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Book Review:
Bring Out the Best in Your Child and Yourself

By Ilene Val-Essen
Quality Parenting, 1997
Available from LLLI No. 903-7 $20.00

Reviewed by Unity Dienes
From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 17 No. 6, November-December 2000, p. 218

Bring Out the Best in Your Child and Yourself is an excellent guide founded upon the principles of acceptance and sensitivity. It can be hard for some parents to strike an appropriate balance between "loving" and "guidance."

This workbook blends the two beautifully. Like the classic How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Faber and Mazlish, (Available from LLLI, 62-7, $12.50) this book teaches communication skills valuable to any relationship. However, Val-Essen focuses more on the internal transformation that needs to take place before the language skills can be effectively used. Many parents play counterproductive roles when dealing with their children; Val-Essen describes these roles and how to escape them. Only after working through their problematic attitudes and habits can parents move on to the development of more effective dialogue. This entire process, which is clearly outlined and sometimes amusingly illustrated, prepares the reader for the ultimate challenge: to become a better parent.

Each stage of the author's program is clearly explained. First Val-Essen asks readers to probe the "awful secret" of their worst parenting behavior by means of a self-portrait. Here as elsewhere in her program, the effectiveness of her method relies to some extent on the reader's willingness actually to perform the exercises outlined in the book. Once you have drawn the picture and answered the questions about it, you should have a better idea of your parenting flaws. For example, the author recognized herself as a "Frenzied Franny." When she, as a parent, found herself becoming "Frenzied Franny" she knew that she had lost control, was no longer centered, and needed to regain her calm.

The process of regaining self-control is described briefly but clearly.

Val-Essen recommends performing a calming exercise, which can be either the one she presents or any other you prefer. The author explains that she has "special regard for the Relaxation Exercise because it has roots in the Eastern tradition and works with the chakra system. However, if you know a different way of becoming relaxed that has worked for you or feels more comfortable, I encourage you to use it. Some parents have used favorite psalms or verses from the Koran." Like everything else in this book, the important thing is to personalize the ideas to make them work for your family.

Once you have become calm again, the real work of discipline, and of this book, begins. LLL members who have attended LLL's Human Relations Enrichment sessions will recognize the formulas taught here for reflective (or empathetic) listening, assertiveness, setting limits, and expressing complaints. Val-Essen suggests that aggressive language invites resistance while respectful language gives honest responses and invites cooperation. Val-Essen gives many examples that illustrate how to cope with various situations, as well as exercises to practice creating them in your own style.

The book remains clearly focused on setting limits to prevent problems and communication-based discipline. Having finished the book, you should feel better able to communicate respectfully and effectively with your children, both before and after problems arise. Val-Essen's concentrated attention to language means, however, that she offers very little help in situations where communication is insufficient or ineffective. In a situation where "talking it out" will no longer (or will not yet) work, this book may not be the best resource. Parents with very small (pre-verbal) children may also feel that the book is not aimed at them. However, these are the kinds of skills you can begin to practice with tiny infants and see them bear fruit as your children mature. You may feel silly discussing with your infant the reasons for your decisions and reflecting her own feelings back to her ("You feel angry that I won't give you the scissors"), but you may be surprised to find that your child will grow up naturally using such respectful language, since it is what she is used to.

Encouraging good communication with children nurtures a lifelong closeness. As one parent who followed this course explained, "[there is] so much to learn about what these young ones see and how they put it all together. Alisa is infinitely fascinating to me; when I can stay calm and centered I learn more and more about my daughter and how she's changing, day by day." Day by day, we watch our children grow and we respond to their needs as best we can. A book like this helps sharpen our parenting skills, allowing us to work through the parts of parenting we find most challenging and communicate more effectively so that we can enjoy our children as they deserve, with infinite fascination.

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