March 18, 2003
How to influence children and stay friends

One of the better books ever written about salesmanship is How To Win Friends And Influence People by Dale Carnegie.

It's some years since I've looked at this book, but as I recall it, its central message is as follows.

You start by stating, unambiguously, your sales pitch. You are selling double glazing, which means that if the guy you are talking to ever wants to buy double glazing, you want him to buy it from you.

Having stated your message, you then switch to discussion mode, and you let him set the agenda. You talk about anything he wants to talk about. If he has questions about double glazing, you of course answer them as best you can, emphasising the benefits of double glazing for him, reassuring him about possible problems and how to avoid them. On the other hand if he would like to discuss golf handicaps (this book is a very golf handicaps sort of book, from the discussions about golf handicaps era, i.e. a previous one to ours), then you talk about golf handicaps. Whatever he wants to talk about is what you talk about.

And then, eventually, he decides to buy some double glazing.

I mention this because I was recently asked by a Parent how to persuade Parent's Child to get serious about learning to read. I replied with the above salesmanship doctrine.

Parent starts by hard selling learning to read to Child, in one memorable session, amassing reasons, rhapsodising about benefits. Then, thank Child for listening to the sales pitch, and for agreeing to think about it. Then, shut up and let Child decide, answering any questions but not doing any more selling.

A common technique of persuasion used by parents is the quite different method of relentless nagging. Every day, in every way, Parent gives a little sales pitch to Child about Child learning to read.

The drawback of this method is that it doesn't allow Child to arrive at Child's own decision. Instead Child is forced to defend itself for inaction, and this may result in the creation by Child of a cast iron reason for not reading. Nagging, in other words, may stimulate resistance, and in general associate in Child's mind reading with unpleasantness and nagging.

The say it once and then shut up method works because the Child assimilates the sales pitch, processes the sales pitch thoroughly in Child's own mind, and thereby makes the decision Child's own.

Well, that was the idea.

And it worked! Child is now busily learning to read. Parent is helping, answering all questions, providing feedback of all kinds, making suggestions about how to organise the learning effort, but Child is in charge. Best of all, Parent and Child remain good friends, instead of soldiers on the opposite sides of a domestic war.

I'm sure I've somewhat oversimplified this happy story, and am even more sure that the above exaggerates my own contribution to it. Nevertheless, that, as I understand what happened, is what happened.

I surmise that perhaps what makes so many people so very suspicious of the idea of children deciding what they will learn and when, is that this is confused with parents not giving any advice or opinions to their children about such matters at all. Parental decision or parental nothing are assumed to be the only choices. Command, or indifference. Given only that choice, I too would probably go with command.

Old fashioned hard-selling salesmanship is the happy medium, combining concern for the autonomy and independence of Child with concern that Child does indeed learn what Child will need to learn.

Our culture – and most especially the basic intellectual tools (the 3 Rs etc.) for getting to grips with all the rest of it – does have to be communicated to the next generation. But the way to do this is to sell it to them, not force it down their throats. If the 3 Rs are as essential as most adults think they are, and they are, then the sales pitch, for that reason, ought to be very persuasive.

And that's how to do it.

Other sales pitches won't be as persuasive as the Learn to Read pitch, and that is as it should be.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:35 PM
Category: Parents and children