I-Messages

I-Messages

How to Talk Respectfully
(And Invite Respectful Responses)
Illustrating Skill #3 

An I-message is a message in which I tell you something about myself, like “I thought it was best for me to leave when I did.” Or, “I left when I did because I didn’t want to be late for my appointment.” Or, “I left when I did because I was feeling uncomfortable.” It amounts to a bit of self-disclosure. The subject of the sentence is always “I.”

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Managing Child Behavior

Managing Child Behavior

The MANAGING CHILD BEHAVIOR section of this website contains posts on that most challenging aspect of parenting, dealing with children’s misbehaviors, or children who are “out of control.”

My New School approach to parenting is based on the idea that almost all parents believe they should be able to control their children’s behavior, when in fact that is totally impossible. And it’s a big mistake to try. Because it leads to power struggles and invites child defiance.

The Volcano Theory explains why parental control of child behavior is impossible, the responses children have to parental attempts at control, a rating system for assessing the severity of your child’s unacceptable behaviors, how you unwittingly encourage precisely the behaviors you DO NOT WANT, and the role of empathy, or the ability to relate to the child on an emotional level.

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3 Steps to Parent-Child Harmony is my book  that describes in detail the differences between the Old School Parenting model and the New School Parenting model.  Please see these links if you are interested in more information or wish to purchase.

     Learn more.    Buy Now.   Table of Contents & Intro

Dialogue: The Heart of New School Parenting

Dialogue: The Heart of New School Parenting

Parent-child dialogue is the heart and soul of my New School approach to how to be a parent. The love a parent has for a child is expressed and embodied in how the parent communicates with the child, even when the child is a newborn. Obviously, dialogue entails listening as well as talking, and it includes all non-verbal communication as well. There are many skills involved in having a good dialogue, and as parents we are illustrating and teaching them to our children in everything we say and do.

In the New School approach to parenting, we recognize and accept the fact that control of children’s behavior is a delusion. We cannot control our children’s behavior. (See my “Volcano Theory.”) They have free will. We do not have a remote control to their brain. They are not robots or slaves. They talk to us when they want to talk, not necessarily when we want them to talk.

Consequently we are convinced that we are better off not even trying to control their behavior through the Old School use of power and control tactics, like our parents used (yelling, ordering, bossing, threatening, punishing, spanking, hitting, grounding, etc). We recognize these as invitations to trouble. We acknowledge that the best we can get from our children, and what we really want from them, is their cooperation, based on dialogue and agreements, rather than their obedience to rules that we impose. If they don’t want to talk, we realize we cannot force them to.

Influence Does Not Equal Control

In the New School approach to parenting, we acknowledge that while we have absolutely no control over our children’s behavior, but only over our own, we also acknowledge that we have tremendous influence on our children’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior. We acknowledge that influence does not equal control. Continue reading

Feel Good, Do Good; Feel Bad, Do Bad

Feel Good, Do Good;
Feel Bad, Do Bad

We sometimes hear about people doing “random acts of kindness.” Like holding the door for strangers, plugging a stranger’s parking meter, etc. What motivates random acts of kindness?

On one hand, it might be a thought, such as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” On the other hand, it might be that at the moment the person is just feeling good. Or it might be both. It could also be pre-meditated, or simply spontaneous, reflecting the person’s internal disposition or state of mind at the moment.

By the same token, if a person if feeling grumpy, or full of anger or self-pity, they are much less likely to do the random act of kindness. When we feel bad–impatient, angry, depressed, and the like–we are not only less inclined to do the good thing, but we are more inclined to do the bad thing, like barking at someone, criticizing someone, or ignoring an attention-getter.

This applies to children, too, of course, and perhaps even more so. They are so much more likely than we adults to spontaneously act their feeling state out and express their feeling verbally or non-verbally. Children are much less likely to be “reserved” or “controlled” in how they express their feeling of the moment. They are more primitive than adults in that way, but also genuine or authentic than a more self-conscious adult is likely to be.

So it is critically important for us as adults, and as parents, to be able and willing to quickly size up a situation in which our child is “acting out” (expressing) some negative feeling they might be having at the moment. When the four-year-old hits his little brother, or the ten-year-old steals $20 from his mother’s purse, or the teenager threatens to (or actually does) run away, it is important for the parent to assess and respond to what is motivating the behavior, and not just fly off the handle in reaction to the behavior itself. A knee-jerk reaction to bad behavior by a parent is not just missing the mark, it is also (and much worse) an invitation to the child to do more bad behavior. Why? Because the parent is ignoring or blowing off the pain and frustration the child is experiencing. Ironically, the parent now creates another problem, and more bad feelings, for the child by criticizing or attacking. In this way, showing the child a lack of empathy (i.e., not communicating some understanding of the child’s feeling or thinking state) is in a sense a rejection of the child. It’s not just the bad behavior the parent is rejecting (which is to be expected), but it’s also a rejection of the deeper, more important aspect of what makes us persons: the thoughts and feelings that motivate our behavior.

When children feel good, they are likely to do good. When they feel bad, they are more likely to do bad things. Conversely, when we see them doing something good, we can surmise that they may be feeling good, and when they do something bad, we can surmise that they may be feeling bad.

Understanding another person’s plight is called empathy. A loving, empathic response by the parent that expresses that understanding can make all the difference. For example, “Okay, honey, you must be feeling bad–angry, sad, afraid, jealous, etc.–right now. Is that right?” It communicates that the parent accepts the child’s internal distress. It invites the child to talk about what made them act badly. It’s the perfect way to start a dialogue that leads to a common understanding (and maybe even the child’s agreement) about how to handle those thoughts and feelings next time. It communicates respect and love, without approving unacceptable behavior. It shows the child that the parent cares and is willing to listen, and this strengthens the parent-child relationship.

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3 Steps to Parent-Child Harmony is my book  that describes in detail the differences between the Old School Parenting model and the New School Parenting model.  Please see these links if you are interested in more information or wish to purchase.

     Learn more.    Buy Now.   Table of Contents & Intro   

Empathy: Understanding the Child’s Point of View

Empathy:
Understanding the Child’s Point of View

Empathy is the ability to understand another person’s plight, including his or her behavior and the motivations for a given act. It means being able to comprehend the circumstances in which a person acts, and both the intellectual reasons and the feelings (emotions) that help motivate a particular act.

Parental empathy means that the parent is “tuned in” to the way a child thinks and feels in a given circumstance, and that the parent accepts those thoughts and feelings as legitimate age-appropriate motivations for behavior, even if the parent disagrees with those reasons or doesn’t like the way the child feels. This empathic understanding can have a profound effect on how the parent reacts to the child. Let’s consider some examples. I’ll come back to them later.

Some Examples

Example #1. Let’s say a daughter misses her mother who is away on a business trip, and throws more tantrums than usual, and tells Dad she doesn’t like him, or that he never lets her do what she wants. It’s possible that the child’s crying and tantrums might be related to the fact that her mother is not around and she misses her. Empathy means that, if this is so, Dad will pick up on it and be inclined to let her know that he understands how much she misses mama instead of just blowing up at her.

Example #2. Children of separated or divorced parents often present many difficult behaviors that appear to have no obvious rational basis. Continue reading

3 Illustrating (Speaking) Skills

3 Illustrating (Speaking) Skills

“Illustrating” means “communicating” in the sense of speaking, because communicating is done not just with words but also non-verbally through body language, facial expression, tone of voice, and other non-verbal ways of illustrating our meaning. So ILLUSTRATING is the living space of Harmony House (my analogy for any relationship), because this is where you, the parent, live out your values and communicate to your child what’s important to you and what you want from him/her. The parent’s commitment should be: I will not invite what I don’t want. Instead, I will teach what I want by modeling it and by communicating verbally in a respectful manner.

The Three Illustrating Skills/Techniques

The following three techniques for communicating your ideas and values, your expectations and desires, become skills with practice.

1. Model desired behavior. If you are doing something disrespectful, illegal, or immoral, stop it. In other words, do what you want to see your children doing. Be the change you want to see.

2. Use honest, open communication. Children need to be able to trust their parents above everyone else. Parents must earn that trust by always being completely honest with them, and being as open with them as possible. There is no place for lying to children, not even using “little white lies.”

3. Use I-messages.”I-messages” are things I say about myself. “You-messages” are things I say about you, and they can often be disrespectful or insulting. When parents start a sentence with “I,” they communicate what they want or don’t want in a respectful manner. “I don’t like the way you are acting. I’m willing to listen to when you settle down.” The I-message that stops arguing is “I don’t do it.” “I will not argue with you.”
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3 Steps to Parent-Child Harmony is my book  that describes in detail the differences between the Old School Parenting model and the New School Parenting model.  Please see these links if you are interested in more information or wish to purchase.

     Learn more.    Buy Now.   Table of Contents & Intro  

3 Listening Skills

3 Listening Skills

There are many goals for listening to a child, including: 1) to understand the child’s motivating thoughts and feelings; 2) to convey your empathy (understanding); 3) To create trust by creating a safe space; 4) to invite the child to say more; 5) to teach the child how to listen by modeling it; 6) to initiate and encourage dialogue.

These techniques, practiced as often as your child speaks, will become skills after a while. They are the most important relationship skills you can use with your child–or anyone. Listening cannot be done when you are talking, so it goes without saying that in order to listen while your child speaks, you must keep your mouth shut and pay full attention. The three listening skills (techniques) are as follows.

1. Acknowledging.

Acknowledging validates the child’s ideas or feelings as legitimate, even though these might be different from your own. It means you are listening without judging or criticizing. Thus, it encourages them to say more, which is what you want, since you are listening to understand. This is a great way to lay groundwork for offering support, help, or a suggestion. Acknowledging does NOT mean you agree with what they said, but rather you heard what they said, and you accept it as their own truth for them at the moment.

Examples: “Oh.” “Uh-huh.” “I see.” “Wow!” “Really!” “Holy smokes!” “Hmm.” “Okay.” Also non-verbal acknowledging: eye contact, nodding, and silence.

2. Questions.

This listening technique is completely natural. We ask questions all the time. The real challenge to asking our child questions as a means of inviting her to talk more is that, in-between the questions, we listen intently to what the child is saying, and think of another question to ask her that addresses what her response to the first question was, instead of coming out with our own response or asking a pre-planned question that has nothing to do with what she said. The only purpose here is to better understand where our child is coming from, and we are trying to encourage her to say more.

The “5-Question Technique”: ASK FIVE QUESTIONS IN A ROW–without expressing a single idea of your own. No objections, no explanations, no criticisms. If you don’t understand what was said, ask “What do you mean?” All this will help you know what to say when you finally do offer the child your ideas. If you can’t do five questions, do three. If you can’t do three, do two. Practice building up to five.For more detail on how to ask questions, please see my book 3 Steps to Parent-Child Harmony.

3. Reflecting (This is called “Active Listening” by Thomas Gordon in Parent Effectiveness Training and in Discipline That Works).

Reflecting is the most unusual technique and therefore perhaps the most difficult of the listening skills. At first, it seems like a very UN-natural way to respond to somebody, but the effect it often has is to encourage the child to say more about what they just said. These are always statements, not questions.

Reflecting statements always mirror, or reflect, back to the child what they said or seem to be communicating non-verbally. Reflecting statements are not opinions of your own. They are you, mirroring what you think the child is communicating, verbally or non-verbally. They do not mean you agree with what the child said! They only mirror back what you think the child communicated.

Examples of Reflecting

Level 1: Parroting. You say what the child said, using the same words. He says, “I hate you!” You parrot back, “You hate me.” Your intention is to encourage the child to say more so you can learn what is making him angry.
Level 2: Paraphrasing. You summarize what the child said, in your own words after a long winded statement. “Oh, so you hate me because I don’t let you do what you want, and I treat your sister better than you.”
Level 3: Interpreting. You interpret the child’s emotions or the meaning of their words. “So I take it you are really angry at me.” “Gee, you look sad, honey.” “It sounds like you mean you want to run away.”

Remember, you are condoning or agreeing with the child’s ideas here. You are simply mirroring back what he said. This has the effect of inviting him to say more.

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Ideas presented in  this article are expanded in greater detail in my book 3 Steps to Parent-Child Harmony: A New-School Approach to Relationship Skills for Parents. The book is available for purchase in downloadable pdf format or in printed soft-cover. You can check it out with the following links:

     Learn more.         Buy Now.        Table of Contents & Intro

Accountability: the “You-and-Me” Dialogue (Discipline Skill #2)

Accountability:
The “You-and-Me” Dialogue (Discipline Skill #2)

I refer to the “Accountability Dialogue” also as the “You-and-Me Dialogue” because this is where I (parent) talk to you (child) about how we are treating each other — especially after you break an agreement you have made with me.

Unacceptable child behaviors (UCBs), such as temper tantrums, arguments, angry and disrespectful insults, lying, stealing, physical or violent attacks on others, etc., can be distressing events for parents. How to handle them can often be a confusing disciplinary challenge.

In my New School approach to how to be a parent, I advocate reaching an agreement with the child (even as young as two years old) about how they will handle the particular UCB in the future. The best the parent can expect to get at that point is an agreement from the child that she will do something different next time. It is understood that the child will break her agreement (at least sometimes). This approach rejects punishments for the misbehavior because punishments are meaningless, ineffective, and counterproductive–they invite the child’s anger and “payback.”

After a Broken Agreement
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The Behavior Dialogue: Negotiating Agreements — The “How To”

The Behavior Dialogue (Discipline Skill #1)
Negotiating Agreements: The “How To”

In this process (the Behavior Dialogue) you use all the listening skills (acknowledging, questions,and reflecting) and the illustrating skills (i.e., speaking skills, especially modeling and I-messages). While arriving at an agreement on something here and now is important to you, what’s even more important in the long run is that the child learning to respectfully negotiate a solution to a problem and reach an agreement that you can both live with.

The following steps might seem pretty complicated at first. But they’re very logical, and if you make this your standard M.O. (method of operation), you’ll get pretty good at it, and you’ll be able to do the whole process without even trying to concentrate on whether all the steps have been used. What’s even better, the child will also become capable, through practice, of intuitively using a very important life skill: negotiating an agreed-upon solution to relationship problems.

Step 1: Set the table–get her attention by inviting cooperation. Here you invite the child to enter into a dialogue with you about something you consider important. These should be stated as “I-messages.” In other words, they start with the word “I.” As the parent, I am conveying to my child that I am the one who has a problem, and not that the child is the problem, has a problem, or is doing something wrong. For example:

  • “Johnny, I’d like to talk to you about something that’s been bothering me.”
  • “I’d like to get your help on solving a problem we’ve got around here.”
  • “I was wondering what made you so upset with me yesterday when…….”
  • “Honey, I’m having a problem with something and I’m hoping you can help me with it.”

Step 2: In an I-message, state YOUR problem as clearly as you can. In other words, give your reason(s) as to why you think it’s a problem for you. You can refer to what the child does behaviorally. This is a legitimate part of an “I-message.” Give them your reason, too. Examples:

  • “I get irritated when you whine, because you’re not a baby and I expect you to act your age.”
  • “I got upset when you hit your sister earlier, because I don’t like you kids hurting each other.”
  • “I get worried when I don’t know where you are when you’re out at night, because it can be very dangerous and I’m afraid you might get hurt (or in serious trouble, etc.).”

Don’t pass negative judgments on the child, like “When you act like such a little baby,” or “When you bully your sister,” or “When you go gallavanting the streests all night.”

Don’t propose the solution. Don’t start out by saying something like, “Would you be willing to take out the trash?” Or, “From now on it’s your job to take the trash out whenever the bag is full.” It’s too early to start imposing solutions. You might say something like:

  • “I have a problem with the garbage bag getting full, and starting to smell, I really don’t like smelly garbage in the kitchen.”
  • “When you and I are at the store, and you start whining and crying and reaching for things, I get upset with you, I get distracted from what I’m trying to do there.”
  • “When you hit your sister earlier, I got angry with you because I was afraid you might hurt her.

Step 3: Ask for their ideas.. Build a list of possibilities. Here’s a great way to invite their cooperation. Simply ask, “What do you think we can do about this?” Or, “What should we do about this?” Or, “How can we handle this?” There are lots of ways this can be put out there–the point is you’re inviting their ideas before giving your own. Other examples:

  • “What ideas do you have about how we could handle this?” Or,
  • “How do you think this could be handled?”
  • “What do you think should be done?”
  • “How do you think you could do better in that situation?”

You’re asking him to brainstorm possibilities here. Accept and acknowledge everything he says as a possible solution, even if it’s unacceptable to you. Then ask for more ideas. Let’s say he says, “Make Sue do it.” Or, “Let mom do it.” Or, “Do it yourself!” You can respond with, “Okay, those are some possibilities. What other possibilities are there?” He might not suggest that he could do it, so you can put that one on the table: “Well, another possibility is that you could do it.” When he objects, listen to the objections (“Sue never has to do anything!”). Don’t get into an argument about what s/he says, but use I-messages to let him know how you see it: “I see you as part of the family team, and I expect you contribute your fair share.” Listen to his objections (“I always have to do everything!”). Again, don’t take the bait and get into an argument, but let him know what you think, using I-messages (“I expect you to do a little more to help out around here.”), not you-messages (“You never do anything around here!” Or, “You’re nothing but a lazy oaf!”).

Step 4: Share your ideas. You have ideas too. They count as much as the kid’s ideas! You might say:

  • “Okay, I have some ideas too. Would you like to hear what they are?” (Seek permission first!)
  • “Well, I have some ideas that I’d like you to consider.”
  • “I’m going to share my ideas with you.”
  • “I’d like you to hear my ideas now.”

Share those ideas on what you would like to see happen, or what you expect from your child as a member of the family team. Eliminate possibilities that are completely unacceptable to either of you.

Step 5: Pop the question: “Okay, so, what can we agree on here?” As this discussion continues, remember what your main objective is: reaching an agreement. Don’t force your solution, even if it means you don’t get an agreement this time around. Be willing to let the subject drop (for the time being) if he digs in his heels and refuses to play ball with you. “Okay, Johnny, we’ve eliminated all the possibilities. I was hoping you’d agree to take on that responsibility. Why don’t you think about it, and we’ll talk about it again later.” This is all about parenting smarter (New School), not power and control (Old School). You are trying to teach cooperation, not force compliance, submission, or obedience. This is part of why New School parenting methods work better than Old School methods.

You could, of course, try to ram it down his throat. (“That’s enough! It’s your job from now on, and that’s that! Got it?”). Life happens that way sometimes, and Johnny has to learn how to cope with it, right? Well, he will (hopefully) at some point, but right now you’re trying to help him to learn to negotiate solutions to problems and reach agreements. Try not to view this as a zero-sum, win-lose type of ball game. If you drop the discussion for the time being, and let Johnny think about it, he just might surprise you. He might come up with something “out of the box.” (“I talked to Sue and she’s willing to take the garbage out if I load the dishwasher for her twice a week.”) Or, he might even agree to do it himself–perhaps with a condition attached. (“Okay, I’ll take the garbage out if I can stay out till midnight on Fridays and Saturdays.”) If it’s an outlandish proposal, you might want to make a counter-proposal. (“Well, I think that’s too late, Johnny, but I’d be willing to say ten o’clock on one of those nights if we know where you are and how you’re getting home.”) You want more than what he might be willing to do. You want a commitment. Have a little more discussion here, and be willing to bargain, till you’re clear that he’s proposing an adequate solution in your eyes (that is, an agreement you can live with). If you incorporate his/her ideas into your agreement, you greatly increase the chance of cooperation and commitment to follow through.

Conclusion

The big value I see in negotiating agreements with children is that, besides teaching them how to do it, agreements constitute the basis for an effective discipline system. When the child doesn’t follow through on agreements, the parent has two options, at least: 1) administering the punishment (Old School approach), and 2) holding them accountable for breaking their agreement via the “You-and-Me Dialogue” (my New School approach). I prefer the latter, particularly with children who are willing to “play ball,” talk things through with you, and reach the agreement in the first place.

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3 Steps to Parent-Child Harmony is my book  that describes in detail the differences between the Old School Parenting model and the New School Parenting model.  Please see these links if you are interested in more information or wish to purchase.

Learn More          Buy Now         Table of Contents & Intro

 

The Behavior Dialogue: Negotiating Agreements — The Rationale

The Behavior Dialogue: Negotiating Agreements:
 The Rationale  

The first New School discipline skill is the ability to negotiate agreements with a child about right behavior. I call this the Behavior Dialogue. This forms the basis for holding the child accountable for their actions, which is discipline skill #2 (the Accountability Dialogue, or the “You-and-Me-Dialogue“).

But first of all, what the rationale for why a parent should negotiate “acceptable behavior” with a child?. As the parent, shouldn’t you just define the rules, and tell the child what’s acceptable, expected, and demanded? No! The New School way substitutes agreements for rules. Why?

Agreements Are Better Than Rules Continue reading