The Secret to Effective Parenting

Expert Susan Nason shares her tips with Seleni

As a mother of two strong girls, I have a dogeared copy of How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk on my nightstand. It's one of my go-to parenting resources, so I was thrilled to learn that Seleni would be hosting a six-week class led by parenting coach Susan Nason based on the techniques outlined in the bestselling book.

Parenting has changed a lot since the book was published 38 years ago (with today's parents being more likely to have trouble saying no than resort to spanking), but child development hasn't, so I asked Nason how parents today can implement the book's time-tested advice to improve (and enjoy) the relationships they have with their children.

How do you help parents?
The methods I teach are about building good communication skills. They have been developed for children but are actually skills that will work with anyone. Everyone in the world wants to be seen and heard, and that's what these skills are about. Our children come into this world with their own temperaments, personalities, and needs, and we need to honor that.

How do you honor your kid's personality without letting her rule the roost?
Respecting children's needs doesn't mean you are allowing them to get their way. They are young, and they need guidance and limits. It's about learning to guide them without squashing their autonomy. It's about engaging their cooperation.

How do you get children to cooperate?
Offer choices. For instance, when you are crossing the street, ask, "Do you want to hold my right hand or my left hand?" (Notice there is no negotiation on holding hands). Or, "Do you want to brush your teeth in the bathroom or at the kitchen sink?" Choices give children autonomy because they are making decisions. It is the most useful skill parents get from my workshops. That's when they come back to me heaving a big sigh of relief and saying, "Oh, I get it. It works."

What's the biggest mistake parents make?
Being afraid to say no to their children. Before the age of 8, children are very healthfully narcissistic. It's important for them to know what they want and try to get it. And what they want is 'bigger, better, more.' But it actually scares them when they do get it.

It's more important for children to trust our 'no,' than to trust our 'yes.' One of the roots of adult happiness is feeling safe, and if children can't trust that we will back up our responses, especially when it comes to things like health and safety, then they have no boundaries to help them feel safe.

What parenting practice would you like to put an end to?
Time out. It makes children feel rejected and abandoned. Our job is not to make a child feel bad about herself. Our job is to make her realize who she is, what her attributes are, and what her challenges are. Besides, time out doesn't work. It doesn't change a child's behavior. Rather, children often spend the time fantasizing revenge or plotting how to be sneaky. I believe in a compassionate way of parenting, rather than one that is fear based.

But some parents swear by it. What can they replace it with?
Replace time out with compassion using these three steps: Acknowledge feelings, offer choices, and set limits. Work together on finding a mutually agreeable solution. This is something we spend a lot of time on in my workshops, learning and practicing specific techniques to use as alternatives to punishment and tweaking them to fit your family's needs.

Why would I attend a workshop if I can just read the book?
I've been doing this (as well as serving as assistant to the director of a nursery school) for 35 years. My daughter is 38, and I have two grandchildren. So I have pretty much seen and heard it all. I can talk with parents about the range of normal when it comes to developmental milestones and help them understand where their child's behavior fits in.

It's also wonderful for parents to be in a group with other parents who have been through (or are going through) similar experiences. Each week we start off discussing the 'homework,' including what worked for you and your children and what didn't. And then we can brainstorm another approach specific to your child. Plus, I make myself very available to parents in my workshops. I am just an email or text away.

What is the biggest change you see in parents when you work with them?
Parents tell me that the amount of patience they have explodes when they have these techniques to draw on. There's an exercise in the book where patience is described as big as a watermelon or small as a pea. Parents who take these workshops say their patience is the size of a watermelon afterward, and they came to the workshop with patience the size of a pea.

What is the secret to happy parenting?
Listening to your children. When you develop compassionate parenting skills, you can draw on them no matter the challenge your children present. That, in turn, allows you to be a calm presence in their lives, watching and marveling at how they grow, mature, ripen, and expand. And therein lies the joy.