving is one of the many areas the books tackle.

   Accepting feelings, however, doesn't mean that you must accept bad behavior that might go along with them. The authors offer this approach, for example: "You're still so angry about the grade, you're kicking the desk. I can't allow that. But you can tell me more about what's upsetting you. Or you can draw it." Drawing is another strategy for displacing angry feelings.

   Both books are chock full of ways to talk with kids. But, as with learning to do anything well, it takes practice, practice, practice. And the authors concede they don't offer a cure-all. After all, parents have feelings, too.

This column by Karen Lytle Blaha is provided as a public service by the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, a non-profit institution working with schools and communities in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington.