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If you're a parent you need to read this book
on October 16, 2005
Before I had children, I oscillated between thinking that I would have no idea how to be a father and thinking that I would certainly do better than my parents. Of course, in practice many of my preconceptions have been dispelled as mere imaginings. My son is now thirteen and my daughter nine, so with the notion that I perhaps have not done as good a job as I might, I've been taking a more serious look at some of the parenting guides at my disposal. There are many of these around, but you would do well to start with Gordon's, "Parent Effectiveness Training" or alternatively, with "Liberated Parents, Liberated Children" of Faber and Mazlish. Don't be put off by the P.E.T. acronym or the cover of the book as I was, or the apparent commercialism of the approach, because this is one of the best books on the subject. It is a complete training guide for parents, and it confirmed for me that I had indeed made almost every mistake I could make, even if not in the most severe way possible.
Gordon's premise is that parents need training. He comes to this from a background in psychology and training. He first trained pilots, where he succeeded in replacing ineffective command and control methods of training with demonstrably more effective collaborative forms of training. Building on the theories and client-centered approach of his teacher and mentor Carl Rogers (On Becoming a Person, 1961), Gordon further developed his educational model in providing leadership training for an organization consulting company before returning to psychotherapy for children and families. In these beginnings lie the strength of PET. It is an eminently practical, yet solidly based therapeutic approach, honed by countless hours of classes dealing with the real problems of parents and children.
Gordon builds his model on three key principles: Active Listening, I-messages, and the No Lose Method of conflict resolution. These are not his invention, but these are essential and valuable concepts. In particular, Gordon's mentor Carl Rogers and his collaborator Richard Farson invented the term "Active Listening" and wrote an influential paper on the subject in 1957. Since then this idea has been used by many people in many fields. However, Gordon deserves credit for synthesizing these principles into a practical program for helping parents and children and popularizing them. Steven Covey, incidentally, uses these same three principles in his book, "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People." In fact, of all Covey's 7 habits, Habit 4, Empathic Listening, is probably the one that makes the most positive difference people's success in life, and this is simply Active Listening in another form.
The biggest eye-opener for me and probably for every parent, no matter how well informed or well intentioned, is the chapter "Parents are Persons not Gods." This lays out an undeniable characterization of parenting types and the "12 roadblocks to communication." After reading this, you will inevitably realize that you are, or have been, either a "winner" a "loser" or an "oscillator" depending on your parenting style and that you too have fallen into every trap that lies lurking for unwary parents. Not only that, that you will find you have used, at one time or another, every negative tactic available to control you child. You won't feel good about it, but you can be heartened by the fact that you are in the same boat as 99% of humanity. There is something relatively easy that you can do about it -- and you can start right now.
The 12 roadblocks deserve some attention -- a good exercise would be to be aware of your own use of these methods, not only with your children but with your spouse and colleagues at work. Briefly stated, the 12 roadblocks are:
* Ordering, directing, commanding -- telling the child to do something, giving him an order or command
* Warning, admonishing threatening -- telling the child what consequences will occur if she does something
* Exhorting, moralizing, preaching -- telling the child what he should or ought to do
* Advising, giving solutions, or suggestions -- telling the child how to solve a problem, providing answers or solutions for him
* Lecturing, teaching, giving logical arguments -- trying to influence the child with facts, logic, information, or your own opinions
* Judging, criticizing, disagreeing, blaming -- making a negative judgment of the child
* Praising, agreeing -- offering a positive evaluation or judgment, agreeing
* Name-calling, ridiculing, shaming -- making the child feel foolish, shaming her
* Interpreting, analyzing, diagnosing -- telling the child what her motives are, communicating that you have her figured out
* Reassuring, sympathizing, consoling, supporting -- trying to make the child feel better, talking him out of his feelings, denying the strength of his feelings
* Probing, questioning, interrogating -- trying to find reasons, motives, causes; searching for more information to help you solve the problem
* Withdrawing, distracting, humoring, diverting -- trying to get the child away from the problem; distracting the child, kidding him out of it, pushing the problem aside
Reflection will show you why these typical reactions are not helpful when your child has a problem: they all tend to shut down communication and prevent children from gaining confidence in solving problems for themselves. Instead, active listening is preferred. Gordon argues that listening to, acknowledging and truly understanding your children's feelings are far more effective than providing them with your own solution.
Gordon provides many examples of PET in practice -- what works and what doesn't. He addresses those common questions of how to discipline children and how to get the parent's needs satisfied as well as the child's. Gordon, in line with the evolutionary thinking of many of the visionaries and leaders in this field, such as Dr Spock (Baby and Child Care, 1946), Haim Ginnott (Between Parent and Child, 1956) and Alfie Kohn (Punished by Rewards, 1999) does not believe in strong parental control, including spanking, "time-outs," withdrawal of privileges, or rewards. These are all instruments of parental power. He worked with thousands of parents and became convinced that all but a small handful of parents hate to use power over their children and continue to use it anyway only because they have no experience in their own lives with people who use non-power methods of influence. The consequences of using parental power are severe. As Gordon puts it, ""more and more often, children fire their parents. As they move into adolescence kids dismiss their mothers and fathers, write them off, sever their relationships with them." This doesn't have to be. You can find many examples in these books and on the Internet where parents have successfully used Gordon's methods to maintain loving relationships with their children through to adulthood, even after making a bad start.
There are other gems in the mold of PET. For example, my personal favorite is "Playful Parenting," by Lawrence Cohen (2001) because one of his examples helped me understand something that I was completely missing and make a breakthrough in my relationship with my daughter. He believes in connection rather than separation - a "meeting-on-the-couch" rather than "a time-out." Surprisingly Gordon doesn't mention Haim Ginnot, the renowned child psychologist who wrote "Between Parent and Child," and who inspired a previous generation, although he does provide this book as a reference in his later book, "PET in Action." The latest edition does however acknowledge, in the suggested reading list, Faber and Mazlish, whose many contributions follow in Ginnot's tradition. It's interesting to read Ginnot for historical perspective, because his work was done in a time when spanking was the norm and children were meant to be "seen and not heard," But his book is inevitably dated and you would do better to spend the time with Faber and Mazlish.
In contrast, even in comparison with more recent books, the latest edition of Gordon's book does not appear dated in any significant way, and is totally relevant and actionable in today's world. As Gordon points out in the preface, the need for PET is greater than ever with more violence in the world, and perhaps Gordon's greatest contribution is to point out in a forceful and coherent way that peace starts in the home. He has helped spread this message to millions of parents in countries all over the world.
At the end of the book, Gordon talks about other adults in a child's life: "By and large, the adults who touch the lives of children lack the basic attitudes and skills to be effective helping agents. Like parents, they have not been adequately trained to be effective...and so, unhappily, they can do damage to your children." It is unlikely that you can do much to change the culture in which your children grow up, or the society of their peers. You can, however, fight some of the influences of school, TV, and video games. "Parents must get off the bench and go to bat to protect their children's civil rights whenever they are threatened by adults who feel that kids do not deserve such rights," says Gordon. By truly understanding our children's needs and becoming more effective parents, we can create a safe home and start repairing the damage.
This book could really change your life. If you're analytical and can get what you want from books, start with PET, which is a complete method and has a sound practical and theoretical basis. Or you might want to start with Faber and Mazlish, which is less structured, but is generally more accessible and easier to read. Of course, reading a single book once is not necessarily going to change anything, so if the only thing that works for you is to get the support and help of other people, then you might consider signing up for a PET course. It could well be worth it, because this stuff really works and may help you succeed in the most important job you have.