I thought I’d resist the temptation of adding to the insane attention Donald Trump has been receiving from the media. But his success in producing followers helped me understand why listening to our children is a game changer when helping them grow into an independent adult.
I recently refreshed my understanding of P.E.T., short for Parent Effectiveness Training. This is a parenting training developed by the psychologist Thomas Gordon in 1962. His model teaches parents specific communication skills. When we apply those skills we will experience a significant change in ourselves as parenting effectively means we will have to learn to listen to ourselves as well as to our children. Parenting with compassion and understanding of our own needs gives us the authentic tools to help our kids and, with some luck, sustains our influence in their lives more reliably than rewards and punishment ever will.
To be specific: Gordon’s methodical approach to communicating with our children helps parents to precisely decode a distressed child’s message by active listening until the underlying problem is understood. If needed, a workable process in problem solving helps family members to meet their individual needs without anyone losing. Thomas Gordon’s underlying principle of unconditional acceptance will adapt into any other relationship because listening and understanding is a powerful game-changer.
Here’s a recent example: my son asked me whether his new school in Berlin will have lockers like his present Hong Kong school has. I could tell from his voice that his question was not really about the lockers. I said:
“It may have lockers, but I am not sure. Are you worried that there may not be any lockers in the new school?”
“Yes. I want a locker. If it doesn’t have lockers, I’m not going to that school! I am only going to a school that has lockers!”
“Hm… having a locker is really important for your school routine. You feel something is missing if the new school did not have any lockers?”
“Yes, I hate change. If the school has lockers, I know it will at least be a little bit similar to my school.”
“So you want the new school to be similar to your school and you are scared that when things are too different, it is hard for you to adjust. You don’t know what to expect, and that is scary.”
“Exactly. All my friends will be gone. I have to make new friends. What if that is too hard?”
So we kept talking about his fear of making new friends, the fear of getting along with others in a new environment, which at age 12 – at any age in fact – is so very important. His worry about having a locker was just an anchor for my son to articulate his true fear of change. Does the new school has lockers? was code for: Will I be accepted? Now that we brought to the surface what is bothering him, we can choose what to do next – e.g. nothing, talk, problem solve. What makes this effective is that his internal emotional stress is gone and we can look at his need for acceptance and integration with fresh, problem-solving eyes. Had I just answered his questions whether the new schools had lockers – i.e. yes, no, or: let’s find out– I would have lost the real issue right there. How easy it would have been to dismiss his question as irrelevant and lose an opportunity to bond with him.
What does this have to do with Donald Trump? It’s by now common understanding that Trump’s campaign responds to people’s insecurities, worries, and needs. In the previous example of my son, I tried to show why it is so powerful to understand those needs correctly. I have asked myself, as many people, what it is that makes Trump so strong as a candidate and I’ve come to the conclusion – like others – that it is his skill of tapping into that emotional need of his audience and address their deepest insecurities. As adults, we all have experienced the anger it can cause when we are concerned about something, in desperate need for an answer, and the one person who could help does not understand us, ignores our worries or offers solutions that don’t help. Unhelpful customer service for example, or a doctor who ignores our personal worries about a health issue, or the well-meaning friend who rushes into reassuring us how infallible we are when in fact we worry about failing at something and needed to talk about that pressure in more depth. Not being understood creates aggravation, frustration and a sense of loneliness.
Trump’s skill of decoding the well-prepared questions from members of the audience in a recent Anderson Cooper forum was making this very clear to me. People wanted to know how he would address problems with immigration workers. He came back with a bonding, reassuring acknowledgment of having understood the question and then, instead of answering it, kept talking about himself. He did not really offer any workable solutions to the participants’ questions about immigration workers, their worries about global competition or about health care. He just used the questions to reassure people that he will take care of them. Is there someone who can take all that pain away and make everything ok? Yes, it’s me, Donald Trump.
Trump understands the frustrations of his audience. He tunes into the fear and translates it into anger and hate. Here is someone who articulates the needs of those people with an emphasis on the emotions and the underlying belief that his authority can solve today’s complex problems. Except that he doesn’t. It is Trump’s talent to motivate those Americans whose specific worries are not addressed appropriately by politics. I admit that I do not know any Trump supporters personally, but seeing him interact with his audience was a textbook lesson in manipulation.
More so, harboring frustration makes a person easy to manipulate. Someone like Donald Trump can turn what could be a political debate into a sentimental movement, a good-and-evil worldview with simple promises no-one can keep. That makes him a strong candidate, but a dangerous politician.
So what we need to do with our children is get to know them, allow their emotions and worries to surface and to help them through difficulties. More so, help them build a tolerance for complexity. If we want to have tomorrow’s voters understand what really is in their interest, we have to start today. I believe that active listening, problem-solving, coaching or any meaningful engagement with our children could prevent them turning into adults who are easy bait for manipulation and simplistic solutions.
Trump would have probably talked over my son’s worry as well by saying: Hey, kid, don’t worry about lockers. There will be tons of lockers. I will put lockers into every school. That’s the way I am. I’m the kind of guy who makes everything ok. He would have understood that my son is worried about something and picked him up right there. He would have given him a solution that does not come close to really helping. A true politician could have sounded like that: Listen, kid, lockers are irrelevant. We have tons of locker free schools and they score much higher in the national competition. But we will make sure that every kid can go to a locker free school.
As parents, want to find ways in which to sustain our relationships with our children and help them to become critical thinkers, independent minds and to understand their emotions. I want them to become problem solvers. I strongly believe that this will protect them from being manipulated by promises that address fears to get a result that isn’t in their own enlightened self-interest. The best place for future Trump prevention is at home.