Takeaways from “Parent Effectiveness Training”: Effective I Statements

The book Parent Effectiveness Training really helped me work through issues with my children where *I* had the problem and needed to confront the issue. I really understand and can construct effective 3-part “I” statements now–yes, they work!

Main takeaways:

Active Listening

The book also talks about how to handle a child when *they* have the problem, by using empathy, active listening, and letting them solve the problem on their own as best as possible. You are a sounding board and you speak primarily to their emotions.

We know that people do a better job of thinking a problem through and toward a solution when they can “talk it out” as opposed to merely thinking about it.

Truth be told, the very first time I read this book, four years ago, I did not understand how to do this–this active listening where you talk primarily to emotions–even after reading the book. I did finally get it, from other books. I would enthusiastically recommend the book Liberated Parents, Liberated Children, which discusses this issue thoroughly. It helped give me insight into dealing with a child’s emotions. See also my blog post about it, Validating Children’s Emotions.

Once validating emotions is understood, P.E.T in addition explains some more things, such as how children “encode” their messages, and it is up to you as a parent to decode them. What children are actually thinking comes out in very weird ways, which, if misunderstood, typically come across as “misbehavior.”

To think of it simply, if you want a factual account of what happened to your child and their day, ask factual questions. If you really want to get to what they are thinking and feeling, learn the language of emotions (empathy). Then you can get to real problem solving.

Many people think that they can get rid of their feelings by suppressing them, forgetting them, or thinking about something else. Actually, people free themselves of troublesome feelings when they are encouraged to express them openly.

Phrases to keep handy as a parent: “Tell me about it.” “I’d like to hear about it.” “Tell me more.” “I’d be interested in your point of view.” “Would you like to talk about it?” “Let’s discuss it.” “Let’s hear what you have to say.” “Tell me the whole story.” “Go ahead, I’m listening.”

Permissiveness as Personal

What really helped me from this book is to look at dealing with your children through a lens of “whose problem is it?” It’s easy to identify once you just think about it this way. If the problem lies with the child–usually something they came to you about–you employ active listening. If the problems lies with you–you are irritated by something–you need good confrontational skills. If there is a conflict in what the child and parent want, negotiation, the heart of the book, is put to use.

I really benefited by the author’s definition of “permissiveness”: It is when you personally don’t like something, but let it continue to happen anyway. I love how it is a personal thing, and everyone is different in what annoys them and what doesn’t. If someone else has a problem with your child, and you don’t, truth be told, it’s their problem to deal with. The author actually says the worst thing you can do as a parent is to allow things you don’t like. You remain grimaced and your child can pick up on these non-verbal clues. They feel unloved and unaccepted while you feel resentment. It’s important to tackle issues directly.

The author advocates “I statements” to deal with this. He asks you to imagine if a guest in your house had their feet on furniture and you didn’t like it. Would you say, “Don’t put your feet on the couch!” “You are being disrespectful!” No, you would say something like, “I hate to ask, but I am worried about getting dirt on our new furniture.” You would be respectful and likely use an “I” statement.

There are however right and wrong ways to construct “I” statements–and please, please read the book for a more in-depth discussion. What helped me the most is to include all 3 parts of an “I” statement: The annoying behavior, how you feel, and why you feel that way. The author says the “why” part is the most important, and the one parents leave out the most. A common example for us may be that our son is riding his tricycle in the house. It’s not enough to say, “I don’t like when you ride the tricycle in the house.” It needs to be “I don’t like when you ride the tricycle in the house, because you might run into the walls or run over your sister’s foot.”  Phrasing it like this also turns the problem over to the child to solve. A negotiation might be able to be worked out such that the child figures out a way to ride the tricycle without bumping into walls or his sister.

My biggest parenting problem so far has actually not been how to handle my children, but how to handle other parents who boss my children around. Perhaps this more laid back style I have of letting children solve their own problems makes other parents think I am not taking an active role, and feel they must step in. In the future, I may ask, “Is what my child doing causing a problem for you?” Because the overwhelming majority of the time, it isn’t: They seem to think they are “teaching” my child something or keeping them safe. (If they are gentle, I don’t have a problem. Yelling is what I have a problem with.) If it is a problem, I may ask, “Can you construct an effective I statement directed towards my child?” I’ll see how this goes …

Letting Children Work Through Problems

Kids have unbelievable and mostly untapped potential for finding good solutions to their problems.

When a child has a problem, it is best to let them work through it. Most parenting authors advocate this and I adopt it as a principle for parenting, but sometimes I find I struggle with it. This book really helped me to stop interfering. The author says that when the child is working through a problem, and you step in to do it for them, you aren’t just fixing a problem: You are sending a message that you don’t think the child is capable of solving it themselves. Who wants to send that message to their child!? Since reading P.E.T., I have been really good about being “hands off” with my kids–only but employing active listening and giving some information–while they work through things.

It especially helped when they are trying to find something. Instead of pointing or trying to play hot/cold games, I just let them look for the thing. I might say where I think or know it roughly is, but I let them keep looking. I might say, “I trust if you keep looking, you’ll find it.” They almost always do. I love that they are gaining confidence in their own observational abilities. I do remember as a child when adults would point or play hot/cold games, I was a slave to what the adult said or did. I was watching their hands or directions, I wasn’t actually looking. Parents who give excessive instruction are not helping their children; they are a wild distraction.

Keeping hands off when a child is engaged in some activity is a strong nonverbal way of communicating acceptance. Many parents fail to realize how frequently they communicate nonacceptance to their children simply by interfering, intruding, moving in, checking up, joining in. Too often adults do not let children just be. They invade the privacy of their rooms, or move into their own personal and private thoughts, refusing to permit them a separateness.

I consider this positive style of parenting as something that always needs refining. I really consider myself to be an empathetic, pro-active mother, who trusts her children. But I used to be guilty of some things that send a message of “I don’t trust you,” which amount to a simple way of how you phrase something. This is one:

All the following types of messages “send a solution”: 1. ORDERING, DIRECTING, COMMANDING “You go find something to play with.”

I have really tried to convert all “You” statements into “I” statements. Although I didn’t think I had any major problems with my children, I have noticed how much more intimate my 4 year old has been with me since doing this–since I have banished even phrases like “Go find something to do.” He wants to snuggle, talk, and play games so much more.

Yes, I absolutely plan on becoming my children’s *friend*!

Anger as a Secondary Emotion

I was really appreciative of the author’s insight about anger. He says anger is a secondary emotion. The example given is if your child gets lost in a store. When you find your child, your first emotion is relief. It is secondary to have anger: “Be more careful next time!” How much better it would be to deal with the first emotion by telling your child, “I was so worried about you!”

The author says to never express your anger at your child, but to deal with the primary emotion.

Unlike other feelings, anger is almost invariably directed at another person. “I am angry” is a message that usually means “I am angry at you” or “You made me angry.” It is really a You-Message, not an I-Message. A parent cannot disguise this You-Message by stating it as “I feel angry.”

Anger is an issue I have thought a lot about as a parent. (See: Dealing with Parental Frustration.) I have read other authors say it is appropriate to say something like, “I am so angry right now I could throw all of your toys out of the window!” I have never found this to be good advice. My experience is saying it gets you too close to actually doing it.

Emotions are really tricky things. In my growth in this area, this is what I (currently) believe: It’s OK to have any emotion and to express most of them, but anger is one that you need to get “control” of and keep to yourself. It itself is the driver of aggression. Good decisions are never made in anger. You as a parent need calming techniques so you can remain the cool-headed, rational, empathetic adult who deals with issues like a pro as they come. So, I am very appreciative of the author, who says anger is secondary, to never direct it at your children (even verbally), and to try to get to that primary emotion instead.

Praise as a Positive, Appreciative, Personal I statement

I really, really love how the author said he used to write against praise, arguing it was a manipulative way to change child behavior, but came to appreciate praise if done a better way.

“I statements” are usually made when confronting a negative behavior that you don’t like. But parents in the classes brought up how they could be used to praise positive behaviors in children too. I love it! This is the kind of descriptive praise as described by Dr. Ginott, where you notice good things about your children and give liberal, genuine, appreciative statements. Dr. Ginott says this is the building blocks of their self esteem, and is what children will repeat back to themselves as their inner voice. They need to “hear and overhear” positive remarks about themselves. The key is that the praise is descriptive and genuine.


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.

Now here are some unsettled issues that remain in my mind after reading the book.

Family Meetings versus In-the-Moment Confrontations

The author is opposed to family meetings. He describes how most meetings are benevolent–but authoritarian–with one parent, usually dad, “sermonizing” to the kids about how to behave. Kids don’t leave with any good feelings or behaviors after holding one.

Many books describe better ways of running the meeting, where participants are equal. Anyone can put an issue on the agenda. All voices are welcome. They start with compliments about each other. So, I still see value in them, if done a better way than the author describes.

The author argues that family meetings are too abstract for children. They are too “happy.” He says in negotiations, emotions tend to, and should, run high. But I just wonder if the emotionally removed family meeting might be a benefit: Maybe it is better to talk about issues after things have calmed down.

Finally, the author says most problems involve just two people. But, not all. If making chore charts or some other, having the family involved might help. It might be a way, also, to know that you can bring up an issue routinely, without having to wait for the right, emotionally intense moment. I admit that being able to negotiate right on the spot is a valuable, lifelong skill to practice, model, and encourage.

I have found benefit in meetings. They kick up genuine emotion in my child, which I know how to patiently work through, at a time when I am ready for it. They give an opportunity to talk about ideal behavior and I notice marked improvement in behavior when we have one, with my 4 year old. The author is opposed to parents “giving the solution,” but that brings me to my next point:

When Negotiation is Age Appropriate

The author argues his tactics should be employed at young ages. I agree, and I try to use them whenever they seem appropriate with my 4 year old. The author gives some examples of using P.E.T with toddlers or even infants. I was unmoved by his examples, because I did not see that “negotiation” was at play, the real heart of P.E.T, but rather simple emotional validation.

Many authors will tell you that young children need strong demonstrations and clear expectations. This seems opposite of the I statement approach where you turn the key over to the kid to solve most problems.

Let’s say a kid keeps bursting through doors and knocking over whoever or whatever is behind the door. I have found that a clear demonstration of what is expected resolves the behavior, such as using puppets to show what happens when someone bursts through the door–when dealing with young children. Imagine if I had said, to a young child, “I feel concerned when you burst through the door, because you might knock someone over.” I am not entirely sure that a 3 or 4 year old would come up with an ideal solution. I have found that giving concrete examples of how to behave better work with children this age.

The author outright says his methods are most effective with older children, and completely remarkable with teenagers. The author boasts that teenage rebellion is absent in P.E.T. homes. I really look forward to using this model as my children turn probably 8 or 9, which is when I remember being upset that my parents didn’t listen to me. Perhaps it can be used even younger, at 6 or 7. I’m just not to those ages yet.

So, yes, I absolutely try to use I statements and letting young kids solve their own problems when possible–and I have seen it work, even with preschoolers! But this issue of strong expectations vs letting them work through problems remains in my mind. I am not sure it is comprehensive enough, to work in all situations that comes up with preschoolers. In other words, it may be one tool in the parenting tool box, not the only tool. But, when does it apply? This is where I will put much intellectual effort of how they weave together for preschoolers in the next months.

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