How To Talk So Kids Will Listen: The Long View of Childhood

Date April 21, 2008

The Mentorship Approach With Kids & Teens

All the skills, techniques, and perspectives provided by Faber and Mazlish give parents better relationships with their children. Many provide short-term results, and all of them are designed for long-term improvements in cooperation and communication. But one set of skills is specifically aimed at helping parents accomplish one of our most important jobs over the long run.

Chapter 4 of How To Talk So Kids Will Listen And Listen So Kids Will Talk is “Encouraging Autonomy.” Being independent and able to manage one’s own life is a hallmark of adulthood. From infancy, we mentor our children towards adulthood so they can take charge of their own lives, explore their gifts and talents, and realize their potential.

Faber and Mazlish offer many suggestions for moving children towards autonomy, and three flow nicely to exemplify their approach. First they suggest letting children choose. As much as possible, as often as possible, they should have choices. Since the purpose of having choices is to get used to making decisions and learning that decisions have consequences, this is not a wide-open freedom to do whatever they feel like doing. Instead, it is handing them choices within the protection of safety. It can be choosing whether to have broccoli or green beans, but not choosing to avoid vegetables. It can be choosing which order to do chores, but not refusing chores. It can be choosing whether to have a part-time job, part-time volunteer position, or summer classes, but not the freedom to choose lots of idle free time.

A second idea that comes from letting children choose is letting them struggle. Struggling is the recurrent effort needed to learn new things, or to improve to new levels of ability. Struggling is part of the natural progression from being introduced to a skill or task to mastering it. If we step in and do something for them when they’re struggling because it’s a little difficult, we take away their opportunity to improve and to experience true self-esteem, which comes from mastering new skills. When we allow our children to struggle, they learn “struggle hardiness.” They learn to see that persistence in the face of frustration pays off over time. Striving leads to thriving.

A third idea follows closely. They urge parents to avoid rescuing their children when the children don’t need it. When they’re over their heads or facing things beyond their experience or ability, they need us to step in and give guidance, help, or protection. But when they make a choice and are upset with the outcome, unless it threatens their health, we need to let them experience the consequences of their choices. This is the only way they learn with certainty that choices matter.

If they forget their lunch on the kitchen table, don’t make an extra trip to school to deliver it. If they tell you the night before that a project is due the next day and they need supplies at the store, don’t rush off to get them unless your child “pays” you with chores for your time and effort. And whatever you do, don’t stay up late helping your child do the last-minute project! All he or she will learn is that putting things off works out well because mom or dad will take care of it.

The hovering “helicopter parent” replaces the child’s judgment and choices with the parent’s. This is only a good long-term plan if the parent will be hovering for the rest of the child’s life! Since the child’s natural developmental drive is towards autonomy, that really won’t work anyway.

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