Notice that when we use the following communication tools, we don’t usually tell people what to do. This is not passive communication, because we assertively describe the problem and, sometimes, the solution we prefer. We then wait to see if people will voluntarily cooperate with our request or figure out an equally acceptable solution on their own. When we add an order or command to the end of an assertive statement, it sends a hidden message of “do what I say—now—or else” and can start a power struggle. Instead, simply focus on the problem, and give the person time to respond or act. Our hidden message implies, “I have confidence in your ability to resolve this problem.” If we make these statements in a friendly, matter-of-fact way, children usually respond quicker. If they don’t, we can select a firmer statement from this toolset before moving to the next level—redirecting misbehavior with the PU or PO Toolset.


 Describe What You See ☆☆☆☆

Use objective words that create a picture. Instead of labeling (“You’re messy”), judging (“You always leave your messes for me to clean”) or assuming why children are misbehaving (“You just love making my job harder”), we simply describe the problem as we see it. “I see books, coats, and papers on the living room floor.” If children know where the objects belong, we don’t have to give this information again. Without tacking on an order, our description says, “You know where they go and I trust you to put them there, now.”

Avoid the word “you”; say “I” instead. Saying “you” is like pointing a finger of blame. People take it personally and defend themselves. Instead of “You need to take out the trash,” say “The trash needs to be taken out.” Try to use “I” whenever you can. Say, “I see wet towels laying on the bathroom floor,” instead of blaming, “You left wet towels . . .” or ordering, “Pick up the wet towels you left . . .” Follow the “Don’t Say ‘Don’t’” rule when using this tool. Describe what needs doing (“I see the dog needs food”) or what you see (“The dog’s bowl is empty”).

When dealing with Child problems, use “you” and avoid “I.” Child problems belong to others, so we talk about how they think and feel. Using “I” shifts the focus to us, which causes others to feel we interrupted them, so they stop talking.

When dealing with Parent problems, use “I” and avoid “you.” Parent problems belong to us, so we talk about how we think and feel. Using “you” shifts the focus to others and sounds blameful, which causes others to feel defensive and stop listening. 

Use “someone” or “people” when describing behavior, because it would probably bother us if anybody acted this way. Instead of saying, “I saw you throw sand,” say “I see someone throwing sand.”


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The appropriate children know we are referring to them without pointing any fingers. If we say, “I’m sick of your smart-aleck attitude,” we’re not only blaming by using “you,” but labeling the behavior as “smart-alecky.” We can be just as assertive and more tactful if we say, “I understand you are angry (we can use “you” when noticing their feelings), but it’s easier to listen to feelings and concerns if they are worded respectfully.” This says what we are willing to do, within limits. We can also say, “In this family, we treat each other with respect even when we are angry,” which teaches a family value.

Use “sometimes” or “when,”  instead of “always” or “never.” (“You never return my stuff.”) People usually deny or debate exaggerations and blame, “No, I don’t do it all the time!” Instead, say “Sometimes my _____ is missing when I need it” or “When I go to use my _____, I expect it to be in the _____.”


 Describe  How  You  Feel

We can combine this tool with the previous one to express our feelings about a particular behavior or problem. The description focuses on our feelings about the behavior, not the person. “I feel _____ when (describe the problem).” For example, “It’s frustrating to say something three times and get no response.”

Own your feelings, saying “I feel,” instead of, “You make me feel . . .” Remember what we learned in the Keep Your Cool Toolset—no matter what another person does, we choose how we are going to interpret the event. If we say, “You make me feel . . .” we are giving away our personal power. We might as well say, “Look how powerful you are. You made me lose my temper.” With children, this statement can reinforce the belief that being in power is important, which increases manipulative or rebellious behavior. When we own our feelings, we are in control—of ourselves.

Avoid overusing angry or upset. Remember that anger is a secondary emotion. We want to express the emotion we felt before the anger. This helps children learn about the emotional effects of their behavior. Also, if we overuse “angry,” children simply conclude, “Everything makes you mad!” There are many shades of anger and many words to describe it:

Alternatives to “I’m angry (or upset).”

I am/feel . . .
I’m ready to. . .
blow my top
have a cow
blow my stack
seeing red
fly off the handle
hit the ceiling
boiling over
ticked off
I can’t see straight.
My blood’s boiling.

Express feelings authentically. If it is difficult to control our volume, we can try instead to emphasize certain words to get our point across. For example, we would stress the word “furious” more strongly than we would stress the word “annoyed.” We always want to be respectful, even when we’re angry. If we do take our feelings out on our children, we can restate ourselves in a more controlled way or say, “I’m sorry I yelled. I (describe the problem or your feelings) . . .” This conditional apology says, “I have a valid reason for being upset, but I regret the way I expressed it.” Doing this can help rebuild trust and salvage something good out of the situation. So, what can we do if we keep our cool and respectfully assert our concerns, only to have children reply, “Tough. I don’t care. If you’re upset, that’s your problem.”? We can say, “Well, I do care— about you. That’s why I try to show respect for other people’s feelings, even when I disagree. And I do have a problem if others don’t treat me respectfully in return.”



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Avoid the word “embarrassed.” “I’m embarrassed” is often misinterpreted as “You are an embarrassment.” Embarrassment is based on the belief that we must care about what others think or how they will judge us. Therefore, no one makes us feel embarrassed, it is a self-imposed emotion. Naturally, things happen that are embarrassing (especially if we have children), but we can choose whether to accept that feeling and let it cause us to lose our self-control. If we cannot avoid the word, use it in a way that takes ownership of our feelings. “When I have to walk through a store with a child hanging on my pants, it’s hard not to feel embarrassed.” A good way to deal with embarrassment is to use humor. “It would be much easier for me to walk if my pants stayed on my body and your feet stayed on the floor!”


Avoid the word “disappointed.” It turns statements into guilt trips. It sends the hidden message, “You are a disappointment” or “You could have done better.” These comments cause others to feel like failures. Disappointment is usually caused by unrealistic expectations. When parents use guilt trips, children might change their behavior to please others. There is value in every good behavior and a positive sense of self-worth when it’s practiced. This is the healthy motive for changing behavior.


A Parent Group Discussion. In class, a parent asked a valid question about feeling disappointed. Here is our conversation:

Parent: If my child is normally a straight “A” student, can’t I expect her to get good grades and be disappointed when she doesn’t do her best? Can’t I just tell her “You have a choice, you can put forth the effort and get good grades or keep sloughing off and fail”?

Me: You can hope she will do her best and get good grades. But realistically, you can expect that there will be times when she feels bored, unmotivated, wants to take a break, or doesn’t do her best. Usually these are normal cycles we all experience. It might be premature, however, to present a natural consequence. Remember, that’s climbing into the attic of discipline. The truth is that we can never really make our children get good grades or do their best. If children feel encouraged, they naturally try harder. If we point out mistakes, children feel more discouraged and often give up.

Since school problems are mostly Child problems, you want to use the F-A-X Listening and Problem-Solving Toolsets. Detach yourself from your disappointment and expectations and find out how your daughter feels and what she expects from herself. Use the Parent Problem Toolbox only when the problem interferes with the “SHARP RV” issues. Limit your opinions to these issues and quickly refocus on your daughter’s feelings and perspective.


Put them in your shoes. Use this tool when others can’t relate to your perspective or how it feels to be in your shoes. This tool uses a point of reference that is familiar to the listener. It puts them in a similar situation in that area of their life so they see how they would feel. Then you make a comparison between that situation and their feelings and your feelings in this situation. Here are a few examples to illustrate this tool:


Situation: Your young child runs away from you in a crowded place. You are afraid he’ll get lost, but he has no fear.

Similar situation: This child has a special stuffed animal, named Scruffy, that he wants to carry everywhere. (It could be any toy or object the child deeply loves.) Say, “Imagine that we went to the carnival and you and Scruffy went for a ride on the merry-go-round. When the ride is over, Scruffy is gone and you don’t see him anywhere! Imagine how you would feel.” If he doesn’t use feeling words, continue the description, pausing between questions. “Would you look and look and look? Would you worry you might not ever find him? Would you wonder if someone took Scruffy? Do you think you should wait for Scruffy to find you? When you find him, what would you do when you rode the next ride?” If he doesn’t volunteer an answer, add “Would you hold onto him even tighter?” When it seems he is experiencing the feelings in this situation, say, “That’s how I feel when I can’t find you. I love you so much and don’t want you to get hurt or have someone else take you home! I look all over and worry I might not be able to find you. When I do, I want you to hold my hand so I can make sure I don’t lose you again.”



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Situation: Your teenager wants to stay out extra late. She knows you will say “no” if she asks you privately, so she asks you in front of her friends, hoping their presence will pressure you to agree. She doesn’t understand why it matters where she asks you this question.

Similar situation: “Imagine that you are at a party and your friends are in another room. One of them comes to you privately and wants you to play a cruel practical joke on a boy at the party. What would you say?” Wait for her response. Hopefully, she says she won’t do it. Then say, “Now, imagine they call you into the other room and ask you in front of your friends. Now what would you say?” If she says she would still refuse to participate, add, “Now, as a group, they try to pressure you to change your mind. How do you feel toward your friends and the way they are using the group to pressure you to make a decision you know is wrong?” After she responds, make the connection to your feelings. “When I need to deny people’s requests in front of their friends, I feel pressured and resentful, too. I might have even said ‘yes,’ if the person asked me in private!”


Share your values. Although we learned tips for teaching values in the Independence Toolset, many Parent problems are value conflicts. When we try to express our concerns, we often end up preaching and lecturing. Here are some additional suggestions we can follow when we want to share our values:

    • Talk about values before conflicts arise. Values are best taught when children are young and more easily influenced. Use teachable moments to bring up the subject. Discussing news events, television shows, or advertisements, and telling stories about others’ experiences are all ways we can share our values without a sermon.
    • Live by the values you want children to adopt. Children, especially teens, can easily identify hypocrites. If we simply practice what we are tempted to preach, our children are more likely to imitate and adopt our values.
    • Don’t force values on others. When children raise moral questions, we can state our opinions and values, emphasizing that not everyone believes the same way. We can explain the basis for our conclusions and the effects of believing otherwise, but not impose our beliefs on others. Force is usually met with force. A relaxed attitude more often results in children considering and voluntarily adopting our values.
    • Be willing to consider other points of view. We can admit when our children have a valuable point to consider. We can even change our beliefs, if their values have merit for our lives. If we find their values are right for their lives, but not necessarily right for ours, we can acknowledge their right to choose their own values. Here, we are not compromising our own values nor are we forcing them on others. Value conflicts arise mostly in the teen years. (There are some additional comments about values in the “Tips for Teens” section at the end of this chapter.)


 Describe  the  Negative  Effect  of  the  Behavior

 This tool combines the description of behavior (“When milk is left out . . . ”) with a description of the effect that behavior has ( . . . it spoils.”) We are giving information so the person understands the reason for our concern. To be most effective, use measurable or visual terms, such as time, money, energy, or emotions. We can use this tool in any of the following circumstances:

    • If we aren’t sure if children know this information.
    • If children might have forgotten the information.
    • Before we expect children to follow through with a request.
    • Before we assume children’s behavior is “on purpose.”

Often, once we give information, children figure out what action they want or need to take. We don’t usually need to add an order or command, it is implied. For example, if we say, “When someone eats on the couch and food falls under the cushions, it attracts bugs,” it implies two things: (1) “We don’t want



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bugs” and (2) “don’t leave crumbs in the couch.” We want to keep our tone of voice matter-of-fact and avoid blameful statements like, “If you do , you’re going to make happen.” If we simply give information, most children prefer to feel responsible and mature by doing something about it. If we nag and order, they resist even more.

Emotional consequences are often less obvious to children. We can help them understand why certain behaviors, such as politeness or tactfulness, are important. For example, avoid saying, “Quit being so bossy” or “If you don’t quit bossing your friends around they won’t be your friends anymore.” Instead, we can say, “When people don’t get a turn now and then, they may not want to play anymore.” Or “People don’t like being told what to do. They stop having fun and might leave.”

If we can’t find a way to make a connection between the behavior and the negative effect, children can conclude that we want them to do it for no valid reason. If they see no value in the request, they are less likely to take action.

Keep it brief and simple, avoiding long explanations or lectures. The more we say, the less others will want to listen. It is nagging and blameful to say, “Someone didn’t hang up the towels. They’re all over the floor. They’re going to get the carpet moldy.” Instead, we can simply say, “Wet towels make carpets moldy.”


Describe What You Want, Expect, or What Needs to Be Done

 If we have used the previous tools in the past and the behavior occurs again, we want to make a firmer statement. We can also use this tool when children can’t figure out a remedy. Rather than telling someone what to do with an order or command, try these firm, but respectful options:


•     When (describe the problem), I expect


I  expect  _____.


       (action we want done).


I  need _____.


•     I would like (describe positive behavior)


I plan to _____ .


•     I want _____.


I’m willing to _____.


•     I  prefer  _____  .   


I’m not willing to _____.


Be careful about turning this tool into a command or order. We are better off stating our limits, what we are and aren’t willing to do, than telling children what they will or won’t do (since we usually start power struggles when we do this). Here are some examples:

      When people borrow my tools, I expect them returned to the toolbox right away.” “I want everyone to rinse their own dishes and put them in the dishwasher.”
      “I expect people to come home when they agree to be home.”
      “I plan to take a nap, so I would like everyone to do something quiet for half an hour.”
      “I’m willing to take someone to the library when I can schedule the time in advance. I’m not willing to take someone the night before a project is due.”

A Personal Story. When Chris was in kindergarten, he decided he wanted to wear ten shirts to school—all at once! (Don’t ask me why! To this day I don’t know!) As he stood before me, looking like the Incredible Hulk, he proudly showed me his layers. I briefly commented that he might get hot and that others might think him strange. He insisted and I decided not to make a big issue out of this. He’d had strange, but innocent, ideas before and they usually didn’t last long. I said, “You can wear ten shirts if you want, but I’m only willing to wash the top shirt and the one that touches your skin. I expect the other shirts to be folded and put back in the drawer. I want to see zero shirts on the floor.” He agreed. He wore ten shirts—and folded eight each night—for a couple of weeks and then went back to the traditional one-shirt style.



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 State the Rules or Limit

There are short but effective rules that have stood the test of time. We can call them “Grandma’s Rules”.

    • “Work before play.”
    • “Say it nicely.”
    • “Safety first!”
    • “Make amends for mistakes.”
    • “There is always an effect, positive or negative, for every action.”

Rules need to be bottom-line statements, not detailed descriptions. (Remember the “Rules for Setting Rules” in the Cooperation Toolset.) Once we state the bottom line, we can then shift the focus to the choices children have within those boundaries. Instead of threatening (“If you don’t pick up these dirty clothes, I won’t do your laundry), state the bottom line, “I only wash clothes that are in the hampers on laundry day.” We state the rule with an implied expectation that dirty clothes are put in hampers. We have also revealed the effect of not putting clothes in the hamper.

Use helpful questions to decide rules. For example, “What would happen if . . . ? (Wait for the response.) What could you do to prevent this?” Use a curious tone of voice, not an angry one.

Don’t assume people know the rules , especially those that could vary from family to family. Some examples are “Please remove your shoes at the door” and “We ask permission to be excused from the table.” It is unrealistic and unreasonable to expect others to follow unspoken family rules. It is especially important to clarify rules when blending two families after divorce and remarriage.


A Personal Story. My parents divorced my first year in college. When I came home to visit, I naturally operated by the family rules and routines we had always followed. For example, each evening I’d check everyone’s schedules and move the cars so they could pull out in order. One weekend, I arrived before my mother and parked in the driveway, where I had always parked. My future stepfather came to visit. When he arrived, he scolded me for “taking my mother’s parking space.” He said it was “disrespectful to park in the garage or driveway. Children are supposed to park on the street.”

Surprised by this new rule, I explained that we had never had designated parking spaces. I said I could see the value of his point and explained my parking plan. He insisted that I had “disrespectful disregard” for my mother’s needs. Knowing how much I respect my mother and try to consider her needs, I was very offended. We got into a heated argument and I stormed out of the house. (Our first and only big argument.)

From then on, I was careful not to park in their driveway and asked permission first before parking there. I discovered other “hidden” rules over the years, but didn’t argue or try to explain myself. I simply memorized them and revealed them to my family.


“Hidden rules” cause resentment. If we expect others to follow our preferences as though they are universal rules we are being unfair and unreasonable. People are not mind-readers and resent it when others accuse them of violating rules they don’t know about. Here’s the bottom line: If we expect it, we need to make the expectation realistic, respectful, and clear. Otherwise, we can’t expect others to know or comply with our rules.


Get Eye-to-Eye Agreements ☆☆☆☆

When we want to confirm that someone heard and understood us, eye contact is vital. If we ask someone to do something and we hear, “Okay” or “I will,” we can add one final word, “When?” If we want to avoid getting a simple, “Later” or “Soon,” we need to be specific. “What time can I expect to see _____?” Most children (and adults) will choose the latest time possible. When they do, we confirm our expectation. “So at six o’clock, I can expect to see _____, right?”



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When we have a commitment, we want to maintain eye contact until we see some form of agreement. This could be as simple as a nod “yes” or something more. Here are some other ways to confirm agreements:

    • “Do  we  have  a  deal?”  (Shake  hands.)
    • “So you will do (task) by (time), right?” Get eye contact, so you avoid a “Yeah, whatever” response and later an “Oh, I forgot.” People are less likely to forget when they look at our eyes and then agree.
    • Confirm your expectations, “So when you tell me you’re done, I can expect to see the floor clean, with everything where it belongs. Right?”
    • Confirm the agreement. “So when Saturday night comes and you’re tired, I can still count on you to go to the party and not cancel, right?” (This is the one I use with my husband!)

When the agreed time arrives, if the other person forgets or tries to back out of the agreement, we can still avoid a power struggle. Set limits by emphasizing the agreement. “We had an agreement that the leaves would be raked before you left for the mall. You can go after the leaves are finished.” Then don’t add any extra nagging or reminders. Instead, use nonverbal cues, such as pointing to or looking at a watch, smile knowingly, or giving a hug. They may not be happy, but they will probably cooperate. Don’t make a big deal about under-the-breath grumbling. Shift gears to listening, “I know you don’t really feel like doing this. Thank you for keeping your agreement.” If the comment is really out-of-line, the child and parent need to calm down before discussing the behavior. Otherwise, it’s like two volcanoes ready to erupt.

If children have broken agreements in the past, we can add a statement that reveals discipline. Although we haven’t learned the specifics of the Discipline Toolset, an example could be, “If the dishwasher isn’t running by 6:30, I’ll know you’ve decided to turn off the TV and do the dishes then.” Then say nothing, wait for the agreed time to arrive, and follow through.


Mix  and  Match  Tools

We can use all these tools by themselves or with other communication tools. This does not mean we repeat ourselves. We combine the tools to make one statement, as in the following examples.


Don’t interrupt me. It’s  rude.
I feel frustrated when I’m interrupted. (Describes the feelings and behavior.)
Turn off that TV and listen to me. 
When I’m talking, I expect others to listen. (Describes the behavior and our expectations.)
Stop driving so fast!
It scares me to go 75 miles an hour. We could  have an accident. (Describes feelings, the behavior, and the negative  effect.)
You’re giving me a headache!
I  get  a  headache  when  there’s  so  much noise.  (Describes the negative effect of the behavior and the behavior itself.)



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Shift  Gears

When we are talking, we need to remember to shift back to the listening tools if we encounter resistance or an emotional reaction from others. We may need to go back and forth several times to get a clear understanding. Then we can move onto problem solving or redirect problem behavior.


A Parent Group Discussion. A mother shared the following story and we discussed how she could use a combination of the skills she had already learned to respond more helpfully.

My four-year-old son fell asleep in the car after shopping. When we got home, his sister woke him up. He was mad at her for waking him (he wanted me to wake him) and started being mean to her. I said, “I’m not going to wake you up when I’m tired from carrying in stuff from the car and she’s right there.” He kept saying, “But . . .” I yelled, “If you won’t listen I’ll yell even louder until you do!” I know he was tired and wanted me to carry him in, but . . .” I interrupted the mother’s story, “Wait a minute. Did you tell him you understood he was tired and wanted you to wake him up, even though you weren’t willing to do it?” “Well, no,” she replied. I said, “Let’s reword this so you can move beyond his emotions and the power struggle, without violating your rights. Let’s use the universal PASRR formula. Fill in the blanks: ‘I can tell you feel _____.’ Then say what you’re feeling or thinking.” She said, “Okay, I know you don’t like your sister waking you up, but I’m not willing to carry you in when I’m already tired and you can walk.” “Now,” I said, “offer him some choices.” She thought a few seconds and replied, “You can either keep sleeping in the car or have your sister wake you up.” She added, “But what if he fusses at those ideas, too?” I said, “Then you can move into problem solving. This is a problem for him, too! Set your bottom line, ‘I’m not willing to carry you in and you don’t want your sister to wake you.’ Then ask him, ‘How else can you wake up?’ Put the ball in his court.”

She did some brainstorming with her son before their next shopping trip. He whined a bit, but followed through with his agreement to have his mother wake him, but walk inside by himself.



Quick  Reminders ☆☆☆☆

We want to avoid nagging and constant reminders. When we have used longer descriptive statements in the past, sometimes we only need a quick reminder.

Human behavior is consistent, despite age. When we tell children something in one or few words, it gets their attention. They don’t have time to tune us out. Then, because they are so appreciative that we didn’t lecture them or embarrass them in front of others, they reward our behavior by cooperating.

Short, clear statements can help us avoid lectures, which cause eyes to roll and ears to close. Here are four short and clear reminders.



We have all used nonverbal signals at some time or another, such as putting a finger to our lips to say “Shh.” Another is “the look,” that knowing glance with a smile that says, “Okay, that’s enough!” This look differs from the “evil eye,” which conveys a threat or spite. A firm but matter-of-fact look that says “I heard that” or “You know better” is often all that’s necessary to get children thinking twice about what they are saying or doing.

These nonverbal signs are fairly obvious, but we can invent more to suit our needs and the situation. These are nonverbal codes that we explain ahead of time. Children like nonverbal codes, because they are fun and spare them embarrassment. Here are a few signals that other graduates and I have used:

Twisting my nose means, “turn down the volume” on your voice.

Using the American Sign Language sign for “thank you” to remind children to show appreciation, instead of saying, “What do you tell the nice lady?”



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      A teenage son and his father came up with the code, “8-3-1,” which means “It has eight letters, three words, and means one thing, ‘I love you.’”
      One mother sent her dog into the family room with his bowl hanging from his neck. The kids got the message to “feed the dog.”


When children forget something we’ve explained in the past, we can use one or two words to remind them of the longer explanation we once gave. Do not use a child’s name as the one word. It sends no information and can cause the child to equate his name with being in trouble. (I always knew when the boy down the street was in big trouble. His mother would yell his full name from the front door.) If we use children’s names, we only want to use them to get their attention and then add the one word reminder. Also, follow the “Don’t say ‘Don’t’” rule and make the word state what you want the child to do.


                                         USE ONE WORD
Turn off the light ………………………………………………………………………………………………………………Light!
Flush the toilet ………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..Flush.
Pick up your shoes…………………………………………………………………………………………………………….Shoes.
You know you’re not allowed on the wood pile! …………………………………………………….Wood pile or Off!
Don’t run. …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………Walk.
Get out of the street………………………………………………………………………………………………………Sidewalk.



When children have a case of “parent deafness,” notes are particularly effective. Notes visually say something without actually talking, so children have no chance to tune us out. We can use notes anytime, with children of all ages. Here are some ideas for using notes:

    • Notes can be simple, friendly, or even humorous reminders. For example, I saw this sign hung over a toilet, “We aim to please. You aim too, please.”
    • We can get creative, giving inanimate objects a voice. For example, attach a note to a laundry basket that says “I’m hungry, please feed me dirty clothes.”
    • Even if children can’t read, they can understand pictures. Just the sight of a note gets their interest and they will probably ask what the note says.

A Personal Story. A friend has little signs posted in her bathroom. They have pictures she and her son cut out of magazines of different tasks in his morning and bedtime routines. All he has to do is look at the pictures and he can remember what to do next. This has prevented a lot of reminding and nagging. When my son was old enough to take responsibility for feeding the  dog, but wasn’t old enough to read, I hung this note (to the right) on our family room door.

We can also write notes when we are too upset to trust ourselves to keep our cool. Just the process of writing a note helps diffuse our anger. If our first effort comes off too strong, we can rewrite it, until we say what we want, the way we want to say it. When we put apologies or words of encouragement in writing, they can have a lasting effect:



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A Personal Story. When I was a teen, my brother’s behavior had really deteriorated, so our home was always a high-stress zone. My dad would often take a nap after work. One evening, I didn’t know he was sleeping and was being loud and silly. He flew out of bed, thinking there was an argument. He was scared and upset and yelled at me. I felt bad, but was hurt by what he said, and gave him the silent treatment the rest of the night. The next evening, on my desk, was a letter of apology. He told me he appreciated my sense of humor and how much I meant to him. He shared his reasons for getting angry and told me how much he loved me. To this day, I still have his letter, although there is a big tear stain on the words.

When someone writes a letter, whether to apologize or encourage, it often means more than an in-person talk. We know the person took the time to sit and write and it’s something we can save for later, to rekindle the warm feelings it brought. Notes are so effective, our children often start using them to communicate with us.

A Personal Story. When I came home from an evening class, I found a note on the door. Chris, then age 8, must have run out of his favorite clothes. His note said, “Please wash blacks tonight. I’ll dry them in the morning. P.S. Good night. Love, Chris.”



Flash codes are one-word reminders that parents and children agree on privately before a problem arises. The word means a sentence or idea. The word has special meaning to both of you, but can mean nothing to others. For example, the word “banana” can mean “Quit picking your nose.” In public, we can say, “Tommy, do you smell bananas?” This spares children from nagging and embarrassment. (I invented flash codes when Chris was three and we did parent/child problem solving. I’ll share the whole story in the next section.)


 Two-Party Problem-Solving

We learned how to do one-party problem solving with Child problems, “keeping the ball in their court.” When a problem also affects us, we both need to be involved in the problem-solving process and agree on a solution that meets both our needs. To do this we add one step, defining the problem from both viewpoints, and expand another step, detailing who will do what to achieve the plan. Although we can use two-party problem solving in any relationship, we will apply it to parent/child relationships. We can do problem solving on the spur of the moment in a condensed form or, if a problem keeps occurring, we can arrange a time to follow the process step-by-step in writing.

The goal of two-party problem solving is to reach a “win/win” agreement. “Win/win” does not mean both people get everything they want. Usually, it means both people get some of what they want, their “bottom line” needs. Both or neither may be happy about doing what they agreed to do, but they know it is a fair agreement and are therefore willing to follow through with it.

These are the basic steps of two-party problem solving:

a. Define the problem.

i. Introduce the problem topic in one sentence.
ii. Invite the other person to share his/her perspective.
iii. Ask if the other person is willing to listen to your concerns.
iv. Share your perspective.
v. Summarize the problem for each person.

b. Brainstorm ideas.

c. Evaluate the options.

d. Choose, define, and commit to the solution.

e. Follow-up.



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a. Define the Problem 

Since we use two-party problem solving when we have a problem, we usually need to bring the problem to the attention of the other person. Even if the problem is not a C/P problem, we still want to listen to other people’s feelings and perspectives. To get off on the right foot, define the problem by following these steps:


i.  Introduce the problem topic. We briefly introduce the topic (without opinions) using one of the Clear Communication tools. For example, “We have been having a lot of arguments about curfew lately.”
ii.  Invite the other person to share his/her perspective. We stress that we want to see the situation from the other person’s point-of-view and quickly shift to listening mode. “I’d like to hear your thoughts about curfew and any ideas you have for an agreement we can both live with. What are your concerns about the way we currently handle curfew?” To avoid arguments, stick to the issue. Keep asking, “What else do you think or feel?” We don’t defend our position or disagree. (This can be difficult if we hear blameful statements. If others criticize or blame us, we can use a quick “I” message, “I’m willing to listen to your perspective, but it’s hard if I feel criticized. Can you tell me what you don’t like with respectful words?”) Write their feelings, opinions, and other comments on the “Problem Solving Worksheet” at the end of the Problem-Solving Toolset. Now and then, we clarify and summarize their opinions, “Let me get this straight, you feel _____, because _____.”
iii.  Ask if the other person is willing to listen to our concerns. If we have been listening with respect and ask permission before speaking, most people are willing to listen to us without interrupting. In the remote chance that the other person says, “No, I’m not willing to listen to you,” reveal the result. “Well, we can keep arguing about this or we can come up with an agreement that meets both our needs. I’d like to try to resolve this. Will you give it a try, too?
iv.  We share our concerns, using the Clear Communication Toolset. Do not try to agree on the same viewpoints or issues. We can agree that we both have different concerns. We look for truth on both sides and simply try to understand each other. Then we ask them to tell us what they just heard us say, so we know they understand, even if they don’t agree. (This teaches them reflective listening skills.) If, at any point in our sharing, they interrupt us, we can calmly say, “I listened without interrupting. I’d like to have my ideas and opinions heard, too, even if we disagree.”
v.  Summarize the problem for each person. Once we both state our opinions, we summarize the problem in a nutshell, “So for you it’s like this . . . and for me it’s like this . . .” Or “You’d like _____ and I want _____.” 


b. Brainstorm Possible Solutions

Introduce brainstorming with a comment such as, “Can you think of some ways that you could (their biggest issue) and I could (your biggest issue)?” In the curfew example, we might say, “Can you think of a way that you could be with your friends longer and I could know where you are and that you’re safe?” We want to summarize the problem in a way that gives us a win/win goal to focus on. This helps us move beyond differences of opinions and needs to focus on solutions.

We allow the other person to come up with ideas first. This emphasizes that we are not trying to impose our solutions. Allowing someone to state an idea is entirely different from accepting that idea for the final agreement. Be patient. Just keep asking, “What else?” and write down every possibility. If we offer an idea, we want to word it as a suggestion, “One possibility is . . .” or “We could . . .” Avoid “We should . . .” Do not evaluate any ideas at this point. If others criticize our ideas, we remind them, “It’s just an idea. We don’t have to use it.”



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c. Evaluate the Options

Consider the possible outcome of each idea. Unacceptable options can be altered to make them acceptable to both parties. Use phrases such as, “What would happen if we did this?” And “How do you feel about this one?” Or “Are you willing to . . . ?” If we don’t like an idea, we express our concerns without blame or criticism. “I would be concerned about doing that because . . .” Or “I’m not willing to do this because . . .” We want to keep the word “you” out of our comments if possible. Cross off ideas or parts of suggestions one or both parties are unwilling to agree to.


d. Choose, Define, and Commit to the Solution

Choose the solution both parties favor most. It may be a combination of more than one idea. Make sure both parties understand what that plan would involve. Define who will do what and when it needs to be done. Agree not to nag or remind. If it seems appropriate to the situation, also define what will happen if the agreement is broken. This last part may involve revealing discipline (Chapter 13, “Discipline Toolset”). Agree to try the solution for a trial period. Set a time to discuss how the agreement is working-or isn’t working. During the trial period, if we notice others aren’t following through with their agreements, we can say, “Remember our agreement?” Use a friendly attitude of respect, keeping our agreement not to nag.


e . Follow-up

See what happens during the trial period and bring up any problems at the follow-up meeting. Be willing to adjust or change the agreement if it seems unworkable or new information is available. We want to check to see how the solution is working for others, even if it’s working for us.


A Personal Story. When Chris was three-and-a-half years old, he would whine and complain about how long it took to clean his room and got distracted by the toys he was picking up. I knew Chris’ behavior was age-appropriate and tried keeping realistic expectations. I had taught him how to pick up items and organize them, but found myself nagging him to stay on task.


We sat over a cup of hot chocolate and did problem solving. I started by asking him how he felt about cleaning. He said it was no fun and was afraid he would die of starvation and thirst before he was done. I held back my laughter and remembered how different his sense of time was. I wrote his concerns on paper. I acknowledged how hard it is to get motivated to clean and how easy it is to get distracted (his part of the problem). I told him I was frustrated about how long it took him to clean even a small part of his room (my part of the problem.) I said I was tired of nagging and was sure he didn’t like feeling pressured, either. Then I summarized the problem, “So it sounds like we need to find a way to make cleaning more fun, make sure your body is taken care of, and keep you focused on cleaning without me nagging.”


Then, I moved into brainstorming, “Let’s take these one at a time. What could we do to make cleaning more fun?” I was surprised how many ideas he suggested. He suggested roller skating around the room to deliver his toys and playing “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” to help him work faster. So far, I didn’t have a problem with any of the ideas. He wanted potty and snack breaks. I was concerned he’d use these as excuses not to clean, so I set some conditional limits, “. . . when you finish cleaning one group of toys or one section of the room.” These agreements dealt with his boredom and my concern about how long it took to clean. Now I needed suggestions to deal with my part, the nagging. I asked him to suggest a word that, when I said it, would mean “Get back to work.” He saw his Flash superhero character on the floor and suggested the word “flash.” “Okay,” I said, ” Whenever you hear the word ‘flash,’ it means ‘Get back to work.’ (When I told this story to my class, they named the skill “flash code.”)


Our problem-solving session was a big turning point. For years he skated to Mary Poppins music. Eventually, Chris didn’t need the songs, skates, or “flash” code to complete his tasks. On those occasions when he didn’t finish, I didn’t nag. The next day, when he asked to play, I’d ask if his room was clean. When he said, “No,” I simply said, “You can play as soon as your room is clean.” It only took a few times of following through (which I occasionally still need to do) for better cleaning habits to develop.



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“Who has time to sit and figure all this out?” some people ask. If we find we are spending a lot of time reminding, nagging, or arguing, our time is better spent problem solving. We may find that we only do the sit-and-write-it-down version under the following circumstances:

      • When we are dealing with recurring problems.
      • When we are negotiating ongoing rules and agreements.
      • When we and our children have strong differences of opinions or needs.
      • When children have seriously violated a rule.

Many times, we can do a quick version of two-party problem-solving. We follow the same steps, except we combine the brainstorming and evaluation steps. Here is a sample conversation with the steps highlighted.


Dad:  (Introduce the problem topic.) I was expecting you home at six o’clock. (Invite the other person to share his/her perspective.) What happened?

Son:  I just forgot the time. I’m only half an hour late! What’s the big deal?

Dad:  (Acknowledging his perspective.) I know it’s hard to keep track of time when you are having fun, (Now share your perspective using the Clear Communication Toolset) . . . but I worry when you are more than ten minutes late and haven’t called. I called your friend’s house, but the line was busy and I had dinner waiting. (Summarize the problem in a way that focuses on the solution.) How could you remember to be on time, even when you are playing? (Invite brainstorming.)

Son:  You could quit worrying. I can take care of myself.

Dad:  (In quick brainstorming, we can acknowledge their perspective while evaluating the  idea.) You’re right, you can handle a lot of problems, but I still sometimes worry. My real concern is that I expect to see you walk in the door when you’ve agree to come home. (Keep the focus on finding a solution.) How can you remember what time it is when you are busy? 

Son:  If I had a watch with an alarm, I could set it.

Dad:  (Evaluate the options.) Well, the alarm would go off even if you were distracted. (Choose a solution. Define the details and roles.) I would be willing to buy a watch if it is less than twenty dollars. If I do that, will you agree to set the alarm each time you leave? 

Son:  Yeah. 

Dad:  (Confirm the agreement and the effects of breaking it.) And what will happen if you don’t set the alarm as you agreed and are late for dinner?

Son:  I’ll just heat up the food.

Dad:  And clean up your dishes and put away the food?

Son:  Okay. 

Dad:  (Parents can make a value statement if it hasn’t already been stated.) I really want to eat together as a family, so I want to know you will make every effort to keep our agreement.

Son:  I’ll try.

Dad: (Get a commitment.) Try?

Son: Okay, I will remember.

Dad:  All right, I’m holding you to that (Dad pats son on back.)