Speak Softly

No, I’m not talking to your kids, I’m talking to you. You may have heard this from the self empowerment experts. If you want other people to listen carefully to what you have to say, don’t speak louder, lower your voice. Make them work to hear you. It’s counter-intuitive and very effective.

The same goes for talking to your kids.

Now don’t get me wrong, I haven’t perfected the technique yet — which is partly why I’m such an advocate. It’s so much easier and more automatic to start ratcheting it up to get their attention. Here’s a familiar scene …

To your 8-year-old: “Honey, it’s time to turn off Super Mario Brothers and start your homework.” No response.

A little louder: “Jake, honey. I said it’s homework time. I’ll give you 30 seconds to finish that up, then it’s going off.” No response.

In your very loudest and most insistent inside voice: “OK, time’s up. DON’T make me come over there and turn it off myself. You’ll be sorry.” Brief upward glance, followed by, “Just a minute, Mom, I’m almost done with level 174!”

By now you’re screaming: “JAKE! I SAID NOW! GO START YOUR HOMEWORK RIGHT NOW. AND you’ve LOST that silly game for 48 hours. You can have it back WHEN YOU LEARN TO LISTEN!” You hit the power button and Jake skulks off to do his homework with a less-than-positive attitude. He’s mad, you’re mad and no one’s likely to learn much of anything.

What if, instead, you tried starting off with the same conversational tone in step 1, but instead of raising the decibel level when you’re ignored, take it down a notch. Take a step closer to Jake, let him know you’re there, and repeat your request more quietly in your best I really mean it tone. You know — the one you use when you tell him to put on his bike helmet or his seatbelt. The one that says matter-of-factly “this is non-negotiable.”

All of a sudden, Jake looks up quizzically. Wait … something’s different. Mom’s not getting freaked out. Usually he can count on about 5 minutes before you lose it and this routine comes to its logical conclusion, but not this time. He may have to listen up and see which way things are going.

Chances are it’s going to take more than one round to shift this well-worn pattern, and he may go back to focus on his Wii a time or two before the new normal sinks in, but by that time you’re standing in front of the screen and speaking in a near whisper (serious, neutral, and without anger) when you say, “Jake, homework starts now. You can do it at your desk, or you can bring it to the kitchen table. Which would you like?”

Yup, there’s a new game in town.

I can pretty much guarantee that if you try this, treat it like an experiment, and make a 7 day no-yelling pact with yourself, it’ll pay off. By the end of that time your house will be a quieter, less volatile place and your Jake will be hearing you before your head is ready to explode. Because you’ve trained him to.

Is this starting to sound familiar? If something in the back of your head is saying “I’ve done something like this before”, you’re right. When you taught him to put himself to sleep at 7 or 8 months, that was a training technique, too.

You created a new bedtime routine and you stuck to it even though it was hard. That first night was really tough, and he cried for what seemed like hours (even though it was only 20 minutes). You let him hear your soothing voice through the door every 5 minutes, but you didn’t let yourself go into the room no matter how much you wanted to. The 2nd and 3rd nights got better, and by night 4 he was sleeping through, but you had to stay strong to get there.

The same theory applies. You’re training your kiddo to listen by not yelling. The key is to control your own inner voice that gets louder and louder as you get more and more frustrated. When you get annoyed, you naturally sound agitated and emotional and you’ve lost the battle, just like when you gave up after the 18th or 19th minute of crying and ran in the room to comfort that baby and get the wailing to stop.

Like I said, I haven’t perfected the technique. Last time Younger Son was home from college we got into one of those long, philosophical discussions that are so interesting with young adults. I don’t even recall how we ended up on the subject of career paths and the value of earning power vs. self-growth and inner peace, but … well, you can probably picture how it went.

As our 21-year-old lectured us on the emptiness of traditional Western values, I was struck by how paying his exorbitant college tuition is disturbing his parents’ inner peace. Easy for you to say, Bucko! The conversation went back and forth, and my voice got louder and louder. I was hooked and I knew it, but I couldn’t do a thing about it. We were locked in the idealistic student/time-worn parent dance.

By the time we got to the college-age version of “GO START YOUR HOMEWORK RIGHT NOW” (something like … I’M DONE — it’s 1 AM and I have to get up at 6), I knew we weren’t hearing each other any more.

But it’s never too late, and I know I’m going to nail the training next time.

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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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3 responses to “Speak Softly”

  1. Hannah Nedrow

    Lovely site and thanks for reminding me that yelling is counterproductive.

    Off to start my seven-day no-yelling pact.

  2. Mom of 2 boys

    Thank you, I really needed this. We have become *that* family — the one that yells and fights and carries on constantly. And I hate it.
    My boys (3 and 6) are yelling frequently now too, and I may hate that more than my and my husband’s yelling. In reality though, I know my husband and I only have ourselves to blame for our boys’ outbursts.
    I’m trying to shake this nasty yelling habit, and this article will serve as a reminder and inspiration to kick the habit. Thank you.

  3. CountryMidwife

    That is one of the main tricks to well behaved Amish children, in my experience!

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