Back to the Future
Writing this article is a pleasure and quite fitting as it meets a need of mine to journey back with you to what I sincerely believe is our ‘true nature’ as parents and as human beings.
I am the mum of three beautiful young women who were born in the 70’s, and with whom I enjoy close and warm relationships. Much of my work involves organising and running community-based parenting and communication skills workshops, often with at least one of my daughters co-facilitating.
As a young person growing up in the 1950’s and ‘60’s, I mostly witnessed a style of parenting that used punishments such as being hit, consequences of having ‘privileges withdrawn’, and the use of words that implied children were intrinsically ‘bad’, intentionally ‘misbehaving’, or ‘wrong’ for acting in a certain way.
Later the use of rewards or praise gained popularity and was based on research in animal behaviour. The problem with rewards (parents of teens tell me) is that they have to get bigger and bigger as children grow older. Both these types of parenting are what I would call authoritarian, punitive or a “power-over” approach. They rely on some external (extrinsic) form of motivation to change behaviour rather than an intrinsic, self-efficacy, self-disciplined and self-motivated approach.
At another extreme, I saw parents who did choose to tune into their children as ‘human beings’ rather than ‘human doings’ to be controlled and dominated. Sadly, however, often these parents appeared to ‘give in’ to demands, tantrums or persistent nagging, especially when faced with added pressure such as time constraints. I guess what they were yearning for was an option to using “power-over”.
Nonetheless, without concrete alternative strategies in place, it seems, they would swing from giving in and being permissive to becoming frustrated, angry and exploding. Then, out of pure exhaustion and exasperation, would react (often overreact) by using punishment and creating feelings of self-guilt and self-disappointment.
Along came Dr Benjamin Spock, a famous and influential parenting author at that time. Dr Spock was frequently accused in the media of advocating a permissive approach to parenting by suggesting such radical ideas as the avoidance of spanking and other forms of physical punishment or emotional manipulation.
So, media influence in the 50, 60’s and 70’s ranged from the revolutionary Dr Spock to Mr Spock, the very unemotional character of Star Trek fame. A huge variety of ‘expert’ parenting advice was and is abundant. Much of this advice has less validity, in my opinion, than the sci-fi Mr Spock’s logical words of wisdom.
Like many parents, I was feeling somewhat confused and very disconnected from how I wanted to raise my children. What I hear from younger parents now, is they feel even more confusion around conflicting parenting information.
Consequently, I see a need for clarity and ideas about parenting that is in harmony with strongly held values; i.e. to parent with compassion, love, respect and a desire to raise happy, confident, resilient and cooperative young people who also have the capacity for respect, compassion and empathy for others.
The reality of putting these values in practice, however, for me proved far more difficult than I could have imagined. Tragically, our culture mostly advocates the notion of ‘might is right’. Old habits and patterns are hard to let go of unless we have some very practical ideas and doable skills with which to replace them.
Eventually my own search led me to Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.), which offered ideas, skills and processes closely aligned with what I intuitively wanted. So inspired was I by this program, I became a qualified P.E.T. instructor in1980 and have run programs ever since.
For the past few years, I am delighted to have deepened my knowledge and understanding through working with Nonviolent Communication (NVC) or Compassionate Communication, as is it is often called. Though NVC was created by Dr Marshall Rosenberg over 40 years ago, it is made relevant and current through his current tireless work around the globe. Also, skilled trainers and parents continue to connect cooperatively around the world to constantly update and enhance NVC.
Connected Parenting in Action
The Connected Parenting Course, that I have now developed, is based mainly on Nonviolent Communication. It is also strongly influenced, of course, by our family’s years of P.E.T. experience in not only teaching but living the principals of a “power-with” mind set in our relationships.
Therefore, in addition to mentioning my background in parenting programs, I particularly want to acknowledge the two major sources of my learning as a parent and facilitator of parenting courses:
Firstly, without a doubt, my most influential teachers have been my three daughters. From them I learned that if I try to control (punish or reward) rather than influence them, I will achieve two possible outcomes: They will submit to my demands and do as I say out of fear, guilt, shame or hope of an external reward; or rebel due to their natural instinct to be independent, autonomous human beings. I also learned that either of these two outcomes results in damage to our relationship and the connection between us. Plus, it didn’t enhance anyone’s self-esteem – theirs or mine.
Feelings of resentment flowed from my girls to me when I unilaterally enforced what I wanted. The resentment flowed from me to them when they got ‘their own way’ without my needs as a parent also being met. Life wasn’t fun and enjoyable either.
My second major source of learning continues to be from the many parents who have participated in my courses over the years. I am inspired by stories of parents’ commitment and courage in putting into practice what we learn in workshops. Frequently, I receive heartfelt appreciation and feedback about their successes (and failures) and the joy that they feel in having tools and skills that bridge them across to parenting in harmony with their natural instinctive desires and values.
Here is an example written by one, Kim, of my ‘workshop parents’:-
“Jason (4) is crying. His ‘Tom and Jerry’ glittery drink bottle is broken after being accidentally dropped by his sister, Shelly (2).
Jason runs across to his sister and pushes her hard. Now both are crying. I hold Shelly in my lap.
Shelly: ‘Jason pushed me.’
Kim: ‘Jason, Shellys really upset. It hurts when she gets pushed over.’
Jason: ‘Shelly broke my favourite Tom and Jerry drink bottle.’
Kim: ‘Youre very upset that your drink bottle is broken. You really, specially liked that drink bottle.’
Jason: ‘Yes, and now it’s broken.”
(Jason is sitting and crying. His fists are clenched, and his legs are kicking out). Shelly hops off my knee and stands a few paces from and facing Jason. I am close enough to protect either of them if I think they might get physical.
Shelly: ‘You angry bout your drink bottle?’
Jason: ‘Yes! You dropped my drink bottle and it broke.’
(More tears from Jason.) Shelly moves closer.
Shelly: ‘You disappointed bout your drink bottle?’
Jason: ‘Yes. That was my special drink bottle.’
(Shelly moves closer.)
Shelly: ‘Oh! You sad?’
Jason: ‘Yes! I really like that drink bottle.’
Shelly: ‘You feel better now?’
Jason: ‘No! My drink bottle is broken.’ (Crying again, but less intensely)
Kim: ‘You really are very upset about the drink bottle, Jason, and really want us to know that?’
Shelly: ‘It was an accident.’
Tears have stopped, all is calm. Jason (I am guessing feels heard and understood) changes the subject.
I feel really excited just writing this and seeing what my kids are capable of – they really have got the ability to work things out – Kim”
This story of one parent’s experience illustrates several key points:
- we as parents can act as a mediator, protector and supporter when children have a conflict in the strategies they employ to meet their needs;
- children can learn very valuable social skills, assertiveness and emotional self-control from this process;
- even people as young as two years of age are capable of empathically connecting with others and what’s more, expressing that empathy;
- and, just being heard about our distress and needs can relieve strong emotions.
Most importantly, something is clearly shown to me in this example, in my own life as a parent and in sharing other parents’ experiences. We all have a natural ability to connect and communicate compassionately with each other (even a very young age) and find solutions to our conflict so everyone’s needs are being met.
I truly believe that this is a dynamic and highly effective process for connecting with everyone at any age, and especially children. If you’d like to make contact with others who are interested in raising children in harmony with these kinds of values and for information about Connected Parenting workshops, visit http://www.metacommunicate.com/, phone 0408 456 625 or email me at metacommuniCate@hotmail.com .