Jul 31, 2013

Learning to Loosen the Apron Strings

My nephew is three years old and full of insatiable curiosity, as all children his age seem to be. Most members of my family imagine that watching him for an evening is not for the weak at heart, but personally, I jump at the opportunity to take care of him while my sister is away. He turns on and off the faucet to just to watch the water disappear through the drain. He walks through bushes and shrubs just to figure out if he can do it or not. If he bruises himself in the process of one of his experiments, I know it isn't something that he's going to do again. But if he is entertained and amused by the outcome of the enchanting physics of the world, then it's probably going to be something he will want to repeat ad nauseum. This is simply the essence of the inquisitive and absorptive mind of a young child. Which makes it all the more painful to watch when I witness my sister put a shrieking halt to a majority of his elementary investigations.

A hefty part of the idea here is understanding that not all behaviors of our children have a tangible and direct effect on you as a parent. Your daughter might get her hands a little dirty, her shirt a little stained or her socks a little wet (you get where I'm going with this) but stepping aside and realizing that no real harm is being done to them or you is the first step in understanding that you don't really have to say no to everything that they attempt to do. Upon this realization, you might even find that fewer and fewer behaviors become unacceptable to you (recall the "Behavior Window" from the P.E.T. book). 

Whatever it is that gets you to a place of broader acceptance and greater awareness of the intentions behind many of your child's behaviors will ultimately create a fertile context for them to learn and grow.

But here's why this one's hard:

Parents get caught up on the idea that their child might get hurt or experience some form of discomfort by participating in certain activities. It's true that there is some risk involved in almost everything, especially with the life-experience and stature of a child. Let me clarify one important idea here.

In the face of clear and apparent danger, the answer is always and without question, to do whatever means necessary in order to stop your child from serious harm. Yes, that might mean the use of your parental power. However, when it comes to the proverbial spilled milk that we as adults steer away from, the most powerful way to teach and influence your child is to first model your own behavior and then give them the opportunity to try it for themselves.

As they get older, the inevitable trials of life begin to get more and more complex. Getting a bad grade in school or resolving a conflict with a friend are two of the most common things that parents want to step in on and help their child through. Or shall we say, solve for them? While you might be jumping at the chance to provide your wisdom and assistance during times like these, you might actually be doing more harm than good. 

When asked for, advice can be helpful at times. But when your child is walking straight through a thorny bush for the first time (just as you did at their age), stop yourself and consider what lesson might be unfolding before you decide to step in and stop them. You just might be surprised with what it is they're learning. 

By: Selena C. George, Program Manager

Jul 18, 2013

Talk Less, Listen More

by Gordon Training International Master Trainer, Steve Emmons

People often ask me, if you could only give parents one piece of advice about helping their children deal with problems, what would it be?  My answer is; “Talk less and listen more.”

In all of our relationships we experience conflicts and problems; life can be messy. In spite of our hopes and dreams for a happy, trouble-free family, strong friendships and positive work relationships, real life is not perfect. Communication can be confusing, problems difficult to solve and our thoughts, needs and beliefs different from the people we care about. No matter how close a bond we have, personal and professional relationships require constant attention and an investment of time and energy to keep them strong and mutually rewarding.

As parents we want to help our children when they struggle with problems or experience conflict; we want the best for them.  Our natural response is to do all we can, as quickly as we can to protect them and insure that they are safe and happy.

As mentioned in a recent article, the first step is to determine exactly whose problem it is.  Is it my child’s problem, is it my problem because of something my child is doing that I don’t like or is it a shared problem we have to tackle together?  You need to decide “Who Owns the Problem”? To determine this, figure out who the problem is directly affecting. (And no, if your kid is getting bad grades, the problem isn't yours!)

When you determine that your child, another family member, friend, coworker or other person “owns” a problem then you have a question to ask yourself and a decision to make.

“Do I let him deal with his problem without my involvement or do I take some action to help him solve the problem but without falling into the trap of doing it for him?”

The answer to this question depends on the nature of your relationship with that person and your investment in them. If the person is a family member, friend or work colleague and you have a special interest in the relationship then, in most situations, you will want to help.

Most people - regardless of their cultural background - will wonder: “What can I say that will help?” or “What solution can I provide that will help my child?” But there are usually some pretty undesirable consequences that come with being the parent who always solves their child's problems.

Besides creating dependency, you can fall into the trap of answering a question that may not really be a question at all, or may not even be about the real underlying problem.  Questions are often used as an attempt to express feelings or thoughts. Your daughter asks the question “Mom what should I do?” may really be a disguised way of her saying : “I’m confused”, “I feel stuck”, “I want time with you.”, or “I feel scared about making that decision.”

A clear indication of this is when you answer a question and get back the reply: “Yes, but…” or “What if…” Clearly, the other person wasn’t really asking you to solve their problem for them.  In fact, talking and providing your opinion or idea is not what is needed to help your child in these situations. What’s called for is listening.

Helping by listening can be broken into two general groups; Basic Listening and Active Listening.

BASIC LISTENING to help others when they have a problem or concern includes giving your child space to talk, devoting your full attention to her and providing a few short signals that you are listening. Basic Listening includes:

Being Silent:  silence can be uncomfortable and the urge to say something to fill the void can be strong.  However, silence can give your child or another person space to talk.  It puts the ball in their court and lets them share their feelings and thoughts without interruption.  Helping by silence is sometimes enough for your child to solve a problem.
A father shared this story with me about using silence.  His teenage son came home from school one day and instead of stopping to chat about school; he slammed down his books and went out the back door.  Dad went out and sat down beside him on the steps. 
The father was taking a P.ET. course but he told me his mind went blank and could only remember “Just be quiet and listen.” so he sat there with his son in complete silence.  After 5 minutes of silence his son turned to him and said; “Dad, thanks for listening now I know what I’m going to do.” Then in a good mood he when off to do his homework.

Show You Are Listening With Your Body Language: often silence by itself is not enough; you need to demonstrate that you are really listening. Comfortable eye contact (not staring), sitting facing the person, smiles, frowns, nods of your head and hand gestures all show your child that you are tuned in and connected and makes it comfortable for them to talk about their upset or problem.

A Few Simple Statements: “Ah!”, “I see.”, “Wow!”, “Mmmm.” provide some simple verbal signals that you are listening.  Just don’t overdo it, keep these few and far between.

Door Openers:  sometimes simple invitations to say more can help your child to get started.  “I’m ready to listen if you want to talk.” “I’ve got time to talk right now.” “Seems like something’s bothering you.”  “I’m all ears.” are a few examples.  Just remember, these are only to open the door to speak so one or two at the beginning are enough.

ACTIVE LISTENING as the name implies is more active and involving than Basic Listening.

Active Listening allows your child or another person to talk about a problem and identify what the real problem, issue or upset is and then come up with his or her own best solution.

Active Listening is not about asking questions; instead it’s about making statements to check out what the other is saying and prove that you heard and understood.  Years ago I was taught to ask questions to help someone talk about a problem.  What I’ve learned is that questions may instead act as roadblocks.  When you ask a question, your child has to stop talking and think; “Do I know the answer to Dad’s question?” or “Do I want to tell Dad?” Maybe a handsome, athletic teenage son is reluctant to admit to his Dad that he is really anxious about asking a girl on a date or a daughter is worried about the bad grade she just got on a test and what Mom will say about it.

A question can also pull your child away from her real problem and focus instead on what you as parent think the problem is.  Or, if your daughter is really flooded with emotion, she may not even be able to think about an answer to a question and she may stop talking altogether.

It’s hard to not ask questions; as parents we want to know what our child’s problem is, we want to know all the details and completely understand how they are feeling and what their options are.  The relevant word here is “we”, the only person who really needs to know all the details is the one who is going to solve the problem and that’s your child, the one who owns the problem.

Replacing questions with statements is not easy and yet it can make an almost magical difference in how our children respond and deal with their problems. Instead of having to stop and think about answering a question or digesting your advice, listening can create a non-blameful, safe feeling and actually help your child talk more.

QUESTION                            vs.                    ACTIVE LISTENING STATEMENT
“What happened?”                                           “Seems like you’re upset.”
“Why are you worried?”                            “Looks like you are really worried about that.”
“Why can’t you just talk to her?”                  “Sounds like you’re really anxious about talking to her”

Using statements to reflect back what you hear and what you see in your child’s body language makes it easy for your child to continue to talk.  A very comforting thing happens; you don’t need to be perfect!  Even if your reflective statement is off the mark, it won’t stop your child from continuing to talk.  He will usually just correct you and continue; “No Mom, I’m not frustrated, I’m just confused about what my teacher meant.”  

Sometimes only one listening response is needed: “Wow that really hurts!” may be enough to let him know you get it when your three-year-old son comes in crying with a scraped knee.  His response may be something like “Yeah Mommy it’s a big ouchy!” and then out the door he goes to play without further crying and dramatics.

Active Listening, however, is more than just letting your child vent and “unflood” feelings, it is also a process that allows your child to first, identify what the real problem or concern is and second, to actually do some simple problem solving and come up with her own best solution.

Many problems are more complicated; in fact, problems are like onions, there are multiple layers of feelings and thoughts that need to be peeled away to get to the heart of the problem. This type of reflective listening allows your child to talk about a problem, peel back the layers of the onion, identify the real issue or feelings and solve the problem.

So, when your child (or partner or other person - it can work wonders even with your own parents!) has a problem, talk less and listen more. In fact, listen most.  Let the person who “Owns” the problem be the one to solve it.  You daughter’s solution of not talking to her friend for a week may not be a solution you would choose, however, it may be the best one for your daughter given her unique situation.

Active Listening is most often done face to face or on the phone however, there are exciting possibilities using email and even texting.

Of course there will be times when your child’s solution does have a direct negative effect on you.  In those situations, it changes to a “Parent Owns” or a "We Own" the problem situation and then it’s time for you to speak up, which we’ll talk about more coming up next...

Jul 11, 2013

How Children REALLY React To Control

by Dr. Thomas Gordon

When one person tries to control another, you can always expect some kind of reaction from the controlee. The use of power involves two people in a special kind of relationship - one wielding power, and the other reacting to it.
This seemingly obvious fact is not usually dealt with in the writings of the dare-to-discipline advocates. Invariably, they leave the child out of the formula, omitting any reference to how the youngster reacts to the control of his or her parents or teachers.
They insist, "Parents must set limits," but seldom say anything about how children respond to having their needs denied in this way. "Parents should not be afraid to exercise their authority," they counsel, but rarely mention how youngsters react to authority-based coercion. By omitting the child from the interaction, the discipline advocates leave the impression that the child submits willingly and consistently to adults' power and does precisely what is demanded.
These are actual quotes from the many power-to-the-parent books I've collected along the way:
  • "Be firm but fair."
  • "Insist that your children obey."
  • "Don't be afraid to express disapproval by spanking."
  • "There are times when you have to say 'no'."
  • "Discipline with love."
  • "Demonstrate your parental right to lead."
  • "The toddler should be taught to obey and yield to parental leadership."
What these books have in common is advocacy of the use of power-based discipline with no mention of how children react to it. In other words, the dare-to-discipline advocates never present power-based discipline in full, as a cause-and-effect phenomenon, an action-and-reaction event.
This omission is important, for it implies that all children passively submit to adult demands, perfectly content and secure in an obedient role, first in relationships with their parents and teachers and, eventually, with all adult power-wielders they might encounter.
However, I have found not a shred of evidence to support this view. In fact, as most of us remember only too well from our childhood, we did almost anything we could to defend against power-based control. We tried to avoid it, postpone it, weaken it, avert it, escape from it. We lied, we put the blame on someone else, we tattled, hid, pleaded, begged for mercy, or promised we would never do it again.
We also experienced punitive discipline as embarrassing, demeaning, humiliating, frightening, and painful. To be coerced into doing something against our will was a personal insult and an affront to our dignity, an act that devalued the importance of our needs.
Punitive discipline is by definition need-depriving as opposed to need-satisfying. Recall that punishment will be effective only if it is felt by the child as aversive, painful, unpleasant. When controllers employ punishment, they always intend for it to cause pain or deprivation. It seems so obvious, then, that children don't ever want punitive discipline, contrary to what its advocates would have us believe. No child "asks for it," "feels a need for it," or is "grateful for it." And it is probably true, too, that no child ever forgets or forgives a punitive parent or teacher. This is why I find it incredible that the authors of power-to-the-parent books try to justify power-based discipline with such statements as:
  • "Kids not only need punishment, they want it."
  • "Children basically want what is coming to them, good or bad, because justice is security."
  • "Punishment will prove to kids that their parents love them."
  • "The youngster who knows he deserves a spanking appears almost relieved when it finally comes."
  • "Rather than be insulted by the discipline, [the child] understands its purpose and appreciates the control it gives him over his own impulses."
  • "Corporal punishment in the hands of a loving parent is entirely different in purpose and practice [from child abuse]....One is an act of love; the other is an act of hostility."
  • "Some strong-willed children absolutely demand to be spanked, and their wishes should be granted."
  • "Punishment will make children feel more secure in their relationship."
  • "Discipline makes for happy families; healthy relationships."
Could these be rationalizations intended to relieve the guilt that controllers feel after coercing or committing acts of physical violence against their children? It seems possible in view of the repeated insistence that the punishing adult is really a loving adult, doing it only "for the child's own good," or as a dutiful act of "benevolent leadership." It appears that being firm with children has to be justified by saying, "Be firm but fair"; being tough is acceptable as long as it's "Tough Love"; being an autocrat is justifiable as long as you're a "benevolent autocrat"; coercing children is okay as long as you're not a "dictator"; and physically abusing children is not abuse as long as you "do it lovingly."
Disciplinarians' insistence that punishment is benign and constructive might be explained by their desire that children eventually become subservient to a Supreme Being or higher authority. This can only be achieved, they believe, if children first learn to obey their parents and other adults. James Dobson (1978) stresses this point time and time again:
  • "While yielding to the loving leadership of their parents, children are also learning to yield to the benevolent leadership of God Himself."
  • "With regard to the specific discipline of the strong-willed toddler, mild spankings can begin between 15 and 18 months of age....To repeat, the toddler should be taught to obey and yield to parental leadership, but that end will not be accomplished overnight."
It's the familiar story of believing that the ends justify the means. Obedience to parental authority first, and then later to some higher authority, is so strongly valued by some advocates of punitive discipline that the means they utilize to achieve that end are distorted to appear beneficial to children rather than harmful.
The hope that children eventually will submit to all authority is, I think, wishful thinking. Not all children submit when adults try to control them. In fact, children respond with a wide variety of reactions, an assortment of behaviors. Psychologists call these reactions "coping behaviors" or "coping mechanisms".
The Coping Mechanisms Children Use
Over the years I have compiled a long list of the various coping mechanisms youngsters use when adults try to control them. This list comes primarily out of our Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.) and Teacher Effectiveness Training (T.E.T.) classes, where we employ a simple but revealing classroom exercise. Participants are asked to recall the specific ways they themselves coped with power-based discipline when they were youngsters. The question yields nearly identical lists in every class, which confirms how universal children's coping mechanisms are. The complete list is reproduced below, in no particular order. Note how varied these recurring themes are. (Can you pick out the particular coping methods you employed as a youngster?)
  • Resisting, defying, being negative
  • Rebelling, disobeying, being insubordinate, sassing
  • Retaliating, striking back, counterattacking, vandalizing
  • Hitting, being belligerent, combative
  • Breaking rules and laws
  • Throwing temper tantrums, getting angry
  • Lying, deceiving, hiding the truth
  • Blaming others, tattling, telling on others
  • Bossing or bullying others
  • Banding together, forming alliances, organizing against the adult
  • Apple-polishing, buttering up, soft-soaping, bootlicking, currying favor with adults
  • Withdrawing, fantasizing, daydreaming
  • Competing, needing to win, hating to lose, needing to look good, making others look bad
  • Giving up, feeling defeated, loafing, goofing off
  • Leaving, escaping, staying away from home, running away, quitting school, cutting classes
  • Not talking, ignoring, using the silent treatment, writing the adult off, keeping one's distance
  • Crying, weeping; feeling depressed or hopeless
  • Becoming fearful, shy, timid, afraid to speak up, hesitant to try anything new
  • Needing reassurance, seeking constant approval, feeling insecure
  • Getting sick, developing psychosomatic ailments
  • Overeating, excessive dieting
  • Being submissive, conforming, complying; being dutiful, docile, apple-polishing, being a goody-goody, teacher's pet
  • Drinking heavily, using drugs
  • Cheating in school, plagiarizing
As you might expect, after parents and teachers in the class generate their list, and realize that it was created out of their own experience, they invariably make such comments as:
  • "Why would anyone want to use power, if these are the behaviors it produces?"
  • "All of these coping mechanisms are behaviors that I wouldn't want to see in my children [or my students]."
  • "I don't see in the list any good effects or positive behaviors."
  • "If we reacted to power in those ways when we were kids, our own children certainly will, too."

After this exercise, some parents and teachers undergo a 180-degree shift in their thinking. They see much more clearly that power creates the very behavior patterns they most dislike in children! They begin to understand that as parents and teachers they are paying a terrible price for using power: they are causing their children or students to develop habits, traits, and characteristics considered both unacceptable by most adults and unhealthy by mental health professionals.

Excerpted from "Teaching Children Self Discipline", by Dr. Thomas Gordon