Positive reinforcement? Gotcha!

August 4, 2014

There are many silly and misguided things in place at my child’s school in the quest to encourage desirable behaviour. There’s the enduringly popular classroom happy/sad face chart; public shaming made pretty for the teachers. And whenever I’m invited to attend an assembly I come out feeling distinctly nauseated. It’s just one reward after another. It’s all about rewards. Everything. They’re really working hard on raising the next generation of ‘What’s in it for me?’s. 

For example, each class gets points for ‘lining up nicely’ at playtime. Each week the points are totted up and a winner announced in assembly. An extra 5 minutes playtime is awarded to the winning class. Groan. I could write a separate post just on this, but the message going out about what’s desirable and what, by default, isn’t, is the first point that springs to mind. 

Then there’s the Star of the Week awards and Golden Book awards. Not sure of the difference between these awards, but in any case, whenever my child receives one he rarely knows what it was for, so how exactly does it encourage him? Encourage what

congratulationsWhich brings me to one of my favourites; the Gotcha Card. If a teacher notices a child behaving particularly well in the corridor they make a note of their name (secretly), and lo and behold, at some date in the future, the child receives, by surprise, a Gotcha Card in assembly. 

What a load of tosh. 

First, if we want to reinforce a particular behaviour with children we need to do so at the time. A child doesn’t have the capacity to reflect on or even remember what their behaviour was in the corridor at some unknown time in the past. Just as unrelated consequences (aka punishments) given out or enforced days after the offence are ineffective in stopping undesirable behaviour, so rewards given out after the fact are ineffective in promoting desirable behaviour. I’d have thought this was fairly obvious.

And no need for me to cover the bit about how extrinsic motivation decreases intrinsic motivation and actually makes the child less likely to repeat a particular behaviour, since in this case the child doesn’t even know what behaviour they’re supposed to be repeating.

Why not just comment on the child’s behaviour at the time, for Christ’s sake? Oh, of course, just as the happy/sad face chart has to be on public display, so do the Gotcha Cards. Presumably it’s supposed to encourage the other children to try harder, although they’re probably all left feeling as confused as the recipient as to what exactly needs to be done to earn this particular reward.

Just a nice little reward for the child? Yeah, I’m sure it gives them a brief feeling of gratification….but at the expense of all the other kids.

My child complained to me that he has never received a Gotcha Card, expressing feelings of injustice, since, he says, he always behaves well in the corridor.

“I know you do”, I replied. “Perhaps a teacher just hasn’t been there at the time to see that. You’ve just been unlucky.”

He didn’t buy this. “Lots of teachers have seen me” he says.

Of more concern to me are his evident feelings of futility, that whatever he does isn’t good enough, that he’s not a ‘good’ child, like the others getting those Gotcha Cards. He’s a failure.

Might as well give up and start running about screaming and doing cartwheels in the corridor. Sod it. 

So to whoever came up with this idea at my child’s school – Gotcha!

Gotcha coming up with yet another idiotic, misguided, poorly thought out scheme that will do more harm than good, will gratify the minority at the expense of the majority, and will achieve precisely nothing.

 

See my other posts for more about my views on rewards.


The power of role-modelling

July 21, 2014

My child has little patience when it comes to accomplishing a challenging task. He becomes quickly frustrated, and is apt to throw things down in a rage. The plastic coating on his bicycle helmet has several cracks in it from being thrown down onto the road during the process of learning to ride a bike. We’ve all encountered adults who still behave like this. So childish, we all tut. I don’t wish my child to become one of these adults. So how do I help him develop the patience and emotional regulation he needs? 

Time-outs, lectures or sticker charts don’t help children develop these traits. How could they? It’s all about role-modelling, the most powerful tool we parents have at our disposal. 

I recently bought my child a loom band kit at his request. He’d seen his friends making things with loom bands at school, so he set to work right away. But his fine motor skills aren’t the greatest, and he quickly became frustrated in his weaving attempts. Luckily I saw this coming and managed to rescue the box before several hundred small coloured rubber bands covered the kitchen floor. But I knew he’d be disappointed if he didn’t manage the task, he’d been so excited when I gave him the box, so I decided a little encouragement and guidance was in order. But first I had to figure out how to weave a wristband myself! Not the kind of thing I excel at myself.

My child watched as I followed the instructions carefully, becoming excited to see the end product as I neared completion. When it came to removing the band from the loom board, a couple of the bands somehow popped out and fell to the floor. He immediately started to angrily express his disappointment in his usual dramatic way. I was irritated and annoyed by his behaviour. I was the one who’d done all the work, after all. But stopping myself from reacting, I managed to speak calmly instead. 

“This is the first time I’ve made one of these, so it might go wrong, but I’m going to keep trying. It might not work out, but I can always start again if I have to” 

My child looked almost surprised and a little fascinated. He immediately stopped his remonstrance and continued to watch my attempts to salvage my work. The wristband was a little small, having lost some bands, but my child grabbed at it delightedly. 

“It’s a little short, but it’s my first attempt. Now I know how to do it, I can try and make a longer one next time”, I added.

He rushed off to show his Dad. 

“Mummy made this wristband. We’re going to try and make a better one next time.”

 The next morning I came downstairs to find all kinds of colourful creations and a very satisfied child.

mirrorThe importance of role modelling simply cannot be over-estimated. It can be applied to anything we wish our children to learn. We can model sharing by letting our child see us sharing with friends or other family members. We can use a disagreement with our partner to model how we talk calmly and respectfully with each other to sort out our differences. From acts of kindness, to healthy eating, the possibilities are endless. 

Kids are such little copycats. From when they’re very small, we hear our own words echoed back at us, see our habits and mannerisms develop in our children like a mirror. But we need to remember this mirroring doesn’t stop as kids get older. It may become less immediately apparent, but make no mistake; role modelling is so powerful it can be dangerous. Shouting or smacking are obvious examples, but we need to think about every aspect of our behaviour as adults. Children really do learn by example. 

So when we reject conventional parenting methods, and strive to understand the widely misunderstood application of the word ‘discipline’, we model compassion, respect, patience, empathy, and problem-solving, instead of control, power, bribery and manipulation in our fruitless attempts to teach what can only be taught through modelling, and developed over time, not overnight.

“Do as I say, not as I do” won’t cut it. Be the person you want your child to be.


Affection, not anger

May 12, 2014

When I picked my child up from his Woodcraft session last night he was horrible. I don’t know why. Maybe something had happened at the session to upset him. Maybe he was just tired. I thought about how it was going to be a nightmare getting him to bed. He was sulky, stroppy, rude, and a little aggressive. He was rude to my friend whilst we were giving her a lift home. 

Luckily she’s a good friend and on the same page as me when it comes to responding to my child, so I didn’t feel that usual pressure that can be felt when you feel you’re being judged, your child is being judged, and you feel you have to respond in a way that’s expected of you.

 And that way is so deeply ingrained in me I’m still fighting it all the time. I was angry, but had the presence of mind to be silent for a few moments before I spoke. It’s not an emergency. There’s no rush to respond. I spoke to him about it, asked him if he could tell me what was bothering him (he couldn’t), reminded him that it was OK to feel upset or cross, but not OK to be rude. 

But then there’s that part of me that still says I must show my child how angry I am, I must stay angry with him, I must make him feel bad about his behaviour, anything less would be letting him ‘get away with it’. 

Mother Holding Child's HandI thought hard about this whilst we drove home. Then I thought about what my goal was – to let him feel loved unconditionally whatever his behaviour. 

But won’t this make him think it’s OK to behave in this way?And then I realised what rubbish this was, how this was the old responses talking. He already knew his behaviour was wrong. He already felt bad about it. There was really nothing left for me to do here other than help him to feel loved, supported and understood, and to move on. Shaming or scolding would really not be helpful or necessary, and would only make him feel worse than he already does.If he’s behaving badly he must feel badly. He needs love, not anger. 

So we made it through bedtime with affection, not anger. Using playfulness, not threats. Showing love, not disapproval. It was remarkably effective and so much better than the alternative. Bedtime was not a nightmare, because I’d been able to let go of my anger, and free myself of that pressure to act, to punish, to teach my child a lesson that didn’t need teaching. We reconnected, and I felt my child had learnt a much more powerful lesson than any punishment could teach, and I’d reminded myself of the folly of thinking that if I make my child feel bad he will suddenly see the error of his ways and somehow mature more quickly.


Bad loser

April 28, 2014

To the woman sitting at the next table to us at the leisure centre yesterday:

My child is a bad loser. He gets very upset if he doesn’t win. At anything. I know this, so I was prepared for a lot of fuss if he didn’t win a prize in the raffle. I knew what responses I needed to give, and I knew the poor responses I can sometimes give when I’m out of patience, so I’d mentally prepared myself for the storm to come.

comfortYou may think he was making a lot of fuss about nothing, and that by failing to tell him so, I was encouraging this. But it wasn’t nothing to him. If I’d said, “Don’t be so silly, stop making such a fuss” would this have made him feel any differently? Would he have said, “OK, actually you’re right Mum, I’ll stop crying now and forget about it”? Really? I don’t think so. So I validated his feelings – it’s nice to feel someone understands and is on your side when you’re feeling upset isn’t it?

You may think I should have corrected his unreasonable claims that he never wins anything. But in the midst of that upset the rational part of his brain wasn’t functioning – my reasoning would only have fallen on deaf ears. He was merely expressing how he felt at that moment.

You may think his behaviour was bad behaviour that needed to be punished or corrected. But I don’t see it that way. He was expressing his feelings, that’s all. They’re his feelings and he’s entitled to them, and I can’t make them go away. He was not pretending to be upset. He was. I wish he wouldn’t get so upset about these things, but he does.  Since he can’t really help how he feels, to punish him would only teach him to suppress, not deal with, his feelings, and that the way he feels makes him a bad person.

You may think I should have tried to cheer up or distract him instead of just allowing him to cry for so long. But this too would only brush his feelings under the carpet. If I had scolded or distracted him and stopped the crying sooner, this may have been desirable for me, it may have made me feel better, but it would have short-circuited my child’s ability to really deal with his feelings. The best way for him to learn to deal with these upsets, to develop the maturity and emotional intelligence we often wish children had, is to experience them fully. Then move on, in his own time. And you know what? That’s exactly what he did. Outside, in the car park, the bit you didn’t see. He dried his eyes, sighed, and starting talking happily about something else. He never mentioned it again. He didn’t even feel the need to tell his Dad about it when we got home.

You may think this was proof that he wasn’t really upset – a common misconception about children. They experience things very much in the moment you see. They can swing from one extreme of emotion to another very rapidly. He was very upset at that time, he is not yet able to regulate his emotions, but as he was allowed to express and feel this upset, this enabled him to fully get over it and move on, And that’s what he needs to learn to do. In the meantime, I just need to be patient and be there for him. A loving, accepting presence.

So if you were surprised or puzzled by my responses to my child, I hope this explains where I’m coming from. The responses may have seemed unusual to you since sadly, as a society, we have for many years misunderstood children’s developmental needs, and change is slow in coming about. Old responses and assumptions get passed down from one generation to the next, and it’s difficult to break that cycle. But even though my approach goes against the way I was brought up, and can attract the attention of strangers, I’m completely confident that it’s the right thing to do, and the right thing for my child.


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.