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The Power of The Language of Acceptance

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.

Ineffective Messages:

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 baby brother.")

Warning, Admonishing, Threatening

These messages can make a child feel fearful and submissive. ("If you do that, you'll be sorry.")

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 paddled.")

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 this way."

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 actually happen.

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 more strongly.

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 right thing.")

They may cause feelings of guilt in a child - that he is "bad" ("You shouldn't think that way.")

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 teachers.")

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 know everything.")

Logic and facts often make a child defensive and resentful. ("You think I don't know that?")

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 listen.")

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, Blaming

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.

Praising, Agreeing

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 harder.")

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 myself.")

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 and unfair.")

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 attention.")

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, cleverer.

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, Supporting

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 better.")

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, Diverting

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 elsewhere.

Effective Messages:

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.

"You-messages" and "I-messages"

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 "you"-oriented:

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."

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 parent-oriented.

Why "I-messages" Are More Effective

"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 parent-child relationship.

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 constructively.

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 blaming:

Parent: You're getting awfully irresponsible about doing your dishes after breakfast. (you-message)

Child: You don't always do yours every morning. (you-message)

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 it. (you-message)

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. (you-message)

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 attacking.

"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.

Adapted with permission from "A Catalog of Effects of The Typical Ways Parents Respond to Children" and "Effective Ways of Confronting Children" in Parent Effectiveness Training by Dr. Thomas Gordon.

World-renowned psychologist, Dr. Thomas Gordon, author of Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.) and founder of Gordon Training International of Solana Beach, California, died August 26, 2002 at the age of 84. Read obituary.

Dr. Gordon introduced the Parent Effectiveness Training course in 1962 and revised it in 1997. Parent Effectiveness Training does not encourage punishment or time-out but rather teaches effective parenting skills. For more information about Parent Effectiveness Training and Teacher Effectiveness Training, contact Gordon Training International: