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Talking to our Children

Nobody has all the answers about anything, including parenting. Parenting advice, like clothing, has its fashions and fads.

I agree with some of the current fashion but not all. Australian parenting expert, Michael Grose, wrote that there are three two-word messages all children need to hear from their parents, “Go play. Please help. Be kind.” Dr Heins agrees these messages are sorely needed because kids need exercise and time outdoors, have to be taught about helping others, and must be reminded about kindness, perhaps the most human of human traits.

However I do not agree with the following. In a newsletter dated October 29, 2013 ( Grose lists words parents should avoid like “must” “never” and “always.” He refers to these words as “…absolute terms which invite resistance from those children who do not like to be told what to do.” He suggests replacing such terms with “…moderate alternatives that do not back kids into a corner.” Example: “ ‘Please be on time.’ rather than ‘You must be on time.’ ” “ ‘It’s best to be polite to your teacher.’ rather than “You should never be rude to your teacher.’ ”

I have a different take on how parents should talk to their children. First of all, I have never met a child who liked being told what to do. All kids would rather keep playing than get ready for school. But parental discipline has both short term and long term goals. The child has to go to school, that’s the reality of now. In addition the child has to begin to learn self-discipline so that in college, when Mommy isn’t around, the student stops playing and goes to class. Now we need compliance. Later we want the child to figure out what the world expects and, in order to avoid sanctions, figure out what to do.

In my experience with my own children and my observations of parents interacting with countless more children, the major reason parents complain the child doesn’t obey or listen is how the parents talk to them.

Because I felt this topic is so important I included a ParenTip “Learn to Talk Right!” in my book. The main points were: Communicate your expectations clearly. Speak quietly. Do not say too much. Use “no!” when you must but avoid “no!” when you can. Be specific in your criticism and criticize the behavior not the child. Praise (and reward) good behavior. Make rules specific and understandable. Master the Effective Command. Use humor. Think before you speak!

Most of these are self-explanatory but today I want to expand on the importance of rules. We live by rules. Every child needs to know how the world works and understand it could not work at all without rules (laws). Rules for children must be specific, developmentally appropriate, understandable, and enforceable. In other words, clear as a bell.

Rules that are not enforceable (“Don’t ever play with your brother again!”) are confusing to children as are threats which will never be carried out (“I’ll never let you go outside again!”).

After you introduce a rule or an expectation, ask the child to tell you what was said to be sure there is no misunderstanding and nothing got lost in the transmission from parent to kid.

No warnings! A rule is a rule. If you give warnings (“The next time you do that you’ll really get it!”) the message you transmit is that it’s OK to do break the rule at least once.

We can’t dictate every aspect of our child’s life. But when it comes to an important issue, we are the ones in charge. We actually make things easier for our children if we accept our in-charge role with an understanding of its necessity and with conviction in carrying it out. And it teaches our children important lessons about parenting. I remember hearing my daughter tell another child who was getting in our car, “Put your seat belt on right now or my Mom won’t start the car!

So I advocate absolute words like “must” when appropriate. Absolute words work on both goals of discipline. Using “must” and enforcing what you say makes your son stop hitting his baby brother now and also helps starts the process of teaching self-control. The child will begin to generalize (I can’t hit Baby and I can’t hit at school.). He will refrain from hitting even when Mommy is not around. He will come to realize it’s never cool to hurt somebody smaller.

To my way of thinking using an absolute like, “The rule is no hitting!” is a superior parenting strategy than using an almost begging alternative like, “It’s best if you don’t hit.”