Liberated Parents, Liberated Children: Your Guide to a Happier Family, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. New York: Harper, 2004. 272 pp. $14.99 (paperback).
Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish are well known for authoring Siblings Without Rivalry and the classic How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk. In these two books, they provide wise counsel to parents at wit’s end, offering them solutions to seemingly unsolvable problems; a way of communicating that connects parents and children rather than driving wedges between them; and testimonials to the effect that, although things may seem tough now, they can get better, and, with the right principles and practices, most likely will.
Although many people see Faber and Mazlish as experts, this is not how we see them at the start of Liberated Parents, Liberated Children: Your Guide to a Happier Family. Here, unexpectedly, we find that they are unskilled parents with bad habits and out-of-control tempers. They have ambitious goals as parents, but, as becomes obvious almost instantly, they are not yet living up to them. Recounting one unnerving experience, for example, the authors write:
I, who was going to be the mother of the century—I, who had always felt so superior to those shrill, arm-yanking, “mean” mothers in the supermarket—I, who was determined that the mistakes of my parents would never be visited upon my children—I, who felt I had so much to give—my warmth, vast patience, my joy in just being alive—had walked into the children’s room this morning, looked at the floor smeared with fingerpaints, and unleashed a shriek that made the supermarket mother sound like the good fairy. But most bitter to me were the things I said: “Disgusting . . . slobs . . . can’t I trust you for a minute?” These were the very words I had heard and hated in my own childhood. (1–2)
Soon, however, the authors go to meet Haim Ginott, a child psychologist who was giving a lecture nearby. As they recall, Ginott began his lecture by asking: “What is it about the language I use with children that is different?”
“The language I use,” he continued, “does not evaluate. I avoid expressions which judge a child’s character or ability. I steer clear of words like ‘stupid, clumsy, bad,’ and even words like ‘beautiful, good, wonderful,’ because they are not helpful; they get in a child’s way. Instead I use words that describe. I describe what I see; I describe what I feel.
“Recently a little girl in my playroom brought me a painting and asked, ‘Is it good?’ I looked at it and answered, ‘I see a purple house, a red sun, a striped sky, and lots of flowers. It makes me feel as though I were in the country.’ She smiled and said, ‘I’m going to make another!’
“Suppose I had answered, ‘Beautiful, you’re a great artist!’ I can guarantee that that would have been the last painting she did that day. After all, where can one go from ‘beautiful’ and ‘great’? I’m convinced: words that evaluate, hinder a child. Words that describe, set him free.
“I also like descriptive words,” he continued, “because they invite a child to work out his own solutions to problems. Here’s an example: If a child were to spill a glass of milk, I would say to him, ‘I see the milk spilled,’ and then I’d hand him a sponge. In this way, I avoid blame and put the emphasis where it belongs—on what needs to be done.” (3–4)
It will come as no surprise to hear that, having attended this lecture, Faber and Mazlish wanted to learn more.
They “bought Dr. Ginott’s book, Between Parent and Child, and were delighted to find that it was rich in practical suggestions that could be used at once” (8). They also found that it was effective, as did the other parents they met in a study group that Ginott soon organized as a forum for his ideas. Here’s an indication of the practical wisdom parents acquired there:
Formerly Helen had complimented five-year-old Billy with, “You’re great, wonderful, the best!” She had never understood why he usually protested. “No, I’m not. Jimmy is better.” Or, “Stop bragging about me.” So she tried Dr. Ginott’s prescription for praise. The day Billy fixed her stopped-up kitchen sink, she resisted saying, “Fantastic! You’re a genius!” Instead she described what she felt and what she saw: “There I was, all upset thinking I would have to call the plumber. Then you come in with a toilet plunger and in two minutes the stopped-up water went down. How did you ever think of it?” And then from a little child came the sweetest praise of all—the praise he conferred upon himself. “I used my brain,” he said. “I’m a good plumber.” (8–9)
In order for such positive communication skills to sink in, however, parents need to see contrasting examples. And Liberated Parents, Liberated Children is replete with them.
Faber and Mazlish share not only examples of constructive parenting methods, but also those of truly destructive ones—including some of their own failings in this regard. They discuss instances in which they used words to inflict pain on a child already hurting. They even discuss an instance of “disowning” a child in a fit of rage. These are not the Faber and Mazlish many readers are accustomed to. They are not the calm counselors who lovingly guide new parents through one parenting crisis after another. They are mothers with a lot to do and even more to think about—mothers who are, perhaps, just one frustration away from (or beyond) saying something truly terrible to a child.
This is one of the key values of this book. The authors’ tumultuous journey with the ideas that Ginott shared with them is dramatic. It is likely to resonate with parents in a way that Faber and Mazlish’s other, more famous books do not. And it affords readers the opportunity to make discoveries with the authors, rather than simply taking in their wisdom delivered, in effect, from on high. This amounts to a highly inductive presentation, which, in turn, helps parents to retain the principles more deeply and fully.
Consider, for example, their realization of what it meant to say to a child “The milk spilled” and hand him a sponge. Faber and Mazlish—along with their readers, who are given both positive and negative real-life examples in support of the conclusion—come to see that this is “more than a clever technique” for handling a mistake. “On a much deeper level we were saying, ‘I see you as a person who is capable of helping himself’” (16).
Many chapters end like this, with an important, inductive realization that is as solemn and comforting as a mother’s hug. More than a few are expressed with a literary beauty unmatched by any other parenting book I’ve read. And although in this book they often lack the calm seen in their later books that comes with experience and reflection, Faber and Mazlish use their youthful intensity to forge gems. Consider, for example, the following:
A year ago, if someone had asked me about the significance of validating children’s feelings, I would have answered feebly, “Well, I suppose it makes for less friction, and it certainly doesn’t do any harm.”
Now let the questioner beware: he will get a more passionate reply. For now I am strongly aware that when we tell a child that he doesn’t feel what he is feeling, we strip him of his natural protection. Not only that. We confuse him, disorient him, desensitize him. We force him to construct a false world of words and defense mechanisms that have nothing to do with his inner reality. We separate him from who he is. And when we do not permit him to know what he feels, I suspect that he becomes less able to feel for others.
But oh, when we acknowledge the reality of a child’s feelings, what splendid gifts do we bring: the strength to act upon his inner promptings . . . the possibility of a caring heart . . . the opportunity to be in touch with a unique human being—himself. (39)
Liberated Parents, Liberated Children is one of the most treasured possessions on my bookshelf, one of the books I return to again and again, one of the reasons my relationship with my son is as positive, meaningful, and mutually enjoyable as it is.