“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.


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

October 14, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Health and Safety Excuse; another restriction to children’s play

May 14, 2013

There is a care home on our route home from school. They have large gardens, and a pair of gardeners visit every week. On the very edge of the garden, against the low wall, they have created a heap of leaves, grass and hedge cuttings.

queen of the worldMy child has found that by climbing onto the wall, which is about two feet high, he can then step onto this pile of cuttings and climb to the top of it. It has become one of his rituals on the route home from school, along with climbing on another higher wall to get behind a large cable box and sell imaginary ice creams.

With Spring finally upon us, he has been delighted to find his ‘mountain’ of cuttings has grown considerably, and continues to do so each week. Not a naturally confident climber, he is very pleased with himself when he reaches the top.

“Look at me Mummy, I’m a mountain climber”.

On a recent occasion, he had just descended from his mountain and was standing on the wall next to me, when two workers from the care home approached us.

“You alright?” one of them asked.

I interpreted this as a polite way of saying “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” but responded literally,

“We’re fine thanks. He likes climbing up this pile of cuttings.”

“Well be careful because we can get in trouble with Health & Safety” she responded.

What?!

“It’s OK, I’m watching him”. Hopefully they interpreted this as it was meant; a polite way of saying, “Piss off and stop making a fuss, I’m his mother and have decided the risk is minimal, he’s just a child playing, and I have no intention of asking him to climb down”.

Now technically, it’s their wall, and the pile of cuttings is on their property, so they could quite legitimately ask me to prevent my child climbing on either, on these grounds. This, I think, would be pretty mean-spirited of them, and perhaps it was a consciousness of this that led them to try to hide behind ‘Health & Safety”. Or was their response just typical of the wider attitude these days? And that’s what really bugged me about the incident.

Would everyone please stop using Health and Safety as an excuse for placing unnecessary restrictions on children’s freedom to play?

My childhood was spent climbing goodness knows how many walls, trees, piles of cuttings, sand, gravel. Everything was a playground; I can’t recall any incidents of being reprimanded for climbing on someone else’s wall or pile. Such pettiness didn’t seem to exist then. So where is it coming from?

Is it because the norm is now for children to be protected from the tiniest risk, so it’s no longer common place for them to be seen climbing on walls or piles of cuttings? Because it’s not just organisations themselves waving the Health and Safety banner; parents seem to have picked up on this drift and are saying no to anything that might lead to the tiniest bump or scratch. Yet, in doing so, we deprive our children of the opportunity to learn about risk, to test their abilities, to use their imaginations, to have fun, to play, to be children.

Here’s an extract from a statement issued by the Health and Safety Executive last September,

Key message: ‘Play is great for children’s well-being and development. When planning and providing play opportunities, the goal is not to eliminate risk, but to weigh up the risks and benefits. No child will learn about risk if they are wrapped in cotton wool’.

HSE fully recognises that play brings the world to life for children. It provides for an exploration and understanding of their abilities; helps them to learn and develop; and exposes them to the realities of the world in which they will live, which is a world not free from risk but rather one where risk is ever-present. The opportunity for play develops a child’s risk awareness and prepares them for their future lives.

….Key message: ‘Accidents and mistakes happen during play – but fear of litigation and prosecution has been blown out of proportion.’”

Yes, that’s right. This is from the HSE. So there’s really no excuse for hiding behind Health and Safety.

I wonder if those workers from the care home have asked the gardeners not to block the pavement with their car, causing my child and I, and others walking home from school with small children, to have to walk on the road; a considerably more prominent risk to safety and breach of the law than a child climbing up a pile of leaves and twigs? But no, of course they haven’t. Because they’re not really concerned with Health and Safety. Their response was just a response to today’s trend – children are no longer permitted to climb on walls or anything else. It’s just not the done thing anymore, except, it seems, by radicals like me. And that’s very sad.


More reasons to unplug kids from technology

May 3, 2013

An article appeared in The Guardian this week with a nice picture of two kids cooking together in a kitchen. But the picture belies the content of the article, which is all about the dangers of hidden advertising on children’s apps. What struck me about the article was the way the author talked quite unconcernedly about children’s apps and the scale of their popularity. Her sole concern was with the advertising, not with the apps themselves.

The way she described some of the apps seemed quite illuminating too;

“Dirtgirlworld, a game played on smartphones and tablets, teaches children how to grow food from scratch and cook up tasty meals”

Really? How? I’ve never looked at this app, but I very much doubt it does anything of the sort. Where does a child’s experience of the texture, smell, weight or taste of the food come in? (I was particularly amused that she actually used the word ‘tasty’) The sense of passing time in learning how long it takes to grow things from seed, the anticipation, the sense of responsibility for daily care, the sense of achievement at creating something, and the satisfaction of eating it and sharing it? Where’s the social interaction in the kitchen with parents or siblings? The opportunity to connect with parents?

I confess I’m a little out of touch with these things. Perhaps there’s a tree climbing app? A den building app? When it snows I expect there’s a sledging and snowman-making app. There must be so many things my child could do without ever having to leave the house.

Recent grumblings in the press about in app purchases, where children left unattended with tablets and smartphones are prone to inadvertently spending lots of their parents’ money, are another example of how we’re happy to complain about problems associated with our children using these apps, but not about the apps themselves. Something must be done to prevent this happening, everyone says. Game manufacturers must be stopped from manipulating our children and conning us out of our cash. I agree. Here’s my answer: unplug the whole bloody lot and send the kids outside.

The simple fact is that computer games cannot replace real life experiences.  As with TV, parents kid themselves that these things are educational and beneficial. But time spent in front of screens is time wasted. There are a myriad of better things for kids to be doing in this short, precious time in their lives.

If the dangers of in app purchases, advertising and addiction aren’t enough for you, not to mention the small matter of the compromising of normal child development and emotional well-being, have a think about this one:

Children are safer playing out than on the internet, according to a new report by the NSPCC. In an article in the Telegraph last month, the author of the report, Lisa Hawker, is reported to have said,

“Parents are perhaps unaware that when your child is using a computer or mobile phone they may be at greater risk of being hurt or harmed in some way than if they are out and about in their local park. The changing nature of the way we live our lives means that actually your chances of meeting someone who can harm you is now much greater through the internet or your mobile phone than through a stranger you might come across in the street or the local park.”

The report talks about online dangers such as sexting, cyberbullying, and exposure to sexual and other inappropriate images.

How many reasons do we need to persuade us to keep our children from becoming screen zombies?

Child-iPhone-300x168Emma Cook’s article in The Guardian is at least honest in questioning how healthy it might be for her kids to be glued to these devices for so many hours of their leisure time, and admitting to her own responsibility for this as a parent. The article concludes with some fairly sensible suggestions around how parents might manage their kids’ relationship with technology, but the part I didn’t go for was the idea that because we have to accept that kids are growing up in a world full of technology, we need to embrace it; somehow meaning we just allow it and don’t worry about it as long as we engage with it with them and set a few limits. As I’ve said before; I don’t subscribe to this argument.

It’s easy to learn how to use this stuff. Really easy. 2 year olds like Emma Cook’s daughter can tell us that. So what’s the hurry? Children are not going to be somehow disabled or left behind if they start using it later. I didn’t use a mouse or keyboard until I was pushing 30 and I seem to be doing just fine now. And it’s all changing so fast anyway. By the time our children are adults, who knows what all these devices will look like or what they’ll be able to do? So having learnt to use something at age 2 isn’t going to give you any advantage later on. But on the flip side, all the things you missed out on which you could have been doing instead could be a disadvantage.

Everything in moderation? I agree. But I’m not seeing a great deal of moderation reported in the media right now, and quite simply, this is not how childhood should be spent.


My child, not yours.

April 11, 2013

Mother Holding ChildI have just been reading about the recent story of how a shop worker smacked a three year old girl, who she deemed to be misbehaving, without the permission of the parent. Needless to say, I am outraged (although it seems not everyone is). 

I could of course write a good deal on why I think smacking is wrong, and have a good rant about this. But the story also made my blood pressure rise for other reasons. It evoked that all too familiar feeling of extreme annoyance and affront that I feel whenever someone takes it upon themselves, uninvited, to speak to my child in a way I feel is not appropriate. 

At what point is it OK to intervene with someone else’s child? This question could lead to an endless debate about what is and is not acceptable behaviour from children, but I think that misses the point. 

Sarah Ditum’s article in The Guardian, whilst expressing her disapproval of the incident, concludes by saying, “… there are so many ways of dealing with another person’s child in the act of naughtiness that don’t involve physically attacking them‚ like, say, talking to them gently but firmly.” 

True. But I would go further, like, say, talking to their parents. Anyone ever think of that? It’s not like the mother wasn’t there. 

And that’s what really gets me. I would always favour talking to the parent first, rather than to their child. 

It’s the parent’s job to choose their methods of parenting, of disciplining and limit setting. And it’s the parent’s job to decide what they think are reasonable limits to set. If we disagree with these limits and feel there is a problem then it is surely more appropriate to discuss these with the parent than to take matters into our own hands with their child. The parent is also the one with intimate knowledge of their child, of the sort of language and methods they will and will not respond to, how they’re likely to respond, how they’re likely to be feeling, where their behaviour is coming from in the first place, what has gone before. 

And yet so often I find people talk to my child inappropriately. Don’t misunderstand. I do not let my child just run amuck. I don’t think it’s OK for my child to charge round a shop knocking things over and breaking them. Nor, I’m sure, did Angela Cropley. I’m right there, ready to deal with the situation as I see fit, and yet so often it’s taken out of my hands before I have the chance. 

And it’s not just issues around behaviour that bug me. It bugs me when people comment to my child on how dirty he is when I don’t mind him getting dirty if he’s having fun, and I don’t want him to be worried about it. It bugs me when people use language like ‘naughty’ and ‘not very nice’ around my child. It bugs me when people try to distract or cheer up my child when he’s crying, or worse, mock or belittle him, when I would rather validate his feelings and let him have a good cry if he needs to. 

I recognise that much of the problem for me is that others’ perception or definition of what is bad or normal behaviour are often not on a par with mine. Couple that with the fact that my methods of dealing with behaviour are not on a par with theirs, and the result is, well, lots of difference of opinion, and perhaps I’m over-sensitive about it. But the thing is, I spend a great deal of time biting my tongue or turning a blind eye to parenting methods that I strongly disagree with, and that I often find quite upsetting to witness. Children being smacked, children being left to cry, threatened, bullied, talked down to, disrespected and humiliated. But I say nothing because I don’t feel it’s my place to interfere. So it would be really nice to feel other parents could extend me the same courtesy. 

So as well as raising the issue of respect for children, this recent incident of the child being smacked by a shop keeper raises the issue of respect for parents. 

Please stop assuming that everyone uses and approves of the same old dated parenting methods. If you want to use them with your child, that’s your business, but my child, my methods are my business. Butt out.


TV beneficial to children? Let’s stop kidding ourselves.

April 8, 2013

I sighed when I read another article in The Guardian this weekend that does nothing more than simply tell parents what they want to hear – this time that it’s OK to let your children watch hours of TV.

girl holding a remote controlThe article offers no new evidence, just the opinion of a parent seemingly trying to justify the amount of TV her kids watch. Another parent wanting to reassure herself that it’s OK for her children to spend hours in front of the TV because it’s somehow beneficial to them. Keep telling yourself that, but sorry, the evidence for it just isn’t there. In fact there’s plenty to refute it, most of which the writer has saved me the trouble of having to refer to since she does this herself, then proceeds to ignore it.

She waxes lyrical about all the wonderful things CBeebies has to offer to such a degree that one wonders if she was commissioned by the BBC to write such an article. I agree that the quality of children’s TV programmes varies, and that the BBC’s are of the highest. But it’s still just TV. It doesn’t replace interaction with the real world or with real people. It has zero value, other than to give parents a break. Let’s all stop kidding ourselves, cut the crap, and just admit it, please.

But what I really have a problem with is the last paragraph of the article;

“Good-quality children’s programmes are an asset to be treasured and the idea that there is always something better to do than watch TV or play computer games is, I think, rubbish – part guilt about not giving our kids enough time and attention, part snobbery about popular culture not being worthy of serious attention and part nostalgia for a more innocent past when playing in the street was thought to be safe.”

Firstly, if Susanna Rustin really can’t think of something better to do than watch TV or play computer games, if she really thinks her kids can’t, then she must be sadly lacking in imagination.

Secondly, I am very uncomfortable with the choice of words here; “..playing in the street was thought to be safe.” Excuse me? Playing in the street was safe. It wasn’t merely “thought to be”. In fact it still is, at least in many areas. It wasn’t just some misguided notion that we’ve now wised up to. And it’s not just for the sake of nostalgia that organisations like Playing OutOutdoor Nation, Save Childhood Movement and Play England, to name but a few, are working to get kids back outside.

And this is really why the article bothers me so much. I don’t wish to take a shot at every parent who ever allows their kids to watch TV. I’m guilty of it myself. I don’t throw my hands up in horror every time I see a child in front of a screen. But I take issue with articles like this because they undermine the very real need to raise awareness of the growing concern over the changing nature of childhood today and the long-term implications of this. They fail to take seriously what needs to be taken seriously, they promote myths, and burying of heads in sand (or in this case, screens).

So please, Susanna Rustin, keep reassuring yourself if you need to, but don’t try to reassure everyone else.


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?