Top 5 parenting pitfalls to avoid

March 3, 2016

Childs-smileThere’s no such thing as the perfect parent. We all make mistakes. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t. We can tie ourselves up in knots trying to do the right thing, we can beat ourselves up when we know we’ve done the wrong thing. Parenting isn’t easy or straightforward.

But here’s what I think are the most common mistakes we make. The hardest habits to shift. And awareness is the first step to change.

1. Our response to children crying

It seems that invariably, when I hear a child crying, they are accompanied by a parent who is either telling them they’re OK really, or attempting to berate and threaten them into silence. Neither is helpful. Once and for all, can we please get over kids crying? Kids will cry sometimes, sometimes a lot. It’s normal, they’re allowed to (or should be), and it’s not bad behaviour. Deal with it.

Newflash: Kids have feelings. They will at times feel sad, frustrated, angry, disappointed etc etc. It is unreasonable to expect them not to have these feelings like any human being. Further more, they are still learning how to process these feelings, and so are more likely than a mature adult to cry or have a tantrum in response to them. Allowing children to experience their feelings fully, express them, and then move on from them in their own time, allows them to learn emotional regulation. Threatening or distracting them into silence earlier, because we can’t handle the expression of feeling, short-circuits this process and does them a disservice. It also teaches them that their feelings are unacceptable or unimportant, and to simply put a lid on them, or as Dr Laura Markham puts it, stuff them in their ’emotional backpack’. This only stores up trouble for later. Cue; more tantrums.

Seeing our child crying can be upsetting, or annoying. It triggers us in different ways. But it’s our stuff. Get over it, and let them get on with it.

2. Validation

So when a child is crying, instead of distracting, or trying to fix things, we need to validate and empathise.

Lost that stick they were carrying home from the park? Instead of, “We’ll find another stick”, “It was only a stick, don’t be silly”, try, “You really liked that stick”, “You’re sad you lost your stick”. Really.  A child’s not going to say, “Yes, you’re right, it’s just a silly stick, I’ll stop crying immediately”, or somehow see the error of their ways of thinking or feeling. They are quite entitled to feel sad about something even if you don’t.  If you think it’s silly, bite your tongue. Naming feelings helps children to recognise and process them. Validating makes them feel like we’re on their side. All feelings are valid. As with the first point above, the goal should not be immediate silence. In any case, they’ll usually get over it quicker with a bit of validation. Trust me. And they will get over it. Patience. And validation.

3. Over-scheduling

It seems that these days it’s the done thing to have our children’s every hour spent in a scheduled, adult organised activity. The assumption seems to be that they will be learning and developing more quickly if they spend as much time as possible acquiring and practising various skills, be it sport, music, languages, whatever, as long as they’re seen to be learning.

Actually, the best thing we can give our children is time for free play. They don’t need to be told how to play, it’s just what they do. Give them time and space and it happens so easily and naturally, it’s just meant to be that way. This is how they learn. Free play, using their own ideas, imaginations and creativity, without unnecessary adult intervention, is how kids learn and develop.

Play England‘s report, “Free Play in Early Childhood” describes the benefits of free play as follows:

download“All aspects of development and learning are related in play, particularly the affective and cognitive domains. When children have time to play, their play grows in complexity and becomes more cognitively and socially demanding. Through free play children:

  • explore materials and discover their properties
  • use their knowledge of materials to play imaginatively
  • express their emotions and reveal their inner feelings
  • come to terms with traumatic experiences
  • maintain emotional balance, physical and mental health, and well-being
  • struggle with issues such as birth and death, good and evil, and power and powerlessness
  • develop a sense of who they are, their value and that of others
  • learn social skills of sharing, turn-taking and negotiation
  • deal with conflict and learn to negotiate
  • solve problems, moving from support to independence
  • develop communication and language skills
  • repeat patterns that reflect their prevailing interests and concerns
  • use symbols as forms of representation – the use of symbols is crucial in the development from learning through the senses to the development of abstract thought
  • practise, develop and master skills across all aspects of development and learning.”

OK, enough said.

Yes, it’s nice for a child to have a few hobbies and to pursue some special interests, but let’s not go overboard, especially when they’re still young.

4. Interfering in play

I find children’s play fascinating to watch. So if there’s one thing that is guaranteed to wind me up, it’s the sight of an adult interfering with children’s play, getting overly involved, being unnecessarily directive, coming up with all the ideas; quite simply, behaving as if the children just wouldn’t know what to do without the direction of an adult. Actually, our input only takes away from all the beneficial aspects of play, so stay out of it as much as possible.

It’s their play, not ours, and they’re the experts, it’s what they do best. Let them come up with their own ideas, solutions and ways to do things.

Kids on tree

And this includes allowing our children to take some risks. Don’t curtail their play opportunities unnecessarily. Risk needs to be part of play, part of learning, part of life. We parents need to delegate some of the risk management to our children. Because how else will they ever learn to manage it if we simply remove all obstacles from their paths and protect them from all potential danger, make all the decisions for them?

So let them climb those trees, and let them get messy. Risk assessment isn’t about eliminating risk, it’s about weighing up the risks against the benefits. The benefits of play-fighting are worth the risk of a slight bump. Children need challenge, they need opportunities, they need fun. Give them a break.

5. Failing to recognise the power of role-modelling

Lectures, nagging, prompting will only go so far. Not very far actually. Want your child to learn to be polite? Be polite. Want them to learn how to behave when they feel angry? Here’s a hint: Don’t shout. Want them to grow up being kind and considerate. Be kind and considerate. We won’t get it right all the time. Like I said, no-one’s perfect. But we really do need to keep this in mind because it’s that simple; kids learn by example. They spend a great deal of time attempting to mimic adults. Let’s harness that tendency. Be the person you want your child to be.

Adults behaving badly

April 11, 2015

I was lucky enough to grow up with one of those free-range childhoods we now only reminisce or campaign about. Outdoors playing with the neighbouring children, in and out of each other’s houses and gardens, or mostly playing out in the surrounding common areas.

So it is with satisfaction that I see my child often enjoying a miniature version of this childhood, with spontaneous play occurring regularly at the end of our little cul-de-sac in the city suburbs, with the mixed genders and ages a fascinating reminder of the scope and range of possibilities in children’s play and their natural capacity to get along with each other.

One thing I was always taught, and that seemed a universal rule held by all parents, was that it is never OK to exclude other children from play. It was a free-for-all, everyone on neutral ground. If I was playing with Becky, and her younger sister Catherine wanted to join us, it was not acceptable for us to say no. We had to find a way to include her. Back gardens were not fenced off areas awaiting exclusive invitation, but merely an extension and diversion of the general territory. If parents decided they didn’t want children in their back garden at a given time, all children were told to go play elsewhere. And there were always plenty of other places, so that was fine.

So you can imagine my surprise last summer when my child, playing happily outside with his friends from next door, with whom he has played since toddlerhood, is sent running inside in tears to inform me that another child and his mother have come out and invited his friends round to play in their back garden, but have told him he is not invited.

Assuming, in my naive innocence, that my child must have made a mistake (for what sort of adult would behave like this towards a 7 year old child, or condone this behaviour in their own child?) I go outside to see what has happened and am immediately set upon by the mother in question, who has not been quick enough in her retreat, with the most offensive and abusive verbal attack I can ever remember having experienced. This was swiftly followed up by the Dad, standing shouting abuse at my husband and I on our drive, in front of our child, deaf to anything we had to say, including our civil invitation to come inside and discuss things quietly and calmly.

Our child has shouted at their younger child on a couple of occasions. This was their response, and woe betide anyone who dared to question or challenge it. Our gentle parenting methods, as alien to them as their naughty steps and rewards charts are to us, must, in their minds, surely be to blame. Have you noticed that when a child doesn’t behave well, the automatic assumption is always that it must be the parent’s fault? I find that curious, but more of that in another post…..

Now I have long since resigned myself to the extremely depressing fact that there are a lot of very unpleasant people in the world, and have found my own way to live with this. But when such a glaring example of this unpleasantness affects my child, extremely sensitive to any hint of rejection and exclusion, it is very difficult to live with, especially when it is right on my doorstep.

child alone hopskotchI know things are not quite how they were when I was a child, although there’s not really any need for them to be any different that I can see, but in what universe is this acceptable? It simply isn’t. There can be no possible justification for it. Never and nowhere is it acceptable to take a child’s friends out from under his nose in such a way, and in doing so, to teach children that this behaviour is acceptable. The example set, the role-modelling here, is appalling.

Naturally, I have observed my child’s behaviour around this younger child very closely since this incident. They play very happily together, always pleased to encounter each other on the street, as well as in the school playground, or out and about. They have forgotten and forgiven and moved on you see, as kids do when left to their own devices and not interfered with by adults with their grudges and their judgements.  They’d make very good role-models for some of the adults on our street – oh the irony – if those adults would just pay attention and give the matter some thought.

But sadly all this seems to be lost on them. Further attempts at exclusion have since been made, some successful, some not. Just yesterday our child was left alone on the street, one minute with friends to play with, the next excluded, left only to listen to the sounds of laughter and play on the other side of a fence.

Perhaps I’m out of date with play etiquette? It seems it’s not just common courtesy that’s a thing of the past, but common decency, respect and consideration for the feelings of others.

I can only try to explain to my child the truth that I had hoped to keep longer from him; that not all adults have learnt to behave well or do the right thing. Sadly some people are just “not very nice”.

I tone it down for him of course, but in my own mind I find their behaviour utterly despicable and at times feel physically sick at the prospect of having to share the end of our once happy little street with them, and the world with such truly horrible people.

Is common courtesy a thing of the past?

January 29, 2015

Much has been written about last week’s story of the parents who received a ‘no-show’ invoice after accepting a party invitation for their son and then failing to attend. This rather petty squabble between parents has managed to hit national news and capture the attention of many, with most reports, comments and articles I’ve read seeming very much to take the angle that sending such an invoice is really quite ridiculous.

But whether or not that’s the case, doesn’t anyone else think Mrs Lawrence has a point? She may not have chosen the best way to make her point, but I think she has a very good one nonetheless.

rsvpNewsflash: Accepting an invitation to a party then not showing up is rude. Sorry, but there it is. Or perhaps the craziness of kid’s parties nowadays, that this little episode has set everyone squawking about, includes the decline of basic social norms, the loss of societal etiquettes that include consideration of other people. The excuse the parents gave for the no-show was, frankly, lame. And no apology or explanation to the host either. Not OK.

And yet these parents appear to be so totally unashamed of their behaviour that they are willing to talk to the national press, brazen-faced pictures of father and son with the offending invoice appearing everywhere, with a video to boot, as if they are entirely the victims here, the fault all on the side of the parent who had the nerve to remind us all of those seemingly long-lost laws of common courtesy.

The inclusion of the child in the photos and video I find particularly inappropriate. What kind of lesson does this teach a child?

Because when adults behave badly, they teach children to behave badly too. We can’t be perfect all the time, but really, let’s try to be a little more mindful of the kind of role models we’re all providing for the next generation. Let’s try to teach our children about being considerate and respectful towards other people, about resolving issues using a little emotional intelligence and maturity, and yes, a little basic common courtesy.

But coming back to the general squawking about kids parties, Zoe William’s article in The Guardian is a great example of this. She complains not just about the cost of hosting the party itself, including the venue, the entertainers and the party bags, but the cost of buying presents when you’re invited to one. Well boo hoo. Here’s an idea – how about you don’t spend £20 on a gift voucher from Next for Christ’s sake, and just get a book online for less than a fiver? When Ms William’s ready-made £3-a-piece party bags failed to arrive, she went shopping in John Lewis instead. “Don’t even ask how much that cost”. Really? John Lewis? Sorry, but I’m struggling to have much sympathy with such middle-class lack of resourcefulness and imagination. How about trying Poundland? Or better still, we all just stop doing party bags? Whose idea were these anyway and when did they start? A bag full of rubbish the kids will immediately break or lose in their quest to get to the only thing it contains that they really want – the slice of birthday cake.

People will just go along with these things whilst bleating about ‘pressure’ and ‘guilt’. The only thing forcing parents to spend so much time, effort and money on kids parties is the parents themselves.

And how does all this excuse Mr Nash’s behaviour?

When my child was in reception one of the parents invited the whole class to a party. She later told me that only half those people bothered to even reply to the invitation, which clearly stated RSVP. Call me old-fashioned if you like, but I think that’s just shocking. You may think the parent was mad to invite the whole class, but that’s not the point here, not an excuse for rudeness.

Similarly, the cost of the party Mrs Lawrence chose to host is not the point. Yes, in choosing to host a party you take the risk that you end up paying for more people than actually turn up. That’s always a risk with any party. But it’s a risk because people can simply be downright rude and inconsiderate, and for this there really is no excuse.

The power of role-modelling

July 21, 2014

My child has little patience when it comes to accomplishing a challenging task. He becomes quickly frustrated, and is apt to throw things down in a rage. The plastic coating on his bicycle helmet has several cracks in it from being thrown down onto the road during the process of learning to ride a bike. We’ve all encountered adults who still behave like this. So childish, we all tut. I don’t wish my child to become one of these adults. So how do I help him develop the patience and emotional regulation he needs? 

Time-outs, lectures or sticker charts don’t help children develop these traits. How could they? It’s all about role-modelling, the most powerful tool we parents have at our disposal. 

I recently bought my child a loom band kit at his request. He’d seen his friends making things with loom bands at school, so he set to work right away. But his fine motor skills aren’t the greatest, and he quickly became frustrated in his weaving attempts. Luckily I saw this coming and managed to rescue the box before several hundred small coloured rubber bands covered the kitchen floor. But I knew he’d be disappointed if he didn’t manage the task, he’d been so excited when I gave him the box, so I decided a little encouragement and guidance was in order. But first I had to figure out how to weave a wristband myself! Not the kind of thing I excel at myself.

My child watched as I followed the instructions carefully, becoming excited to see the end product as I neared completion. When it came to removing the band from the loom board, a couple of the bands somehow popped out and fell to the floor. He immediately started to angrily express his disappointment in his usual dramatic way. I was irritated and annoyed by his behaviour. I was the one who’d done all the work, after all. But stopping myself from reacting, I managed to speak calmly instead. 

“This is the first time I’ve made one of these, so it might go wrong, but I’m going to keep trying. It might not work out, but I can always start again if I have to” 

My child looked almost surprised and a little fascinated. He immediately stopped his remonstrance and continued to watch my attempts to salvage my work. The wristband was a little small, having lost some bands, but my child grabbed at it delightedly. 

“It’s a little short, but it’s my first attempt. Now I know how to do it, I can try and make a longer one next time”, I added.

He rushed off to show his Dad. 

“Mummy made this wristband. We’re going to try and make a better one next time.”

 The next morning I came downstairs to find all kinds of colourful creations and a very satisfied child.

mirrorThe importance of role modelling simply cannot be over-estimated. It can be applied to anything we wish our children to learn. We can model sharing by letting our child see us sharing with friends or other family members. We can use a disagreement with our partner to model how we talk calmly and respectfully with each other to sort out our differences. From acts of kindness, to healthy eating, the possibilities are endless. 

Kids are such little copycats. From when they’re very small, we hear our own words echoed back at us, see our habits and mannerisms develop in our children like a mirror. But we need to remember this mirroring doesn’t stop as kids get older. It may become less immediately apparent, but make no mistake; role modelling is so powerful it can be dangerous. Shouting or smacking are obvious examples, but we need to think about every aspect of our behaviour as adults. Children really do learn by example. 

So when we reject conventional parenting methods, and strive to understand the widely misunderstood application of the word ‘discipline’, we model compassion, respect, patience, empathy, and problem-solving, instead of control, power, bribery and manipulation in our fruitless attempts to teach what can only be taught through modelling, and developed over time, not overnight.

“Do as I say, not as I do” won’t cut it. Be the person you want your child to be.

Pressing pause

June 13, 2013

I recently went to hear Dr Dan Siegel speaking at a conference on “The Mindsight Approach to Parenting”. The focus of his talk was unusual I thought. He talked, as I expected, about the mind. But here’s the thing; it wasn’t about my child’s mind. It was about mine.

I’ve spent a great deal of time learning about how babies’ brains develop, why toddlers have tantrums, what children can and can’t understand at certain ages, how children develop and manage their feelings, and why they might behave in certain ways etc etc. And I reckon I’ve also learnt  a fair bit about how to  respond to and treat children accordingly. So I know about validating feelings, being empathetic, not using punishments, the need to stay connected, what probably is and isn’t the right thing to say etc etc. I even write a blog about it.

So why, I often ask myself, do I sometimes hear words coming from my own mouth that I know are the opposite of what I should be saying, that I know will only make things worse, that I know will hurt my child’s feelings, that I know are not modelling the kind of person I want my child to be? It’s as if there’s some other person inside me saying these words on my behalf, but without my approval, and against my wishes. What the hell?

That’s where my own brain comes into the equation.

When I was preparing for the arrival of my child, I was having a conversation with someone about how I might deal with difficult behaviour. (Of course, I had some very clear ideas, all of which have been long forgotten). “They really can take you places you didn’t know you could go”, this person told me. And she didn’t mean nice places.  I thought this sounded a little, er, negative. Now I know exactly what she was talking about.

Never, before becoming a parent, had I experienced that moment when my patience is so completely drained, my anger and frustration so aroused, and I just totally lose it. It’s quite sudden, like a bomb exploding. I think all parents must know what I’m talking about – at least all the ones I’ve spoken to do, which is in some way reassuring.

So, what to do about it?


When things go wrong, the plus side is that we can learn from them. What situation or set of circumstances led your child to behave in such a way that made you snap? Is there any way to do things differently next time?

If something’s a daily battle, do something about it. Try a different strategy, a different approach. Is your child going to magically change their behaviour in this same situation tomorrow? Probably not. Change the situation not the child.

See my posts here and here for some approaches, and strategies on gaining cooperation.

But to some extent, I think we have to accept that despite our best efforts and intentions, we all lose it occasionally….

pausePress pause

OK, so the prevention bit didn’t work this time and you’ve totally lost it. Press pause.

The important thing to understand is that it’s impossible to parent when we’re in a reactive state. The rational, thinking part of the brain simply isn’t functioning properly. Until you’ve really calmed down, don’t even try to respond.

Don’t speak. Anything you say is unlikely to be helpful at this stage. More likely to be the opposite. Don’t let those words come out of your mouth that you’ll later regret . Button it.

Dr Siegel also suggests putting your arms behind your back to help suppress any urge to push, pull or otherwise be more rough with your child than you would like.

We need to be able to recognise when we’re in this reactive state in order to then be able to stop ourselves saying or doing things that we know to be inappropriate and unhelpful. When a child behaves in a way that makes us really mad, we might need to take some immediate steps to keep them safe, but we don’t always need to say or do anything else right away. Wait until you’re both calm. Often your child is more likely to be in a state of mind to listen and learn later on as well.

Make a repair

If the pause button doesn’t work and your anger gets the better of you, it’s important to do what Dr Siegel refers to as ‘making a repair’. A repair to our relationship and connection with our child. When we yell, are rough with, or say unkind things to our children, we lose that connection with them, and when connection isn’t there, the things our children do that make us mad are more likely to keep happening.

So when you’ve calmed down, go to your child and apologise. And make this unconditional. “I’m sorry I yelled, but you made me really mad” won’t cut it. Just apologise. Admit that your behaviour was not OK. You can talk about your child’s behaviour, if you need to, later. It’s OK to admit to our children that we’re wrong sometimes. Nobody’s perfect, and saying sorry and making amends is important. Surely this is a lesson worth teaching?