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In Talking to Children, Remember: Less Is More


It is a truth universally acknowledged, as Jane Austen might have put it, that while children need to learn many lessons in life, they rarely learn them from their parents' lectures.

The lessons could involve any one of the family values that both Republicans and Democrats hold dear: Don't take things that don't belong to you. Look before you cross the street. Feed your pets. Wear clean underwear.

When we perceive the need for correction, we parents tend to launch into the reasons children must do these things and the dire consequences if they don't. We exaggerate and embellish at will to make our points, often becoming more impressed as we go along with how moral and intelligent we sound. So our lectures last longer and longer.

But like the cartoon of a man lecturing a dog, what the children hear is somewhat equivalent to blah-blah-blah-blah-blah. Or, the lecture is perceived as a glove to the cheek, to which they must respond with the superior and totally vexing logic of youth.

Karen Spiegler, a mother of two in Ravenna, Ohio, says, "I can tell when I'm lecturing. Their eyes kind of glaze over. Something way far away is interesting. They're not hearing anything I'm saying.

"People say, 'Oh, children are sponges. They absorb everything.' That's not true," she says. "They do not absorb it unless they want to."

Parenting expert Nancy Samalin, author of "Loving Each One Best" (Bantam Books, 1996), says parents often ask how they can get their kids to listen more. "The answer is simple to understand, difficult to do. It's talk less. Whatever you can say in a paragraph, say in a sentence. What you can say in a sentence, say in a word."

Whenever a parent feels like saying, "You are always forgetting your jacket. That jacket was very expensive. I'm tired of telling you this. If you don't care about your clothes, I won't buy you any more," they can say instead, "Johnny, jacket."

Los Angeles parenting expert A. Jayne Major calls her favorite one-sentence phrase to teach responsibility "Grandma's Rule": "We work before we play." Or its variations: "When your homework is finished, you can watch TV," or, "Eat your vegetables then you may have dessert."

Kass P. Dotterweich, author of "You Break It, You Buy It" (Liguori Publications, 1994), suggests waiting for "teachable moments" to impart moral and ethical behavior in just a few sentences without preaching. Sometimes, setting an example works best. If, say, a parent or a child chips a delicate item in a store and the clerk doesn't notice, the best reaction is to go to the checkout counter and admit it.

When Spiegler sees that familiar, far-off expression in her son's eyes, she says she realizes she has gone the wrong direction. She then reverses course and tries to simplify the lesson by asking questions--"If you cross the street and you didn't look and a truck hit you, you'll be flat. What would that teach you?"

If she's angry, she says she might read a bedtime fable later, such as the one about the boy who cries wolf, or tell stories from her own childhood to take the place of a lecture. "That way, they don't feel persecuted," she says.

Some parents are amazed at the power of brevity--and, in some cases, silence.

Samalin says a mother in one of her parenting classes had come in complaining about her 15-year-old son's rude attitude. By the fourth class, the mother told the class her son had told her, "You used to always be on my back, now I feel you're on my side."

Samalin asked her which of the parenting techniques she had been using.

"She said, 'I'm not using a lot of techniques. But I hardly ever talk at all anymore.' "

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