June 14, 2012
I hesitate to say everyone should have a child, because becoming a parent is an intensely personal choice. I try my best to avoid evangelizing the experience, but the deeper in I get, the more I believe that nothing captures the continued absurdity of the human condition better than having a child does.
After becoming a parent, the first thing you'll say to yourself is, my God, it is a miracle any of us even exist, because I want to freakin' kill this kid at least three times a day. But then your child will spontaneously hug you, or tell you some stupid joke that they can't stop laughing at, or grab for your hand while crossing the street and then … well, here we all are, aren't we? I'm left wondering if I'll ever be able to love other people – or for that matter myself – as much as I love my children. Unconditional, irrational, nonsensical love. That's humanity in a nutshell.
Parenting is by far the toughest job I've ever had. It makes my so-called career seem awfully quaint in comparison.
My favorite part of the parenting process, though, is finally being able to talk to my kids. When the dam breaks and all that crazy stuff they had locked away in those tiny brains for the first two years comes uncontrollably pouring out. Finding out what they're thinking about and what kind of people they are at last. Watching them discover and explore the surface of language is utterly fascinating. After spending two years trying to guess – with extremely limited success – what they want and need, truly, what greater privilege is there than to simply ask them? Language: Best. Invention. Ever. I like it so much I'm using it right now!
Language also allows kids to demonstrate just what crazy little roiling balls of id they (and by extension, we) all are on the inside. Kids don't know what it means to be mad, to be happy, to be sad. They have to be taught what emotions are, how to handle them, and how to deal in a constructive way with everything the world is throwing at them. You'll get a ringside seat to this process not as a passive observer, but as their coach and spirit guide. They have no coping mechanisms except the ones we teach them. The difference between a child who freaks out at the slightest breeze, and a child who can confidently navigate an unfamiliar world? The parents.
See, I told you this was going to be tough.
There are of course innumerable books on parenting and child-rearing, most of which I have no time to read because by the time I'm done being a parent for the day, I'm too exhausted to read more about it. And, really, who wants to read about parenting when you're living the stuff 24/7? Except on Parenting Stack Exchange, of course. However, there is one particular book I happened to discover that was shockingly helpful, even after barely ten pages in. If you ever need to deal with children aged 2 to 99, stop reading right now and go buy How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk.
We already own three copies. And you're welcome.
What's so great about this book? I originally found it through A.J. Jacobs, who I mentioned in Trust Me, I'm Lying. Here's how he describes it:
The best marriage advice book I’ve read is a paperback called How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk. As you might deduce from the title, it wasn’t meant as a marriage advice book. But the techniques in this book are so brilliant, I use them in every human interaction I can, no matter the age of the conversant. It’s a strategy that was working well until today.
The book was written by a pair of former New York City teachers, and their thesis is that we talk to kids all wrong. You can’t argue with kids, and you shouldn’t dismiss their complaints. The magic formula includes: listen, repeat what they say, label their emotions. The kids will figure out the solution themselves.
I started using it on Jasper, who would throw a tantrum about his brothers monopolizing the pieces to Mouse Trap. I listened, repeated what he said, and watched the screaming and tears magically subside. It worked so well, I decided, why limit it to kids? My first time trying it on a grown-up was one morning at the deli. I was standing behind a guy who was trying unsuccessfully to make a call on his cell.
“Oh come on! I can’t get a signal here? Dammit. This is New York.”
He looked at me.
“No signal?” I say. “Here in New York?” (Repeat what they say.)
“It’s not like we’re in goddamn Wisconsin.”
“Mmmm.” (Listen. Make soothing noises.)
“We’re not on a farm. It’s New York, for God’s sake,” he said.
“That’s frustrating,” I say. (Label their emotions.)
He calmed down.
This book taught me that, as with so many other things in life, I've been doing it all wrong. I thought it was my job as a parent to solve problems for my children, to throw myself on life's figurative grenades to protect them. Consider the following illustrated examples from the book.
Notice how she cleverly lets the child reach an alternative solution himself, rather than providing the "solution" to him on a silver platter as the all-seeing, all-knowing omniscient adult. This honestly would never have occurred to me, because, well, if we're out of Toastie Crunchies, then we are out of freaking Toastie Crunchies!
I've learned to fall back whenever possible to simply describing things or situations instead of judging or pontificating. I explain the consequences of potential actions rather than jumping impatiently to "don't do that".
How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk is full of beautiful little insights on human interaction like this, and I was surprised to find how often what I thought was a good parenting behavior was working against us. Turns out, children aren't the only ones who have trouble dealing with their emotions and learning to communicate. I haven't just improved my relationship with my kids using the practical advice in this book, I've improved my interactions with all human beings from age 2 to 99.
Kids will teach you, if you let them. They'll teach you that getting born is the easy part. Anyone can do that in a day. But becoming a well-adjusted human being? That'll take the rest of your life.
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Posted by Jeff Atwood
"The difference between a child who freaks out at the slightest breeze, and a child who can confidently navigate an unfamiliar world? The parents. "
Sorry Jeff, but this is not true. I have 4 kids and all were raised in basically the same environment. A child's reaction to the world and attitude/personality are almost entirely genetically programmed. When you have more kids you will discover this too.
Larry, I agree with Jeff on this one. I have two kids. Different personalities yes, the younger one will throw fits, I don't think it is because of genetics that she throws fits, I think it is environment and me knowing how to deal with two kids. I haven't learned how to talk and interact appropriately with the 2 year old yet, so she gets upset, I would too if I were her.
I'll have to open my book again, I got 20 pages in and stopped, thought it was a great book, but got distracted reading other things, and yes, parenting.
Sounds very much like 'active listening' from Gordon's 'Parent Effectiveness Training', which is a great book despite the title.
Ok. Try six kids, and I grew up in a household of 8 kids. I agree with Larry.
Yeah, I was thinking about it and I think it might just be that we don't spend as much one on one with the second. I think if we changed that she would calm down more.
I grew up in a house with 6 kids in it also and I still think most of it is environmental related not genetic. I think personalities are genetic and environmental but a kid throwing tantrums is definitely entirely environmental. There's been a bunch of studies on the subject of people when they get older and the childhood influences. The first 3 years are the most important and abused kids are the ones that end up going crazy as adults (not all I know, and yes, some of the mind altering drugs that parents put their kids on now days also contributes significantly, which would be environmental also).
I'm an only child with four kids (my wife is the eldest of five). Our kids, two of each, are as different as night and day. Having said that, once in a while they're "peas in a pod". I strongly recommend you never allow them to line up together against you.
For me, I believe it's a mix of genetics and environment. If you really want to see the genetic component though, don't look at the parents, look at the grandparents. Sometimes it's uncanny.
Unfortunately, Jeff, I think you've taken the wrong message away from the book. It's not about letting the child (or the deli guy) "reach an alternative solution by themselves", it's about letting the person you're interacting with feel you've understood their feelings and have validated them. Notice how in the second example the mother is identifying the child's emotional state (he wants something he can't have), letting the child know this ("I hear how much you want them"), and reflecting it back to him ("I wish I had the magic power...").
It's not about solutions, it's about learning how to empathize with other people.
Perhaps it would be more accurate to say "A child who naturally freaks out at the slightest breeze can be taught to confidently navigate an unfamiliar world by their parents."
I'm with Larry based on my own kids who differ much more in their behaviour than is explainable by differences in how we interact with them.
Also generally, some thing work better for some kids than others. Example in case, I had a situation very similar to the "Toasty Crunchy". For me it went like this:
she: "I want a bikkie" (cookie in USA)
me: "We don't have any"
... repeat above 3-4 times ...
she: "I want a bikkie"
me: "Well, I want a Ferrari"
she: "I want a Ferrari ... I want a Ferrari ... and a bikkie. Papa go buy some"
That Deli example? That is what we call condescending in the rest of the world. This may work with some children (definitely not my niece, she is too smart to fall for this), but doing this to an adult, you would be called a knob. Then again, maybe I am just expecting intelligence to be higher than it really is. I work retail and the number one way to sell is to repeat what the customer said and then recommend a product that matches. It is illy, but if you do not repeat what they said, they do not take your recommendation seriously.
Hilarious anecdote. You made my day.
I guess I should have added more detail. I'm not saying that environment doesn't play a part, and I'm not talking about tantrums - those are learned. I'm saying that the genetic component seems to have a much stronger influence on a child's personality and the way they interact with the world. I have a child that is at peace with the world in all situations and another who gets extremely annoyed at everything (e.g. hair touching her face). One of my children is calm and focused and another can't sit still. These are built-in and are visible at a very early age. It may be possible to "train-out" some negative behaviors, but I firmly believe that their personalities are "built-in".
Larry, in order to draw any kind of conclusion from your evidence, we would have to duplicate your children and raise them in a home very different to yours. Many times.
The inverse of your argument is that if a person's personality is mostly based on their environment, and if your children were raised in the same home, then they should be very much the same. I don't think it would be too hard to argue that a parent could influence their children in such a way that they would act very differently from each other.
We don't have a great idea of how genes affect personality. Until we know that, we will never know how much of the way your children behave is a result of environment. The people who study this stuff seem to think that both play a large role.
TLDR; Maybe your children were genetically predisposed to being less affected by their environment :)
@Larry, your comment reminded me of various studies on identical twins (some of this was mentioned in the book 'Freakanomics') that indicated, without a doubt, genetics matter more than environment. However, that's not to say providing a healthy environment for children is a waste of resources. Other studies have shown that environment can make a big difference for autistic children.
I have a peculiar perspective on the nature/nurture debate. I have five children by four mothers, all born within six years, all raised separately but in similar environments (same city, same social class).
The key here is that there is only one child who is biologically mine (the others were adopted at birth), and I had little to do with her upbringing before the age of 10. So you might say she's the control group.
I was close to most of the mothers most of the time, and was able to observe first-hand their successes and problems. I know varying amounts about the biological mothers of the adopted children.
My conclusions: most people debating nature/nurture have no idea what they're talking about. Both are very important, but at different times and in different ways.
I started out think everything was nurture, but my biological child has many of my characteristic behaviors, and I refer only to those not shared by her mother.
Then there are many things which are plainly not nature. The adoptees of Mother #1, for example, share her deep-rooted ability to remain calm under pressure. The panicky Mother #2 has a panicky child.
One thing that seems innate: some children are more easily damaged than others. I've seen the same kind of mistakes made by each mother, but what one child rebounds from easily may cause another lasting difficulties. The worst mother (even in her own estimation) did not produce the most neurotic child. The mother of the most problematic child was not significantly worse than the others, though the problems seem clearly connected to her mistakes.
About the book: I found some of the suggestions very helpful, others less so, with results often contrary to my expectations. (That's a compliment.) I have no problem recommending it.
I haven't looked at twin-studies in many years, so I can't comment on them.
A really great article. I owe it to a former colleague to have found it.
Stop right here and read Dr Gordon !
It's from where they got the techniques you listed. Not only you'll get much more detail and insights, but you'll have the "why?" question answered as well with sound reasonning.
Note that Gordon started those techniques for managers and work relationship and only afterwards applied them on children, so...
There's book on sales, patients, leadership => http://www.amazon.com/Thomas-Gordon/e/B004MZK0O0/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_1
You should also be able to find "gordon centers" where you can be helped, teached in practical session and get more experience than from books, as parents, those are invaluable.
Thanks Jeff for the advice, just bought it for my kindle :-)
I don't have children, maybe I will in the near future; but I am intrigued about the idea that most patterns in the book can be applied to grown ups to :-)
Nice article, like always... you got one thing wrong or at least very biased.
"The difference between a child who freaks out at the slightest breeze, and a child who can confidently navigate an unfamiliar world? The parents."
That's just the nurture part, but we know that there is the nature/nurture duality/interaction.
Much of who we are is already determined before we're even born, including the seeds for coping strategies, etc.
hey, can I use the cat picture in this article in my Weibo? :)
Jeff, Larry: The plural of anecdote is not evidence. It seems every parent ever has discovered at least one panacea for misbehaving kids, and this one doesn't sound any better than most.
The mobile guy was just venting, and it doesn't sound like he was about to start crying or hitting anyone until he got a better signal. Patronizing him that way would at best made him realize that he was pointlessly venting among strangers who couldn't help him (thus shaming him into shutting up), or at worst would have made him angry for treating him like a baby.
In a similar vein, I highly recommend re-reading "How to Win Friends and Influence People." Incredibly useful in conversing with everyone, small children (we have a 3-1/2 yo) and grown executives. I ignored it for years before reading it (actually listening to the audio version, which is great, then reading it) 10 years ago, dismissing it as "fakery and manipulation" with the sheer confidence of ignorance. Its good stuff, guys, and sounds fairly similar to the style of advice given here.
I needed some time to figure out, that the story with the mother and the Toastie Crunchy were two comics not a single one.
The gap between the two is really small.
I agree with Narro, a little more space between them would be great.
And about that comic, I don't recognize the age of the kid, but when I was 5/6 I told my mom I wanted something and she said something quite similiar like "I want to have the [magical] powers to give you everything you want".
That moment the only thing I though was "OMG, how stup1d can she be? That's not a solution, that's not an appropiate answer!". Of course I left quietly, but I remember that moment vividly because that's the moment I realized I couldn't talk to my mom.
On the other hand, since I remember I always understood reasoning. "We don't have money for that" made me think that it sucked to be me, but I understood.
Again, I don't remember before I was 4 so it could be aimed there, but careful using this advice with older people ;)
People in the learned/genetic flamewar - let's separate out two things:
- Personality (MBTI, or similar, sets of behavioural preferences)
- Behaviour (a function of personality and context.)
Personality has both genetic and environmental components, and tends only to "settle down" when someone is about 7 (I don't have a reference for this, but I did just hear a lecture on it, and I trust the academic who gave it, at least on this point.) In any case, we can probably assert that there's a strong influence from genetics, especially outside of "extreme" environments.
Behaviour is a function of personality, but it is also strongly influenced by context, and the context difference between single and multi-child households is huge.
I would argue that parental (and indeed sibling) behaviour, is a strong driver of the child's behaviour; I'd be interested in studies that seek to find ways to separate out the genetic component (although they'd be difficult to implement owing to ethical rules; treating two twins differently, for instance, would probably be unacceptable, and unless they were isolated from each other there would be behavioural cross-pollination anyway!)
As a parent myself with similar proclivities, let me voice my agreement here on a few points made in the article and in the comments:
1. Parenting is hard. (But fun and rewarding).
2. Different children are as different as different adults. No. Really. They aren't just automatons. They actually make their own decisions and decide how they are going to react to different situations.
3. #2 doesn't mean you are helpless as a parent. On the contrary, the better you understand this, the better job you can do.
#2 and #3 are not mutually exclusive. Children are genetically very different AND you can still make a huge difference based upon how you raised them.
Silly humans, always trying to pick one extreme or the other. :)
This is what Ed Bernays in "Propaganda" explained in 1929 applied onto the masses. The propagandist should create a fuzz about something related, but not eye-cathingly so, let some outside factor decide there is a problem and then get *somebody* to notice that the solution is or goes with the product or action that the propagandist wants to sell. You just applied this manipulation onto the brain of your child. you're welcome.
sorry to say that you have lost me as a reader with this extremely maudlin post.
@Tony, I hear you want to unsubscribe because you fell this post is maudlin?
That book was recommended to me when my daughter was born 18 years ago. It was worth its weight in gold while bringing up the kids, but I tend to forget that the advise applies to communicating with people in general.
me: Your dog keeps shitting in my yard.
you: It bothers you when there's poop in your yard.
Sure, this might work on kids, but when people do it to adults they're just being creeps. Now I know why people think they can get away with this crap.
@chrismealy Obviously in your example, the person you're speaking to is the cause of the problem and has a social responsibility to stop his dog from crapping in your yard.
I think you can still use this "active listening" style technique with adults, but you can't just repeat what they said back to them while prefixing it with "I hear you...".
The essence is that you should show empathy for someone before steering them toward a solution. You can do this much more subtly than in the examples above, but the basic concept is the same.
Children lack empathy. Or at least empathy as developed as adults. So obviously ways of communicating with kids would be different from communicating with your neighbor.
While we're on the topic of parenting books, I'm had great success with "Teach your child to read in 100 easy lessons."
And the "Teach Me Kindergarden" iOS app is pretty genius as well.
I thought this was a programming blog?
I second reading Steven Pinker's books. "The stuff of thought" goes into detail on the nature/nurture debate and basically destroys it. More people need to read his books.
From a programmer's perspective, it is quite fascinating to think about our minds in terms of compilers that take outside phenomenon such as time, space, or movement, and output a language that illustrates those and more complex phenomenon to other people.
Larry Bank & Jon Nyman, you are both right. It's a combination of nature and nurture. (But do not underestimate the power of conditioning.)
@Brendan Today we're programming kids. Kind of an "extreme AI" ;)
You cannot say you've raised multiple children in the same environment. The introduction of the second child means it isn't the same environment as when you raise the first. Additionally, the time you've spent between children means the environment has likely changed - and it should, as you grow as a 'human being' and things change. From finances to your hobbies, to your spouse's interests and work, it is not the same environment.
That being said, of course some of it is nature. I don't believe Jeff would argue against that.
If you like that sort of information, try Nonviolent Communication by Marshall B. Rosenberg -- NVC is quite an explicit methodology for not judging, acknowledging emotions, etc. And it actually says it's for everyone, not just kids...
It's an amazing book.
Did anybody manage to find a Kindle version? Amazon doesn't seem to sell one.
My child is 88.. I just inherited him.. many of the things here apply to how I need to approach my Dad.. It is very much like taking care of a 2 year old.. only these things and challenges will only increase and the results will wither
this from a childless Son
Methinks you will change your absolutely naive understanding of "human beings" when your next offspring is born with autism. This post is one of the more appallingly ignorant I've read from this blog.
"A child's reaction to the world and attitude/personality are almost entirely genetically programmed."
Do they not teach nature/nurture in grammar school these days, or are you just willfully ignorant?
About the language being the best invention ever. It is truly marvellous, but there one major gotcha.
It's also the language, your language, that actually was the barrier between you and you child. There's so much body communication going on that goes amiss when language is expected.
Just watch and listen without language. It's there, it has always been and you have kind of known it but your own language has almost hidden it.
Try this watching and listening without language consistently for a while and suddenly you see and hear it. And it's not your child only that communicates that way, everyone does it.
When you start seeing it in animals, you are becoming a master. They do it, too, you know, and that's how the animal parents know how to take care of their young. Most probably you have done it already to some extent but you did not know it.
That's the nonverbal communication that we don't know we know about.
Pictures are a bit misleading! Where's the ones that show right behaviour and the wrong one? Especially the first one. Ok, now after looking at the first one for 5 mins I observed that it not continuous, but divided in 2 blocks of four ).
Its time I read this book again. The only parenting book I've read cover to cover. It is hugely helpful and packed with practical information. You may need to practice to get it right. Sometimes when I try some of the examples Jeff posted my kids will just get more pissed off, sometimes they calm down and/or work things out themselves. It has a lot to do with where I'm coming from. The major point of the book is that kids often just need to be understood and they want to figure things out for themselves. I found that to be accurate.
The "toasty crunchies" example is pretty entertaining. However, the one thing not mentioned is the tax on your time.
Going through that whole script (including the temper tantrum) is about 20 minutes of your time that most of us don't have.
Saying, "we don't have that" and pouring food from the correct box instead: 30 seconds.
My child generally is content when they see tasty food. Sometimes actions really do speak louder than words.
This was a great post, thanks. And the Faber & Mazlish book is great. I remember reading it.
I wonder how much of child-rearing is culture-specific, and how much is household-specific. I was brought up in India, where more obedience was expected of children. (Not saying it's better or worse--just different). I don't recall my younger siblings having any temper tantrums. Mom put the puffed rice or toast or porridge or roti or whatever she had decided we were having for breakfast on the table. We ate it. End of story. Could some of a child's behavior have to do with managing children's expectations at an early age? (A confession here: my own children, whom I brought up in America, did have temper tantrums. Several. I usually sat on the couch until the storm passed. (Mostly because I didn't know what to do). When the kids figured out Mom wasn't going to do anything, they eventually stopped crying.
Now they're teenagers, and I notice what matters most to them is the tone of voice in which I tell them things. Requests, rebukes, whatever it is I'm trying, if delivered softly, seem to go over better.
@Jeffrey Davis: Tax on time just once, and total tax on time until your child turns 18 are sometimes two different things.
Of course it's easiest to do what takes 30 seconds, but what it also teaches to the child is that it's OK to ignore other people's feelings if it saves your time. It might not backfire in the first few years but it will eventually.
On the other hand, you might just be lucky to have a child who is content with tasty food. :)
funny - I remember my wife telling me the same thing ten years ago when she first read "How to Talk so Kids will Listen, How to Listen so Kids will Talk". She found its advice to be as useful in dealing with me as the kids and as useful in the workplace as at home.
@MJ: I didn't see anything condescending about the deli example. The dude in front of you is complaining about the connection. What else can you do but sympathize? What would you do? Call AT&T and demand they construct a new tower? Just say "yeah I know, that sucks," and move on.
You article content is so rich by many helpful way to talk human being.I like what you do and i wish if i can learn more from you_.
And if you like the books by Gordon, who inspired the book you're recommending, you should definitely read Alfie Kohn's Unconditional Parenting! The theory behind the practice!
Here's what my wife figured out after about 1 year of parenting...
Almost any method, consistently applied, beats random emotional reactions when it comes to parenting.
Why? Because the kids will figure out the method and adapt to it and when the kids know what to expect, they calm down.
After 15 years of parenting, I've figured out that my kids know my method and can manipulate it at will to their own ends. And there's nothing really wrong with this situation. As they approach adulthood, ideally they become increasingly in control of their own situation and we parents lose control.
So don't bother arguing the merits of method A vs. method B. Just pick one reasonably decent one and stick with it.
My son will be 16 in less than nine days. I coulda used this book 15 years ago.
As for hereditary vs environment... doesn't matter what you think the ratio is, you're going to be wrong. Kids aren't quantifiable.
I found the link to your website referenced in post by George Benhorn on YoungPrePro.
How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk is a fantastic resource. For anyone who struggles with communication, the information in the book is gold. The book offered my family a path to peace.
Thanks for the post!
I hope one day one of your kids gets told that they shouldn't do something, because they'll probably suck at it. Then you'll get an idea how hard it can be to pull someone out of that hole. New York City Tax Preparation