Not listening

April 14, 2014

not listening girlResearch presented at the Royal Economic Society’s annual conference last week has suggested that shouting at children and giving out punishments could make their behaviour worse rather than better.

No kidding. Many parents have known this for years. Unfortunately many have not though, so it’s nice to see this recent piece of research reported in the mainstream media.

Interestingly, however, all the articles I’ve found on the subject only mention shouting in the headline, even though the report from the London School of Economics also warns against punishing and ignoring children.

Certainly, shouting is the only part picked up on by Telegraph journalist Rowan Pelling in her article which she may as well have titled, “I was shouted at and I’m fine”. Dismissing the research, in favour of her own minimal anecdotal evidence, she paints a great picture of how said shouting and punishing really doesn’t help, and in doing so does a great job of defeating her own argument.

She and her husband shout all the time, she is happy to reveal. So guess what? Her kids shout too. Surprise, surprise. Furthermore, her attempts at punishment to control said kids leads to cheeky back-talk. There’s a lack of cooperation, a lack of respect.

And yet, instead of trying to address this, Ms Pelling seems to assume that this is simply the way family life is. It may have been the way her family life was – she’s also happy to reveal, again no surprises here, that she was shouted at regularly as a child.

Shouting is necessary? Kids won’t listen to reasoning? I wouldn’t listen to or respect someone who shouted at me, or tried to use their power to control and manipulate me. I’d push back against those attempts at control. I’d be very disinclined to cooperate with them or respect their wishes.

Shouting won’t do any harm? Unless, by harm done, you include teaching kids to shout at you, at others, and eventually at their own kids, and the daily harm that does to family life. The harm that this does to family relationships, to the connection our children need to feel with us in order to be inclined to cooperate in the first place. And actually there’s plenty of evidence of the emotional harm that regular, frequent shouting can do. It’s been placed in the same league as smacking.

Yes, we all lose it and shout at our kids sometimes. But this latest report isn’t talking about the occasional loss of control. It’s talking about parents, apparently like Ms Pelling, who think it’s OK to do this all the time, every day, and to be so unashamed about it they’re happy to write an article in a major national newspaper dismissing any evidence that it is in fact not OK, not helpful, and counterproductive to boot.

When are we going to learn to stop being so defensive about our parenting to the point that we can’t take on board new information or reflect on where our parenting assumptions are coming from? When are we going to learn to use our own childhood experiences to make changes for the better, instead of blindly carrying on with the worst? When are we going to start listening?


I was smacked and I’m not OK.

February 10, 2014

Late last year the Australian prime minister made some unhelpful comments, in response to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child report that calls for a ban on smacking.  The Children’s Minister, Maggie Atkinson, also made some remarks shortly after, this time supporting a ban in the UK.  However, the justice secretary, Chris Grayling, reckons “You chastise children when they are bad, as my parents did me.” The Guardian ran a poll asking people their opinion on the subject. Depressingly, the majority were against a ban. The accompanying comments were the usual mish-mash of the three basic sentiments:

smack-child-doll“I was smacked and I’m fine.”

“Children need discipline.”

“No-one tells me how to raise my kids.”

Have you noticed how it’s always the people who were smacked, like Mr Grayling, who are making these comments? I have never seen or heard, “I was not smacked and therefore have decided it’s a good idea.” No. It’s never that way round, is it? Why is that, do you think?

What amazes me is the remarkable lack of self-reflection evident in the ‘I was smacked and I’m fine’ camp. Come on guys, take a harder look at yourselves. Clearly you haven’t learnt about respect. You’ve learnt that using violence, power and fear to control another person is OK. You think smacking is OK because that’s what you were taught. Has it never occurred to you that maybe you were taught bad parenting? Sorry, but it seems someone does need to tell you how to raise your kids because you haven’t yet reached that level of self-understanding and self-awareness to break the cycle.

But the problem is, smacking is just one part of a bigger picture, an attitude towards children, an approach to parenting that fails to grasp the difference between fear and respect, compliance and cooperation, that fails to recognise the importance of relationship. Even if we banned smacking, there’s a whole host of other inappropriate methods at parents’ disposal: time-outs, threats, punishments, shaming, bribery. How can parents that still see the need to use these methods be expected to understand why smacking’s a bad idea?

It’s not just a ban on smacking that’s needed, it’s an education, a major paradigm shift.

In the meantime, stop telling me you’re fine. If you think it’s OK to smack your kids then you’re not fine. Think about it.


Attachment parenting and the problem with the 3 Bs

January 27, 2014

I don’t like parenting labels, and I don’t like to attach myself (no pun intended) to any particular label. Labels imply a set of rules to follow. They create stereotypes, stigma, and unnecessary wars between different ‘camps’. Do you follow AP or RIE? I find it faintly ridiculous that I’m expected to choose one or the other.

But aside from this, the real problem I have with the term ‘Attachment Parenting’ is that too often the emphasis is on the 3 Bs (breastfeeding, bed-sharing, baby-wearing). At least this seems to be the case whenever Attachment Parenting hits the media. But then I suppose the media never are great at reporting anything perceived to be outside the mainstream. Certainly if this ill-informed piece of trash recently written about RIE is anything to go by, having a label does seem to lay one open to attack, ridicule and misrepresentation.growing up

But whatever the reason for it, I sometimes feel that this emphasis on the 3 Bs leaves us apt to forget that what happens beyond infancy is important too, and that the term, Attachment Parenting, gets in the way of that, or at least, fails to extend to this later period of childhood.

Perhaps the term was only ever intended to cover the parenting of babies? You’d certainly think so sometimes. Yet Attachment Parenting International’s website does have a page listing the principles of Attachment Parenting that go beyond just the 3 Bs.

Do parents get put off looking for an alternative way to parent because they feel the 3 Bs are not for them? Shame if so, as I think (and I’m sticking my neck out here) it’s quite possible to meet a child’s attachment needs without practising the 3 Bs. And meeting attachment needs is the goal here, not living up to certain expectations for how things should be done. It’s just many parents find the 3 Bs facilitate things quite nicely. But some don’t.

In any case, these implied rules seem to get a little foggy later on. What happens when the 3 Bs stop? Is that it? Job done? It’s true, a secure attachment will give an infant the best possible start, setting them up for a life of security, independence, self-worth and confidence, and the ability to form healthy relationships. But there’s still time to screw all this good work up, and that can happen if we don’t know how to respond to a child’s challenging behaviour, to their tears and upsets, to their struggles and feelings and needs as a growing child. There’s also the need to recognise how our own childhood experiences profoundly affect the way we respond as parents.

How many times have I read, “Dr Sears advises time-out so it must be AP”. Grrr. This is what I mean about labels. Forget whether or not ‘it’s AP’. Throw his book away at that point and read something by some authors that have since developed  a better understanding of children’s needs beyond infancy. And, here’s another hint – That won’t be Margot Sunderland, who, seemingly because she‘s a great advocate of co-sleeping and writes some good stuff about the evidence against leaving babies to cry apparently makes the Attachment Parenting list . Yet in her book, “The Science of Parenting”, which I’ve seen recommended on numerous websites and Facebook pages purporting to promote Attachment Parenting, and on display at parenting conferences, she refers to crying children as ‘little neros’, advises time-outs, reward charts, and ignoring tantrums. Really? Sounds frighteningly similar to a certain popular TV celebrity. But oh no, we attachment parents don’t listen to Jo Frost. Do we?

I’d really like to see a shift in the emphasis. Yes, the first three years are a vital period in terms of brain development and secure attachment, but there’s still plenty can go wrong after that. I don’t wish to sound negative, but seriously, time-out and ignoring tantrums? We can breastfeed and co-sleep as long as we like, there’s little point if we all just turn into Supernanny later on. Children need compassion, care and respect from birth and onwards, and right through to adulthood. Let’s get informed about what this means beyond the 3 Bs.

growing plantsAttachment Parenting is like sowing a seed. We do this with great tenderness and care, we provide the best soil, and enough attention to ensure it has the right amount of light and moisture, we watch with excitement as the first shoot appears. Having got this far, let’s not trample on those seedlings. Let’s watch them continue to flourish and grow to reach their full potential.


“Santa won’t come unless you’re good.” Taking bribes and threats to greater depths.

December 10, 2013

What’s wrong with a little bribery around Christmas time? Every parent does this, right? It might seem like a convenient and harmless way to get kids to comply without an all-out fight, but I think it’s bribes and threats in their lowest form. 

I don’t like bribery or rewards as a parenting tool at the best of times, for a number of reasons. One is that they teach children to focus on self-gain, to do things for the wrong reasons. I’d really like my child to tidy his room because he’s conscious that it’s the right thing to do, because his connection with me is strong enough that he wants to comply with my requests. Not because he’s rubbing his hands in glee at the thought of the pile of presents he’s going to get at Christmas. I don’t want to encourage a self-interested, ‘what’s in it for me’ attitude.

Normally I’d also point out that when we use rewards as a parenting tool we model bribery and manipulation, and yet, actually, that isn’t a problem in this case. No need to worry about that here since we’re not even bothering to at least be honest about what we’re doing. Instead, we stoop to greater depths and deviousness by hiding behind Santa. It’s his decision, not ours, as to whether or not our child has measured up to standard. How convenient? What a cop-out. 

santa with listThen there’s the use of the term ‘good’ when referring to a child or to their behaviour. It’s quite a broad term really, isn’t it? What does it really mean to our children, other than that when they’re not ‘good’ they are, by default, ‘bad’? Is this really what we want our children to believe? When my child makes a bad choice, loses control, or becomes disconnected, and behaves in ways that I don’t want him to behave, shaming him is really not helpful. Making him believe he is not ‘good enough’ for a visit from Santa isn’t going to make him feel great about himself or help him behave any differently. I don’t want to impose on him these feelings of conditional acceptance. Whatever his behaviour, he is always loved and loveable. 

Think about it. What a horrible message to send a child – that they are so bad that the jolly, generous, magical man who likes to give children presents will simply miss them out because they’re a bad person. What a horrible threat to make to a small child, whether empty or not. Christmas should be a magical time for children, and as such should not be poisoned by adults with their unkind threats and scare stories. Of course every child will be visited by Santa. It’s the season of goodwill, of love, of forgiveness. 

The thing is, children, especially those young enough to believe in Santa, don’t always have complete control over their behaviour, their impulses, or their feelings, and they don’t always make good choices. They’re still not terribly mature, you see. Behaviour is communicating a need. Even if it’s outright defiance, there’s still a message there, a need for connection. Simply trying to use Santa to control behaviour isn’t going to meet those needs, and isn’t going to foster that close connection of love and trust that is the real key to gaining genuine cooperation. 

Bribes and threats have no place in a loving, connected, respectful relationship. Instead of hiding behind Santa we need to be the parents our children need us to be, to understand and address their needs, to show them our gentle leadership, our ability to set empathetic limits and to accept the uncomfortable feelings that may arise in response to those limits. And above all, we need to send the message that they are loved unconditionally. However they might behave, Santa will visit no matter what.


Reasons my son is crying: I was too busy taking a photo of him and publishing it on the internet to care.

October 29, 2013

An interesting article in The Guardian this weekend about Greg Pembroke’s massively popular blog in which he posts pictures of his own and other people’s children crying, with a caption giving the reason. It seems millions of people find this highly amusing. The reasons are always so ridiculous, you see.

Infant CryingThis isn’t the first time I’ve heard about this blog. Other parenting writers that I follow have already had some words to say about it. Janet Lansbury, for example, wrote an excellent article about it back in April. But the Guardian article caught my attention because many of the things Greg Pembroke is quoted as saying actually seemed quite reasonable. Perhaps he’s not all bad, I wondered.

He claims he is not making fun of the children, but simply posting pictures that give a more realistic representation of life with a toddler. True, it’s not always rosy. Also true that it can help us through what can be at times an extremely trying task of parenting small children, if we can lighten up, not be too serious all the time, and not be too hard on ourselves when things don’t go swimmingly. Toddlers cry a lot. They can throw a total fit about the craziest things. Parents enjoy some solidarity knowing it’s not due to their failings as a parent, but just that their child is, well, a child.

At the end of the article, Pembroke is quoted as saying, “I think that if you’re present, loving, and not a total push-over, your kids will turn out fine”. Some truth in that, although I’d suggest it’s not quite that simple. But the problem here is this: How does taking a photo of your child when they’re crying equate to being present and loving?

I’m really struggling with this one. I’ve looked at the blog. The pictures are mostly of very distressed looking kids, and they’re mostly staring right at the camera. So it’s not like the pictures were taken when they weren’t looking (not that I think this would make it OK anyway).

Now, even if Pembroke gets the whole notion of toddlers getting easily overwhelmed by feelings they don’t know how to deal with, about frustrations that have been building up all day, about needs they’re struggling to express, about the fact that it may not actually be just that little thing they’re crying over, it may be just the last straw, or a trigger for some bigger upset they’ve been storing. Even if he gets all this, and after taking his photo he validates, sympathises, comforts. Even if he does all this (and I think there’s reasonable grounds to suspect that he doesn’t), how must the child feel when, before being the present and loving parent Pembroke describes he says, “Oh, just hold on while I take a photo of you.”? Because in saying this he’s saying “This takes priority. This is more important than your feelings. I don’t care that you’re upset.”, and a whole host of other things, none of them good.

Why is it so often considered acceptable to treat children with less respect than we would adults? If you were crying over something, how would you feel if the person you count on most in the world to take care of you pointed a camera at you in the midst of your distress? And then posted the picture on the internet for all to see. It may not be Pembroke’s intention, as the article claims, to make fun of these children. But making fun is exactly what he’s doing, along with disrespecting them, disrespecting their feelings, and exploiting their powerlessness and vulnerability.

And don’t give me “They’re not really distressed”. They are. That’s why they’re crying. Tears or no tears, there are big feelings and emotions being dealt with here.

Yes, we parents don’t need to get all upset and serious about each and every thing our toddlers have a meltdown over. Parenting small children can be exasperating. And it’s fine to allow our children space and time to have a good cry. But pointing a camera at them while they’re doing this is not. It’s not supportive, it’s not respectful, it’s not loving, and it’s not funny.


Ban homework in primary schools

October 25, 2013

???????????????????????????????Last year Michael Gove scrapped guidelines that laid out how much homework schools should be setting. Let’s ask him to go a step further and scrap homework in primary schools altogether.

Schools continue to operate under the false assumption that homework is necessary for children to gain a satisfactory level of academic achievement, and to pander to the pressure from parents who also operate under this misconception.

The fact is that there is not a single piece of evidence that can show any real correlation between homework and academic achievement at this stage, nor that shows any improvement in study habits.

Yet many recent studies and reports have raised serious concerns about the well-being of children, their lack of physical activity, excessive time spent in front of screens, increasingly limited time for free play, and lack of time spent outdoors.

Homework is an intrusion on family time, on children’s free time, and can be a regular source of conflict in the home. It creates unnecessary anxiety and pressure for children.

Young children already spend enough time engaged in formal school work. To expect them; to bring more of this home risks overloading them and turning them off learning altogether. They learn and develop in so many other ways. Time for free play, outdoor play, pursuing their own interests, and quality family time is essential for their development and well-being.

This is why I’ve started a petition to ban homework in primary schools. Although, truth be told, I don’t think for a second Michael Gove would ever make such a move. After all, this is the man who wants to increase the length of the school day and the school year. I really don’t think he could entertain the notion that children might actually have other things to do with their time than sit at desks cramming as much formal learning into their precious young years as possible. And he’s not really one for looking at evidence – something made abundantly clear in his response to last month’s letter to the Telegraph from several leading experts calling for a rethink in early years policy.

But hey, Gove won’t be Education Secretary forever (God forbid), and raising awareness is always worthwhile. Since Gove’s already scrapped the homework guidelines, perhaps a change of attitude for parents and teachers is all that’s needed to break the current trend.

So don’t despair – sign and share the petition today!


“Don’t read any parenting books. Just follow your instincts.” Why I think this is bad advice.

October 14, 2013

I am surprised at how often I meet people who turn their noses up at the mention of parenting books. I can never quite understand why, or what their objections are. It seems to be based on an assumption that parenting books will lay out a set of rules that are impossible to follow, or that are wrong, or will put more pressure on you as a parent.

Yet reading parenting books has been life-changing for me, not to mention my child.

?????????????Let’s just clear one thing up: Gina Ford, since hers is usually the name mentioned to me by people objecting to parenting books generally, is not the only parenting author in existence, and not all books follow her approach. And by approach I don’t just mean the parenting methods themselves, but the idea that a book can give you a blanket set of rules to follow, with which one must succeed or fail.

Alfie Kohn puts this well in his book (which I would highly recommend), “Unconditional Parenting“;

“What follows will not be a step-by-step recipe for How to Raise Good Kids……. Very specific suggestions (“When your child says x, you should stand at location y and use z tone of voice to utter the following sentence…”) are disrespectful to parent and kids alike. Raising children is not like assembling a home theater system or preparing a casserole, such that you need only follow an expert’s instructions to the letter. No one-size-fits-all formula can possibly work for every family, nor can it anticipate an infinite number of situations. Indeed, books that claim to offer such formulas, while eagerly sought by moms and dads desperate for a miracle cure, usually do more harm than good.”

I think the assumption that all parenting books are indeed like the ones Kohn describes here has caused many parents to boycott them altogether. But in doing so we miss out on the one thing that can really make us better parents – knowledge. And books provide knowledge. Without knowledge, how can we make informed decisions? Parenting is the most important job we’ll ever do. Shouldn’t we read up a bit so we have some idea of what the heck we’re doing?

There are a lot of books out there, and some conflicting advice, I know. But I think it’s easy enough, once you get started, to become a discerning reader and separate the wheat from the chaff. I start by looking at who the author is, where they’re from, what they do, what they have studied. It gets pretty easy to read between the lines. Does the book give any insight into child development and psychology, or is the emphasis on quick fix solutions for parents? Is the book’s information backed up by any reference to research, evidence or studies, or the work of a particular psychologist? (here’s another hint about Gina Ford – she doesn’t measure up too well in any of these departments).

But why all this information, complicating things? Why not just follow our instincts?

What do we really mean by ‘instincts’? Some of our natural instincts can get us a long way as parents – responding to our baby’s cries, for example. But the thing is, we basically learn to parent from our own parents, so many of our ‘instincts’ are in fact merely behaviours and responses that we have learnt from them, that were hard-wired into us when we were children ourselves.

Now, we might think our parents did a great job. This may be so, but it’s a great assumption to think there’s nothing more to learn, nothing to improve on. That nothing more is known now that wasn’t known back then.

When my child cries and screams and makes a fuss about something I think is trivial, my instinct is to tell him to shut up and stop making such a silly noise or else. Yet reading has informed me that this is not a good response for many reasons.

When my child ‘misbehaves’ my instinct is to punish him. Yet reading has informed me that punishment is a bad idea.

These instinctive responses are so deeply ingrained in me from my childhood, I feel I’ve spent much of my parenting life fighting against them, holding my tongue when the words my mother used to say to me pop into my head. It’s very hard to change these in-built responses and without the knowledge I have gained from reading I would never even have known I needed to make changes, let alone how to make them. Parenting responses can actually be rather counter-intuitive, and a little knowledge about children and what might be going on in their heads is kind of necessary. Relying solely on our instincts is a bad idea.

Why be content to just carry on doing what our parents and grandparents did before us? To keep passing old methods down from one generation to the next? As with anything in life, how can we ever acquire new knowledge and improve things without paying attention to research, new information, new insights?

Perhaps our society wouldn’t be so stuck in the old conventional methods if more of us would read some of the many excellent parenting books available. There’s a wealth of information and knowledge out there. To ignore it is to bury our heads in the sand, to short-change our children, and to miss out on the one opportunity we have to be the best parents we can be.