Between Parent and Teenager
By Dr. Haim G. Ginott
May be copied for noncommercial, educational purposes
Chapter 2 – First Respect Their Reality
It is common for parents to judge teens' perceptions and statements by their own reality. Parents need a different approach. First of all do not deny your teenagers' perceptions. Do not argue with their experiences. Do not try to convince him that what he sees or hears or feels or senses is not so.
Carol and her mother were window shopping:
CAROL, age fifteen : What a beautiful blouse.
MOTHER: It's not beautiful. It's ugly and vulgar.
Such a reply creates hostility. Mother may have intended to prevent a bad choice, but Carol did not hear the hidden intentions. What she heard was: “You are stupid. You have no taste.”
An effective response does not attack a teenager's taste. Instead, it describes it.
“I see you want a blouse that is cut low.”
“You like green, pink and purple.”
“You go for large designs.”
Parents may then state their own preference.
“I prefer quiet patterns.”
“I like soft colors.”
“I go for delicate designs.”
“I am fond of stripes.”
These statements are safe because they omit evaluations. They do not criticize. The only describe. Descriptive statements are not likely to arouse hostility and defiance. Since her taste is not attacked, the teenager need not defend it. A non-critical response leaves her free to reconsider her choices. It allows for change of mind without loss of face.
The Salty Soup – A Story with a Moral
Cynthia, age fourteen, tasted a spoonful of soup.
CYNTHIA ( with disgust ): It's too salty.
MOTHER: No, it's not. I hardly used any salt at all. Stop complaining and eat!
CYNTHIA: It's awful.
MOTHER: The soup is delicious. It has mushrooms and barley and –
CYNTHIA: Look, Mom, if it's so delicious you eat it.
MOTHER: You know what you are? You are fresh and spoiled. That's what you are. Millions of children would love to have this soup.
CYNTHIA: So give it to them.
She rushed away to her room.
This episode deserves a happier ending. When a teenager complains that a dish is too spicy or too hot or too cold, it is not helpful to argue with her taste buds. Instead, accept his experience as fact and respond accordingly:
“The soup is too salty for you.”
“You prefer less spice in your soup.”
It is best not to volunteer verbal remedies. Instead, we let our teenager use his own initiative to deal with life situations. Acknowledging the difficulty and waiting for her suggestions allows her to assert her will and exercise her autonomy.
Food is a symbol of love; it is best to deal with it graciously. It is unlikely that our generosity will be exploited. On the contrary, it will induce good will. When mellower moods prevail, complaints evaporate and solutions appear.
When Carl's mother responded to his complaints about the corned beef with: “Oh, it's too salty for you. I wish we had something else,” seventeen-year-old Carl said: “It's O.K., Mom. I'll take it with a grain of salt.” Everybody laughed and the crisis was over. In the past, similar complaints led to angry arguments and spoiled moods.
Abstract art and concrete conversation
Calvin, age thirteen, went with his father to a gallery of abstract art.
CALVIN: These pictures don't make any sense.
FATHER: What do you know about art? Have you read any books on the subject? You would do well to get an education before you express and opinion.
Calvin gave father a deadly look and said: “I still think the pictures stink.”
This conversation did not increase Calvin's appreciation for art or his love for his father. Calvin felt insulted, hurt, and revengeful. He will look for an opportunity to get back at his father. From the mouths of our children come words we should never have said.
When Clara, age fourteen, criticized modern painting, mother did not dispute her opinion. Nor did she condemn her taste.
MOTHER: You don't like abstract art?
CLARA: I sure don't. It's ugly.
MOTHER: You prefer representational art?
CLARA: What's that?
MOTHER: You like it when a house looks like a house, and a tree like a tree, and a person like a person.
MOTHER: Then you like representational art.
CLARA: Imagine that. All my life I liked representational art and didn't know it.
The politics of peace: words and feelings
Charles, age sixteen, is interested in political science. He likes to talk about strange countries and foreign nations. His facts are not always accurate and his opinions are often overstated.
CHARLES: China will soon be the strongest nation in the world. Now is the time to declare war on China .
FATHER: Look at my sixteen-year-old military genius! What do you know about such complex problems? You talk like an idiot. Let me tell you a few things about China .
CHARLES ( in anger ): No thanks, Dad.
FATHER: What's the matter? The argument getting too hot for you? Well, “If you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.”
Hurt and angry, Charles left the living room, while father went on lecturing to his wife on how to bring peace to the world. Father's sermon on peace resulted in a new war at home. His talk with his son did not create greater love or respect in the family. Charles did not learn anything about peace, or politics. He did learn to resent his father, and to keep his ideas to himself.
Was the battle necessary? Perhaps not. It is never wise to try to convince our teenager that he is stupid, and that his ideas are idiotic. The real danger is that he may believe us. Applying the rule of not disputing a teenager's opinions, father could have said: “I am interested in your ideas about war and peace. Tell me more about them.” Then father could have repeated the gist of this son's views to indicate that he had listened and understood. Then, and only then, he would state his own views: “I see we differ in our opinion on China . This is my view…” In an argument, the key to dialogue is the willingness to summarize the other person's view, before stating one's own.
It is a parent's responsibility to demonstrate to his teenager fruitful methods of communication and conversation, such as:
Listening with attention.
Repeating the gist of the teen's statement.
Avoiding criticism and name calling.
Stating one's own views.
We win our teenager's attention when we listen with a third ear and responds with a sympathetic tongue. We win his heart when we express for him clearly what he said vaguely. We win respect when we are authentic, when our words fit our feelings. The following stories illustrate how parents can use the method of acknowledging experience.
“The way you feel is how it really was for you.”
Cora, age fifteen, complained because her younger sister had gone skating, and her brother bowling.
CORA: They're always doing things – skating, bowling. When I was their age I could never do anything. You never took me skating.
MOTHER: Well, honey, you know that your doctor wouldn't permit you on skates.
FATHER: You forget that you were ill. Still, we did many things together.
CORA: I don't remember doing anything. You never took me anywhere.
MOTHER and FATHER ( protesting in chorus ): But, Cora, we did. Don't you remember the circus, the trip to Canada ?
At this point mother changed her approach. All at once, she latched on to Cora's feelings, and said to her husband: “Cora feels deprived! She really feels neglected!” “That's right I do!” Cora confirmed loudly.
MOTHER: It doesn't matter what the reasons are. If you feel this way, that's how it really was for you.
CORA ( quietly ): That's right!
The steam was taken out of the subject and the argument came to a halt. Mother related: “This incident convinced me that reason and logic do not satisfy the needs of a teenager in emotional situations. It also taught me that I can change approaches in mid-stream.”
“Missing two days can mean a great deal.”
Here is a story of a mother who has learned to acknowledge rather than deny her child's perception.
The family planned to go to Florida two days before school ended. When Cary , age thirteen, heard about the timing, he became upset and said: “I can't leave before school ends. I'll miss too much work!”
FATHER: Don't be ridiculous. They don't do anything in school before vacation.
CARY : That's not true. You don't know what it's like to miss even one day!
FATHR: Big deal – two days! The teachers will be cleaning up to go on vacation themselves.
This conversation became more bitter. Mother suddenly became aware of what was wrong. She heard an inner voice: “Don't deny a child's perception.” To Cary she said, “In eighth grade missing two day can mean a great deal. You'll have a lot of work to make up. Maybe you would prefer to stay home, or take a later flight and meet us.” Cary immediately perked up. Mother continued: “Or maybe you can discuss it with your teachers and take along some extra work. Think about what you'd like to do and let us know. After all, we need not jeopardize you position in school just for a few days of vacation.” Given the status he was seeking, Cary very soon said, “Let me think it over, I'll find a solution.”
“It's rough getting out of bed, especially on a cool morning.”
Here is a mother who used her skill to start the day on the right foot.
“The alarm went off, but Cyrus, age fifteen, shut it, turned over, went back to sleep.
“I called, ‘Clock says seven-thirty, Cy.'
“‘I know,' he grumbled.
“‘It's rough getting out of bed, especially on a cool morning. How about a warm cup of cocoa?”
“‘No, I'd rather have milk and some toast – nothing else please.'
“He was up. I didn't have to nag him or threaten him. But he was still grumpy. He complained, ‘All these books. I get tired before the day begins.'
“‘You want a ride to school this morning, don't you?” I questioned.
“‘Well, yes,' he said, ‘but I don't want to get you out of the house so early. I can't wait till I get my driver's license. I'll get myself a jalopy and drive myself.' He got dressed and walked to school.”
“It is lonesome to practice by yourself.”
This episode was described by a music teacher.
“Craig, age thirteen, didn't have his written homework for his music lesson completed. In the past, I used to ask for explanations. Invariably, I received fantastic excuses. This time I expressed my displeasure without insult, threat, or question. ‘I expect you to be prepared,' I stated. ‘But I practiced,' Craig protested. ‘The written work is part of you responsibility,' I replied firmly. ‘I see you're not a marshmallow,' said Craig. ‘My former teacher was a real soft touch.'
“Later in the lesson, Craig said, ‘I really like to play the piano. Practicing isn't much fun, though. I wish I didn't have to practice.' ‘It is lonesome to practice by yourself,' I remarked. His eyes lit up. ‘Yeah, it sure is. You really know what it feels like, don't you?' said Craig. I just smiled and he continued to practice.”
The person and the method
Acknowledging experience and reflecting feelings are helpful interpersonal skills. However, they are not tricks or gimmicks. Nor can they be used mechanically. They are helpful only within a context of concern and respect. In human relations, the agents of help are never solely the techniques, but the person who employs them. Without compassion and authenticity, techniques fail.