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by Michael P. Nichols
Guilford, 2004
Review by Leo Uzych, J.D., M.P.H. on May 23rd 2006

Stop Arguing with Your Kids

In an engaging primer, entitled Stop Arguing with Your Kids, Dr. Michael P. Nichols, a Professor of Psychology at the College of William and Mary as well as a practicing family therapist, sanguinely, but gingerly, climbs the demanding rungs of the conceptual ladder of "responsive listening".  Stripped to the core, the quintessence of responsive listening is that good parental listening skills are a potentially highly effectual means to non argumentative interaction, between parents and their children, in which parents remain firmly in charge.  Nichols embraces the view that parents have within their grasp the power to transform counter productive arguments, with their children into civil discussions by learning to listen responsively to their children.  And tethered securely to this view, Nichols in workaday fashion pursues the overarching purpose of teaching parents how to practice responsive listening, when interacting with their children.  Parents should be enamored of this captivating book.

An important concept underpinning the foundation, of responsive listening, as constructed by Nichols, is that relations between parents and children should optimally be cooperative rather than antagonistic in nature.  Parents who are disciples of responsive listening are obliged to carefully elicit and consider the wishes of their children.  But, importantly, genuine concern about the child's views does not imply the relinquishing of authority, that is properly parental in nature, to the child.

Nichols' exultant sense of optimism, regarding the improving of relations between parents and their children by utilizing the communications mechanism of responsive listening, pervasively permeates the length and breadth of the text.  Yet, prospective readers should be mindful that the responsive listening approach, propounded by Nichols may have soothing appeal at a theoretical level, but may be quite difficult to apply in the very demanding laboratory of real life.  In real life terms, the application of responsive listening is far more art than science.  The "art" of responsive listening challenges parents to be highly adept listeners.  But, in practical terms, children may often act in a manner that will make responsive listening by parents very difficult.  In realistic terms, the consistently skilled application, of the art of responsive listening, will likely require not inconsiderable parental patience, persistence, and practice.

The adroit application, in day to day life, of Nichols' concept of responsive listening, may, potentially, mitigate significantly the incidence of destructive arguments, between parents and children, and, in that vital respect, very positively affect parent child relations.  But a further caveat is that the efficacy of responsive listening as a communications mechanism to bolster relations between parents and their children, has not been forged in a scientifically meaningful way in the fire of scientific peer review.  The discourse of Nichols, although enthralling, is bereft of quantification.  In a different vein, the qualitative, and arguably scientifically unhinged, textual discussion exudes a plain English stylistic savor.

Nichols dissects and examines the pathology of arguments, and further proffers potentially curative treatment, in the form of responsive listening, by employing various instruments.  An important instrument wielded artfully and instructively, by Nichols, to skillfully probe the body of responsive listening, is the crafting, for didactic purposes, of dialogs between parents and children.  Handiwork, of this sort, contributes meaningfully to the book's practical value.  There are, as well, a goodly number of anecdotal snippets, which are grafted helpfully into the text.

The lineaments, of responsive listening, are etched, painstakingly, over the course of three, structural "parts".  The five chapters comprising the book's first part focus on truncating the limb of argumentation.  Chapter one explores the territory of parent child dynamics gone awry, as the result of argumentation.  The elixir concocted, by Nichols, is the watery mix of responsive listening, which may enable both parents and children to emerge from the fractious pit of argumentation.  The responsive listening approach conceptualized, by Nichols, obligates parents to encourage their children to vent their feelings.  As seen perspicaciously through the lens of Nichols, the alternative, to attentive parental listening, is an unpalatable cycle of arguing, which may cascade into resentment and anger.  In chapter two, Nichols expounds pithily and instructively on the five steps, of listening responsively to children.  Nichols expounds, insightfully, in chapter three, on:  why children argue; why parents get pulled into arguments with their children; and how parent child arguments escalate.  Paradoxically, according to Nichols, parents can perhaps best maintain their authority, regarding children, by not being overly controlling.  The inspiring of a spirit of cooperation in children, by means of responsive listening, is the absorbing subject of chapter four.  The firm belief, of Nichols, is that an entrenched pattern of parent child argumentation can be broken.  And the means of breaking a cycle of chronic arguing, riveted in the framework of listening responsively, garners the rapt attention, of Nichols, in chapter five.

The application of responsive listening to different age groups is described in the book's second part.  As explained, very interestingly, in chapter six, Nichols believes that the bricks used to build the communications house of responsive listening are applicable even with respect to young children.  School age children draw the discerning focus, of Nichols, in chapter seven.  As explicated, by Nichols, the secret of minimizing arguments, with school age children, is for the parent to respect the child's feelings, which, in turn, may help foment, in the child, a feeling of respect for the parent's authority.  The art of responsive listening often gets harder with teenagers. The tension often affecting relations between teenagers and their parents, and the possible role of responsive listening regarding the alleviating of any such tension, captures the insightful attention, of Nichols, in chapter eight.  In the view of Nichols, a parent listening responsively to a teenager should ask for the teenager's opinion, and consider it seriously.

In the book's concluding part, Nichols, in chapter nine, trenchantly puts forth the view that, even though adolescence is commonly a challenging time for the whole family, this does not mean that the period of adolescence must necessarily entrap the family in an insufferable web of antagonism.  Lastly, in chapter ten, Nichols offers diverse suggestions, tied to listening responsively, which may be helpful under circumstances in which arguing may seem unavoidable.

For many parents, the concept of responsive listening, at some level, may be quite alluring; but the devil may be in mastering the real life practice, of the hard earned art of listening responsively to children.  Importantly, the adept application, in everyday life, of Nichols' thoughtful concept of responsive listening, may very positively impact relations between parents and children.  The finely described thoughts, of Nichols, in this regard, may be most appealing to a  considerable gamut of readers, reaching to:  family therapists, child psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, and, not least, parents everywhere.


© 2006 Leo Uzych


Leo Uzych (based in Wallingford, PA) earned a law degree, from Temple University; and a master of public health degree, from Columbia University.  His area of special professional interest is healthcare.