Whose needs are schools there to serve?

April 23, 2013

Student WritingMr Gove really has out-done himself this time. Longer school hours and shorter school holidays? Oh please. 

Where’s the evidence Mr Gove? Where? Show me a single piece of evidence or research that suggests that such a measure would improve academic performance. Vague references to East Asian countries have already been proven to be nonsense

I’ve already read several articles attacking Gove and his crazy notions in no uncertain terms. But, as I feared, there had to be some short-sighted and self-centred people who’d agree with him, because, well, quite simply, it would mean a reduction in their childcare costs and be nice and convenient. Forget that school’s purpose is supposed to be to provide education, not free childcare. 

In a lame attempt to think of someone other than herself, The Observer’s Stephanie Merritt concedes,

“…any serious attempt to align school hours with working hours would need to be carefully negotiated so that the burden of longer days does not fall exclusively on teachers.”

Gosh, that’s big of you, but don’t worry, the burden will not fall exclusively on teachers; it will also fall rather heavily on children. Yes, children. You know, those small, developing beings that make up 20% of the population. Maybe we need to stop for just a minute to think about their needs. 

But if you want to talk about changing things that were put in place a long time ago, that exist for historical reasons which are no longer relevant, let’s look at the school starting age in the UK. Put in place in 1870 (!), such an early starting age was based not on children’s educational or developmental needs, but on the needs of employers who wanted a correspondingly early leaving age. But I’m guessing Mr Gove has no plans to ‘update’ this one. I’m guessing Ms Merritt wouldn’t welcome such a move either. 

So 143 years on, we’re still basing decisions that profoundly affect our children’s lives, solely on the convenience to our workforce and economy. Even if there were any evidence regarding the impact of such a move on academic achievement, this, whilst important, is not the only thing to consider. What about social and emotional development? What about the long term impact of such a childhood as Gove envisages? Ms Merritt talks about how children are no longer playing out over the holidays and are spending their time in front of screens instead. So they might as well be in school, she argues. Perhaps we need to be doing something about this, instead of simply accepting that this is how things are now. Because is this really the world we want for our children? 

Let’s talk about making changes that take steps to give our children back their freedom, not further deprive them of their childhoods.


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.


What we communicate

March 28, 2013

Today my six year old child dropped his spoon on the floor whilst we were eating breakfast. Some milk also ended up on the floor. I was annoyed. It wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t been messing around, I thought.

I thought. I nearly said. But I stopped myself.

He wasn’t ‘misbehaving’. He was just chatting and singing, not sitting still. Being a normal, lively 6 year old boy really. But the old response, the response I grew up with, still sounded in my head, in response to my annoyance.

Look what you’ve done! Stop messing around and sit still. You always make such a mess.” etc etc.

I could see him looking at me for my reaction, fearing my disapproval. I made a comment about the spoon doing a somersault. He looked relieved and smiled, but he didn’t pick it up immediately. The words ‘Pick it up then’ sounded in my head, but again, I suppressed them. He picked it up a few moments later without prompting.

Girl RunningI have a general rule that I try to use in these situations. Often I fail, but I try. It is to speak to my child as if he is an adult, a friend or a guest. OK, OK, he’s not any of these things, but does he deserve any less respect?

Think about it this way. If you were eating with a friend and they accidently dropped their spoon, what would you say? Certainly none of the words that popped into my head in the above example. And if you did, it would be unlikely you’d remain friends for long.

If you listen carefully, you hear this all the time. My child arrived for his gymnastics class and having signed in with one of the organisers he proceeded towards the gym, but forgot to take his shoes off first. “Take your shoes off then“, the supervisor said.

Not the worst thing in the world, I know, but again, would you speak like this to an adult? Or would you gently say, “Don’t forget your shoes“, or simply, “Shoes“? Why do we habitually speak any less kindly to our children?

The problem is that apart from not being very conducive to building a healthy relationship with our children, these responses communicate a great deal to children, none of it positive. If instead of saying gently, “Don’t forget your shoes”, we say impatiently, “Take your shoes off then”, we don’t just remind our children to take their shoes off, we imply that they’re stupid or forgetful.

Sound over the top? I think not. Believe me, I know. Children are acutely aware of our tone, our moods, our choice of words, and any implications these might have. Not much passes them by. If a child is habitually spoken to in this way all day every day for years, it’s going to have an effect, particularly on self esteem, and again, it’s not a positive one. What’s more, if we want our children to speak respectfully and kindly to others, the number one way we can teach this is by speaking respectfully and kindly to them. Modelling the behaviour we wish to see.

It can take practise and time to change old habits, and like I said, I don’t always succeed. But at least I know if I slip up it’s just that – a slip up. It’s not the way I talk to my child all day every day.

For more on this topic, read Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish’s “How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk”.


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?


5 tips for facilitating free play

February 28, 2013

Girl jumping over boyFree play isn’t just beneficial or important, it’s essential. It allows children the opportunity to learn by exploring the world around them, to use their imaginations and creativity, and to develop social skills and emotional resilience through their interactions with other children.

But in order for children to reap the rewards of free play, adults need to know how to facilitate it. There are the obvious things like placing restrictions on screen time, and not over-scheduling our children’s lives into organised, adult-led activities. But there are also the less obvious things.

Here are some of my suggestions.

Don’t interrupt

Let sleeping dogs lie. Let happy children play. Whether playing alone or with other children, if they’re busy, leave them be whenever possible. Very young children will develop their ability to focus on things for longer. Older children engrossed in a game clearly don’t need our input. If we have something we want them to do, can it wait until later? Be flexible.

Don’t make suggestions

My child never does anything I suggest. He will go out of his way not to. Everything must be done his way. I think he’s a bit of a chronic case, but the principle still holds: children like to come up with their own ideas and invent their own games. We need to trust in their ability to do this.

Having said this, I do sometimes subtly leave things lying around that I think my child might play with when he sees them. Often I keep packaging like bubble wrap, polystyrene, or cardboard boxes. Once I gave my child and his friends some carpet off-cuts. But I didn’t make any suggestions as to what they should do with them….

Don’t over-direct or micro-manage

Free play means free of adult direction. Butt out. Let the children make up their own games, their own rules, and come up with their own solutions to problems. They can do it! Occasionally an adult does need to intervene, especially where younger children are involved. Perhaps the children need reminding to make sure everyone gets a turn, perhaps feelings are running high and a situation needs defusing. But give them the chance to resolve things on their own first. Every time we step in we deprive kids of the opportunity to exercise their judgement, their ability to come up with ideas, to manage conflict, and to just, well, play on their own, which is kind of the whole point.

Don’t stress

Allow some risk taking. Children will only learn to manage risk by experiencing some level of risk. Again, we need to trust them to use their judgement, and use ours a little more when it comes to deciding if it’s really necessary to step in or to restrict something. Our risk-averse culture prompts us to step in far too often.

Allow play fighting. Whether wrestling or playing with pretend weapons, we really need to get over it. It’s normal. Trying to ban it is a mistake. Wrestling kids probably will take the occasional bump, but it’s unlikely to lead to death or hospitalisation. Remind them of some basic rules if you must, like no biting or kicking. Observe the play closely. As long as both children are happy, both are willing participants, and the stronger child is holding back some strength, then all is as it should be.

Allow kids to get dirty

When we dress ourselves in the morning we choose our clothes based on what we’re planning to do that day. Don’t we? So if we’re going to do some decorating or gardening we don’t put on our best suit or dress.

Kids are probably planning to play most days. So dress them for it, and don’t stress about it when they get dirty. More importantly don’t project your stress about it onto your child. Children need to be free to explore and have fun uninhibited by concerns over their clothes or appearance. This is childhood. Adulthood comes later.

“The very existence of youth is due in part to the necessity for play; the animal does not play because he is young, he has a period of youth because he must play.” Karl Groos


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?


When children cry

February 4, 2013

One of the most universally misunderstood and mishandled areas of parenting and dealing with young children must surely be our responses to their tears, cries or upsets. I’ve become increasingly aware of how intolerant we seem to be, as if children’s cries are something to either fear, or loath. Yet crying is both natural and necessary.

It’s taken me a while to make a shift in my attitude, and I still find myself fighting against it, so ingrained in me are the conventional responses. But here’s the basic dos and don’ts I try to stick to:

Don’t try to ‘fix it’ or make it better.

When our children get upset about something – a fall, a disappointment, something getting broken or spilled – our instinct is to protect them from their sadness or painful feelings. We try to fix things for them, to rationalise, to cheer them up or distract them from whatever it is that’s upset them.

“Never mind, we can go tomorrow instead”, “You’re not hurt”, “We can build another tower”, “It doesn’t matter”….
But these well-meaning efforts short-circuit a child’s ability to express their feelings, to learn to deal with them, to heal, and to move on.

Like the time my child cried because he fell over in the mud. Often he would laugh and not care about something like this. But this time he cried. Perhaps he was tired or hungry, or something else was bothering him, and he just wasn’t in the mood for this. Perhaps falling in the mud was just a trigger for some other pent-up feelings. Either way, he needed the chance to have a cry.

There’s nothing wrong with that. No need to try to distract him or cheer him up with jokes or distractions, or telling him that it doesn’t matter if he’s muddy. Just some empathy and a cuddle was all that was needed. He got over it quickly enough, and got over it knowing that his feelings about it were acceptable, that he was entitled to them. And he felt better having had a cry. Don’t we all?

Children will get upset from time to time, probably quite often actually. And that’s OK. That’s because they’re just children. We simply can’t protect them from every upset. Rather, our job is to help them deal with their feelings, not smother them.

Don’t treat crying as bad behaviour.

BThis seems to be deeply entrenched in our society’s attitude towards children. When a child is crying because they can’t have what they want, or when the parent perceives it to be about something they consider to be silly, unimportant or unjustified, we treat their crying as bad behaviour, and try to threaten or scold them into silence, ignore them or send them to their room. Parents seem to assume that their child is not really upset, but just making a lot of noise simply because they’re “being silly” or making a deliberate attempt to drive them crazy or to manipulate them into giving them what they want – a toy, a treat, a trip to the playground, an immediate departure from the supermarket.

We may perceive a child to be “not really crying” or “just trying to get their own way”. There may not be tears, but there are still feelings to express. Anger, frustration, powerlessness or disappointment are all valid feelings, and a child must be allowed to feel them and express them in order to learn how to deal with them. What seems insignificant to us may really seem like the end of the world to a child. OK, adults don’t burst into tears every time things don’t go their way. But children are not adults, and as such cannot be expected to behave like them, and certainly can’t be threatened or scolded into behaving like them. All feelings are valid and all feelings should be allowed.

Do validate

It’s very simple really. All children need when they’re upset is some validation for their feelings, plus some empathy and love. “You didn’t like falling over in the mud”, “You’re feeling sad about that”, “That’s no fun when that happens”. When I first realised this and started doing it, it felt counter-intuitive. Surely my child would be more upset? Surely I needed to tell him that it didn’t matter? Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish write in How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk,

“Parents don’t usually give this kind of response, because they fear that by giving a name to the feeling, they’ll make it worse. Just the opposite is true. The child who hears the words for what he is experiencing is deeply comforted. Someone has acknowledged his inner experience.”

But what about when a child’s crying over something you’ve said no to? Children can’t have what they want all the time and we can’t give in to them when they make a fuss about it.

True. But here’s the thing; it is quite possible to validate and empathise with a child’s feelings without giving in to their demands.

“You’re really frustrated that you can’t have a cookie right now. You don’t want to wait until after dinner. It’s so hard to wait”.

Child feels validated, and feels a little less like you’re the big baddy. But cookie still remains in cookie jar.

Do allow children to cry when they need to

It’s OK for children to cry.

We tend to assume that all crying must be stopped as quickly as possible. But crying is a natural healer, tears a natural outlet for our emotions. Children can’t be expected to never cry, any more than adults. So what are we so scared of? Letting a child’s tears flow whilst offering them the comfort of our calm and loving presence can be a great opportunity to strengthen that all important connection.


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.


Distracted by stickers

December 18, 2012

My child came home from school today with a sticker stuck to his chest that said “Well done”. (He comes home from school most days with at least one sticker stuck to his chest.) When I asked him what he did to get this sticker he said he had got his name on the Thank-you Board.

“If you get your name on the Thank-you Board you get a sticker”, he explained.

“But what did you do to get your name on the Thank-you Board?”, I persisted.

“I don’t know, I can’t remember.”

I had to try very hard not to laugh.

well_done_starI’ve read about this, probably mostly in Alfie Kohn’s book “Unconditional Parenting”, and other articles he’s written on the subject of rewards. Amongst the many problems with rewards is that they tend to distract from what we’re trying to teach. My child’s focus has been shifted from the behaviour that earned the sticker, to the sticker itself.  He has not reflected on the effects of his behaviour on other people, on why it was a desirable behaviour. No, he is too busy basking in the pleasure of the approval and the pat on the head he has received.

So, someone at school gave my child a sticker, presumably with the intention of reinforcing a particular desirable behaviour. Yet my child can’t remember what the behaviour was. Classic.

The sooner parents’ and teachers’ love affair with The Sticker is over, the better, I say. Perhaps then we can start doling out some more meaningful praise and encouragement.

Let’s say my child helped another child find their hat.

There’s descriptive praise, “You helped Judy find her hat, you kept looking even when she’d given up”.

There’s pointing out the effects of a child’s behaviour on others, “Judy is so pleased she’s got her hat back”.

There’s pointing out the effects on yourself, “Thanks for helping Judy find her hat, that’s saved me a bit of time”.

Oh, and none of the above needs to be issued in a gushing, over enthusiastic sort of way. A child will register the message and the implications of it well enough.

OK, quite possibly the person issuing the sticker at school said some of the above. I’m sure they will have at least told my child why he was receiving a sticker. But it’s become all about the sticker. What has he learnt? Apparently, nothing.

Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish have a good way of describing how to praise and encourage in their book “How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk“. As well as many examples of descriptive praise, in which “the adult describes with appreciation what he or she sees or feels” they suggest adding to this description “one or two words that sum up the child’s praiseworthy behaviour”. So;

“You kept looking until you’d found Judy’s hat for her. Now that’s what I call helpful“.

Faber and Mazlish go on to write,

“…praise… is a matter of really looking, really listening, really noticing and then saying aloud what you see and what you feel. One wonders how such a simple process can have such a profound effect. And yet, day after day from our small descriptions our children learn what their strengths are……All of that goes into his emotional bank and it can’t be taken away. You can take away “good boy” by calling him “bad boy” the next day. But you can’t ever take away from him the time he cheered his mother with a get-well card, or the time he stuck with his work and persevered even though he was very tired. These moments, when his best was affirmed, become life-long touchstones to which a child can return in times of doubt or discouragement. In the past he did something he was proud of. He has it within him to do it again.”

Sadly, my child can’t remember what he did today. He’s probably forgotten about the sticker by now too. Even if he hasn’t, it’ll be taken away when he fails to earn one of the many dangled in front of him tomorrow.

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