“I’m gonna hit him”

“I’m gonna hit him”

My preschooler came out of her room and stomped once. I carried her back to bed. As I turned to leave, she called out:

“When we were camping, C wanted to be alone, and I kept at him, and he hurt me. He hit me first. I hit him second. Next time we go camping, I’m going to hurt C.”

“Then I’m afraid we can’t go camping with C,” I said gently, hoping she would see the error in her ways (but not see I was making that up). “We go camping to have fun, not to hurt people.”

My response was typical enough of many parents, I think. Logical consequence + You’re wrong + What’s right x Lots of talking. And it doesn’t work.

“I’m going to hit C next time!” she vowed.

This is what parenting coach Sandy Blackard means by “Children must communicate until they are heard.” I hadn’t acknowledged my daughter’s feelings. And she was going to tell them to me until I did.

I’ve been thinking and reading about discipline a lot lately. I mean, I have a 3 1/2 year old! And I haven’t come across a more beautifully simple framework for positive parenting than Sandy’s.

She calls it Language of Listening®. It has only three steps:

1. SAY WHAT YOU SEE. (Say what your child is doing, saying, feeling, or thinking.)
2. If you like it, name a STRENGTH.
3. If you don’t like it, offer a CAN DO. (Say what your child can do instead, including a firm boundary if needed.)

This works in, essentially, any situation. Like my daughter vowing to beat up one of her best buds. I switched gears.

“You’re mad at C.” I said this emphatically, to better match her feelings. Now, instead of arguing with me, she felt free to talk more about what happened.

“Yeah, I went to the tree, and I stomped, and I kicked him.” She stomped her mattress.

“Mm-hmm.” I was partially successful at sounding impartial. “You were mad,” I repeated. I thought about strengths—could I find something in there? I decided to ignore the kicking part, based on the concept that “you get more of what you pay attention to.” I said, “When you stomped, you knew what you needed to do to get out your anger.”

This apparently made her think of other ways she calms herself down. She said something else about hurting her friend, but then she sat up in bed and started taking deep breaths. Instead of making my escape, I joined her.

Say what you see. “Ah, deep breaths.” If you like it, name a strength. “You know how to calm yourself down,” I said, kissing her forehead.

“Next time I’ll be nice to C when he wants to be alone,” she said. But she sounded sad.

Then I messed it up.

“Well, sometimes we get mad at our friends,” I ventured. “It happens. It’s not OK to hit, or kick, or spit, or call names. But it is OK to be mad. You know how to calm down.”

“It is OK to hit our friends,” she insisted.

“Good night, sweetie,” I said gently, partly because I wasn’t sure where to go from there.

I left her room. She didn’t pop out of her bed several more times as usual. She settled in and went to sleep—hopefully lighter for having gotten that off her chest.

I asked Sandy about this conversation. She said my daughter’s defensive response (“It is OK to hit our friends”) came because I went directly into judging/lecturing mode (“It’s not OK to kick”). I hadn’t acknowledged her feeling of sadness—or even that she had come to such a great conclusion.

Instead, Sandy said, you just start again from the top. Say what you see. “You decided to be nice to C when he wants to be alone. You sound a little sad now.” Then my daughter could have told me why she was feeling sad.

I also could have repeated the three steps when my daughter insisted, “It is OK to hit our friends.” This requires trusting that our child is making sense, Sandy says, even when it makes no sense to us. Say what you see. “Sounds like for some reason it has to be OK.”

“Imagine her answer to that!” Sandy said. “It could take you straight to the root of the problem that she was trying to solve with hitting or open up a completely different line of thought. You never know. And ‘not knowing’ is right where you want to be with kids so the answers can come from them.”

Ah, yes, the answers need to come from them. In Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science, I talk about the importance of engaging kids in problem-solving and why lecturing to our kids is pointless. On top of that, acknowledging emotions before doing anything else is a major theme in my book and in my parenting philosophy. But, in the moment, it’s easy to revert

That’s one reason I dig Language of Listening: it’s easy to remember. “Say what you see” just pops into my head. I’m not always certain of what then pops out of my mouth. But that’s OK.

“Listening and acknowledging strengths is so powerful for children,” Sandy says, “that even a little creates enough connection and emotional safety for a child to stay in bed and drift comfortably off to sleep, as you just saw.”

Sandy encourages us not to overthink it.

“Say What You See isn’t meant to make you think hard,” she says. “It is pretty much ‘in through the eyes and out through the mouth’ objectively. That’s getting present and where the magic of stepping inside your child’s world occurs. You quickly realize things that you would have missed if you were mentally busy trying to ‘figure out’ what to say or do. You can figure out everything more effectively later after you see the child’s perspective.”

I appreciate that. However, something else Sandy said made me think hard.

Sandy’s suggested response, when my daughter said she’d be nice to C, was: “So you decided to be nice to C when he wants to be alone. That tells me you know hurting him isn’t OK, and you don’t really want to anyway. You sound a little sad now.” Her response assumes the child is inherently good. I realized that I went into teaching mode because I assumed bad intentions. That my daughter preferred to hurt her friend and that was why she sounded sad when she said she’d be nice. Yikes!

There’s an important line on the Language of Listening® home page: “We believe that children are inherently great and the parents’ job is to help them see it.” It follows from Sandy’s premise that “All children have every possible inner strength.”

Certainly, parents of toddlers and preschoolers could be forgiven for believing—consciously or not—that children are inherently violent, defiant, or manipulative. Especially right in the moment we’re dealing with that kind of behavior. But that’s not a productive place to parent from.

Here’s one thing a positive approach means: Even if we’re fumbling, we’re fumbling in the right direction.

Like this tip? Get more examples of how to use Language of Listening in Tracy’s book, Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Scienceand in the Language of Listening handbook, SAY WHAT YOU SEE®.


Tracy Cutchlow, Parent CoachTracy Cutchlow is the author of Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science and a licensed Language of Listening® speaker. She is also the editor of the bestselling books Brain Rules and Brain Rules for Baby. Her writing on parenting appears in publications from the Huffington Post to the Washington Post. She reaches thousands of parents and professionals through her parenting tips at www.zerotofive.net.


  1. Aei |

    Does this work well with defiant tweens or kids easily triggered into anger modes on the Spectrum?

  2. Aei, great question! Sounds like you see a possibility there, or maybe have already seen it in action yourself.

    SAY WHAT YOU SEE works well to help anyone, any age, feel heard and understood. Pointing out STRENGTHs help them see themselves in a new light. CAN DO’s, when used as a coaching tool, help you get on the other person’s side to help them meet their needs and gain confidence in their ability to problem-solve. Feeling understood and supported, not corrected and managed, works for everyone.

    The trick is in using SAY WHAT YOU SEE to help you step into the other person’s perspective and connect, not to help you change their emotional state or behavior. That’s for them to do, and when they feel heard and understood they naturally make those changes themselves.

  3. Hi, Aei. Language of Listening works with any age, because it is really about making the child feel they are OK the way they are in that moment. This is what allows them to move through the situation.

    You’ll want the full method, though, not just this blog post — especially understanding the 3 needs. You also would especially want to avoid questions during “Say what you see” and make sure the intensity of your tone matches theirs. “You hate that!” “There’s just nothing else that would work! You tried everything!” “You can’t think of one good reason to do this chore! You LIKE to have reasons.” Here you’re keeping open the line of communication to gather more and more information about their perspective.

    It is really tough to take what comes back at you from an angry tween, yet meet it without retaliation or eye-rolling disbelief. The good news is that you are already strong! What you’ll soon see is that the anger ends more quickly or doesn’t rise to the same level (yours or theirs). I hope you’ll try this method in one situation today and let us know what happens or what questions you have afterward.

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