Parent Talk: How to Talk to your Children in Language that Builds Self-Esteem and Encourages Responsibility

Parent Talk: How to Talk to your Children in Language that Builds Self-Esteem and Encourages Responsibility

by Chick Moorman

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The right words for every situation.

Do you find yourself in those maddening situations where you sound like a broken record when talking to your child? Your preschooler won’t decide what she wants to wear, regardless of how many times you insist that she just choose; your struggling third grader says “I can't do math,” and your “Sure you


The right words for every situation.

Do you find yourself in those maddening situations where you sound like a broken record when talking to your child? Your preschooler won’t decide what she wants to wear, regardless of how many times you insist that she just choose; your struggling third grader says “I can't do math,” and your “Sure you can!” reassurance falls like a dead weight; your daughter smears on black eyeliner just before the bus arrives, and your daily protests are muted by hers.

What’s left to say? Lots.

In Parent Talk, a must-have for every parent with a preschool to high school-age child, Chick Moorman tells you what to say so that you can communicate more effectively—and peacefully—with your child in every circumstance, including:

-The morning mad dash to dress, eat, and leave the house on time
-The nightly struggle to focus on homework
-The endless car ride of exhaustion-induced whining
-The meltdown in the mall

For instance, Moorman’s antidote to the “I can’t” loop is “Act as if you’ve done this before.” With Moorman’s help, you’ll learn the words to use and the words to avoid to end power struggles and the fruitless conversation loops you’re stuck in.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Howard Glasser author of Transforming the Difficult Child Parent Talk adds great dimension to the language of parenting, especially for those parents who want to build self-esteem. Moorman infuses the endeavor with humor, heart, and thoughtfulness.
Publishers Weekly
Language acquisition isn't just a toddler's job: Moorman takes parenting common sense-the notion that affirming, loving speech is crucial to a child's growth and self-esteem-to the level of a "skills-based program" of parenting language in this earnest volume. In a new introduction (Moorman originally self-published the book), he encourages parents to select a few of his "Parent Talk" phrases and practice them until they come naturally; gradually, they can move on to fluency. Parents, he says, should use language that encourages their child to make choices, learn "response-ability" (healthy responses to challenges and setbacks) and seek solutions-e.g., "How come you picked your grumpy mood?"; "So your dad says you're grounded. How did you produce that result?"; and "I know you can handle it." Some of Moorman's phrases sound extremely awkward, while some familiar ones-"You did a good job"-are verboten. (Praise that evaluates rather than describes or appreciates can make children into "praise junkies" whose sense of worth is dependent on others' compliments instead of their own confidence, Moorman warns.) It would take an extremely conscientious parent to employ all these phrases consistently, but Moorman's basic message of encouraging child empowerment and family solidarity through healthy parental communication is an important one, and many of his suggestions feel right on target. (Mar.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

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Your choice of words and your style of communication, are critical to the self-esteem, emotional health, and personal empowerment of your children. There is an undeniable link between the words you speak and your child's behaviors and attitudes. The way you talk to your children affects their perceptions, interpretations, beliefs, values, and approach to life; it influences their actions as well as the consequences of those actions. By carefully choosing and using words and phrases that build self-esteem and encourage self-responsibility, you can help your children become more capable, caring human beings. That's what Parent Talk, the skills-based program described in this book, is all about. It will teach you a series of verbal skills and language patterns to help you raise responsible, respectful children as you reduce stress, strain, and family conflict.

We often use words without thinking about their effect. We repeat certain phrases out of habit or use words that our parents once used with us. My hope is that Parent Talk will help you become more conscious of the words you use — and aware of the power you wield when you use words that praise, nurture, and empower as well as words that scold, shame, and criticize. In the pages that follow you'll recognize comments, suggestions, questions, and commands that I hear parents say to their children every day. Some I'll recommend you continue to use because they will help your children become more response-able (able to respond in healthy ways to all that life throws at them). Others I'll ask you to eliminate from your parent talk repertoire because they encourage learned helplessness, power struggles, and mutual resentment. I realize it's not easy to break ingrained habits, so whenever I suggest you stop using a particular phrase, I'll suggest emotionally healthy alternatives.

The first chapter, "Choices," will help you learn to construct language that offers age-appropriate, controlled choices to your children. You will also learn to use language that helps children become conscious of the choices they express through their words and actions.

"Response-ability," the second chapter, is an effort to help you assist your children to become more response-able — as I wrote above, able to perceive and make a variety of healthy responses to the situation at hand. It includes the "I can't" antidote, language that will encourage children to develop a strong inner authority, and attribute-awareness strategies that help children understand how their choice of words and deeds can have both positive and negative consequences.

"The Search for Solutions" focuses on parent talk that encourages a solution-seeking mindset in children. The foundation is language that communicates your belief in your children's ability to solve many of their own problems.

I wrote the chapter "Learned Helplessness" for parents who tend to "overfunction." In other words, parents who tend to do so much for their children that their children don't learn to do much of anything for themselves. This chapter will help you stamp out learned helplessness in your family and create autonomous, independent children who can think and act for themselves in emotionally, mentally, and physically healthy ways.

"Praise, Criticism, and Self-Esteem" warns against the excessive use of evaluative praise, the style of praise that creates praise junkies. Being hooked on praise may not sound life threatening, but the sad truth is that praise junkies don't have a genuine sense of their own self-worth. Instead they're on an endless chase after external proof of it. The far healthier alternative is descriptive and appreciative praise that encourages a strong internal sense of self-esteem, an esteem that comes from the inside out rather than from the outside in.

"Parent Talk at Its Worst" reminds us all that children are abused with words far more often than with fist or belt. Words wound. The physical bruises and scars they create aren't immediately evident, but instead show up later as defiance, delinquency, addiction, learning disabilities, and negative attitudes.

"Intimacy" and "Feelings" discuss ways to bond with your children, creating a strong sense of belonging. You can use the skills presented here to build family solidarity as well as help your children feel that they are being heard. Specifically, this chapter addresses how to respond effectively to a child caught up in strong emotion.

"Increasing Conflict" and "Reducing Conflict" each offer language patterns to avoid as well as those to put into practice if reducing family conflict is on your parenting wish list. These skills, coupled with those presented in "The Search for Solutions," will reveal the silver lining in conflicts. Conflicts can be constructive and resolved in ways that meet the needs of both parent and child.

"Odds and Ends" is a collection of the remaining Parent Talk tools. Here you will learn to separate the deed from the doer, communicate strong feeling without wounding the spirit, and make self-referred comments (statements about your own behavior with a family value attached) to influence your child's behavior.

In the pages that follow you'll read quite a bit about raising response-able children, and my hope is that along the way you'll become more response-able parents. By increasing the number of tools you have in your parenting tool box, you increase the likelihood that you will match the most effective tool to the appropriate situation. It is often said that if the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to look at everything as if it were a nail. Sometimes a hammer is just what's called for. Other times, it's a screwdriver, chisel, wrench, or drill. With a variety of tools from which to choose, you no longer have to rely on a hammer when what you really need is a drill. When you can pick and choose from several Parent Talk skills, you have become a more response-able parent.

But the truth is, having tools isn't enough. To become an effective parent, you have to put the tools you have at your disposal to use. Regularly. People do not become good drivers, golfers, skiers, or horseback riders overnight. It takes much practice under a variety of conditions to become proficient at these endeavors. The same holds true for Parent Talk skills. Put simply, the skills work if you work the skills.

Between the covers of this book are hundreds of pages of what I've learned as a parent, a grandparent, and an educator. But my intent is not to overwhelm you with ideas. It is to offer you a variety from which to choose. The best way to begin is to begin simply. I suggest you start with two or three Parent Talk phrases. Write your selected phrases on note cards and carry them around with you. Tape them on your refrigerator or your bathroom mirror. Display them on the dashboard of your car. They're there to remind you of your goal to integrate this new language into everyday conversations with your kids.

When you're reminded of a Parent Talk phrase, see if you can put it to use immediately. See how many times you can use it in the next thirty minutes. Go ahead, exaggerate it. Play with it. Use these new skills whenever you can. Eventually, if you persist, you will hear yourself using this new repertoire effortlessly. When you get to that point, congratulate yourself. This is exactly where you want to be. When a phrase becomes second nature, it's a sign that you have successfully integrated it into your Parent Talk tool kit. The next step? Focus on a new phrase. Choose other pieces of the Parent Talk System and begin the process again. I think you'll start to notice positive change in the tone and spirit of the talk around your dinner table.

I promise you there is no single Parent Talk word or phrase that spoken once will immediately transform your parenting style or your child. This book teaches a system of communicating, a way of speaking, a style of language that with consistent use will have a cumulative effect. Repetition is the key. Repeated use of these words and phrases, delivered with an open heart, will eventually transform your relationship with your children.

There is no one best place to begin implementing the Parent Talk System. You could start with the first phrase in this book or the last. There is no prescribed order to follow. As you read through these pages, simply look for phrases that resonate with you. Focus on those that fit with your parenting philosophy and family values. You will know where you need to begin. Trust that you know. Begin at your beginning. Let the rest of your steps flow from there. Your children will let you know by their behavior what steps you need to take next.

Workshop participants often tell me they feel guilty after reading Parent Talk. "I wish I had known and used more of this material when my children were younger," they say. I tell them, "I wish I had known and used more of this material when my children were younger, too." And I mean it. Then I remind myself that what I knew at the time is what I knew at the time. There is no way I could have implemented skills that were not part of my parenting tool box. The same is true for you.

My intention is not to encourage you to feel guilt or remorse over words you have used in the past, but rather to provide you with new perspectives on old patterns of communication, along with an array of new choices. My hope is that you'll use Parent Talk to become more aware of your word choices and the effect they have on your children. Use it as a resource to strengthen communication with your youngsters, starting today.

When I wrote Parent Talk, my children were grown. Two of them had children of their own. I was traveling all over the country, lecturing and teaching seminars on how to raise responsible, caring, confident youngsters. I was speaking, writing, dancing, riding horses, and enjoying the single life. And, truthfully, using the skills I had written about only occasionally with my grandchildren and my grown children.

Then it happened. Overnight, with no warning, my life was turned upside down. My oldest daughter, Marti, died unexpectedly. Her children, Chelsea, age fourteen, and Austin, age eleven, moved in with me. Although I had wonderful support from relatives, the primary responsibility of raising these two children was suddenly mine.

One day I was at home alone, thinking mostly about myself. The next day I was the head of a family that included two adolescents.

A year later, I feel deeply blessed. There is more love in my home now than in the past nine years. If I could, I would change the circumstances that brought these two incredible children into my life full time. Yet I would not want to give up the love and affection that are now a part of my daily life. Softball games, volleyball games, sibling rivalry, school conferences, tae kwon do, the testing of limits. It seems like I've been here before.

I have learned some important parenting lessons in the past year. First, I learned it's a lot easier to travel all around the country telling other people how to raise children than it is to do it. There is always a gap between theory and practice. Practicing what you preach isn't always easy.

Most important, I relearned that the skills work if you work the skills. The Parent Talk strategies presented in this book are not pie-in-the-sky theories that only sound good on paper. They really do work if you use them — and use them, and use them.

When I am in my higher self, when I am on my game, when I am feeling good and using the skills consistently, things go well here. Peace reigns. Conflict is worked out to the benefit of all. Courtesy and respect are present. Parenting is fun, even when there are problems. I like myself better.

When I am not on my game, when I forget to use the skills, I can always tell. It shows up behaviorally in the children and in myself. There is more bickering and sulking and self-isolation. The flavor and tenor of the whole house changes. Parenting is not fun. I don't like myself as much.

I can tell you this: The hardest part for me now is remembering to use the skills, even though I know these skills inside out. I wrote the book! For me it is not a matter of knowing the skills. The issue is remembering to use them when I am tired, stressed, and angry. That is my challenge.

To meet that challenge, I have begun carrying note cards with me again, to remind myself of what I'm trying to do. My goal is to stay conscious, to remain aware of when I am using the skills and when I am not. When I become aware that I am not using Parent Talk skills I can choose again. When I am conscious, I have the choice. And my conscious choice is always to use the skills.

Today I am choosing to relearn and use these skills to create happy, caring, confident, response-able children. I invite you to join me.

Copyright © 1998 by Chick Moorman and Personal Power Press

From: Response-ability

"Act as if..."

As parents, we hear "I can't" language all too often. It may occur as our child struggles with a long division assignment. It could take place as he attempts to master a new Nintendo game. Or it might be uttered as he works at reading directions for a recipe or instructions on how to build a model airplane. Whenever it occurs, "I can't" language signals an "I can't" attitude toward learning and achieving. Often accompanied by a whiny tone, "I can't" words are connected to "I can't" thinking, "I can't" believing, and "I can't" behaviors.

How do you respond when one of your children looks up from his study table and verbalizes some version of "I can't do it"? What do you say? If you're like many of the participants who attend my parent seminars, you reply with words similar to, "Sure you can, come on, try." Parents believe that if children would just try, they'd eventually prove to themselves that they can.

"Sure you can, come on, try" sounds like helpful parent talk. It is not because, most often, it doesn't work. Typically, children respond to our efforts to get them to try with "I'm trying" or "I tried already."

What children and parents don't realize is that trying doesn't work. Only doing works. Anyone busy trying is not busy doing. Trying is often an excuse for giving up.

A strategic piece of parent talk to replace the "Come on, try" language is "Act as if...." The next time one of your children delivers a whiny rendition of "I can't," smile, look him in the eyes, speak from your heart, and give him these three words: "Act as if."

"Billy, act as if you can."

"Mary, I want you to act as if you already know how to do this."

"Just act as if you've done this before, Shannon."

After you've delivered your new parent talk, step back, and go to another room. Watch from a distance as your child begins doing. I predict that you'll be pleasantly surprised by the effect of "Act as if." It won't work every time with every child, but it could be the most important phrase you add to your parent talk repertoire this year.

With young children, "Pretend" or "Play like you can" work well. "Fake it" and "How would you do this if you did know?" are effective alternatives with older children.

Sometimes you say "Act as if" and your child starts doing the task incorrectly. Don't worry. You can correct incorrect doing, whereas it's impossible to correct someone who is not doing anything. "Act as if" gets children doing. You can adjust from there. Until they start doing, corrective guidance and feedback are impossible.

"Act as if" is more effective than "trying" because trying implies struggle, while "acting as if" is more playful and less serious. Some children won't try because if they don't succeed they consider themselves a failure. If they "pretend" or "act as if," no stigma or failure is attached.

Not sure act as if will work with your children? Not sure you can use it effectively? Why not act as if you can?

Copyright © 1998 by Chick Moorman and Personal Power Press

From: Response-ability

"What's your goal?"

Many children live their lives like cows. A cow wakes up in the morning, walks out of the barn, looks down, sees a clump of grass, bends down, and eats it. Then it sees another clump of grass and eats that one, too. Then another. This process continues until about noon, when the cow looks up, sees the barn a hundred yards away, and says to herself, "Oh, I'm over here." The cow has no idea of how she got there or where she's going. Her only concern is that next clump of grass in front of her.

For too many children that next clump of grass is the focal point in their lives. They have no clear vision of where they are going or what they want to accomplish. Without a specific direction, it's difficult for them to chart a course. If they don't know where they're going, they won't even know when they get there. That's where "What's your goal?" comes in.

"What's your goal?" is parent talk that helps the child to focus. It gets him thinking about direction, about the intended outcome, about his desired destination. Other versions of "What's your goal?" include:

"What are you trying to accomplish?"

"Where do you want to get to?"

"What would you be happy with?"

"What are you shooting for?"

"What do you really want to achieve?"

"What is it that you want out of this?"

With a clear goal in mind, it's easier for children to create a plan to achieve it. Once the goal is defined and understood, ideas about possible activities for accomplishing that goal can flow. Use parent talk to help your children appreciate the connection between their actions and achieving a goal. Ask them, "What can you do to move closer to your goal?" or "What are some things you can do to get there?" "What activities will help you attain the goal?" works well, also.

Help children make their goals specific. "I want to do better in math" is a general goal that is difficult to measure accurately. How can the child tell when he gets there? Where is that point at which he can pat himself on the back and say, "Yes, I did it!"

A more specific goal is "I want to get ninety percent or better on my math test this week." Now his goal is measurable, and the child can tell whether or not he accomplished it.

"What's your goal?" is parent talk that helps your children think in terms of outcomes. It helps them to create vision, mission, and purpose in their lives. It helps them see themselves as part of a goal-oriented family that does much more than wander aimlessly through life accepting whichever clump of grass comes their way next.

Goal setting is empowering. It most often leads to goal achievement. This practice helps children obtain tangible evidence to support a view of themselves as achievers. When children perceive themselves as achievers, they act more like achievers. When they act more like achievers, they achieve more. This process becomes a delicious cycle that every parent would love to encourage. Isn't that one of your goals?

Copyright © 1998 by Chick Moorman and Personal Power Press

From: Response-ability

"Make a picture in your mind."

Quiet yourself for a moment. Relax and breathe deeply. Make a picture in your mind of yourself using helpful, new language patterns with your family. See yourself having fun with the examples presented in this book. Notice your enthusiasm as you play with this style of language. Watch as your children react positively. See them responding in ways that indicate increased self-responsibility and feelings of self-worth. Notice how they cooperate with one another and behave interdependently. Watch as their behaviors indicate an increasing sense of personal power and self-esteem.

Now picture yourself at the end of the evening. See yourself relaxed, satisfied, fulfilled. Notice how pleased you are with yourself, your emerging language patterns, and the results you are getting. Enjoy the pictures for a few moments. Then, read on.

The activity above is called positive picturing or mental rehearsal. It involves the use of the imagination to picture the positive process and outcome of an upcoming activity. Using the technique as it is described above will help you achieve your new language goals.

One element significantly related to achievement is the ability to visualize desired outcomes. Chances are, if you are not able to imagine yourself behaving in a certain way, you will not be able to behave that way. If you cannot see yourself using this style of language, you may not use it. By creating a positive picture in your mind, you increase the odds for success.

Positive picturing is a strategy you can use with children of any age. Young children can make a picture in their minds of finding just the right book on their excursion to the library. Before your teen goes for a job interview, help him to visualize it in his mind.

"Make a picture in your mind" is parent talk that helps clarify your expectations to your children. Use this language to specify the behaviors and levels of performance you desire.

As you tuck your ten-year-old into bed, have him picture himself getting ready for school in the morning. Ask him to visualize getting up on time, packing a lunch, getting his backpack, and arriving at the bus stop before the bus arrives.

Teachers also use this technique to help their students. I know one teacher who uses this strategy prior to every assembly.

"Children," she begins, "close your eyes gently and relax. Make a picture in your mind of our class walking quietly into the gym, single file, arms at our sides. Notice one of your friends calling out to you. You smile and nod your head silently. Look! Every member of the class has taken their seat quickly and watches the front. Feel your pride and sense of maturity as you are quietly unaffected by those around you."

Another teacher I observed used mental rehearsal to introduce an activity. It allowed students to experience the situation mentally before they attempted it physically.

"Today we will be painting at the easel for the first time. Close your eyes and see yourself approach the easel. Stop now and push up your sleeves. Take a paint shirt from the hook and put it on backwards. See? The buttons are on the back. Ask a friend to fasten the top button for you. Who did you ask? See them in your mind. Now you are ready to paint. Choose a color, pick up a brush, and gently wipe it on the side of the cup. See? Now there are very few drips while you paint. Watch yourself place the brush back into the color that matches. That way the colors won't get mixed in the cups. Notice how you remember to mix the colors on your paper. Stroke, dab, swirl. Enjoy creating your picture.

"Okay, now your painting is done. Oh, you like it so much that you decide to leave it right on the easel to dry so it won't get messed up. See yourself take the sponge out of the bucket and squeeze the water out. You wipe up all the paint drips off the floor without leaving any puddles! Now you wash your hands and dry them. Remove the paint shirt and replace it on the hook. Stand back and admire your artwork. Feel how responsible and capable you are!"

Does visualizing the process of using the easel insure that colors will not get mixed? Does it eliminate drips on paintings, messes on floors, and confusion at the easel? Of course not. It will, however, increase your chances of getting what you want more of the time.

Positive picturing will help you influence how your children see themselves and, consequently, how they perform. Children who see themselves as leaders act like leaders. Children who see themselves as readers act like readers.

Positive picturing will help your children reach their goals. Children can visualize themselves making the basketball team, writing in cursive, or reading fluently. They can see themselves driving the car, building a sandcastle, or getting the job. The ability to visualize a desire is one big step towards attaining it. Repetitive positive picturing empowers children by teaching them that they can direct their own thoughts and imagination toward achieving a desired result.

When you ask your youngster to make a picture in his mind, you engage his right brain. That is the part of the brain that thinks holistically and is responsible for imagination and intuition. Since most school instruction involves the logical, linear, left brain, positive picturing helps create a balance. When the child involves the whole brain, learning increases and success multiplies.

Once again, quiet yourself for a moment. Relax and breathe deeply. Make a picture in your mind of yourself using positive picturing with your children. Rehearse mentally, seeing yourself as successful. Feel the feelings associated with success. Enjoy your excitement as well as theirs. Review the entire scene in your mind as you experience satisfaction. Know that this mental rehearsal is moving you closer to using this strategy effectively with your family. Expect that you will be skilled in telling your children, "Make a picture in your mind."

Copyright © 1998 by Chick Moorman and Personal Power Press

From: Response-ability

"I'm willing to pay part of it."

"Mom, can I have that pair of jeans, please?"

"I'd look great in those sneakers. I've just got to have them."

"Would you buy this game for me, Dad?"

As parents, we're continually bombarded with questions like these. Our children want things. They want a new bike, jacket, tennis shoes, computer, car, or Beanie Baby. We then assume the role of doing the thinking, making a decision, and informing the child. Most of the time our response is either "yes" or "no."

An alternative to getting trapped in the "yes or no" role of permission giver is to use parent talk that forces the child to do the thinking. Try communicating your willingness to pay a portion of the price and see if the child is willing to pay the difference.

"I have sixty dollars in my budget for sneakers. These cost one hundred dollars. I'd be willing to pay what I have in my budget. You'll have to come up with the rest." Now the child is required to enter the thinking mode. He has to decide just how badly he wants the sneakers and determine how that fits with his other priorities. Sometimes children decide they don't want the object that much and decline your offer. Other times they're firm in their desire and contribute funds to get what they want. Either way, offering to pay a portion of the full price helps you and the child determine his true level of desire.

In addition to forcing children to think, offering to pay only a portion of the price has other advantages. Feelings of ownership increase when children invest some of their own money to obtain what they want. They're more likely to take better care of a bicycle they helped purchase than one that was given to them. Respect for clothing is greater when the child has used some of his own money to obtain it.

Feelings of personal power expand when children see themselves as capable of satisfying some of their own wants. Parents who buy all their children's belongings rob them of opportunities to feel capable and responsible. These youngsters miss a chance to see their power in action and to wear or use visible proof of their capableness. Your willingness to let them pay also carries with it your willingness to allow their access to feelings of power and increasing responsibility.

To empower your children, nudge them into a thinking mode, help them determine what they really desire, and use parent talk that communicates your position of not buying top-of-the-line products. Tell your child, "I'll pay two thirds of it," or "My budget can handle only part of the price. I'll pay half if you'll pay the rest." Then stand back and observe how their struggle with the dilemma moves them to a place of greater self-responsibility.

Copyright © 1998 by Chick Moorman and Personal Power Press

Meet the Author

Chick Moorman is an inspirational speaker who has addressed more than 300,000 parents and educators. Director of the Institute for Personal Power, he lives in Merrill, Michigan.

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