March 9, 2019

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I was meeting with some moms one night and couldn’t help but gush over the book I had just started, How to Talk so Kids Will Listen. These were the same authors who had penned my recent parenting favorite, Siblings Without Rivalry, so I knew they would have practical, doable, and effective parenting strategies. I had only read one chapter, but there was already so much to digest I had to put the book down to give myself a chance to process and practice it before moving on.

“Ok, so what’s ONE thing you got from it so far?” asked the mom to my right.

“Hmm… well, my biggest personal takeaway so far has been empathy. Mostly because I’m so bad at it. But even saying something as simple as, ‘You’re very upset that your brother isn’t sharing well. That’s frustrating!’ can go a long way in helping her process her emotions and move forward, without much or any further intervention from me,” I replied.

This wasn’t the first time the authors had emphasized the importance of empathy. The first book I read from them also had a lot to say about this, which I shared about last week, but clearly I needed to hear it again.

“But that was just one of the four strategies they presented in the first chapter! I was a little skeptical when reading some of the other ones at first–some sounded pretty bizarre–but as I finished looking through the examples I realized it did make sense and probably would help them feel better. I just would never ever have thought of it myself,” I continued.

“Like what?” she asked.

“Hm… like, giving kids what they want… in fantasy,” I said. I waited for the weirdness of this statement to sink in.

She turned her head slightly to the side, “What do you mean?”

“Sounds weird, right? But the idea is if your kid really wants something, and you’re not planning to give it to them, you can still give it to them in fantasy. Like, wish with them,” I began. “In the book there’s the example of a kid who wants krispy cereal. Normally, the conversation might go like this,” I continued. Then I paraphrased the example from the book, making parts up because I forgot exactly how it went:

Kid: I want krispy cereal!
Mom: We don’t have any left.
Kid: But I want it!!!!!
Mom: Well, there isn’t any left. I’ll buy some later. You can have Toasties.
Mom: Yelling won’t change anything, now just eat your Toasties!

“So now the kid is mad and mom is annoyed. But if you give the kid what they want in fantasy, it could go like this,” I said, switching gears into the new strategy:

Kid: I want krispy cereal!
Mom: We don’t have any left.
Kid: But I want it!!!!!
Mom: Aww… I wish I had a huge, gigantic box (gestures to show just how big) of krispy cereal and you could eat bowls and bowls and bowls of it all day!! Wouldn’t that be so great?
Kid: …Yeah!

Mom: (understanding look)
Kid: I guess I’ll just eat Toasties.

I looked around the table. The ladies had the hm, that’s interesting, look on their faces as they considered this new idea.

“It’s supposed to be effective because, like empathy, it shows the kid that you understand how they’re feeling. When you wish with them, then you show that you get just how badly they really want that thing. And once they feel that you get it, they can start moving past it. Or something like that. Anyway, I would never have thought of that myself and I’ve tried it a couple times and it’s totally worked!” I finished.

Later I looked back at the book and I generally had the cereal example right. The first example (of what not to do) had illustrations with a caption that read, “When children want something they can’t have, adults usually respond with logical explanations of why they can’t have it. Often, the harder we explain, the harder they protest” (15). I thought back to my own kids, and how a lot of my logical explanations resulted in a humphy, “Ok, fine,” from my daughter. Even if she didn’t protest anymore, she was clearly not pleased. And my three year old is still throwing tantrums, so there’s that.

I had taken up enough air time and meant to stop, but the book had sparked enough interest that some of the other moms went and bought it shortly after. A couple Sundays later, one of the moms had a great story to share with me!

“JoEllen!” she smiled, “I got the book and started reading it, and it TOTALLY WORKED!”

“Really? Awesome! What happened?”

“Well, I was dropping my daughter off in nursery this morning, and then she asked for a snack. At first I told her, ‘It’s not snack time yet,’ and then she was like, ‘I want a snack!’ and I thought about what the book said. So I tried the wish thing, and said, ‘Hm, what do you think they’ll have for snack today?’ and then she just started saying what she wanted and she wasn’t upset anymore! It TOTALLY WORKED!”

It was marvelous! Turning a kid’s attention away from their discontent and into wishful thinking is a small tweak, but an effective one that can subtly redirect whining to imagination and hope.

This isn’t even just for when your kids want something, but even for when they’re dealing with interpersonal conflict. Parents are allowed to say things like, “You don’t want [your baby sister] here. Sometimes you wish she’d go away,” to show kids understanding for the feelings that can come with getting a new baby sibling. If older siblings are in petty conflict, you don’t have to suggest obvious solutions, “If it’s too loud, just close your door!” Instead, you can show empathy and give them what they want in fantasy: “That can be annoying. You wish he’d check with you before he starts playing the drums” (26, Siblings Without Rivalry).

I thought about all the times I got mad at my brother when he started practicing violin upstairs just as I started practicing piano. I do think a small comment like that might have helped quiet my anger, and maybe even calm me enough to try to communicate my wishes to him instead of just playing my instrument more loudly! Maybe.

It may feel a little foreign to try it out, but the next time your kid really, really wants something that you don’t plan to give them, maybe try indulging their desires a bit by giving it to them in fantasy. Or, if your child is upset with someone else, wish together about the better way things could work out. I used it with my son this past week and let me tell you, wishing and then pretending we were on a plane was much cheaper than buying tickets! And wishing with my daughter that her little brother would respond with words and respect instead of physical anger went a long way in helping her feel understood.

I would never have guessed wishful thinking could be such a useful strategy. I had always thought of it as a negative thing, “Oh, that’s just wishful thinking,” but turns out it’s really helpful with kids! It won’t work every time, and it is just one suggested strategy of many, but… don’t you wish all we had to do was wish things for our kids and it solved everything?

(See what I did there :P)

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