PTA Coffee Break: Building communication with children

Last Wednesday at the Aliso Creek Inn & Golf Course, PTA's Coffee Break welcomed Meike Lemmens to speak about Thomas Gordon's Model of Communication as it pertains to the relationship between parents and children. Meike is certified as a trainer in Parent Effectiveness Training, or PET, which has been around since 1962. The original book has been translated into 43 languages.

Despite the fact that PET has been around for 50 years, 75 parents and educators not only listened, but actively participated during a very lively morning. First, Lemmens defined behaviors as the primary unit we as parents are trying to influence, and defined them as that which can "be photographed or recorded." Audience members offered examples of various behaviors they would like to change and those they would like to reinforce in their children.

Lemmens then demonstrated the fundamentals of delivering a "Confrontational I-message," which contains an identification of an undesirable behavior and how that impacts the emotional world of the parent. For example, "I feel it's unfair if you leave your dishes on the table and I have to clean them up." The behavior — leaving the dishes on the table — is irrefutable, as is the way it makes the parent feel. The elegance of this approach is its simplicity and underlying truthfulness, which seeks only to share and not to judge or shame, and invites the child to empathize with their parent and come up with a solution to the problem; in this case to clear the table and help clean up.

Similar communications can also be used to reinforce desirable behaviors, or so-called "relationship building I-messages." Unlike simple praise, which, as Lemmens pointed out, can sometimes be received as belittling to the child (think if your husband said "Good Job" when you emptied the dishwasher), this kind of I-message actually honors the efforts of the child and reinforces a strong relationship with the parent. "I feel so proud when I see you helping your sister with her homework." Again, it is truthful and clear, and reinforces an atmosphere of respect.

Conflict resolution was another area touched upon. Rather than working toward a "winner" and "loser" in a conflict, or even a compromise, PET seeks collaborative problem solving where solutions can be crafted to meet the needs of both parties. A parent, who needs private time, requires a child to go to bed at 7 p.m.; the child who needs recreational time wants 9 p.m. The compromise position would be 8 p.m., where both parties "lose a little." If underlying needs are shared, then the "win-win" solution of the child going to bed at 7 p.m. but being able to read or listen to music until 9 p.m. would be achieved.

Meike also discussed how active listening can help peel away the layers and create better understanding of what is going on in your children's world. This is simply using a technique where parents reflect back what they have heard a child say to facilitate the child "going deeper." While this may seem obvious, parents often do offer advice, or make a judgment about what their child may be communicating, which essentially cuts off communication.

So once again, Coffee Break brought people together who form a community of caring parents and educators who continuously try to learn more and improve their skills. Watching and listening to the interactions within the room during the break-out sessions was ample evidence that this is one of the less-tangible but enormous benefits of Coffee Break's monthly meetings.

KATE ROGERS is a mother of three and a member of the Coffee Break committee.

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