No More Empty Words: Why Parents Should Talk Less

The secret to helping kids make wise choices may be easier than you think

Martin Luther once wrote, “The fewer the words, the better the prayer.” The job of moms and dads is kind of like prayer in that way. The fewer the words, the better the parenting.

Yes, good parenting does involve plenty of talking. We talk with our kids about their day, their dreams, their friends and their concerns. But in the areas of parenting that involve training, discipline and correction, less talking really is better.

You may already recognize this. If you find that you repeat yourself on a point of training or discipline, then it’s clear that what you’re saying isn’t working — otherwise you wouldn’t need to keep saying it. And while some kids may appreciate the attention, many grow fatigued by a constant flow of jabber from parents. They often just want the noise to stop.

We agree with that sentiment. Lecturing doesn’t work. In contrast, teaching kids through the consequences of their choices is highly effective. There is a good reason for this: Words that threaten or warn may create shame and frustration, but a clear consequence leads to change.

How children really learn

In the 1980s, our culture experienced a “nurture movement” in which parents were taught by well-intentioned experts to always talk to their child. Today, many loving parents have developed this habit as part of their commitment to being present and available. They want to convey to their child, “I’m here, I’m watching, and I love you.”

This is normal and healthy in many areas of parenting, but when it comes to correction and discipline, the over-talking needs to stop in favor of methods that help children learn. Research has consistently shown that children (and adults) learn about eight times better from primary experiences than they do from secondary experiences. Think of a primary experience as something that happens to us, and a secondary experience as something we hear about.

For example, if a teen driver hears a report on the radio to drive carefully this weekend because the police are out in extra force, that is a secondary experience. Receiving a speeding ticket is a primary experience, which will help a teen remember to slow down in the future. A lecture or scolding from parents or police might create shame, but it is the ticket that costs something and prompts actual change.

Omit needless words

So how do we help kids have more primary experiences so they learn how to make good decisions? Start by eliminating counterproductive words. One of the biggest discipline errors parents make is to repeatedly use reminders, threats and warnings: “Don’t forget to take out the trash.” “If you don’t finish your homework, there will be no video games this week.” “I’ve told you three times already to get ready for bed.”

Threats, warnings and reminders all tell our children that they have failed in the past, are failing in the present or will fail in the future. Talking a lot about past, present or potential failure doesn’t help kids grow up.

This over-talking is perhaps most ineffective when we speak to our kids about their mistakes yet those errors never really cost them anything. This leads to a wordy and inconsistent environment — a home where fruitless lectures are combined with a failure to allow outcomes to teach children. Empty words deny our children the opportunity to learn from their choices without our interference.

Why do we interfere with children paying the cost of choices they have made? We may think we are protecting them from pain or disappointment, or we swoop in with mercy to salvage a hit to the relationship. In actuality, we are robbing our kids of a chance to mature.

A reasonable cost

Kids learn best from brief and costly consequences that aren’t excessive or dangerous. Generally, parents can rely on two kinds of consequences: natural and rule-based. A natural consequence is when life, just playing itself out, creates a consequence. A child who rejects his mother’s advice to carry an umbrella on a rainy day gets wet waiting for the school bus. A rule-based consequence is one that is created to enforce family rules or to cover for situations where no obvious natural consequences occur. A child who doesn’t wash the dishes or complete her other chores loses time playing her video game system. Consequences may often have some logical connection to the expectation, such as temporarily taking away a child’s marble collection if he’s unable to keep it picked up off the living room floor.

The best learning environment is where parents use few words in training or disciplining, while tying a modest cost to poor decisions, and a modest reward to good decisions. In this environment, parents will do most of their talking up front, clearly explaining their expectations and the consequences of meeting and not meeting those expectations. This communicates to the children that they have the opportunity to make a good choice, but that there is a cost associated with making a bad choice.

Once your kids get used to this approach, there’s no need for a lot of discussion. The result: fewer inappropriate words and less shame. And every day is an opportunity for children to make good choices.

Try applying this to a 6-year-old. Assuming the child has mastered the task of getting dressed, you would tell the child, “If you are dressed by 9 o’clock this morning, we will go to the park and then the humane society to look at puppies. Nine o’clock is in 45 minutes, so you have plenty of time.” Then, at 9:05 you can call up the stairs to say, “It’s after 9:00. Are you dressed?” If the child calls back, “No,” then the parent would say, “OK, we’ll try again tomorrow. Just come down when you are ready.” The parent is kind, doesn’t lecture, doesn’t criticize and doesn’t talk about it; there’s just no trip to play at the park and look at puppies.

Alternatively, what would this look like for a 17-year-old? The rule might be that a family has tied their 17-year-old’s freedoms — including the use of the car — to an agreed-upon performance in school. For three weeks in a row, when the parent checks the school’s online records, the child is caught up on schoolwork and has perfect attendance. Then, in the fourth week of the quarter, when the parent checks, the teen is five assignments behind and has a C-minus average in chemistry. Assuming this doesn’t meet the family’s standard, the parents would take away the car keys. Then the parent would simply tell the teen, “I love seeing you with your freedom and the car and know how important that is to a great high school experience. Get those assignments turned in and fix that C-minus and we can get things back to normal as soon as possible.” No extra dialogue or lecture is needed or helpful — just a few straightforward words and a wish for the best.

Is it really that simple?

You may be thinking, It’s not that simple. OK, we’ll admit that it’s easy enough to give sterile and uncomplicated advice for hypothetical situations. And we agree: Reality does sometimes have a way of complicating matters. But ask yourself this: What if it really is that simple? What if each of your children simply realized that there was a reasonable cost to poor choices, nothing was taken personally and there were no hard feelings? What if they knew that lectures and reminders would be rare and their parents were expecting and hoping for the best?

Many parents have told us impossibly complex stories with dozens of nuances. “This just won’t work in my family,” they say. But this doesn’t need to be so complicated — especially with kids who are doing fairly well overall. Choose a couple of things to work on, clarify the cost, hope they succeed and implement the plan. So much growth can occur when children are allowed to just journey through life and learn from the consequences of their decisions. There isn’t much need to fill the quiet with critical or corrective words.

When you approach discipline and correction with fewer words, you’ll tend to have kids who truly listen when you do have something important to say.

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