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.


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?


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.

My manifesto for parent governor

February 14, 2013

The position of parent governor seems to be quite sought after at my child’s school. We were recently invited to vote to elect two new governors – I think we had a choice of about eight people who had put themselves forward. Each had written a paragraph about themselves. Personally I didn’t think any of them gave much away about what their opinions were – where they stood, what they would like to see improved at the school, what ideas they had. But I’m probably being naïve. How much opportunity do parent governors really have to change anything? Still, it would have been nice to know a little more about the views of the people we were being asked to vote for.

A letter has just come home telling us there are a further two positions to fill, and inviting parents to put themselves forward, with a “personal statement”, anticipating that another election will be necessary.

So, just for fun, here’s my manifesto. Here’s what I would stand up for if I was parent governor.

speaker2An end to all shame-based punishments in school.

Punitive ‘behaviour modification techniques’ such as placing children’s names on a ‘sad chart’, or announcing children’s names in assembly are practices that shame children and hark back to methods used in Victorian classrooms. Practices like this make children feel ashamed and bad about themselves, causing emotional harm, and ultimately making behaviour worse. They fail to address any underlying issues, and can be particularly destructive for children with individual needs or problems. Plenty of teachers have managed, and continue to manage classroom behaviour perfectly well without resorting to these methods. There’s no excuse for it and no need for it. Our children deserve better!

And while we’re on the subject of punishment, collective punishment is a violation of the Geneva Conventions, and generally considered a violation of human rights and justice, but it’s OK for school children? Really?

More outdoor learning.

Studies have shown that outdoor learning can be extremely beneficial to children, with evidence of improvement in both learning and behaviour. A recent report by the National Trust raises serious concerns about the amount of time today’s children are now spending indoors, and advocates children being taken outdoors for lessons as much as possible. Regular daily outdoor learning appears to be something only our nursery and reception children benefit from, so ceases when children are still only age 5! Looking for more opportunities to take learning outside, such as making links and working with local forest school practitioners and trainers would be a good way forward.

An improved, revamped playground.

Children’s play is important to them, but is limited and stifled by a bland environment. Less concrete and more natural features are needed. Oh, and that rule about not going on the grass – get over it!!

An end to age segregation in the playground

Our children already spend enough time segregated into age groups. Playing in mixed age groups is natural and has many developmental benefits for children. Play becomes more creative and less competitive. Is it really necessary to separate KS1 and KS2 in the playground? Surely, with a little effort and thought we can find ways to facilitate and encourage mixed age groups at playtime.

The encouragement and promotion of part-time attendance for reception children.

Our children are the amongst the youngest school starters in Europe. Many may not be ready emotionally or socially for full-time school life. In the UK, parents have the right to request part-time attendance until their child reaches legal school age – the term after they turn five. Yet few parents are aware of this, and even if they are, they are hesitant to do something ‘different’ for fear of going against the norm or making their child stand out. A school that is more open and forthcoming about this option would have the potential to make it the norm, and so to better support children as they make the transition into school life. Too much too soon is counter-productive for children, both emotionally and academically.

An end to homework

There is no evidence to show that homework in primary schools improves academic performance. There’s a lot of assumption, but there’s no evidence. No research has shown a correlation between homework and improved grades.

Family time is important, and families should decide how to spend it. Kids spend enough time engaged in formal learning in school. Give them a break. There is plenty to be learned and gained from other activities, from free play, from being outdoors, from pursuing individual interests, from spending quality time connecting as a family. Children’s lives today are already over-scheduled. This isn’t helping.

Sign the petition against homework in primary schools.

ballot box

So, if I can get all this down to 200 words I could submit it and nominate myself to stand for parent governor. Would you vote for me? What would you add to this list?


Coming clean

January 11, 2013

boys with arms round each otherI was at a children’s museum last week. In one section the children were busy collecting pretend rocks in little wheelbarrows, taking them and loading them into boxes that then went up on a pulley system, along some overhead conveyor belts, then were re-delivered to another part of the room where the children awaited eager to start the cycle again. The kids embraced this activity with a sort of serious, business-like enthusiasm. It was like watching busy ants at work. 

My five-year old child waited eagerly for the opportunity to get a turn with a wheelbarrow. He then waited at the point where the next delivery of rocks was expected. They arrived in a shower and the children grabbed at them excitedly. 

I noticed a smaller boy, probably about two years old, was crying and upset. His mother was attempting to remonstrate with him, to move him on, away from what had upset him. She seemed annoyed however, and the boy seemed to be chasing my own son. I asked her if there was a problem. “He,” she said, gesturing towards my child, “took his rocks”, gesturing towards her own child. 

I knelt down next to my child. “Did you take some of that little boy’s rocks?” I asked, as gently as I could. I didn’t want him to feel accused or blamed. I was desperately trying to think of a better way to phrase the question, but couldn’t. He nodded.

“He’s very upset. Do you think you could give him them back?” My child looked at the other child, still crying while his mother tried to persuade him to come away. I felt a sense of urgency to fix this before his mother succeeded and the opportunity would be lost. He lifted a rock out of his wheelbarrow and looked at me.

“How many rocks do you think you took from him?” He held up two fingers. “Perhaps you could give him two back.” He quickly took a rock in each hand and ran over to the crying child, his arms outstretched. The little boy stopped crying immediately, took the rocks, and continued on his mission. 

I refrained from saying “Well done” or “Good boy”, or in any way passing my own judgement or gushing forth with my approval, but later I casually commented to my child on how pleased the little boy had looked and how he had stopped crying.

It doesn’t always work out this well. Sometimes my child won’t take my cues, or appears unconcerned about the distress of the other child. This nearly always turns out to be when there’s another underlying issue, or some disconnection between us. It’s not always plain sailing. But the reason I reflected on this incident so much that night was not so much that I was pleased my child had done the right thing, but because he had admitted his wrong doing to me without hesitation, and this was not the first instance of this in the past few weeks. 

Now if, I wonder, I was in the habit of punishing him, would he have come clean so readily? Maybe. But don’t kids who fear punishment tend to try to talk their way out of things? 

If I had angrily accused him, and ordered him to “give back the rocks right now”, would he have done so so readily? Maybe. But would he have been more likely to learn anything from this? Would he have come out of the situation feeling he’d done the right thing, feeling good about himself? Or would he feel resentful, ashamed, determined not to get caught next time? Of course many parents would not just stop at ordering the rocks to be returned. There would have been further retribution to follow. 

Ah, but would a child brought up by a parent who uses punishment have been less likely to take the rocks from another child in the first place? Again, I think not. Every child is subject to the same impulses and temptations, and lapses in self-control. In one of her many excellent articles about children and punishment, Dr Laura Markham writes, 

“….most of us have the high-functioning frontal cortex that develops fully by about age 25, so we can rein in the anger, greed, and the other emotions that get us into trouble. But children don’t have a fully developed frontal cortex. It isn’t that they don’t know what’s right…..it’s that they can’t stop themselves from doing what’s wrong. That’s true even if there’s a consequence.  If punishment worked, you would never have to do it again! Instead, kids who are punished actually behave WORSE over time than kids who aren’t punished.” 

My unpunished child is not perfect. But I’m not going to punish him for that. And I’m confident that with gentle guidance, instead of punishment, he will be better able to learn all the lessons I wish to teach him, and will have no reason to conceal his mistakes from me, secure in his own inner self and in his relationship with me.


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.


Unpunished

April 18, 2012

I don’t punish my child for his behaviour. I haven’t done for a few years now. Before I made this shift in my approach and attitude I would have thought these statements sounded extreme. But now I often find myself reflecting on how I actually never feel the need to punish. My child presents his fair share of challenging behaviour, yet strangely I never find myself wishing I could dish out a punishment, or having to remind myself not to. The less you punish, the less you need to punish. Punishment only makes behaviour worse.  I was commenting on this to my husband last night, then suddenly remembered that earlier that evening my child had hit out at me. Surely this would be considered by many to be punishable behaviour. Yet it never occurred to me at the time, and reflecting on it afterwards, I’m still quite certain that it was right not to punish.

My child had been at school all day. When he came home, after a snack, he said he wanted to play ‘rugby on the bed’ with me. This is his name for playing rough and tumble, and one of our main ways of reconnecting with each other. We had a lovely play and a giggle together for a few minutes, then he heard voices, looked out of the window and saw his friends from next door playing outside. He immediately announced that he wanted to go outside and play with them, but with a hint of regret at ending the time we were having together. I commented that we could always have another play later, and off he went.

There was never an opportunity to resume our rough and tumble play that evening for one reason or another. When I announced it was bath-time my child started bouncing on the bed – a clear and common indication of his intention to be uncooperative. Being accustomed to these tactics, and having various means of dealing with them, I was unphased until he started hitting out at me. His hits were more like swipes, reminiscent of the warning swipe a cat might give with her claws retracted. There was no intention to hurt, but there clearly was the  intention to communicate something.

“No hitting”.

He continued.

“No hitting” – this time gently taking hold of his hands. I knew there was something wrong, and I had a pretty good idea what it was.

When he was calm we talked.

“Are you sad that it’s bath-time?”

“Yeeeees”, came the sad cry.

“Do you feel like we haven’t had enough time to play together?”

“Yeeeees”.

“Tomorrow I’m picking you up from school early so we’ll have all afternoon”, then realising this was trying to fix things and not validating the feelings he was experiencing right now in that moment, “We were playing rugby on the bed then you went outside to play with your friends, and we never got a chance to play again”.  A cuddle.  “Let’s get ready for your bath really quick so we’ll have time for some extra books tonight”.

A minute later he was playing happily in the bath.

Did he ‘get away’ with hitting? Was a punishment required to ‘teach’ him that hitting is wrong?  I think not. He knows hitting is wrong. That’s why he was doing it. He was doing wrong because he was feeling wrong inside and couldn’t quite find the words to tell me about these feelings.  He may not even have been sure exactly what those feelings were or what gave rise to them. He may have felt angry at me when he realised the day was nearly over and we had not had enough one to one time together.

I reminded him “No hitting” and gently enforced that limit. I then helped him process the feelings that had given rise to the behaviour. That is all that was needed. If I had responded by putting him in a timeout, or saying ‘no books tonight’, giving him a ‘sad face’ sticker on a chart, or come up with some other parent imposed ‘consequence’ would this make him less likely to hit again? Absolutely not. If anything it would make his behaviour worse. He would feel bad about himself, angrier with me, and more disconnected from me (the very issue that caused the behaviour in the first place), and the opportunity for me to help him process those feelings would have been lost.

He lost control. He did wrong. He’s a kid and he’s not perfect. I’m not going to punish him for that. I will, however, be more mindful of incorporating one to one time into our days. My child is not the only one with lessons to learn here.

Punishment does not teach. Empathy, understanding, and love teaches volumes and equips children emotionally to deal with their feelings and problems in a more mature way.