Ten Powerful Things to Say to Your Kids

Creating the relationship you want with the most important people in your life. A Blog about the book by Paul Axtell

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Am I in trouble?

We all hate to disappoint or upset people who look up to us—especially our children. The point of this post is to remind us that we can create unwanted reactions in others without realizing it.

A colleague varied his normal routine at home recently. Normally Rich devotes the time from when he gets home until his children go to bed to his family. This includes reading to his youngest daughter just before she goes to sleep. After she’s in bed, Rich often gets some work done in preparation for his next day at the office.

One evening, Rich had something pressing to get done, so he grabbed a quick bite to eat and then headed to a quiet spot to work on his computer. Two hours later, he went to his daughter’s room for the bedtime reading.

She greeted him with, “Am I in trouble, Daddy?”

“Of course not! What makes you think you are in trouble?”

“You didn’t talk to me when you came home from work.”

Our attention, our time, and our conversations matter to our kids. In the hectic pace of our lives, we can take our kids for granted and not interact with them in a meaningful way. And they will notice! 

One of the wonderful things about small children is that they tell us what they are thinking and feeling. Others in the family may not.

One option is to check in with every single family member each evening.

“How are you doing?”

“Everything okay?”

“Anything you want to chat about or ask?”

Anything you are excited about that you want to share?”

Even if they don’t have anything, they will know you asked, and that will make a difference to them.

The best inheritance a parent can give his children is a few minutes of his time each day.” 

— O. A. Battista, Canadian-American author

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I told you so…just don’t say it.

My perspective on raising kids is based in surrounding them with a set of conversations that enable them to believe in themselves and have a sense of how to be great in the world.

Today, let’s highlight one conversation that we just need to hit the delete button on each time we’re tempted to say it: 

     “I told you so.”     

Just don’t say it. You do not want to go there.

There is simply no value in making that statement. In fact, there’s real harm in it: It discounts the other person and creates a disconnect in your relationship. And more importantly, if you don’t say it, the conversation has a chance to go someplace new! 

A young man shared this story after we talked about “I told you so” in class.

Last night my fiancée was driving and took a wrong turn… For the first time ever, I didn’t say anything. I didn’t correct her. Usually I straighten her out in a heartbeat, and then we are off to the races, repeating an argument we have way too often.

Last night I didn’t say a thing, and here’s how the conversation went:

Fiancée: I just think I made another wrong turn. 

Me: It’s okay, we’ll get there.

Fiancée: Should I have taken the other turn? 

Me: Well, might have worked better if we had. But no harm, we can get there from here. Actually, we can get there from anywhere!

It was wonderful and so simple!

When you make someone wrong, they are likely to take it personally and no longer be available to input or clear thinking. When we get defensive, we lose our sense of perspective.  

A few other candidates for automatic delete would be these:

     Why did you do that?  

     What were you thinking?

     How many times do I have to tell you?

Go gently out there,


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Can girls play in the major leagues?

Last year, Cindy and I attended a Cardinals baseball game in St. Louis. Just in front of us sat a father with his young kids, a girl and a boy. The girl, who was probably about five, had her baseball hat and her glove, ready for anything.

At one point, the following conversation took place:

   Girl: “Daddy, can girls play in the major leagues?”

   Dad: “No, they don’t let them.”

   Girl: “Why not?”

   Boy: “Because they’ll cry if they get hit by a ball.”

And that was the end of the conversation.

This is obviously a tough question to answer. On one hand, there is a certain reality to what is possible in life. On the other, kids need to dream and think life is almost endless in what might be possible for them.

Later, Cindy and I discussed how that father might have answered his daughter—ways that would allow her to hold onto her dreams, not only about baseball, but more importantly about what she might do in life.

I don’t know this father or the girl or their family, so I can’t know what the best response would have been. But it’s less about a perfect response and more about noticing the conversation that just began.

I would hope that father could thoughtfully reply in a way that might open up the future rather than close it down—even in a small way. And even if he doesn’t answer in an empowering way in the moment, he could remember the exchange later and reopen the conversation. His daughter’s question could become a starting point for a conversation that might go back and forth for awhile, deepening their connection and understanding of one another.

If you notice the question and are thoughtful about your response, I trust your reply will be supportive and useful.

How would you have answered her?

The idea is that your words have the power to create. What are you creating for your child with your words? 
— Paul Axtell, Ten Powerful Things to Say to Your Kids

PS: The comment about crying is not something I want to address here, but the father’s lack of response might suggest to his daughter that he agrees with his son. This is a wake-up call to watch all family conversations more closely.

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Have we forgotten what it’s like to be small?

Recently a mother shared this comment from her son: “Mom, I’m not a kid anymore. Kids have single-digit birthdays!”  

Which left me wondering about whether we have forgotten what it is like to be small and to feel like we have no voice.

Have we forgotten what it’s like:

  • to be pulled by the arm faster than our legs can go?
  • to be left so far behind we get scared we can’t catch up?
  • to be waiting for the reaction to what we’ve done…a reaction we know will come?
  • to be sent to bed even though our favorite cousins can stay up later?
  • to get socks when we wanted legos?


  • to try over and over to get someone’s attention and not be noticed?
  • to have something we want to say and not be heard?

One of the loneliest places in life is to have no voice. Being heard is part of belonging, of being included. We will never be able to meet every child’s wishes or demands, nor should we. But we can listen. We can hear each and every question, comment, idea, or concern they voice. We can hear and let them know we understand, that they were heard.

That is doable, and it would be remarkable.



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Being human…and taking responsibility

For a long time I thought I had these flaws—things about myself that weren’t consistent with the person I wanted to be. 

I would say nasty things to my kids. I would have judgmental thoughts about others. Even worse, I would say them. I’d lie to my boss about having something done. I’d exaggerate my accomplishments to someone. You get the picture. Best I stop before you think I’m a bad person. 

Then I discovered that this isn’t necessarily limited to me. It’s about being human. Barry Lopez, in Crossing Open Ground, says it beautifully. He’s describing his experience of an ancient intaglio, a sculpture of a horse in stones on the desert floor.

“I spotted a stone tool at my feet. I stared at it a long while, more in awe than disbelief, before reaching out to pick it up. I turned it over in my left palm and took it between my fingers to feel its cutting edge. It is always difficult, especially with something so portable, to rechannel the desire to steal.”

With that sentence, Lopez became more than a gifted author for me. One of the things we admire about people is the ability to be vulnerable—to not have it all together all the time—to admit mistakes—to be human.

If I could raise my kids over, one thing I would do differently is to find many ways to share with them about my mistakes—I’d want them to get that it’s OK to be human.

Of course, it’s also important to realize that being human is not a free pass for poor choices. I once saw a sign at a church: “To be human explains so much but excuses so little.” To be great, one does really have to be responsible for it all.

So the point here isn’t to let ourselves off the hook for bad behavior. The point is to stop beating ourselves up. Tearing up our self-esteem doesn’t add value. Feeling guilty doesn’t, either. Noticing, acknowledging, and moving forward to be our better selves can make all the difference.


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Paul Axtell is the author of the award-winning Ten Powerful Things to Say to Your Kids: Creating the Relationship You Want with the Most Important People in Your Life, named Best Parenting Book of 2012. 

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Nineteen Things I Love About You…

Learn to communicate so your players feel more capable, valuable, and loved. You must see capability when there is no evidence…see value when evidence is to the contrary…and see what’s loveable even when it’s hard to find.  —
Tim Gallwey (paraphrased)

It is easy to come up with things that we like about our kids. And every once in a while, it’s useful and fun to push the boundaries of our awareness by stretching to come up with more than just a few.

I love going for 19 when I think about things for which I might acknowledge Cindy, our kids, and the grandkids. Something magical seems to occur for me around 12 or 13, when I need to dig deeper, reflect further, and find new words to express what I like about someone I love.

Here are some examples:

I love…

  • the way you look out for your sisters
  • your willingness to express yourself when asked
  • the way you think
  • that you notice friends who might be feeling left out

If you play with this idea, two things will happen. First, you will begin to notice more things about each of your children that you appreciate. Second, you will remain in touch with how great they are, which helps keep any problems you have with them in perspective.

And here’s another reason: If you give them your list, they will be able to reread it whenever they are in need of a hug!

On our website you’ll find several designs for cards that you can download for free and use to give your kids a perpetual hug.  


“We do not believe in ourselves until someone reveals that deep inside us something is valuable, worth listening to, worthy of our trust, sacred to our touch. Once we believe in ourselves, we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight or any experience that reveals the human spirit.”  –e. e. cummings

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This was originally posted last year, and it’s a message that bears repeating! 


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Five Ways to Enhance Your Child’s Self-Confidence

Self-confidence is described as the aggregate set of thoughts that we have about ourselves. 

We pick up these thoughts when we are small. Certainly we add other thoughts over the years, but that initial set is still likely to be hanging around and influencing our actions and choices in life. 

What ten thoughts do you have about yourself? 

Here are a few of mine:

  • I like to figure things out.
  • I can’t dance.
  • I don’t say as much as other people do.
  • I’m scared of people. 
  • I’m good at playing cards and other games.

Where did these thoughts come from?  

With some reflection, you’ll be able to identify why you have these thoughts about yourself. For example, if I look at my list:

  • I loved chess and Sherlock Holmes when I was a kid.
  • I remember feeling awkward dancing in elementary school.
  • My mother frequently described me to others as being shy.
  • Our family avoided confrontation at all costs.
  • I got to play cards with adults when I was very young.

You might note that I’ve replaced the “shy” label with “not speaking as often as others,” which is what is actually so. We can change these thoughts and stories about ourselves if we are willing to identify them and update the ones that don’t serve us well.

But life is definitely easier if we have a positive set of thoughts about ourselves from the beginning. 

Here are my five suggestions for how you might enhance your children’s natural self-confidence. These specific suggestions are less important than simply being conscious and intentional about your interactions with your children. Still, it’s useful to know where to start.

  1. Since words shape how we think, be very conscious of what attributes or characteristics you ascribe to your kids. Delete the limiting comments and keep identifying new, positive attributes. Comments said in anger or frustration are especially memorable, so do find a way not to say things in haste.
  2. Converse with your kids often in a thoughtful way so they develop their ability to talk with anyone. Whenever they talk, slow down and devote yourself to what they are saying.
  3. Ask them, “What do you think?” often so they both get a chance to express themselves and to learn from your attention that you value what they think. Whenever possible, let their thinking visibly influence your actions.
  4. Teach them how to do as many things as you can. With your supervision, they can replace smoke alarm batteries, cook from recipes, build birdhouses, or balance checkbooks long before you think they might be able to handle it.
  5. Play games with them. 

 I like number five because games were a part of my upbringing, and  some new research says there is a correlation between playing games and success.

“Play is one of the most cognitively stimulating things a child can do,” Megan McClelland, an early-childhood-development researcher at Oregon State University, told the New York Times recently.

The article concludes: “It turns out that a child’s ability at age 4 to pay attention and complete a task, the very skills learned in game play, were the greatest predictors of whether he or she finished college by age 25.” (see the full article here)

There you go. Good luck, and thanks for reading.



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I got a shorter leash!

I expect you’ve learned by now that immediate, in-the-moment reactions aren’t always the most useful. My kids certainly taught me that I sometimes needed a little time, a little distance, or a different perspective before I responded.

Some old sayings that suggest this wisdom has been around a long time:

  • Count to ten.
  • Walk around the block.
  • Sleep on it.

I learned this lesson in a positive way once while out running. As I approached a woman who was walking her dog, I saw that the dog was on a long leash. I moved off the sidewalk onto the grass as I passed them.

It wasn’t enough.

Before I knew it, the dog had a hold on my arm and was snarling and growling. Fortunately, it quickly lost its grasp and my arm came free. 

Once I was away from the dog, several things occurred to me to say to the woman, but none of them were very nice. So I just kept running. 

The next day I was out running again, and sure enough, up ahead was the same woman walking her dog. I had about half a block to consider what, if anything, to say to her. I realized it was up to me. I decided to take care of her, so I said, “What a great day to be out!” She just beamed back.

Two days later, I saw her again, but she was on the other side of the street. When she saw me, she smiled, waved, and yelled, “I got a shorter leash!” 

So now I have a new friend and a story that reminds me not to react in the moment in a way I might later regret, but rather to wait until I can respond in a way that works.

It’s easy to have a wonderful response when we see something coming. When we get caught off-guard, it is much more difficult. So when something happens at home, plan in advance how you might buy yourself some time to think before you speak. Here are a few ideas:

    “Okay, let’s discuss this tomorrow.”

    “Hmmm, I’m not sure what to say right now. Give me an hour.”

    “I hear what you are saying. I’d like to think about this before I respond.”

One of my favorite dialogues from Calvin & Hobbes also highlights this point:

Calvin: Sometimes when I’m talking, my words can’t keep up with my thoughts. I wonder why we think faster than we speak?

Hobbes: Probably so we can think twice.


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Mantras for the holidays: Be your best self

Happy Holidays,

A colleague shared with me a wonderful holiday mantra from her meditation instructor, Joe Zarantonello. 

    Stay Present, Be Kind, and Lower your Expectations.

We’ve all thought about who we want to be for our family and friends before, probably many, many times.  And then life intervenes and we forget. 

The holidays can get hectic, with gifts to buy, things to do, places to be. And then in the midst of all of this wonder and possibility, we get frustrated, anxious, or stressed when reality doesn’t quite live up to our expectations. 

So this might be a time to remind ourselves about who we want to be and how we want to act during the holidays.

I love phrases that help me remember to be at my best with family and friends. These are phrases or perspectives I’ve practiced and explored in the past:

    Assume good intentions.

    I make mistakes, too.

    Choose joy.

    There is no place to get to.

    Be calm and calming.

    Life is great!

    I can be the big person here.

    Let it go. Get over it. Move on.

    If there is an experience in front of you have it.

Perhaps my all-time favorite is this quote by Jodi Hills:

    If I am not happy in this time, in this place,
    then I am not paying attention.

So, find a phrase that gives you the freedom to be at your best. Then find some way to remind yourself—post a note in your car, begin wearing a bracelet, change the photo on your phone—so that the phrase stays at the forefront of your thinking. 

Granddaughter Zoe gave us a new phrase recently. I like you, because you like me. I’m sure she won’t mind if you use it freely over the holidays!

Thanks for reading,



Paul Axtell is the author of the award-winning Ten Powerful Things to Say to Your Kids: Creating the Relationship You Want with the Most Important People in Your Life, named Best Parenting Book of 2012. 

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It’s never too late… and it helps to start early!


Last week in class an older gentleman, Mark, approached me on one of the breaks with this statement: I have a good relationship with two of my sons. They are also engineers, and we have a lot in common. My middle son and I don’t have anything in common, and I’m wondering if it’s too late to create a relationship with him. He seems so different—he’s interested in art and doesn’t seem to care whether he can find a job.

I let Mark talk about the situation, then I made these four points:

  • For sure, it is not too late.
  • All kids, no matter how much it may seem otherwise, want to have a relationship with their parents.
  • It’s time for you to get interested in what your son is interested in.
  • Stop doing what you have been doing and do something else.

My first two comments were intended to shift Mark’s perspective and get him back into the game of creating a relationship with his son. Sometimes, all we need is a glimmer of hope to keep trying.

Get interested…

When children are small, it’s easy to connect with them. I have a wonderful relationship with one of my granddaughters, and I’m sure it began when she was about four and invited me to have tea with her. For over an hour she created and served imaginary tea and conversation. We’ve been able to talk ever since.

Listen well when they are young, and they’ll tell you things forever. 

Now I’d rather play with Legos or trucks than have tea, but my preferences do not matter. I’m willing to do whatever the kids want to do. Their choice. George Bernard Shaw said, “Forget about likes and dislikes, just do what must be done. This might not bring happiness, but it will bring greatness.”

Mark commented that occasionally his son will drop by the house and ask if Mark wants to do something. But each time they can’t agree on what to do because they are not interested in the same things. I told him that he needs to choose whatever his son suggests. Sometimes, you have to go to tea parties or art shows!

Open yourself to new experiences, and you might find new things that appeal to you. Ask questions and let your kids teach you about their passions and why they love these parts of life.

Stop doing what you’ve been doing…

Rita Mae Brown’s definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result. 

As you can expect, when I asked Mark about the conversations he had with his son, the pattern was about finding a job and doing something useful. This conversation has been going on ever since his son chose to pursue art rather than engineering. I asked Mark, “And how is that working out for you, bringing that up every time you see your son?” Mark was great and smiled, “Not so well. You’d think I’d have learned my lesson by now!”

So my advice was obvious, but not easy: Stop asking about, commenting on, or even referring to your son’s lack of employment. He knows that you are concerned and doesn’t need to be reminded or confronted with it. Just be supportive and focus on spending time together, asking about his interests, and then be ready to listen—without judgment or unsolicited advice—when he brings the subject up himself. He will. 

It truly is never too late.

Thanks for reading and Happy Thanksgiving.



Paul Axtell is a writer and conversations expert. This blog is based on his award-winning book Ten Powerful Things to Say to Your Kids. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife Cindy, where they enjoy time with their grown children and their 13 grandkids.

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Four relationship pitfalls to beware of…

Even if we are wonderful as parents, it’s easy to lose the mindfulness that makes us wonderful.  

Look for these four common pitfalls:

1. When we become very familiar with people, we stop noticing things about them

We’ve all had the experience of driving ten miles to get home and then realizing we must have made numerous turns during those ten miles, but we can’t recall making any of them! 

It’s easy to do when we drive over familiar roads—we can drive these stretches without even noticing anything along the way. And while we are apparently noticing enough to get to our destination safely, it’s not an attentive, conscious, mindful way of driving. 

This same phenomenon happens with our children: We stop noticing what is going on for them because we are around them all the time. We don’t notice when they are upset or excited or hesitant. We don’t notice when something has happened to make them preoccupied. And since we don’t notice, we don’t check in with them. 

2. We interact with our kids in terms of who they have been so far rather than who they could be. 

Perhaps you’ve noticed that your children are more thoughtful or expressive with people they don’t see often—even with strangers—than they are with you.

Your kids didn’t change, really; they’re just interacting with someone who interacts with them in a different way—someone whose communication with your kids is not shaped by history, so they’re perhaps more curious about them, more ready to listen to their stories.

What this means is that if you change your perspective and approach, your kids likely will interact differently with you, too.

3.  We think we know who our kids are, so we stop being curious about what makes them tick.

When we kids are small, they are learning and changing every day in noticeable ways. Then later, the dramatic learning and changing slow down, and we begin to think of them in fixed ways. We also stop being inquisitive or perhaps even interested in what is going on for them.

Try this out:

Decide to consciously notice new things about each of your children or grandchildren. Slow down and focus on each conversation while thinking about these questions:

  • What are their interests and passions?
  • What are they worried or concerned about?
  • What are they currently working on or learning?
  • What is their world like right now?
  • How have they changed recently?

It is this simple: If you notice something new, then they are no longer the same person for you, so you begin to interact with them differently. Patterns in relationships only become fixed and solid when we stop learning about and being interested in each other.

4.  We think we know what their world is like.

I remember a long time ago trying to explain to my daughter, Amy, why doing her homework was important. She was in the seventh or eight grade, and my reasoning included being able to go to college.  She set me straight pretty quickly. “Dad, college is so far away. I’m just worried about whether somebody likes me.”

From that time on, I kept reminding myself that I didn’t know what it was like to be a teenager, even if I once was a teenager. 

This note is simply a reminder to slow down, be more mindful, be more curious, and appreciate not knowing who your kids are or what their world is like. Not knowing is a wonderful perspective to embrace. It opens the door to all kinds of new discoveries!


Paul Axtell is a writer and conversations expert. This blog is based on his award-winning book Ten Powerful Things to Say to Your Kids. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife Cindy, where they enjoy time with their grown children and their 13 grandkids.

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How can I get my parents to listen to me?

This a question I encountered on Rachel Macy Stafford’s blog—handsfreemama.com—which I highly recommend. She said it’s a question she gets often from teens. I get a similar question in my training programs after a listening exercise gives people the experience of being listened to in an attentive, patient, devoted way. Participants ask: How can I get someone to listen to me like that? 

Let’s start by understanding that getting someone to listen to you is a common problem: very good people (supervisors, friends, parents) don’t always listen well—at least not in the way you might like.

In other words, having someone in your life who truly listens first, waits, and then listens some more without offering reactions or advice is rare.

So it’s not surprising if that kind of profound listening is currently missing.

Still, we want and need to be listened to in a way that we know we’ve been heard. Not being listened to is frustrating, disappointing, and at times even hurtful. It’s so important to get listening like this into the relationships that matter to us. 

So what can you do? This is one place where we could apply Occam’s razor:  The simplest answer is most often correct. Ask them to listen to you. 

Here are some ways you might ask: 

  • Dad, I’ve got something to figure out. Would you listen to me while I think it through out loud?
  • Mom, I need to vent to someone about something that happened. Can you just listen to me while I talk about it so I can get to a better place with what happened?
  • Dad, I appreciate your advice, but I’m wondering if we could have a conversation where you mostly listened until I was finished talking about it?
  • Dad, I need about three minutes of your time to tell you what is going on at school that I think you’d like to know about.
  • I’m worried about something, but I need to talk about it without being worried about your reaction. Can you just listen without making a judgment right away?

Notice that each of these example lets your parents know what you are looking for from them. It helps them listen in the way you want them to listen.

Here are some other things to try:

Be the role model… Reverse roles and demonstrate the behavior you are looking for. Every time one of your parents speaks to you, put down your smart phone or book, put the tv on mute, pull off your headphones, and give them your full attention. Listen to what they are saying fully before you respond. If you do this all the time in a visible way—not making a big deal out of it, but in a visible way—it will catch on—maybe even with your parents! There’s a great article on our website called “Tell Me More” where the author listened to her father over and over and over and eventually he noticed and began to listen to her!

Find an activity that will give you both something to do while you talk… Playing board games or taking drives or walks or shooting hoops are great for this. Find an activity that takes some time so there is room for a slower-paced conversation. Sometimes it’s easier to say something if you don’t have to make eye contact.

After the conversation, say thanks… Let them know you appreciated their taking the time to listen or for listening in the way you asked them to listen. The next day, refer back to the conversation and let them know again that you appreciated how they stayed out of the conversation long enough for you to say what you needed to say. 

Lastly, and maybe most importantly….don’t give up. It takes time to change patterns, and inattentive listening is a common and deeply ingrained pattern. But all patterns can be changed if you are persistent. Keep asking others to listen to you and keep being a great listener whenever someone speaks to you. You will get there—and this is truly a social skill worthy of mastery. 

Let me know how it works for you! (paulaxtell@mac.com)


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Don’t lose your insights!

"Sometimes an insight is worth a life’s experience."
—Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

One of the ways we can change our behavior is to have an insight and then work with that insight until it becomes a habit.

Research about the brain has informed my thinking about this:

  • We actually have insights frequently. Our minds are connection machines—continually taking thoughts stored in different parts of our brains and making a connection between those thoughts.
  • Energy is released upon having an insight, which helps propel us into action to capitalize on the insights we have. 
  • The energy released that helps us get into action dissipates within a few hours, making it more likely that the insight itself will disappear.  This increases the importance of capturing our insights before we lose them. 
  • It is easy to create new habits from our insights. It does require that we find ways to reinforce the insight by practicing.

This is useful information for most of us who might have been operating from the view that our insights automatically translate to new behavior. 

Recently I exchanged some e-mail with a friend who is working on being a great mom for her teenage daughter and keeping track of her observations.

Here are several of Terri’s recent insights:

  • I’m finding out that parenting is more about what I learn about myself rather than what Ashley is supposed to do.
  • I am realizing that how I see things is much different from the way Ashley does.
  • I am learning to letting her finish her thoughts before I jump in.
  • She makes me rethink things—it gives her a sense of empowerment just to know that when she asks something, I don’t immediately have an answer, but that I will think about it.

I love Terri’s first insight. It reminds me that kids are not only reacting to us, but we are reacting to them. All relationships can be seen as a dance—one person leading and the other following—sometimes we initiate the conversation and other times we respond to a conversation. The point is to not to fall into a way of reacting that isn’t consistent with who we want to be in life.

These two notions, captured by the following questions, are compelling because they each provide another lens through which we can reflect upon our interactions with our kids:

  • Where and how am I reacting to my children?
  • What am I learning about myself? 

Since I don’t have daily interactions with my children or grandchildren, last night I reflected on a lifetime of interactions and rediscovered some of the insights I had over the years about myself when dealing with my children and grandchildren.

Here are a few that helped me move toward being who I wanted to be:

  • I was capable of being threatening to my kids when they were small even though I didn’t see myself as a scary person.
  • I had a difficult time letting my kids win at anything.
  • I could say things I don’t mean and I know I don’t mean them at the time I say them.
  • It was hard to say “I’m sorry.”
  • I was uncomfortable hugging. 
  • I learned to cut way back on the teasing that might be hurtful.

I also had some more positive insights about myself:

  • I am very willing to set the rest of the world aside and take time with children.
  • I love watching kids learn and practice. It’s one of the best things to do in life.
  • I know I can’t truly understand their reality, but trying to understand means a lot to them.

Neuroscientists also say the best way to change behavior is to work with a single insight over time. Think about the term muscle memory. In disciplines such as yoga or golf, where you want to replicate a certain movement, repetition is critical to retaining the desired movement, especially under pressure. It’s not enough to know how to do something; you have to be able to feel the action physically and repeat it on demand.

"Hitting, a lot of times, is a feel thing," Matt Holliday, St. Louis Cardinal outfielder, said. "You can hear it and see it, but until you feel that feeling—whether it’s through drills or just one day getting the swing to feel the right way—you won’t start repeating it. I felt like that was when I first began to understand it, feel it and repeat it."

The same principle applies to many other areas of life where we haven’t given practice enough credit. In all fields of life, consistent practice is required to increase skill level: cooking, a tennis serve, knitting, keyboarding, video games. It’s no different with parenting skills. If you can capture the insights you have as you watch yourself respond to your kids, you can work with those insights until the behaviors become so ingrained, you are able to respond as you want to without even thinking about it.


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Sunglasses, fitting in, and self-esteem…

Have you noticed how young kids are into sunglasses? It’s no longer just a thing for adults or even teens. Two-year-olds and three-year-olds love sunglasses. It doesn’t matter that they can hardly keep them on their faces or that they are indoors. It’s not about the sun. It’s about wearing sunglasses and acting grown-up, being like mom or dad or big sister.

Now teenagers have more concern about what others think of them.  It’s important to wear the “in” brand of clothing or dress like their friends.  I think all of us can remember wanting to fit in.  

It’s useful for us as parents to acknowledge this need, not overly resist it, and to help our teens reflect on the appropriate balance between fitting in and being their unique selves.   

Being proud of who we are and knowing others are proud of us is part of our self-esteem. We want to be noticed, to have people pay attention to us. We feel validated. While superficially self-esteem might be wrapped up in our sense of whether we look cool, at a deeper level, it’s about these things:

  • feeling included and having a sense of belonging
  • being appreciated for who we are as a person
  • knowing we add value to family and friends
  • having a positive set of thoughts about ourselves

Let’s look at each of these elements and think about how you might enhance each of your children’s sense of self.

Feeling included and belonging:

  • Invite your children to participate in what you are doing.
  • Ask for their input on family decisions.
  • Make space for them to be around you.
  • Let them know you like it when they are in the same room.

Being appreciated for who we are:

  • Let them know what you like about them.
  • Acknowledge their accomplishments.
  • Remind them of their strengths.
  • Let them know of their positive impact on you.

Knowing we add value:

  • Assign them chores that are useful to the family.
  • Ask for their help with the things you need done.
  • Notice when they do something that adds value.
  • Acknowledge when their ideas are useful to you.
  • Ask them to show you how to do things.

Having positive thoughts about ourselves:

  • Remind them of what they are good at.
  • Refer to their behavior with value statements (kind, thoughtful, confident).
  • Ask them what they like about themselves.
  • Tell them what you admire about them.

I remember Jesse being asked to write a paper in the first grade about what he liked about himself. It was wonderful.   

This need for acceptance and approval starts early, and if sunglasses help a young child feel grown up or wearing the right brand clothing helps a teen fit in, I’m all for it. This is probably the easy part of contributing to your child’s development.

The harder part—the vitally important part—involves having conversations with your kids that include listening fully to them and authentically considering what they say. It’s about finding ways for them to contribute to you, to the family, and to whatever is happening in your lives today.

It’s also about avoiding the limiting or negative conversations that might take away from your child’s self-esteem. Catch yourself using words that simply don’t add value—these tend to be judgmental words like lazy, clumsy, selfish, thoughtless, greedy. Some things are better left unsaid.

I received this from a friend when I asked about her stories:

“I remember my mom saying to my sisters and me, ‘Who do you think you are?’ Inevitably, I would reply, ‘Nobody. I don’t think I’m anybody.’

   “Later, I had to take control of my own sense of self to overcome this belief, because if you think you’re ‘nobody,’ you settle for very little, you allow yourself to be in diminishing relationships, and you don’t expect good things to happen to you. I changed this for myself, but many people do not.

   “On a more upbeat note, I remember saying to my youngest sister when she was very little, ‘You really are a great observer.’ Today she’s a museum curator, and she says it has something to do with that comment I made to her when she was just a little kid.”

So, make sure your kids know that you like who they are as a person, that you love spending time with them and are deeply interested in what they think, feel, and know. These are your gifts to them, and they’re as important to their eventual success in life as summer camps or a new computer or a college savings account.  

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When your kids say you’re not listening…


Recently I received this question: Both my 21-year-old and my 15-year-old have told me that I don’t listen to them, so I know it’s bad.   What might I do differently?

It’s a great question because it reveals such a common problem: Listening is so basic that we take it for granted. Perhaps we’ve lost the ability to listen well because we never really understood what it is: listening is just listening.

Listening is a critical social skill. When you really listen to someone, special things happen. Upsets disappear. Ideas emerge. New thinking appears. People open up. Self-esteem soars.

Yet we don’t listen very often, at least not in a way that is magical. We listen mostly to follow what is being said without truly understanding it or taking it in. We interrupt. We finish other people’s sentences. We pretend to listen. Sometimes we don’t even pretend. We listen half-heartedly as we plan what we’re going to say next or allow our attention to wander elsewhere. Certainly we don’t often purposely make a difference to someone just by listening.

Ever notice that some people are just great to be around? You just feel good when you are with them. If you observe these people, you begin to realize that part of what’s so special is the way in which they listen.

With some perspective on what it means to really listen, and then with the intention to practice, we can shift very quickly toward listening in that magical way. 

Michael Nichols’ book The Lost Art of Listening points out the essence and impact of listening:

  • To listen well, we must forget ourselves and submit to the other person’s need for attention.
  • The gift of our attention and understanding makes the other person feel validated and valued.
  • To listen is to pay attention, take an interest, care about, take to heart, validate, acknowledge, be moved, appreciate.
  • Being heard means being taken seriously.
  • Not being listened to is hard on the heart.
  • Reassuring is not listening.
  • Problem solving is not listening.
  • Giving advice is not listening.

Listening without resisting, changing, or adding to a conversation is listening.

When you put the world on hold and give your full attention to someone, you are creating a place where authentic conversation can occur. Why? Because when people sense that you are truly listening, they usually respect that gift by speaking with purpose and authenticity. They speak in a way that gives you access to their world and their soul. What a gift, especially from your teenager!

I’ve been presenting a listening exercise in workshops for over 30 years, and even though we’re all experienced at speaking and listening, this  exercise always changes how people listen.

During the exercise, the person listening can’t say anything at all. It’s actually about devoting your complete attention to the person who is speaking so they truly feel heard. We used topics like these:

  • What are some of your favorite memories?
  • When you dream or think about the future, what is it like?
  • Tell me about your friends and what you like about them.
  • What do you lie awake at night worrying about?

In the first two rounds, family members split up and worked with people they didn’t know. My intent was to get everyone comfortable with the listening process before they talked within their own families. Then parents and children had a chance to practice listening to each other, giving each other the experience of being listened to. A couple of weeks later, I received an e-mail from Andrea, one of the participants.

Dear Paul,

Last night my fourteen-year-old daughter, Chelsea, came home and  said, “Mom, I need to talk. If you can listen to me the way we learned the other evening, you can save me a three-mile bicycle ride to my friend’s house.”

Thank you,


I loved that. What a difference it can make to simply listen in a different way. 

If you practice really listening whenever your kids talk to you, they may not thank you. But they won’t tell you that you don’t listen to them!

P.S. There’s a great article on listening on the website. It’s free to download, along with lots of other resources. Enjoy!



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