A study guide, glowing review, and slight criticism of Liberated Parents, Liberated Children Amber Pawlik

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Understanding Your Child's (and Your) Emotions

The book Liberated Parents, Liberated Children by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish is a fantastic book and a must-read for parents. It profoundly changed the way I view dealing with my son. If I had to describe the book in one phrase, it would be "emotional health." The following article is meant to give the main highlights of the book, stated in a very simple, conceptually lucid way as to act as a powerful study guide—and also to give a slight criticism of the book.  

The issue I take exception to is that they say they reject the "logic" (also stated as "rational") model of parenting in favor of the "validating feelings" model. I have no issue with validating feelings, but I do take issue with the idea that what they reject is "logic."

I do not think this is a matter of semantics. By rejecting "logic," the message they are trying to convey becomes muddled and confusing. The authors themselves describe how they had great difficulty implementing the advice given from their mentor, Dr. Ham Ginott, even years after taking parenting courses. They describe how it is like learning a new language and they had to carefully think over every word before saying it. I contend this is because when a person is told they should not use logic, and instead should use the magic formula offered, they will find themselves second guessing everything they do, always having to reference a guide to determine how to act. Logic is what integrates knowledge into a unified whole, and so, without it, everything seems like a disjointed heap of advice, which is how I sometimes felt when reading through their books. There is a powerful clarity of knowledge that only a philosophy that stems from logic and reason can provide.

Further, the approach advocates by them is rational as it advocates highly sophisticated observations of the child. When working with a correct definition of "rational," it is easy to see how the very excellent advice of observing your child's and your own emotions, i.e., empathy, fits into a philosophy of rational parenting.

To be sure, the authors are not the first proponents of this dichotomy between empathy and reason. There are few thinkers who advocate "rationality," who don't in some way discard emotions. And, there are few advocates of empathy who fully embrace anything labeled as "rational." My goal is to show that the two should be flawlessly united.

This article is meant to, first, be a thorough review of their work such as to act as a study aid. And, second, to prove that the advice offered in these books is based on logic—logic as applied to emotions and parenting—and that what they describe as "logic," in fact is not. In writing this article, I intend to cover all major aspects of the Faber/Mazlish approach, integrating all of them into a more unified message, and to show that these principles can be integrated even further into a philosophy of rational parenting, which means observant parenting.

First, a brief over view of logic and reason. Reason is the process of identifying reality. It requires a human consciousness to do this. There is existence, which is absolute and unchanging in nature, i.e., has an identity. Human consciousness comes to an understanding about what it sees, which is a process and as such, is not automatic, perfect, or guaranteed. Logic is the art of non-contradictory identification. In other words, that A = A.

What is described as "logic," by the authors is when a child is not willing to cooperate with a parent and the parent tries to explain to a child why their (the parent's) way of doing something is "right." The authors describing the lectures they received from Dr. Ginott:

In the beginning the meetings took the form of lectures, and each lecture taught us new skills. We learned about the limits of logic in dealing with a child, and about the power of speaking to his emotions. We saw how it was possible to give a child in fantasy what we could not give him in reality.

For me, who had been so dedicated to the rational approach, this insight came as a gift. I can still hear the sound of my own voice as I sat in the car, patiently explaining to a grumpy David that we were all thirsty, that we couldn't help being stuck in traffic, that there was no way for us to stop and get a drink, that complaining wouldn't make the car go any faster.

I do not think this is logic or a rational way of communicating with another human being. Imagine if, instead of being parent and child, the two people involved were two adults. What if one adult tried to argue with another person about the rightness of their idea, without listening to the other person, explaining why their way was right? You could pick a lot of words to describe this—bossy, preachy, lecturing, manipulative, insensitive—but logical is not one of them. In fact, the word "unreasonable" comes to mind.

The phrases, "listen to the child," or also, "observe the child," can describe, simply and eloquently, much of what is said by Faber and Mazlish. And this is perfectly in line with reason, as reason is the process of observing reality. A "rational" parent does not mean to be lecturing in nature but observant. A rational chemist observes chemical; a rational doctor observes his patient; a rational parent observes their child. Being observant is, from the day they are born, the most important skill a parent can possess. And, if you accept this, almost all of their advice becomes integrated and much easier to understand and apply.

Now, for all of the specifics in how this applies.

Validate Feelings

The most common, powerful, and intellectually riveting theme throughout all books is to validate a child's feelings.

I'll give a simple example of how not to validate a child's feelings: a child says "I'm cold," and the parent says, "Don't be silly it's warm in here."

Here it is easy to see how the validating feelings approach is in line with logic and reason. Logic, because, if you don't, you are asking a child to accept that they are warm—a non-A—when they say they are cold—an A. Validating feelings is in line with reason, because reason is the process of observing reality correctly. The child's feelings are real. Their perception of a situation is different than yours. You may be warm, but the child is cold.

Looking back on my youth, it seems like there were two types of adults: the kind that denied feelings, often telling you to "suck it up" or "stop whining," and another kind that looked at you as if you were a poor, helpless wounded bird as they tried to "sympathize" with you. This latter kind would often guess as to what a problem you might have is, when sometimes there wasn't one. They may say, "It can be hard to start a new school," when in fact you weren't thinking that at all. This is also a non-logical approach, because they are making up a feeling (A) when none exist (0). Further, they tend to look at you as a creature incapable of solving your own problem, a truly infuriating and condescending approach. Empathy (validating feelings) is not the same thing as pity.

The approach truly grounded in reason is to listen to what a child actually says and feels, then accurately reflect it back to them, preferably in a simple, short way.

Reading about validating feelings came just at the right time for me, when my son was 2 years and 2 months. At this age, I found, emotions as verbally stated started to surface. My first experience was during the summer in FL, when it thunderstorms a lot. One day, thunder cracked. My son became visibly scared and even said, "John scared." I told him "It's thunder; it's nothing to be scared of." As I was saying it, I regretted the words coming out of my mouth and wanted to kick myself. Here I was reading all about validating children's feelings, meditating on the nuances of how this applies, and for this very simple emotion, I was telling him not to feel it, that he should feel what I wanted him to feel, i.e., I was externally manipulating him.

A few days later, suddenly and unexpectedly, thunder cracked. He became visibly scared again, and again said, "John scared!" This time, prepared, I used descriptive language. I told him, "It's thunder," and then I validated his feelings the best way I know how: I put my hand on his knee and said, "It's OK to be scared." For the next crack of thunder, he said, without even a hint of fear and with much enthusiasm, "Thunder! John is scared of thunder!" He said this in the same way he might have said, "John is going to ride a train!!"

I was truly stunned by this. He seemed as excited about identifying his emotion as he was when he first learned what a "ball" or the "moon" was. For the next several days, when thunder cracked, he simply said, "John is scared of thunder," and kept doing what he was doing. Validating his feelings did not cause him to curl up into a ball; it empowered him.

From then on, he always informed me of his feeling of being scared of thunder. Had I kept telling him, "Don't be scared!" how long would it take before he started to hide his feelings from me?

On this topic, let's also ask why a child may be afraid of thunder: it's because thunder is scary and there is legitimate reason to be afraid. If a person did not live in a house, thunder would be the first warning to go seek shelter from dangerous lightning, wind, and rain. Let's assume we did not live in houses. If thunder cracked and an adult told a child to not be scared, the child's emotions would be scrambled in such a way to work against his own survival.

What a gift it is to identify, validate, and help your child understand his own emotions. How comfortable a child will become when they learn that their emotions are allowed to be felt; that what they are feeling is actually real. A young child is not lying when they say they are scared, upset, cold, etc. I have found in my adult life that, assuming you are a semi-rational person, trusting your emotions is an invaluable skill and almost leads you in the right direction. If something just doesn't feel right, it is because something probably isn't—and, when an adult, it is your job to investigate further.

One feeling that should always be respected is a child's right to their own body. They should never be forced to kiss an older relative out of "respect." Think of the contradictory message it sends when you tell them, "No one should touch you in a way you don't like," and then you force them to be touched in a way they don't like. The group RadKids teaches children self-defense, and one of their main teachings is to trust your instincts. This gift of trusting your emotions as true and valid could very well save your child's life.

One thing that greatly confused me about the authors' work is that they advocate that validating feelings come before any other conversation, such as asking any who-what-when-where-why questions. This confusion was cleared up when I saw it in action with my own son.

My son, who was only 2, was on a playdate with another boy, also 2. At the end of the playdate, the boy's mother wanted to help clean up the play dough we had been playing with. I normally ask my son to help clean it up, and he usually does, at his own pace, when he is ready, and after he is done. The mother swooped in and cleaned it up without any of these considerations. My son was very, very upset and crying. The mother completely ignored his feelings. He hit her. She snapped at my son, "No hitting!" (This all happened in a matter of 30 seconds and I was in another room only watching out of the side of my eye.)

I was furious that she would yell at my son. While she was cleaning up the dough, he was visibly upset that she was doing it, and she completely ignored this feeling of his. Instead, while he was upset, she lectured at him that the play dough needed cleaned up. Then after escalating his emotions to the point of hitting, she yelled at him. I have read many experts say that crying is the last sign that an infant is hungry—that they made many other signs before crying to indicate they were hungry. In the same way, I see hitting as the very last sign that a child's emotional needs have been ignored. If you want to minimize hitting, start listening to your children—to their feelings.

Or, as another example, my son once threw all the magnets off of our refrigerator. We asked him to clean them up. He didn't. Instead, he got upset, started crying, and asked for a bagel. I think most people would have seen giving him the bagel as "rewarding bad behavior." I told my husband I'd like to try something. I gave him a small part of the bagel. He instantly calmed down. Immediately after eating the bagel, he cleaned up the magnets! Both my husband and I were stunned.

The lesson I got from this is that the emotions need to be handled first. There can be no reasoning, lecturing, lessons given, or orders followed while a child is upset. One mantra of Dr. Ginott is "only after a child feels right can he think right." This can also be thought of to mean that if a child feels bad, he cannot think straight or use reason. He also says, "for good emotions to come in, bad emotions have to come out." Practically what this means is to never, ever try to give a lesson, lecture, or otherwise do anything with a child while they are in pain—either physically because they hurt themselves or emotionally due to being upset. 

As an example of how not to implement this, if for instance, a child takes a tumble down the stairs, while they are crying, the parent may lecture, "That's what you get when you play on the stairs!" Or, after suffering some mean taunts at the hands of a friend, a child may be in tears and the parent starts to lecture, "Sticks and stones may break your bones … " These life lessons while a child is in pain will go unheard. Imagine the last time you were in pain, or simply frustrated. Let's say you burned dinner. If your spouse said to you, "That's what you get when you take your eye off of the frying pan!", how would you react? You would be hurt and defensive. Or, simply, if you just had a heart attack, would the time you were in pain be a time to be lectured about your diet? The worst case I ever heard of is when a teenage girl got pregnant. During delivery, her mother refused to let her have any pain relief and screamed at her that is what she got for having premarital sex. Whatever degree it is in, giving a lesson while a child is in pain is as cruel and ineffective as this extremely mean mother.

Instead, empathize when the child is in pain. After they are done with the pain, then re-evaluate the situation to see what could have been done better or talk over solutions or whatever it is you want to do. They have to be in a calm state of mind to do post-analysis.

I have found, as is advocated by the authors, that identifying your own emotions is also incalculably valuable. What I found is that by identifying my emotion—verbally—I am liberated to clear out any bad emotions and deal with situations more calmly and rationally. The authors go so far as to say something as extreme as, "I am so angry right now I could throw all of your toys out of the window!" All feelings are valid—you can verbally say (almost) whatever you want—but all actions are limited. Verbally, the only imitation is that insults should never be used (see next section.)

If, when your child is upset, they insult themselves, validate the feeling but never the insult. They may say, "I am so stupid; I can't pass a spelling test." The response is easy, "You are frustrated that you didn't do well on the spelling test."

What is being described here is empathy. There is much confusion about empathy. Empathy does not mean "help others." It also does not mean "agree with others." It simply means to turn a listening ear to a person. Dr. Ginott says this should be done in a short way, "turn a paragraph into a sentence; a sentence into a word; a word into a gesture." It need not be a one-hour emotion-fest as would be seen on Oprah. It also has its limits. If a person is falling into a "woe is me" state of mind, they need a pep talk, not empathy.

Although the authors' say they are opposed to models of parenting based on "rationality," this approach can be and should be part of a model of parenting based on reason. Validating feelings is part of rational parenting—of the constant observations and running narrative that an observant parent does. Observation, I argue in my e-book series entitled The Observant Mom, is the most important, primary characteristic of good parenting. It includes observing your child's physical signs, what they say, what they feel; and what you feel. It starts when they are infants: you observe their physical signs for hunger and sleep, and, if rational, deliver it to them. It continues as they get older and you start narrating all of life for them, as to raise their awareness of reality. For instance, when you turn a light on, say "On!" so they make the connection between the word "on" and what is happening.

It is good however to isolate out feelings as something to observe and accept as immutable parts of reality. A child's emotions should be as glaringly obvious to a parent as a bruise on their arm or the words coming out of their mouth, and should be taken into account as they make parenting decisions. The authors even describe this, in a section called "feelings are fact," using what is dangerously close to a language of reason:

My children's feelings had become as real to me as apples, pears, chairs, or any other physical object. I could no more ignore what the children felt than I could ignore a barricade in the middle of the road. It is true that their feelings could change—sometimes very quickly—but while these feelings were being felt there was no greater reality.

Use Descriptive Language

Another powerful message from the authors is to use "descriptive language" instead of "value judgments," i.e., insults or praise.

When you first read this advice, you may think it means to never coach, explain, or comment on a child's work at all—just being completely silent or at the very least, completely impartial. But that is not what the authors mean. And, again, by framing this issue as one of being rooted in reason makes the issue, which they directly say can be hard to understand, crystal clear to understand.

Let's start with praise—it's a lot more fun. Instead of being generic or over-the-top with praise, they instead advocate to be very specific and descriptive in how you praise.

The classic example is when a child brings you a drawing. Some typical reactions are to give generic praise, such as "what a nice painting!" or to give global praise, such as "You are the best artist ever!" Instead, take an interest in the work and describe it, "I see a horse with a beautiful long mane and I love how you coordinated all of the colors." Certainly, this approach is better. Saying "Great job, kid!", perhaps even throwing the work back to them with hardly a glance, is an uncaring, uninterested response—and the child will notice. If you give a description of the work, you are taking an interest in what they did, and taking an interest in one's work is what every creator of any age wants.

Note that by describing the work, you can and will likely make value judgments, such as "how pleasant!" or "how thoughtful!" The authors' language, in my opinion, is a bit sloppy in how they present this idea, saying that there are no value judgments. They even say praise is fine; it just needs to be done better. The authors, quoting Dr. Ginott, their mentor, "[… ]telling a child he's 'good' is [not] necessarily bad; it's just not good enough."

This approach to praise is powerful. It infuses the child with actual self-confidence. They aren't just told they are good, but why they are good. They are not just a "good boy," they are a boy capable of making a good drawing or fixing the sink or telling the truth or any number of things. You are helping raise the child's awareness of reality—the reality of who he as an individual is. You are helping him to see what his strengths are. This can go a long way towards a number of things, not the least of which is choosing a future career path. And there is nothing quite like observing, for yourself, your own strengths that gives a person actual self-confidence.

When I was younger, I kept a journal of my own notes, specifically so that "when I was older I would remember what it was like to be a child." One of the things I wrote, or at least remember thinking, was that I would tell my daughter, should I have one, not just that she was pretty but why she was pretty. I would describe that she had beautiful eye lashes, beautiful hair, or great skin. I knew had someone done this for me, I would bat my eye lashes when I could; be proud to let my hair down; and be comfortable in my own skin. This approach, I think, would evaporate the severe self-esteem problem so many teenage girls have, especially when it comes to what they look like. To think I wrote this exact thing about descriptive praise as a teenager! To know I craved it when I was young makes me that much more confident in this approach.

Let me point out that this approach of using descriptive language is completely, utterly, and perfectly in line with reason. Reason is description. That's what reason is: a total commitment to observing, understanding, and acting in accordance with the facts of reality. An Ayn Rand quote that struck me the day I read it and has stuck with me ever since is, " A physical science would not permit itself (not yet, at least) to ignore or bypass the nature of its subject. Such an attempt would mean: a science of astronomy that gazed at the sky, but refused to study individual stars, planets, and satellites." By nature, reason is not generic but very specific and detailed.

Now let's move on to insults. They should never, ever, be used. I will make a case that insults are counterproductive in all areas of life, with children and with other adults you would like to see change.

It is simple: insults are not motivators. You cannot change someone by making them feel bad about themselves. It is not helpful; it is demoralizing. This approach of not insulting a child is advocated in the books entitled "Positive Discipline." The authors argue that you cannot change a person by making them feel bad about themselves, such as with "blame, pain, or shame." This is why they are opposed to spankings or timeouts (punitive discipline) as a method of behavior modification. Let's also add insults, labels, and physical or emotional pain to the list of things that do not improve a person.

This again does not mean to turn a blind eye to problems. But instead of insults, weakness in the child should be seen as a need for training, coaching, teaching, and encouragement.

This extends to all areas of the child's life. What good does it to, if a child is struggling with penmanship, to tell them, "You have terrible penmanship!"? Instead, after observing that they need work in this area, start to work with them, building on their strengths. Or, if they are socially awkward around peers, what good does it do to say to a child, "God, you are such a DORK!" Or even worse is making fun of an overweight child as being "fat" or "chubby." Instead, give them the tools they need for improvement.

The insulting approach is one based on mysticism. Logic is a process and is not automatic. To acquire any skill whatsoever, the child must learn it. To not equip the child, expecting them to have his mysterious skill automatically, is mysticism. There is some knowledge or skill that the child is expected to have, but doesn't, and gets insulted over it. The child can only end up feeling like it is a skill outside of his reach. An approach grounded in logic and reason naturally seeks to train, equip, and explain the child what is needed—breaking up a skill into component skills and building on each. Logic dictates that everything be taught and explained; it is intrincism that gives rise to blanket insults.

Another closely related evil to insults is "roles." A role is an insult but worse because it has the implicit phrase, "and you'll always be that way" attached at the end. An insult may be "you were clumsy," a role may be, "Here is Susie, who we have nicknamed Butterfingers." What can this do except lock a child into thinking they will be or do this undesirable thing for the rest of their life? Instead, you as a parent may say, "I have confidence that in the future you can be careful when doing the dishes."

With all of this talk about describing and taking things at face value, it may be weird to find out that the authors advocate encouraging what might be in the child—a future desirable state that is not the current state, to not lock a child into a "role." But that is what maturation is: going from an immature to a mature state. This is what could be called romantic realism: encouraging children to a perfectly attainable goal. And I may add, through rational, encouraging means.

I adopt this view of not insulting people not just with my children, but with every adult I encounter in life, including coworkers, friends, family, and, of course, my husband. The results of using this method are truly jaw dropping. With my husband, whenever small issues come up (like "did you thaw the meat?"), I always try to ask him in a way and tone that never blames him should something go wrong. If something does go wrong, I immediately look for a solution. It not only creates for a better marriage, but it makes me a calmer and happier person. There is an inner peace I have that strives to never, ever hurt a person with words—in the same way that I don't hurt a person with fists. This does not mean I keep quiet over issues. I simply bring things back to the issue without any insults.

At work (when I used to work), the results were even more dramatic. I used to be very in the weeds with new engineers, showing them how they did things right or wrong. I would get upset when they wouldn't do what I asked. I will be the first to tell you that it caused resentment. I completely backed off. I at first backed off simply because I was exhausted, but backing off happened to coincide with my reading about positive discipline. I made an effort to never, ever insult them. Instead, I would give them advice on what or how to do something, then let them go off and work on it on their own. I did give feedback, but only either when asked or expected, such as during a formal peer review. This greatly improved relationships, and the work they did was so good as to sometimes be jaw dropping!

What I had to learn was that I could not expect them—new engineers—to absorb everything I said immediately or perform at the level I was at, given I had been doing what I had been doing for 10 years. I could not demand their performance; their growth had to be done by them. And it is and was a process that had many mistakes along the way. This is natural and to be expected. Parents take notice. Your children will make mistakes along the way. Mistakes are valuable. They learn and grow from them. Don't step in and try to do things for them, otherwise you are taking this valuable learning experience away from them. And, again, don't insult them as they put one timid but confident foot in front of the other, either.

Let Them Solve their own problems

It may seem strange that in these books is a very hard message about not hovering over a child, letting them solve their own problems on their own. What does this have to do with validating feelings or descriptive language? It however has everything to do with descriptive language. Using descriptive language is the very key to guiding a child towards solving their own problems.

Currently, there are two and only two loud, noisy fields of thought on how much guidance one should give a child. On one side are helicopter parents. These people don't have any experts or even bloggers in their corner, but this style of parenting is ubiquitous. Helicopter parents do not let a child solve problems on their own. They are there every step of the way, micromanaging their child's life. They check up on if they did their homework; groom them; drag them to piano lessons. Having a totalitarian mindset, if children are in a conflict, the parent will decide a proper negotiation between the children, such as "each of you share the toy for 15 minutes at a time," which at no point solicited the children's input. They treat the child as if the child is a puppet, and they are the puppeteers.

On the other side are parents who, in response to helicopter parenting, say children need no supervision whatsoever. A popular article from the Atlantic called "The Over-Protected Kid", proudly says to let children play in junkyards with no adult supervision, epitomizes this. Parents give no coaching, training, or guidance to the child—they turn a blind eye to even the worst of dangers, including bullies, predators, and physical dangers. Children, who by nature are in an immature state, are turned loose on the world, told to figure things out on their own. The children, being children, can only tend to act like mindless, usually cruel zombies, and tend to get hurt a lot (and sick) along the way.

Using descriptive language resolves the issue completely. This approach does not turn a total blind eye to the children but also does not physically solve problems for them.

As an example, when my son was 2, he tried diligently to put a train track set together. He consistently put a long piece where a short piece should be and a short piece where a long piece should be. He would ask us to help him fix it regularly. These would be the responses of each parenting philosophy:

1.       The helicopter parent would do it for him, with no explanation.

2.       The blind eye parents would tell them to figure it out on their own, with no explanation.

3.       The parent who used descriptive language would describe the problem to him: how the long and short pieces need switched.

I did exactly this, described the problem to him, and, at just 2 years and 3 months, after I left the room and came back, my son had assembled the train track on his own, correctly!

This approach is like breathing a soul into the child. You are raising their powers of observation, i.e., their reasoning capability. They become the maestros of their own life. It is also part of a bigger parenting philosophy which I call a "Hands Off!" philosophy. It means that verbal coaching is acceptable but actually solving problems is not. If you are worried about raising a "spoiled" child by using any of the approaches in this article, let me ask you: If you let children solve most of their problems on their own, do you think they will become spoiled?

In reading through Liberated Parents, Liberated Children, some parents said they genuinely never had the opportunity to praise their children, or even build on their weaknesses, as the child did not do anything remarkable in the weeks that passed. It struck me that the only way this could happen is if the parent was not letting the child do things on their own. If they are doing things on their own, there should be lots of room for either sophisticated, descriptive praise, or constructive suggestions of improvement. If you find yourself in this situation, think of things the child can do autonomously.

It is important also, I have found, to not only use descriptive language, but to listen to the child's emotions while getting them to learn new skills or solve problems on their own.

I observed some "tiger moms" while my son was taking swim lessons. It was a "Mommy and Me" course designed for toddlers, where the parent is in the water with the child. During the class, the children of the tiger moms were miserable, upset, and crying at what the moms were trying to get the children to do. One child was 14 months old and the mother, at the prompt of the instructor, kept trying to get the child to jump into the water. The girl's face scrunched up and she let out a painful high pitched cry, which if I could put into words sounded like, "I've done this before and I don't want to do it and no one will listen to me so I can do nothing but cry this sorrowful cry." The other mom would push her daughter, who was 2 years and 2 months, under water, toward the wall or another adult to show how the child could "swim." The child cried hysterically and frantically. When the child would show she was scared of something, the mother would say, "She's fine! She's fine!" and not a second later, the child would burst into tears.

These moms ignored, purposefully and willfully, the emotional cries of their children. I was able to notice well before the children started crying that they were upset—these pre-signs were also ignored. The children's emotional health took a back seat to performance.

Further, as the children were being submerged in the water, they had a look of total confusion on their face. As an advocate of rationality, I am aghast that parents would cause such a disoriented state in their children. Is it any wonder that so many people see the world as an irrational, dizzying place?

While this approach sometimes makes short term gains, such as the 2 year 2 month year old girl who could "swim," frantically, to the wall after her mother pushed her, in the long run, this approach is self-defeating. These moms externally forced achievement onto their children. Whatever success the children had was reactionary, forced, and desperate. When the mothers are removed from the situation, what is the likelihood the children will continue to swim on their own, as a happy, internal pursuit?

Worst of all: at what expense is this approach? The consistent message these children got is that their emotions were to be ignored. What is at stake is their emotional health. I had epiphany while watching all of this: Ultimately, these children's ability to achieve happiness—arguably the highest emotion to achieve— either in the specific case of swimming or broadly in their entire life, is greatly compromised if not impossible.

There are much better healthier ways to build skills in children. Borrowing from Montessori, a key strategy is to break up complex skills into smaller, enjoyable skills, practiced in a stress-free environment until mastered and then combined. However, the book actually does not mention this as a strategy and so I will not elaborate on it. I actually take issue with this too, because I think the end result is more than a simple sin of omission, but this is for another article.

What I would like to point out, however, and in line with the message from the authors, is that no genuine learning can come about when a child is in emotional distress. To truly master something, a clear, happy state of mind is required. In this way, notice a certain irony: most see pushing a child as the path to achievement and that empathy will create a very timid child but in fact empathy empowers the child.

Accept Your Feelings

To fully execute this approach, it is important for a parent to get control of their own emotions. A study came out that showed that, of the parents who do spank their children, they spank their children much more often than they admit. They spank not because they think it is a principled approach to discipline but because they are frustrated. (I am sure you can guess I am opposed to spanking, as is Dr. Ginott).

To encourage you to become a patient parent, I do not think it comes down to having enough grit to muscle through all potentially frustrating episodes. It is not a matter of putting more pennies in your patience meter, but rather having some skills to cope with your emotions. Said another way: it is not a matter of willpower but strategy. Said yet another way: work smart, not hard.

To master your own feelings, as noted previously, verbally stating your emotions, I have found, is extremely helpful. Simply state, "It makes me angry when you keep climbing on the couch." It is healthy for your children to be told of your emotions. It also helps, as previously noted, to "clear out" your bad emotions such that you can calmly deal with the situation.

Many other strategies, such as a "positive timeout," may work for you and your family. I encourage you to find as many strategies as possible.


Ultimately, the messages contained in this book, and in this article, is that the tender creature that is your child, who is to become a man, must be built with the utmost respect for who he is, genuine love, support and encouragement. Sounds so simple right? Then why don't people do it?

When I look at my son's face, and think of this approach, I think of it as ultimate love. This approach completely rejects any insults or pain as supposed growth measures. These ills, if we are patient enough as parents, will never befall my children. Yet at the same time, his actual spirit is developed, piece by piece, through challenges that he works through on his own, with but a little gentle guidance. I easily look at my child as compared to other children and see how content, well-behaved, and joyful he is. There is a reason for that.

Note however that when under the care of other parents, my son can be aggressive; such as previously described where he hit another mother. That my son's behavior changes while under the care of other adults makes it glaringly obvious that adults greatly escalate situations and cause children to be "naughty." How great it would be if, instead of punishing children, adults made a more comprehensive analysis of the entire situation, including their behaviors, to see what may have caused the aggressive behavior.

Being observant of both your child and your own feelings fits in perfectly with an observant, rational approach to parenting. You simply take their emotional state into consideration when making decisions, as you would the words coming out of their mouth or physical signs of health. It is easy enough and simple enough to notice and say, "I see you are sad," or even, "I see this makes you happy!" Ignoring or denying these emotions can only result in a child who doesn't understand their own emotions, doesn't trust them, and becomes calloused.

It could be said that many people are naïve and don't have the skills to pay attention to their children's emotional health. I don't entirely believe that. It comes down to, if, as a parent, you want to build your child up or tear them down. It is true if you want to build them up, you still need to learn specific skills, but I can't accept that a person with this goal wouldn't have a negative sense of life reaction to certain parenting styles. Laughing at a child in pain; telling a young child just hit by another child to "stop whining"; hitting your own child—do these sound like the innocent mistakes of a naïve parent? It amazes me how many people were mistreated as children and then turn right around and do it to their children. Perhaps some of what they do is out of frustration. Another part of it is the sense of power they get out of it. After being a victim for so long, they dish out abuse with glee. It helps to understand the world when you realize that some people are just asses.

I am amazed when I read through the very good work of some psychologists who say they are opposed to "reason" and also "selfishness," and then every part of their message is in alignment with reason and rational self-interest. Their message would be much more powerful, natural, and empowering, if they would embrace this, for man is a creature of reason and must necessarily act in his self-interest. They lose fluidity when they do this. Why not work with man's nature instead of against it?

On the flip side, however, many rational thinkers dismiss feelings entirely. "If something is true, who cares about feelings!" is their usual motto. What is being asked is not to pander to feelings, automatically agree with the feeling, or use feelings as tools of cognition—but to simply acknowledge them. Like all areas of life, if these are acknowledged, managed, and thus, mastered, the results are much more desirable.

Reason and empathy should not be seen as enemies but as entirely compatible and desirable virtues.   

Amber Pawlik
July 16, 2014

The Observant Mom: How to have a Happy Infant through Respect, Observation, and Understanding
Amber Pawlik
This is a very concise book with thoroughly cross-referenced information for parents regarding sleeping and eating habits and the intellectual and physical growth of an infant. A philosophy is presented of respecting the child where the parent observes the child for signs of hunger, sleep, or other needs, and responds appropriately. This book will give you much of the information you need as a parent in just a few hours!

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