Back to school season

September 6, 2015

As a child I was always irritated by the endless parade of ‘Back to school’ signs in shops, seemingly taunting us all summer long, as if not wanting us to forget that these blissful carefree summer days would eventually be coming to an end. So perhaps I’ve carried this irritation into my adult life and this accounts for my feelings at the repeatedly tedious attempts at conversation with my child by friends, family and strangers alike.

chalkboard-back-to-school-_pr-o“When do you go back to school?”

“Are you going back to school soon?”

“Are you looking forward to starting school again?”

*Yawn*

But today a woman, a complete stranger, passing us in the supermarket aisle, took things to a new level.

“Are you going back to school on Monday?” she asks my child.

“Yes” he dutifully replies.

“Good” she says, “I’m glad. I bet your mum’s glad too.”

Excuse me?!

Firstly, please have the goodness not to make uneducated guesses as to my feelings regarding my child’s imminent return to the box ticking factory that is our education system, and all the trials and tribulations this brings back into his life (and consequently, mine). This in contrast to the hours of free play on the street that have made up a good part of his 7 week break, punctuated by a few days here and there of Forest Schools, and hiking holidays, which in turn lead to more free play with new sets of children, around the caravan parks and hostels we stayed in. All this makes for a happy, carefree child. Why would I look forward to this happiness being doused by his return to school?

Secondly, there’s this thing called ‘self esteem’ or ‘self worth’. And kids need this like plants need water. It seems this concept is rather alien to some, particularly those from a certain generation, to which I suspect this woman belongs. So let me spell it out: I want my child to feel loved, wanted, accepted and valued, not that he is a nuisance or an inconvenience of whose company I can’t wait to be rid. The latter is clearly the message this woman’s remarks were sending, whether intentionally or not.

What’s more, her remarks to my child are a great example of an habitual lack of respect towards children that seems to continue to lurk in our society. Would she have spoken to an adult like that? What had my child done to her, what does she know of him, that she needs to express her dislike for him in this way? Just a flippant remark? Maybe, but children are not stupid, they are fully aware of the implications of our remarks about them, and will draw their own conclusions. And their feelings are liable to being hurt just in the same way as those of an adult, if anything, more so.

I made the point of telling my child, in tones suitably audible, that on the contrary, I did not want him to go back to school, and that I would miss him, accompanying this with an affectionate hug and kiss. We then moved swiftly on down the aisle.

Now believe me, I fully understand and sympathise with parents who are in fact looking forward to their children returning to school. And I don’t believe parents should feel guilty for feeling this way. There have been, and continue to be, plenty of times during my life as a parent when I have wished my child elsewhere.

But if you are looking forward to school starting, please don’t presume I feel that way, and please, for pity’s sake, don’t tell your child you feel that way, and certainly not my child.


It’s not my fault, but it’s my responsibility.

July 15, 2015

We parent the way we were parented. That’s our instinct. If we want to parent a different way we have to make a conscious effort to change. It’s as simple as that, but it’s not easy. Fighting our instincts never is. Too often I hear myself say things to my child that my parents would have said to me. I recognise where these negative responses are coming from, and I’m not happy with them. Sometimes I feel angry and frustrated that I can’t always be the parent I want to be, and it would be so easy to simply blame my parents for this. However, as one of Dan Siegel’s patients once said to him; it’s not my fault, but it’s my responsibility. For me, this seems to make sense of things so well, and is a phrase I’ve often returned to since I heard Dr Siegel talking about it at a conference some two years ago.

innocenceYou see, these negative responses that are ingrained in me may not be my fault, but it’s my responsibility to recognise where they’re coming from, the effect they can have on my child, and to self-reflect, and try to make changes for the better.

Now, following this logic, one could argue that in a similar way those negative responses that my parents passed down to me were not their fault either, since they inherited them from their own parents. But it was their responsibility. And this is where I’m struggling.

It’s only since becoming a parent myself that I’ve fully understood the profound effect my childhood has had on me. But despite this, and the emotional scars I’m still dealing with, I never really felt I held any of it against them. I’ve always known they never meant any harm.

And perhaps things could have stayed this way, with the past lying dormant. But it’s hard to let the past lie when it gets dragged into the present in the form of my parents’ negative responses to my own child. If not for this, I might have been able to leave it all undisturbed.

But since I have gone to the trouble to break the cycle, to get informed and learn about children’s emotional needs, and to take the business of parenting seriously, their behaviour towards my child is more than a little irritating to me. It really triggers something in me. It opens old wounds and makes me feel furiously protective of my own child.

Exacerbating the situation is their judgement and criticism of the way I choose to parent. No, I’m not doing it the way you did – that’s the point! Their inability to see this illustrates their total lack of self-reflection and refusal to take responsibility for themselves. And given the amount of self-reflection I’ve had to do, I find myself increasingly astonished and out of patience with the total lack of it I observe in other people.

But perhaps they know really, and it’s just too much to face up to. Because if they were to admit that what I’m doing is preferable to what they did, they would have to admit that what they did was wrong, had some ramifications. And that’s big.

Relations are now decidedly strained, for the first time since I was a teenager. And just as when I was a teenager, I seem to be expected to shoulder all the responsibility for this.

But the thing is, after years of victim blaming on their part (I was such a difficult teenager, you see), I’ve come to see that the situation back then, the culmination of everything that was wrong in our relationship, was entirely of their own making. After all these years they still can’t face up to this, nor, it seems, to the part they have played in creating the current situation.

Well I have enough responsibility of my own to deal with now, and I have enough issues from my childhood, thanks very much. I am no longer willing to take on anyone else’s. I know it’s not their fault, but it’s their responsibility.


Adults behaving badly

April 11, 2015

I was lucky enough to grow up with one of those free-range childhoods we now only reminisce or campaign about. Outdoors playing with the neighbouring children, in and out of each other’s houses and gardens, or mostly playing out in the surrounding common areas.

So it is with satisfaction that I see my child often enjoying a miniature version of this childhood, with spontaneous play occurring regularly at the end of our little cul-de-sac in the city suburbs, with the mixed genders and ages a fascinating reminder of the scope and range of possibilities in children’s play and their natural capacity to get along with each other.

One thing I was always taught, and that seemed a universal rule held by all parents, was that it is never OK to exclude other children from play. It was a free-for-all, everyone on neutral ground. If I was playing with Becky, and her younger sister Catherine wanted to join us, it was not acceptable for us to say no. We had to find a way to include her. Back gardens were not fenced off areas awaiting exclusive invitation, but merely an extension and diversion of the general territory. If parents decided they didn’t want children in their back garden at a given time, all children were told to go play elsewhere. And there were always plenty of other places, so that was fine.

So you can imagine my surprise last summer when my child, playing happily outside with his friends from next door, with whom he has played since toddlerhood, is sent running inside in tears to inform me that another child and his mother have come out and invited his friends round to play in their back garden, but have told him he is not invited.

Assuming, in my naive innocence, that my child must have made a mistake (for what sort of adult would behave like this towards a 7 year old child, or condone this behaviour in their own child?) I go outside to see what has happened and am immediately set upon by the mother in question, who has not been quick enough in her retreat, with the most offensive and abusive verbal attack I can ever remember having experienced. This was swiftly followed up by the Dad, standing shouting abuse at my husband and I on our drive, in front of our child, deaf to anything we had to say, including our civil invitation to come inside and discuss things quietly and calmly.

Our child has shouted at their younger child on a couple of occasions. This was their response, and woe betide anyone who dared to question or challenge it. Our gentle parenting methods, as alien to them as their naughty steps and rewards charts are to us, must, in their minds, surely be to blame. Have you noticed that when a child doesn’t behave well, the automatic assumption is always that it must be the parent’s fault? I find that curious, but more of that in another post…..

Now I have long since resigned myself to the extremely depressing fact that there are a lot of very unpleasant people in the world, and have found my own way to live with this. But when such a glaring example of this unpleasantness affects my child, extremely sensitive to any hint of rejection and exclusion, it is very difficult to live with, especially when it is right on my doorstep.

child alone hopskotchI know things are not quite how they were when I was a child, although there’s not really any need for them to be any different that I can see, but in what universe is this acceptable? It simply isn’t. There can be no possible justification for it. Never and nowhere is it acceptable to take a child’s friends out from under his nose in such a way, and in doing so, to teach children that this behaviour is acceptable. The example set, the role-modelling here, is appalling.

Naturally, I have observed my child’s behaviour around this younger child very closely since this incident. They play very happily together, always pleased to encounter each other on the street, as well as in the school playground, or out and about. They have forgotten and forgiven and moved on you see, as kids do when left to their own devices and not interfered with by adults with their grudges and their judgements.  They’d make very good role-models for some of the adults on our street – oh the irony – if those adults would just pay attention and give the matter some thought.

But sadly all this seems to be lost on them. Further attempts at exclusion have since been made, some successful, some not. Just yesterday our child was left alone on the street, one minute with friends to play with, the next excluded, left only to listen to the sounds of laughter and play on the other side of a fence.

Perhaps I’m out of date with play etiquette? It seems it’s not just common courtesy that’s a thing of the past, but common decency, respect and consideration for the feelings of others.

I can only try to explain to my child the truth that I had hoped to keep longer from him; that not all adults have learnt to behave well or do the right thing. Sadly some people are just “not very nice”.

I tone it down for him of course, but in my own mind I find their behaviour utterly despicable and at times feel physically sick at the prospect of having to share the end of our once happy little street with them, and the world with such truly horrible people.


It’s my stuff

March 27, 2015

As my child gets older, naturally there are more and more things he is able to do himself, like getting his own shoes on, being able to reach things out of the fridge, pour his own juice, that sort of thing. And he loves being helpful too, so it’s not just about what he can do for himself, but what he can do to help around the house too.

autonomyI can see how important it is to him when he accomplishes these small things, and yet at times it’s a struggle for me to accommodate his eagerness. It’s all very lovely, but the trouble is, he’s quite clumsy, and a little too eager at times. He also likes to do things his way, and is not too receptive to suggestions. On top of this, he can get very frustrated and upset when he can’t manage something he wants to be able to do.

Normally, I like to think I’m pretty big on the idea of letting my child figure things out for himself and discover things for himself. I try not to jump in too quickly if he’s playing with some friends and they can’t agree on something immediately. I try to encourage him to find his own way down the climbing frame rather than have me lift him. If he’s about to jump off a wall that I think might be too high, instead of just saying no, I ask him to use his judgement. He’s pretty cautious really and generally gets it right without me having to place my own restrictions. It all seems pretty obvious to me. I mean, most parents wouldn’t just tell their child the answer to the maths problem they’re trying to figure out, would they? And I’m pretty easy-going about him getting himself dirty, loving to watch him play and explore freely without being encumbered by my adult concerns and restrictions.

But when it comes to him showering cornflakes everywhere, or packing the bag with the sandwiches at the bottom, this child-led approach doesn’t seem to come so naturally to me. For a while, when he first started being more self-sufficient, I’d often find myself trying to find a nice way to stop him and tell him I’d do it, keen to either avoid an upset, a mess, speed things up, or just have things done my way. (now, where I have already mentioned this trait?) But I soon realised that however I phrased it, he was missing out on feeling capable, helpful, valued, involved, respected, and from learning to do these things on his own. More importantly, I also realised it was my stuff, and allowing my stuff to get in my child’s way just wasn’t fair.

I remember this dawning on me one summer day when we were getting ready for a day out. I’d gathered together all the things we needed to take out with us, and pulled out one of the rucksacks ready to pack the things into. I always pack things in a particular way, remembering what went where, in which little pocket I’d put the sun cream, rolling up the swimming towels neatly so they took up less space.

Then when I came out of the bathroom, my child announced cheerfully, “I’ve packed the bag mummy”. As I looked at him, so very pleased with himself, so eager for my approval, so keen to feel useful and part of the process, I realised I needed to take a deep breath and let it go. What was more important? My child’s feeling of self-worth and ability, or that the bag was packed just the way I liked it?

So much of parenting is about being aware of our own stuff, and not just the big things like how we react when our children make us angry. It’s all the seemingly little things too, like how we feel about them getting messy, or taking risks, or not wanting to store their toys just the way we would have. And so often, we let our stuff get in our child’s way, or in our own way forward as parents. Plus we risk making our stuff our kids’ stuff.

So every time I identify something that’s my stuff, however small, like being overly particular about how to pack a bag, I feel my self-awareness is my child’s gain.


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.


Three cheers for the natural learning process!

March 14, 2013

There are so many activities available to sign your child up for these days. If you don’t guard against getting carried away, your child’s weekends and the short time after school each day, can quickly become booked up with various classes.

Being a great believer in allowing plenty of time for connection and for free play, and a bit of a sceptic to boot, I’ve guarded against this carefully, taking a very cautious and minimal approach, discarding the majority of letters and fliers that come home from school.

But I always wondered about swimming lessons. Every child needs to learn to swim, right? Should I not sign up for these as soon as possible? But somehow I never quite got round to this either.

A regular swimmer myself, before I had a child I used to watch the mothers and babies in the Baby Swimmers class when I was at the pool, and imagine that if I ever had a child, I would join this class as soon as my baby was old enough.

Sure enough, when baby finally materialised I began taking him to the pool regularly as soon as possible. I got as far as enquiring about the mother and baby classes, but never quite felt ready to start them. We were having such a lovely time together in the pool already you see. It was always such a connecting activity which we both enjoyed. The timing of the classes never quite fit into our routine of meals and naps. And what would we do in the classes that we weren’t already doing in the pool together, just the two of us, sometimes with my good friend Wendy with her support and enthusiasm, who told me to ditch the baby floater seat and the arm bands?

Boy in Swimming PoolI’ll start him in lessons when he’s a bit older, I decided eventually. I then revisited the issue again, annually probably, always on the brink of signing him up, but then always putting it off ‘for a little longer’. The lessons were frequently taking place in another part of the pool when we were swimming. They always looked so regimented. The children never looked particularly happy. The teachers had a shouty, bossy tone. My child loved going swimming, but didn’t like putting his head in the water. I didn’t want him to be pushed into this, but wanted him to do it in his own time. I was afraid he would be ‘put off’ swimming. In short, I didn’t trust anyone else, didn’t want to hand over the job to other adults who might not be so sensitive to his particular needs.

So we have continued visiting the pool every week and having our swim together, and so we continue now my child is six. He is now swimming unaided, a little further each time, and is no longer afraid to go underwater.

What’s really struck me is that I haven’t had to ‘teach’ him at all. It’s been a remarkable testament to the natural learning process. Everything’s just happened so spontaneously as his confidence grows and he gradually tests out and discovers through our antics together in the water what he can do, watching other children and trying different games and challenges.

Too often we are apt to assume that learning must take place through instruction, by adults imparting knowledge. Yet my child’s development in the pool has been a great demonstration of learning just by doing, by playing and having a go at things. And he’s enjoyed doing it all at his own pace and on his own terms. Yesterday he wanted to play at ‘diving’ and retrieving objects in the baby pool. It’s fascinating to watch how much he is teaching himself through this simple game. He experiments with how long he can stay under the water, what he can do under there, how much he can see. It’s all training of course for doing this in the big pool. I’ll take my cue from him as to when he’s ready.

What’s more, it’s been a journey we have shared together. It’s been wonderful to be right there with him to share those special moments of achievement, his delight the first time he jumped in without me catching him, the first time he found he could swim unaided. I wouldn’t have wanted to give up these moments to someone else anymore than I would his first steps or first words. It’s been my little bit of home-education that I always wanted. Learning that’s child-led, play-based, individualised, following my child’s instincts and interests, taking the natural course of things together. My child enjoys going to the pool more than anything else. Even more, perhaps, than playing out on the street with his friends. And that’s saying something!

So if there’s an activity you enjoy, and you think your child would enjoy too, think twice before signing them up for classes. Why not just do it together?


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.