Volume 14 Number 4
Parents Start With Themselves
01 August 2001

A remarkable series of courses is helping Taiwanese parents to cope better with their children—and their own lives. Jenny Leung reports:

When Ren-jou Liu tells a parent, ‘I don’t see any problem with your child,’ the effect is often dramatic. ‘I was stunned,’ says Hwa, a mother who attended one of ‘Teacher’ Liu’s parenting courses in southern Taiwan. ‘If there isn’t any problem with my child, he must be saying the problem is me.’

Hundreds of Taiwanese people have taken part in Liu’s parenting and personal development courses over the last seven years. Hwa signed up because of her frustration with her younger daughter who hated getting up in the morning and was always late for school. ‘Every time I tried to put her right, we ended up quarrelling.’

Liu’s comment made Hwa reconsider the way she was communicating with her child. She decided that instead of pointing out her mistakes, she would tell her what she felt about the things she did. Gradually, she found her daughter responding differently, and their conversations no longer ended in quarrels, although her daughter’s enthusiasm for getting up did not increase.

Hwa decided that being late for school was her daughter’s problem, not hers. One day, the teacher called. The girl had nearly missed the chance of resitting an exam. She has never been late for school since. ‘She’s learned it herself,’ chuckles Hwa. Their relationship has improved greatly.

Like many of Liu’s ‘students’, Hwa enrolled in search of tips on parenting, but has learnt lessons which reach far beyond—in her case to her relationship with her husband’s family.

Hwa married into an extended patriarchal family in the relatively conservative south of Taiwan, with four generations living under one roof. The men are always served first at mealtimes and, during the first months of her marriage, Hwa did not eat with her husband at the same table. Eventually she saved up enough money to buy a flat and managed to persuade her husband to set up a home of their own. But she was still unhappy, and the familiar sense of oppression arose every time she visited her husband’s family.

‘One of the key things I have learned on these courses is to love myself,’ she says. ‘If you love yourself, you won’t let others make you unhappy.’ Hwa realized that while she might not be able to change the way the family did things, she could change the way she responded. ‘I’ve learned to step into the shoes of my husband’s family. When I see the difficulties they are in, I know they are not intentionally making my life miserable. In a way, we are all victims of our upbringing.’ She no longer hates her husband’s family, and has found that some of them see her as a trusted person they can talk to. She finds this consoling, though a little surprising.

Ren-jou Liu left high-school teaching 16 years ago to work with MRA at home and abroad. The courses he now runs grew out of an invitation to give a talk to a group of mothers in 1994. He told them how, as a rebellious youth obsessed with ‘finding his precious love’, he had discovered a larger and more satisfying purpose in life. The mothers were so intrigued that they asked for four follow-on sessions.

Liu introduced them to the idea of taking time each morning to be quiet and ‘listen to the inner voice’ and then putting into action any ideas gathered. Several of the women tried this out between sessions and returned with encouraging experiences to report.

One was the wife of a mayor, who went out drinking with his political friends most nights. She decided to stop complaining about this, and the next day she went to visit her in-laws, who lived some distance away. Her husband was surprised, and pleased. On another day, she went to his office and suggested that they visit a friend of his whom they hadn’t seen for long time. When they did so, they found that the friend was suffering from cancer and was deeply touched that they had come to see him. Her husband stopped going out to drink every night.

A woman who heard about the class approached Liu to run a similar course for the nurses at her husband’s clinic. He designed eight sessions on personal growth in ‘emotional intelligence’, maintaining ‘listening’ as a core element. For one year, he and his wife, Grace, drove two hours each way from south to central Taiwan to give a two-hour session in Yunlin and other cities every week.

Six years ago Liu ran his first Parent effectiveness training at a private kindergarten in his home city of Tainan. The parents, mostly well-to-do, were so pleased with the programme that the principal invited him to continue. She agrees with Liu that so often the root of the problem lies not in the child but the parents. ‘Save the grown-ups first, then the child will be fine,’ she maintains.

When one class finished, the ‘graduates’ wanted to go on, so Liu found himself developing new courses at the same time as running the original course for new groups. He now has a dozen courses on a variety of themes linked to personal growth, and teaches 15 classes a week. Over the last seven years 100 classes have taken place, each comprising eight two-hour sessions and attended by ten or more people. Last year he founded the Family EQ (emotional intelligence) Development Center, with a fulltime executive to run the programme.

The programme as it stands today consists of five levels, starting with Parent effectiveness training (based on the theories of Thomas Gordon). In Level 2, based on Daniel Goleman’s book, Emotional intelligence, participants learn to overcome personal weaknesses and heal old wounds in relationships. In Level 3, Listening to the inner voice, participants are introduced to the practice of listening to their voice of conscience. In Level 4, participants undertake four eight-session courses on Rediscovering and reinventing life. These draw on the books of John Bradshaw, Scott Peck, Gerald Weeks and Stephen Treat, and cover such topics as the role of upbringing, reconciling with one’s ‘inner child’, and marriage therapy. When participants reach Level 5, they go deeper into the secret of the changed life, drawing on the writings of MRA pioneer Garth Lean.

Liu’s classes take place in homes, classrooms, school libraries or around restaurant tables. In a typical session, attendees read out handouts prepared by Liu, followed by reflection and individual sharing about their life in the past week.

Liu emphasizes three key elements in his programme, which he has drawn from his experience with MRA: listening, care for individuals and faith, which gives people a greater source to rely on.

Most of the participants in Liu’s courses are mothers—with young children, teenage children or sometimes sick children. ‘I’ve learned much more about myself,’ is a common evaluation. Some say they have learnt to master their emotions and cope with difficult circumstances, thus making their own lives—and others’—easier. Many say they have accessed new concepts and knowledge. And the groups who have stuck together from one course to the next have found fellowship and friendship.

Coco, another of Liu’s ‘students’, was going through a divorce when she was recommended to take one of Liu’s classes two years ago. She wanted to know what to say to her four-year-old about Daddy. She did not find a direct answer to her question, but she found an answer to a longstanding hidden problem.

Coco was close to her own mother, and, together with her siblings, they formed a tightly knit camp against their unloving, critical father, who had been an oppressive, unfaithful husband. Coco wanted to make a better life for her mother, and she took on the rest of her family’s problems as her own. Life became a burden. When Liu suggested she should give her mother’s life back to her, she realized she had been shouldering far too much. ‘Now I’m clear about boundaries,’ she says. ‘We have things that we have to fight for ourselves. Nobody else can do it for you.’

Coco found Liu’s courses so inspiring that she formed a study group with her family members, including her elderly mother. They began to try to integrate the lessons they had learnt with their home lives. Their father, who was sceptical at first, gradually began to come to the sessions. Later Coco received a letter from him, apologizing for the way he had treated his family.

Things have not changed overnight, and Coco is still working hard to help her family, but she no longer harbours hatred. As a Buddhist, Coco counts the chance of participating in Liu’s courses among the blessings in her life.

There has been so much demand that the Family EQ Development Center has trained a dozen ‘graduates’ to be ‘seed teachers’. Books and audio tapes have been produced to reach out to a wider audience. Past course participants have also initiated public events to share their experiences with the community.

Effective parents are fundamentally effective human beings. One of the best ways of shaping a better world may be to provide future generations with effective adults. This is the significance of Liu’s personal development programme.
Jenny Leung

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