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?


“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.


Punishment or limit setting?

August 15, 2013

One of the main concerns raised by parents when introduced to the concept of punishment free parenting is that it means there would be no limits or boundaries. If children are not punished when they do the wrong thing this must mean they are simply allowed to run riot and do whatever they like.

This is of course a major misconception. Punishment free parenting does not mean parenting without limits or boundaries. It just means what it says; parenting without punishment. The problem is parents not knowing how to set limits or boundaries without punishment.

But I don’t just mean parents who stick to the old conventional parenting methods. On the other side of the coin I think there’s a danger of being so fearful of issuing a punishment that we can fail to set limits where they’re needed.

scooterWhat I’ve come to realise is that the big difference between the two approaches lies not always in what we do, but in how we do it. Here’s an example:

My child is riding his scooter up and down our street. I’ve given him a clear point, say a lamp post, to which it is safe for him to go, and at which point he must turn around and come back each time.

The limit setting:
“Don’t you go past that lamp post. Turn round at the lamp post.”
The warning:
“I told you not to go past that lamp post. If you do that again I’m taking your scooter away for the rest of the day.”
The follow through:
“Right, that’s it. Give me that scooter. It’s going away until tomorrow. I told you not to go past the lamp post. That’s naughty!” Parent angrily snatches scooter from child, and ignores his cries and tears, continuing to scold him as he cries, or possibly sending him into time-out or to his room until he ‘stops this noise’ or ‘has had a think about his behaviour’.

This is clearly a punishment. But obviously we can’t allow a child to continue to breach the boundary. So what can we do?

The limit setting:
“You need to turn around and come back when you get this far. It’s not safe to go any farther down the road in case a car comes round the corner. What do you think would be a good marker; the lamp post or this red car?.”
The warning:
“It’s really fun scooting down the road. I bet you wish you could keep going for miles and miles. I need to keep you safe, so you must turn round at the lamp post like we agreed. Can you remember to do that? We’ll have to put the scooter away and find something else to play if you can’t. Would you like to draw a finish line or a Stop sign with your chalks?”
The follow through:
“I won’t let you scoot past this lamp post. I must keep you safe. We’ll have to put the scooter away and find another game to play. Perhaps we could take your scooter to the park tomorrow where you can go further?” Child cries. “I know, you were having fun on your scooter. I won’t let you scoot where it’s not safe, so I’ll have to put it away for now. Let’s have a big cuddle. You’re feeling upset now.”

In both scenarios the end result, in practical terms, is that the child’s scooter is forcibly removed for a time, against his wishes. But there’s a world of difference in how the child experiences things, and what they learn.

In the first scenario the child is given no reason for the limit, and is not involved in any way in setting it. It is simply issued as an order. And the warning is issued as a threat – if you don’t follow my orders I’ll make you suffer. The follow through puts all the emphasis on the child’s behaviour. They are ‘naughty’, it’s their own fault that they now feel upset, and as such have no right to express it. They perceive that their parent doesn’t care about their feelings and is not on their side. They learn that they are a bad person, that their feelings don’t matter, and that their parent is willing to cause them pain in order to control them.

In the second scenario the parent presents themselves as an ally. The emphasis is on caring about the child – about both their safety and their feelings. The child learns that they are loved, that their parent takes their feelings and wishes seriously, but that they will do what has to be done to keep them safe, and are serious about certain limits.

It’s true that sometimes children will just deliberately push boundaries. This is normal and does not make them ‘bad’, so there’s still no reason to punish them. All the more reason to emphasise that we care about them enough to hold those boundaries and keep them safe. And this is best done by showing empathy and affection whilst still maintaining limits. There could be other underlying issues that my child is storing up that’s causing him to push my buttons in this way. Perhaps he just needs to have a good cry and is looking for an excuse to have one.

Enforcing a limit is not the same as issuing a punishment. It’s how we set it, how we speak and respond to our children that makes for a healthy relationship. Empathy and love rather than anger and rejection send an entirely different message and lay the foundations for a much healthier, happier relationship to build on for the future.

With thanks to my gentle parenting neighbour for her positive inspiration for this post.

Why classroom behaviour modification methods are on my sad list

September 27, 2012

There are a number of aspects of mainstream education in the UK that I’m not comfortable with. The starting age, the lack of play based learning for under 7s, the lack of outdoor learning, homework for primary school children, reward systems, class sizes, age segregation, the one size fits all approach and if you can’t do it now we’ll just push harder instead of backing off and coming back later. OK, that’s quite a few already.

But what has really got under my skin this week are the reports brought to me by my child, who talks very sparingly about what happens in school, of the happy/sad face chart in his new classroom.

The teacher, I’m told, has a chart on the classroom wall with a happy face on one side and a sad face on the other. When a child ‘misbehaves’ she writes their name under the sad face. If they misbehave again they get a tick next to their name. For each tick received they miss five minutes of their playtime. If they are especially ‘good’ they get their name written under the happy face, or moved from the sad face to the happy face.

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard of this type of method of course. There are several variations – traffic lights, sun and cloud, they’re all basically the same thing. So what’s my problem with them?

Well, where do I start?

I get that a classroom teacher needs to keep order in the classroom. I do. But is this really the best they can come up with? How exactly is this going to be helpful to a child who is having difficulty meeting the many expectations school heaps upon them?

How is it helpful to be effectively told you are a bad person, and that, furthermore, the fact that you are a bad person is going to be publicly announced to the entire class – to all other children and staff in the classroom or anyone who might enter the classroom during your time of shame. Why not just give out a dunce’s cap?

What effect is this shaming going to have on your self-esteem? And what effect is low self-esteem going to have on your behaviour? Bingo. It’s going to make it worse. It’s quite possibly one of the causes of the ‘bad’ behaviour in the first place.

How is missing some or all of your playtime – a precious opportunity to do what you desperately need to be doing; getting outside and playing and letting off some steam – going to help your future behaviour? And how might you feel during that missed playtime? Positive, ready to make a real effort, feeling able to fit in, school’s a good place? Or resentful, bad, ashamed, school sucks?

My child highlighted another problem with all this when he told me, “Jimmy’s always on the sad face, he’s really naughty.”

Great. Jimmy is labelled, categorised. How is this going to help Jimmy? Will it make him more or less likely to make some solid peer connections that will have a positive effect on his behaviour? Or will he become ostracised? Will it improve his behaviour? Or will he just give up. After all, he’s always on the sad face, clearly he just can’t do anything right, he’s naughty.

When a child is given a label, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish talk about this in their book, “How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk”;

“If you labelled a child as a slow learner, he could begin to see himself as a slow learner. If you saw a child as mischievous, chances are he’d start showing you just how mischievous he could be…..the child who has been given the name begins to play the game. After all, if everyone calls Mary bossy, then that’s what she must be.”

Children behave well when they feel good about themselves and their environment, not when they have a dark cloud hanging over their heads all day long. And the very children that most need help, are the ones likely to end up under that dark cloud every day, giving them just what they don’t need.

Just because so far my child is not the one under the sad face every day, doesn’t mean I’m going to be OK with what’s going on in his classroom, the place he spends a significant part of his time. I chose to put him in a mainstream school so I shouldn’t complain? Actually, other than home education, there was no choice, no alternative school. Yet my child has a right to go to school, and he also, I believe, has a right to be treated better than this. Our children deserve more respect and understanding. And by understanding, as with the title of my blog, I don’t just mean understanding of their behaviour and the underlying needs behind it, but understanding of the negative effects of these superficial behaviour modification techniques. They may ‘work’ for some children (but at what cost?), but they are failing many. Teachers should know better, be better informed.

Oh, and perhaps if we didn’t stuff 30 five-year-olds into a classroom for six hours a day five days a week we wouldn’t need to resort to these methods in the first place.


Looking for discipline techniques that ‘work’? Forget it!

August 16, 2012

“If we don’t use rewards or punishments, what’s the alternative? What else can we use that works“.

I remember asking this question myself when I first began to make the shift in my attitude towards parenting. But the problem lies in the question itself. What do we mean by ‘works’?

Usually, I think we mean ‘get our children to do what we want, now’ or ‘Get a child to stop an unwanted behaviour, and sooner rather than later.’ So we’re measuring the success of a particular method by the immediate and perceivable outcome. Conventional discipline techniques like the naughty step are all about gaining obedience in the short-term. So when we ask, ‘What’s the alternative?’ I think we’re still too hung up on short-term obedience, or in finding ways to manipulate and change behaviour.

There are different strategies we can use to try to avoid power struggles and upsets, and gain cooperation. There are different ways we can respond when a child’s behaviour is unacceptable. But there are no quick fix solutions. We need to think long-term, and seek to guide our children into acceptable behaviour over time, not overnight. If, instead of looking for things that ‘work’ in the immediate term, we pay attention to the relationship, to being connected, and to meeting our child’s emotional needs, this in time will lead to fewer difficulties, and a fresher, more effective approach to the challenges we encounter – and often it’s a change in our own attitude, expectations, and approach that’s needed, rather than a change in our child’s behaviour.

Let go of control.

Too often we try to exert unnecessary levels of control over our children. Make sure there’s a good reason to say no. Often there is. But sometime it’s possible to come up with a compromise or solution that allows your child some autonomy. Save rules for things that really matter. Be mindful of safety without using it as an excuse. Respect a child’s need for what little freedom and autonomy we can afford them. Life as a young child is restrictive enough already.

Don’t be a helicopter or try to micro-manage. Step back a little and chill out. Allow that kids can be messy, forgetful, impulsive, and may not always like or enjoy what you expect them to.

Don’t expect, or even desire, blind and instant obedience.

Have realistic, age appropriate expectations.

Don’t expect a two-year-old to happily share toys with other children. Don’t expect a young child to follow you quietly round the supermarket without ever running in the aisles, attempting to touch anything on the shelves, or whining. Be reasonable, get real, and plan accordingly.

Furthermore, many unwanted behaviours will change over time as part of a child’s natural development, and don’t need to be interfered with by adults with “behaviour modification techniques”. Hitting will stop when a child develops greater impulse control and anger management. We can take steps to prevent it, step in quickly when it happens, gently teach and guide, but we can’t change things overnight.

Change the situation, not the child.

 “It takes a truly adaptive parent to sense the futility of harping on behaviour and to stop railing against what the parent cannot change……It takes a wise parent to focus on what the child is reacting to: the circumstances and situations surrounding the child.  In other words, a parent must first let go of trying to change the child.” Gordon Neufeld, Ph.D., and Gabor Mate, M.D., “Hold On to Your Kids“.

Strive to prevent difficult behaviour from happening in the first place. If your child can’t manage certain situations, avoid them, or change them. Maybe they just can’t handle the supermarket. Can you shop online? Make it more fun for them? Leave them with dad and do it on a Saturday?

If something’s going wrong on a regular basis look at the circumstances surrounding it and for ways to change them.

Meltdown? Maybe they didn’t get enough one to one time with you today. Can you build some in tomorrow? Maybe they’re over-tired. Perhaps that after-school playdate wasn’t such a good idea. Every situation is different, and a different set of circumstances led to things turning out how they did. Things will go wrong sometimes. Learn from these without letting yourself or your child feel bad about it, and emerge stronger and wiser the next time.

Stay connected and give attention when it’s needed

“…I hate the phrase, “He was just looking for attention.” For years, the standard advice has been to ignore such behavior. I don’t get that. We don’t say, “He keeps asking for food, but just ignore him: he’s only saying that because he’s hungry.” We don’t say, “Your cup is empty; so I’ll make sure you don’t get a refill.” If someone is looking for attention that bad, I figure they must need some attention! If we give them enough of the good kind, they won’t be so desperate that they’ll settle for the bad kind”. Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D., “Playful Parenting”.

Forget the old philosophy of not rewarding ‘bad behaviour’ with attention. If your child is attention-seeking, give them some attention. Then give them some more the next day so they won’t have to resort to ‘bad’ behaviour to get it in the first place. Simple.

Difficult behaviours stem from disconnection. Staying connected with your child is the single, most effective way to avoid these.

It’s not discipline techniques we need, conventional or not. It’s the bigger picture, the whole approach and attitude to parenting as an ongoing journey. There are no short cuts. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to any given situation, to any particular child or particular behaviour or issue. We’d all love there to be a magic step-by-step procedure to stop our children hitting, to make them share with other children, to make them get ready for bed every night without any fuss . Programs like Supernanny would have us believe there is. But there isn’t.


How do you get your child to do what you want?

February 14, 2012

I was asked this question by a father I met on a parenting course last week. He didn’t ask because he was marvelling at the incredible obedience of my child (who wasn’t there and who he’d never met), but I think because it was a question that had been puzzling him lately, and he wanted to hear what other parents had to say.

I found it difficult to give a short answer, which I guess sums it up really – there is no simple answer. So I’ve decided my answer deserves a blog post.

Without the use of bribes and threats, it’s all about strategies. Here are some of mine. None of them are guaranteed to work – that’s why it’s useful to have a few to try for different situations. But I believe they are, however, guaranteed to avoid jeopardising relationships, damaging a child’s self esteem, and creating long term problems.

Give choices

A child is much more likely to comply if they feel they have some control over the situation, have had their wishes consulted, and have been shown respect. Giving choices can achieve all this.

“Shall we put your shoes or coat on first?”

Or “Are you going to sit here or here for shoes on?”

Note that the child does not have overall choice about everything – they don’t have a choice about whether or not they’re going out – the adult retains overall control but gives the child choices within this. Let’s face it – children have very little choice over what happens to them each day. Giving choices where possible can help alleviate feelings of powerlessness and frustration and feed a child’s growing desire for independence. See my previous post on this strategy. 

Give information not commands

A subtle re-phrasing can sometimes be all that’s needed. So instead of “Put your shoes on”;

“We need to put our shoes on now so we can go out.”

“It’s time to put our shoes on.”

“It’s time to go out. Your shoes are ready at the bottom of the stairs.”

Again, I’ve written another post just on this strategy. Don’t knock it just yet – it’s surprising how well it can work.

Be playful and stay connected

This is probably my favourite one, and the one with which I have the most success. Be silly, make a joke, make things fun.

“Let’s race to see who can put their shoes on first.”

“We’re going on an adventure. Let’s get our special adventure shoes on.” Elaborate, create themes ad hoc.

Make silly noises as you put your shoes on and challenge your child to make some of their own, do a silly shoes-on dance or song, get creative, have fun and giggle!

Playfulness brings us to our child’s level and keeps us connected with them. Connection is the key to cooperation – well, to everything really.

This strategy is on my list of topics for future posts. In the meantime, read Lawrence Cohen’s “Playful Parenting”. Brilliant.

Give warnings

Give your child a chance to shift gears. If they’re in the middle of something, don’t expect them to drop everything any more than you would want to if you were in the middle of something.  Give some warnings, explain what’s happening next, and when they can return to what they’re doing now. Make a connection with them before trying to get them to comply.

Validate

If your child protests, cries, gets upset – validate, don’t scold.

“You were having fun doing that and now we have to go out. That must be hard. You’re feeling upset about this etc…”

Showing a child we’re on their side and understand is far more to likely to head off a major power struggle or meltdown.

Do it yourself

Don’t obsess about what age your child should or should not be doing things themselves. Just put their shoes on for them if this is easier. Nicely, whilst talking or joking with them, and making eye contact.

No, you will not still be doing this when they’re a teenager.  You just won’t. Really.

These strategies may sound unrealistic to some, but the most important thing I’ve discovered is that once I made the shift in attitude away from that of expecting instant compliance and blind obedience, and once I dispensed with using any bribes or threats, I found these strategies worked better simply because I was coming up against less resistance in the first place.

Difficult behaviour usually stems from disconnection. Playfulness, empathy, patience, understanding and respect will keep you connected whilst punishment and reward systems won’t.

Please share what strategies have worked for you.


Helicopter parenting

January 25, 2012

I fairly recently came across this term in a newspaper article and must admit I liked it.  I might be a bit slow – maybe it’s been around for a long time already – but I’ve never heard anyone use it, or seen it before. I think perhaps it’s used more in the States.

However, I more recently read part of a forum thread on Mumsnet in which someone had asked what the term meant.  Answers ranged from parents who are constantly phoning their son or daughter’s university to complain about something or argue about grades, to parents who follow their child up into the structures at soft play centres.  I felt slightly affronted by this latter example.  I have frequently been seen at the top of soft play structures.  Do people think I’m a helicopter parent?! (actually, it was always either climb into the structure with child or put up with him doing some helicoptering of his own – around me at my table with my unread magazine).

So I guess the term can be whatever you interpret it to be.

I think the first thing that comes to my mind is over-protective parents.  Not just in terms protecting children from physical harm, but also wanting to protect them from, well, everything.  Parents who are constantly stepping in and interfering with children’s play – trying to settle all their differences for them, trying to direct the play too much, not just letting them get on with it.  Of course, younger children especially, often do need the help of an adult, but often they don’t.

Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D. gives some excellent tips on when and how it may be necessary to step in, in his book, “Playful Parenting“. He also quotes Jeffrey Trawick-Smith;

“Children need to get into arguments to learn how to resolve them; they must be excluded from groups to learn play group entry skills. They must play with disagreeable peers and bullies to broaden their repertoire of social strategies. They must have play ideas rejected so they can learn to become persuasive. When adults intervene too quickly in conflict, these opportunities are lost.”

I think this type of over-protectiveness stems from our, well, protectiveness; a natural feeling for a parent to have towards their child.  But I think it also comes from a lack of faith in children’s abilities, and often in their intentions.

But as well as basic over-protectiveness, the term ‘helicopter parenting’ also brings to my mind a type of parenting that seeks to exert what I see as excessive control over a child.  Maybe it’s a genuine wish to keep them from physical harm, but often I suspect it’s more about keeping them clean, for example, or just quiet. I am frequently in a situation where I hear other children being told not to do something that I am allowing my child to do.  Play fighting and wrestling is the most common, but also things like climbing on a wall, having a pillow fight, splashing in puddles, walking through or playing with mud, piling bark chippings on the bottom of the slide (I actually take some secret pleasure in allowing my child to do this and pretending not to notice the the disgust on the face of the mother of the little girl in the pretty white dress at the top of the slide).  I make no apology.  Children’s business is to play. They learn through play, explore the world through play, learn to be safe through taking risks, find their limits.

On the safety issue, Cohen writes;

“Children have very good judgement when they are allowed to use it, but often they haven’t gotten much of a chance, since we are always telling them what they should or shouldn’t do. Most of us worry much more about danger than we need to, especially if we are going to be right there playing with them…..Of course, as parents, part of our job is to pay attention to basic safety, but sometimes we use safety as a good excuse for our own insecurities and inhibitions.”

But is helicopter parenting a modern phenomenon or just a modern term?  What does the term ‘helicopter parenting’ mean to you?