How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen

date Sep 27, 2021
authors Joanna Faber and Julie King
reading time 17 mins

“The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.” — Peggy O’Mara


Problem-solving, not punishment

My two brothers and I grew up in a family where my mother and father used a language of respect for their children’s ideas and emotions. Even our most ferocious conflicts were resolved by problem-solving rather than punishment.

Address the feelings first, then the behavior

The point is that we can’t behave right when we don’t feel right. And kids can’t behave right when they don’t feel right. If we don’t take care of their feelings first, we have little chance of engaging their cooperation.

Common mistakes:

  • denied your feelings and scolded you for your lousy attitude?
  • gave you some advice?
  • a gentle philosophical lecture
  • compared you with another


  • TOOL #1: Acknowledge Feelings with Words
  • TOOL #2: Acknowledge Feelings with Writing
  • TOOL #3: Acknowledge Feelings with Art
  • TOOL #4: Give in Fantasy What You Cannot Give in Reality
  • TOOL #5: Acknowledge Feelings with (Almost) Silent Attention

The next time your kid says something negative and inflammatory, follow these steps:

1. Grit your teeth and resist the urge to immediately contradict him! 2. Think about the emotion he is feeling 3. Name the emotion and put it in a sentence

Help the child get through it, not get over it

To me, a missed TV show does not qualify as worthy of a meltdown. But a child’s emotions are just as real and important to him as our grown-up emotions are to us. The best way to help a child “get over it” is to help him go through it.

What kind of an adult will that kid be?

Children need us to validate their feelings so they can become grown-ups who know who they are and what they feel. We are also laying the groundwork for a person who can respect and not dismiss the needs and feelings of other people.

What direct orders do

We resist being told what to do. Direct orders provoke direct opposition. When we give children commands, we’re working against ourselves. Where we had hoped to inspire obedience, we’ve just stirred up rebellion in their little hearts.

What not to do:

  • some blame and accusation
  • some name calling
  • a few warnings
  • some sarcasm
  • a few rhetorical questions
  • a threat
  • a lecture

Engaging Cooperation


  • TOOL #1: Be Playful
  • TOOL #2: Offer a Choice
  • TOOL #3: Put the Child in Charge
  • TOOL #4: Give Information
  • TOOL #5: Say It with a Word (or a Gesture)
  • TOOL #6: Describe What You See
  • TOOL #7: Describe How You Feel
  • TOOL #8: Write a Note
  • TOOL #9: Take Action Without Insult


In my experience, if you can muster up a little playfulness, it actually takes less energy than having to deal with all the whining and resistance you get from a direct order. It also sets a nice tone. Even if orders are more efficient, the mood will be brighter with playfulness. It makes people feel more loving and cooperative.

Empower the kid to make decisions

Each of these statements says to your child, “I see you as a person who can make decisions about your own life.” And every time your child makes a small decision, she’s getting valuable practice for some of the bigger decisions she’ll be making down the road.

Give information

Instead of, “You left the cap off the glue stick again. Great!” Give information: “Glue sticks dry out very quickly when they’re not capped.”

Use noun, not a verb

Just be careful that the one word you use is a noun, not a verb. A verb is more likely to sound like a command. Sit! Come! Quiet! Better for dog training than for child rearing. I asked the group for useful examples. Suggestions came flying: “Seat belt.” (Instead of, “Buckle your seat belt, now.”)

Describe the situation

Instead of, “Don’t walk away and leave your jacket on the floor. I’m not going to pick it up for you.” Describe: “I see a jacket on the floor.”

Describe how I feel

It’s more effective to describe your feelings without the word you: “I get scared when I see people jumping around near the stove while I’m cooking. I worry about burns.”

Anger only sparingly

Express strong anger sparingly. It can feel like an attack.

Better to be tired and happy, than tired and irritable

Kids are exhausting. Little kids are exceptionally exhausting. For me it’s more fun when we’re all tired and cheerful, instead of tired and irritable.

It’s a slow progress eventually

And it does get easier. The older they get, the more they can be in charge of themselves, especially if they’ve had the practice of making choices and being in charge of their own behavior when they’re younger.”


They’re also more likely to cooperate with another adult, such as a teacher, and more likely to follow rules when no adults are present to control them. Self-control can only be developed by practice, not by force!

What does punishment actually do?

Lessons in punishment?

Before we start dutifully doling out consequences and punishment, I’d like to take a moment to define our terms. Just what do we mean by natural or logical consequences? And what lessons are we teaching when we punish?

Do punishment really motivate them to do better next time?

They’re really more of a free association, where we try to think of a way to make the wrongdoer suffer. We hope that the suffering will motivate the offender to do better in the future.

The cons of punishment

  • When you’ve committed yourself to using punishment to solve a conflict and the punishment isn’t harsh enough to be effective
  • The punishment doesn’t address the underlying problem
  • Often a strong-willed child who is punished becomes more determined to defy authority
  • Punishment can distract a child from the important lesson she needs to learn
  • Punishments give them a blueprint for how to approach conflict in their lives

Problem solving together

Chances are that if your child participated in coming up with solutions, he’ll be eager to try them out… But what if it doesn’t work? Then it’s back to the drawing board. You need new ideas. The beauty of problem-solving is that, unlike punishment, it offers endless possibilities. If you’re committed to punishment and your child continues to misbehave, all you can do is punish more severely.

Resolving conflicts in chilhood as a practise for grown-ups

Keep in mind, this conflict matters just as much to your children as any dispute with a coworker, friend, or relative matters to you. Children need practice resolving their “childish” disputes so they can become grown-ups who can peacefully resolve their adult disputes. This is the work of childhood.

Do rewards work?

Rewards have many pitfalls. They don’t address the cause of the problem. They are used to manipulate the other person rather than work with her, which can lead to resentment. They are subject to inflation. And they have a dark side. A reward is offered with an implied threat: If you don’t do what I say, you’ll miss out on something good.

Real motivation comes from within

No promise of reward will help a child learn how to get along with a younger brother, figure out when his bladder is full, learn addition facts, or enjoy healthy food.

Rewards lower creativity

An eye-opening study found that when people are offered large monetary rewards to complete a challenge, their creativity and engagement in the task plummets. Rewards helped people perform well on some very simple mechanical tasks, but as soon as they needed cognitive skills, rewards interfered with their ability to function.

3 factors that motivate people

  • autonomy (the drive to be self-directed)
  • mastery (the intrinsic drive to develop competence)
  • purpose (a sense that our actions are meaningful and have value)

Use time-out in a positive way

If you really want to use the phrase time-out in a positive way, you can say, “We need a time-out so nobody gets hurt! Quick, Thomas to the kitchen, Jenna to the living room!” You may even say, “I’m getting frustrated. I need a time-out… This kind of time-out is intended to protect, not to punish. It’s a way of letting our children know that sometimes we need to take a break before we can solve a problem.

Punishment has a short shelf life

Punishment has a short shelf life. Little kids grow quickly. It’s difficult to physically punish a child who is larger and stronger than you are. As children become more independent it becomes harder to enforce punishments.

How to praise

Engage curiosity

Consider asking questions or starting a conversation instead of praising.

Describe the effort and progress

When a child has done well and been told that she’s gifted and talented, why would she risk her status by trying something more difficult? She might fail. It may turn out she’s not gifted after all. She’s just ordinary. The children in the second group, whose efforts had been described, were enthusiastic about taking on a more challenging task.

Proud of the child, not yourself

When a parent or teacher says, “I’m proud of you,” she’s taking credit herself for the child’s accomplishment. When she describes what the child has achieved, the child gets the credit. When in doubt, credit the child.

Resist the urge to praise by comparison.

We don’t want him to feel threatened by the accomplishments of his rapidly growing sibling, or the triumphs of his classmates. Instead you can stick with describing his actions, his efforts, his progress, and his effect on others:

Recovery time

Food and sleep

The first two basics of everyday parenting are food and sleep. If your child is overtired or hungry, it’s likely that none of the communication tools in the previous chapters will work for you.

Why is a good recovery needed?

One of these is the biological need for recovery time. When we get angry, our bodies are flooded with hormones. Our heart rate increases and our blood pressure rises, making us more likely to withdraw or react with aggression. Most people have heard of the flight-or-fight response.

Give time

One of the best things we can do for children in times of stress is to give them time to recover from the physical changes of anger, fear, and frustration. Don’t expect a child to be able to “snap out of it” immediately.

Keep things simple

For three-year-olds, an exciting vacation would be a trip to a new playground for an hour, another thirty minutes to muck about in a muddy stream, then a nice snack, and home to sleep in their own bed. Keep your plans simple and humble when your kids are small, and you will have simple (and less expensive) disappointments.

Keep responsibilities simple

But just because a child has the physical ability to walk a dog doesn’t mean that he’s ready to suddenly take full responsibility for a living creature. Kids aren’t good at splitting their attention and tend to become absorbed in the moment, especially when the moment involves computer games. You can’t rely on the fact that he “promised!” Devising a plan for the future and giving your child plenty of opportunity to practice will get you where you want to go more effectively than a signature on a contract.


Balanced diet over the course of a week

The children did actually choose a balanced diet on their own. It wasn’t necessarily balanced for that particular meal, but it was balanced if you looked over the course of a day or a week.

Variety of food without junk food

Many children are naturally picky eaters. It may even be genetic, or developmental. But given a range of healthy choices, children will choose a balanced diet—so long as junk food isn’t included in the mix. Children are tempted by sweets and fried food just as much as we are.

Fill his own plate

Serve your child an empty plate! Pretend he’s an adult at a dinner party. He didn’t get to choose the menu, but he does get to fill his own plate.

Respect in feeding

“But I’ve noticed that kids are less inclined to insult our food if we’re not forcing them to eat it. Respect is a two-way street.”


Older siblings can be babies too

The second message he needs is that he hasn’t been displaced. He may want some babying himself. We’re always telling our older children what big boys or girls they are. But they need to know they can still be your baby, too; they haven’t been pushed aside.

Positive image

The third message is to help him see himself as the kind, helpful older brother you have glimpsed in the past. Go out of your way to appreciate positive interactions with his younger sibling.

Don’t demonise the older and stronger child

It helps to hold back that first “protect the baby” remark. Resist the urge to demonize the older or stronger child. If you can describe the problem from both points of view it will make a big difference in the mood.

Give the older child importance

When we finally told him, we did two things that helped a lot. One was that we said we wanted him to be the first to know about the news. He took great pride that he was so important!


Lieing is not a moral offense

But when kids lie to us, often we do worry. We see it as a moral offense. Somehow we’ve failed to teach good character to our children. When a child tells a lie, it may help to remember that it is both common and normal. In fact, the latest research shows that learning to lie is an important milestone in a child’s cognitive development.

State the facts and acknowledge the feelings

Instead of accusing and interrogating, state the obvious. In the case of the purloined dessert, you can simply say, “I see you ate the cake.” If she protests, don’t call her a liar. Instead, you can accept the feeling behind the protest. “It’s not easy to resist eating chocolate cake”

No labeling

We’re ‘guiding kids toward being truthful rather than labeling them as liars.’ Lying is a natural stage of development. To punish them for it is counterproductive.


If we ignore the tattler she’ll be confused and frustrated. Why is this rule suddenly not a rule? When we accept her feelings and address the problem, she’s going to calm down. By not punishing the perpetrator, we remove the incentive to tattle purely for the pleasure of power.


Little kids have different priorities from their parents. Let’s face it, they don’t care about disorder the way we do. Preschoolers aren’t going to sigh in pleasure at the sight of a cleanly swept floor

Kids will not naturally cleanup

The first thing to do is adjust your expectations. We can’t expect kids to naturally want to clean up. Like it or not, it’s our job to make the task appealing. The payoff comes later, when they’re a little bit older and can understand the joys of orderly living.

There’s no morality in cleaning up

Go easy on yourself and don’t take a moral stance. Just sweep up the toys, say your good-byes, and tuck that toddler in the carseat with a stuffed monkey for consolation.

Shy kids

“Jamie will join you when he’s ready.”… It may not sound like much, but those three little words do a lot of work. They tell a child that you respect his feelings and his need to go slowly. They also let him know that he’s in charge. He’s not being pushed. But the most important part is what you’re not saying. You’re not keeping him stuck in a role.

Readiness and pressure

The readiness often comes quickly as soon as the pressure is removed… Instead of pressuring kids to interact with unfamiliar people right away, we can help them by giving them something to do, or giving them permission to observe until they’re ready to join in. And if you’re the stranger, it can help to talk to the child in a playful way, using a stuffed animal or puppet.

Little runaways

Manage the environment, not the child

The first is to manage the environment instead of the child. I swore off trips to the mall for a long time after “the incident.” I took the simple way out. Stay away from malls—environment managed, problem solved. I also restricted myself to playgrounds that were fully fenced.

Fun and safe paths

The main idea is to come up with some kind of fun plan for how to get from point A to point B safely, instead of engaging in a battle of wills. Of course, if your kid breaks and runs you’ll have to grab him and hold fast, in spite of the kicking and crying. And that will happen. But then you’ll have a fresh chance to talk about it and make a new plan for the next time.

Express your feelings

“You like to look around when we go to the park. Sometimes you like to go far away. The problem is, I get worried when you don’t answer me. I get scared that I’ll lose you. What can we do? We need ideas.”

Physical violence

Loving feelings, not resentment

“We need to let our kids know that violence is unacceptable. The challenge is to do it in a way that will allow for loving feelings rather than increasing resentment.

Protect first

There was conflict. There was violence. A child struck out. A mother protected herself and loudly insisted on her rights without striking back. The family reconnected and loving feelings returned.