Chapter 2 - Parents Are Persons, Not Gods.



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When people become parents, something strange and unfortunate often happens. They often begin to assume a role, or act a part, and they forget that they are persons. They think that now that they have entered the sacred realm of parenthood, they must take up the mantle of "parents." Then they earnestly try to behave in certain ways, because they think that is how parents are supposed to act. For example, Heather and James Markinson, two human beings, are suddenly transformed into Mrs. and Mr. Markinson, parents.

In a very serious way, this transformation is unfortunate, because it so often results in parents forgetting the reality of their own humanness. They then cease to be authentic, because they forget that they are still real humans, with real human faults, real human limitations, and real human feelings. Regardless of whatever they may happen to be feeling at the moment, they no longer feel free to be themselves, So, now as parents, they think they have a responsibility to be something better than mere persons.

That terrible burden of responsibility, brings a challenge to these persons-turned-parents. They think they must always be consistent in their feelings, and in their loving of their children, They think they must be unconditionally accepting and tolerant. They feel they must unselfishly put aside their own needs, and make sacrifices for the children. They think they must be fair at all times, and above all, they must not make the mistakes their own parents made.

Those good intentions are admirable, and understandable, but rather than making parents more effective, they are usually counter productive. Forgetting your humanness is the first serious mistake you can make on entering parenthood. To be an effective parent, you must let yourself be a person; a real person. Children deeply appreciate this quality of realness and humanness in their parents. They often say so, as in, "My dad is not a fake," or, "My mom is a great person." Then as those children move into adolescence, they will sometimes say, "My parents are more like friends than parents. They are cool people. They have got faults, like everyone else, but I like them the way they are."

What those kids are saying, is that they like their parents to be persons, not gods. Children respond favorably to their parents as people, not as actors playing some part, pretending to be something they are not.

How can you be a person for your children? How can you maintain a quality of realness in your parenthood? In this chapter, we want to show you that to be an effective parent, it is not necessary for you to throw away your humanness.

You need to accept yourself as a person, who has positive, as well as negative feelings toward children. You do not have to be absolutely consistent to be an effective parent. You do not have to pretend to feel accepting, or loving, toward a child, when you genuinely do not feel that way. You also do not have to feel the same degree of love and acceptance, toward each of your children. Finally, you and your spouse do not have to put up a common front, in your dealings with the children. But it is essential that you learn to know what it is you are feeling.

The Concept of Acceptance

You are a real person, who will from time to time, have two different kinds of feelings toward your child. As a real person, you will sometimes feel accepting of what your child is doing, and other times, you will not.

A behavior is something that your child does or says, and your judgment of their behavior is something separate from the behavior itself. For example, the child's leaving clothes on the floor is a behavior, whereas, were you to label the child as sloppy, that would be your judgment of their behavior.

All of your child's possible behaviors, including everything the child might possibly do or say, can be represented by a rectangle we call the behavior window.

Parents can readily accept some of a child's behaviors, and some behaviors they cannot. We represent this difference by dividing the behavior window into two areas; an area of acceptance, and an area of nonacceptance.

For example, if your child is watching TV on Saturday morning, and is leaving you free to do some chores, that would be an acceptable behavior to you. If, however, your child has the volume on the TV up so loud that it is driving you nuts, then that behavior would be unacceptable.

Whether a child's behavior is acceptable or not, will vary between different parents, and will vary depending on the mood of the parent. Whether or not you find a specific behavior acceptable will also vary depending on the situation at hand; and may also vary depending on which child it is.

Parents are different

The line between all of the child's acceptable and all of the child's unacceptable behaviors will be drawn differently for different parents.

One parent may find very few behaviors of the child unacceptable, and thus that parent quite frequently feels warm, and accepting toward the child.

Another parent may find many behaviors of the child unacceptable, and will not often be able to feel warm, and accepting toward the child.

How accepting a parent is toward a child is partly a function of the kind of person that the parent is. Some parents, because of their inner makeup, have the capacity to be very accepting toward children. Such parents, interestingly enough, are usually very accepting toward people in general.

Being accepting of others, is a personality trait that arises, from a sense of their own inner security. Their high tolerance level stems from the fact that they like themselves. Their feelings about themselves, are quite independent of what happens around them, and they host an assortment of pleasant personality traits.

Everybody has known such people, and although you may not have known what made them that way, you regard them as accepting of others. You feel good around them, you can talk openly to them, and you can let your hair down. In other words, you can be yourself.

Other parents, as persons, are just plain non-accepting toward others. They somehow find much of other people's behavior, unacceptable to them. When you observe them with their children, you may be puzzled, as to why so much of the children's behavior, that seems acceptable to you, is unacceptable to the parent. Inwardly you may say to yourself, "Oh come on. Let the children alone. They are not bothering anyone."

Those parents often have very strong, and rigid notions, about how others should act, and about which behaviors are right or wrong; and not just for children, but everyone. You may feel vaguely uncomfortable around such people, because you probably have doubts about whether or not they are accepting of you.

Recently, I observed a mother with her two young sons in a supermarket. To me, the boys seemed rather well-behaved. They were not boisterous, nor were they causing any trouble. Yet, the mother was constantly telling the boys what they should, or should not be doing, by saying things like, "Keep up with me now." "Hands off the cart." "Will you move? You are in the way." "Hurry up!" "Do not touch the food." And, "Leave your brother alone."

It was as if this mother could not accept anything those children were doing.

The line that divides the behaviors you accept, from the behaviors you do not accept, is a result of your personality. But that line will also vary from child to child, because it is harder to feel accepting toward some children. A child may be overly active and aggressive, or may exhibit certain traits that you do not particularly admire. A child who begins life with illnesses, or has colic, or does not go to sleep easily, or cries frequently, understandably, will be more challenging for you to accept.

The idea, advocated in many books and articles written for parents, that you should feel equally accepting of each of your children, is not only misleading, but it has caused many parents to feel guilty when they do experience different degrees of acceptance toward their children. You might readily agree that you feel different degrees of acceptance toward the adults you meet. Why should it be any different in the way you feel toward children?

Also, your acceptance of a particular child, is influenced by the characteristics of that child.

Some parents find it easier to accept girls than boys, or vice-versa. Highly mobile children are harder for some parents to accept. Active, and curious children who like to independently explore many things, are harder to accept by some parents, than children who are more passive and dependent.

I have known some children who inexplicably had such charm and appeal for me, that it seemed I could accept almost anything they would do. I have also had the misfortune to encounter some kids whose very presence was unpleasant to me, and much of their behavior seemed unacceptable to me.

Additionally, whether a child's behavior is, or is not acceptable to you, will vary depending on your current state of mind, as well as the specific situation in which you and your child find yourselves.

Fewer things that the child does will bother you when you are feeling good about yourself. In other words, when you are feeling energetic, healthy, and happy with yourself, you are more likely to feel accepting of much of your child's behavior.

When you have a headache, or you feel dead tired from lack of sleep, or in anyway feel irritable toward yourself, many things that your child does, might bother you.

Your feelings of acceptance will also change from one situation, to the next. You may recognize that you are not as accepting of your child's behavior when you are visiting friends, as opposed to when you are at home. Or your level of tolerance for your children's behavior, might fall when grandparents come to visit.

It must be puzzling to children, when their parents get angry at their table manners while company is visiting, even though these same manners had been acceptable, when the family was not entertaining.

The existence of two parents adds to the complexity of the acceptance picture in families. To begin with, often one parent is basically more accepting than the other.

Jack, a strong, active five-year-old boy, picks up a football and starts throwing it to his brother in the living room. Mother gets upset and finds this quite unacceptable because of her fears that Jack will damage something in the room. Dad, however, not only accepts the behavior, but proudly says, "Look at Jack. He is going to be a real ballplayer. Look at that forward pass, will you!"

Each parent's level of acceptance will fluctuate, depending upon the situation, and upon their state of mind. So, parents will not always feel the same way at every moment, about the same behavior of their child.

Parents Can and Will Be Inconsistent

Inevitably, parents will be inconsistent. How could they be anything else, when their feelings are changing from day to day, from child to child, and from situation to situation? Consequently, the point where each parent draws the line, between acceptable and unacceptable behaviors, will vary as a result.

If parents tried to always be consistent, they would not be real. The traditional admonition to parents, that they must be consistent with their children at all costs, ignores the facts: that children are different, that situations are different, and that Mom and Dad are humans whose feelings change. Such advice has the harmful effect of influencing parents to pretend, and to act the part of a person whose feelings are always the same.

Parents Do Not Have to Put Up a "United Front"

Even more importantly, advice to parents to be consistent, has led many a mother and father to think that they should always be together in their feelings, and to present a united front to their children. That is nonsense. Yet, that is one of the most entrenched beliefs in child-rearing. Parents, according to that traditional notion, should always back each other up, so that the child is led to believe that both parents feel the same way about a particular behavior.

Apart from the utter unfairness of the strategy, of ganging up on the child, in a two-against-one alignment, the parents' united front often promotes un-realness on the part of one of the parents.

For example, a sixteen-year-old girl's room might not be kept clean enough to meet her mother's standards, and so the daughter's cleaning habits are unacceptable to the mother. Her father, however, might find the room acceptably clean, and so his daughter's behavior is within his area of acceptance. Mother puts pressure on the father to feel the same way about the room as she does, so that they can have a united front, and thus, the mother hopes, they will have more influence on the daughter. But, if the father goes along, he is being untrue to his real feelings.

Or, as another example, a six-year-old boy is playing with his video games, and is making more racket than his father can accept. Mother, however, is not bothered at all, and she is delighted that the boy is playing independently, instead of hanging around her as he had done all day. Father approaches mother, saying, "Why don't you do something to stop him making all that noise?" If Mother goes along, she is being untrue to her real feelings.

False Acceptance

No parent feels accepting of all the behaviors of their child. Some behaviors will always be in the realm of nonacceptance to the parent. While I have known parents who were very accepting of most of their child's behaviors, I have never met an unconditionally accepting parent.

Some parents pretend to be accepting of much of their children's behavior, but those parents are just playing the role of being a good parent. Therefore, a certain amount of their acceptance is false. Outwardly they may act in an accepting way, but inwardly they are really feeling non-accepting.

Suppose a parent is feeling irritated because their five-year-old is staying up late. The parent has desires of their own, say, to read a new book. The parent would prefer to read, rather than devote time to the child. Also, the parent might be worried about the child's not getting enough sleep, and then being irritable the next day; or perhaps catching a cold. Yet that parent, in trying to follow the permissive approach to parenthood, is reluctant to make demands on the child, for fear this might be inconsistent with their principles. This parent cannot help but show false acceptance. While acting as if accepting of the child's staying up, inside, the parent is not accepting of it at all. The parent is feeling quite irritated, perhaps angry, and undoubtedly frustrated, because their own needs are not being met.

What are the effects on a child, when a parent is being falsely accepting? Children, as everybody knows, are amazingly sensitive to the attitudes of their parents. Kids are rather uncanny in sensing their parents' true feelings, because parents send nonverbal messages to their children. Those cues that are perceived by the children, sometimes consciously, and sometimes unconsciously. A parent whose inner attitude is one of irritation or anger, cannot help but give off subtle cues, perhaps a frown, a lifted eyebrow, a particular tone of voice, a certain posture, or a tenseness of their facial muscles.

Even very young children pick up such cues, learning from their experience that these cues usually mean that their parent is not really accepting of what they are doing. Consequently, the children are inclined to feel the parent's disapproval at that moment, and the children may even feel that the parent does not like them.

What happens when a parent genuinely feels non-accepting, but acts as if the child's behavior is acceptable? The child receives mixed messages, or contradictory cues, and now the kid is really confused. The parent may tell the child that it is all right to stay up, but the parent's nonverbal cues say that the parent does not actually like the child for staying up. The kid is in a bind. The child wants to stay up, but also wants to be loved and accepted. Staying up seems to be acceptable to mom or dad, yet there is that frown on the parent's face. Now what should the child do?

Putting a child in such a bind can seriously affect their psychological health. Everyone knows how frustrating and uncomfortable it is, when you do not know which behavior to choose, after you get mixed messages from another person.

Suppose you ask your friend if it is all right for you to smoke a cigarette in their presence, and your friend replies, "I do not mind." Yet, when you light up, their eyes and face give off nonverbal cues that tell you that they do indeed mind.

What do you do? You might ask them, "Are you sure you do not mind?" Or you may put your cigarette away, and feel resentful. Or you go ahead and smoke, all the time feeling that your friend is not happy about your smoking.

Children experience the same sort of dilemma, when they are confronted with acceptance that appears dishonest. Frequent exposure to such situations can cause children to feel unloved. It will often bring on testing of the parent by the children. It causes kids to carry around a heavy load of anxiety, fosters feelings of insecurity, and so on.

I have come to believe that the most difficult parents for children to cope with, are the parents who are honey-mouthed, permissive, and undemanding, and who act as if they are accepting, but yet they subtly communicate non-acceptance.

There is another serious by-product of parents being falsely accepting, and in the long run, it is very harmful to the parent-child relationship. When a child receives mixed messages, that child will begin to have grave doubts about the honesty, or genuineness of the parent. The child learns from many experiences that the parent often says one thing, but feels another. Eventually the child grows to distrust such a parent. Here are some feelings that teenagers have shared with me.

  • "My mother is phony. She acts so sweet, but she really is not."
  • "I can never trust my parents, because even though they do not say so, I know that they do not approve of a lot of the things I do."
  • "I go along thinking my dad does not care what time I get in. Then if I get in too late, I get the silent treatment the next day."
  • "My parents are not strict at all. They let me do pretty much what I want to do. But I can tell what they disapprove of."
  • "Every time I come to the table wearing my nose ring, my mom gets a disgusted look on her face. But she does not ever say anything."
  • "My mother is so totally sweet and so understanding all the time, but I know she does not like the kind of person I am. She likes my brother, because he is more like her."

When children have such feelings, it is evident that their parents have not really concealed their true feelings or attitudes, even though they may have thought they were doing it. In a relationship as close and enduring as the parent-child relationship, the parent's true feelings seldom can be hidden from the child.

So when parents have been influenced by the advocates of "permissiveness" to try to act in an accepting way far beyond their own true attitudes, they have seriously harmed the relationship with their children, as well as produced psychological damage to the children themselves. Parents need to understand that they had better not try to extend their area of acceptance beyond what their true attitudes are. Far better for parents to realize when they are not feeling accepting and not pretend that they are.

Can You Accept the Child but Not Their Behavior?

I don't know where this idea originated, but it has had wide acceptance and great appeal, particularly for parents who have been influenced by the advocates of permissiveness; yet who are honest enough with themselves to realize they do not always accept their children's behavior. I have come to believe that this is another faulty and harmful idea; one that encourages parents to be unreal. While it might relieve some of the guilt that parents have been made to feel when they are non-accepting of their children, this idea has been damaging to many parent-child relationships.

The erroneous idea that a parent can be accepting of a child at the times the parent is not accepting of the child's behavior, gives the parent a sort of professional sanction to use authority and power to restrict, or to set limits on certain behaviors that the parent cannot accept. Parents have interpreted this to mean that it is all right for them to control, restrict, prohibit, or make demands of their children, just as long as the parent finds some clever way to do it, so that the child does not perceive it as a rejection of the child, but rather as an unacceptance of the child's behavior.

That is a fallacy. How can you be accepting of your child, independent of and contrary to your non-accepting feelings toward whatever the child is doing or saying? What is "the child" if it is not the behaving child, acting in a particular way at a particular moment in time? It is a behaving child toward whom a parent has feelings, whether accepting or non-naccepting, not some abstraction called "child."

I am certain that from the child's own viewpoint it appears the same to her. If she senses that you are not feeling accepting of her putting her dirty shoes on your new couch.

I doubt very much that she then makes the high-level inference that even though you do not like her feet-on-the-couch behavior, you nevertheless feel very accepting of her as a person. Quite the contrary- she undoubtedly feels that because of what she as a total person is doing as of this moment, you are not at all accepting of her.

To try to get a child to understand that her parent accepts her but does not accept what she does, even if it were possible for the parent to separate the two, must be as difficult as getting a child to believe that a spanking she is being administered is "hurting her parent more than it is her." Whether a child feels that she as a person is unaccepted will be determined by how many of her behaviors are unacceptable. Parents who find unacceptable a great many things that their children do or say will inevitably foster in these children a deep feeling that they are unacceptable as persons. Conversely, parents who are accepting of a great many things their children do or say will produce children who are more likely to feel acceptable as persons.

It is best for you to admit to yourself (and to the child) that you don't accept her as a person when she is doing or saying something in a particular way at a particular moment. That way the child will learn to perceive you as open and honest, because you are being real.

Also, when you tell a child, "I accept you, but stop what you are doing," you are not likely to alter her reaction to this use of your power one bit. Children hate to be denied, restricted, or prohibited by their parents, no matter what sort of explanation accompanies the use of such authority and power. "Setting limits" has a high probability of backfiring on parents in the form of resistance, rebellion, lying, and resentment. Furthermore, there are far more effective methods for influencing children to modify behavior unacceptable to their parents than using parental power to "set limits" or restrict.

Our Definition of Parents Who Are Real Persons

Our Behavior Window helps parents understand their own inevitable feelings and the conditions that influence these feelings to change continuously. Real parents will inevitably feel both accepting and non-accepting toward their children; their attitude toward the same behavior cannot be consistent; it must vary from time to time. They should not (and cannot) hide their true feelings; they should accept the fact that one parent may feel accepting and the other non-accepting of the same behavior; and they should realize that each will inevitably feel different degrees of acceptance toward each of their children.

In short, parents are people, not gods. They do not have to act unconditionally accepting, or even consistently accepting. Neither should they pretend to be accepting when they are not. While children undoubtedly prefer to be accepted, they can constructively handle their parent's non-accepting feelings when parents send clear and honest messages that match their true feelings. Not only will this make it easier for children to cope, but it will help each child to see her parent as a real person- transparent, human, someone with whom she would like to have a relationship.

Who Owns the Problem?

A core concept in the P.E.T. model is the principle of problem ownership. Its importance cannot be overstated because so many parents fall into the trap of assuming responsibility for solving problems that their children own, rather than encouraging them to solve their problems themselves.

Parents have told us:

"The biggest thing that happened to me in taking P.E.T. was to sort out who owns the problem. It was absolutely the most meaningful thing. It just blew my mind that my kids had problems and I didn't have to own them- and I'd been owning them for years."

"What a relief to discover that I didn't have to solve everyone's problems."

When parents understand the principle of problem ownership, it can have a profound effect in bringing about a change in their behavior toward their children. This concept is introduced by means of the Behavior Window we use to differentiate "acceptable" and "unacceptable" behaviors.

However, a third area needs to be added as shown below:

Beginning with the bottom part of the rectangle on the right, these behaviors, you will remember, are the ones unacceptable to the parent because they interfere with the parent's right or prevent the parent getting her needs met.


  • Child dawdling when the parent is in a hurry.
  • Child forgetting to call when he'll be late for dinner.
  • Teenager playing her music so loud her parents can't hear each other.

Such behaviors signal that the parent owns the problem and it's up to the parent to try to modify the behavior that is causing her a problem.

In the top part of the Behavior Window, we show behaviors of the child that signal that she owns a problem- the child's needs are not being met, the child is unhappy or frustrated or in trouble.


  • Child rejected by one of her friends.
  • Child finds his homework too difficult.
  • Child angry at his teacher.
  • Teenager unhappy with being overweight.

These are problems children experience in their own lives, independent and outside of their parents' lives. In such situations, the child owns the problem.

The middle area of the window represents behavior of the child, which is causing neither the parent nor the child a problem. These are the delightful times in parent-child relationships when parents and their children can be with each other in a problem-free relationship, playing together, conversing, working, or sharing an experience. This is the 'No problems' area.

It's when the child owns the problem that parents are so often tempted to jump in, assume the responsibility for solving it, and then blame themselves when they can't. P.E.T. offers parents an alternative to help their children: Let the child own her problem and find her own solution.

Somewhat simplified, this approach is made up of these elements:

  • 1. All children inevitably will encounter problems in their lives- all shapes and kinds.
  • 2. Kids have unbelievable and mostly untapped potential for finding good solutions to their problems.
  • 3. If parents hand them prepackaged solutions, children remain dependent and fail to develop their own problem-solving skills. They'll keep coming to their parents every time they encounter a new problem.
  • 4. When parents take over (or "own") their children's problems, and therefore assume full responsibility for coming up with good solutions, it becomes not only a terrible burden but also an impossible task. No one has the infinite wisdom to always generate good solutions for other people's personal problems.
  • 5. When a parent can accept that she does not own the child's problem, then she is in a much better position to be a facilitator or catalyst or helping agent, helping the child work through the problem-solving process on her own.
  • 6. Kids do need help with certain kinds of problems, but in the long run the kind of help that is most effective is, paradoxically, a form of non-help. More accurately, it's a way of helping that leaves the responsibility with the child for searching for and finding her own solutions. In P.E.T. we call these the "Listening Skills."

When the child's behavior causes the parent a problem (behavior we have previously located in the bottom third of the Behavior Window), a different set of skills must be used. These are skills that will be effective in bringing about some change in the unacceptable behavior of the child. When a child is interfering with a parent's rights or is doing something that prevents the parent from meeting her needs, the parent owns the problem and hence will want to use skills that will be helpful to self. In P.E.T. we call these "Confrontation Skills."

When the parent owns the problem, this calls for a posture that will communicate to the child, "Hey, I've got a problem and I need your help"- quite a different posture than when the child owns a problem and the parent wants to communicate, "It seems like you have a problem; do you need my help?"

We can graphically show what Parent Effectiveness Training is all about:

1. It teaches parents skills that will be effective in reducing the number of problems owned by the child (making the area in the top third of the rectangle smaller).

2. It teaches parents quite different skills that will be effective in reducing the number of problems their kids cause them (making the area in the bottom third of the rectangle smaller).

It is essential that parents always classify each situation that occurs in the relationship so they will know whether to active listen or confront. I suggest that parents get into the habit of asking themselves the question: "Who owns this problem?"

The successful application of these two sets of skills- Active Listening and confrontation- enlarges the No Problem Area, making much more time available in the parent child relationship when neither has a problem and both can get their needs satisfied and enjoy their lives together.

In the next three chapters, I will focus exclusively on the listening skills- the skills parents need to use when the child owns a problem. Then I will focus on the confrontation skills parents can use when the parent owns the problem.