As a parent educator, two common questions that participants ask during a course are: “Should I tell my children I am doing a parenting course?” and “Should I tell my children about the things I am learning in this course?” These are challenging questions for the entire class to discuss – they may open a conversation around stigma and fear (“I am afraid my children will not respect me”) or about acceptance and sharing (“My children do my parenting homework with me”).
Every parent who reads a parenting book or attends a parenting class will have their own thoughts and feelings on whether to share what they’ve learnt with their children. Their decision will be based on their experience, their family, their children and their level of comfort with the new skills they are learning.
Reflections from Parents attending Parent Training
As a teacher of Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T), I have been privileged to hear the stories of parents as they discuss whether to share their new communication skills with their children. Many people have been open about attending the course, telling their children “I’m going to a parenting class to be a better parent”. Very often, the response from their child has been, “You don’t need to go to a class – you’re already a great parent!” Occasionally, people are more cautious and find another way to explain their weekly absence to their child.
Parents have passed on the skills through modelling, or directly explaining the skills. One participant discussed the skills of I-Messages with her family around the dinner table and they all practised I-Messages together. Sometimes, children have insisted on doing their parent’s ‘homework’, while several parents have shared the task of homework with their children – which meant completing the workbook exercises together and reading the textbook.
At the same time as teaching parenting skills, I put these skills to the test by raising two children. My children are my greatest teachers. When I open myself up to their wisdom and reflections on our interactions, I discover who they are and how much I have yet to learn.
So – as both a parent educator and parent – have I discussed parenting skills with my children? The simple answer is ‘yes’. The more complete answer is: I did not consciously set out to teach the skills to my children. I just tried to live what I teach (and to learn from my many, many mistakes!). I suspect the most powerful instruction has been through modeling followed by incidental learning as I talk about the skills at the dinner table (probably not everyone’s cup of tea!); and thirdly, by directly describing the skills to my children.
The Three Main Communication Ideas and their Foundation
Before putting parenting skills into practice, I underwent a fundamental shift in attitude (as a direct result of attending a P.E.T. course). I discovered that children do not misbehave – they behave simply to meet a need. Problems in the relationship occur when our children’s behaviour interferes with us meeting our need. This theory from Dr. Thomas Gordon was mind-blowing, and underpins my communication with my children.
The Three Main Communication Ideas
Parenting is about communicating to connect. I learnt many skills through P.E.T. The three main ideas I translated to my role as parent-teacher were:
• Active Listening (avoiding ‘Roadblocks’)
• I-Messages (avoiding ‘You-Messages’)
• No punishment or rewards (No-Lose problem solving)
The handout, Hot Tips for Happy Parenting, briefly describes these three essential communication skills.
Benefits of Sharing ‘Parenting’ Communication Skills with my Children
I’ve found that being able to name communication skills has been invaluable in:
- Empowering my children to help our relationship and me – they now have the words to let me know what they need – to guide me when I go off track. Similarly, I can discuss my communication needs with my children.
- Repairing a relationship – being able to describe what went wrong in our communication, and what is needed for reparation.
- Explaining and exploring a situation
- Helping my children in their relationship with others – when children have friendship difficulties, I’ve found it useful to discuss communication skills which might best suit the situation. This helps equip them to deal with the situation.
Some Examples of Naming Parenting Skills with Children
The following examples show that I am, by no means, the perfect parent. I found being able to name and refer to communication skills, in order to analyse and repair a relationship, invaluable.
Repairing a relationship
My seven year old daughter, Phoebe*, had had a full day dancing at a dance competition – and I had had a full day getting her ready and then watching the competition. We ate dinner and she was getting ready for bed.
I asked Phoebe if she would like to go to the toilet, and she said “No. I don’t need to go”.
I had just watched her drink a huge glass of water, and I was concerned that if she didn’t go to the bathroom before bed, she would wake during the night and wake me or have a nightmare. The stage was set – I was tired, and she was very tired. But I was the one who ‘lost it’.
I yelled, “I’m sick of this! If you wake up during the night with a nightmare, I am not coming in to comfort you. I’m going to stay in my bed because you wouldn’t have the nightmare if you would only go to the toilet now!!”
I shocked myself as the words spewed forth from my mouth – I was using a terrible, threatening ‘You’ message. Saying words I knew would not work. From where had such words come?
Phoebe refused to go to the toilet, of course, and ran into her room. Scarily, she did not cry.
After I cooled down somewhat, I went into Phoebe’s room. I tried to apologise, but she put her hands over her ears and turned her face from me. I tried Active Listening, but she continued to look away, ears covered. Then her older brother came in, picked her up and hugged her. She took her hands off her ears when he spoke to her, but put them back over her ears the minute I spoke. I got the picture – she was very unhappy with me!
So I decided to acknowledge what I had done, and to Active Listen. I said, “I gave you a ‘You’ message, a threat that was scary. I’m sorry.”
I then began to repair the relationship, while still trying to convince her to go to the bathroom. I described what I’d said, and what I wish I’d said instead using the communication labels with which she was familiar. I began “This is the ‘I-Message’ I should have said…”
As I talked, her brother softly repeated the words I was saying into her ear.
“I feel concerned (mummy feels concerned) that if you don’t do a wee now (that if you don’t go to the toilet now) you will have a nightmare, and I will have to get up out of my nice warm bed, and come into your bed, and I’m really tired after my big day today, and I’ll be grumpy (and she will have to get out of her nice warm bed and comfort you)”.
Phoebe agreed to go to the bathroom, and returned in a much better mood. I felt it was time to listen deeply and address what had happened. This meant taking responsibility for what I had said, and her reaction.
“I must have scared you when I threatened not to come in if you had a nightmare”and she nodded her head. I said “I did the wrong thing, and used a scary ‘You-Message’ when I should have used an ‘I-Message’ to let you know the real reason. It was not a very good P.E.T night for me tonight.” She grinned through her sad face. Our relationship was back on track.
Empowering children to say what they need
My son, aged 17, and I were visiting a museum together. I wanted to stay longer, but my son disagreed.
“Mum – you don’t understand. I am really stressed. I have so much work to do – I have assignments for (and he listed the subjects) and I need to do 100 maths questions and I had planned to have that half done by tonight.”
I said “OK. We’ll go. But I’ll be really annoyed if you watch any TV tonight. I really wanted to see this particular exhibition and I’m disappointed we couldn’t spend half an hour just to look it over.”
We piled into the car. There was a heavy silence, which lasted for five minutes or so. I was thinking about how much work Andy* had to do and how stressed he was.
Then Andy said, “If I had a P.E.T. mum who practiced P.E.T., she’d recognise when her son really needed Active Listening!” Oops! I immediately apologised and began to Active Listen.
Me: “I’m sorry. You must feel let down that I haven’t acknowledged how much you have on your plate at the moment.”
Me: “You sound really overwhelmed”.
Andy: “Exactly!! I have to do an English creative, and finish my chemistry. In the next three weeks I have sooooo much to do. And I’m feeling sick”.
Me: “You sound really stressed”
Andy: “I am!”
He continued to vent about his life as we drove home. Later, Andy acknowledged my disappointment. I felt pleased with what had happened. I had willingly given up my need (to see the exhibition), because I now understood, through Active Listening that Andy’s need (to complete his work and get better) was far greater. After all, I could go back to the exhibition at any time while Andy was working to a deadline. I was happy he could let me know what he needed – to help both him, and our relationship.
Teaching my children communication skills means we speak the same language
I am finding it useful to take my children with me on my journey with communication skills. For us, I think it enables a depth of discussion and analysis that has deepened our understanding of each other, and our relationship.
*Not their real names.