Please, thank-you, and sorry.

December 15, 2011

“Say please”, “Say thank-you”, and “Say sorry right now!” are words we hear adults saying to children all the time.

Getting our children to say these words is not just about teaching good manners; we really want them to be thoughtful, considerate, grateful, polite, and respectful.  In other words, we want them to mean it.  That’s the difficult bit.  It may be easy enough to get children to parrot certain words, but I’m sure we all get the feeling sometimes that they don’t really mean it, and the words become somewhat hollow if we’re having to prompt them every time.  And do we really want to teach them to say things they don’t mean?

Here’s my take on it:

  • Please

It does irritate me when my child makes me feel like a servant.  “I’m hungry”, or “I want….”  instead of “please can I have” is something I hear everyday. I try to remind him, respectfully, to say please, but I don’t do it every time – it’s irritating having to say it over and over, to me and probably to him too.  More importantly, I try to say please to him, and let him hear me say it to other people – this is how I believe he’ll really learn.  The good news is, he nearly always says please to other people, so something’s working!

  • Thank-you

I always feel slightly ashamed if someone gives my child something and he doesn’t say thank-you. My response is either to say thank-you myself, on his behalf, making sure he hears me, or sometimes I’ll whisper a reminder in his ear.  When I do this, I find he is always very eager to say thank-you, indicating to me that he really just forgot in the excitement of the moment, his focus having shifted quickly to whatever he has received.  I don’t want to make him feel bad about this, but just help him with a gentle reminder.

  • Sorry

This is a tough one. I used to make my child say sorry if he hurt or upset another child, especially when he was in his rather aggressive toddler phase.  I thought it made him take responsibility for his actions.  Then I decided that this wasn’t working. He said the word, but didn’t mean it.  Future behaviour was unchanged.  Worse, he seemed to think it magically cancelled out his previous actions.  He could do whatever he liked then say the magic word and everything would be OK.  Also, forcing him to say sorry when he was upset, having a bit of a meltdown, and clearly didn’t mean it not only felt punitive, but pointless – he wasn’t in any state to be learning anything from this.

Removing him from a situation, helping him to calm down, then talking about the effect of his behaviour on others, and showing him ways to make amends when he is ready, I have found much more effective.

Also, as with please and thank-you, modelling the behaviour you wish to see is always the most effective way of teaching a child. I am not afraid to say sorry to him when I have been snappy, have jumped to a conclusion, or have just made a mistake. I don’t think our children need to see us as perfect, just as human, and ready to admit when we’re wrong.

Now that my child is nearly five, I’m finding these methods are starting to pay off.  He frequently remembers to say please, thank-you or sorry without being prompted, and I can sense that when he says it he really means it.  This makes me feel so proud of him. One genuine unprompted thank-you makes up for fifty forgotten ones, a true expression of regret is a true achievement in terms of a child’s emotional development, and I’m confident there’ll be more and more as he grows, along with his growing sensitivity and ability to empathise with other people.


Establishing intent

December 8, 2011

When we’re short on patience and our children behave in ways we really wish they wouldn’t, it’s hard not to feel that they’re deliberately provoking us.  OK, sometimes they might be (for which there will of course be an underlying reason), but often I think we attribute worse motives to children’s behaviour than we should.

I find it helps to look at the intention behind the behaviour.  Did your child intend for this to happen?

What was their intention when they pushed the other child out of the way?  Was it for that child to fall and hurt themselves, or were they just intent on getting to that toy first?

Did they intend for something to get broken, or were they just getting over excited?

Did they intend for the milk to go sour, or did they just forget to put it back in the fridge (as kids do)?

Allowing that a child’s intentions may not have been bad does not mean letting them ‘get away with it’. In all these cases, some help or intervention from an adult is needed, and some lessons need to be learned, but we need to keep things in perspective when we choose how to respond.   Usually the child did not set out to break something or hurt someone, but they may have made a bad choice, and something needs to be said and maybe done about this. However, they’re far more likely to listen and learn if you don’t fly off the handle or assume the worst.

One important thing to remember when responding is to take care not to unwittingly attack a child’s character.

The other day I was at the swimming pool with my child.  He joined in with some older children who were having fun splashing each other and pouring water over each other’s heads.  Later, my child, still playing, deliberately splashed another child who was not part of this group and she started to cry.  Her father, understandably perhaps, not knowing about the game that had preceded this, said to my child “That’s not very nice”.

My child clearly did not intend to upset this girl, and so I didn’t feel it was appropriate to rebuke him.  This would be to send him the message that he is a bad person.  It was, however, desirable that he learn something from this situation.  But to say “That’s not very nice” is like saying to a child “You’re not very nice”.   To say “That was really clumsy/silly…” is like saying “You’re really clumsy/silly”.  Far more helpful to point out the result of their behaviour or the effect it has had on someone else.  “She didn’t like that”, then show them how they might make amends, “Let’s see if she’s OK”.  Or, “The milk goes sour when it’s left out.  Do you think you could pop next door and ask if we can borrow some until we’ve been to the shops”.  Another step is to problem solve together, “What could we do to help you remember to put the milk back in the fridge?”.

Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish sum these steps up really well in their book, “How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk.”

“Express your feelings strongly – without attacking character.

State your expectations.

Show the child how to make amends.

Give the child a choice.

Take action.

Problem-solve.”

Attributing the worst motives to a child’s behaviour can make them feel misunderstood, unfairly treated, and worst of all – bad about themselves.  On the other hand, giving a child a break does not show weakness, it shows that you’re fair, reasonable and understanding, and as such are more able to build a relationship of mutual trust and respect, and so far more likely to succeed in changing behaviour for the better.


Socially acceptable?

December 5, 2011

This week I have been reading with interest about Milli Hill’s (aka The Mule) petition to ask Amazon to stop selling books that advocate the physical abuse of children.  The petition has garnered over seven thousand signatures at the time of writing, as well as considerable press coverage in the States.

In posts on her blog, Milli Hill quotes some shocking passages from one of the books she is objecting to, leading to strings of comments from outraged readers.

Whilst smacking and corporal punishment are still used by many, it has been banned in many countries, and the level of interest Hill’s petition has attracted seems to indicate an encouraging trend towards smacking being socially unacceptable.

However, all this makes me wonder; will there ever come a time when other common parenting practices, now widely used and accepted, will become socially unacceptable?   How much evidence against them does there need to be before we start to turn our backs on certain methods?  How much neuroscience needs to be presented to us before we can ask Amazon to ban books by the likes of Gina Ford?  How many psychological studies before we can ask Channel 4 to stop airing ‘Supernanny’?

Sadly, I think perhaps it’s not just a case of evidence, it’s what speaks to people clearly.  It’s what’s in your face. The idea of physically harming a child is abhorent to many.  But what exactly is it we are objecting to?  The main objection seems to be that it involves inflicting pain on a helpless dependent that looks to us for love and care.

So this leads me to the question, what is there to object to in the use of, for example, ‘time outs’ to control a child’s behaviour?  And I came up with pretty much the same answer.

Physical pain is not the only type of pain.  There’s emotional pain too. Time outs, and its many variations, are used as method for changing a child’s behaviour because many deem them effective.  This perceived effectiveness is the result of pain inflicted on the child.    Gordon Neufeld, Ph.D., and Gabor Mate, M.D. write in “Hold On to Your Kids, “The withdrawal of closeness….is such an effective means of behaviour control because it triggers the child’s worst fear – that of being abandoned.”

Also, many would argue that consistently causing a child emotional pain like this is worse than smacking.  We know the physical pain inflicted by smacking does not cause any lasting physical damage, yet emotional pain, at such a vulnerable age, can have far reaching effects.  So why do we object to physical punishment but not to non physical punishment?  The absence of physical pain or visible injury does not make a punishment OK.

Parents may be starting to turn their backs on some old methods, but the replacements being peddled by parenting ‘gurus’ are not alternatives, they’re just a variation on the same old theme.


Don’t succumb to the pressure

November 21, 2011

When I became a parent one of the many ‘Congratulations’ cards I received was from an aunt with a sense of humour.  In it she wrote, ‘My advice – don’t take any advice’. I laughed at the time, but now I look back at this as the most sensible piece of advice I was ever given.

I’d say the single most important thing I’ve learnt as a mother is to trust my own instincts. To not allow myself to be talked into anything, pressured into anything, or made to behave in a way that is against my better judgement as to what’s best for my child.

But when we choose to parent our children in a way that is not the most commonly accepted way in today’s society, this can be hard, we can sometimes feel like we’re swimming against the tide, and this can lead to feelings of isolation and self doubt.

Overcoming these feelings, and learning to tune out negative thoughts – your own, and those you perceive others may have about you – is an important skill. 

Many parents admit that they feel embarrassed, or that everyone is watching them, when their child has a meltdown in public. It follows that how we handle our child in these situations is likely to be at least in part influenced by these feelings. – What is everyone thinking?  What does everyone think I should do?  Everyone thinks my child is badly behaved, or that I’m a bad parent.

These thoughts are not helpful to you in finding the most appropriate response for your child, particularly if, like me, you parent without the use of punishments, threats or bribes.  ‘What that child needs is a good smack’ – is a comment guaranteed to set your own adrenalin levels soaring, making you less able to be the calm, understanding parent your child needs you to be.  But this is at the extreme end.  Even without hearing comments like this, we still feel the pressure to be seen to be punishing our child for their perceived ‘bad behaviour’.   We must be seen to be doing something, and that something must be a widely recognised response.  Yet strangers, and even friends and family members, don’t have the level of understanding you do regarding the reasons for your child’s behaviour and their underlying needs, nor the knowledge you have as to what works best for them.

It takes practice and time, but once you have learnt to identify this type of perceived pressure as unhelpful and unimportant, you are able to pay more attention to your own thoughts and to your child, and better able to use your judgement regarding your child’s needs.

I think many parents allow themselves to be governed by this pressure in deciding how to parent, and sadly dismiss their own instincts as being the wrong ones.

I would be interested to hear how others feel on this subject.  Do you ever feel judged or pressured, and do you think this affects the way you parent?


What’s wrong with rewards?

September 15, 2011

Many parents find it hard to see what could possibly be wrong with using rewards, such as stickers or point systems, to encourage good behaviour in their children.  It is often referred to as ‘positive parenting’ – surely an accepted method of teaching children good behaviour, much better than punishments etc.

The fact is, rewards and punishments are really just two sides of the same coin; the parent provides an external motivator in order to manipulate the child into behaving the way they would like them to.

One major problem with rewards is that they provide extrinsic motivation.  This is the type of motivation that is unrelated to the behaviour, an external something that’s in it for the child.  I’ll tidy up so I can get that chocolate.  Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, comes from within.  I’ll tidy up because it’s good to have a tidy room; it saves toys from being broken or people from tripping over them.  Clearly the intrinsic motivation is the one we want our child to have.  Some may think that providing the extrinsic motivator of the chocolate initially will then lead to the intrinsic motivation eventually.  Wrong.  Numerous psychological studies have shown quite the opposite; the provision of extrinsic motivation actually reduces intrinsic motivation.  Any real commitment to the task or behaviour is obliterated by the external motivator.  The child does not learn to be considerate or responsible, they do not develop a long-term commitment to the task, they simply learn to do something out of self interest.

Other forms of bribery, such as promising a child an ice cream if they ‘behave’ at the dentist, fail to address a child’s fears and feelings.  It may feel like we’re just giving them a well earned treat, but really we’re just brushing an issue under the carpet.  They won’t stop being afraid of the dentist, they’ll just learn that their feelings are not valid or acceptable and should be suppressed.

Rewards may produce the desired behaviour in the short term, but they have not taught our children what we may have intended to teach them, they may have forced an underlying problem into another area, and they also teach children to do something only when there’s something in it for them, that bribery’s OK, and worst, that they are only accepted and loved when they behave the way we want them to.

Rewards don’t develop a healthy parent/child relationship.  Co-operation comes from a genuine bond of love, respect and trust.