A P.E.T. Take on the Short Film "Nobel Prize"

A P.E.T. Take on the Short Film "Nobel Prize"

This week I am honored to be guest blogging at Hongkonqueror!

Take a few minutes to enjoy the film and then read on. (Note: What a coincidence that one of the daughters is named Claudia, the pseudonym I use for my last child!)

Watching Tracey Larcombe's Nobel Prize, I cringed, not only as a certified instructor of Parent Effectiveness Training but also as a mother who recognized her former self in the ordering around and the go-go-go. I may never have been quite so harsh, but I have said my fair share of things I regret.

So rather than just lambaste the characters, I thought it might be more helpful to turn a P.E.T. eye onto the situation and imagine another set of interactions.

After all, most of us are familiar with what we DON'T want to be doing when it comes to our kids. The trouble is knowing what better options would look like.

An Alternative to Staying Mired in Anger

Mrs. Schmidt seems pretty livid with Claudia. As the film begins, she accuses her daughter of making them late. (But who was waiting outside?) 

There's more: 

  • "How many times do I have to tell you? We speak English here!"
  • "I'm not taking any of your moods today, young lady!"
  • "I'm not sure it's actually going to help with a brain like yours." 
  • "Useless."
  • "I often did wonder if you got swapped in that maternity ward."

If Mrs. Schmidt were a mom in my class -- a stretch because of her extreme characterization but work with me here, please -- I would first Active Listen her. That is to say, I would try to reflect back her communication with a guess as to the underlying feelings:

"It's very frustrating when you have so many things you feel must get done, all for the good of your daughter, but she often responds with attitude and pushback. That's exhausting and you've had it!"

My listening might go on a bit until she felt heard. Wherever people are on their parenting journey, I like to try to step into their shoes and walk with them a while. It gets awfully lonely feeling that Parenting is impossibleMy child is a disaster, I stink at this and so on.

The small act of acceptance can be what starts to turn a person around:

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.
— Thomas Gordon, Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children, page 38

If I could offer Mrs. Schmidt some empathy, maybe she'd be ready to discuss what we know about anger -- how it's an important clue to some primary emotion underneath.

Maybe she'd be willing to do the hard work of touching down into how she really feels and what she needs. (It's ever so much easier to blame the child for "making" us furious and miserable. How Mrs. Schmidt and Daisy's mother feed off each other!)

Maybe she'd even admit how she is harming her relationship with her daughter. 

It's definitely just a maybe. Mrs. Schmidt seems to be hurtling angrily through life, grasping for the next vacation, reaching for the next cocktail.

P.E.T. carves out a space for reflection, a softening toward ourselves and our children and, hopefully, a shift in energy that allows our best to come forth. What possibilities there would be for Mrs. Schmidt!   

Problem Ownership

Many parents breathe a sigh of relief when they learn this go-to inquiry. Asking Who owns the problem? allows us to decide on an optimal approach.

Let's take the girls' duet audition. Claudia is none too excited about practicing -- "Why do I have to do this on a Sunday?" We don't know whose decision it was in the first place but the tone, body language and question are all clues that Claudia is having a problem now.

It would be Mrs. Schmidt's turn to help by Active Listening: "You sound very annoyed about having to spend a weekend day preparing your piece with Daisy!" 

When we allow our children to acknowledge and accept their negative emotions, they are able to explore their problem. It may turn out that Claudia simply wants to vent about how hard school has gotten. Or maybe she's been upset with her mom over a remark about her looks. Or perhaps she has decided to stand her ground that she wants to stop playing her instrument. 

We simply don't know until we listen with an open heart. And once the kid gains insight into what's really bothering her, then she can work towards resolving it. 

In the film though, Mrs. Schmidt does not recognize or respond to her daughter's problem. Instead she acts as though she has the problem herself and, by golly, is going to solve it her way! She claims that she and Daisy's mom will "die of embarrassment" if the girls don't get chosen. But the rolling eyes tell us that Claudia doesn't buy this.

That leads us to . . . 

Sharing Our Deepest Values

Even if not practicing piano has no concrete or tangible effect on us, we may still really care! We have many beliefs and ideals which have shaped the arc of our lives and we want our children to benefit from our experience! 

Mrs. Schmidt could use some practice on how to respectfully share her values. That might entail:

  • Confronting and Listening -- What's really going on behind Claudia's resistance?
  • Modeling -- If it's perseverance, she herself should work hard at something; if it's reading, she may want to pick up a book over playing Candy Crush.
  • Consulting -- Mrs. Schmidt could brainstorm with fellow participants all the best arguments to use in persuading Claudia. Then would come the super hard part: leaving the decision up to her daughter. Claudia may take a while to come around and, indeed, may never. If Mrs. Schmidt refrains from harassing her, though, she won't be fired as a consultant on future issues.

Trading Power Now for Influence Later

Let's face it though: it's highly seductive to want to force our children to do what we know (think?) will be good for them.

There are times when using power is imperative, like when your child is playing on train tracks oblivious to the clanging approach signals.

In the gazillion other instances where that's not remotely the case, power runs the risk that our child will fight back (often indirectly), flee (not necessarily physically), or submit with resentment ranging from subtle to hearty.

Claudia dares not openly defy her mother. Yet she makes faces and mimes blah blah blah with her hands. When she gazes out the car window, you can almost see her visions of a place far removed from the inside of that moving vehicle! Even as her mom sarcastically remarks that Rolf will "be thrilled about" having to babysit her during the parents' holiday in Portofino, Claudia persists in her reverie. This distance seems to offer her some measure of protection.

Daisy doesn't like the power either. Together, the girls mock their mothers' air kisses and superficiality. Daisy rebels by secretly playing a tape of a piano playing -- "That's brilliant!" says an appreciative Claudia. The music gives them the cover they need while they plot their Nobel Prize-worthy plan for revenge against "everyone over 40."

If only Mrs. Schmidt could be helped to see what's going on: 

As a child becomes less helpless, less dependent upon a parent for what she needs, the parent gradually loses power. . . In those families where the parents have relied principally on power to control and direct their children throughout their early years, the parents inevitably come in for a rude shock when their power runs out and they are left with little or no influence.
— Gordon, P.E.T., page 194

"But I don't want to give in." "Wouldn't this be losing to her?" "I'm not gonna be some permissive parent!" These are all fears I can hear Mrs. Schmidt voicing. Many others in the course do.

Through discussion and even reaching back to their relationships with their own parents, many participants come to remember that kids rarely listen to people they resent. Most participants are then willing to at least try to give up some of their power. After all, we want our children to call us after they've left home, not out of duty, but out of genuine concern and even, once in a while, to ask us for our opinion. 

More than obedience now, we value long-lasting warmth, respect and openness. Trading up power for influence makes sense.


I'm not sure whether Claudia's or Daisy's mom would ever take a class like mine. Their slow-motion cackling as they cling to their wine glasses is not meant to engender any goodwill from the viewers. 

But in lieu of demonizing them, I wanted to humanize them with a bit of dialogue with their better selves.

At one point in my life, I might have gloated at how "other" they were. But to be totally honest, the way I myself parented might have led to my own cruise ship of sorts, drifting far, far from my children.

Credits: Take (http://www.timsackett.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/take-2.jpg)