Raising Wild Things Without Becoming One: “How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen” (Book Review)


Day 14 of my 30-day writing challenge

Last week, I dusted off my flute and fumbled by way through a Poulenc Sonata whose second movement is my favorite piece to play. It’s a slow, haunting, minor melody with dramatic bursts of dissonance. I learned it as a young college student, and the thing I remember most about that process was my female teacher telling me, only half jokingly, that it was a passionate song and that I probably needed to be deflowered before I could do it justice.

The comment mystified me at the time, and looking back, I think I get it even less. I think there’s some fallacy that young people – children, teens, even young adults who are short on romantic experiences – don’t feel things deeply, and are unacquainted with the joys and sorrows that we bigger people have access to. As though there is some sort of sexual experience card that buys you admission to an elite club of emotions.

One of the few things that I took away from a graduate school class I had in Children’s Literature is that children feel things very deeply indeed, and the best children’s writers understand that and don’t condescend to them. To read Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” is to be invited into a world of primal love, rage, fear, attachment, rejection, joy, and hunger. It’s to see in vivid colors and sprawling crosshatchings that children can seem monstrous to adults, and to themselves, because they feel so much, not because they feel so little.

As I read How to Talk to Little Kids Will Listen: A Survival Guide to Life With Children Ages 2-7 by Joanna Faber and Julie King, what stands out is the authors’ respect for the inner lives of little ones, one that carries across from the preceding book in the series, the classic How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlisch.


The first principle for talking to your youngsters comes early in the book:

Children depend on us to name their feelings so that they can find out who they are. If we don’t, our unspoken message is: ‘You don’t mean what you say, you don’t know what you know, you don’t feel what you feel, you can’t trust your own senses.

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.

John Berger famously wrote that women are always watching themselves being watched. Children, however, are always watching themselves be watched by their parents or other important adults in their lives — not, as women do, to make themselves objects of the male gaze — but instead to help them affirm and shape their own subjectivity and agency. Again and again, my kids say, “Mommy, watch me! Dad, did you see me do this?” If we don’t watch them, they are unsatisfied. It’s almost like the action didn’t happen. So it makes sense that the same is true for feelings as well.

I’ve long been the prototypical dismissive parent when it comes to feelings. My son is mad because his sister is mistreating a toy that he just threw on the floor in a fit of temper? Well, that makes no sense! My daughter is crying because she has to leave the park? Does she not appreciate that we spent two hours there already? This is, I’m afraid, a classic East Asian-influenced upbringing: Whatever you feel, you shouldn’t. Stop it!

Faber and King’s strategy for affirming feelings instead of yelling and berating — thus setting your children on their way to becoming adults with compassion for themselves and others, while also helping to direct them in a way that adults can live with  — is simple. The formula goes like this:

I understand / hear / know (your feelings about x). The problem is (explanation of parent’s perspective)

In my house, examples might be:

I understand that you’re angry that you can’t run around the house naked when you’re hot. The problem is we have guests over for dinner, and they don’t really want to see bare bottoms with their broccoli.

I hear that you’re sad that you didn’t get to eat ice cream for dessert. The problem is that you already had cake for breakfast and too many sweets aren’t good for your teeth or your tummy. (. . . Wait, what? You had a lollipop, too? When did that happen?)

I know you want to watch more Netflix. The problem is you’ve already watched seven episodes back-to-back of “Puss N’ Boots” and Mom has to at least pretend to be a responsible adult. 

There is much more to the book, which includes tools (and stories of parents implementing them) not just for handling emotions, but also for engaging cooperation, resolving conflict, expressing praise and appreciation, and for parenting kids who are on the autism spectrum or have sensory issues. There is also a chapter that will appreciated by skeptical parents: an acknowledgement that there are times when all these tools will fail you, including when your children are hungry, sleep-deprived, overwhelmed, or being asked to do something beyond their capacity. These caveats seem more than fair, considering that adults don’t do very well in those situations either. Listening and affirming skills are crucial, to be sure, but there are times when all of us just need a cookie and a nap.

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