Long term, not short term goals

January 3, 2012

Having read a recent article in the Observer about different parenting styles in Britain and France, how people may judge the success of these, and a new parenting book on this topic, it strikes me that it appears to have escaped the notice of an alarming number of people that young children are not young children forever. They grow up.  Childhood is a relatively short episode in our lives, and yet, as so much evidence, research, and you would think our own experience tells us, such an important one in shaping who we are, how happy we are, how stable we are, our personalities and emotional well-being.

Now surely most, if not all parents will say that they want their children to be happy when they grow up.  They want them to be various other things too; kind, considerate, confident for example.  It follows that our goals as parents should be focussed on these outcomes.  Think of it as raising adults rather than raising children.  Our children will one day be adults.

So how do we go about achieving these outcomes?  Well, it seems to me the importance of this question in relation to our children’s future is frequently forgotten in the rush to focus on our children’s present; their behaviour in particular. 

Perhaps many parents think that if their child can be what society deems ‘well behaved’ this will lead to them being all the things they want them to be as an adult.  But how is this supposedly desirable behaviour in children achieved? If the aforementioned article is anything to go by, I’d say it is achieved through fear – of being smacked or of other punishment or removal of privileges, or of the withdrawal of their parent’s affection, not because the child has learnt ‘respect’. Do not mistake fear or self-interest for respect. A child cannot be ‘taught’ respect; they learn by example.  The parent is their role model. Smacking a child, expecting instant compliance, constantly disregarding their wishes and feelings, and using punitive methods to gain their obedience does not model respect.

Another thing that strikes me is that the behaviours that seem to be considered important in this article; whether or not our children can go to bed and stay in bed all night, sit still at the table, be quiet and unobtrusive on supermarket trips and on public transport etc, are in fact for the benefit and convenience of adults, and not necessarily for the benefit of the child.  Perhaps we need to re-assess what behaviours are desirable in children and why.  Somehow I don’t think harking back to the old ‘little children should be seen and not heard’ attitude is likely to be in the best interests of our children.

If we want our children to grow up being respectful to others, we need to be respectful to them.  This does not mean we should allow them to run riot, but we might need to just bear with them a little while they’re just children, and find gentle, empathetic and respectful ways to show them the way. If we want our children to grow up to be confident and happy individuals we need to consider how their experience as a child may influence the likelihood of this outcome. A child who never has a tantrum is not a child who is likely to grow up able to face up to and deal with strong feelings.  A child who fears disapproval at every turn and who is constantly made to feel their behaviour is ‘bad’ is not likely to grow up with a positive self-image.  The society of ‘good little sleepers’ and compliant, docile children, that this article seems to imply is desirable, comes at a cost.

The last thing we need is another ill-informed parenting book that drags us back to old methods of behaviour focussed parenting, selling itself to parents looking for quick fixes and convenient behaviour, and ignoring any evidence and research that warns of the potential costs of such methods.  The book has not yet been published so I may be speaking too soon, but if this article is giving a true flavour it is certainly not selling it to me.



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 take the bait

November 29, 2011

My son really likes control.  I have become expert in side stepping around power struggles with him.  I also like giving him choices.  Not only do they encourage autonomy, but they give him a feeling of having some control, making him more likely to cooperate with my requests.  I usually find this is true when it comes to eating, a potentially endless source of conflict and anxiety for parents.  However, I’ve recently been experiencing the following scenario.

I give him a choice of what he would like for his meal.  He tells me his choice.  I prepare the requested dish.  He sits down at the table and looks at it.  He starts to whine and say he doesn’t want it.  How annoying is that?

In one of my less patient moments I tried, “Well that’s what you said you wanted, so I’ve made it and you can sit there until you’ve eaten it!”  Result:  power struggle.  Child refuses point blank to eat food.  I get even more annoyed, resort to bribes and threats about pudding or where we’re going after the meal (I don’t agree with bribes and threats, how has he driven me to this?), they don’t work (I already knew that, so why did I try them?), he eats enough to feed a mouse, then either spends all afternoon being bad tempered because he’s hungry, or I spend all evening stressing about him waking up early in the morning because he’s hungry.  Everyone’s a loser.

On the next occasion, in a wiser, more patient moment I tried a casual, “Oh dear, that’s a shame” and carried on washing the dishes.  Child whined for a further 30 seconds, then ate food.  Brilliant.  (I managed to refrain from making any smart arse comments along the lines of “I told you so”, or “Thought you said you didn’t want it”.)

On the next occasion, being slightly bemused by his contrariness I commented, “I asked you if you wanted pasta and you said yes”.  Reply: “Yes, but not with cheese on.” (I had grated some cheese on top. I usually do.  He likes it.)  My response, “Oh dear. You’ll have to take the cheese off then”.  Child whined for a further 30 seconds, then ate food.

What’s going on here?  It’s as if he’s looking for a fight. Is he testing me in some way?  I’ve already given him a choice of what he would like to eat, but it’s like he’s double checking; “Am I being forced to eat this?  If so, I’m not going to”.  If this is the case, it’s a great example of coercion provoking counterwill.

Whatever it is, I’ve definitely learnt not to take the bait.