Gentle Parenting Tools: Communicate

Gentle Parenting Tools: Communicate July 17, 2012
I’ve talked about mutual respect, and recognizing emotions, and the importance of caring for yourself as a parent and here I want to talk about communication. When I was in the punitive parentingmindset, it was my understanding that you did not communicate with your kids. Kids were selfish and manipulative, only out to get whatever they wanted. No, you did not communicate, you dictate. As in, you tell them what to do, and you make them do it, regardless of what they are feeling or thinking. The child needs to learn that their opinion does not matter, they just need to obey.
As I switched from punitive to gentle parenting, I started making an effort to recognize my children’s emotions, and I was surprised by how much of their frustration was caused by me! I was so used to barking orders with the expectation that they would be immediately obeyed. I hadn’t even considered how I was saying things, much less how they were hearing them. So here are some of the ideas that have helped me change the way I communicate with my children.
Use words they understand:
So often I assumed that my kids knew exactly what I was talking about. I knew they were intelligent, so if they were refusing to comply it must be defiance. Since leaving punitive parenting I’ve realized how incorrect this is. One example of this type of misunderstanding is when my daughter was whining and wailing her request for a snack. I was busy in the kitchen, and kind of annoyed that she was asking at all, but it was even worse that she was whining. I told her to “ask nicely” (something I’ve said many times before) and went back to ignoring her. Her whining got louder, and I responded by repeating my “ask nicely” line a little louder myself (not saying this is a stellar example of parenting here!) This exchange continued for a few minutes, and finally my daughter cocked her head to the side, gave me a funny look and said “nicely, mom? Nicely?” And that was when it dawned on me that she had no idea what I was telling her to do. After I re-phrased my request by giving her the right words to ask nicely (by saying please without whining), she happily complied. I’ve since discovered many times I was talking right over their heads, and that re-phrasing my request is often all it takes for my kids to get it.
 I used to tell myself that my kids didn’t deserve to be apologized too. If they had been behaving in the first place I never would have done anything that I needed to apologize for. Plus they were really young anyways right? They would forget whatever had happened within a few minutes, so my apologizing would just remind them of that conflict. As I started to realize how powerful a heartfelt apology could be, I found myself wanting to kick my pride to the corner and give my children the gift of admitting wrong. And it has changed everything about how we relate. So many bad days have been stopped in their tracks by a simple apology. I have made mistakes, and I’m sure that I will continue to do so. I’ve found that when I apologize for something I am far more likely to do the work to make sure it doesn’t continue to happen, and that is a priority to me.
Ask Questions/ Problem solve:
I’ve found this is particularly helpful for my 4 and 5 year olds. Instead of always giving my answer, I try to let them figure out an answer for themselves.
“How would you like to put on your pajama’s tonight, do you me to help you or do you want to do it yourself?”
“It must be frustrating that your little sister keeps taking your toys. Do you think that maybe she  would like to have a toy to play with?”  
“Where do you think we should put this?”
“Do you want me to help you figure that out?”
In this way I can give them a chance to come up with a solution of their own, and I am asking their permission before  I do something for them.  I find my kids are way more interested in tasks that they have had some role in negotiating. If children learn to see the misbehaviour as the problem (rather than themselves as the problem) the parent-child relationship can become  “us against the problem” rather than “you against me”.
Be specific:
In other words, say exactly what you mean. It sounds exhausting to describe exactly which toys you want picked up, but I can’t tell you how much time and frustration this saves. Explain to your child what you are about to do before you do it. Give detailed instructions for a task. Example: Instead of “go get ready for bed” try “Go pick out your pajama’s and bring them to me.” And “lets go in the bathroom so we can brush your teeth.” Don’t assume that just because they’ve done it before they are going to remember it all. If I tell my toddlers “go clean up the living room”, nothing happens, they get distracted within minutes. But when I ask them to put their blocks away in the bag, or better yet sit on the floor and say “lets pick up the blocks!” I have far greater success.

Use “I statements” instead of “you statements”:

This means talking about whatever is going in without assigning blame. This is one that I still slip up on regularly, the habit of pushing of my own emotions and projecting them onto the people around me is a hard one to break.  But I’ve found the difference between “ You are making me mad!” and “I am feeling so angry right now!” is a huge one.  I-statements is a respectful way to communicate a difference in opinion (such as “I believe” or “I feel”) I can also be a helpful way to model how to communicate feelings, such as learning to say “I don’t like that” instead of throwing a tantrum.

Oneof my favorite books on parenting talks about a “Confrontational  I-statement”, or learning how to let a person know that you have an issue with them.

“Confrontational I-statements have three parts. The three parts communicates your FEELING, (how the behaviour is making you feel) and the specific BEHAVIOUR/PROBLEM (a specific non-blameful description) and the REASON (tangible effect on you)  to the child.”

Taken from “Dicipline without Distress” by Judy Arnall


“I feel demoralized, when I see the kitchen in a mess because I have to spend time cleaning it up.”

(Instead of “Why are you always messing up the kitchen! It’s like you want to make my life more difficult!”)


“I feel frustrated when I hear siblings bickering, and I can’t concentrate on my work”

(Instead of “You guys have got to stop fighting! It’s driving me crazy!”)

I –statements are great because they tend to not put people on the defensive, compared to a “you” message such as “You should…” “You did this…” “You are…”

Redirect (not distract):

When I first heard of the idea of redirection, I thought it meant trying to distract your child, the equivalent of pointing behind them and saying “look at the birdie!” In reality, redirection is explaining to your child what TO do instead of what NOT to do. I’ve found there is usually a big difference between saying “No! You can’t do that!” and saying “You may not do x, but you can do y.”  Or spotting a downward spiral before it happens and suggesting a new activity or project.  Sometimes redirection (especially for small children) means physically removing them from the troublesome situation to do something else.

Active listening:
This goes hand in hand with redirection, because it is a mistake to think that you can change a subject if the child needs to be heard or have their feelings recognized. Resistance to redirection is a sure sign that they need to talk about something.  Active listening involves being 100% present to hear the child (that means putting away the phone, or closing the computer) it means observing your child’s non verbal cues and body language and reflecting what you are hearing back to the child. This is different from parroting whatever your child said back to them, because active listening or reflecting includes trying to pinpoint the feelings involved. So rather than just repeating whatever they said back to them,  you try to help them put their feelings into words.


Child: “I hate Sammy.”
Parroting: “You hate Sammy?”
Paraphrasing: “You think you hate Sammy?”
Active Listening response: “I’m hearing that you are angry with Sammy for some reason.” (Note the feeling word, angry.)
To quote again from “Discipline without Distress”

“If the feeling is a wrong guess, don’t worry about it. Most children will be happy to correct you or confirm that you are on the right track. The main point is that you are making a genuine effort to understand how they are feeling and they will pick it up. ….

Many parenting may protest: but how does that solve the problem? Many parents want to jump in too soon to solve the problem, and often the child doesn’t want the parents interfering.  They want to solve their own problems, they just want a sounding board to vent. You could ask them if they want help to solve the problem. They will tell you. Once a problem is clarified in the child’s mind they can usually figure out their own solutions.”

Explaining why:
I used to think that trying to explain your reasoning to a child was like beating your head against the wall. The punitive parenting model I was following told me that my child had no interest in my reasons, they just wanted to manipulate you into letting them do whatever they wanted. I’ve since learned that it’s OK to explain why, instead of expecting instant unquestioning obedience. Answering the why question does not mean you are negotiating whether or not the child has to do the task. When my kids ask why they should do something and I’ve responded “never mind about that just go and do it!” They have no interest or understanding as to why the task is worth their effort.  I’ve found a short explanation can make a huge difference. Such as describing and talking about why we don’t run into the street instead of just giving a blanket ban on running into the street. Of course, this can sometimes turn into the never ending stream of why’s, which eventually get to the point where they cannot be answered. I’ve found if the conversation appears to be going that route it can be diffused in two ways, humour and/or reversing the question.
For example:

Me: “Did you leave the sink running? Please go turn it off. “

4 year old: “Why?”

Me: “Because it wastes water when you leave it on and we have to pay for it.”

4 year old: “Why?”

Me: “Because water just doesn’t magically appear in the faucet, we have to pay to get running water in our house, so go turn it off please.”

4 year old: “Why?”

Me: “Well, why do you think the water should get turned off?”

4 year old: “Because water could fill up the whole sink, and then splash onto the floor.”

Me: “And then it could fill up the whole house and we would float away!”

4 year old: Runs laughing to go shut off the water.

Stick with your “No”:
Saying no gets a bad rap sometimes in the Gentle parenting community, and it can be said too often, or  reflexively for no reason, so I get why that is the case. In reality “no” really doesn’t have to be said all that often. Many times instead of saying what your child CAN’T do, you can tell them what they CAN do instead, you can also say yes with conditions instead of saying no, such as “Yes, we can have a treat, as soon as we eat dinner.” Instead of “No we can’t have a treat, it’s dinnertime.”

I struggle with an inclination to say no to flippantly, and simultaneously feel guilty over refusing my kids something. While it is important to have an actual reason for saying no, and to have thought it through (because saying it too often makes it lose it’s power) it can actually be good for kids to know that the game isn’t going to change up all the time. If you have a reason for saying no, and you’ve thought it through, don’t feel guilty. You can stick with it and kids learn consistency and the fact that some things really aren’t OK.

Sometimes “no” is showing our kids how to be assertive for one’s own needs, that they also have the power to say no and set personal boundaries and expect them to be respected instead of the expectation that they will have to wear down over time and lots of nagging. “No” can define your needs, limits and values, and demonstrate to your child that it is OK to set limits and not feel guilty about it. “No” can be required to keep your child safe from harm.  If your child reacts badly to hearing a “no”, you also have the chance to offer other options and demonstrate how to express angry or disappointed feelings in healthy ways.
What has helped you improve your communication with your children?
I’ve been asked for specific ideas and scenarios illustrating gentle discipline techniques, and that prompted the birth of my ongoing series on Gentle Parenting Toolswhere I will try to do just that. Stick around to hear about my process of trial and error as I continue to figure out what it means to be a gentle positive leader, and be sure to share your own breakthroughs and ideas and questions!

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