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Act Don't Talk

Air Date: 07/27/10 Cheryl can be reached at 775-331-6723 or at cheryl.erwin@sbcglobal.net.Words are powerful things. Most of us remember words spoken to us by our parents, teachers, coaches, and friends both encouraging and critical. If you're a parent, it's always a good idea to pay attention to both your words and the attitude with which you speak them. But it's also important to recognize that words have limitations. When it comes to parenting, words just aren't enough to get things done. One of the complaints I hear most frequently from beleaguered parents is "my child just doesn't listen!" Rarely, however, is there anything wrong with a child's hearing. A more accurate translation of this phrase is some variation on "I talk and I talk and I nag and I nag but my child just won't do what I tell him to do!" There is no age limitation on the whole "not listening" issue, by the way. Young children "don't listen" because they're usually busy exploring their own world and your requests and commands interfere with their natural curiosity and impulse to learn about the world around them including what happens when they ignore their parents. Teenagers "don't listen" for many of the same reasons; they're focused on their own needs and desires (and those of their friends, of course) or their priorities differ from those of their parents. For example, if you have a teenager, I would bet any amount of money that "take out the garbage", "empty the dishwasher", and "call me if you go somewhere other than Susie's house" aren't anywhere on your teen's list of priorities. The biggest reason kids "don't listen", however and you're not going to like this, folks is because they know they don't have to. When it comes right down to it, most parents are just hoping that words will be enough to motivate and manage their children. Too many parents are, well, wimpy. They yell at kids from the other room or from the couch in front of the television. They plead and beg. They bribe. But they rarely do anything, something their kids have totally figured out. Not long ago, a mom sat in my office with her ten-year-old daughter and six-year-old son. She's a hard-working single mom who loves her kids, takes parenting seriously, and devotes huge amounts of energy and resources to her children. She wanted to talk about why, when she goes to Wal-Mart or the grocery store, her kids have tantrums and run away from her unless she buys them toys or candy. "I feel so embarrassed," she told me wearily, "when my son stands two aisles away from me yelling while everyone watches to see what I'm going to do." And what does she do, I asked her. The answer, as it turned out, was mostly nothing. She didn't give in and buy them what they wanted, but she spent a lot of time pleading with them to behave and then yelling at them in the car on the way home. Her kids may not have gotten the trinket they wanted but they did get a lot of attention and a sense of power. By the way, punishment doesn't help, either; it usually results in power struggles and even more yelling. So what should parents do? Rudolf Dreikurs, a student of Alfred Adler's, began what were called "child guidance clinics" back in the 1940s and 50s. Today we would call them parenting classes, and people flocked to hear what Dreikurs had to tell them. It was a far less politically correct era, however, so Dreikurs didn't mince any words. When parents complained to him that their children didn't listen, he told them (and I quote), "Shut up and act." Most parents talk way too much and act way too little. Notice, "act" does not mean slap, hit, yell, shame, or humiliate but it does mean set clear guidelines in advance, make agreements when necessary, and then do exactly what you have promised. For instance, the mom I mentioned sat her children down before going to the store and explained kindly but firmly whether she planned to buy them anything that trip. She told them that they could help her shop and keep her company, but if they whined, begged, ran away from her, or had a tantrum, she would take them firmly by the hand, lead them to the car, and go home. She would then do her shopping another time when they were not present, and the family would have to do without whatever she'd been planning to buy. Her kids blinked at her and promptly threw a fit the next time they went to Wal-Mart. Hard as it was for her, this mom did exactly what she said she would. Halfway home, her kids said, "We'll be good, Mom can we go back?" She smiled, said "You can try again next time", and drove home, where they had cereal for dinner. Simply put, most parents need to follow Dreikurs's advice and "shut up and act." If you prefer kinder language, try this: act, don't talk. When you kids learn that you actually mean what you say, you may notice that their hearing magically improves. For KUNR, this is Cheryl Erwin.