The Lighter Side of Living with a Mum who Teaches Parenting

Larissa Dann        

So – I’m a Mum. Interestingly (for my family), not only am I a Mum, but I’m a parent who happens to teach parenting. I have children and a partner. They live with my passionate advocacy for, and (sometimes not so good) practice of, a deliberately chosen approach to parenting. This leads to some entertaining conversations, where my convictions become the source of much amusement for my family.  This post is a glimpse into the humorous side of living with a parent educator.

Many years ago, I held my first baby in my arms. My son turned his newly emerged, muck-encrusted head towards me, and his huge wise eyes locked into mine. I was in love! And awe. And fear. Wow! What a responsibility! I didn’t want to mess this up. I was bringing up a future citizen of the world.

Before I go on, here's some background. I tend to become excited about various subjects, such as politics of the day, a style of dance – anything, really. My family has labelled this as ‘Mummy’s Little Enthusiasms’, or ‘MLE’ for short.

This was the setting for my first MLE. Parenting. How was I going to raise this young person? Not only was he a human being, he was a male human – a mysterious quantity to me. I knew the characteristics I wanted my son to avoid, such as violence, and the inability to express emotion. I just didn’t quite know how to help him develop the positive characteristics of emotional intelligence, and the potential to peacefully resolve conflict.

How to parent’ became my topic to investigate. The bedside table was burdened with parenting magazines and parenting books. (These were the days before the mushrooming of Internet information and blogs).

Then, serendipitously, I attended a parenting course, Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.). This approach blew my mind. Really, I’d just assumed I would bring up my children the same way I’d been raised, with a few tweaks here and there where I might insert some new insights from my readings. But this course? Just turned me around. So much so, that I became a P.E.T. instructor a couple of years later, and 18 years on, I continue to passionately teach and advocate for the course.

Some years down the track, I had the enormous good fortune to have a second child. I’d been ‘P.E.T.’ parenting with one child, and now my skills were really going to be put to the test . . .

P.E.T. Skills – Summary and Explainer.

The big difference with P.E.T. is that it doesn’t use rewards and punishment. Completely different to the way I’d been raised. But it made so much sense. No rewards, no punishment.

Then – I had to realise that all behaviour indicated an unmet need. There was no such thing as ‘misbehaviour’. Whew!! Another myth put to bed – and what a huge difference it made to the way I interacted with my children. Instead of seeing them as ‘naughty’ or ‘annoying’, I tried to understand what might be happening for them, rather than assuming the worst.

The scaffold upon which I laid the P.E.T. communication skills relied on an understanding of ‘who owned the problem’. Was it I, the parent, who was upset, or my children . . . or both of us?

From this framework of problem ownership, I was guided in my use of skills. When my children were upset, it was important that I try to Active Listen (“You feel . . . because . . .”). When I was upset, I needed to use be assertive, using an ‘I-Message’ (“When . . . I feel . . . because . . .”) And I had to avoid the trap of ‘you messages’ (which tend to blame the other person, such as “You’re just being lazy”). If those skills didn’t work, then I took that as an indicator to slip into no-lose problem solving.

Jesting with Affection – my family* and P.E.T.

I tend to talk about the P.E.T. skills at the dinner table, or in the car, or anywhere else, really.  I’ve found that having a language that enables analyses of an interaction in the family very useful.  On many occasions it’s helped me to understand, then repair, my relationship with my children. (My blog on To Tell or Not to Tell explores this theme further.)

I need to be clear.  P.E.T. has helped our family in innumerable ways.  We have warm, close and respectful relationships, and I can’t begin to describe how the approach has aided my children’s development.** 

However, the language also gives my family a launching pad for a bit of fun - at my expense. These humorous, good-natured and affectionate interactions help keep my feet on the ground, so I continue to be a person, and a Mum - and not the expert.

As a parent, you may relate to the following vignettes  . . .

The 'threat' of Active Listening.

Emma was 3, and Ben was 12.  Ben was trying to take Emma down to the bathroom to do her teeth, and she was resisting.  After much cajoling, he decided to employ humour, and said (loudly, so that I could hear, and fully aware of the irony in what he was about to say):

“Emma, if you don’t do your teeth, then I’m going to Active Listen you!” 

She immediately raced to do her teeth.  Anything to avoid the 'threat' of being Active Listened!

Hmmmmm.  Were they trying to tell me something?

But then, there is the following experience, and many others, where my children have requested that I listen.

A Reminder

This, from my teenage son, gave me cause for consideration.

“If I had a P.E.T. Mum who actually practiced P.E.T., she’d recognise when her son really needed active listening!”. 

I really wasn’t the perfect parent!! And my children had the language to let me know what they needed

Family Meetings

I was in the throes of another MLE.

“I’ve just read this really interesting article, and I think it would be a good idea to have regular, weekly family meetings."

My teenage son was not enthusiastic.

“NO!! We’re not having any of your meetings!”

Good naturedly, my partner chimed in.

“It’ll be death by Active Listening!”

At this, my 6-year-old daughter looked deeply at her brother, and, her words heavy with intended wit and irony, said

“You really don’t want to have family meetings.  You really don’t like being Active Listened!”  She had Actively Listened her brother.

As a family, we collapsed with laughter.  Chalk one up to the kids!

Mum’s emotions

On another occasion, I was looking for some notes that I needed to fill out for my daughter’s school.  I was getting more and more agitated, muttering to myself, and stumping up and down the hallway.  As I went up into the lounge room, Emma followed me.  She looked at her brother and said, in an knowing and adult voice,

“She’s frustrated.” 

That calmed me down!

Siblings instructing each other in the use of P.E.T. language

Emma, aged 6, and Ben, a teenager, were in the car with me.  Ben was telling me about his athletics carnival that day.  Emma, in the back seat, was also wanting to talk, to get me to sign a note for school. She interrupted, and Ben said

“Emma, stop interrupting!!” 

She was quiet for a miniscule second, and then began talking to me again.  This time Ben said

“Emma, STOP!” 

Then, he corrected himself, and said in a quieter voice

“I don’t like it when you interrupt me, because it means I can’t tell Mum about my day, and Mum can’t hear me.”

At the point, she chimed in with 

“That’s better!”

Ben swung around to look at her in disbelief, and I burst out laughing. 

Interestingly, Emma DID stop interrupting, and when she did want to add something to the conversation, she would say, very politely,

“Excuse me Ben, can I interrupt?” 

I loved this lived example of the usefulness of I-Messages, and modelling behaviour.

‘I’ versus ‘You’ Messages

Emma, aged seven, and I were playing together. She said, in jest,

“You’re dumb”. 

In semi-mock shock, I drew in my breath and said

“Ooohaaah - that’s a ‘you’ message!!” 

Her immediate comeback?

 “I don’t care!  And that’s an ‘I’-message!!” 

I fell about in laughter.  What ammunition had these labels given my children?

The P.E.T. Bug

Out of the blue, my 9 year old said to me,

“Mum – you’ve got the P.E.T. bug.  It’s a type of sickness where the only thing you think about is P.E.T.” 

“But I wasn’t even talking about P.E.T!” I protested.

 “Well, you always do!” 

Helpfully, at this point, my partner said

“It’s an obsession.”

Perhaps I need to tone down my discussions on P.E.T?  Is this really what it's like for a family to live with a parenting educator?

My Reflection

Having a respectful guide to parenting has been enormously beneficial for me as a parent. I see the flow-on effects in my children daily – their interactions with their friends, their teachers, their future (and present) partners, and onto broader society.  The positive effect of a relationship approach to being a parent is incalculable.

I’m definitely not a perfect parent, and I try not to take myself too seriously.  I make lots of mistakes, which are my learning opportunities. I am human.  And the gift of this is the realisation that my children are human, too.  They make mistakes, and it’s OK.  We accept each other as we are.  And we enjoy and appreciate each other. 

For all this, and more, I am truly grateful

*Names have been changed.  This blog is published with permission of all members of my family.

**The experience of adult children raised with the P.E.T. approach are gathered on the P.E.T. website.

15th October 2015  Image used under license from Shutterstock   

© Larissa Dann. 2015.  All rights reserved

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