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”.

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.

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.

My child’s mysterious private life

March 7, 2012

My child now spends over 32 hours a week in school. I think that’s a lot of hours. Already, I’m having to work hard to connect with him and make our precious few hours between pick-up time and bedtime as meaningful as possible whilst at the same time attending to all his basic needs. But another thing that strikes me is that I have very little idea what he gets up to during these 32 hours he spends away from me every week.  And he simply won’t tell me. He claims to have amnesia on the subject.

Puzzled and slightly concerned by this, I spoke to several other parents in the playground and most (but, interestingly, not all) reported a similar phenomenon.

It seems my child sees his home and school life as two separate worlds, and wishes to keep them separate. He won’t even join me in writing or drawing in his “Home/School Communication book” – a book the school have provided us with in which we can communicate information about our child, their interests, what they have been doing at home etc.

However, not happy with being shut out entirely from this percentage of my child’s life, and wishing to ensure he has a means to express anything that might be bothering him, I have found various ways to get small amounts of information out of him.  Here’s some of them:

Play with him.

It’s amazing what we can learn about our children and about what is going on in their heads by just playing with them. I find ‘let’s pretend’ games best for this. “Let’s play schools” can lead to all sorts of information being revealed whilst we act out some of the daily routines, and some of the events of that day – incidents that occurred in the playground that he may need to work through, things he may have learnt or heard or seen that he needs to explore some more, to ask more questions about, to get reassurance.  Children really do express themselves through play, and joining him in this means I’m joining him in his world. What better way to find out more about this world?

Create a special ‘connection time’.

Choose a time and make it into a ritual. When I have my child all tucked up in bed, it’s dark, I’m cuddling him, we’re feeling close, and there are no distractions, I often take this opportunity to ask him what was the best and worst thing that happened today. He doesn’t always tell me, but often he does. Interestingly, he’ll often tell me the worst thing but not the best thing. I guess the worst thing may be bothering him, he needs to get it off his chest, or seek reassurance. Sometimes he wants to whisper it in my ear, almost as if he’s fearful of something.

Talking teddies.

Sometimes I find if we turn things into a game my child’s more willing to open up. So I’ll pick up a teddy or other soft animal toy and make it talk and ask him questions.  It’s amazing what he’ll tell teddy but not me directly. Sometimes he initiates this himself, handing me a soft toy and saying ‘Make him talk’, then I know there’s something he needs to tell me!

In their book, “How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk”, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish warn that bombarding a child with questions as soon as he gets home isn’t the best approach. Just letting him know you’re glad to see him is better. Talk can come later when you’re reconnected.

“Too many questions can be experienced as an invasion of one’s private life. Children will talk about what they want to talk about when they want to talk about it.”

They also give advice on how to listen and respond when a child does start talking to you.  The golden rules include listening with full attention, validating feelings, not trying to fix things, and not making judgements. A child will be more inclined to tell their parent about a problem, or about something that went wrong for them that day if they know they’re not going to get judged and blamed. Usually children just want someone to listen, and acknowledge their feelings.

I know I must accept my child’s growing independence, but at the same time I know I must remain emotionally available for him. Staying connected with him and having some idea of what’s going on in his world will help me to do this.

Too permissive?

February 29, 2012

I often feel that one of the potential pitfalls of my parenting approach, and something that I constantly need to guard against, is that of too much permissiveness.

Sceptics and critics of punishment-free parenting, positive parenting or whatever we want to call it will often accuse us of too much permissveness, whilst advocates of this parenting style will assert that it does not mean permissive parenting, and I agree with this – it doesn’t.

But I do feel there’s a danger that it can.

Whilst I do believe passionately that a parenting style that seeks to empathise with children, understand their feelings, allow for their capabilities, respect their wishes as much as possible, and move away from behaviour focussed, controlling and punitive methods is absolutely correct, I also think this can leave us treading a very delicate line between authoritative and permissive. Maybe it’s because we immerse ourselves with advice on how not to be too controlling, how to move away from an old parenting style of power and submission, that we’re left in danger of becoming too hung up on avoiding this aspect, and don’t spend enough time thinking about how to avoid being too permissive. Or maybe it’s just me.

Following studies in the 60s, psychologist Diana Baumrind came up with 3 basic parenting styles; Authoritarian, Authoritative,  and Permissive.  You can read more about these here, but the conclusions Baumrind’s studies came to were basically that authoritative parenting leads to happy children growing into happy adults.  Authoritarian is too strict, and permissive too soft.

Now, having read these descriptions of parenting styles, I placed myself as somewhere between authoritative and permissive, (although aspiring to be authoritative) and being slightly alarmed by this overlap into the ‘too soft’ category, I also read plenty of material on the negative effects of too much permissiveness, which alarmed me even more. This excellent article by Dr Laura Markham is a good example.

Now, if I’m not careful, all this could lead to a constant paranoia in my every parenting decision that I am being too permissive.

So what is too permissive? It can all get very confusing.

For example, Naomi Aldort writes in her book ‘Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves‘;

“A child cannot experience the parent’s love while being controlled by him/her….Even what some parents call ‘natural’ consequences is mostly parent-imposed and therefore causes the same harm and mistrust as punishment. If is is natural, it occurs on its own. For example, a father told me that the ‘natural’ consequence of his son not finishing his chores is that he will not go to his friend’s house, as he now must stay home and do his chores. However, if a child was expected to wash dishes and didn’t, the only natural consequence is that the dishes are dirty. Cancelling his play date is a punishment imposed by the parent against the child’s will…..the child who neglected the dishes may choose, after you express your feelings, to wash the dishes before going over to his friend’s; however, such choices must come from respectful communication of the people involved and based on their authentic preferences. You can kindly offer to wash the dishes or find some other considerate solution. You can also find out why the chore wasn’t done, and you may discover some need for change in the work loads or expectations….When you offer to help, the child learns to offer help unconditionally.”

OK, I can see what she’s saying here, but what does this all mean to us as parents in practical terms? Does this mean that any means we employ to get our child to do what we want, and what we think they should do, means we are not being ‘authentic’ and that our child’s compliance is not ‘authentic’? Or, on the other hand, by offering to help with the dishes and not enforcing any consequence are we failing to enforce our limits and to be sufficiently demanding and assertive as a parent,  failing to set boundaries and limits with consistency, denying our child the ability to learn self discipline, self regulation, etc etc? Aargh!

Aldort’s suggestion of finding some other ‘considerate solution’ or finding out ‘why the chore wasn’t done’ brought to mind Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish’s book “How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk“, in which they give lots of practical advice on problem solving and finding solutions that work for both parent and child. However, they do allow that natural consequences and letting a child ‘experience the consequences of his misbehaviour’  is sometimes necessary, where all else has failed. Examples include refusing to continue to allow a child to borrow things  if they fail to take proper care of them,  and getting a child who is late home for supper to make his own.

Meanwhile, Alfie Kohn’s principles of Unconditional Parenting include, amongst other things, “Reconsider your requests”, “Put the relationship first”, “Be authentic” (that word again!), and “Don’t be rigid”.

In the end I think it all comes down to the usual answer; that there is no easy answer. Parenting is not an exact science. All this advice is open to how you interpret it. And every parenting decision we make has to be treated individually, within its own context. So I guess I’ll just have to carry on being paranoid,  sorry, mindful, about being too permissive.

In my attempts to be mindful I try to keep these two basic points in mind:

If I feel I’m allowing my child to do something against my better judgement then I’m probably being too permissive. I think this is a good rule of thumb, for example for things like too much TV, too much junk food, or allowing my child to stay longer at the playground when I know he’s tired and hungry and a meltdown is imminent!

I make sure I have a good reason to say no. This is useful not only in challenging my own motives, but in providing an explanation for my child.

What about you? Which of Baumrind’s categories would you place yourself in and how do you guard against too much permissiveness?


January 12, 2012

There are no step by step guides, no rights and wrongs, no quick fixes or easy solutions when it comes to parenting, especially, I find, when it comes to parenting without the use of rewards or punishments.  It’s really about strategies, having lots of them up our sleeves, and judging the right time to use them.

One strategy I find I use many times every day is that of giving choices.  This has been an essential tool for me when it comes to gaining the cooperation of my control-crazy child.  “Just tell him” just doesn’t work.  It’s a red flag to a bull, an open invitation for power struggles and day long conflict.  Here are some examples:

Instead of “Come and put your shoes on”, try “Where are you going to sit to put your shoes on?”

Instead of “Brush your teeth and put your pyjamas on”, try “Do you want to brush your teeth now or in your pyjamas?”

Instead of just making his meal, give him a choice; “Do you want pasta or potatoes today?”

Instead of “Time to get out of the bath”, try “Are you ready to get out now, or would you like two more minutes?”

Open ended choices, however, I avoid;  “What would you like for lunch?”, followed by a list of suggestions, is usually followed by a list of “No”s.

All sound a bit tedious?  It can be!  And my neighbours may attest to hearing me on occasion yelling at the top of my voice “Oh for God’s sake just put your pyjamas on!” or similar, especially towards the end of the day.  However, overall, I’d say it’s a lot less exhausting, unpleasant, and remarkably quicker than the “just do what I say” approach.  Power struggles can be time consuming as well as exhausting and unpleasant.  Those two extra minutes in the bath are nothing compared to what could have been.

Some parents worry that giving choices leads a child to expect them all the time and means they will never do as they’re told, which sometimes – actually a lot of the time – they just have to. But others assert that the more children feel respected, and the less they get bossed around, the more likely they will be to comply when we let them know they really need to.  Giving choices doesn’t mean complete anarchy.  There are still limits and boundaries.  You’ll notice the examples I gave are all of giving very limited choices.  But there is still a choice, and children appreciate this.

Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish write in their book “How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk“,

“It might seem inconsequential to ask a child whether he wants a half glass of milk or a whole, his toast light or dark; but to the child each small choice represents one more opportunity to exert some control over his own life.  There is so much a child must do that it’s not hard to understand why he becomes resentful and balky.”

Another great benefit, aside from gaining cooperation, is that choices make children feel respected – they feel that their wishes have been consulted, that they are part of the decision making process, that their feelings are important, and likewise that they are an important and respected member of the family.  All good things for a connected relationship and for a child’s self esteem.

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.


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.

Give information, not commands

August 11, 2011

One of many excellent tips I’ve picked up from Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish’s book, “How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk“, is that of engaging a child’s cooperation by giving them information they can choose to act upon.  I’ve been fascintated and really quite amazed at how well this works.

One example is when my son was outside throwing a stick around right by a window. Instead of the instinctive “Stop doing that” I tried “If the stick hits the window, the window could break”.  He stopped, thought for a moment, then said “I’ll throw it over here” and moved into an open space.  (Of course, many parents would simply say they can’t throw the stick at all, but I’ll save that for another post!)  Since then there have been numerous similar examples.  “The fridge door is open” instead of “Shut the fridge door”  (he’s already had the lecture about letting the cold air out etc), “We can’t leave until you’re in your car seat”, and so on.

The beauty of this subtle approach is not just that it usually gets the child to do what you want, but they do it without feeling bossed around, but feeling that they have made a choice; to do the right thing based on the information they have been given.  Surely this has to be better for a child’s developing sense of autonomy and positive self image.

Think about the number of times your child is told what to do every day, day in day out, and how little choice they really have over what happens to them each day.  Anything you can do to alleviate this is bound to be welcomed.

I also like this approach as it is a great example of an attitude towards children and parenting that moves away from that of power and submission; that the only lesson children need to learn is to do as they’re told, and that instead, respects the child, and taps into their basic instinct and desire to please, casting the parent in the role of teacher, not dictator.