Thriving Parent, Thriving Child
By Racine Hiet: Publisher/Editor
There is a war raging. It’s fierce, hostile and tragic. It might be going on in your home at this moment.
It is a battle that has been fought for generations; the battle between Generations. Us and Them. Parents and Youth.
“You have to start early letting them know who’s boss,” one parent said to me. “Otherwise, they’ll take advantage of you and dominate. That’s the trouble with my wife–she always ends up letting the kids win all the battles. She gives in all the time and the kids know it.”
Does there have to be winners and losers? Must one generation submit to the other, scared and defeated, to lick the wounds inflicted on its pride and self-esteem?
Parent Effectiveness Training, (P.E.T.), the “no-lose” method of resolving conflicts, shouts “No!” This course, conducted by trained instructors, has proven to thousands of parents in Canada and the United States that there can be peace in our time, starting now.
Parents are learning a single method of resolving conflicts, a method usable with children of all ages as well as adults. For what is taught in P.E.T. is a universal system of effective human relationships. “Most marital relationships end up enhanced as a side-effect,” said Sylvio Orlando who has worked in the field of child welfare since 1970, and was the first instructor to teach P.E.T. in Montreal. “Here, too, are single people who do it for personal growth.” Orlando stressed, though, that this is not therapy but an educational experience. “It’s not threatening. They expose a little of themselves, as much as they want.”
For many, the course serves as training before trouble. As one parent told me, “You’re not just born into parenthood. You can always learn in every field.”
Dr. Thomas Gordon, a California psychologist who is the developer of this new approach to child-raising and author of Parent Effectiveness Training, P.E.T., Book says that the “win-lose” orientation is at the root of the dilemma of today’s parents–whether to be strict (parent wins), the authoritarian method, or to be lenient (child wins), the permissive method. Because of this either or approach to discipline, Gordon believes that parents see their relationships with their children as a power struggle, a contest of wills, a fight to see who wins.
P.E.T. offers an alternative. Nobody loses; everybody wins. Parent and child are not struggling against each other but rather, working with each other as equal participants.
I accept how you feel:
Your sixteen-year old comes home one day and says she’s fed up with school. She’s going to quit tomorrow. How would you respond?
If you are the typical, concerned parent this statement would probably have raised your adrenalin level, and created a stream of perspiration on your brow. “You have to go to school,” “You’re talking stupidly,” “You’ll feel different tomorrow,” or “You should go to school if you want to make something of yourself,” might be one of your slightly shrill answers. If so, you have used one of the twelve kinds of typical responses that hinder communication–for example, ordering, moralizing, suggesting, name-calling, and criticizing. In P.E.T. these are called roadblocks to communication. The parent is reacting to the actual superficial message, instead of decoding the message and getting to the real feeling and need that is at the root of the problem.
In active listening, parents feedback the feeling they hear coming from the child. If the child is angry, they accept his or her anger. “To feel accepted is to feel loved,” says Gordon. Feeding back to the sixteen-year old, “You’re feeling really angry” keeps the communication door wide open. Saying, “It really hurts you,” to a child who has just burned his finger and cries, is to acknowledge and accept the child’s feelings of pain.
Gordon says that some parents who take the P.E.T. course find out that they are very uncomfortable with feelings, their own as well as their child. But when parents learn to accept and acknowledge feelings by empathic listening, they reported how even intense negative feeling are dissipated.
P.E.T parents are taught the skill of effective listening, to help the child define the problem by exploring his feelings and come to his or her own solution. “Too many parents,” Orlando told me, “want to solve the children’s problems themselves.”
Spouses benefit also, for as one parent said, “We realize we listen much more to each other. It helped our own relationship.”
Parents are people:
Okay, you learn how to help your children solve their problems. Now, what about your problems–things your children do that are unacceptable to you?
Sylvio Orlando used this adult-to-adult example in his P.E.T. classes. “Imagine you’re at my house. You have your feet on my white couch. That’s not your problem; you’re comfortable. But I don’t like it. The problem is mine. I go around the room using those twelve roadblocks again,” said Orlando. “Hey, get your feet off,” he ordered. The parents reacted to this.
Orlando: “Would you get your feet off?”
Orlando: “What would it do to our relationship?”
Parent: “It would affect it negatively.”
Orlando: “What would it do to your self-esteem?’
Parent: “I would feel like a jerk.”
As a rule, we treat our friends with more respect. We would probably say something like “I’m worried that if you keep your feet on my couch, I’ll have to pay to have it cleaned.” We would trust our friend to respond appropriately and be considerate enough to respect our feelings. P.E.T. calls this an I-message. I am showing my feelings honestly; I am showing there’s a real effect on me.
When we say to children, “You stop that,” “Why don’t you be good?” and “You should know better,” we are using you-messages. These messages put down the child with blame and shame. Shouldn’t we show the same respect and trust in our child that we give to friends and strangers?
Parents who use I-messages such “I sure get discouraged when I see my clean kitchen dirty again” or “I don’t feel like playing when I’m tired,” are conveying to their child that “I am a person with needs and feelings,” I am capable of being hurt or embarrassed or frightened or disappointed. Often their children express surprise. “I didn’t know it really upset you. Why didn’t you tell me how you felt before?” These parents are helping their children grow by showing their trust in them and giving them the responsibility for their own behavior.
Gordon reminds us that parents are persons, not gods. “They (parents) begin to assume a role or act a part and forget that they are people.” He adds, “Parents find it difficult to be transparently real with children because they like to be seen as infallible–without weaknesses, vulnerabilities, inadequacies.”
P.E.T. teaches parents that they’re people, too. They’re allowed to have feelings and needs. “You can’t always respond the same way. You can’t always be consistent,” said one P.E.T. graduate. Another said, “You become much more accepting of other people, more accepting of yourself.”
Children gaze upon their creators with reverence. They are Protector, Judge and Teacher. In their hands, they hold the power to satisfy all their child’s needs; the power to giveth or taketh away, or, as we know it, Rewards and Punishment.
Gordon believes that adolescents do not rebel against their parents. They rebel against their power. He is convinced that if parents would rely less on power and more on non-power methods to influence their children from infancy on, there would be little for the child to rebel against when he or she becomes an adolescent.
This brings us to the core of the P.E.T. course, the no-power, no-lose method of resolving conflicts where both parent and child are involved in the problem and the needs of both are at stake. This method is actually a problem-solving process, a method used frequently to resolve conflicts between individuals who possess equal power. Parent and child use active listening and I-messages to define the conflict and then work together, thinking up as many solutions as they can, until finally deciding upon a solution that satisfies the needs of each person involved. They agree to give it a try for a limited period, and then reassess whether the solution is working as well as planned.
In this no-lose method, each individual comes to the bargaining table as a separate and unique participant. Gordon says that parents should not expect to have “a united front.” Each parent must be real–each must represent accurately his or her own feelings and needs. Power does not count here; only openness, mutual trust and respect that allows the child to grow independent, developing self-discipline and self-responsibility: a trust, respect and openness that builds loving, caring, genuine relationships.
Children are people:
Can every conflict within a family be resolved in this friendly, democratic way? Sorry, folks! But I doubt if Mark is willing to put his spiked, streaked platinum blond locks on the bargaining table. There are certain inevitable conflicts-of-value that parents should not expect to be resolved. Mark says, “I have a right to wear my hair the way I want it.” His decoded message reads, “I feel I have a right to my value as long as I cannot see how it affects you in any tangible or concrete way.” Gordon explains that hairstyle “is an expression of the youngster doing his own thing, living his own life, acting out his own values and beliefs.”
Most relationships are destroyed over values. Youth “fire” their parents. According to one nationwide study that the Canadian Council on Social Development made of 119 runaways, most often these children said they left home because of serious differences with their parents over social values.
Parents, as creators of the small, primitive human being, set themselves out to mould their rough but valuable diamond into a glittering image of themselves. But to maintain the powerful yet fragile bond that links the hearts and souls of parents and children, parents will have to give up some age old ideas about the role of the parent in our society. Do you really “own” your child? Humanistic psychologists are showing evidence that in healthy human relationships each person can permit the other to be “separate” from him or her. Yet parents see their children as “extension of themselves.” To quote the Prophet:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself,
They come through you but not from you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts…
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you
For life goes not backward nor tarries with Yesterday.”
The enemies face each other. By communicating and accepting true feelings and needs, we strip away the finely spun web of misunderstandings and resentments that suffocate love and trust and divide us. With honesty and openness we touch each other and reveal our human-ness. We are people. We are on the same side. We’re both winners.