To Get Your Kid To Do More, Talk Less 

Photo: Marcelo Santos, Getty Images

Have you ever seen a parent in deep discussion with a toddler over an LCM bar? They’re patiently explaining the risk of tooth decay, the importance of a balanced diet, and the timing of dinner. Right there in the middle of the grocery aisle.

Sometimes, we should talk less.

Yes, children need to learn about the world. They thrive in the warm glow of our empathy. I wrote a whole book about the importance of understanding kids’ perspective in order to solve discipline problems.

But that doesn’t mean launching into an hour-long dissertation defence to explain a simple limit or household rule.

I learned this when I nearly tripped over my daughter’s backpack in our front hall, for what seemed like the hundredth time. I was juggling my work bag and two empty travel mugs at the end of a long day.

A flush of heat rose in my chest. I’d told her so many times to hang up the backpack as soon as she walked in the door! We even bought a dedicated cabinet to serve as the backpack station, and installed hooks for each child’s bag. When, oh when, would this simple habit take hold?

I took a deep breath. Yelling wouldn’t help. Of all my children, Ava responded the worst to reprimands. It almost seemed that every time I corrected her increased the length of the delay before she moved into action.

Instead, I pulled a sticky note from a nearby stack. I wrote: “Dear Ava, I don’t like lying down on the floor. Please hang me up. Love, Your Backpack.” I left it on the backpack and put away my own belongings.

Nearly an hour later, Ava burst into the kitchen holding the note in one hand and her backpack in the other. I was surprised to see a smile on her face.

“Mummy, look what I found! It’s so silly. Backpacks can’t write.”

She shoved the note in my hand and left the room. Following her, I saw that she’d hung up the backpack on the designated hook, without complaint.

This breakthrough started a whole new era in our family. Whenever possible, we communicate limits and corrections in writing. It keeps the emotion out of the interaction. A verbal challenge might activate our kids’ amygdala, the part of the brain that controls emotions and the fight or flight response. Instead, the written word appeals to the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain for reasoning, problem solving and critical thinking.

We post the daily schedule, household job chart and screen limits on the wall of our kitchen. This brings the added benefit of informing grandparents or other caregivers about the family rules, in case the kids try to pull a fast one when my husband or I are absent.

Of course, sometimes words are necessary to redirect a child. In these situations, I try to keep the talking to a minimum. I might point at a cereal dish left on the kitchen table and say, “Dishes,” with a smile. Or tap my watch and say, “Homework time.”

If I need to discuss a bad grade or sticky discipline problem, I might promise the child that I’ll only talk as long as it takes to walk around the block once. This imposes discipline on me to be efficient in explaining my concerns and makes it less likely that the kid will tune me out. (Long lectures are rarely attention-getting.)

Sure, it takes self-control to bite back the impulse to lecture. And creativity to come up with a way to discipline through notes or a few carefully chosen words. But you may find that when you talk less, your children argue less in return. Anyone with a long-winded kindergartener or argumentative teenager can appreciate the upside of a quiet home.


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