While browsing the “New Releases” shelf at my library, I came across a parenting book that was published just six months ago. The title caught my eye since I am in the midst of parenting teens and young adults.
The School of Hard Talks: How to Have Real Conversations with Your (Almost Grown) Kids by Emily Kline
The book promises to improve our relationships with our children by helping us connect and communicate better. Kline delivers on this promise. Though the language is somewhat scholarly, it is a quick read filled with relatable examples. She empowers parents by helping them develop motivational interviewing techniques.
Here’s what I liked about this book:
Emphasis on Partnership
The most important thing a parent can do is to develop a sense of partnership, teaches Kline. This comes from mutual respect and understanding. She argues that our influence comes from the strength of our relationships. This resonates with me. I appreciate the feelings of teamwork that come after collaborating with my child in the kitchen or in the yard. I like having time to work with them shoulder-to-shoulder as a partner.
Kline asks parents, “Are you happy with your typical approach?” Clearly, anyone picking up this book is going to answer, “no.”
One tendency I’ve noticed as I parent older children is that I want to require obedience. This isn’t possible of course, and I often reach for threats as a lever. This never helps. The problem with threats is two-fold, Kline explains: they escalate conflict and inhibit communication. Overall, she reminds us, power struggles undermine partnership. I know this in my mind, but still I find I have times when the daily problems gravitate towards power struggles. It can be hard to prevent.
Emphasis on Curiosity about our Teens
In order to increase partnership, Kline offers the balm of curiosity. You might think you know your child well, she says, “but, try to have a conversation about their opinions in a nonjudgmental way and be surprised about how they are changing and growing.” I have found this to be true with my children. Their viewpoints are fresh and newly formed.
Learning more about what your child actually thinks and feels will help you interact with them as an individual, Kline urges. This means that we as parents need to shift from a focus on compliance to a willingness to respect the child’s thoughts and ideas. I liked this suggestion especially because curiosity decreases my impulse to battle. I am a better version of myself when I am curious.
Emphasis on Improving Listening Skills
You might not actually know how to listen well, Kline counsels.
There are two things to do when listening to your child:
You can do this by asking nonjudgmental questions such as:
“What’s going on?”and “Tell me more.”
Kline advocates that even praise isn’t helpful when we are listening. She explains, “Praise says, ‘good job! I approve.’”
Our goal is reflection which says only, “I hear you, I understand.”
When we listen, we need to put aside any agenda and simply show understanding while we offer attention.
Emphasis on Why Your Child Dismisses your Input
Parents wonder why their older teens and young adult children don’t hear them. There are three things we all tend to do and these make our children ignore us:
Trying to fix it
Minimizing the issue
It’s almost automatic to respond to a child this way. To help parents manage conversations without falling back on their old habits, Kline provides “Sample Scripts” that parents can follow. The goal, Kline emphasizes, is to help your child solve problems competently on their own.
I especially liked Kline’s recommendations to ask questions that nurture the relationship. Some possibilities:
What’s getting in the way of following the rules?
If you had a magic wand, what would you change about this situation?
Help me understand why this means so much to you
What I didn’t like about this book
Throughout the book, Kline emphasizes that as a child grows, their parent’s role is shifting. Her big idea: “Parenting is not controlling your child’s path but rather creating a relationship of trust and mutual respect.”
I absolutely agree with this. We cannot make choices for our children. We cannot force them to behave a certain way.
There were two sentences in the introduction that almost made me put down the book:
“Parents cannot control how their kids turn out.”
This was followed by:
“Parents have far less influence than they may imagine.”
While I can agree that children will make their own choices and parents cannot always prevent problems and disagreements, I do not agree with parents having very little influence. There are many things parents can do to increase their influence. In my opinion, one of them is the quantity and quality of time with their children. For me, choosing to homeschool is a choice about building relationships as much as offering an education. I want to know my children well and I want them to know and understand me. Believing that we don’t have much chance at influencing makes me feel like giving up. Rather, believing that my love and enthusiasm can make a difference allows me to want to continue.
Who might benefit from this book
Parents who find themselves battling with teens (which is basically every parent)
Those who are focused on helping their children transition into adulthood
Those who are struggling with accepting their children’s choices
Other books that are similar
More on connection with your child: “Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers” by Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté
More on sample scripts and speaking without judgment: “Between Parent and Child” by Haim Ginott
More on listening deeply: “Never Split the Difference” by Chris Voss
Anxiety is what happens when something important is out of our control
Instead of thinking “emergency” we can think, “this is what it feels like to be alive in an uncontrollable world”
“When you listen, they listen.”
“Trust builds when teens feel understood, confident and in control.”
Kline’s Best Tips for having a hard conversation
Set the stage
Consider walking or driving
Be direct, brief and concrete
Voice an observation (not an opinion!)
“I’ve noticed you haven’t showered lately”
What’s behind that change?
What’s getting in the way
Reflect words and feelings
Calm and neutral voice
Affirm values and motivation
Continue listening and reflecting
Ask questions longer than you feel is necessary
Look for solutions: What do you think would help
The solution does not need to come from you
Ask permission before giving advice: Can I make a suggestion?
Do not belabor the issue
Check back in after a few days—start 5 steps again
Take a break when you feel like you are upset
Watch your ratio of positive to negative comments
Hand over control
Her material is available for free: https://handholdma.org/what-can-i-do/the-school-of-hard-talks-online-lessons-from-motivational-interviewing-for-everyday-families