A Few Favorite Parenting Quotations

I like these comments about parenting. They’re a little longish, but capture some challenges and insights about parenting (John S-F, 2011).

If I wouldn’t want to be slapped across the face, why would I slap my son? If I wouldn’t want to be screamed at when I made a mistake, why would I scream at my daughter when she dropped the cake I had decorated for my mother-in-law? If I wouldn’t want to be ridiculed when I attempted to learn to roller-blade at age 43, why would I ridicule my daughter as she jerked the car out of first gear into second after being shown ten times how to do it smoothly. If I wouldn’t want my gardening skills to be compared with my neighbor’s, why would I compare my son’s math performance with his older sisters’? (Coloroso, 1995, p. 14).

It is usually assumed in our society that people have to be trained for difficult roles; most business firms would not consider turning a sales clerk loose on the customers without some formal training; the armed forces would scarcely send a raw recruit into combat without extensive training; most states now require a course in driver’s education before high school students can acquire a driver’s license. Even dog owners go to school to learn how to treat their pets properly. This is not true of American parents. (E. E. LeMasters, 1977, p. 18)

. . . we have inherited a tradition of discounting children’s feelings simply because children are smaller, less rational, less experienced, and less powerful than the adults around them. Taking children’s emotions seriously requires empathy, keen listening skills, and a willingness to see things from their perspective (Gottman & DeClaire, 1997, p. 31)

. . . it’s not easy to ignore your parental agenda in the face of misbehavior—especially when you can feel the sermon on the tip of your tongue. But moralizing about a misdeed without addressing the feelings behind it is usually ineffective. It’s like putting a cold compress on your child’s fevered brow without treating the infection that’s causing the fever in the first place (Gottman & DeClaire, 1997, p. 115)

We must realize the futility of trying to impose our will upon our children. No amount of punishment will bring about lasting submission. Today’s children are willing to take any amount of punishment in order to assert their “rights.” Confused and bewildered parents mistakenly hope that punishment will eventually bring results, without realizing that they are actually getting nowhere with their methods. . . . The use of punishment only helps the child to develop greater power of resistance and defiance (Dreikurs & Soltz, 1964; pp. 69-70)

I secretly believed that sibling rivalry was something that happened to other people’s children

Somewhere in my brain lay the smug thought that I could outsmart the green monster by never doing any of the obvious things that all the other parents did to make their kids jealous of each other. I’d never compare, never take sides, never play favorites. If both boys knew they were loved equally, there might be a little squabble now and then, but what would they really have to fight about?

Whatever it was they found it. (Faber & Mazlish, 2004, p. 1)

To most people, the premise that the first mental structures created by experience are preserved indefinitely, like a scratch on a table, seems reasonable. But, in fact many early ideas and habits either vanish or undergo such serious transformation that they cannot be retrieved in later life, any more than the first strokes of a seascape can be discerned from the larger scene, once a painting is complete (Kagan, 1998,  p. 3).

. . . never lose sight of the homely – and scientifically supported – truth that a good, warm, mutually respectful relationship with your child makes all the difference (Kazdin, 2008, p. 146)

When Mrs. McCormick held Tim in her lap at the playground, she sat alone on a bench across from the other mothers as if she were ashamed of Tim’s clinging. She knew that if she sat by other mothers, they would all give her advice: “Just put him down and let him cry—he’ll get over it.” “MY little girl was just like that before she finally got used to other kids.” “Get him a play date. He can learn about other children that way.” (Brazelton & Sparrow, 2001, p 8).

Even before I had children, I knew that being a parent was going to be challenging as well as rewarding. But I didn’t really know.

I didn’t know how exhausted it was possible to become, or how clueless it was possible to feel, or how, each time I reached the end of my rope, I would somehow have to find more rope.

I didn’t understand that sometimes when your kids scream so loudly that the neighbors are ready to call the Department of Child Services, it’s because you’ve served the wrong shape of pasta for dinner.

I didn’t realize that those deep-breathing exercises mothers are taught in natural-childbirth class don’t really start to pay off until long after the child is out. (Kohn, 2005, p. 1).

No one is more susceptible to an expert’s fear mongering than a parent. Fear is in fact a major component of the act of parenting. A parent, after all, is the steward of another creature’s life, a creature who in the beginning is more helpless than the newborn of nearly any other species. This leads a lot of parents to spend a lot of their parenting energy simply being scared (Levitt & Dubner, 2005, p. 149)

Before my children were born, I was convinced that I would be patient, kind, and nurturing—the quintessential earth mother. But I failed to live up to the ideal mother image that I had pictured for myself. I was daunted by the enormous gulf between the perfect parent that I wanted to be and the flawed parent that I actually was. Since then, I have learned that such feelings are quite common. Scratch any parent, and you’ll find guilt. It’s lurking just beneath the surface, ready to spring out when we lose patience with our children, fail to make them happy, feel resentful of their demands, or believe that when they misbehave its’ all our fault. (Samalin, 2003, p. 265).

A well-educated, cultured man and his wife beat their own child with a birch rod, a girl of seven. I have an account of it. The father was glad that the birch was covered with twigs. ‘It stings more,’ said he, and so he began stinging his daughter. . . . They beat for a minute, for five minutes, for ten minutes, more often and more savagely. The child screams. At last the child cannot scream, it gasps, ‘Daddy! daddy!’ (Dostoyevksy, Fyodor; The Brothers Karamozov, 1881/1957,  p. 234)

“Have Phillip come down after school and I’ll give him a bottle of Show-off Powder. For the next few days sprinkle a little on him before meals, especially when you are having company, and just before he leaves for school in the morning. I’m sure you won’t have any more trouble.”

“But what is this show-off powder? Will it hurt Phillip? Asked Mrs. Carmody fearfully.

“Show-off powder is guaranteed to be harmless,” said Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. “But it will stop showing off. You see it makes the showing-off invisible>”

“Invisible!” wailed Phillip’s mother. “You mean I won’t be able to see my own little boy?”

“Not when he’s showing off,” said Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle matter-of-factly. “Nobody will be able to see him. But when he stops showing off and is normal he’ll come back into focus.” (MacDonald, 1957, p. 16).

Having the Sex Talk with your Kids

This is an old newspaper column from about 11 years ago when I was writing about parenting for the Missoulian.

                                                  Everything You Already Knew About Sex

(But were afraid to talk about)

                                                             By John Sommers-Flanagan

I’ll never forget the night my older sisters saved my life. I was 12 years old. My sisters were babysitting me while my parents went out. They said, “Sit down, we’ve got something serious to talk about.”

I was a compliant little brother and because my sisters enjoyed dressing me up like a girl as I sat down, I was silently hoping that I wouldn’t have to do the girls clothing thing again. To my surprise, their serious topic had nothing to do with girls’ clothing and everything to do with what’s underneath girls’ clothing.

They pulled out a gigantic book. In our family, it was called the DOCTOR book and we only got it out when someone was sick. I started to worry . . . mostly because I wasn’t feeling sick.

They opened the book and showed me anatomically correct pictures of naked men and women. Then I started feeling sick. While looking at various body parts they explained the relationship between male and female sexual organs. I remember thinking “There’s no way this is true.” My sisters, one 16 and the other 14 suddenly looked like the wisest people in the world and I eventually realized they had more knowledge in their little toes than I had in my entire brain. They explained: “Mom says it’s Dad’s job to tell you about this sex stuff. But Dad’s too shy to talk about it. So tonight, we’re telling you everything.” And they did.

At some point in their explanation that night, I understood several school jokes that everyone had been laughing about the week before. But more than anything else, I remember them saying: “Sexual intercourse is very special. You only have sex with someone you really love!”

Sex education in America is like a crapshoot. I got lucky. I learned a big lesson about sexuality from two people who deeply cared about me and whom I respected. Not everyone gets so lucky.

If you’ve got children, you should directly discuss sex and sexuality with them on an ongoing basis. If you don’t, you can bet they’ll learn about sex anyway, indirectly and from other people. Given this choice, most parents decide, despite their discomfort, to talk about sex with their children.

Direct discussions about sex are easy to avoid. So, before you drop this essay and rush off to talk to your children about sex, take a moment to mentally reflect on your answers to the following questions.

1.         What did you learn about sex from your parents and family?

2.         What did you learn about sex through school sex education?

3.         What did you learn about sex from friends and peers?

4.         What did you learn about sex from television, magazines, and the movies?

Now. . . if any of you are still with me, you’re probably realizing you didn’t learn the same sex lessons from your parents as you did from your friends or from television. Many people learned (from parents) not to talk about sex. In contrast, many people are learning today (from television) that they should constantly think and talk about sex. Hardly anyone learns consistent and reasonable lessons about sex. Most people learn about sex in extremes. . . either you avoid it or you’re bombarded with it.

Sex is exciting and confusing. One way that many soap operas and sitcoms keep us tuned in is by keeping us wondering who will be sleeping together. When, on “That 70s Show,” Kelso tries to grab Donna’s breasts even though her boyfriend is one of Kelso’s best friends, young viewers undoubtedly feel twinges of both excitement and confusion. Sex makes for great comedy. Unfortunately, great comedy is usually poor sex education.

Teaching children about sex should begin early. There are many natural opportunities for discussing sex with your children – including television, magazines you see at the grocery store, and occasionally, our local and national politicians. Other opportunities occur around ages four or five, when young children begin talking, sometimes excessively and inappropriately, about poop, pee, penises, and vaginas. Although addressing such topics with your children can be uncomfortable, you should begin this process while your child still respects you. About 10 years later, when your child returns to thinking about these topics with rapt interest, he or she may be less inclined to listen to a wrinkly old adult.

Of course if you’d rather not deal with the issue, you can always use the approach my parents used. Give me a call. I’ll put you in touch with my sisters.

Positive Thinking is Not (Necessarily) Rational Thinking

This past Saturday I got a phone call from a former Counseling student (who will remain unnamed). He said that he and another student were heading to the University of Montana gym to play basketball at 1pm and wondered if I’d like to join them.

I should have recognized I was in trouble when I somehow decided NOT to tell my wife that my sudden reason for going to the gym was to play basketball. She would have reminded me that the odds of injuring my back while playing basketball are better than any odds you can get in Vegas. But I didn’t want her to rain on my positive thinking fantasy world. Do you know what I mean? Have you ever had a time when a part of you knew better and so you decided not to tell any other rational human being what you were planning?

I also should have recognized a few other obvious flaws in my positive thinking: (a) my age is approximately the sum of the two young men with whom I planned to play; (b) I quickly began developing a handicapping system through which I could compete with them; (c) for a few minutes I was visualizing myself leaping into the air without hurting myself.

In his book, The Elements of Counseling, Scott Meier, an old friend of mine and professor at SUNY-Buffalo, wrote that positive thinking is not rational thinking. This is a great point . . . and one that’s easy to forget. Despite the many cultural messages that we get about having “no limits” or being “able to accomplish whatever we can imagine,” it’s not really true. No matter how much visualizing (and personal training) I do, I’ll never be able to keep up with any professional . . . or college . . .  or high school . . . or middle school basketball player. I can practice “the secret” ( a visualizing strategy) all I want, but Obama will not ask me to replace Joe Biden on his 2012 campaign. These are limitations; they are SIMPLY NOT HAPPENING.

Typically, when positive thinking fails, many of us begin rationalizing away because we want to jump back on the positive thinking horse. This is a form of denial that even happens to cult members who are planning for the end of the world. When the end doesn’t come they develop a reason why . . . and often set a new date.

In my case, as I limped and slumped home in humiliation, I was already rationalizing my glorious return. And this is my second point: Rationalizing is generally irrational. What this means is that when we catch ourselves excusing our behavior or re-writing history, we’re probably fooling ourselves. In this case, I quickly began telling myself that the main reason I hurt myself was because I just wasn’t in good enough shape to play on this particular day . . . but that if I rehabbed and worked on my conditioning (for the next year!), I could return to the court and teach those young whipper-snappers a lesson they wouldn’t soon forget. Of course, I forgot to factor in (a) I’m already in pretty good shape; (b) in a year, I’ll be a year older (duh!); (c) I can’t reasonably spend all day rehabbing; and (d) there aren’t many bionic body parts for sale at the local hardware store.

Positive thinking and rationalizing are, quite naturally, at the heart of most of our temptations. For some, the temptation is alcohol, drugs, sex, or chocolate. We may tell ourselves we can have one drink, one bowl, one sexual indiscretion, or one bite and then find ourselves suffering the consequences. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t engage in positive thinking. It’s just that we need to balance or moderate it with real rational thinking. And one way to get a dose of rational thinking — even if we don’t want to admit it — is to ask someone who really loves us and cares about us if we’re sounding reasonable or not. Another way is to engage in honest self-scrutiny.

Personally, I plan to remain a positive thinker, but in the future I will moderate it with spousal consultation and honest personal reflection. This isn’t nearly as fun as pretending I’m younger and more capable than I really am . . . but right now the pain, ibuprophen, ice, and physical therapy are inspiring me to think more rationally and live more mindfully. I share this story as a reminder to myself and others of what Norman Vincent Peale referred to as the power of positive thinking. In fact, positive thinking is so powerful that it’s actually one more good way for us to get ourselves in trouble. Really, it may seem depressing, but it’s perfectly okay to know our limits and live within them. In the spirit of reality therapy, that’s my new plan . . . and I’m sticking with it.

A Parenting Homework Assignment on Natural and Logical Consequences

In anticipation of the benefit workshop on “Working Effectively with Parents” coming up this Friday, below you’ll find a sample Parent Homework Assignment adapted from the book: “How to Listen so Parents will Talk and Talk so Parents will Listen” (John Wiley & Sons, 2011) by John and Rita Sommers-Flanagan. If you want to attend the workshop, call Families First at 406-721-7690 to register.

The Beauty and Power of Natural and Logical Consequences

            Life is not easy and children (and adults) learn through struggles, failures, and disappointments. Your goal, as a parent, is to create a reasonable, consistent, and loving home and then let your child struggle with the demands of life. These demands include very basic things like:

  • Not getting to watch television after a certain time
  • Participating in housecleaning
  • Not getting attention 100% of the day
  • Having to get ready and get to school on time
  • Having to wait your turn to get served dessert or to play with an especially-fun toy
  • Not getting to eat your favorite food for every meal
  • Having to tie your own shoes

As you might gather from the preceding list, even little things in life can be hard for a growing child. . . but to learn, children need to directly experience frustration and disappointment.

Natural or logical consequences are a necessary part of learning. They help your child get better at surviving disappointments in the world and in your family home. Natural and logical consequences are always related in some way to the misbehavior and are not given out with anger or as “punishment.”

Here are some examples:

  1. Your children leave toys in a public area of the house, even though they’ve been told to put toys away when done playing. Logical consequence: Use a “Saturday box” or put the toys in time-out. This involves picking up the toys and putting them in a box and storing them away until the next Saturday (or whatever day) when they’re given back. This logical consequence avoids the over-reaction (“If you don’t put your toys away, then I’ll give them away to someone else”) and the attention-giving lecture (“Let me tell you about when I was a child and what would happen if I left my toys out . . .”) and instead provides children with a clear, consistent, and reasonable consequence.
  2. Your children argue with you about a consequence or about you being unfair. Logical consequence: You let your children know, “I don’t feel like arguing about this” and leave the area. You may want to go to the bathroom to take time away to further develop your planned response. While remaining friendly, another important message to give is, “I know you’d like things your way, but we have rules and consequences for everyone in our family.” Of course this may trigger another argument and you can walk away again and tell your children, “I know you can figure this out and not have this consequence next time.”
  3. You cook dinner, but your children don’t show up on time. Reasonable rules and logical consequences: If you cook dinner, everyone needs to show up on time and be respectful about the dinner-eating process. That doesn’t mean everyone has to eat every bite or provide you with lavish praise for your most excellent meal, but respectful attendance is a reasonable expectation. If your child is late for dinner, one reminder is enough. No drama or excess attention is needed. Just sit down and start eating and enjoying the mealtime process. Possible logical and natural consequences include: (a) your child prepares the next meal; (b) you put away foods after you dish yourself up and so the child has to get them out and serve him/herself; (c) you got there early and prepared the food and so your child gets to stay after and clean up; (d) no special rewards (e.g., eating dinner in front of the television); instead, your child eats alone at the table.

To do logical and natural consequences, it’s helpful to work on the following:

  1. Take the “punishing” quality out of your voice and the interactions. This is not about punishment; it’s about what’s logical, reasonable, and natural. You can even be friendly and positive.
  2. Prepare in advance. Because you’ll be emotional when your children are noncompliant, it’s critical that you have a list of logical and reasonable and natural consequence ideas in your head. Otherwise, you will over-react. Going to parenting classes or talking with other parents can help you identify a wider range of reasonable consequences.
  3. Use small consequences. Your purpose is to teach your child. Your purpose is not to hurt or humiliate. Learning occurs best if children are not emotionally overwhelmed by large consequences. Small consequences provide plenty of feedback.
  4. Use mirroring and encouragement. Reflect back to your children what they’re feeling (“It’s very upsetting that you can’t play with your toys for the rest of the week”). Let your child know that you think things will go better the next time around (“I know, if you want to, you’ll be able to remember to put your toys away next time”).
  5. Don’t lecture or shame. Let the small consequence do its work.

Reflections on Magic

I have a former graduate student (you know who you are) who always talks about using magic. If she wants something to work out a certain way, she simply “casts a spell” to make things right. Of course, like most of us, she expertly avoids paying attention to evidence refuting her magical abilities, while studiously attending to moments when it appears her spells have somehow affected reality.

This was all in good fun. We were driving many miles back and forth to an internship site at Trapper Creek and in some ways her spells were designed to counter my tendency to construct a firm deterministic viewpoint. Although I agree there are many mysteries in life and that there’s likely room for magic, I get quickly impatient with too many attributions about magic, miracles, past lives, and sinister ghosts in the halls of the female dorm at Trapper Creek Job Corps.

Despite my general avoidance of magical thinking, I find myself very intrigued with this old quotation of Freud’s that Steven de Shazer turned into a book title:

“Words were originally magic and to this day words have retained much of their ancient magical power. By words one person can make another blissfully happy or drive him [or her] to despair . . . . Words provoke affects and are in general the means of mutual influence among men [or women].”

I do think words have powerful influence . . . but it’s equally true that what we don’t say—the nonverbal, and listening in particular—can be just as magical. All this is a way of introducing the following excerpt soon be published in the 2nd edition of our Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice textbook as food for thought this Monday morning. Here it is:

The Magic of Person-Centered Listening

Person-centered listening isn’t in vogue in the United States. It might be that most of us are too busy tweeting and expressing ourselves to dedicate time and space to person-centered listening. The unpopularity of person-centered approaches also might be related to the prominent “quick fix” attitude toward mental health problems. And so, call us old-fashioned, but we think that if you haven’t learned to do person-centered listening, you’re missing something big.

Years ago, when John was deep into the “Carl Rogers” stage of his development, he decided to create a person-centered video recording to demonstrate the approach. He recruited a volunteer from an introductory psychology course, obtained informed consent, set up a time and a place, welcomed a young woman into the room, and started listening.

Lucky for John, the woman was a talker. It’s much harder to get the magic to happen with nonverbal introductory psychology students.

It wasn’t long into the session when John attempted a short summary of what the woman had said. He felt self-conscious and inarticulate, but was genuinely trying to do the person-centered listening thing: He was paraphrasing, reflecting feelings, summarizing, walking within, and doing all he could to be present in the room and make contact or connect with the “client.” After his rambling summary, there was an awkward silence. John remained silent, trusting that the client knew where to go next. And she did. She cut through the awkwardness with a disclosure of having been sexually molested as a child. John continued listening non-directively as the woman told her story, shed a few tears, and spoke powerfully about her journey toward building inner strength.

The demonstration recording was a huge success . . . except for the fact that the audio was terrible. To hear the powerful disclosure and share in the magic of person-centered process, John had to force his class of 15 graduate students to gather within three feet of the television in perfect silence . . . which was also rather awkward.

The lesson of person-centered listening is that sometimes when you put it all together the client can take you places you never knew existed. There are many things about our clients that we’ll never know unless and until we listen empathically, communicate genuinely, and experience respect for the other person with our heart and soul. As Rogers (1961) said, “. . . the client knows what hurts. . .” and so it’s up to us—as therapists—to provide an environment where clients can articulate their pain and re-activate their actualizing tendency.

A Black Friday Tribute to Mary Cover Jones and her Evidence-Based Cookies

In honor of Black Friday and the opening of this blog, I’d like to sell you on why the story of Mary Cover Jones and her evidence-based cookies is one of the coolest in the history of counseling and psychotherapy.

Mary Cover Jones probably wasn’t big on shopping. That’s because she was a woman scientist in the 1920s. She was too busy working in John Watson’s lab (yes, this is the same John Watson who, at least according to historical accounts, turned out to be a bit of a turkey.)

Mary Cover Jones was amazing. She’s best known for her work with a young boy named “Little Peter.” When everyone else was focusing on how to create fear in humans (or out shopping for Black Friday bargains), Mary was discovering how children’s fears could be extinguished or eliminated.

Little Peter suffered from a specific fear. As silly as it sounds, he was deeply afraid of white bunnies. This fear had generalized to white rats, white cotton balls, and just about anything white and fluffy. Using cookies, Mary Cover Jones counter-conditioned the fear right out of Little Peter. She started by having Peter enjoy his favorite cookies in one corner of the room and gradually brought a caged white rabbit over to him until, eventually, Peter was able to eat cookies with one hand and pet the bunny with the other.

But Mary Cover Jones didn’t stop with Little Peter. Over time, she worked with 70 different institutionalized children, all of whom had big fears. Not only was she successful, but her conclusions (from 1924) still constitute the basic foundation for contemporary (and evidence-based) behavioral approaches to treating human fears and phobias. This is what she wrote toward the end of her 1924 article:

“In our study of methods for removing fear responses, we found unqualified success with only two. By the method of direct conditioning we associated the fear-object with a craving-object, and replaced the fear by a positive response. By the method of social imitation we allowed the subjects to share, under controlled conditions, the social activity of a group of children especially chosen with a view to prestige effect. [Other] methods proved sometimes effective but were not to be relied upon unless used in combination with other methods.” (M.C. Jones, 1924, p. 390)

Mary’s findings remain deeply profound. They have implications not only for how we treat children’s fears, but also for how to work effectively with resistant or reluctant teens and adults. In later blogs I’ll often be serving a batch of Mary’s evidence-based cookies in one form or another.

After her work with John Watson, Mary Cover Jones continued working in a research lab. She moved across the U.S. and 50 years after her publications on children’s fears, she reflected on her life and her work. Here’s what she said:

“[M]y last 45 years have been spent in longitudinal research in which I have watched the psychobiological development of our study members as they grew from children to adults now in their fifties… My association with this study has broadened my conception of the human experience.  Now I would be less satisfied to treat the fears of a 3-year-old, or of anyone else, without a later follow-up and in isolation from an appreciation of him as a tantalizingly complex person with unique potentials for stability and change.” (Jones, 1974, p. 186).

Just minutes before she passed away, Mary said to her sister, “I am still learning about what is important in life” (as cited in Reiss, 1990).

We should all strive to never stop learning about what’s important in life and therefore be more like Mary Cover Jones. Although the famous psychologist, Joseph Wolpe, dubbed her “the mother of behavior therapy” she was obviously much more than a behavior therapist. You can learn more about her (she would probably have liked that) from a web-based article by Alexandra Rutherford of York University at: http://www.psych.yorku.ca/femhop/Cover%20Jones.htm. Rutherford’s article was originally published in The Feminist Psychologist, Newsletter of the Society for the Psychology of Women, Division 35 of theAmerican Psychological Association, Volume 27, Number 3, Summer, 2000.

And, believe it or not, Mary Cover Jones is on Facebook. You should become her friend . . . just like I did.

Mary  Cover Jones

The MEA Conference in Missoula

Today Rita and I got to provide a 3 hour workshop on Working Effectively with Parents to Montana school counselors and educators. It was great to see former students and to experience the dedication and talents of Montana school personnel. Our main message: Welcome even the most challenging parent comments, thank parents for their openness, reflect their core values back to them, and then once a collaborative relationship is established, use a radical acceptance frame to help them become the best parents they can become.

Author, Speaker, University of Montana Professor