When a person is able to feel and
communicate genuine acceptance of another, he possesses a capacity
for being a powerful helping agent. His acceptance of the other,
as he is, is an important factor in fostering a relationship in
which the other person can grow, develop, make constructive
changes, learn to solve problems, move in the direction of
psychological health, become more productive and creative, and
actualize his fullest potential. It is one of those simple but
beautiful paradoxes of life: When a person feels that he is truly
accepted by another, as he is, then he is freed to move from there
and to begin to think about how he wants to change, how he wants
to grow, how he can become different, how he might become more of
what he is capable of being.
Acceptance is like the fertile soil that
permits a tiny seed to develop into the lovely flower it is
capable of becoming. The soil only enables the seed to
become the flower. It releases the capacity of the seed to
grow, but the capacity is entirely within the seed. As with the
seed, a child contains entirely within his organism the capacity
to develop. Acceptance is like the soil - it merely enables the
child to actualize his potential.
Why is parental acceptance such a
significant positive influence on the child? This is not generally
understood by parents. Most people have been brought up to believe
that if you accept a child he will remain just the way he is; that
the best way to help a child become something better in the future
is to tell him what you don't accept about him now.
Therefore, most parents rely heavily on the
language of unacceptance in rearing children, believing
this is the best way to help them. The soil that most parents
provide for their children's growth is heavy with evaluation,
judgment, criticism, preaching, moralizing, admonishing, and
commanding - messages that convey unacceptance of the
child as he is.
Ordering, Directing, Commanding
These messages tell a child that his
feelings or needs are not important; he must comply with what
his parent feels or needs. ("I don't care what you want to
do; come into the house this minute.")
They communicate unacceptance of the child
as he is at the moment. ("Stop fidgeting around.")
They produce fear of the parent's power.
The child hears a threat of getting hurt by someone bigger and
stronger than he. ("Go to your room - and if you don't,
I'll see to it that you get there.")
They may make the child feel resentful or
angry, frequently causing him to express hostile feelings, throw
a tantrum, fight back, resist, test the parent's will.
They can communicate to the child that the
parent does not trust the child's own judgment or competence.
("Don't touch that dish." "Stay away from your
Warning, Admonishing, Threatening
These messages can make a child feel
fearful and submissive. ("If you do that, you'll be
They can evoke resentment and hostility in
the same way that ordering, directing, and commanding do.
("If you don't get to bed right away, you're going to get
They can communicate that the parent has
no respect for the child's needs or wishes. ("If you don't
stop playing that drum, I'm going to get cross.")
Children sometimes respond to warnings or
threats by saying, "I don't care what happens, I still feel
These messages also invite the child to
test the firmness of the parent's threat. Children sometimes are
tempted to do something that they have been warned against, just
to see for themselves if the consequences promised by the parent
Exhorting, Moralizing, Preaching
Such messages bring to bear on the child
the power of external authority, duty or obligation. Children
may respond to such "shoulds," "oughts," and
"musts" by resisting and defending their posture even
They may make a child feel the parent does
not trust his judgment - that he had better accept what
"others" deem is right. ("You ought to do the
They may cause feelings of guilt in a
child - that he is "bad" ("You shouldn't think
They may make a child feel the parent does
not trust his ability to evaluate the validity of others'
blueprints or values ("You should always respect your
Advising, Giving Suggestions or Solutions
Such messages are often felt by the child
as evidence that the parent does not have confidence in the
child's judgment or ability to find his own solution.
They may influence a child to become
dependent on the parent and to stop thinking for himself.
("What should I do, Daddy?")
Sometimes children strongly resent
parents' ideas or advice. ("Let me figure this out
myself." "I don't want to be told what to do.")
Advice sometimes communicates your
attitudes of superiority to the child. ("Your mother and I
know what s best.") Children can also acquire a feeling of
inferiority. ("Why didn't I think of that?" "You
always know better what to do.")
Advice can make a child feel his parent
has not understood him at all. ("You wouldn't suggest that
if you really knew how I felt.")
Advice sometimes results in the child
devoting all his time reacting to the parents' ideas to the
exclusion of developing his own ideas.
Lecturing, Giving Logical Arguments
The act of trying to teach another often
makes the "student" feel you are making him look
inferior, subordinate, inadequate. ("You always think you
Logic and facts often make a child
defensive and resentful. ("You think I don't know
Children, like adults, seldom like to be
shown they are wrong. Consequently, they defend their position
to the bitter end. ("You're wrong, I'm right."
"You can't convince me.")
Children generally hate parental lectures.
("They go on and on and I have to just sit there and
Children often resort to desperate methods
of discounting parental facts. ("Well, you are just too old
to know what's going on." "Your ideas are outmoded and
old-fashioned." "You're a square.")
Often children already know very well the
facts parents insist on teaching them, and resent the
implication that they are uninformed. ("I know all of that
- you don't need to tell me.")
Sometimes children choose to ignore facts.
("I don't care." "So what." "It won't
happen to me.")
Judging, Criticizing, Disagreeing,
These messages, probably more than any of
the others, make children feel inadequate, inferior, stupid,
unworthy, bad. A child's self-concept gets shaped by parental
judgment and evaluation. As the parent judges the child, so will
the child judge himself. ("I heard so often that I was bad,
I began to feel I must be bad.")
Negative criticism evokes
counter-criticism. ("I've seen you do the same thing."
"You're not so hot yourself.")
Evaluation strongly influences children to
keep their feelings to themselves or to hide things from their
parents. ("If I told them I'd just be criticized.")
Children, like adults, hate to be judged
negatively. They respond with defensiveness, simply to protect
their own self image. Often they become angry and feel hatred
toward the evaluating parent, even if the judgment is correct.
Frequent evaluation and criticism make
some children feel that they are no good and that the parents do
not love them.
Contrary to the common belief that praise
is always beneficial to children, it often has very negative
effects. A positive evaluation that does not fit the child's
self-image may evoke hostility: "I am not pretty,
I'm ugly." "I hate my hair." "I did not play
well, I was lousy."
Children infer that if a parent judges
positively, they can also judge negatively some other time.
Also, the absence of praise in a family where praise is used
frequently can be interpreted by the child as criticism.
("You didn't say anything nice about my hair so you must
not like it.")
Praise is often felt by the child as
manipulative - a subtle way of influencing the child to do what
the parent wants. ("You're just saying that so I'll study
Children sometimes infer that their
parents don't understand them when they praise. ("You
wouldn't say that if you knew how I really felt about
Children are often embarrassed and
uncomfortable when praise is given, especially in front of their
friends. ("Oh, Daddy, that's not true!")
Children who are praised a lot may grow to
depend on it and even demand it. ("You didn't say anything
about my cleaning up my room." "How do I look,
Mother?" "Wasn't I a good little boy?"
"Isn't that a good drawing?")
Name-calling, Ridiculing, Shaming
Such messages can have a devastating
effect on the self-image of a child. They can make a child feel
unworthy, bad, unloved.
The most frequent response of children to
such messages is to give one back to the parent. ("And
you're a big nag." "Look who's calling me lazy.")
When a child gets such a message from a
parent who is trying to influence him, he is much less likely to
change by looking at himself realistically. Instead, he can zero
in on the parent's unfair message and excuse himself. ("I
do not look cheap with my eye shadow. That's ridiculous
Interpreting, Analyzing, Diagnosing
Such messages communicate to the child
that the parent has him "figured out," knows what his
motives are or why he is behaving the way he is. Such parental
psychoanalyzing can be threatening and frustrating to the child.
If the parent's analysis or interpretation
happens to be accurate, the child may feel embarrassed at being
so exposed. ("You are not having dates because you are too
shy." "You are doing that just to get
When the parent's analysis or
interpretation is wrong, as it more often is, the child will
become angry at being accused unjustly. ("I am not jealous
- that's ridiculous.")
Children often pick up an attitude of
superiority on the part of the parent. ("You think you know
so much.") Parents who frequently analyze their children
communicate to them that the parents feel superior, wiser,
The "I know why" and "I can
see through you" messages frequently cut off further
communication from the child at the moment, and teach the child
to refrain from sharing problems with his parents.
Reassuring, Sympathizing, Consoling,
Such messages are not as helpful as most
parents believe. To reassure a child when he is feeling
disturbed about something may simply convince him that you don't
understand him. ("You couldn't say that if you knew how
scared I am.")
Parents reassure and console because they
are not comfortable with their child feeling hurt, upset,
discouraged, and the like. Such messages tell a child that you
want him to stop feeling the way he does. ("Don't feel bad,
things will turn out all right.")
Children can see through parents'
reassurances as attempts to change them and often distrust the
parent. ("You're just saying that to make me feel
Discounting or sympathizing often stops
further communication because the child senses you want him to
stop feeling the way he does.
Probing, Questioning, Interrogating
To ask questions may convey to children
your lack of trust, your suspicion or doubt. ("Did you wash
your hands like I told you?")
Children also see through some questions
as attempts "to get them out on a limb," only to have
it sawed off by the parent. ("How long did you study? Only
an hour. Well, you deserve a C on that exam.")
Children often feel threatened by
questions, especially when they don't understand why the parent
is questioning them. Note how often children say, "Why are
you asking that?" or "What are you driving at?"
If you question a child who is sharing a
problem with you, he may suspect that you are gathering data to
solve his problem for him, rather than let him find his own
solution. ("When did you start feeling this way? Does it
have anything to do with school? How is school?") Children
frequently do not want their parents to come up with answers to
their problems: "If I tell my parents, they will only tell
me what I should do."
When you ask questions of someone who is
sharing a problem with you, each question limits the person's
freedom to talk about whatever he wants to - in a sense each
question dictates his next message. If you ask, "When did
you notice this feeling?" you are telling the person to
talk only about the onset of the feeling and nothing
else. This is why being cross-examined as by a lawyer is so
terribly uncomfortable - you feel you must tell your story
exactly as demanded by his questions. So interrogating is not at
all a good method of facilitating another's communication;
rather, it can severely limit his freedom.
Withdrawing, Distracting, Humoring,
Such messages can communicate to the child
that you are not interested in him, don't respect his feelings,
or are downright rejecting him.
Children are generally quite serious and
intent when they need to talk about something. When you respond
with kidding, you can make them feel hurt and rejected.
Putting children off or diverting their
feelings may for the moment appear successful, but a person's
feelings do not always go away. They often crop up later.
Problems put off are seldom problems solved.
Children, like adults, want to be heard
and understood respectfully. If their parents brush them aside,
they soon learn to take their important feelings and problems
Parents' talk can also build. Most parents,
once they become aware of the destructive power of put-down
messages are eager to learn more effective ways of responding to
children. In our classes we never encountered a parent who
consciously wanted to destroy his child's self-esteem.
An easy way for parents to be shown the
difference between ineffective and effective confrontation is to
think of sending either "you-messages" or
"I-messages." When we ask parents to examine the
previously noted ineffective messages, they are surprised to
discover that almost all begin with the word "You" or
contain that word. All these messages are
But when a parent simply tells a child how
some unacceptable behavior is making the parent feel, the
message generally turns out to be an "I-message."
"I cannot rest when someone is
crawling on my lap."
"I don't feel like playing when
"I can't cook when I have to walk
around pots and pans on the floor."
"I'm worried about getting dinner
ready on time."
"I sure get discouraged when I
see my clean kitchen dirty again."
When a child's behavior is unacceptable to
a parent because in some tangible way it interferes with the
parent's enjoyment of life or his right to satisfy his own
needs, the parent clearly "owns" the problem. He is
upset, disappointed, tired, worried, harassed, burdened, etc.
"You are being a pest" is a very
poor statement for the parent's tired feeling. A clear and
accurate statement would always be an "I-message":
"I am tired," "I don't feel up to playing,"
"I want to rest." This communicates the feeling the
parent is experiencing. A "you-message" does not state
the parent's feeling. It refers much more to the child than to
the parent. A "you-message" is child-oriented, not
Why "I-messages" Are More
"I-messages" are more effective
in influencing a child to modify behavior that is unacceptable
to the parent as well as healthier for the child and the
The "I-message" is much less apt
to provoke resistance and rebellion. To communicate to a child
honestly the effect of his behavior on you is far less
threatening than to suggest that there is something bad about
him because he engaged in that behavior. Think of the
significant difference in a child's reaction to these two
messages, sent by a parent after a child kicks him in the shins:
The first message only tells the child how
his kick made you feel, a fact with which he can hardly argue.
The second tells the child that he was "bad" and warns
him not to do it again, both of which he can argue against and
probably resist strongly.
"I-messages" are also infinitely
more effective because they place responsibility within the
child for modifying his behavior. "Ouch! That really hurt
me" and "I don't like to be kicked" tell the
child how you feel, yet leave him to be responsible for doing
something about it.
Consequently, "I-messages" help
a child grow, and help him learn to assume responsibility for
his own behavior. An "I-message" tells a child that
you are leaving the responsibility with him, trusting him to
handle the situation constructively, trusting him to respect
your needs, giving him a chance to start behaving
Because "I-messages" are honest,
they tend to influence a child to send similar honest messages
whenever he has a feeling. "I-messages" from one
person in a relationship promote "I-messages" from the
other. This is why, in deteriorating relationships, conflicts
often degenerate into mutual name-calling and reciprocal
Parent: You're getting awfully
irresponsible about doing your dishes after breakfast.
Child: You don't always do yours every morning.
Parent: That's different - Mother has lots of other
things to do around the house, picking up after a bunch of
messy children. (you-message)
Child: I haven't been messy. (Defensive message.)
Parent: You're just as bad as the others, and you know
Child: You expect everyone to be perfect. (you-message)
Parent: Well, you certainly have a long way to go to
reach that when it comes to picking up. (you-message)
Child: You're so darned fussy about the house.
This is typical of many conversations
between parents and children when the parent starts his
confrontation with a "you-message." Invariably, they
end up in a struggle, with both alternately defending and
"I-messages" are much less
likely to produce such a struggle. This is not to say that if
parents send "I-messages" everything will be sweetness
and light. Understandably, children do not like to hear that
their behavior has caused a problem for their parents (just like
adults, who are never exactly comfortable when someone confronts
them with the fact that their behavior has caused pain).
Nevertheless, telling someone how you feel is far less
threatening than accusing him of causing a bad feeling.
It takes a certain amount of courage to
send "I-messages," but the rewards are generally well
worth the risks. It takes courage and inner security for a
person to expose his inner feelings in a relationship. The
sender of an honest "I-message" risks becoming known
to the other as he really is. He is opening himself up - being
"transparently real," revealing his
"humanness." He tells the other that he is a person
capable of being hurt or embarrassed or frightened or
disappointed or angry or discouraged, and so on.
For a person to reveal how he feels means
opening himself to be viewed by the other. What will the other
person think of me? Will I be rejected? Will the other person
think less of me? Parents, particularly, find it difficult to be
transparently real with children because they like to be seen as
infallible - without weaknesses, vulnerabilities, inadequacies.
For many parents, it is much easier to hide their feelings under
a "you-message" that puts the blame on the child than
to expose their own humanness.
Probably the greatest reward that comes to
a parent from being transparent is the relationship it promotes
with the child. Honesty and openness foster intimacy - a truly
inter-personal relationship. My child gets to know me as I am,
which then encourages him to reveal to me what he is. Instead of
being alienated from each other, we develop a relationship of
closeness. Ours becomes an authentic relationship - two real
persons, willing to be known in our realness to each other.
When parents and children learn to be open
and honest with each other, they no longer are "strangers
in the same house." The parents can have the joy of being
parents to a real person - and the children are blessed by
having real persons as parents.