I Am Not Your Servant!

I Am Not Your Servant!

"Get up off your lazy butt and help with the groceries!"

"If you don't wanna do your part, we just won't go."

"I am done waiting. That's it. You guys can figure it out yourselves!!!"

"I do so much for you but -- newsflash! -- I am NOT your slave."

Parenting can often feel adversarial when there is so much to be done and not enough bodies moving -- just your own.

How do we get to a place where there is a fair distribution of work plus happy, close family members (aka the No Problem zone)?

let's take care of us first

Intellectually, we know that sarcasm and threats are not the way; neither is silent seething followed by a lecture. Yet, in the mess of the moment, it's so easy to go on the attack or assume the role of victim. (Believe me, the keyboard easily clicked out the statements above -- I'm very chummy with the state of mind they represent.)

It seems so unfair. In mere seconds, our amygdala hijacks us yet it can take hours (even days) to release the story of how our children are just so _______ [insert favorite pejorative]

So we have biology -- our fight, flight, freeze response to our enemy offspring -- to contend with. And what's more, most of us lacked models who "did" conflict the right way. 

I learned a lot from Kristen Neff's book and especially benefited from the description of her struggles with her son. Here's her  definition  of self-compassion.

I learned a lot from Kristen Neff's book and especially benefited from the description of her struggles with her son. Here's her definition of self-compassion.

So, before anything else, let's, perhaps with our hand on our heart, offer ourselves a healthy dose of self-compassion: I am just doing the best I can with the skills I have right now.

And, then we might even thank the rageful upset for reminding us of a vulnerability beneath. It's a chance to know ourselves better. And to be practical: Stuffing down our anger will only make Confrontive I-Messages -- which ask for our primary feelings -- a lot harder.

Far from wallowing in it, we can use anger as a stepping place to reach our higher goals. As Tara Brach writes in "Awakening Through Anger:"

[A]nger is a natural survival energy that wants our attention, that needs to be allowed to be felt. However, “allowing” doesn’t mean we let ourselves be possessed by our anger. Rather, we allow when we acknowledge the stories of blame without believing them, and when we let the sensations of anger arise, without either acting them out or resisting them. 

What I'm trying to say is: let's not be hard on ourselves. Showing ourselves the same empathy we always try to summon for our children is what will allow us to move forward. 

ready for a reframe

Hopefully, it will now be that much easier to make the all-important switch from judgment to behavior (that which can actually be videoed or recorded).

Bye-bye judgment!! 

He deliberately lied to me. He wants to see just how much he can get away with! 

Hello behavior!! 

He said "Ok, one sec, Mom!" and then has not budged from the couch for 5 . . . 10 . . . 15 . . . minutes.

The focus on objective behavior distances us from and loosens our identification with our assumptions about our child's motivations, ill-will, selfishness, laziness, opportunism etc.

After all, I think most of us want to adopt Dr. Gordon's positive spin that all behavior is always simply to meet needs.

Reminding ourselves, "She is just doing something FOR herself, rather than something (horrible) TO me," can help us next more clearly consider the Behavior Window and our action plan.

who owns the problem?

As your daughter plays with her dolls on the trampoline, she is probably blissful.

You are the one who owns the problem when she still hasn't cleared the table, helped with the dishes, or wrapped the present for the birthday party she has to go to in 30 minutes (and if you are late in dropping her off, you miss paddleboard yoga).

P.E.T is all about democracy. We owe it to ourselves to assertively confront when our kids' behavior prevents us from meeting our needs -- rest, fairness, fun, respect, integrity.  

but wait, what is effective confrontation?

Dr. Gordon gives us a fine definition:

You-Messages like the ones at the start of this post fall short big-time. Even if we get the change we want, we have sent messages about our child and the relationship:

You won't do the right thing unless I threaten you.

I gave you an inch and, like always, you took a mile.

You don't respect me.

We can do confrontation better, says Dr. Gordon.

confrontive i-messages  

Confrontive I-Messages contain three parts:

  1. Behavior -- Remember, keep to what they do or say.
  2. Feelings -- Be congruent! If you are really annoyed, let that show!
  3. Effects -- The concrete and tangible impact on you.

Example: "Girls, I am super frustrated [feeling]! I have asked twice for help cleaning up and no one has come [behavior]. I am stressed [feeling] because the lunches still have to be made and I don't want to face this mess when I get home from dropping you off [effect]. I don't think that's fair [feeling]!

Because it's not character assassination nor are you ordering them around, you are putting your children in the role of helper, rather than culprit. You are giving them the chance to take initiative to assist you.

shift gears to active listen

But life is only sometimes neat and pat, right?

Even with a well-considered, non-blameful Confrontive I-Message, the child may still react hotly:  

"Hmpf! You always nag me. I couldn't even enjoy this episode at all because you kept making a racket in the kitchen." 

Confronting well often requires a temporary change in tack. Why? It's not fun discovering what you've done has prevented someone from meeting her needs. 

So manage your expectations and brace yourself for having calmly to Shift Gears and listen deeply:

"Oh . . . you're annoyed because you were really into what you were doing but because you heard me complaining and calling out to you you couldn't have fun or relax."

Even though you might be thinking, "Come ON! You've got to be joking, Catherine! But I don't want to!" Active Listening really is our best shot at success.

[I]n many cases it seems to help kids when their parent acknowledges their reaction to an I-Message. There is a paradox here — it’s as if children find it easier to change if they feel a parent understands how hard it is.
— Dr. Thomas Gordon, P.E.T. in Action: How Parent Training Dramatically Improves Family Functioning, pages 137-138

Don't get me wrong. You get back to another Confrontive I-Message when you feel that temperature drop. You really are not a servant!

when things go awry

When multiple tries with Confrontive I-Messages lead nowhere, it might just be that your child has an overriding need. (Read more about Conflicts of Needs and Method III Problem-Solving here.)  

It could also mean that you still have to work on your helping skills:

Parents’ effectiveness with I-messages depends on the quality of the total parent-child relationship. If you do a lot of listening to your children when they own problems, you’ll increase the probability of their responding constructively to your messages when you own the problem. The desire to help must be mutual — it cannot be one-way, at least not for long.
— Gordon, P.E.T. in Action: How Parent Training Dramatically Improves Family Functioning, page 140

Here's a clear rundown from Gordon Training International of six reasons why Confrontive I-Messages might fail.


Skillful confrontation is hard. It can feel almost impossible to give our kids the benefit of the doubt. But when we do, they often rise to the occasion.

Other mantras I love: "Kids do well if they can" and "Everybody wants to be the good guy; no one wants to be the bad guy."

Other mantras I love: "Kids do well if they can" and "Everybody wants to be the good guy; no one wants to be the bad guy."

We just gotta be ready for the tons of practice it takes to undo years under a different operating program.

But it will get easier. Cross my heart and swear.

life imitating blog 1:

I drive most mornings and a few days ago I dropped off the kids and then pulled up at my husband's office. He took his time putting on his shoes. Then he wondered aloud whether his sandwich had been toasted.

I put the car into park and reminded myself of one of my guiding questions: What really matters? To be kind, you must swerve regularly from your path.

And so I kept quiet as he went to the trunk to pull out his backpack. In the rearview mirror, I caught him checking his iPhone. (In my defense, it was not his work Blackberry.) I felt my blood come quickly to a boil but still struggled to give him a Confrontive I-Message:

"Hey! When you check your phone I feel really frustrated because I have to wait here until you close the trunk and I can finally leave!"

He was caught off guard. "Ok, gosh. I was just getting my bag, I'm really tired." (In his defense, he had just gotten back from the US the day before.)

I could have Shifted Gears and Active Listened that, or at least kept silent. But I argued, "No, I saw you looking at your screen!"

My jet-lagged husband gently gathered his stuff and walked away as I drove off.

I think we are all in good company on the  "Consciously Unskilled" step

One day, let's all meet on the top step and have a big, fat celebration!

One day, let's all meet on the top step and have a big, fat celebration!

P.S. Dear husband, I'm sorry for my tone.

life imitating blog 2 & 3

I'll spare you the details but suffice it to say that two more incidents just happened directly relevant to this post. In one, I was so livid!! 

I want to point out that what finally helped me pull myself out of my downward 90 minute spiral was allowing the fury and investigating the feelings and unmet needs it pointed to.

When I Active Listened myself, I heard in a very raw way: I don't matter.

But I know that my child didn't "make" me feel this smallness, this powerlessness:

Whenever we get ‘triggered,’ we’ve stumbled on something that needs healing. Seriously. Any time your child pushes your buttons, he’s showing you an unresolved issue from your own childhood.”
— Dr. Laura Markham, Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids, page 9

So I worked on healing my inner child by helping myself recall and rewrite a painful memory. (Let's make that another blog entry because this is getting way too long.) 

Implicit memory can influence our present without our awareness that something from the past is affecting us.
— Dr. Daniel Siegel, Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation, page 149


I just wanted to share this piece of the puzzle -- it seems too crucial not to. 

Good luck, and be gentle with the child within YOU.



Credits: Boy blocking ears (http://i1.mirror.co.uk/incoming/article1446258.ece/alternates/s615/Portrait%20of%20a%20little%20boy%20refusing%20to%20listen%20to%20his%20Mum); Lady Bird Johnson quote (https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/236x/0d/f7/3d/0df73d590fb27581d4bf93fc2bfd797c.jpg)