I worked with a public speaking coach during my last year of fellowship training. I’d been invited to give a talk at a national meeting, and my division chief worried that my lecturing skills would not reflect well on his program. The speaking coach sat through a practice run of my talk and had two simple suggestions: First, remove half the slides, and second, memorize the talk. “Simplify your message,” she said, “so that it comes across undiluted. And have the talk so committed to memory that you could give it without looking at the slides, as if you’re reciting lines from a script. That will take away most, if not all, of your nerves.” Her suggestions worked, not just for that talk but for every subsequent lecture I’ve given in the 10 years since that session, and I’ve passed along those two recommendations to colleagues and trainees who’ve shared their own angst about public speaking.
In their new book, Now Say This: The Right Words to Solve Every Parenting Dilemma, family therapists Heather Turgeon and Julie Wright advocate an approach to parenting that parallels the public speaking coach’s advice on lecturing. They’ve simplified their message to a handy acronym, ALP, which stands for attune, limit set, and problem solve. And they provide a set of scripts incorporating the ALP method that parents can memorize and recite verbatim to their children. The ALP strategy is not particularly unique. Many parenting books, including some recent classics like The Whole Brain Child and How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen, promote a similar approach to the child in crisis. Start with empathy, then introduce reality, and together come up with a creative solution. Their scripts, therefore, strike conventional notes: “You don’t want to leave the park now because you’re having so much fun,” one such script begins. “But it’s starting to get dark and we need to go home for dinner. Do you want to skip to the car or have me carry you on my shoulders?” Now Say This emerges as a singular title, a parenting book I never thought I’d encounter, in its explicit instructions to parents that these scripts can and should be memorized.
Turgeon and Wright established their credentials as parenting experts—and, in some households, divine saviors—with their first book, The Happy Sleeper. Children, from birth, have an innate biological ability and a strong physiologic need to sleep well, they argued in this bestseller. Most sleep issues lie at the feet of the parents and not the kids. Specifically, parents are too anxious, hovering, and present when their children are trying to sleep. With their Sleep Wave technique, which essentially translates to putting the baby down while awake and employing regimented five-minute checks only if the baby is crying, they introduced the concept of scripts with a three sentence mantra to be uttered during the five-minute checks. “Mommy (or Daddy) is here. I love you. Night, night.” The Happy Sleeper encouraged parents to be consistent and almost machine-like in their bedtime routines. Do the same activities in the same order leading up to putting the baby down to sleep, and stick to the five minute intervals and the three sentence script if the baby is crying. Let us design bedtime for you, Turgeon and Wright offered in this book, and we’ll get your kids to sleep all night long.
Now Say This takes this approach to bedtime and expands it to the rest of the day. Turgeon and Wright have offered up scripts for how to deal with a range of parenting struggles, from babies who pull their parents’ hair to eye-rolling pre-teens, from siblings who fight with each other to toddlers who refuse to brush their teeth. This seems like a radical leap. It’s one thing for parents to admit they can’t handle bedtime, quite another thing for parents to prefer following someone else’s blueprint rather than their own at all hours of the day. Now Say This rests upon two assumptions—the first, that parenthood can be scripted, and the second, that it should—and makes no apologies for these beliefs. The authors relay the genesis of their new book in an introductory chapter. During their book tour for The Happy Sleeper, the question and answer sessions inevitably spread out beyond sleep issues to general parenting concerns. As Turgeon or Wright relayed an answer to a parent’s question, employing some version of an ALP script (before they’d formally named the approach), the mothers and fathers in the audience frantically scribbled down their responses. After the talks, these same parents approached the authors and showed them their notes to make sure they got the words exactly right.
Kim Brooks begins her riveting book Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear, with the story of how she left her 4-year-old son in the parking lot of a strip mall while she ran inside, for five minutes, to buy him a replacement pair of headphones. While she was in the store, someone called the police to report what he or she deemed delinquent behavior. In trying to understand why a stranger would feel compelled to do such a thing, Brooks realizes that she had “tapped into a common and long-established tradition of mother-shaming, the communal ritual of holding up a woman as a ‘bad mother,’ a symbol on which we can unleash our collective, mother-related anxieties, insecurities, and rage.” Her book explores why parenting and fear have become synonymous—how “parenting” has become a pervasive verb that represents, to quote Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, an “endless, anxious journey of guilt”—and one of her conclusions is that “the object of fear correlates less to the level of risk than to parents’ ability (or perceived ability) to exert control over the outcome.” Parents dissect and analyze their every action, their every word, their every gesture and endow them with far-reaching implications for their children’s long term futures. Is it any surprise, then, that such anxious parents are more than willing to recite a family therapist-penned script rather than improvise their own lines?
My brother told me recently that he was having some behavioral issues with his 2-year-old, and when I pressed Now Say This onto him, explaining its modus operandi, he brayed at the idea of reciting prefab lines to his crying son. Because my brother is an executive, I appealed to his work life. “If you had to have an uncomfortable conversation with an employee,” I said, “like if you had to fire someone, wouldn’t you plan out what you were going to say beforehand, and try to have that conversation go as close to your plan as possible?” He would, he conceded, and eventually said he’d read the book, although I doubt he will. Not yet. He didn’t seem anxious enough. He still thought that he and his wife, on their own, could right the ship. He had yet to realize what Kim Brooks calls “our darkest fear as parents: the fear of failure.”
I concede that I have realized that fear when I see the black eye my 7-year-old daughter gave my 4-year-old son “by accident,” or when I watch my 1-year-old mimic their shouting at the dinner table, and perhaps that is why I am so willing to follow the scripts penned by Turgeon and Wright. Why I’ve snapped pictures of the book for my phone’s camera roll and sneak peeks for suggested lines before knocking on my daughter’s locked bedroom door (“What are you trying to communicate to me right now?”) or responding to my son’s repeated requests for a snack (“It’s almost dinnertime, and it’s important to keep your belly empty so that you’ll enjoy the meal”). In Small Animals, Kim Brooks compares her irrational fears as a parent to her childhood terrors of a wolf that lived in the back of her closet:
The wolf was going to eat me, though I begged him not to. He could not be reasoned with. He could not be appeased. The wolf was clever and well-spoken, and one day, amused by my pleading, he told me that if I counted to fifty before I fell asleep every night, he would stay in the closet; he would not come out. I still remember how I lay in bed, tight beneath the covers, counting slowly in my head. It made no sense, but I believed it. I knew that if I counted, I’d be safe. One, two, three, four, I counted every night, all the way to fifty. I never doubted or wavered in my counting. I wanted to be safe.
So many parents want that safety, too, and, like the little girl that Brooks once was, seek solace in words.
In addition to scripts for parents to recite to their children, Turgeon and Wright in Now Say This also provide mantras for parents to say to themselves in their worst moments, when they must seclude themselves from their children for a few seconds to calm down and muster up the strength to re-enter the fray of parenting in 21st Century America. “I can handle this,” is one such mantra. It may not be true, but it’s simple, and it’s easy to memorize. If anxious parents rehearse their lines enough, they can deliver the performance their kids need.