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Book + Workshop = Enlightenment

Laura El Alam explains how she and a group of Muslim mums benefitted from discussing and applying the principles of the classic parenting book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk.

Five years ago, I noticed a promotional flyer hanging in the lobby of the masjid. In bold letters, it asked, “Parents, are you overwhelmed?” Yes, indeed! I thought, inching closer to the paper, irresistibly drawn to the attention-grabbing, spot-on question. “Do you want to learn to resolve conflicts, encourage cooperation, cope with kids’ negative feelings, set firm limits and foster effective communication and family harmony?” Of course! I thought, Who wouldn’t?


The leaflet promoted a workshop designed to help make positive changes in parents’ relationships with their kids. It sounded almost too good to be true. A group of sisters gathered around the flyer like moths to a flame, reading with intrigued but slightly dubious expressions. Like me, they felt torn between hope and scepticism. Could a workshop really help us cope with our feelings of frustration and exhaustion? Would it actually alleviate how beleaguered we often felt by the challenges of raising children? Would our particularly… um… spirited children respond to the methods?


We all agreed that if the class achieved even 50% of its lofty aims, we would be 100% satisfied.


We were a diverse group of mothers – originating from Lebanon, Morocco, Mexico, Eritrea, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka and the US – who gathered for the workshop. While we were all Muslims, we had grown up with different styles of parenting and distinct cultural norms. Some participants described their own parents as distant and uninvolved. Others used the words “strict”, “overbearing” and “smothering”. Most of us remembered a fair amount of yelling, scolding and blaming in our upbringing and, despite our efforts to reverse the trend, we often found ourselves repeating those same unconstructive methods with our own children. Despite our dissimilar backgrounds and experiences, we were all hungry for knowledge that would help make our relationships with our children more positive.


A wonderful, enthusiastic Syrian sister led the workshop. She had earned a Masters degree in Child Development in the United States and had studied the principles of a book that she promised would revolutionise our interactions with our children. That book, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, would be the foundation of the course.


Although this book was published originally in 1980, was a New York Times bestseller, has sold over 2 million copies worldwide and has inspired the formation of workshops around the globe, from Dublin to Mumbai, none of us had ever heard of it.


When I first held the unpretentious paperback in my hands and flipped idly through the pages, I had no idea what a treasure I was holding. The ideas that Faber and Mazlish put forth are pure genius in their simplicity and effectiveness. The authors simultaneously acknowledge a child’s rights to dignity, compassion and love and a parent’s own needs of order, respect and discipline. Faber and Mazlish suggest wonderful techniques that are easy to understand and to apply… as long as a frazzled parent can remember them in the heat of the moment!


To help readers consolidate and remember the material, Faber and Mazlish incorporate helpful chapter summaries, parents’ comments, questions and real-life examples, as well as informative cartoons. Readers will relate completely to the scenarios put forth in the book and will recognise their own families’ struggles in the examples. The authors also provide short writing assignments and role-playing scenarios that help the reader think deeply and put the techniques into action. However, none of the suggested exercises are too difficult or time-consuming and they are well worth the small effort they require.


The workshop I attended with fellow Muslim mums met weekly and our collaboration was a wonderful supplement to the reading material. With the leader’s guidance, we addressed each chapter’s main points and shared our thoughts and questions. This led naturally to lively – sometimes funny, sometimes anguished – stories of our own interactions with our children. Meeting with a group also made it easier to perform the role-playing exercises and to complete diligently the thought-provoking short essay questions.


From the beginning, our workshop had an accepting, friendly atmosphere. No one pretended to be Super Mum. We did not need to fear each other’s judgement, as we all recognised that we were in the same rickety boat, trying to navigate the choppy waters of parenting. Hearing other mums speak candidly about their challenges and struggles was comforting; we knew we were not alone.


All of us members agreed that applying Faber and Mazlish’s techniques was like learning a new language; it took constant practice and repetition. We might remember to use the strategies in one situation, but forget in another. Or we might find it easy to communicate effectively with one child, but difficult to do so with another. Even five years later, after studying, re-reading, discussing and practising the techniques, I still find myself needing frequent refreshers. I have heard of people keeping a copy of How to Talk… on their nightstand or posting the cartoons or chapter summaries on their refrigerator doors. I can see the wisdom of this, particularly when I am ready to explode and need a quick, handy reminder of a better parenting option.


The website www.fabermazlish.com offers a wide range of resources, including order forms for How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk as well as several other of the authors’ best-selling parenting books. There is a link to help find workshops all over the world, including about twenty different locations in the United Kingdom and even more in the United States. In addition, there are instructions for those who would like to start their own workshop.


Although the sessions I attended consisted of only women, the principles in the book are definitely of benefit to fathers, as well. In fact, when one parent begins to learn the positive new ways of communicating, she will definitely want her spouse on board. Otherwise, the old, harmful ways of disciplining will start to stand out jarringly. A newly-inspired mum will wonder how she could have ever used such unhelpful ways of communicating in the past and she will insist on higher standards for herself and her family. When the husband witnesses his wife’s effective new tools and the positive results, he will undoubtedly be eager to learn some techniques, as well. My own husband was not able to attend any workshops, but he did listen to the audio recording of the book as he commuted to and from work. This is an excellent solution for either parent who does not have the time to sit and read. Many libraries can loan out copies of the printed book and the audio recording.


Do Faber’s and Mazlish’s techniques always work? The authors address this succinctly:
“People have asked us, ‘If I use these skills appropriately, will my children always respond?’ Our answer is: We would hope not. Children aren’t robots. Besides, our purpose is not to set forth a series of techniques to manipulate behaviour so that children always respond.


Our purpose is to speak to what is best in our children – their intelligence, their initiative, their sense of responsibility, their sense of humour, their ability to be sensitive to the needs of others.”


As my fellow workshop members and I witnessed, the principles in How to Talk…will benefit all families and children of various ages and abilities. Readers who are the parents of special needs, autistic, depressed and ADHD children have sent letters to the authors, affirming the soundness of their parenting strategies. Respect and dignity are the foundation of Faber’s and Mazlish’s philosophy and these are undoubtedly the best principles with which to raise a family.


Laura El Alam is a frazzled but grateful wife and mother of four in Southern California. She is currently, by necessity, perfecting her one-handed typing skills. Her ambition is to be able to wash dishes, change nappies, breastfeed and write articles simultaneously. When she has accomplished this feat, she will run away and join the circus.