Better Behavior through Improving Relationships
Reviewed by Mary Langer Thompson
Author Noah Kempler is a psychotherapist and parent who presents a set of ideas to help kids develop five core skills to better relate to themselves and others: understanding feelings, communication, flexibility, respect, and problem solving.
The book is for parents, grandparents, teachers and nannies and anyone connected to a child. He tells his readers, “You’re a great parent already, and the proof is that you’re reading a book about how to be a better parent.” I wish he would address school administrators more directly to give them some tools to deal with problems when parents can’t or won’t. Perhaps that will be another book.
(Editor’s note: Kempler has written briefly for a school audience about these ideas, here at MiddleWeb.)
The core skills
The first core skill is important because feelings are the “driving energy behind almost all behaviors,” so the child’s emotional life is the foundation for all other functioning. Kempler gives useful tips to help kids understand their feelings, and one strong point of the book is his emphasis on the importance of language.
Kids need to build an emotional vocabulary. Parents can ask questions, draw scales, have kids point to faces showing different emotions, and journal. Although the author mentions using books, movies and real-life situations, a list of books for various age levels and a suggestion of setting a time to read with your child daily are missing.
Kempler wants to help parents help children with listening skills by having them admit when they get distracted, tell what their intentions are so they are not misread, and stay aware of their attitudes. He encourages direct communication, not grunts or gestures, and tells the three parts of good listening.
Flexibility is important because “all kids start out rigid.” The author is always cognizant of developmental levels and wants us to be. He advocates “if-then parenting,” martial arts programs, and respecting boundaries of personal space.
For the skill of “respect,” he says, “learning to respect others starts in the home.” Although true, I would have liked to have seen some specific ways teachers can help if there is little respect in the home. Problem-solving “aids in the learning process.”
Can we teach empathy?
In chapter 2, Kempler states, “I believe it’s the empathy we teach our kids to have that will have the greatest impact on the future of the human race.” Whole books have been written recently (Michelle Borba) and several “empathy” schools have been formed, and I would have liked to have seen more discussion on this quality that some believe you can’t teach.
There is controversy surrounding the measuring of such qualities as empathy and grit (Duckworth) in schools, as well. Kempler wants to see us teaching empathy by giving it and says we need to validate emotions, “especially dads with boys.”
There needs to be a thorough discussion of the differences in parenting girls and boys. Do we need to consider gender in disciplining or even language use? What does his experience as a psychotherapist tell him?
There is important advice in the book. Find out what he means by “cooperative protest” and “authority in balance” and what the “60-20-20” rule is. He talks about the importance of parents having a “united front,” and the best example he gives is of a father who would come home and immediately start interacting with his kids, playing and talking with them.
The father had no idea whether or not the children had disrespected their mother during the day. The children were being sent the message that they would be rewarded no matter how they treated her. Behavior improved when the father started checking with Mom first when he got home. He goes on to talk about the “parenting moment vs. the partnering moment.” (A separate chapter on divorced parenting would be helpful.)
The author’s focus on temperament
Chapter five is the best chapter in the book because Kempler talks about “The Role of Temperament,” a subject not touched upon in many books. He discusses very sensitive, intense, and persistent kids and the difference between children acting out of temperament vs. conscious choices.
He talks about kids understanding their own temperaments and parents, too. If parents and teachers saw things through the lens of temperament, we might handle behavior very differently. There’s room for a whole book on this subject.
Negative behaviors and punishment
In the chapter on “Dealing with Negative Behaviors,” the reader will learn why punishment doesn’t work, why consequences should be connected to teaching new skills, and how to balance empathy and authority. When safety is an issue, then empathy may have to be put on the back burner. He also gives permission to sometimes ignore behavior, especially during tantrums.
The author warns against empty threats and talks about “forced choices.” He believes there is “no place in good parenting for hitting or spanking.” Kempler’s tone throughout the book is sympathetic to parents, being one himself.
He gives examples of some of his struggles and gives steps to handle “hot moments.” He teaches how to reflect on difficult moments after the moment, emphasizing “if you take only one new skill from this book this should be it.”
You’ll also learn why structure in a child’s life is so important. Kempler touches briefly on self-esteem building and contributors to happiness, because after all, we do want our children to lead happy lives.
Elementary parents may appreciate the book most
The summaries at the end of each chapter and the list of resources, both books and online, at the end of the book are valuable. Our jobs as educators would be so much easier if parents were working on the five core skills with their children.
Kempler covers a lot of ground in this book, and I think that it will appeal most to parents of elementary children who want to have better relationships with their children and stop negative behaviors.
Dr. Mary Langer Thompson is a retired school principal and English teacher who teaches writing workshops in schools. She is the Director of the Dorothy C. Blakely Memoir project that connects high school seniors with over-50 “Memoir Stars” to write their stories. The project is going into its third year.