Many, if not most, if not almost all of today’s parents believe in magic words.

They do so because the mental health professional community has for 50 years or so told them that children can be reasoned with, a claim that exposes the general lack of intellectual rigor in the mental health professions.

Magic words are words parents believe will magically change a child’s attitude or behavior. Parents who believe in magic words are often found explaining to their kids why certain behavior is hurtful, counterproductive, irresponsible or just plain wrong (albeit they try not to use that word lest it precipitate a psychological apocalypse). In these one-way magic word sessions, said parents are searching for words that will fill their children’s brains with enlightenment. When enlightenment does not occur — as evidence by relapse of the attitude or behavior in question — said parents try again.

The victims of these attempts to find magic words pretend to be listening as their parents carefully explain why their behavior represents “choices” that are not looked upon favorably and will not advance them toward riches and fame.

When the parent in question has exhausted his supply of hopefully magic words, he asks the child the magic question, “Do you understand?” to which no child has ever answered, “Not quite, Dad. Can you go over that part again about how what I did hurt Billy’s feelings?” The child answers, “Yes,” which is reliable indication that the parent’s magic words went in one ear and out the other.

The child knows that “yes” will bring a blessed end to the stream of nonsense coming from the parent’s mouth, so “yes” it is. And so it does. And sure enough, less than two weeks later, the parent is once again streaming magic words at a child who understands nothing but will say “yes” when called upon to do so.

Children do not change their behavior or attitude because of magic words. They make changes in their lives as the result of trial and error — the latter, mostly. In other words, they change their behavior because of life experience. An irresponsible child cannot be talked into responsibility. A rude child cannot be talked into graciousness. A defiant child cannot be talked into obedience. And so on.

Furthermore, it is a rule that the more parents talk, the less children listen. It is also a rule that the more parents talk, the less authoritative they sound. Instead, they sound persuasive, and parents who sound persuasive do not sound like authority figures. Generally speaking, getting a child to move off square one requires an offer he can’t refuse: what I call a “Godfather” offer. (If you’re scratching your head at that one, you’re under the age of 50 and need to watch the movie.)

“According to the world’s leading expert on the subject, your seeming inability to do what you are capable of doing in school means you aren’t getting enough sleep. So, until your grades come up to par and stay there for four weeks straight, you are going to bed, lights out, immediately after dinner whether your homework is done or not. We are hoping that your sleep deprivation is cured in short order.”

Those are magic words.

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