I loved the book “Communicating With Kids: What works and what doesn’t” by Stephanie Davies-Arai.
It starts by convincingly explaining why most parenting advice fails by falling exclusively into one of two extreme camps, then presents a simple common-sense framework for balancing the two.
The emphasis throughout is on trusting your child to be able to figure things out for themselves when given the relevant information – which includes information about your own needs and feelings as a parent.
The notes I’ve made for myself should give you some idea of the author’s approach and what the book covers. If you like the sound of it, you should definitely read the book for yourself: it’s full of great examples that will help all the concepts make sense and stick in your mind.
The two components of the parent/child relationship
Parental authority + human relationship
Most parenting advice falls into one of two camps:
Camp A: Discipline, rules and boundaries. The parent imposes on the child.
Camp B: Takes cues from the child and focuses on their needs.
Parenting books usually insist that only one of these approaches is correct. In fact, you need to take one element from each:
Parental authority from Camp A: discipline, rules, boundaries, responsibility
Human relationship from Camp B: intimacy, respect, trust, connection, understanding
Parental authority is a role we sometimes have to play, while the human relationship brings warmth to any interaction.
Think of it like buying something in a shop. You know the customer “role” – saying certain things and acting in a certain way. But if you add a bit of small talk or empathy (“looks like you’re busy today”), you add humanity that improves things for both parties while still allowing the business transaction to get done.
The two go well together, because parental authority makes the child behave better so it’s easier to have a positive human relationship.
Integration v Individuation
Everyone has the natural competing drives to “fit in” and to be a unique individual. Teenagers very obviously go through this process of balancing the two, but toddlers are doing the same thing.
Some people are very conformist and only find their individuality later, while others are totally their own person and take time to knock off the rough edges to better fit in with the group. They’re just different routes to the same place.
You can see how Camp A emphasises integration, and Camp B individuation. Again, this is ineffective because you need elements of both.
Not everything in your family life needs to be structured (that would be pure “Camp A”), but having some structure is essential.
The structure is made up of Daily Routines and Personal Boundaries.
As a parent you need to set daily routines in a way that works for you, because you’re the one with all the responsibilities. Daily routines aren’t up for negotiation: you decide on them without your child’s input, and they should follow them without question. You can have very firm daily routines or more flexibility, depending on what YOU want.
The child will challenge these rules sometimes as a means of checking they’re there and testing the boundaries, but it doesn’t mean he wants to decide the rules himself – although it might look like it!
You have personal rules about where your “line” is and when you’re being disrespected because it’s been crossed. This is self-respect.
It’s troubling for a child if you accept disrespectful behaviour, because they want and need to respect you (you represent their future self!) and this is difficult if you don’t respect yourself.
“Structure” language and “Within structure” language
In “structure” areas of day-to-day routines, you want to be giving clear instructions and having them obeyed. There may also be non-routine areas of structure where the rules are non-negotiable and must be followed, e.g. “don’t hit your brother”.
Within the structure, you need a different type of language – not giving direct orders – that allow the child to (eventually) work out how to handle something for themselves. For example, “be kind to your brother” doesn’t work as an order: the child needs to work out for himself over time what kindness means and why it matters.
How we communicate
Body language is evolutionarily older than spoken language, and children are born with a great understanding of it – actually better than adults, because our ability to pick up on body language declines as we adapt to spoken language.
So congruence and authenticity are important. If you say kind words (“come on now, I know you’re upset, but…”) while your body language is tense and angry, it’s confusing for a child. You can still control how you express your anger, but there’s no point pretending it’s not there because the child will pick up on it anyway.
You can though harness your body language like an actor. Using confident body language while delivering a message works because you become confident (fake it until you make it). But speaking confident words with weak body language doesn’t work.
Using too many words
Parents use too many words, and unclear words.
Patiently explaining something and giving lots of reasons doesn’t help: every reason nullifies the previous ones, and the more we go on the more it gives the impression that we’re over-justifying.
It’s lovely to explain things to your children, of course, but when you want them to obey an order is not the time.
Just matter-of-factly saying “no” (or whatever the instruction is in the situation) expresses your trust in the child’s ability to be reasonable enough to accept this despite their disappointment. Constantly explaining expresses mistrust in their ability to accept the instruction and act appropriately.
We’re more likely to behave in a trustworthy way when someone clearly assumes we’re trustworthy. It’s the same with children.
Sharing facts in a matter-of-fact way
Much of what we say to our children is dishonest and carries a message of mistrust. For example, when trying to get a child to share toys, we might say:
- “If you don’t share, you won’t have any friends and you’ll be very lonely”
- “But you’re such a kind girl, and kind girls always share”
- “You’re old enough to share nicely. Some children don’t even have toys!”
Children know this is rubbish, and it shows a lack of trust. Sometimes when they get angry about an issue it stops being about the issue: they get confused that we’re not being straight with them, and they don’t like being talked down to.
“It works like this: you share your toys when your friends come here, they share their toys when you go there. That’s how it works because it’s fair.”
If you share that information with a “goes without saying” tone and neutral body language, that gives the child everything they need. They have a strong desire to understand and follow social rules.
You might need to say something like this three times. Children often feel the need to ask everything a couple more times to check you actually mean it.
Body language and tone must be congruent: if you think about it as being straight and sharing facts, you’ll feel relaxed and it will come across in the right way.
Imagine it like giving directions to a stranger: you don’t feel the need to lecture or moralise, and if they start questioning your directions you’d just think they were a bit weird and walk away!
The dangers of praise, blame and labels
Behaviour is something we can see or hear. Often we mix this up by jumping straight to our interpretation of what we see or hear.
For example, if a child runs off while we’re talking to them we might label their behaviour as “rude” or “disrespectful” or “selfish”. But that’s just our interpretation: the behaviour is running off, and there might be any number of reasons for it.
We say it’s rude to call someone names, but that’s what labelling is. When someone calls you a name you feel compelled to defend yourself, so it escalates the situation and makes it likely to start an argument.
Positive labels are dangerous too. If a child puts his arm around his brother and you say “oh you’re so kind”, he knows you’re doing it just to reinforce behaviour! Especially if he’s not usually kind, he knows you’re lying.
Modern parents have a tendency to over-praise. If we go over-the-top with praise and adulation when they do the slightest thing, no wonder they act like they’re doing us a huge favour when we ask them to do something!
They should want to do good things because it’s the right thing to do. External motivation in the form of praise or rewards destroys this drive.
Instead, observe and comment on their behaviour without judging: “He liked it when you hugged him”
You can do the same thing with things like paintings: “You did lots of colourful squiggles – it looks really good.” Without having to proclaim them a genius!
A child’s feelings
Camp A views negative feelings as problematic – so they try to minimise, dismiss or deny.
Camp B indulges them by listening, asking questions and problem-solving.
Denying a child’s feeling causes problems, but over-analysing them also causes problems that didn’t previously exist. They don’t need therapy. There usually is no reason and it’s not helpful to search for one!
How children experience feelings
Children live wholly in the present moment, which is what makes their feelings so intense: anything that’s happening right now is their entire world! It also makes them transient: when something has stopped happening, they don’t (can’t) dwell on it and carry it around with them all day.
Because it’s so intense, they also exaggerate and make everything sound worse than it is – which is worrying for us!
We can help them better by staying separate from their negative emotion instead of joining them in it. They want you to be strong, and they can model your rationality to help them get better at dealing with challenges.
Everyone has negative feelings. There is no problem to solve.
Accepting feelings instead of trying to change them
If a child says “I don’t want to go to school today”, we tend to go into lecturing about its importance, or bargaining with them, or reasoning about why it will be fun.
Instead, we should just acknowledge it simply:
- “Don’t feel like it…”
…while continuing to go about our business. By doing any more, we’re reading into what they say and trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. Just acknowledging what they’ve actually said is enough.
You can think of authority in the sense of “an authority in her field”, rather than in the sense of “authoritarian”.
You’re an authority on the subject of being the parent of your kids in your household. Authority is characterised by unapologetic confidence, clarity and trust.
Think of a pilot talking to a co-pilot. They do so calmly and matter-of-factly, with the expectation that they’ll be obeyed because of who they are. They don’t need to shout or beg.
The tone of authority
Your tone of voice needs to convey the expectation that the child will listen and do as you say. It should be calm, neutral, matter-of-fact, goes-without-saying. It can go as far as brisk, sharp, stern. But never shouting at one end, or falsely sing-song and polite at the other.
Even if it seems robotic or unnatural, that’s OK – and it makes a distinction between normal life and “this is one of those times when you need to do just do what I say”.
Body language must be consistent with the tone. Calmer is better: you want to bring kids down to your level of calm, not join them at their elevated level of excitement.
Giving clear instructions
Fewer words is clearer: “Coat on now”. If you have to add “please”, do it in a breezy tone so it’s clearly not a request.
Saying “thank you” is effective because it has an assumption and trust embedded that the order will be followed. “Coat on now. Thank you.”
Your body language needs to follow through – disengage and continue with something else as if you trust that the matter is settled.
You might need to repeat this process (simple instruction and disengage) a couple of times. Children don’t leap to follow instructions (nor do adults!) and they might want to test if you’re serious.
Continue even if the child moans or gets upset. Their feelings are their own: you want to pass your feeling of calm control to them, not the other way around.
“We’ll get our coats on, then we’ll go to the shops”
“You’ll clean your teeth and get into your pajamas, then I’ll join you for a story.”
When we confidently say what’s next as if it’s already decided, it’s very simple: there’s no decision about whether to obey or disobey. The child just needs to believe that you know what’s going to happen, and you probably do because you’re an adult. It’s actually reassuring that you know what’s going to happen next.
It’s natural to get angry, but it’s more helpful to do so with I-statements rather than you-statements, which make the child feel attacked and have to push back.
“I expect you to get your coat on when I tell you it’s time”
“When I tell you to do something I expect you to do it”
You can also use I-statements to set clear boundaries:
“I don’t let people treat me with disrespect”
“I won’t tolerate swearing”
Note that none of these statements start with “I feel”, because it can sound manipulative and the feeling expressed isn’t always true.
Instead of “If you don’t get ready for bed now I won’t read you a bedtime story” try “If you get ready for bed now there’ll be time for a bedtime story”
And instead of “I won’t listen to you until you stop shouting at me”, try “I’ll listen to you when you talk to me in a normal voice”.
It’s helpful to share the true social consequences of actions with children, rather than made-up ones or threats.
“I don’t feel like helping you when you’re shouting at me”
“I can feel myself getting angry. It’s hard for me to be patient when you keep ignoring me.”
“It’s hard for people to keep feeling friendly when they feel like they’re being used”
Children love deals and fairness. They work as long as they’re done with parental authority.
“Here’s the deal: you can use the computer, but you stop after an hour and you don’t complain about it. Agree? Good, we have a deal.”
Your child expects you to be the expert in subjects like cleaning your teeth, eating your greens, going to bed on time, wrapping up warm, and so on. If we threaten or plead on these subjects it undermines our authority and confuses them.
Generally-accepted parenting wisdom is directed predominantly towards the child: to change him, help him, teach him, mould him, meet his needs and build his character – and most of this is unnecessary. We need to focus more on ourselves, on being true to ourserlves – authentic, and honest and direct. It doesn’t matter that we are not perfect human beings. We just need to be the best that we can, take responsibility for our own needs, forgive and laugh at ourselves when we get it wrong, and hope our children are watching (which they are. Very, very closely.)
Tantrums are normal frustration expressed in an extreme way. They’re not something to worry about or “fix”, and we shouldn’t accept them if they’re being used manipulatively to get what they want.
Getting angry with an angry child only fuels his anger. But acting overly nice and patient is annoying too, and our real feelings will come through in our body language. It’s more effective to take the focus onto ourselves and our boundaries, and away from the child’s behaviour.
Children need to not have all their needs met – to experience frustration and learn to deal with it.
Needs and solutions
“I need you to be quiet” isn’t a need, but a solution.
“I need to concentrate on this” or “I need to relax” might be the real need. If we just say that, we show trust that the child has the willingness to help and the ability to work out how to do it.
It can be useful to state needs in advance to prepare a child for the expected behaviour.
“I’ll need to leave straight away once we get there”
“I’ll need to work this evening so I can get my job finished”
This gives them the information they’ll need to help you, without which they wouldn’t have a chance of doing so and you’d get frustrated.
Letting children think for themselves
Children have to obey a lot of orders, so it can be more effective to change it into a statement of information. Instead of “Listen to me”, say:
“I have something to tell you”
“I think you’ll want to hear this”
Children are often in their own worlds, and sometimes you just need to point out unacceptable behaviour because they haven’t noticed.
“It’s bedtime and you’re still playing”
“You’ve left dirty clothes all over the floor”
Our feelings about behaviour
A child is more likely to hear us if we express our real feeling about their behaviour, rather than just getting angry.
“It’s making me nervous seeing you climb that wall. I can’t relax and enjoy my conversation.”
Pointing out others’ feelings about behaviour
You can point out the consequences of behaviour to help a child learn about the effects they have in the world and modify the behaviour for themselves. This will help them learn to identify social cues.
“The shopkeeper looks nervous that you’re going to break that”
“She looks like she needs to just get on with cooking dinner”
When something is a complete no-no, you should say so as clearly as possible:
“Spitting is not allowed”
“It is never OK to hit people”
“You don’t have my permission to take my things without asking”
Solving recurring dramas
Children need help seeing patterns and understanding the big picture, but they love to do so. If something is a recurring problem, you can point it out by saying “I’m not happy with the way we get ready in the mornings” (using I-language).
You can then explain the effect it’s having on both of you: “I always end up shouting, and you end unhappy.”
Then paint a better picture and draw the child into this vision: “I’d love it if we had nice relaxed mornings where we all have breakfast together and have a conversation, then there’s plenty of time for us each to get ready and have a relaxed walk to school.”
Then we don’t need to go into great depth about how to do it, or agree on how to do it. The vision and shared goal is enough.
We can just say: “Great. So we’ll do it that way, starting tomorrow”.
Then when they inevitably get it wrong:
“We’re doing it our new way now. Remember?”
4 thoughts on “Book notes: “Communicating With Kids” by Stephanie Davies-Arai”
Glad you enjoyed it Alexandru! It’s a great book.
Very interesting, thanks for summarising. I would highly recommend The Gentle Discipline book by Sarah Ockwell-Smith. She suggests a responsive parenting approach which follows scientific research on how children learn best. The idea is to encourage a growth mindset and nurture the child’s intrinsic motivation, by modelling and coaching, rather than punishing.
This is a good starter article: https://sarahockwell-smith.com/2017/02/26/five-steps-to-effective-discipline/
Thanks Joff! I read a lot of Sarah’s articles way back then completely forgot about it, so thank you for reminding me – I’ll pick up one of her books. The upside of parenting challenges is it’s a good excuse to do some learning 😀