Sunday, August 23, 2015

Lessons in Listening from Carl Rogers and the Best Parenting Book I've Read

I’ve been trying to write this post for ages now, and it’s still messy and not how I wanted it to end up, but my holidays will soon be over and I have to finish writing Mo’s birthday post and start on my readings for my next class, so I’m giving up on it. I think the problem is that I’m trying to do too many things at once here: a review of How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, with clever mentions of Carl Rogers’* person-centred therapy mixed in, topped with a sprinkling of my own shifting ideas about parenting and listening. 

How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk (henceforth HTT, because even the acronym of this title’s too long) seems to me to be a practical guide to the kind of listening promoted in Carl Rogers’ approach to psychotherapy, although I’m no expert on either so may be seeing more significant overlaps than actually exist. (I’ve also wondered if it’s weird associating the parent-child relationship with the therapist-patient relationship; I’m leaning towards no, if the relationship looks like the kind modelled by Rogers in this video,** for example, but I can understand why others would find the idea uncomfortable.) 

Okay, so my reasons for smooshing Rogers and HTT together into a single blog post: Firstly, in Rogers’ person-centred therapy, the therapist is not the expert whose job it is to solve each patient’s problems. The therapist must listen empathically, respond authentically, and express “unconditional positive regard” for the patient. HTT puts it this way:
The hardest part is the shift we have to make in attitude. We have to stop thinking of the child as a “problem” that needs correction. We have to give up the idea that because we’re adults we always have the right answer. We have to stop worrying that if we’re not “tough enough” the child will take advantage of us.

It requires a great act of faith to believe that if we take the time to sit down and share our real feelings with a young person, and listen to his feelings, together we’ll come up with solutions that will be right for both of us.

There is an important message built into this approach. It says, “When there is conflict between us, we no longer have to mobilize our forces against each other and worry about who will emerge victorious and who will go down in defeat. Instead, we can put our energy into searching for the kinds of solutions that respect both our needs as individuals.” We are teaching our children that they needn’t be our victims or our enemies. We are giving them the tools that will enable them to be active participants in solving the problems that confront them – now, while they’re at home, and in the difficult, complex world that awaits them. (From page 110)
People have asked us, “If I use these skills appropriately, will my children always respond?” Our answer is: We would hope not. Children aren’t robots. Besides, our purpose is not to set forth a series of techniques to manipulate behaviour so that children always respond.
Our purpose is to speak to what is best in our children – their intelligence, their initiative, their sense of responsibility, their sense of humour, their ability to be sensitive to the needs of others. 
We want to put an end to talk that wounds the spirit and search out the language that nourishes self-esteem. We want to create an emotional climate that encourages children to cooperate because they care about themselves, and because they care about us. We want to demonstrate the kind of respectful communication that we hope our children will use with us – now, during their adolescent years, and, ultimately, as our adult friends. (From pages 88-89)
Let’s just assume they’re totally talking along the same lines and move on.

Since reading HTT, I hear examples of terrible listening all the time. A particular person I know, who may or may not be my husband, instinctually responds with, “It’s okay!” whenever anyone in our family seems annoyed or upset. This drives me NUTS! “Obviously it’s NOT okay!!!!!” I tell him, in a manner which makes it crystal clear how extremely un-okay it actually is. Saying “It’s okay!” isn’t listening to someone’s feelings, it’s telling them what feelings you’d like to hear. (I’ve cheekily started with a not-me example, but I’m equally as bad: My first response when someone shares a problem with me is to a) try to fix it, b) tell them about a similar thing that happening to me/a friend/a relative/a random I read about, or c) explain the positive side of the problem to them with some kind of “But at least…” statement. Mostly I go for all three, just to make sure I’m covering all possible bases. I suck at being able to say, “Wow, that sounds hard,” and then leave it there. Even typing it was difficult.)

Listening to friends is one thing, but I find it especially hard to put HTT’s tips/Rogers’ requirements for good listening into practice as a parent. I suck at being able to hear Mo’s whinges and disappointments empathically; I usually respond either by feeling as though he’s blaming me for his negative emotions (and getting defensive), or by feeling as though he’s making a huge and unjustified mountain out of a small and silly molehill (and getting irritated). As well as that, I’ve only recently started learning how to be authentic in my relationship with Mo and Hazel (this lesson was the most helpful thing I took away from Heart to Heart Parenting by Robin Grille). Carl Rogers calls it ‘congruence’ – the therapist lets the patient experience them as they really are (what the therapist says/does reflects exactly what’s going on inside their heads). 

In this post from 2012, I wrote that I found it tough “trying to react sweetly to being whacked in the head with surprisingly painful toys.” It’s one line in the post, but it jumped out at me when I reread it a while ago, and it’s bugged me since. Why did I think I needed to react sweetly to Moses hurting me? Why did I think I needed to respond with calm and peace and zen-ness to everything, instead of modelling healthy and productive ways of expressing my valid negative emotions? (Answer: it’s because at that point I didn’t seem to understand that negative emotions could be valid, let alone know of any healthy and productive ways to express them.) I used to want my children to only see the happy, fun, very-together me, instead of seeing the whole-me who also feels frustrated and angry and sad. Authenticity is liberating. I still feel proud of myself when I hear Moses say, “I’m feeling really frustrated!” instead of throwing toys across the room (which is, after all, just another way of expressing the same emotion). (He still sometimes throws toys across the room in frustration. Just so you know.)

Although I’m now hyper aware of the many opportunities I miss with Mo (especially) to listen well, I feel like I’ve already improved since reading HTT (and obsessively watching Carl Rogers videos on YouTube), which brings me to my review of the book. If you’ve heard Episode 6 of our podcast (‘Podcast Anxiety’***), you’ll know how difficult I find it to pay actual money for a book – I borrow whatever I want to read from the library or from friends. I’ve spent less than $50 on reading material over the last 10 or something years (not including textbooks - *weeps*). 

Well, I bought HTT. That’s my review for you. And if that’s not enough: I LOVED it. I teared up regularly while reading (bizarrely, perhaps; so many example conversations made me think, “That child would just feel so heard and loved! It’s so beautiful!!!” and then the tears would start). It was incredibly practical – there are stacks of examples and even drawings to quickly refer back to later as reminders. I had to wait for over 6 months for my chance to read this book thanks to the many people who’d reserved it before me, but I’m now happy that so many of my fellow library-users have read it; it makes me feel hopeful about my community and society at large and the future for the batch of kids who are growing up feeling heard and respected, rather than controlled and disempowered.

I wanted to buy a copy not only for myself, but for every person in the world (baby steps, though; I’m not about to rush out to spend billions of dollars when it’s been tough spending $31). The book is essential for parents, but the lessons on listening are pertinent to all relationships; if you’re a son, daughter, boyfriend, girlfriend, mother, father, employer, employee, husband, wife, teacher, student, aunty, uncle, friend or sibling, YOU SHOULD READ THIS BOOK. I score it 74 out of 5 potatoes.


* When I told Alan I wanted to be Carl Rogers, he said he wouldn’t like me as much if I was Carl Rogers. This is a conundrum.

** This video is 45 minutes long, which is ridiculous if youre not trying to become Carl Rogers; I couldn’t find the shorter clip we had to watch for class. You can get a taste of his listening style by watching just a few minutes. Or, if youre super keen, you could listen to other people (including his daughter) talking about his approach here.

*** To find it, search for ‘Ms Sundays’ in the podcast aisle of iTunes.


  1. You're amazing. Want to be my therapist? Or my same-age-parent?
    Your children are going to be incredibly self-aware and well-adjusted adults.
    I am 30 years old and I am only just learning how to put aside silence as a way to communicate anger and instead say 'I feel angry with you because...' I've said those lines about twice in my life, and each time it felt dreadfully uncomfortable and I wanted to retreat into back into my passive aggression instead!

    1. I'm only learning that now (at 32), too! Passive-aggression comes soooo much more naturally. When it comes to anger, though (especially with Alan), I usually take a while to figure out a) if my anger's justified, and b) what the root of the problem is, so there's an interim period I need to figure out what to do with, expression-wise. ("I *may* be angry with you, but it'll take a few more days to know for sure. Please let me ignore you until then. Thank you for your patience." ?????) Ugh. I really thought I'd have figured life out by now.

    2. haha! yes i completely understand the need for an interim period.
      me too i thought id be much more grown up by this age...

  2. ps. This book sounds like the opposite of Asian hierarchy-based parenting.