A popular book for parents came out a while ago with the title, “How to Talk So Your Child Will Listen,” by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. But now, the challenges of life make it clear that parents need something a bit more powerful. We need our children to be able to THINK and make wise choices by weighing the pros and cons of any decisions.
We live in an increasingly impulsive time; we want to be reachable at all times by smart phone, Apple watch, or text message. We want our computers to be as FAST as possible. Too many people have megahertz overdoses. Parents are challenged to get children to think through their goals, and to resist impulses to act based on strong feelings or desires that are unduly influenced by media and peer pressure.
What can parents do to help children learn to think and problem solve effectively? Principles of my book, Emotionally Intelligent Parenting, provide some useful guidance. First of all, there are certain things that we want to avoid doing. See if any of these look familiar to you!
How to Talk So Your Children Will NOT Think
Tell them exactly what you think all the time and exactly what they should do.
Evaluate their ideas or statements as soon as they make them. Label them as “good” and “bad.”
Eliminate any chance of disappointment by preventing children from going down a path you think will not work. “There’s no way that can happen.” “No smart person would even think about things like that.”
Be very serious at all times. Homework, chores, taking care of siblings, extracurricular activities, and sports are responsibilities that need to be treated in a solemn, dignified, and stoic manner.
Follow the basic approach of, “Do as I say, not as I do.”
Why These Approaches Stifle Thinking
All parents find themselves practicing these techniques from time to time. So, there is no point in looking at these as “right” or “wrong” in any absolute sense. But when used to a great extent by parents, each of these “anti-principles” erects a roadblock in a child’s thinking process. They do so in different ways-- some, by not giving children information they need; others, by cutting out possibilities from consideration. Some reflect uncertainty about exactly what it is that parents should do to get their points across to children. Others treat children as mini-adults, which they certainly are not.
How Parents can Guide Children’s Thinking
Parents need specific ways to help themselves-- and children-- avoid the impulse to act without thinking and caring. Parents can learn to act as guides and coaches, rather than always having answers and telling children the best things for them to do.
This can make parents uncomfortable; isn’t it a parent’s job to make sure their children learn the right things and act the right ways? Yes and no. Parents want their kids to arrive at the right place, but children need the skills to get there on their own. As they get older, children spend more and more time outside of parental “reach.” They need the thinking and emotional intelligence skills to navigate through uncharted waters and still arrive in the right places. This means that parents need to teach kids how to navigate through life. And to do this, children need to think on their feet.
There are many specific examples for parents to promote critical thinking. The basics, however, are these:
Modeling: Talk aloud as you solve problems so your children can hear your own thinking skills at work
Reflect and Ask Open-Ended Questions: When you talk to your children about choices they are making, reflect back to them what they are saying so they can think about it further. “You are saying that it’s okay to wait until 10:00 at night to start your homework because you want to watch a TV program. You said earlier you have about 2 hours of homework. Your bed time is 11:15. How will this work itself out?”
First Ask, then Suggest, then Tell: When your kids come up to you with a problem (“I’m bored” or “I don’t know what to get for my friend’s birthday”), don’t jump into the temptation to give an answer (“Go read a book” or “Get him a gift card”). When time allows, try to follow this sequence:
Ask: First, ask a question that asks them to review what they have thought of already and encourage them to look for solutions. (“What have you thought about doing?” or “What have you gotten him before?”; if the answers are something like, “I don’t know” then your response should be, “Well, you think about it and come up with a few ideas and then I will be happy to talk to you about it more.”)
Suggest: If your kids have a hard time with this, or if you don’t have a lot of time for a conversation, try making three or four suggestions they can choose from (“Well, when you have been looking for things to do in the past, you either read a book, used the computer, called some friends, or made something with Legos” or “You might get a gift card or call some friends to see what they are getting and maybe chip in for something a little better, or you can think about what he has in his room and the kinds of things he likes to do.”)
Tell: If these do not work, you can always tell the child what to do, as you might have been tempted to do in the first place. But by following the Ask, Suggest, Tell sequence, you are getting your child to do the thinking, and you will find yourself “telling” much less often. And your child will gain pride from coming up with some good ideas! Your child will come to enjoy doing his or her own careful thinking.
Tips for the Long-term
Talking so your children will think involves patience, persistence, creativity, and good humor. But it’s worth it all in the long run, because you will have more confidence in their ability to make hard choices and decisions when you are not on the scene.