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Smart Talk: Six Ways to Speak to Our Kids

This excerpt is from How To Say It to Your Kids by Dr. Paul Coleman.

The "D" in Tender stands for Do's & Don'ts. Listen to Charlie and his mom:

"Charlie, put your coat on if you're going outside. You'll get cold."

"No, I won't get cold, Mom."

"Yes, you will. You'll freeze. Put your coat on."

"But Mom . . ."

"I don't like it when you don't wear a coat."

"But I like it!"

Mom is making two mistakes. First, she's confusing Do's & Don'ts with Teaching. If she absolutely wants Charlie to wear a coat, she should say that without explaining why. Rules and orders are not requests. When a parent gives a rationale for her command, the implication is that if the child can outwit her with logic, then the rule can be put aside. If you think that explaining your rule is important (Teaching), feel free to do so. But if a debate begins, you must be ready to enforce the rule or open up negotiations.

More explanations will not help.

Mom's second mistake was stating that she doesn't like it when Charlie goes outside without a coat. Again, that is not only not a command (she is Reporting her opinion), but it gives Charlie an opportunity to whittle away Mom's resolve ("But I like it!").

Every parent has rules. While rules can be changed or even negotiated, they are meaningless if parents do not enforce them. When children are younger and the rules are being introduced, parents may use a teaching style to explain them ("No eating food on the couch because . . ."), but when kids are a little older, explaining the rule invites discussion ("But, Dad, I promise I'll be careful not to drip jelly on the new furniture") when discussion is not necessary. Children need the structure that rules provide. And the most important, nonnegotiable rules involve moral values and safety. When your eight-year-old refuses to wear a seatbelt, you do not negotiate. You may give an explanation, but chances are your child knows the reasons. It is better to say, "Until you wear your belt, we will not go to the mall."

Sometimes enforcing rules is best done when accompanied by an empathic statement. Telling your child sincerely that you know he is disappointed or angry can soften the blow a little. It is bad enough when a child feels he does not get what he wants, but it is worse when he also feels that his parent doesn't understand him -- or care to understand.

How to Say It

  • "Stop pushing each other right now."
  • "Stop throwing a ball in the living room. That's not allowed."
  • "I know that you don't agree, but the rule is . . ."
  • "Hitting your sister is very wrong."
  • "We made an agreement, and you have to stick by it. Thank you."
  • "Bedtime is in five minutes. Brush your teeth now."
  • "Turn off the television now. It's dinnertime."
  • "You can ride your bike as far as the end of the block, but no farther."

The best rules are clear and concise. When stating a rule, ask yourself if it is really a teaching moment (giving reasons why) or if the rule is simply to be enforced. Also ask yourself if you are willing to negotiate. If not, stick to your guns.

How Not to Say It

  • "What did we just talk about?"
  • "How many times have I told you ..."
  • "What do you think you are doing?"
  • "What's going on here?"
  • "I don't like it when you talk back to me."
  • "How much longer do I have to wait before you clean your room?"
  • "Don't do that." "Stop it." "That's not allowed." (Don't do what? Stop what? Be specific.)

None of those comments is clear, and they invite irrelevant discussion. They will only aggravate you and your children. Be straightforward and clear when stating Dos and Don'ts. If you get angry or loud when enforcing a rule, you may be frustrated or upset by more things than just your child. The more confident you are about your parenting, the less you need to yell.

Rule of Thumb: Saying "please" not only models politeness, it actually can help aggravated parents to feel more in control of their emotions.

The best time to state Do's and Don'ts is when:

  • You have your child's full attention.
  • Your child is causing or risking harm.
  • You are clear about what you want to happen.
  • You are capable of enforcing the rules.

Next: Encouraging >>


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