Dr. Todd Cartmell: The parents’ communication style is one of the biggest factors that is gonna influence the closeness of that relationship, not just when we’re talking about, hey, you did a great job at basketball today, when we’re talking about the easy ways, but when we’re talking about the difficult things. That’s when being attentive to your style is even more important, because that’s when we’re at risk for blowing it.
End of Teaser
John Fuller: That’s Dr. Todd Cartmell and he’s reflecting about the importance of engaging your child in good conversation. Todd has more for you today on “Focus on the Family” with your host, Focus president and author, Jim Daly and I’m John Fuller.
Jim Daly: You know, John, as parents, we want to maintain a healthy relationship with our children. I know as you and I talk about our parenting journey, being dads, that’s true.
John: It’s hard but worth it, isn’t it?
Jim: It is hard but worth it. The days are long, but the years are short, right? But sometimes it can be hard to know what to do exactly. You know, kids are all unique and we’re not sure when they’re throwing those temper tantrums how to manage those things. You know Jean and I, with our foster experience, we have back in our home now a 3- and a 5-year-old. I’m in my 50s, so that’s been a real eye-popper for us, because our teen boys, you know they’re through most of that stuff. They still have their own way of throwing a tantrum now and then, but we are just in awe at the energy it takes (Laughter) to deal with 3- and 5-year-olds at least. We had forgotten about it. It’s like birds in a nest chirping all day long, “Help me! Help me! Help me!”
But we want to talk today about some very practical ways that you can apply in those circumstances where your children may be, you know, a little out of control, and we’ve got 8 Simple Tools—and you love that—8 Simple Tools For Raising Great Kids with Dr. Todd Cartmell today.
John: And he is a clinical child psychologist. He’s written a number of books, including the one you just mentioned, Jim. And Todd and Laura live in the Chicago area and have two grown sons.
Jim: Todd, let me welcome you to “Focus on the Family.”
Todd: Hey, thanks, Jim, John. Great to see you guys.
Jim: Hey, I’m thinking about that old show where they used to ask the kids the questions, the darndest [things]?
John: Art Linkletter?
Jim: Art Linkletter.
Todd: Oh, yes, yes.
Jim: I saw that. I was young when that came out.
Todd: Oh, yeah.
Jim: But I remember “The Darndest things,” if I remember correctly. [FYI: “Kids Say the Darndest Things”]
Todd: That’s’ right.
Jim: You see a lot of children. I mean that’s your vocation; you are a child psychologist. What’s some of the most interesting things a child has said to you?
Todd: Oh, goodness gracious, well, I do see a lot of kids, I mean, they’re as little as 3 and up into, you know, college-age guys and girls. And I’m not sure what the most interesting thing is.
Jim: What do they say to you that they won’t tell their parents?
Todd: Well, yeah, sometimes that’s kind of sad. You know there are times, I can think of a few kids where, you know, we’ve been talking about something, and they are telling me something and maybe they’ve, you know, they’ve seen me two or three times, and whatever it is, it was pretty important, something that happened with friends of something they are feeling about a relationship like with their dad or something not going well, and the first thing I’m thinking of is, “Well, I wonder if they’ve, you know, talked to their parents?”
And so, I’ll ask them, I’ll say, “Hey, I’m really glad you’re telling me this. Have you talked to mom and dad about this?” And you know, sometimes they’ll say, “No.” And I’ll go, “Well, you know, well, how come?” And then they’ll say something like, “Well, you know, I just don’t talk to them too much,” or “It would just be weird.” And that’s really sad to think that they’re talking, I’m glad they’re talking to me, but they’ve known me two or three hours.
Jim: Well, that might be the reason they’re talking to you, because you don’t know them that well. But let me ask you that before we get into this wonderful content, the 8 Simple Tools for Raising Great Kids, which I want to get to, because we all want great kids, right? But there seems to be in the culture today a heavy burden that children carry. I don’t know why. You know, I was able to travel the world and I’d go to very poor countries where the kids seemed healthy. You know they were poor, but they were smiling and they were engaging, they were running around.
When I look at some children, in our country here at least, it’s almost the burden of success, the burden of materialism. Kids seem distant and despondent in so much of the culture today, and you have so many kids doing things, self-harm and other things. What do you think, again, as a child psychologist, what is happening there in our modernity, this modern world that we live in, what’s happening to where kids seem more at risk today than when they were years and years ago?
Todd: Yeah, Jim, when you say that, the first two things that come to my mind is just I see a lot of kids that seem to be busy and cluttered with things that aren’t even that important. You know, not that the school’s not important, but with school and sports and activity and Facebook and just all sorts of things just filled in there, their social concern.
There is one girl I know, and she was so upset over the concept of having her cell phone potentially removed, and you know, and she was so serious, “It will ruin my social life.” And she was very, very upset to tears about it. And you know, it just seems that they’re so occupied and just filled to the top with things that, again, maybe aren’t the right things.
Jim: Well, that’s interesting. That really leads to the first question I wanted to cover, and that is you emphasize in your book the need for parents to be good listeners. That’s hard for us as adults because you know we know everything, and so—
Todd: John has said you know everything.
Jim: –yeah, right. But to listen to an 8-year-old, it can be hard for a mom or a dad because you want to kind of, because of that stress you just talked about, the hurriedness of our lifestyle, we’ve got to do all these things before dinner, got to pay bills got to do this, got to do that. We don’t stop and think about the need to listen to our children. Why is that so important?
Todd: Well, you know I think we just maybe naturally just jump into teaching mode too quickly. You know, I think of teaching a lot as myself as a dad and as a psychologist, I think there are so many lessons we want our kids to learn, and so they have some problem with something, we think, okay, I think I know what to do, and we just, boom, go right into teaching mode.
And one of the analogies I like in terms of listening is, you think about your kids as if they were like a dump truck, right? (Laughter) And a dump trunk, there’s a couple of similarities. A dump truck, No. 1, is large; you can put a lot of stuff in it. And our kids have, as we were just saying, they are filled up with a lot of stuff—a lot of concerns, a lot of worries, a lot of apprehensions, you know, things that went bad at lunch today, etc.
But where a dump truck is filled with, you know, whatever, dirt and gravel, you know all the things that fill up our kids, to us as parents are hugely important. I mean they’re like a dump truck filled with diamonds, you know, and we care about everything in that dump truck and it’s valuable to us.
But the other thing about a dump truck is that at some point it gets filled up. And when a dump truck is filled up, there’s only one thing it can do; you know, it’s got to unload. And listening is just letting your kids unload their truck.Because what’s going to happen is just like a dump truck, they are gonna get filled up again sometime and they are going to have to unload over and over, and they are going to figure out where the best unloading spots are.
Jim: As a busy parent, how do we trigger ourselves to remember to let your child’s dump truck unload?
Jim: What are some things you can do that are practical?
Todd: Well, I mean a couple of things. No. 1, I have a picture in my head of a big old yellow Tonka-looking dump truck filled up with, no joke, with diamonds. And that’s how I picture my kids. And when they’ve gotta unload, I picture myself standing in the back of the dump truck and they are gonna, you know (Sound of Eerrr), you know, unload it and I want to catch every diamond coming out of there.
Todd: And there are three things that you can do to make that happen. No. 1, when they’re talking to you, when you’re listening, you’re not shoveling new stuff back into the truck. You know, that would be kind of silly if you saw some dump truck off to the side of the road and it’s unloading and some poor schmuck is there, you know, shoveling stuff back in. It’s like, “Dude, it’s the wrong time.” Well right, it’s the wrong time. So No. 1 is when you’re listening you just listen. You’re not adding new information. Yu can do that later; you’re just listening. No. 3, you’re asking, you can ask some questions, but you’re asking clarifying questions just to help you understand.
Jim: What does that sound like?
Todd: Yeah. Well, easy. It sounds like, “Well Pal, hey, hey, so where were you when this happened?” Or, “Hey, when Johnny said that, like how did you feel?” Things like that, just to help you understand more and better. And then finally, No. 3, every now and then, what I’ve seen in my office is when kids, when they get talking, they have a lot to say, and sometimes they’re saying so much, it’s like, oh my gosh, I’m gonna like lose what you just said. I don’t want to forget that.
So I will stop them every now and then and I’ll summarize. And I’ll just say, “Hey, you’re saying so much, I don’t want to lose anything. Let me make sure I’ve got this right. So when you were sitting at lunch and Susie said, Susie’s your friend and she said that thing to you and you couldn’t tell if she was being mean or if she was joking, you just felt confused and your feelings were really hurt. Am I getting this right?” And she goes, “Yeah, yeah. You’re getting that right.” “Okay, keep on going.”
And when we do those three things—you listen, you ask clarifying questions, then you summarize—you’ve got a kid who feels really valued and really listened-to, and they go, “Hey, talking to Dad was great. Talking to mom was great. That really helped me. Next time my truck gets filled up, guess where I’m going to go? Back to dad and mom.”
Jim: You know, you mentioned it a moment ago when we started the program, examples of patients that come, your young people that come to you and they say, “Well, I really don’t talk to my dad,” or “I really don’t talk to my mom.” How do you help parents better understand the importance of that so that kids feel—and I’m guilty of it too. I think my own kids would say that occasionally, “You know, Dad’s not really listening right now.” I try to do a report card. You know, so I try to do it once a month, but it may end up being every couple of months. Say, “Hey, give me a grade,” and I’ve got five categories.
Todd: That’s nice.
Jim: My communication style, is that working for you? A, B, C, D, or F.
Todd: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Jim: Then we talk about it. And that’s just one way. For me it works because I am moving so fast, I don’t always know how I’m communicating. But I want to amplify this, the important need for dads particularly, I think—moms kind of inherently know how to do this–but us dads, you know, we got to fix the sprinkler and we’ve got to mow the lawn and, you know, all this stuff’s going on. “Yeah, talk to me, go ahead, talk to me. Really, that’s what happened? Oh, that’s great.” But how do you really stop and say, “Okay, you got my attention.”
Todd: Uh-hm, well, for a dad, I think the simple way I would say it is, is the dad just has to, you know, remember what his goal is, and I’m a dad. My goal is to be connected with my boys. And you’re just not gonna be connected if you’re not a good listener.
Jim: But that’s got to be intentional is your point.
Todd: Yeah, you’ve got to be intentional.
Jim: If you’re not a good listener, you’ve got to say, “Okay, I’m gonna become one.”
Todd: Yeah, because I want to stay connected. I want to get connected, stay connected, and the route to doing it, at least one of the pathways to doing that, one of the tools is to be a good listener.
John: Oaky, so Todd, I’m inspired, but even, oh, within the past 24 hours one of my kids just kind of looked at me and said, “Just leave me alone, Dad, I just want to be quiet. I don’t want to talk.” So I want to be a good listener, but—
Jim: Well, he’s communicating.
John: –well, yeah, I mean I want to give space, but still what do I do then?
Todd: Well, if I heard that, I’d have two things go through my mind. No. 1, I would wonder, like I would not feel great if my kid said that to me, so it’s either one of two things. Either I’ve got a kid that I’m not really connected with and I need to start fixing that, or he just needs a little space and now’s not the right time. It could be either one and either one is cool.
But if a little space is the issue, I’ve just got to pick the right time. “I can pick a different time. No problem, Pal, we’ll talk later.” If I get too many of those, then somehow I’m not doing my connecting job right and I need to get together with my guy and say, “Hey Pal, I love you so much, I want to make sure, you know, that we’re connected and that I’m listening to what’s important to you and that nothing gets in the way of you and me.” And I work that out.
Jim: Yeah. Okay, so all of us parents of teenagers—now this is the desperate question—how do you get them out of that one-word answer? This is epidemic with teenagers. They hit some point and you say, “Hey, how was school today?” “Good.” “What’d you do?” “Nothin’.” I mean what is the deal with that? Or they get the grunt noise, “Pfft, aah, pfft.”
Todd: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, there’s a couple of things. Sometimes you can, you know, it just depends on, you know, your timing of the day and all that. Sometimes if you have the time to be doing an activity with them and you are doing something, whatever it is, whatever you like to do, even playing a video game or checkers or going out and shooting baskets, then you start a conversation; then you’ve got them relaxed and then you a whole different ball of wax there. So sometimes it’s that. Other times it’s asking, like, you know, it’s funny you said that, because when like when I come home from a day and Laura, my wife, asks me—
Jim: We do the same thing
Todd: –the same thing. I mean honestly.
John: I don’t like that; I don’t like that parallel.
Jim: Yeah. (Laughter) You know what? You’re right though.
Todd: Yeah, totally. And I thought about it. I thought, hey, I just honestly don’t want to take the time; it’s actually hard for me to rethink what have I done all day long? It’s like uh! I can’t remember everything.
Jim: So “good” covers it.
Todd: Yeah, yeah and when I say, “Oh, it’s fine. It’s a good day,” I mean that honestly, but I’m giving her no detail. So, you know, I can’t criticize my kids too much for that. But I can ask them a different kind of question. I can say, “Hey, what did you do at lunch today?”
Jim: So an open-ended [question].
Todd: Yeah, yeah.
Jim: And it makes them fill in the blanks.
Jim: Let me ask you this, too, the power of words. You know in marriage, when we do marriage programs, we’re often talking about the affirmation words, 10 to 1, 5 to 1. It obviously takes more affirmation than negative comment in a marriage to be healthy. I’m sure the same is true with parenting, that, you know, little ones need to hear affirming parental guidance more often than corrective, “You’re not doing it right” kind of verbiage. Do you have a little formula that you keep in your head?
Todd: I don’t have like a 10 to 1 formula, but I’m so with you on that. You know, I’m reminded of the Proverbs 18 verse that says, you know, “The words of the righteous are a fountain of life,” and I always like sometimes for certain Scripture verses to put a parenting, you know, spin on them, and I think, well, the mouth of the righteous parent can be a fountain of life to their kids. And that really gets me. And I think well, I want my words of my mouth to be a fountain of life for my kids. And depending on the kid, I mean some kids need a lot of correction, you know, so it’s like okay.
But the power of words is huge in a couple of ways. I mean you can talk about just literally changing like behavioral habits by really again intentionally pointing out positive behaviors. And there [are] a couple of tips I can give there. But even beyond that, not just pointing out positive behaviors, but taking it one step further and pointing out positive characteristics that underlie those behaviors.
So instead of, “Hey Pal, thanks for turning the TV off the first time I asked you. That was pretty good; that was good. Hey, you get points for that.”
Jim: Take it.
Todd: Yeah, I’ll take that. But you could say, “Hey Pal, thanks for turning the TV off the first time I asked you, buddy. That was really helpful, considerate, thoughtful, respectful.” Take your pick. All those words would apply to that example. And if I see Susie working on her homework and say, “Susie, sweetie, you’re working so hard; I’m proud of you. You’re really a hard-working girl. You really stick with it when things are tough.
Todd: Yeah. Now if she wasn’t thinking about herself that way 10 seconds ago, she is now, and if I do that on a regular basis, I’m changing the way she thinks about herself. Why? Because kids trust what parents say about them.
Jim: More so than I think parents even realize.
Todd: I think so.
Jim: Let me play a little bit of the opposite side of this, because you have two kinds of kids, like you mentioned. You have the one who’s doing the straight-A work and you know you ask them one time and they do it, and we usually call those children “compliant children.”
Jim: And then you’ve got that other child who, you know, consistently is needing that correction. How do we not over-reward and “trophy-ize” if I can use that. We coined a new word there, John.
Jim: Trophy-ize everything they do, you know, they get a sticker, they get a banner, a smiley face, and then they walk into the real world with a very high expectation of who they are. (Laughing) In fact, talking to a Fortune 500 president, company president, he said in their HR department they have to deconstruct that over-indulgence that parents and mostly moms have provided. (Chuckling)
Jim: And so, how do we do the correcting in a way that’s honest, not necessarily negative, but it’s making the point. I’m sure parents right now listening are saying, “Yeah, but I need to correct my child.” How do we do that in the right way?”
Todd: Well, I heard you say a couple of things there. Like for the pretty compliant kid, I heard you say, well, you know, we might give them a lot of positive feedback or they might earn a lot of rewards of various natures. I mean, that can certainly be overdone. I’ve never seen anybody that I’ve ever met overdo the positive affirmations.
Jim: Really? Okay.
Todd: Yeah, I mean the tendency—just ask yourself—the tendency is to go on the low side. The tendency is to go for those—
Jim: Correct the behavior.
Todd: –yeah, well the tendency is you forget to point out the positives. You know, you tend to focus on the negatives. You have to really force yourself to be watching for those positives. And if you’re not really thinking about it intentionally, that your frequency goes down. So you have to work just to keep a decent frequency. So I’ve yet to see somebody actually literally overdo on the verbals. So I don’t think that happens much.
But in terms of giving correction for any kid, you have to be so careful how you do that. You’ve got the kid who just needs, you know, maybe correction sometimes, and the kid who needs it a lot. Probably the kid who is in most danger is the one who needs it a lot. But the kid who just needs it sometimes, he might just need, you know, whether, oh gosh, just a reminder or whatnot.
I guess if I was going to sum it up for either kid, the most important thing about giving correction would be the style with which you give it. With correction I’d say there’s, if I can divide it into two categories, you have the content of the correction. You know, we just did this or that and so now we’re going to have a time out and, you know, videogames are gone for the week, you know, the content of what’s going to happen. But then the style is the way that you do it, and it’s the style that I’ve seen damage relationships.
Jim: What does that style look like when you talk style? Is it anger?
Todd: Typically that would be on the negative side, yeah, that’s the style. It’s kind of–whether it’s anger or kind of a harshness or abruptness—
Todd: –[it’s] some form of anger really. Just this parental style that is, you know, certainly not the way that we’d like anybody to correct us, not the way we’d like anybody to point out our mistake or our fault or our laziness or whatever it was. But the problem with it is, it just damages your relationship.
Again, we talked earlier about listening, and we could talk about talking.The parents’ communication style is one of the biggest factors that is gonna influence the closeness of that relationship, not just when we’re talking about, hey, you did a great job at basketball today, when we’re talking about the easy things, but when we’re talking about the difficult things. That’s when being attentive to your style is even more important, because that’s when we’re at risk for blowing it.
Jim: Okay, so 99 percent of the parents are going, “Oof,” because I blew it somewhere. I mean so often here at Focus we get, you know, e-mails and letters and phone calls from parents that have lost their temper or, you know, they have lost it. How would you coach a parent who, you know, loses it occasionally versus the one that is doing that as their parenting style; it’s what they’re doing?
Todd: Sure. Well, I think there [are] a couple easy things that we can do. Well, I shouldn’t say “easy,” simple things. These are not eight easy tools; these are eight simple tools. First of all, is again, I think it really helps—helps me anyway—just to stay focused, like we were talking about dads earlier, to stay focused on your job. I mean what are you trying to do here? Are you trying to teach your kids the right lessons, the right way, you trying to stay connected? And that’s what we’re trying to do, so I don’t want to do anything that’s going to damage that. I don’t want to teach a lesson in a way that’s going to, you know, make my kids like, you know, hate me. Well, he might hate me anyway.
Well no, not necessarily. It’s the style. You know, I know kids. I’ve unfortunately met kids who were very, very—teenagers usually—very, very distanced from their parents, and sadly, sometimes to the point where there is almost nothing I can do to talk ’em into wanting to repair that. That’s not because they lost the Xbox so many times; that’s because of a damaging style over years and years.
So in terms of style, I mean the first thing you do is, well, in a real-life practical situation, when you start to sense your frustration rising up and start to hear your voice gettin’, you know, not good, the first thing you do is you pause. You just stop for a second. And that second is huge, because it gives you a chance, it gives your brain a chance to catch up and recalibrate and go, “Wait a second. What am I doing? What do I want to do? Am I trying to push my kids away or pull them near? And if I want to teach them a lesson, do I want to make ’em open to that lesson or closed to the lesson?” And my style will do it. And your brain can do that in just a couple of seconds, so you stop, you pause.
Secondly, practical tip, when anger starts to take over, things go two ways. They get louder and faster. So you just intentionally reverse that. You start literally talking softer and slower. And when you do that, you literally, no joke, have a 1 million percent different conversation than you would have had five seconds ago. So you pause and then you go soft and slow.
Jim: Those are good tips. Let me ask you this. You mentioned the dump truck, which my mind is still kind of working on that one back here. You also in your book, 8 Simple Tools for Raising Great Kids, you mention a quote from Dale Carnegie, which I thought was outstanding. I don’t know if you have that right there or you have it memorized.
Todd: Oh, I know it, yeah.
Jim: Make that statement that Dale Carnegie made in the context of parenting.
Todd: Sure, sure, sure. Well, the Carnegie story is, he’s asked how he’s managed to hire so many successful people through his career, and he just gives a simple story. He says, “Well, you know when you’re going into a mine,” picture an old mine back in the 49er days or whatnot, “and you’re going in there with your pick axe, when you’re going into a mine looking for gold, trying to get some gold, you don’t go in looking for the dirt; you go in looking for the gold.” And he says, hey, that’s how it is for him.
But that’s perfect for us as parents. You know our kids, they get a lot of dirt on them, and they[‘ve] got a lot of dirty behavior, as it were, you know, a lot of bad habits they’ve got to get fixed up, but there [are] two things. They are not a clod of dirt with some gold specks on ’em. And if we think they are, then we’re like very mistaken, and our style is gonna be way off.
They are God’s—forgive the corniness—but they are God’s gold nuggets, and they’ve got some dirt, you know, around the outside that needs to be polished off, you know, cleaned up a bit. Fine. But let’s not forget what they are. That’s who they are. That’s what those characteristics are that we’re talking about pointing out earlier. And if I remember that, that I’ve got a gold nugget here who’s got to learn a couple of lessons, but I can do that. I can teach them a couple of lessons, but let me not forget what I’m working with here.
Jim: Todd, let me ask you this, because so often, in Christian homes particularly, and you know, to a degree I think Jean and I do this, too, and I’m not sure about you and Dena, John, but we have a high bar because, you know, we want our kids to behave so perfectly. You know, we understand the Scripture; we don’t want them to look at things they shouldn’t look at; we don’t want them to say things they shouldn’t say. And so, we are constantly correcting, you know, those attitudes and those appetites. Can it be overwhelming for a child if you have a perfectionistic parenting style?
Todd: Well, I would think so. I would think we would want to set the bar for our kids not higher than we set it for ourselves. (Laughter) And maybe that’s the corrective that comes in there, because I do want my kids to learn to do all the things that you just said, but I have to remember two things. Probably No. 1, I don’t do all the things that you just said perfectly, and they’re just kids. I’ve had way more experience than them, and I mess it up.
So with a high bar, there’s got to be an understanding, and I’m sure there is. But you know, for all of us there has to be an understanding aspect of grace and forgiveness. And again, that gets back to our word we used earlier “teaching.” I’m teaching them. My gosh, they’re students; they’re just learning. And my job is not to be perfectionistic; my job is to help them learn; and that’s why I’m there.
Jim: Todd, man, this program has flown by. I don’t know for you, John, but zoom!
John: I am amazed at how fast.
Jim: It’s just gone. And I think because there is so much practical advice here, I’m just kind of taking mental notes on what to do. So thanks for that. But we’ve got so much more to cover, we need to do that. I want to turn to you, the listener, and talk about the importance of this. You know sometimes we’re looking at the need to feed hungry children, and that’s an important Christian thing to do is to take care of people in need like that.
But here at Focus on the Family, to equip parents to help them raise godly, you know Christ-centered children, is job one, because those are the people that are gonna grow up to continue to expand the Gospel and expand the Kingdom of God here in this Earth, and that it’s important for us that we do that.
And so, as we teach them the principles of our faith and what we’re trying to do, I want to say “Thanks” to those who are supporting the ministry, that help us to make this happen. And you know, we’re here for you. We have counselors; we have tools. We have Dr. Todd Cartmell’s book, 8 Simple Tools for Raising Great Kids, that [is] here for you. We’re grateful to Todd to be able to put that into the arsenal and hand that out as needed. And thank you again for those who are supporting the ministry.
We had a listener comment come in just a while ago, and this woman wrote in and said this, “Focus is and has been a lifeline for us. I grew up listening to ‘Focus’ and have been listening ever since I got married and had children. We are so grateful for all your advice on marriage and parenting over the years. Our boys have faithfully listened to ‘Odyssey,’” which is great, I love that, “and the younger two still listen regularly. Thanks for all the biblical advice and encouragement we’ve gained from Focus. Keep up the great work.”
Now I don’t want the attention to be on us. This is the Lord’s work, what He’s doing through us, and we’re able to do it because of you. So thank you for tha