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.

Reasons my son is crying: I was too busy taking a photo of him and publishing it on the internet to care.

October 29, 2013

An interesting article in The Guardian this weekend about Greg Pembroke’s massively popular blog in which he posts pictures of his own and other people’s children crying, with a caption giving the reason. It seems millions of people find this highly amusing. The reasons are always so ridiculous, you see.

Infant CryingThis isn’t the first time I’ve heard about this blog. Other parenting writers that I follow have already had some words to say about it. Janet Lansbury, for example, wrote an excellent article about it back in April. But the Guardian article caught my attention because many of the things Greg Pembroke is quoted as saying actually seemed quite reasonable. Perhaps he’s not all bad, I wondered.

He claims he is not making fun of the children, but simply posting pictures that give a more realistic representation of life with a toddler. True, it’s not always rosy. Also true that it can help us through what can be at times an extremely trying task of parenting small children, if we can lighten up, not be too serious all the time, and not be too hard on ourselves when things don’t go swimmingly. Toddlers cry a lot. They can throw a total fit about the craziest things. Parents enjoy some solidarity knowing it’s not due to their failings as a parent, but just that their child is, well, a child.

At the end of the article, Pembroke is quoted as saying, “I think that if you’re present, loving, and not a total push-over, your kids will turn out fine”. Some truth in that, although I’d suggest it’s not quite that simple. But the problem here is this: How does taking a photo of your child when they’re crying equate to being present and loving?

I’m really struggling with this one. I’ve looked at the blog. The pictures are mostly of very distressed looking kids, and they’re mostly staring right at the camera. So it’s not like the pictures were taken when they weren’t looking (not that I think this would make it OK anyway).

Now, even if Pembroke gets the whole notion of toddlers getting easily overwhelmed by feelings they don’t know how to deal with, about frustrations that have been building up all day, about needs they’re struggling to express, about the fact that it may not actually be just that little thing they’re crying over, it may be just the last straw, or a trigger for some bigger upset they’ve been storing. Even if he gets all this, and after taking his photo he validates, sympathises, comforts. Even if he does all this (and I think there’s reasonable grounds to suspect that he doesn’t), how must the child feel when, before being the present and loving parent Pembroke describes he says, “Oh, just hold on while I take a photo of you.”? Because in saying this he’s saying “This takes priority. This is more important than your feelings. I don’t care that you’re upset.”, and a whole host of other things, none of them good.

Why is it so often considered acceptable to treat children with less respect than we would adults? If you were crying over something, how would you feel if the person you count on most in the world to take care of you pointed a camera at you in the midst of your distress? And then posted the picture on the internet for all to see. It may not be Pembroke’s intention, as the article claims, to make fun of these children. But making fun is exactly what he’s doing, along with disrespecting them, disrespecting their feelings, and exploiting their powerlessness and vulnerability.

And don’t give me “They’re not really distressed”. They are. That’s why they’re crying. Tears or no tears, there are big feelings and emotions being dealt with here.

Yes, we parents don’t need to get all upset and serious about each and every thing our toddlers have a meltdown over. Parenting small children can be exasperating. And it’s fine to allow our children space and time to have a good cry. But pointing a camera at them while they’re doing this is not. It’s not supportive, it’s not respectful, it’s not loving, and it’s not funny.

Getting over it

September 9, 2013

My child was playing football with his friend in the street. They’d only been out there a few minutes, but it was time to go to his swimming lesson. When I announced this my child objected strongly, saying he hadn’t had a chance to score a goal. I said something to the effect that this was unfortunate, but we had to go now. At this he started screaming and crying. “I want to score a goal!”

It crossed my mind to let him score a goal quickly, but I decided against this. It might not happen quickly, it might not really be the goal he’s upset about anyway. And besides, he needs to learn to deal with disappointments, things not always going his way. Though seemingly important to him, in that moment, it was a relatively minor thing, so seemed like a good chance to practice feeling those emotions, allowing them to run their course, then moving on.

And that’s exactly what he did.

For whatever reason, I wasn’t feeling very patient that morning. I was irritated by the fuss he was making. I knew I needed to validate his feelings, say something sympathetic, but just didn’t feel able to. The wrong words kept coming into my head. So I decided to just keep quiet, don’t speak.

I glanced at him in the rear view mirror as we drove to the pool. He’d stopped crying, but he looked so hurt and sad. I’ll have to say something, maybe have a hug with him when we get there, I thought.

But then half way there he suddenly piped up. Just started chatting to me in his usual chirpy way, as if nothing had happened.

My silence had been enough. Although no words of validation or sympathy had been spoken, neither had any of disapproval or anger. He had been allowed the space to experience his feelings without judgement, scorn, disapproval, or any attempts to persuade him to feel differently. He had been allowed to cry and express his feelings. This was all he needed.

After all the times I’ve experienced this type of scenario, I’m still surprised at just how quickly he moves on. There was really no need for me to worry about whether or not I needed to let him have what he wanted, no need to get upset or annoyed or worked up about it. It wasn’t a catastrophe, just a brief moment of frustration for my child, one of many life will throw at him.

thoughtful boySome might interpret his ability to get over it so quickly as an indicator that he wasn’t really upset in the first place. But this seems a very negative attitude, a very low opinion of children’s natures. Why would he pretend to be upset when he wasn’t? Because he wanted to manipulate me into letting him have what he wanted? Maybe. But I don’t think so. Children’s feelings are real to them. It doesn’t matter how silly they might seem to us as adults. And we need to let them be. Crying is not bad behaviour.

He didn’t get what he wanted anyway, so I don’t think my failure to scold or reprimand him for his behaviour was indulgent. Just respectful. Respectful of his feelings, of his age, and of his journey on the path to emotional regulation.

How do you deal with tantrums?

January 6, 2012

Every parent dislikes the dreaded tantrum, but the question of how to respond to a tantrum seems to be somewhat divided.

Many, including some child psychologists and writers, advise that ignoring tantrums is the best way to stop them, on the grounds that children use tantrums to try to get their own way, and will stop having them if they realise they’re not working.  In her book, “What Every Parent Needs to Know“, Dr Margot Sunderland, Director of The Centre for Child Mental Health, adds an extra element.  She writes that as well as this type of tantrum, which she calls a ‘little Nero tantrum’, there is what she calls a ‘distress tantrum’ in which the child is overwhelmed by their feelings, and needs your help.  She advises ignoring a ‘little Nero tantrum’ but comforting a ‘distress tantrum’.  She gives various tips for distinguishing between the two types, but warns, however, that a ‘little Nero tantrum’ can turn into a ‘distress tantrum’.   Hmmm.

Here is my problem with all of this.  First, if there’s a chance that the ‘little Nero’ or power struggle type tantrum can become a distress tantrum, then I’m inclined to hang around just in case.  The idea of leaving a child alone to deal with their feelings, though advocated by many, is not one that I buy into.  Young children have trouble dealing with strong feelings.  This is precisely why they have tantrums.  So how is leaving them alone going to help them resolve them?  Besides, I would never ignore my child when he is crying, for whatever reason, little Nero or not. When we ignore a child who is upset, angry, frustrated, we lose that vital ability to reconnect with them. Ignoring also shows disrespect for him and for his feelings, and does not model compassionate behaviour.   Ignoring just doesn’t seem right to me at all.

Secondly, if we go for the idea of a tantrum being used by a child to get their own way, this attributes to the child manipulative behaviour, which must lead to the conclusion that they are in fact not upset but just acting.  It would also attribute to them an ability to think in such a devious manner, which I think is somewhat questionable, especially whilst in the throes of a tantrum. It brings to mind the equally dubious message pedalled by some parenting gurus that babies have the capacity to manipulate, and this is a reason to fail to respond to their cries.

Now, granted, a child has the capacity to whine and cry and carry on about something that they want that we’ve said they can’t have.  A tantrum, however, indicates a loss of control on the part of the child, due to their being overwhelmed by their strong feelings.  OK, the power struggle may have been the trigger, but this just tells you that frustration and anger are  most likely the predominant feelings they’re experiencing. For me, a preceding power struggle is not a reason to ignore and fail to empathise with a child’s feelings.  It is very easy to empathise and validate whilst still not giving in to demands.  Even without the tantrum, I’d say this is the way to go.

Many fear that giving attention to tantrums gives attention to and encourages bad behaviour.  But the way I look at it is that if we ignore a child’s feelings we teach them to suppress them in order to gain back our attention.  I do not want to teach my child to suppress his feelings, and I certainly don’t want him to think I don’t care about his feelings.

I think the most important change in attitude that needs to be made is that of tantrums being bad behaviour that must be stopped.  Tantrums are an expression of extreme emotion.  The problem arises from our own dislike of the noise and fuss, and often from our consciousness of onlookers.  Once we have ceased to see tantrums as bad behaviour we can respond to our child with empathy and understanding, so even when they can’t get what they want, at least they feel listened to and understood – surely a better recipe for connectedness, and if you want the tantrums to stop, connectedness is the key.

Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D. writes in his book, Playful Parenting, “Tantrums are children’s way of expressing and releasing frustration….If they can’t express their frustration, or if they are punished for having a tantrum, it continues to interfere with their happiness, their ability to cooperate, or their achievements……Children in the midst of a tantrum are flooded with feelings, and they feel out of control. They need a loving human being near them.”

When a child has a tantrum, whatever the cause, they are experiencing a frightening loss of control, and overwhelming feelings of frustration, anger, hurt and powerlessness.  They need us to show that we are there for them,  that we are strong enough to handle it even it they aren’t, and so are providing that safe base they so desperately need at their times of crisis.

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.

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?