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Some of my fellow presenters at the XML Summer School were swapping tales of warring children as we chatted, and I mentioned the book “Siblings Without Rivalry” and promised to blog about it.

But first, you should get (and I really mean get, because you will re-read it again and again) “How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and How To Listen So Kids Will Talk”, which is also by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. (Actually, get two copies because you’ll need one to lend to the other adults in your children’s lives.) “How To Talk…” provides the basic parenting skills that “Siblings Without Rivalry” then builds on.

The trouble with recommending parenting books is that everyone has their own parenting style, reflecting their own childhood experiences, thought-through philosophies and dammit-won’t-you-just-go-to-sleep frustrations. When you read a parenting book, it either fits with your style or it doesn’t. And if it does, then often you’ll think “yes, well I knew that already” and wonder why you bothered.

So “How To Talk…” and “Siblings Without Rivalry” fit with my style of parenting, or rather, since I’m not an expert practitioner of the techniques, how I’d like to parent. They emphasise the psychology of parenting – the unspoken messages that your children take away from their encounters with you and the impact they can have on your children’s behaviour. And they provide simple (as in easy to understand, not necessarily easy to implement) guidance about what to do to make sure your children are getting the messages that will help them grow up to be independent, well-rounded, emotionally secure individuals.

The underlying philosophy is one of respect for your child and respect for yourself. As I read “How To Talk…”, I felt freed from my own expectations that I would be patient and kind and loving all the time (and the guilt and despair when I wasn’t). Parents get irritated and impatient, and sometimes behave badly, but just as we can’t expect our children to be happy and well-behaved all the time, we can’t expect that from ourselves either. On the other hand, if we expect our children to express their emotions in non-violent ways, we have to do the same. If we expect our children to apologise when they do wrong, we have to do the same.

If that philosophy doesn’t gel with yours, then these books aren’t for you.

“How To Talk…” has chapters on helping children deal with their feelings, getting them to cooperate, handling disobedience, encouraging autonomy, praising and avoiding pigeon-holing children. I haven’t got “Siblings Without Rivalry” in front of me, but it applies the same techniques specifically to sibling interactions, and covers things like avoiding competition and how to handle conflict. The chapters each follow the same basic pattern, which is a bit of theory and explanation, some skills to learn, some cartoons that illustrate the guidelines, some exercises, some more discussion, and then details and parents’ stories. The cartoons are a bit cheesy, but help to bring home the abstract ideas; the exercises are actually useful if you do them, even in your head; the parents’ stories help you see you’re not alone, and give more examples of how to put the theory into action. It can get a bit too American for a repressed Brit like myself at times, but not overly so.

And the skills that they teach are both useful and simple if you can suppress your natural urges. For example, they talk about how to respond to your child’s emotions (particularly negative ones) by reflecting back how they feel, or just saying “Uh-huh”. It sounds easy, but it’s so hard when your child is upset not to offer solutions. Yesterday, my eldest had her face painted and was absolutely devastated when the butterfly had to be washed away. I just rode through her sadness with her; trying to suppress it (“It was only face paint, don’t be so silly!” or “We’ll do more face painting soon, no need to be upset.”) would very probably have made things even worse.

Similarly, when a child asks questions, instead of just providing an answer, you ask the child for their thoughts on the topic, or show the child how to find out the answer themselves. This is great advice because constant “Whys” can get turned back to the child (relieving parental irritation); you don’t have to be the fount of all knowledge.

Before I read these books, I followed some Supernanny techniques, and picked up some things from Tanya Byron and “House of Tiny Tearaways”. Some of them, such as being consistent, praising, and early bedtimes, have been extremely useful. But I think the crucial point, which is sometimes lost amongst naughty-step rules and sticker charts, is engagement. For example, “How To Talk…” discusses time outs and concludes that what children need when they misbehave is some time with an adult to talk through their feelings and try to come up with alternative ways of dealing with them. Having tried that many times, I can attest that it works.

My children are still very young, but the advice that the books contain can be used with children of any age. Even teenagers. Don’t feel there’s no point in reading them because your children are too old or too young. (In fact, you can even get something out of them that helps with interacting with the adults around you!)

By the way, if you visit the author’s website, you will probably be put off by the slightly cultish and highly commercial air of the site, so don’t.

Just read the books, dammit.