Talk So Your Kids Will Listen

Over the last 20 years, I’ve worked with hundreds of parents facing all kinds of homework and study issues.  Many have been successful in dealing with these issues, but others have not.

Those who have made the greatest progress have done two things:  They have opened up lines of communication within their household and they have learned to talk in a manner that their child will listen to regarding their expectations.


The Power of Effective Praise

So often, real progress begins when parents learn how to praise their kids successfully.  Praise is an especially powerful tool when it comes to homework, but many parents get it wrong.  Research shows that kids who are praised for effort rather than intelligence develop the motivation to keep trying — an important determinant of success and one the child can influence.

Dr. Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University and a leading expert in motivation, conducted an oft-cited experiment on the effects of praise on 400 fifth graders.  One at a time, the children were given a fairly easy non-verbal IQ test.  The children were divided into two groups: Some were praised for their intelligence (“You must be smart at this”) and the others were praised for their effort (“You must have worked really hard”).    Later in the testing session, the same children were given a choice of tests — a more difficult test than the first test which they would learn a great deal from, or an easy one very similar to the first one.


Praising Effort Pays Off

Ninety percent of the students commended for their effort chose the more difficult test.  The majority of those praised for their intelligence chose the easy test.  Why did this happen?  Dr. Dweck said, “When we praise children for their intelligence, we tell them that this is the name of the game. Look smart and don’t risk making mistakes.”


Be Specific

Other studies have demonstrated that specific praise is far more effective than generalized acclaim.  When words are too general, children disregard their parents’ praise.   Hence, rather than saying “Good job on that paper!” to reinforce good behavior, try “I liked the way you transitioned from your first point to the second”.   Instead of “I’m so proud of you” to bolster self-esteem, say “You went back to check your work.  That extra step was a great idea.”


Use a 2:1 Ratio

One last thought about praise – use it in a 2:1 ratio when you wish to suggest ways to improve on an effort.   In other words, begin with praise, make your suggestion, end with praise.


Eliminate Idle Threats

Helping your child with homework can bring out the worst in the best parents.  How many times have you wanted to say, “I’ve had it with you!  You’re grounded for the rest of the month.”   But idle threats made out of pure frustration are damaging to kids and add to our burden of parental guilt.  They also serious undermine a parent’s credibility.    What is needed to counter negative habits are rules that you apply consistently.  For example, if your rule is no video games until homework is done, institute a reward (games after work is complete) and a consequence (no games for the rest of the day) if the child plays the game before his work is done.   In order to make this work, the rule must be applied consistently every day.  When you demonstrate that you mean what you say, your child will beg and plead a whole lot less.


Give a Warning Before Consequences

Giving a child a warning before enforcing a consequence allows him to correct his behavior.  Be calm and matter of fact.  “This is your warning.  If you continue to doodle instead of completing your worksheet, bedtime is 8:45 instead of 9 pm.”  Say no more.  If you child responds after one warning, you’re golden.  Some children need two or three.  In advance, agree to a set number of warnings to help get your child back on track. Stick to that number.  State that you are giving a warning then walk away.  At any point when you see he is doing the right thing praise his effort.   Soon the need for repeating warnings should go away.


Try It for 21 Days

Even the smallest changes in the way you talk to your children can have huge effects.  For two days make a conscious effort to praise, eliminate idle threats and give warnings.  If you notice a positive impact in how your children respond to you, you’re on the right track.  Keep going.  The old adage “it takes 21 days to change a habit” is backed by research.  After three weeks, your efforts will pay off in big ways and a good habit in how you communicate with your kids will be established.