12 - 48 Months

“How to Talk” authors on what to say to your toddler

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“Threats make us feel defiant, which is the last thing we want our kids to feel when we’re trying to get their cooperation.”

Joanna Faber, Co-Author of “How To Talk So LITTLE Kids Will Listen”

It’s remarkable how choosing your words carefully can mean the difference between a moment of connection or disconnect. Today’s guests are experts at effective communication with young children. Joanna Faber and Julie King are co-authors of the book, How To Talk So Little Kids Will Listen: A Survival Guide to Life with Children Ages 2-7, and they have just released a second book: How To Talk When Kids Won’t Listen: Whining, Fighting, Meltdowns, Defiance and & Other Challenges of Childhood.

Joanna and Julie share helpful tools to communicate with young children thoughtfully, avoiding orders and threats.

Key Takeaways:

[2:04] How do you get your kids to listen to you?

[5:13] Joanna shares a few examples of how to be playful when communicating with your child.

[6:03] Julie explains how it can help to give in fantasy what you can’t give in reality.

[9:15] How can we phrase our instructions so that children want to follow through?

[10:08] Do Julie and Joanna recommend giving children time outs?

[13:30] What to do when your kid is hitting a younger sibling?

[15:31] Learn the distinction between punishment and expressing your feelings strongly.

[16:32] How can you help your toddler make amends and feel better?

[18:22] What are some strategies for whining?

Mentioned in this episode:

How To Talk So Little Kids Will Listen: A Survival Guide to Life with Children Ages 2-7, by Joanna Faber and Julie King

How To Talk When Kids Won’t Listen: Whining, Fighting, Meltdowns, Defiance and & Other Challenges of Childhood, by Joanna Faber and Julie King


How to get kids to listen to you

Jessica: So we have a goal, we set a goal of first-time listeners in our families; we say, “Okay, let’s try. I’ll try to be first-time listeners,” but that really just doesn’t happen in our daily life. So how do you get your kids to listen to you, to get them to brush their teeth when they’re supposed to, to put their shoes on, to leave the park? How does this really work? 

Joanna: Okay. It seems like the most direct way to get a kid to do something, would be, you know, to directly tell them to do it. “No, no, stop it. Put the cat down. Get your coat on. No, not later, now.” And sometimes we add a threat, which of course we call a natural consequence: “If you throw rocks one more time, I’m taking you straight home.” The problem is, your kid doesn’t hear the whole sentence. What she hears is, “Throw rocks, one more time.” Why? Because threats make us feel defiant, which is the last thing we want our kids to feel when we’re trying to get their cooperation. So we need alternatives to orders and threats. And, Julie, what have we got? What have we got for alternatives? 

Alternatives to orders and threats

Julie: Okay, I’m going to give you several for the rock, throwing rock example. And the first one is to give information. “Rocks can hurt people. They’re very hard.” This gives the child the opportunity to say, “Oh, I don’t want to hurt somebody, I won’t throw it.” Or we could offer them a choice; we might say, “Looks like you’re in a throwing mood, do you want to throw a paper plane or a ball, or maybe some leaves?” Or maybe for a slightly older child, we might put that child in charge, and ask, “What can you find to throw that won’t hurt anybody?” So there’s three, three tools that you can try with your kids. Here’s another idea to keep in mind; it’s more helpful to tell a child what they can do instead of what they can’t.

So instead of saying, “No, no, don’t throw that rock,” you can say, “Ooh, we can play on the slide, or we can go play hide and seek by the trees.” But what if your child is dead set on throwing rocks? You may have to take action. We call it taking action without insult. So I might say to that child, “We’re going home now. I can’t let anyone get hurt from flying rocks. We’ll come to the playground another day.” But let me mention one more tool that is my favorite for the youngest set, which is to be playful. One thing that gets old really fast for, well, both parents and kids, is how grim it gets when we’re constantly telling them not to do things or that they have to do things right now.

So if we can find a way to play around, to make it into a game, that just changes the whole mood. So let’s imagine, for example, that you want your kid to clean up a mess. Instead of saying, “These blocks better be put away when I come back or I’m going to throw them away,” you might try saying, “How many blocks can you toss in the bag in just two minutes?” You set the timer, “Ready? Set, go.” Or maybe you might make the block bag talk, “I’m hungry, feed me blocks. Yum! The green ones are delicious. Argh, no, not the yellow ones, that tastes like vomit. No!” Suddenly, you have a little kid who can’t resist throwing more blocks into the block bag.

Joanna: Give them the shoe example, Julie, ‘cause she asked about putting shoes on. That happens every day.

Julie: Oh, yes. [chuckle] One of my favorite ways to be playful is to make an inanimate object talk. So if you’re trying to get a foot on a child… I’m sorry. Get a shoe on the foot of a child, rather than saying, “Sit still, young lady. Don’t you dare kick me,” and try to jam that shoe on to her foot, you might make the shoe talk, “I feel so empty, I need a foot in me,” and very few little kids can resist a talking shoe. So, the general… I was just going to say, the general idea here is to make everyone feel more cooperative, instead of feeling oppositional.

Giving in fantasy vs reality

Jessica: Love these examples. So one of my favorite tools that you talk about in your book is giving in fantasy what you can’t give in reality. Can you explain this for me?

Joanna: Okay, here’s a story I recently had from a preschool teacher, who was handing out the little milks in the cardboard cartons for the snacks, and this little boy wanted a chocolate milk, but they were all out. And he started to get upset, and she said, “Look, it’s not going to kill you to have a regular milk for one day.” And he said, “Yes, it is.” And he got even more upset. And then she remembered this thing of giving in fantasy. So she said, “Boy, I wish I had a magic wand that I could go zoop! And turn this into a chocolate milk for you. How much would you want? Would you want just the one carton or would you want a whole big gallon of it, or would you want a swimming pool of it that you could just swim around in the chocolate milk?” Because, you know, when you’re giving in fantasy, you don’t have to be cheap. So, the kid said, “Swimming pool,” of course, and he took the milk. And the conflict was over.

It’s not always easy to acknowledge painful emotions like sadness or anger or fear or worry, because we kinda want to protect our kids from those emotions. But it helps to keep in mind that our acceptance of all of kids’ feelings, not just the positive ones, is… It’s really a gift that we can give to our children. It lets them know they’re not alone. Somebody understands. And that makes tough situations immensely easier to handle, and it also gives them a vocabulary of emotions and it gives them self-knowledge.

How to give instruction

Jessica: Kids take so much instruction in the course of any given day, it’s not a surprise that they tune us out sometimes. So, how can we phrase our instruction so that our children will want to follow through? 

Joanna: Okay, so we can do all that stuff that we just talked about with offering choices and putting the child in charge and being playful, plus we can give them feedback that encourages them to stick with a task. So it might sound something like this: “Wow, I see you’ve got almost all your dirty laundry in the basket, there was a lot. I can see a few patches of floor showing, and you also got those three big trucks away. All that’s left to do is put the books on the shelves, the rest of the toys in the bin, and make the bed. The effort he made has been appreciated, it’s been noticed. He’s motivated to keep going.

Should kids get time outs?

Jessica: So do you recommend using time outs? 

Joanna: The short answer is no. [chuckle] The longer answer is that I think the timeout fantasy is that we send a kid to the corner to sit for five minutes, and he sits there one minute for each year of his age, I guess, is the formula, and that the kid sits there contemplating his wrongdoing and resolving to behave better once he finishes his mindful meditation. But in real life, it doesn’t generally work that way. The kid who is banished to timeout for, say, pushing his little brother, he’s most likely sitting there fuming. “It’s no fair. He did it first. Mom likes him better than me. I’m going to get back at him.” So the reason we don’t recommend timeout is that they don’t usually improve a kid’s behavior the next time around. I had a preschool teacher tell me this very succinctly, she said, “The kids who go to timeout are the same ones over and over again. It doesn’t give them any alternative ways to deal with whatever the problem is.”

She told me about one kid who would always kick and poke at other kids during story hour, and they would send him to the timeout beanbag chair, which seems like a pretty cushy kind of time out. And he would proceed to take off his shoes and socks, and then he would throw them one at a time at the kids in the circle. So it just made him mad. Which is not to say that you might not need to enforce a break in the action, say if a kid is getting all wound up and he’s running around and bashing into other kids.

You might say like, “Hey, Joey, we need a break. Come sit with me.” I actually had a next-door neighbor who would do this and she would say to her child, “Hey, honey, come on, we need a timeout,” but to her, timeout wasn’t banishing the kid into the corner. She would call her kid over, she’d say, “Come sit in my lap. Let’s take a time out.” I’ve heard some parents call this a time-in, actually, and it’s just a way of reconnecting with your child while she has a little chance to calm down. So we’re not against that kind of timeout; we’re against the kind of timeout that feels like a punishment, that feels like you’re being banished. And I guess an alternative to timeout would depend on the conflict. So, do you want to give me an example of what kind of conflict will come up and then we’ll think about what we could do instead? 

Dealing with conflict

Jessica: Yeah, an example would be my… Thinking back, my toddler hitting the baby, being really aggressive with the baby, what do we do? 

Joanna: And let me ask you a little follow-up question. Why do you think your toddler’s hitting the baby? Just sort of out of general resentment that the baby is always in your arms? 

Jessica: Yeah, I think it’s a general feeling that my toddler has around resentment, but then there’s nothing that precipitated that specific instance. It was just an act of… It was a momentary act of aggression.

Joanna: Okay. So the first thing I’m sure you do is take action and snatch her up and say, “I can’t let you hurt the baby.” But then since… What you’re getting is that this is out of resentment towards the baby, at another time, when you’re not grabbing her away from the baby and saying, “I can’t let you hurt the baby,” is to just sit down with her and say, “Boy, sometimes… Sometimes you wish you were the only one. It’s not easy to have a younger, little baby in the house sometimes. Baby’s always in my arms, and sometimes maybe you want to be in my arms. Come here, be my big baby,” and give that kid a little cuddling. Because what we’re aiming for here is not just in the moment, we’re aiming to make the older kid feel better towards the baby, and punishing the older kid around the baby doesn’t actually make that baby safer. Julie, do you want to add anything? 

Julie: I just want to add that it actually adds to the resentment, so it does the opposite, it actually creates more of a dangerous situation for the baby, because it reinforces the toddler’s sense that you do love the baby better, and I feel bad about myself and all those negative feelings, which the toddler is more likely to direct again at the baby.

Addressing punishment

Jessica: Yesterday my youngest, Bea, hit me. She was mad at me for something, I don’t remember. I think she was tired. But in your companion app to the “How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen,” you offer some alternatives to punishment, including expressing your feelings strongly. So instead of punishing Bea for hitting me, I can let her know how it made me feel. Can you elaborate on this? And what should I exactly say in this moment? 

Julie: “I don’t like to be hit.” I think sometimes we’re hesitant to tell our kids how we feel. We’ve been talking to a lot about the importance of acknowledging our kids’ feelings, but we need to acknowledge our own feelings too.

And then, do you have any idea why she was hitting you in that moment? 

Jessica: I think, I mean, honestly, I think she was exhausted, I think she was mad at what we were going to go do next. I think it was something about needing to transition for dinner.

Julie: Ah. So I might put that into words. “You don’t want to have to go to dinner. You don’t want to have to do that right now.” Something where I’m putting into words how she’s feeling so she knows I get it.

Making amends

Jessica: Those are great examples. And then how can I help Bea make amends? How can I help her feel better? I think she’s feeling been bad, and I get it that I’m acknowledging her feelings, but is there a way for me to also help her make amends without forcing an apology, which would not be good? 

Joanna: Well, if you… One of the… If she hit you on the arm, you could say like, “Ow, that hurts, I don’t like being hit, can you give it a little kiss to make it feel better.” Or, “Can you get me an ice cube.” If there’s something simple that you could do. Even if you don’t need an ice cube or a kiss, it always makes kids feel like sort of being a better person, if you give them a chance to be a better person, they can get out of their misery and guilt. So, if you can find some little things you can do, that would be nice.

So, we’re reconnecting and we’re giving her some words for what she doesn’t like, so that next time she can tell you in words, and you can explicitly tell her when you don’t want to come to dinner, when something makes you mad, you can tell me, “Mom, that makes me mad, I don’t want to stop playing.” Because that’s the big step for kids, is to move from physical violence to expressing how they feel in words, and that’s a big job for them, that’s a big developmental phase.

How to stop kids from whining?

Jessica: Exactly. So, I’m really intrigued with your new book, which at the recording of this episode has not come out yet, but it will be out by the time our listeners listen. Talk to me about whining. Your title is, How to Talk When Kids Won’t Listen: Whining, Fighting, Meltdowns, Defiance and Other Challenges of Childhood. What about whining? What are your strategies for whining? 

Julie: When my kids were young and we would all be sitting around the table at dinner, it was kind of a circus, three kids, sometimes talking on top of each other, and my husband and I are trying to feed everybody and manage the conversation. And I think my youngest, my daughter, would sometimes have a hard time getting my attention, and suddenly I would hear this whine, it would be, “Mommy, I want some milk.” And I think it sort of jolt me, it’s like the whine gets… Makes it through all that sound, it’s like this high pitched, like horrible sound, it did get my attention, so it did work. And I realized that she probably had asked for more milk in the midst of the whole circus environment, and I hadn’t noticed, and so, the whine actually was effective, but I wanted her to know that that sound, it was just so grading, I didn’t really want to respond to it.

So, I talked to her at a separate time about the melody we use when we ask for something, and I told her that I liked to be asked, not with a high melody, “Mommy, I want some milk,” but I liked it when it went, “Mommy, may I have some milk please.” And I did this thing with my head that you can’t see ‘cause we’re just recording audio, but I would lower my head and raise it as I was saying this to sort of cue her, that’s what the melody was, and I had her practice like, “Mommy, may I have some milk, please?” And she did it with me, and the next time she whined, all I had to say was, “Mommy,” and then I didn’t even have to say anything, I just did this thing with my head and it was a little reminder to her that if she could ask me the other way, it would make it much easier for me to hear.

Jessica: I love that because I think oftentimes, whining works. It works because it is a different frequency so, that’s a really fun tool. We have had so much fun being with you today, I love your books, so grateful for your contribution to the field of early childhood and helping us be better parents, more empathetic parents. So thank you so much, Joanna and Julie for being with us today.

Joanna: Oh, thank you for having us.

Julie: Yes, our pleasure.

You can find more tips on Lovevery’s blog, Here with you.


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Posted in: 12 - 48 Months, 4 - 11 years, 18 - 48 Months+, Social Emotional, Child Development, Behavior, Parenting

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