National Catholic Register

Culture of Life

Talk: It’s Cheap

Family Matters: Childrearing

BY Dr. Ray Guarendi

April 27-May 3, 2008 Issue | Posted 4/22/08 at 4:30 PM


I’m a mother of three children. It seems like I’m nothing but a talking machine. All the kids just shut me off. Any ideas for making myself heard?

Talk — the illusion of discipline. Nagging, lecturing, over-reasoning, pleading, cajoling, arguing, threatening, screaming — forms of talk, all frustrating and all imposters of legitimate discipline.

I suspect the succinct adage “Talk is cheap” was coined by a child.

As a kid, I liked when my parents over-talked and said in 93,000 words what they could have said in seven. Playing in the back yard, I’d be blissfully ignoring my mother’s repeated calls for supper when the torrent would begin. I never even looked toward the house until the 70,000th word. My attitude was, “She’s not mad enough yet.”

If you talk 200 to 400 words per minute, with gusts up to 700 wpm, you can be sure of one thing. Most of what you say is for your ears only, because a foremost reality of discipline is this: The more you talk the less you’re heard.

A related reality: The more space between your mouth and your kids’ ears, the less you’re heard, no matter how loud you get. It’s just plan easier for DJ to tune you out when you’re standing across the back yard or even just across the hall than when you’re looming over him.

It’s even easier to ignore you if you’re out of sight, in other words, if there’s a ceiling, wall, stairs or a dirty window between you and him. Voices without faces have little meaning to kids who operate from the philosophy that “a parent should be heard and not seen.”

The final futility to endless talking is that talking inevitably leads to yelling, which inevitably leads to anger. We get riled, the kids get riled, the dog gets riled. Our original purpose, discipline, becomes lost in the maelstrom of words and emotion.

I’ve yet to meet a parent who can calmly say, “Please, Rose, this is the 11th time I’ve asked you to water the flowers. Another 10 or 12 times, and I’m afraid I’m going to have to raise my voice.”

For most of us, after four such requests, our voice is approaching 110 decibels and our jaw is so clenched we can’t speak clearly anymore.

Why do we fall into the talk trap? First of all, talk is easier than action, in the very short term anyway. Somehow we convince ourselves it takes less effort to threaten Mercy 16 times with any early bedtime if she blows her whistle a 17th time while we’re on the phone than to leave the phone temporarily, pack her off to bed and weather 27 minutes of crying.

It probably does take less physical effort, but the emotional toll is much higher, not to mention still have to talk over that infernal whistle.

Second, talk usually makes us feel les guilty than actual discipline. We don’t feel quite so “mean” nagging Hazel through two game shows and a mini-series to clear the supper dishes as we would if we fined her 50 cents. Again, in the short run we may feel less man.

But soon we start feeling meaner and meaner as our words and polite requests go unheeded or challenged. And then, our words can become meaner than a 50-cent fine could ever be.

Third, kids are crafty. They want to keep us talking. They know that the longer we talk the more likely eventually we’ll wear down, give in and shut up.

Of course, if all you have to do is smile sweetly while whispering, “Dishes please,” and Chastity instantly drops the phone and rushed to dry them, then talk serves you well. Stay with it and savor the envy that all the rest of the world’s parents feel toward you. On the other hand, if your words are having as much impact as ping pong balls thrown at the hull of a battleship, then you need some action backing up your talk.

Now that you’re primed for some action techniques, I find myself out of space because I’ve talked too much. Next column around, we will talk action. You have my word on it.

More of Ray Guarendi’s wit and wisdom, talky though it may be, is online at