Kathryn Tonges is everything you’d expect from a parenting expert and dedicated primary school teacher. Though relaxed and friendly, her attention to the intricacies of communication is flawless. Constant eye contact and a persistently calm tone of voice let you know exactly where she stands. No wonder her skills are in high demand. Tonges has spent the past three decades studying the Parent Effectiveness Training (PET) method of communication, using it to not only to advise others but also to raise her own children. We sat down with Tonges to find out why the onus is on parents to change and how listening to your kids is the first step to better behavior.
How did you get into this line of work?
In 1977, during my first year of teaching in northern Queensland [Australia], I read a book called Parent Effectiveness Training (PET) by Dr. Thomas Gordon. I was so impressed that I began applying these skills in the classroom. I tried to find out if there was anyone teaching the course: the Australian PET representative informed me that there wasn’t. However, as serendipity would have it, a training course was about to begin the next week. I explained that I was only a first-year teacher with no children, but they encouraged me to do the training anyway. And so began my 33 years of teaching parenting and effective communication courses.
What qualifies you to comment on other people’s parenting skills?
I don’t see my role as commenting on other people’s parenting. What I do is present parents with a tried and tested method, [for which]the founder, Dr. Thomas Gordon, was nominated three times for a Nobel Peace prize. I am more convinced than ever of this approach. Parents need to be trained, not blamed. Parents’ feedback to me of their closer relationships with their children reinforces the benefits. Also, my husband and I have two adult sons who are well-adjusted and loving young men – both raised using this method.
What are the most common problems you see in your line of work?
Parents tell me about children not listening to them – or who’ve learned to get their needs met by whining, crying, manipulating or resisting. This usually stems from parents not listening to their children or not understanding their children’s needs. It is often the result of very autocratic parenting or parents who swing from being permissive to being aggressive when they can’t take any more. I really believe that parents are trying to do the best job they can. However, many had ineffective role models themselves or are confused by the plethora of parenting books and advice. I tell parents to consider the characteristics they want for their child by the time their child is an adult – and then to use that list as a benchmark to determine whether the parenting methods they are currently using are bringing out the best in their child.
What are the most common mistakes parents make when communicating with their children?
Firstly, parents often jump in, trying to fix things, make things better or tell children to stop crying or whining. Really, parents want peace. By blocking their child’s ability to express their feelings, they exacerbate the emotional intensity and encourage dependency. When parents actively listen, however, they allow children to release their feelings and think more clearly to get their needs met. Secondly, parents often use blame, judgment or bribery to try to get children to change their undesirable behaviors. When parents learn to confront their children clearly, without judgment, children are more likely to want to be helpers rather than feel like culprits.
What if your kids open up to you, but you don’t like what you’re hearing?
Children know their parents’ values, so if a child has opened up, knowing that this could upset the parent, it reflects a great deal of courage on the child’s part. It could also mean there is a great relationship between parent and child. It is vital to actively listen to the child’s perspective. This helps you to keep the communication channel open, so the child feels comfortable telling the whole story. After the child has shared, then you can sum up your understandingof the situation and their feelings. It is then very important that you convey what you are unhappy about. This needs to be said in a non-judgmental way, describing the behavior or value that you don’t like and the negative effect that this behavior could or does have on your child or you.
Who bears the responsibility to change, the children or the parents?
The parents! Parents are the leaders in the household. The more they learn effective methods of communication [and are able to]understand their children’s needs, the more that respectful relationship is developed. We certainly don’t punish children for falling over when learning to walk, yet children are frequently punished while learning emotional self-regulation or social skills.
Based on your training, what is the single most important technique you used when raising your boys?
Active listening. We had disagreements – however, our boys always felt heard and understood. They always knew that in their home they had parents who would listen. As adults, they are great listeners and have successful careers. They didn’t have to learn effective communication skills in the workplace or university; the skills came naturally to them.
What parenting challenges are unique to expat families in Beijing?
I’m not sure that they are unique to Beijing, but a big challenge for expat families is their children coping with loss through changes in friendships, leaving their home country and adjusting to cultural change. Listening and problem-solving with children are the two most important communication skills that can help children feel more in control of their lives. It’s important that families have time together every week. Connection happens when there is fun and togetherness.
How do parents avoid using bribery?
Don’t even start it! Bribery leads to children being motivated to do things only if they are rewarded. They also learn to manipulate others at school and eventually in relationships. If parents have already been using bribery, then they should tell their children that they won’t be doing it anymore. If the children are old enough, tell them why. Parents will need to explain the expected behavior and involve them in solving how they can get their needs met.
For example, [supermarket]shopping usually is not much fun. If you do take them, play games that involve them; even a 2-year-old can look out for items on the shelf from the shopping list. Children may get upset and even cry and scream for a treat. However, parents must remember why bribery is not in the long-term interests of a child.
For more information on parent effectiveness training, contact Kathryn Tonges at firstname.lastname@example.org.