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Your living room looks like a highlight reel from “Mad Max: Fury Road.” The little ones are screaming the hits from “Frozen” and the teenagers are teenaging all over the place. The whole house needs an exorcism. Keeping things under control seems like an endless game of whac-a-mole when you already have a sore elbow.
It comes down to one challenge: How do you speak so that kids will actually listen?
Luckily, there’s a time-tested system that works. “Parent Effectiveness Training” was created by Thomas Gordon, a guy who was literally nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times. (And, frankly, advice on peace might be exactly what your household needs.)
PET can help you reduce the frequency and severity of conflict, teach your kids problem-solving and empathy skills – as well as provide you with more free time. Most of all it’s a system that not only helps with order and discipline, but it also builds respect and love in your home.
Thomas Gordon’s book is “Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children.”
Okay, you and I have a playdate. Let’s get to it…
Gordon realized there were four ways this can go down:
System 2 produces selfish and demanding kids. These children are in for a rude awakening when they enter the adult world. System 4 is even worse. It’s when parents are permissive until they finally put their foot down. Rules feel arbitrary and kids end up confused by the inconsistency. The real debate is between #1 and #3: dictatorship and democracy.
As for #1, ruling by dictatorship works – in the short term. But it’s a Monkey’s Paw. Ruling by power can be effective when children are young but once the adolescent years come around, you’re in for trouble.
When kids aren’t listened to and they lose every argument, they understandably check out. Communication stops. And during the teenage years they will rebel. It has been scientifically proven that teenagers can stay annoying longer than you can stay sane. So taking the position that “resistance is futile” ends up being pretty futile in itself.
More importantly, forcing kids to do things doesn’t teach them to be self-sufficient. At best, it teaches them to be reliant on external authority. This might produce obedient kids but doesn’t teach them to be effective adults.
If parents could learn only one thing from this book, I wish it were this: Each and every time they force a child to do something by using their power or authority, they deny that child a chance to learn self-discipline and self-responsibility.
What Gordon realized was that teenage rebellion is not inevitable. Kids don’t rebel against parents – they rebel against certain parenting methods. When parents don’t listen, kids stop communicating. And once that happens there’s no way to course correct. (And as for your kids loving you, the best you can hope for is Stockholm Syndrome.)
There will be a time when you are not there and they can do drugs, have sex, and organize terrorist cells. So communication channels must be kept open so you can have influence over them.
What about System 3? This is what Gordon recommends: using influence over power. Something more democratic. And it’s effective.
System 3 is more akin to how adults deal with one another. Both parties hear each other out and solutions to problems need to be accepted by both sides. Instead of parents as deities that must be obeyed, they are people who have needs too. This helps build empathy and love. And when kids get a say in how things are resolved, they’re more motivated to follow through because they helped create the solution. They learn to problem-solve, to negotiate, and to show concern for other people’s needs. Your needs. They’re learning to be adults because home resembles the real world.
Some will say this amount of discussion and negotiation takes too much time. And that’s true… but only up front. But when kids get a voice, when they help create solutions, parents don’t need to check in as much. Taking more time at the beginning can save parents a lot of effort in the subsequent “nagging” budget.
And over the long haul, this not only teaches kids valuable skills, it also creates love. It shows a kid you trust them, teaches them to think about your needs as a person. Getting their input conveys a level of respect – respect they are now more likely to return.
Some parents will object, saying this means they need to “give in.” But it’s not “giving in” if you get what you want. In every relationship there is give and take – with your spouse, your boss, your friends. And, again, this provides a good model for kids in terms of how they learn to work with others. When parenting is just dictatorship, the only lesson they learn is: acquire power over others so you can force them to do your bidding.
Yeah, I know, some people are still objecting: “But I’m the parent. They should…”
Look, nobody is taking away your power. You’re still in charge. You can still be dictator if you have to. But in most disputes, most of the time, is playing dictator the smartest way to proceed if you want a smooth-running, happy home over the long haul? Look at it this way: your boss absolutely could choose to end every email with “Do this or you’re fired.” Would that be the wise, loyalty-inspiring move 99% of the time?
(To learn more about how you can lead a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)
Okay, so problems arise in the household. There’s a critical first step Gordon recommends here. Good for kids because it teaches them responsibility. Good for you because, executed consistently, it makes your life a whole lot easier. All you have to do is ask one question…
Any time an issue comes up, think about who this causes a problem for. Who wants something here?
There are three kinds of problem: ones the kid owns, ones the parent owns, and ones the relationship owns. Child wants to stay up later than normal? Kid owns the problem. Parent wants the living room looking less like a crime scene? Parent owns the problem. And if you both want something mutually exclusive, like you both need to use the car? Relationship owns the problem.
Parents don’t have to solve all a kids’ problems. In fact, this is a terrible idea. It teaches children to be passive and turns you into a harried helicopter parent. And when parents take over problems the child should own, it tells them “I don’t think you can handle this.” Giving kids a chance to meet their needs themselves builds critical skills. When you play micromanaging boss, they don’t learn and now you’re expected to fix everything. It’s okay for you to be a helper and consultant, but kids should present solutions to kid problems. People are much more likely to follow through on plans they made themselves.
PET approaches each of the three types of ownership conversations differently. When the relationship owns the problem, it’s straightforward negotiating. You both have needs. Let the kid suggest a solution, you approve or help revise.
But with the other two it’s very different. You want to talk in a way that kids will listen. You want to make these conversations as effective as possible to minimize conflict. When conversations are painless, you keep lines of communication open and strengthen the relationship, all the while teaching adulting skills.
With kid-owned problems we will use active listening. With parent-owned problems we use “I” messages. These are your two new secret weapons.
(To learn the 5 rituals neuroscience says will make your kids awesome, click here.)
Okay, the child has an issue so it’s a problem the kid will own. Maybe they’re yelling. Your house has all the sanity of the break room at Dunder Mifflin.
What do you do? Use your first secret weapon…
Now you could go dictator and start throwing rhetorical Molotov cocktails. Ordering, threatening, moralizing, lecturing, judging, shaming…
No. Don’t reach for the nuclear codes yet. Start with acceptance.
Now that word generally provokes resistance when I suggest it, and I end up sounding like Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride: “I do not think it means what you think it means.” (For the record, writing on the internet is a fantastic way to be misunderstood at scale.)
Acceptance does not mean agreement. It means letting them speak and making them feel they’ve been heard. That’s all. Yes, they may be utterly out of their tiny minds, but until you let them speak, the emotions will not die down. You’re going to respond and all they’re going to hear is Charlie Brown’s teacher talking: WA-WA-WA-WA.
You need to want to hear what they have to say and you need to accept their feelings. You don’t have to agree but let them talk. If you immediately shut them down, they’re going to get the same message you get when people don’t listen to you: Why do I bother talking to this person? I should just avoid them, lie to them, or find a way around them. They will write you off – something teenagers are famous for. Acceptance is key so that they will intuitively feel they can talk to you and it’s not pointless.
“But I am accepting…”
The point isn’t that you send the message, it’s that they receive it. They need to feel you’re accepting. So don’t reply just yet. Encourage them to talk. Say “Tell me more.” Or “This sounds important to you.” Keep your thoughts and feelings out of it (initially). Don’t offer solutions. Remember: the kid owns this problem.
Maybe what they’re saying is a chain-linked mesh of idiocy. Fine. You want to be focused on feelings. And then feed that back to them. “Sounds like you’re angry.” When feelings are labeled, they dissipate more quickly. But when we seem dismissive of feelings, that’s when people explode or write you off.
After reflecting their feelings, you’ll be shocked how often they seem to solve the problem themselves. Sometimes people just need to vent. In the big picture, this lets kids know they can talk to you without it being difficult. That you listen. That when they have a problem they can come to you and it’ll be a positive (okay, semi-positive) experience. And by you not immediately offering solutions, the issue stays theirs. That means they learn to problem-solve, and you don’t have yet another thing to add to your to-do list.
Gordon found that over time, when parents shut their mouths and open their ears, kids start talking about things they hadn’t before. You don’t have to pull teeth to get them to share what’s going on in their lives. This is a very good thing. Teens can make decisions on serious topics like drugs and sex with you or without you. (Hint: “with you” is better.)
Once the kid has put it out there and the feelings die down, you can ask them for solutions. They’ll offer something. It will probably be utterly one-sided. (They’re kids.) This is where you express your needs, teaching them empathy. Mom and dad are human and have needs too. They learn that if they take those into consideration when generating ideas, they’re more likely to get what they want. Now they’re learning to problem-solve and negotiate like an adult.
Yeah, it might go in circles and you might have to put your foot down. But the fact that you listened and that they sometimes get what they want means they don’t feel talking to you is wasted breath. Over time, you’ll be surprised when children start shortcutting the process for you – raising an issue and presenting you with a pre-packaged way to address it that takes your usual concerns into consideration. All it needs is parental sign off. That’s less time arguing for you and a sign of increasing maturity in them.
Active listening has impressive effects, but it takes practice. This won’t come to you as quickly as more intuitive activities, like stealing office supplies. But the effort is worth it.
(To learn how to help your kids find their calling in life, click here.)
But what if it’s a problem that the parent owns? You want their sanity-straining bad behavior to stop. This is where “I” messages come in…
During conflict, starting sentences with the word “you” is almost always perceived as an attack. Too many of those and the Pavlov part of the kids’ brain is naturally going to say, “When parents open their mouths, bad things happen.” Not exactly a prescription for a loving home.
You want to say what you need without them feeling like you’re blaming, insulting, or threatening. While a “you message” is perceived as a judgment, an “I message” is seen as a statement of fact about yourself.
You want to shift from a perspective of “giving orders” to “helping them understand.” You wouldn’t tell a friend, “Get your feet off the couch this instant!” You wouldn’t enjoy dealing with a person who talks like that. And you do want your kid to enjoy dealing with you.
There are three elements of a good “I” message: a neutral description of the unacceptable behavior, how it makes you feel, and the concrete effect the behavior has on you:
“When you didn’t come home from school on time and didn’t call to say you’d be late, I got worried and that distracted me from my work.”
By giving a neutral description of the behavior, you’re not attacking. By emphasizing your feelings, you’re giving another empathy lesson. The third part is critical as well. Offering a concrete effect shows the child the rules aren’t arbitrary. If you just say, “I’m upset” this can come off as random dictator behavior that causes teenager’s eyes to roll uncontrollably upward.
Kids rarely want to deliberately cause harm. And when they see their behavior is causing real harm, often they’ll be much more motivated to stop. This also reinforces empathy. Everyone has needs, and those have to be taken into consideration. And when they are, often, we can all get what we want. No, not always, but more often than you think.
Yeah, you can still go dictator if needed. But starting with an “I message” gives the kid a chance to understand and do something because it’s right – not merely out of fear of punishment. This is a powerful lesson. If kids are raised only to do things because punishment is salient, you’re not raising a future good citizen, you’re raising a future crime statistic.
Let me clear something up here because this is where many parents veer into the ditch. “I feel strongly that you have been neglecting your chores” is not an “I” message. That’s a “you” message in a bad disguise. Remember: Neutrally describe the behavior. Express your feelings. Concrete negative result. Anger and judging are always a “you” message. Do that and expect the kid to respond with both barrels. Why escalate this unnecessarily if you can get what you want and end this potentially ugly situation by wording it differently?
But maybe they get angry anyway. They push back. No need to resist or go dictator immediately. If the kid is expressing a need (however harshly) in response to your need, go right back to active listening. Let them get it out. Focus on feelings. Feed it back to them. Maybe they actually have a point. Now you both know what each other wants. Let them offer a solution. And then problem-solve.
(To learn how to make your kids successful, click here.)
Okay, we’ve covered a lot. Let’s round it up and learn the big bonus you get from practicing these skills…
This is how to be an emotionally intelligent parent:
The pandemic has put a huge strain on families. First it was lockdown, now we have Omicron. (God, I’m tired of sequels.) Many kids spent a lot of time out of school and not seeing friends. That’s a lot of missed time building social skills.
Set an example that will help them in their relationships. And that’s the secret bonus here: the stuff we covered above doesn’t just work with children. It will help you with all your relationships. Listening to others’ feelings and conveying needs in a less confrontational way can help you with partners, with friends and even at work. Used properly, they don’t make kids love you more, they’ll make everyone love you more.
And that’s what it’s really about, right? Love. You don’t just want discipline. You also want caring. You don’t just want talking. You want trust and listening and empathy. There’s nothing better than seeing your children blossom into mature adults you’re proud of. People who treat others as equals, who show empathy for loved ones’ needs, who listen, show respect, and who choose to use influence instead of domination.
If kids learn these skills from you, in the future they can set great examples for so many other people. And not the least of which is one special group:
Your future grandchildren.
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