November 16, 2005: Features
me in, Coach
By Mark F. Bernstein ’83
I have two wonderful daughters, thank you very much. At 11 and 8, they are smart, confident, and well adjusted. They know that if something is bothering them, my wife and I are available at any time, will listen respectfully, and will always respond with empathy, encouragement, and sage counsel as the situation demands. When I want them to do something — clean their rooms, say, or drink their milk — I address them in tones of polite encouragement to which they cheerfully respond. Our household is a model of open, respectful communication. In fact, most of the time I think that someone should nominate us for some sort of award.
Most of the time.
Then there are mornings like today: the girls late for school, their breakfasts not finished, their hair uncombed, their shoes untied, their homework scattered, the dog dodging underfoot as I try to slap peanut butter on the last sandwich. As we head out the door five minutes later than needed, the Ward Cleaver in me begins to get in touch with my inner drill sergeant. “You can tie your shoes/arrange your homework/tell me the rest of your story/finish your breakfast in the car. C’mon! Move! Move! Move!” I reach into the back seat to hand over a half-drunk cup of grape juice when the dog vaults in, clipping my arm and spraying purple Welch’s all over backpacks, clothes, and upholstery. Chernobyl ensues. I hope the good parenting award committee wasn’t watching today.
Though it is not uncommon for parents to have perfection fantasies such as mine, all of us also have those mornings from hell. What is important, says Julie King ’82, is to weigh what we say and do from the children’s perspective, learning to handle parenthood’s stressful moments in ways that foster communication rather than cut it off. King, a parent educator and coach in Marin County, Calif., advances these themes in a popular workshop called, “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk.” According to a woman identified on King’s publicity fliers as Holly, a mother of two and former workshop attendee, “Julie helped me think about how to talk respectfully and stay connected with my kids, even when they are driving me crazy.” So for purely journalistic reasons, and not because there is anything I need to learn about calm, rational parent-child communication, I accept the assignment to attend the first session of King’s latest eight-week course.
We meet in the offices of a group called Pediatric Alternatives in Mill Valley, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. An ivy-covered wall throws a nurturing but not smothering arm around the building, and our meeting room, decorated in shades of avocado, olive, and mustard, is stocked with handouts advertising discussion groups for “10 Steps to Conscious Parenting” and “Tantrum Training.” A dozen of us are seated in a big circle: some couples, some mothers, and one other solo dad. There are jeans and designer outfits, scraggly beards and gray hair. After King introduces me, as father/undercover journalist, we set the ground rules. I can observe, participate in, and quote from our discussions. In return, I promise everyone complete anonymity, which leads me to realize that the only person who will be publicly identified in this article as a bad parent is me.
And that starts off pretty much right away. Talking with King before class, she denigrates the old mealtime tactic of bribery: If you don’t finish your peas, you don’t get any ice cream. “That’s, um, a bad strategy?” I ask, my voice cracking a little in an attempt to sound innocent. It is, she explains, because it teaches children to do things only when there is something in it for them. I imagine a room full of dessert-gorged (but altruistic) children with scurvy.
“My goal is to raise children who are humane, have a sense of who they are, and live with integrity,” King tells the class by way of introduction. “I think that one way to get peace in the world is to start at home, because everything we do is connected with our values. The challenge is to live those values in the little moments.” Or, as she once put it in a conversation with a Princeton friend who asked King if she didn’t wish she were doing something that would change the world: “If we can’t figure out who gets to sit next to the window, how are we going to resolve world conflicts? I think I am changing the world.”
King, the mother of three children aged 14, 11, and 8, became a parent coach more or less by accident. A Woodrow Wilson School major and member of the marching band and mime troupe at Princeton, she worked briefly for former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan before going to law school at Yale. Disenchanted with the prospect of practicing law, an occupation she says she found too contentious, King read the self-help best seller, Getting to Yes, and thought, “This is what I want to do.” She moved to California and got a job doing mediation for a family law practice, supplementing her income by giving piano lessons, which she still does.
During those years, King discovered the field of organization development (OD), the study, she says, of how people live and work together in groups. “That was fascinating to me,” she says. When her first child was in preschool, the parents’ education committee organized a parenting seminar with a local therapist, who assigned them his own book. “It was pretty bad,” King says of the book, so when the committee considered offering another course the following year, she offered to create her own.
That first eight-week class was such a success, King recalls, that parents pressed her to offer more. “I loved doing it,” she says, and eventually Parents’ Place, an organization run by Jewish Family and Children’s Services in San Francisco that offers a wide range of classes, counseling, and support groups for parents, asked her to run her first workshop there. (She now runs them through the Marin County Parents’ Place and other groups.) Though she has been offering the “How to Talk” class around the Bay Area for more than 10 years, King also offers one-on-one counseling over the phone, for parents who want to focus on specific parenting issues.
King teaches from two books: How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk and Liberated Parents/ Liberated Children: Your Guide to a Happier Family. Both are written by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, former teachers at the New School for Social Research in New York.
Now I am about to learn firsthand how the program works. As my workshop gets under way, we introduce ourselves. One tired-looking mother of a preschooler with an older child from a previous marriage says she was inspired to attend because of her “need for control and struggles with feelings of chaos.” Another mom, an earnest-looking teacher, says that “as an educator, I am hyper-, hyper-aware of how everything we do shapes them.” A smartly dressed mother who resembles Marcia Cross on Desperate Housewives and identifies herself as a CEO says she has been “trying to balance business and family ... and it’s not working.”
Our topic for the first week’s session is “helping children deal with their feelings,” which enables King to make a central point, one emphasized throughout the Faber and Mazlish books, which is really just a variant on the Golden Rule: We should talk to children the way we would want to be talked to ourselves. “Kids,” she says, “are more likely to behave well when they feel OK, and in that sense they are just like us.” To illustrate, we go through an exercise in which we imagine telling a friend about some traumatic experience, then judge our reaction to the friend’s several possible responses. Few would appreciate either blithe dismissal (“Oh, well, life is like that”) or an officious know-it-all who addressed our tale of woe with a list of things we should have done differently. We also agree that we’d throttle any amateur psychologist who tried to pass off our problems with some armchair analysis. As adults, most of us respond best to a reply that expresses empathy and support. And so would our children, King says, when they tell us about their problems. Yet how often do we take one of those other tacks when responding to their problems?
A parent coach is more a facilitator and sounding board than a dispenser of absolutes, King believes, recognizing, as she says, that “people aren’t going to do these things because I tell them to. They’re going to do them because they feel right.” But, she adds, “People are so motivated because they really care about their kids. What I hope they get out of these classes are not just specific skills but an outlook.” Part of that outlook is that the lessons of listening, empathizing, and accepting are universal. King says her workshops are aimed at parents of children aged 2 to 10 but that the lessons she teaches work for teenagers as well.
Despite my Eastern suspicion of what had I imagined might be overly touchy-feely Marin County parents, I am surprised to find that the joys and frustrations of parenting seem to transcend our geographic or social differences and that we all tend to see things in about the same way. Halfway through the class, though, a breach occurs. King gives us a workbook exercise in which we are presented with several statements made by a child. In each case, we are to think of a word that describes the child’s feelings and then construct a sentence in which we incorporate that word as a means of creating empathy with the child’s feelings, to let her know we “get it.” For example, to a child’s statement, “The bus driver yelled at me and everybody laughed,” we might write “embarrassment” and then respond, “That must have been embarrassing.”
So far, so good. Until we come to the third example. Our imaginary little one says, “Just because of a little rain my teacher said we couldn’t go on our field trip. She’s dumb.” Pencils scratch for a few minutes before we give our answers. “Frustrated,” suggests the CEO mom. “You must have been very frustrated.”
I beg to differ. I wrote down “disrespectful” and my reply starts with, “We don’t talk that way about our teachers.” I catch myself jabbing a finger at my imaginary child as I say it. (Of course, I’d immediately follow that up with commiseration about the canceled field trip.)
While King agrees that it is not acceptable for a child to call someone dumb, she believes it is more important to acknowledge her feelings first. This sets the group off on a half-hour digression into theories of discipline and their repercussions. By coming down hard, have I squelched further dialogue with my child? Rendered her frustration invalid? Has my imperiousness bred resentment? Might I have phrased my objection differently? “It upsets me to hear you say ‘dumb,’” one middle-aged father proposes saying to the frustrated (I say disrespectful) child. “Can you think of another word that describes your feelings?” Baloney, I say. “We don’t talk that way about our teachers.” That’s the ticket. And be sure to jab your finger, too.
Without losing our veneer of polite and respectful understanding, of searching for common ground, of really, really listening to one another, it becomes clear that I am probably alone on this one. Would I address my spouse that way? another mother asks. Of course not. Empathy is fine and respect is good, but parents and children are not peers in all respects, I say. Important though it is to nurture and empathize, unacceptable behavior should be nipped in the bud — nonviolently, yes, but firmly, swiftly, and unambiguously. Sometimes I’m a counselor, but every once in a while I’m a cop.
I don’t have the chance to return for subsequent workshop sessions, which follow the chapter titles in the How to Talk book, covering such topics as “engaging cooperation,” “encouraging autonomy,” and “freeing children from playing roles.” My group, King says in a follow-up call, was unusually receptive to her call for “saying ‘no’ to punishment.” By that she means all punishment, from cutting off TV privileges to time-outs to grounding. “It’s not effective,” King tries to tell me, “and it doesn’t focus kids on the issues we want them to focus on.” An alternative, as Faber and Mazlish set forth in their book, follows six steps: Express your feelings strongly, without attacking character. (For example: “I’m furious that my new saw was left outside to rust in the rain!”) State your expectations. (“I expect my tools to be returned after they’ve been borrowed.”) Show the child how to make amends. (“What this saw needs now is a little steel wool and a lot of elbow grease.”) Give the child a choice. (“You can borrow my tools and return them, or you can decide to give up the privilege of using them.”) Take action. (Child: “Why is the toolbox locked?” Parent: “You tell me why.”) Problem-solve. (“What can we do so you can use my tools when you need them, and so I’ll be sure they’re there when I need them?”) In the name-calling instance, King also cautions that there are only so many times the authority card can be played out of the parental deck, so to speak.
“If I was only concerned about behavior, I could change behavior,” she says. “But as children grow up, they either become dependent on the carrot and stick or they stop caring. You hear a lot of older kids say, ‘Go ahead and ground me.’ So this isn’t about manipulating behavior, it’s about values. I want kids to care about their behavior because it’s the right thing to do.”
I suppose I can afford to be doctrinaire because this is all hypothetical, so far as my own family is concerned. My children would never express themselves so vulgarly (they wouldn’t). Just as I would never ignore one of their questions because I was lost in the newspaper or vent my anger at, say, a spilled juice glass in ways that I later regretted. Decency and manners reign at my house. Plato might have modeled his Republic on us.
As long as I can remember to get us off for school five minutes early.
Mark F. Bernstein ’83 is PAW’s senior writer.