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Saturday, August 9, 2014

Growing good men and competent women, part 2: Making kids behave

This is the second part of a series about the long-term consequences of our parenting decisions. You can read the first part here: The problem with pink and blue

Everybody's in such a hurry.

A hurry to get everyone up and dressed and fed. A hurry to get to work. A hurry to get home, get the kids fed, bathed, to sleep.

A hurry to turn those kids into polite, caring, clever, well-educated, successful adults.

Here is the news:


That is what my partner used to say to me when I owned a little restaurant, and I had orders coming out of my ears and deadlines everywhere I turned and five things on the stove and six in the oven and ten more to prepare NOW without letting everything burn.

It takes as long as it takes.

That always helped me, because I was often trying to do the unreasonable, and sometimes the impossible. And it wasn't a national disaster if someone had to wait another ten minutes for their food, if that food was delicious. Some things can't be hurried if you want them to turn out well. And growing good adults is one of them.

Breathe. Slow down. Lower the bar a little. Remember love, and laughter, and respect? Those are the ways to 'make kids behave'. Trying to rush the process is a recipe for disaster.

I didn't 'make them' clean up. I included them in the whole process, and
modelled cooking and cleaning up for days beforehand.


Here's what happens when we try to hurry our children into being behavioural or intellectual adults.


When we try to make them polite in a hurry, we forget to be polite to them. We model blind obedience. "Say sorry/thank you/please because I told you to. Not because you feel it in your heart. Stop listening to what you feel, and do as I say!"

We might not say those words... but we don't need to; the message is clear.

That's dehumanising. It leaves no room for what the child is feeling or thinking themselves. Good manners can only be taught by modelling over a long, long time. If you want well-mannered children, be well-mannered yourself- to them and to others.

And talk to your children about why you want to say thank you to someone for the flowers, the gift, the gesture that took up their time. "I'm going to ring up Marie and say thank you for the flowers, because they're making me feel happy inside and I want her to know that so she feels happy inside too."

Talk to your children about why you're going to say sorry to their dad. "I got really angry this morning and yelled at Daddy. I think I hurt his feelings, so I'm going to say sorry."

Those sorts of manners are catching. This is what I mean by a respectful attitude to your children. You're not kow-towing to their every whim- that's not respect!- and you're not treating them as though they know more than you- that's not realistic. What you're doing is believing they can understand what's going on, if you take the time to explain it in simple language. You're including them in the emotional dynamics of your life. You're being truthful and open. Truth and openness breeds truth and openness. Manners breed manners- good or bad.

As for saying sorry because I told you to... that just breeds insincerity.


Children love pushing boundaries, don't they? It's what they're programmed to do. They need to find the edges of acceptable behaviour as part of their emotional development.

That's why being consistent is so important. That's why learning to endure a tantrum is so important. You can't be in a hurry! It takes time (and hideously demanding amounts of patience).

If you say 'no' to a lollypop at the supermarket checkout for five minutes while your child whines... and then give in to stop the whining because you just can't stand it for one more MOMENT, you can be certain that your child will start exactly the same performance next time round and drive you to the edge of crazy all over again. You moved the boundary! If you want them to find the edges, keep those edges still!

When they say 'BUT I WANNA LOLLY! for the fifteenth time, you say 'Asked and answered' for the fifteenth time. When they lie in the aisle screaming, you stand there saying calmly 'You don't like my answer. You're angry and sad. Let me know when you feel better.' Aaaaaand breathe. Aaaaaaaand smile at the rude people who stare or make a comment, and say 'I'm just waiting this one out. Next time she/he'll understand better that no means no.'

And NO, you don't smack them to 'make them behave' or 'give them something to cry about'. Not if you want to grow a good man, or a competent woman.

Why not smack? Because then you're teaching them that you can control other people with pain and fear.

Think about that.

You can control other people with pain and fear.

That's what smacking teaches. That's what you're doing to your child. Do you want to be part of that? Do you want to teach that lesson?

When your child tries to do that to a smaller child at school, are you ready to take responsibility?

I didn't think so.

Don't be in a hurry. Smacking's a short cut to better behaviour in that moment. In the longer term, it teaches much more undesirable behaviour.

But what about when I really have to be in a hurry?

Yes, I've been there. I've had a child who refused to get out of his pyjamas when it was time for us to leave the house so I could get to work on time, as the sole breadwinner. I'm not particularly proud of how I handled it; I bundled him into the car in his PJs, threw his clothes at him and said "You can go to school in your pyjamas or you can get dressed before we get there."


If I had my time over again, I would cut out the part about throwing his clothes at him. That was me losing my temper. And I wouldn't suggest he get dressed while the car was moving. That was me, stressed beyond caring.

And I'd give the choices before I did the action. "Do you want to go to school in your PJs? Or do you want me to put you in the car in your PJs and take your clothes, so you can get dressed before you get out of the car?" And then follow through.

But five minutes earlier, I'd say "In five minutes we are getting in the car whether or not you are dressed. Do you want to dress yourself or do you need me to help you?"

See, there are lots of more respectful options. In an ideal world we'd remember them all when we needed them. I know we don't. I've been there.

Try to remember to give choices, but only realistic ones. Being late for work wasn't a choice for me. The choices I needed to present were 'get ready by yourself' or 'I will help you get ready'.

Sigh. Never mind. I don't think he was scarred for life by that one incident. Growing men and women is a long-term project. Don't beat yourself up too much if you screw up now and then!

Oh, and when you do screw up, be honest. Say sorry. Talk about what went wrong later, and how you can all work to make sure it doesn't happen any more. I don't think I did that, either. I wish I had.

I mean, you want to grow an adult who can say sorry, don't you? You want to grow an adult who can take responsibility when they make a mistake, when they lose control? Be that adult in front of them.

Lessons, homework and success

Here is the news: HOMEWORK IS A WASTE OF TIME in the vast majority of cases, and in all cases of children in early childhood. (Yep, there's research to back that up.)

Doing homework in preschool is not going to make your child smarter or give them an academic advantage. Watching 'Baby Einstein' or 'My Baby Can Read' is not going to help you grow a successful adult. You cannot 'make' a child gifted. Stencils and repetition and other gimmicks do not give your young child a head start- what they do in many cases is turn kids off learning before they even get to proper school.

This is the most important sort of homework for young children. Oh, and if all your photos of your children are in focus, you're doing it wrong. :D
In early childhood, probably the most important thing that children are learning is how to get on with other people; how to work in groups, what happens when they behave anti-socially in a group, what the rules of this society are. They do that by playing. Without that type of learning, they will be hamstrung as learners in school and as adults in everything they do.

That's why the Early Childhood curriculum is play-based; that's why we EC teachers fight tooth and nail against pushing down the maths and reading curriculum into preschool. We're trying to grow successful adults. Why won't people listen?!!

If you're spending every evening arguing with your young children about doing their homework, please save your breath for more productive matters! (Like, for example, going up to the school and asking the teacher what the hell he/she thinks they're doing. Or going to the park with them and running around for an hour.)

But what about older kids? Don't they need a nudge from us if they're going to be successful?

If you're spending every evening arguing with your adolescent children about doing their homework, please stop and let them learn by making mistakes! You can't live their life for them. They'll learn through consequences, not through you telling and yelling.

And here's another awful truth: a lot of the homework they're given is pointless, given only because parents and administrators expect it. (The parents and administrators need to do their own damn homework, because the research on this matter is clear.) Often the children themselves know what matters and what doesn't, but if they don't, they'll never learn that distinction if you keep shouting in their ear about it.

(Sure, if your child's genuinely behind with literacy, for example, you need to help them. But here's a hint:

You catch more flies with honey.

Read to them. Make it a game. Search for letters or special words in the text of books they enjoy. Put the frickin' flash cards AWAY unless you can make a game of it.)

To grow a fine young man or woman, you have to let them make their own mistakes and live their own life. It isn't your life; it isn't your choice. It's far, far more important to keep the lines of communication open with your child than it is to live in a state of constant warfare in the hope of making them 'successful'. That way, when they realise things have gone wrong, they have somewhere safe to fall. That is your job- to be their safe haven.

Not to turn them into Steve Jobs, or whatever your personal idea of 'successful' is. You don't have that power, and hurrying them along won't help. Let go.


So. Are we clear on this one?

Slow down. 

Give realistic choices.

Don't sweat the small stuff- and get your facts straight; know what's small stuff and what's big stuff. 

Try to be respectful, consistent, patient, truthful. 

You can't 'make' kids behave. You can't 'make' another human being do anything, unless you're prepared to use pain and fear. But you can set a good example- and you know what? It'll make you a better person, too.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Growing good men and competent women, part 1: The problem with pink and blue

I've lived in rural areas for around twenty years now, in two different areas which were down dirt roads and a long way from town. And you know, I noticed something about the people around me in both places.

There were lots of single, deeply unhappy men.

Many of those men had serious substance abuse problems; I wasn't surprised they were alone. I wondered if it was the chicken or the egg. Were these men alone because of the substance abuse, or was the substance abuse their solace to drown their loneliness?

I have no answers for that. But it did make me think about how we, as parents, can try to grow our boys into happy men- men who won't find themselves alone and looking at life through the amber distortion of a beer bottle.

Meanwhile, I'm a member of some all-female Facebook groups. I notice just how many women are miserably single, or deeply unhappy in their relationships. They're angry, bitter, hurt, disappointed. They, too, often comfort themselves with alcohol.

Or shopping.

Or food.

What on earth are we doing wrong here? How can we grow our little girls into women who feel in charge of their own lives rather than crushed, who have realistic expectations of men, who don't keep shooting their own happiness in the foot?

This is a huge and complex subject. But let's just tease out one thread at a time. First of all, let's have a look at the pink and blue issue, because I honestly believe it has an impact.


There are whole websites devoted to fighting the segregation of children's toys along colour-coded gender lines. It's grown like a cancer until nearly every toy retailer is doing it. A pink aisle of Barbies, tutus and home wares for the girls. A blue aisle of vehicles, weapons and action figures for the boys. The toy manufacturers have gone crazy in the same way; even Lego has started to put a wedge between the sexes, designing beauty spas in pink (with all female figures) and building sets in blue (with not a girl in sight).

And many, many parents- and retailers- believe that this is just fine. After all, the kids love it! All the girls seem to love bright pink. Boys generally shy away from pink and are happy with blue. Surely there's a natural preference at work there. Boys and girls ARE different. They like different things. So what's the problem?

I've seen comment threads on Facebook implode over this very issue.

For me- well, I don't like colour-coding toys by gender. One reason is that I believe it works against growing good men who treat women well, and competent women who have realistic expectations.

Do you think I'm pulling a long bow here? Bear with me.


When adults assign a colour to a gender, they make a statement which goes a lot further than they realise. I think it all starts with clothes. Right back before the child is born, many friends and relatives are wanting to know the sex of the child so they know whether to buy pink or blue for the baby.

This pink-blue dichotomy is not some law of nature established at the beginning of time, though some would have you believe so. 21st century Western society gives smiling approval to pink clothes for girls because, in this century, we happen to think that's sweet and feminine. If you do your research, you'll find that red/pink used to be associated with male power, while blue was associated with femininity- think of the Virgin Mary- so it's simply a modern FASHION. Nothing more.

But the modern association of these colours with gender, and our approval or disapproval of their use based on the sex of the child, creates a certain dynamic in that child's head. Pink becomes GOOD, if you're a girl.

But put pink on a boy, and certain types of men (and some women) will rail and stamp and make scathing ignorant comments about the child's sexuality. (Please note: you cannot change a child's sexuality by dressing them in a different colour. That is a scientific fact.) Pink becomes BAD, if you're a boy.

It's all about pink. Girls don't get insulted for wearing blue, right? It actually starts with an ignorant adult prejudice which we teach to children.


And then money enters the equation. Toy manufacturers make a certain sort of toy in a certain colour in response to sales figures. They are profiting from our prejudice, people!

Yes, it's true that many girls gravitate towards dolls and many boys get obsessed with vehicles, but a lot of that is taught (we model gender roles every day). And not all children conform to those preferences, and most children like at least to dabble in something different if there's no adult pressure on them to play a certain way. We have taught girls to seek pink, and boys to avoid it- and once you hook a gendered colour to a certain type of toy, you cut some children off at the knees and you discourage experimentation and exploration in all the others.

By allowing and approving this segregation, we also create approval for a certain type of peer pressure and bullying. Even if a boy is interested in cooking- and face it, the majority of successful chefs are male- while cookery toys are only manufactured in pink, they'll shy away from them. If adults make fun of them for even entering the pink girls' aisle of a toy shop, if other little boys jeer at them for owning a pink stove, what does that do to the inside of their heads?

Those colours are the ultimate form of labelling (and I use that word in its most pejorative sense). Even a child understands it straight away.

And do we really think it grows good men if boys end up unable to cook, groom themselves, sew on a button or clean their own house, simply because their childhood taught them that those were pink tasks, and pink tasks are for girls? Really?

Creating domestically hopeless men with highly gendered expectations doesn't cut it any more. Not in this century. If you want your son to find a happy, stable relationship in adulthood, if you don't want him thrown out on his ear like the single men in my neighbourhood, you'd better be growing a good, balanced man right from the start.

Ask my son. His interest in the kitchen was encouraged, he was given real tools instead of pink or blue gendered toys, and he swears to this day that his ability to cook is one of the things that women find most attractive about him.

And it cuts both ways. If a girl is jeered at for wanting to play with a truck or a car, is it any wonder she loses interest? Is it fair to then make fun of her for not understanding how her vehicle works as an adult, for forgetting to top up the oil or check the tyre pressure? Is it fair to berate her for being fixated on shopping and shoes and being beautiful, when we taught her ourselves that those were cute, pink things to do?

We create helpless, self-involved women too. We create those girls who go looking for a man with a shopping list in their head. Maybe we never asked them to do anything technical, or dirty, or heavy- not because they weren't capable, but because those are blue things. We left them with expectations that they could just do all the pink things, and everyone would love them for it, and men would do the dirty work.

That's not the real world. If you want your little girl to grow up strong and independent and not just waiting for a handsome rich man to sweep her off her feet, you'd better be growing a competent woman with her feet on the ground right from the start.

Ask me. I watch the look in men's eyes when I pick up the block splitter and start taking the bark off a felled tree to use in our building extension. That look is respect- respect for my competence and confidence. I was never told I couldn't do something because it was a boys' domain- never. I played with dolls, sure, but I also went out in the bush and learned a whole lot of bushcraft at my father's knee. Axes and block splitters aren't pink or blue. They're just tools for life in the bush.

And that's it, isn't it? Life isn't divided into pink and blue, and to try to teach children that it IS is disrespectful and misleading. Let's not teach our children prejudice and gender expectation, even if that was what was taught to us. Let's not teach them they have to fit into a colour code created by fashion and big business.

Let's give them a chance to become complete, good and competent beings in themselves. Then they at least stand a chance of being able to walk side by side with a life partner one day, if that's what they want. An adult who knows who they are, who knows they are capable and competent with or without a partner, is the most attractive person out there. Don't you want that for your child?

Thursday, November 28, 2013

When grandma won't do it your way- Part 2: The judgmental relative

(Note: To avoid repeating myself, I'll assume you've read Part 1 of this series and you have at the front of your mind that YOU are the major influence on your child, and that CHILDREN ARE RESILIENT.)

Being a parent is so stressful. It's particularly tough on mothers early on. It's bad enough dealing with the hormones, the sleep deprivation, the complete turning-on-its-head of your normal life and routines... but then, if you're extra unlucky, you might also cop a dose of people telling you you're doing it wrong.

Most often, that happens on Facebook while you're trying to get help from a parenting thread. That's tough enough, but if you hit the jackpot, the people putting you down might be the people you were most hoping would help and support you- like the child's grandparents.

My father always tried to make my small son eat everything on his plate. It was common with grandparents who'd lived through the Depression. Fortunately, I was able to trust my son to control that situation- a lot of food ended up on the floor or down his bib, and there was a lot of stubborn verbiage flying around!

Oh my. You're doing it wrong. What an awful, undermining thing for them to tell a person they're meant to care for, a person who's doing their best but may already be having trouble keeping all the balls in the air.

It might present in different words, of course, but the dictatorial tone is usually the same.

What that child needs is a good smack.

Rubbish, he's not gluten-intolerant. You're overreacting.

Don't let that child get up from the table without cleaning her plate.

(to the child who just fell down) Don't cry. You're fine.

Don't let that child climb that tree- it's dangerous.

If you give that baby the breast every time she asks you'll never get her sleeping through. 

Sound familiar?

Oh, did you want me to tell you you're right, if those judgmental statements above ring a bell for you? Of course, you're almost certainly right and the person saying those things is almost certainly wrong. But being right doesn't solve the problem.

So, how do we respond when this happens? Let's slow this right down and analyse it, because it takes two to make a problem.


Any 'I know better than you' statement, which dismisses your carefully chosen 'peaceful path' through the minefield of childcare as wrong, is going to send a parent off in one of three directions.

1. If your own parents brought you up to comply Or Else, or to be a pleaser who always considers others before themselves, you may feel grief-stricken and tearful.

2. If your parents brought you up so strictly that you rebelled and broke away, if they tried to dominate you and you're now enjoying your freedom to make your own decisions, you may feel furious.
My father was in the 'breakaway' category- the subject of a very strict upbringing by his own parents.

3. And if your parents brought you up to think for yourself and have a mind of your own, you're probably going to calmly consider what they say, calmly reflect on the parenting practice they're challenging, and either respectfully defend it or consider changing it.

Did you see what I did there? I changed the verb. When your own upbringing has been less than ideal, as in options 1 and 2, you tend to react rather than act.

You feel rather than consider.

What I want to do here is to show you a way to move yourself towards option 3- calmly taking control without starting a war.


Here is a basic uncomfortable truth: you can't control other people.

Sure, other people can change their views- if they want to change them. The emotive options, shouting or crying at them, will not make them want to change. If their position is entrenched, rational explanations for your thinking will not make them want to change. You may have no power whatsoever to make them want to change.

For more on this, read this post about changing people's minds about childcare.

But- and it's a huge 'but'- you can try to understand other people. Understanding where someone's coming from can de-escalate your emotions. That is what you need to do to regain control of these situations.

You can control yourself.


So first of all, have a think about this 'problem' grandparent. Try to get inside their head.

They may have been brought up themselves in an atmosphere of forced compliance, violence and lack of respect for their humanity. Anything else may look like weakness to them.

They may have a very poor self-image, and be unable to cope with people making different choices to the ones they themselves made as parents. It may feel like a judgment on them.

They may have a very hollow emotional life- maybe nobody pays them any attention any more, since their own children left home. Maybe what they're really saying is 'look at me!'

Who is this person who's trying to judge you? Do you know who they are?

Maybe you can ask them some gentle questions when they say these hurtful, annoying things. (You might need to take a deep, calming breath first. Or excuse yourself while you have a drink of water or a short walk outside.)

"Were you always spanked as a child?"

"Were you able to breastfeed your babies?"

"Were you allowed to cry when you felt sad when you were little?"

And follow up the answer with,

"How did that feel to you?"

Turn the conversation around. Make it about them- because these situations ARE quite often about them. They're often not about you or your child at all. And if you can understand where they're coming from, maybe you can find some compassion for their situation and take the spotlight off your parenting disagreement. Maybe you can have a real conversation with your child's grandparent.


Secondly, have a think about you.

If these judgmental statements make you react emotionally, perhaps it's time to do some work on yourself so you can heal. What is that anger about? Why are you crying? This is your child, and parenting him or her is your responsibility- not the grandparents'. For them to press your buttons, there have to be buttons. Identify what those buttons are. Do you still feel, even as an adult, that you should please them in all things? Are you still angry about something from your own childhood?

Deal with it. I am a huge fan of counselling to get us past our own emotional issues.

Parents who have their head together are far less affected by challenges to their parenting path. They may express momentary frustration, or laugh about what their MIL told them to do when next talking to their friends or their partner, but inside themselves they feel confident that they are making the right choices for their child. They don't feel a need to turn it into a war.

Often, the button a grandparent presses is your own uncertainty about whether you're doing the right thing. Have a close, honest look at that. Try to do some research (and I don't mean on a parenting thread that you know will support your path- I mean finding some unbiased, scientifically researched information on the subject!) and find your confidence, or consider changing your path.

Changing the way you parent doesn't make you a failure. It makes you flexible- able to reflect and change with the circumstances- and that's an excellent quality in a parent.


Naturally there are some things you shouldn't put up with as a responsible parent. It's one thing to talk about spanking and food allergies and coercing a child to eat, for example. It's quite another to allow someone to actually do these things to your child.

My father's parents had had a change of heart by the time I came along. They never attempted to discipline me at all, let alone strictly! And I adored them.
Your child is your key here. Pay attention! Put yourself and your feelings aside for a moment and watch and listen. Is your child upset after a visit to his grandparents? Does she seem unusually angry or behave oddly? Remember, this isn't about slavishly following a parenting (or any other) ideology. It's about your child's physical and emotional welfare.

If he or she is not showing any signs of distress, butt out. Children are resilient.

If she or he is showing signs of distress, investigate and act.

I had a recent inquiry from a parent whose very young child (barely two) was being subjected to vigorous religious indoctrination by her grandparents, of the 'let's all feel sad and guilty about Jesus' bloody death on the Cross' variety. The child was now showing distress upon seeing images of crosses.

THAT IS A SIGN. Pay attention. I recommended in that case that a parent always be with the child when she was with her grandparents, and that when that subject came up (apparently it invariably did) the visit should be terminated politely. The next step, if the message wasn't received, would be to stop visiting; the welfare of your child is paramount.

You can adapt this advice to many situations. I hesitate to recommend severing all contact with a grandparent unless, despite your attempts to control the situation, it continues and the child is still showing signs of distress.

Not you. The child.

(Obviously- I hope it's obvious to you- you don't attempt to control a situation of actual physical, sexual or neglectful abuse. You get the hell out of there and don't come back.)


I can't leave this topic without including the perspective that is often forgotten in the bunfight between parents and grandparents- that of the child who's getting mixed messages. (I will assume that you've done your homework- you're sure in your own mind, from doing reading of scientific research, that you've made a good choice of path.)

Let's take the example of the child who's told 'don't cry, you're fine' when he falls down and hurts himself, or is told to eat everything on her plate despite feeling full already. These can be very damaging messages if the child internalises them.

Your child's trust in you is sacred. You are their advocate. Follow what is right.

It is okay to directly address your child in these circumstances and say quietly to them "It's okay to cry when you're sad, X- come here and I'll have a look at that knee" or "You may get down from the table if you're full, Y".

Afterwards, preferably when the child is not present, you must say calmly to the adult who made that statement "I know you are trying to help but I disagree." Add a specific supporting statement, like "I would like my son to grow up feeling that it's okay to express emotions instead of suppressing them" or "I want to protect my daughter from eating disorders, and I don't want her continuing to eat when she's full".

Be unemotional about it, but firm. Then change the subject.

If they try to turned it into an argument use the three-word strategy- "You have asked me about that and I have answered you", which can be abbreviated the second time you use it to "Asked and answered". (Not my strategy- I wish I could remember who blogged about that to credit them!)

If the behaviour persists, repeat! And you may need to add quietly but firmly, "I will overrule you every time you do that, because I want my child to be very clear in his/her own mind on this issue." Do that in private, if you have to do it at all; the aim is not to humiliate the grandparent.

Take back the power which is yours, but try to do it with tact. I know this is hard. It's still very hard for some people to 'talk back' to their own parents, especially without tears or anger. But you're an adult now, and sometimes you owe it to your child to be strong.


So to summarise:

YOU are the major influence on your child.

YOUR CHILD IS RESILIENT and can bounce back from occasional deviations from the plan.

REMOVE YOUR CHILD IMMEDIATELY from situations of genuine abuse.

Try to offer grandparents the same LOVING RESPECT you offer your child.

Respect that the grandchild-grandparent relationship is NOT THE SAME as the child-parent relationship, nor does it need to be.

Try to UNDERSTAND where grandparents are coming from.


Research your parenting and speak with CALM CONFIDENCE rather than emotionally.

PAY ATTENTION to your child's reactions- act if THEY are distressed.

Be strong and worthy of your child's TRUST; speak in defence of them when needed.

And remember- grandparents are here for a limited time. Try to let your child enjoy that unique relationship, without sweating the small stuff.

I used to be scared of dogs... but now I love them... I wonder how that happened? :)

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

When grandma won't do it your way- Part 1: The overindulgent relative

If I was asked what the most frequently posed problem with peaceful parenting, as expressed on Facebook, it would have to be some sort of variation on this theme:

"Help! My child's grandparent/s won't support the way we're bringing up our child."

Usually that's followed by something like this:

"They're undoing all our good work!"

"They're spoiling him!"

"They say we're spoiling her!"

And so on.

After yet another request for help along these lines, I've decided it's time to put my Aunt Annie hat back on after a long break and try to help. So- you know my strategy by now! Love and respect are the answers to everything. 

This issue is no different.

It's a BIG subject, and so in this first post I'm going to deal with the over-indulgent relative.


My first point is about respect for your child's ability to cope. Children are extremely resilient. Unless there is actual abuse going on (and by that I mean sustained personal violence or neglect, not a minor or one-off deviation from your personal guidelines), children ARE able to cope with different people or environments having different rules.

I mean, think about it. If a deviation from the usual ground rules during childhood was life-changing, we would have generations of children who were terminally traumatised by going to birthday parties! Most birthday parties involve an orgy of unwise food choices, excessive giving of trashy plastic junk toys, constant entertainment provided by adults and packs of kids running around screaming whilst high on artificial colouring.

Mmm, chocolate cake. Mmm, parties.
Yet most of us allow our children to attend many, many parties per year without giving it a second thought.

Because parties are considered a normal part of growing up in our society, and because mum and dad don't give them undue emotional weight and make a huge fuss about their kids attending them, eventually our children come to realise on their own that this isn't a normal way of living every day- it's a special treat. There are 'party rules' and 'everyday rules'.

If you have over-indulgent grandparents in the picture, try to think of the environment when they're around as a sort of birthday party. Give your children credit for being able to learn that Granny's rules are not the same as Mummy and Daddy's rules, and that Grandpa's rules belong with Grandpa's presence.

Children are capable of understanding this, and in fact they must learn this. It's a social grace to know it: 'When in Rome, do as the Romans do'. Trust them to be making their own internal assessment of what's going on. They learn by experience, not by you telling them. A tummy ache teaches more about gluttony than a lecture ever did.

Here is the most important and useful thing you can do to use your anxious energy about this in positive way:

Talk about the different rules with them, in a simple and meaningful way.

Ask questions, and always wait for them to respond.

"What do you think would happen to you if you ate five chocolate biscuits every day?"

That's not a problem. That's an opportunity. Use it to talk about healthy eating with your child.

Of course it's not always about food. Recently a reader asked me what to do about a grandparent who was always insisting that their gifted child colour in, and do so between the lines, and who was always drawing pictures for the child rather than letting them draw their own pictures. (Yep, she's right; it's educationally unsound practice.)

I say, take the same approach as for the chocolate biscuits. Ask your child, "What do you think would happen if parents always drew the pictures and children always just coloured them in?"

That also is an opportunity rather than a problem. It's time for a visit to the art gallery, or a talk about the person who drew the pictures in your child's favourite book.

"How do you think this artist learned to draw?"

And maybe,

"Do you think she always let other people do the drawings and just coloured them in?"

There's a wonderful chain of mirrors to be explored there. Who does the drawings if nobody ever learns to draw?

It's amazing what you can find out about your child's thinking if you stop telling and worrying and instead start asking. That is part of respect.


Here's another thing to reflect upon. How different is your parenting style from your parents' parenting style?

Is it even in the same ball park?

Human beings are naturally defensive. When you embark on a radically different parenting path from your own parents' methods, it can be seen as a judgment on them. The most common response to being judged is to entrench your own position and defend it to the death.

So, let's say your parents nearly always rewarded you with food when you were good. Mine certainly did! It's common practice still in our society.

These days, those sorts of rewards have been examined and found wanting, and as a parent who's into self-educating (and you are, or you wouldn't be reading this blog!), you will want to do better and remove the emotional baggage from food. But still your mother keeps giving your child chocolate biscuits for every good thing he does! Even after you explain why you don't want her to!

The more you object, the more entrenched your mother will become behind her wall of it-never-did-you-any-harm. To think she harmed her own child- you- by giving food an emotional loading is just too awful for her to contemplate.

Put her shoes on! Think from her perspective! She can't change the past, so she will almost certainly choose to defend it. It won't matter how many informative articles you throw her way. Those will just produce guilt, and she'll become deaf and blind to what you're saying about it.

If you can use the 'different houses, different rules' strategy to stop yourself worrying about it so much, that is great. If not, you need to be creative and find a work-around.

Maybe you can ask mum to help you by insisting your child clean his/her teeth after every biscuit. Dentists are so expensive!

Maybe you can encourage a lot more outdoor play at home, so your child works those biscuits off by running around.

Try not to turn it into a war. Wars just result in casualties. Life isn't perfect, and sometimes we do have to compromise.

And I'll say it again:

You are the major influence.

Children are capable and resilient.


Even if you're living with the grandparent, it's possible to be clear and firm about different rules. Of course, you may have to cope with some flack from your child and take on the role of Big Bad Wolf sometimes. Accept it! That's your job!

I never had time to make orange peel teeth to make
my son laugh. But my mother did. She was only
with us till my son was two and a half.
Grandparents are often only with us for a relatively small part of the child's life. YOU are a much more powerful influence, and if you always treat your child with love, compassion and respect, without making an emotional mountain out of every little bump in the road, then these momentary challenges to your authority will eventually abate.

Acknowledge the feelings your child is having whilst adjusting to different rules. When they shout "I want to stay with Nana all the time!" or "I love Poppy better than you!", take a deep breath and translate it back to them.

"I can hear that you're angry with me. That's okay. It's hard for you to understand why we have different rules. But the main thing is we both love you a lot, and people don't always say 'I love you' the same way. Nana says 'I love you' by drawing you pictures. I say 'I love you' by making sure you learn how to draw pictures for yourself. It's all good."

And that brings me to love. It is almost certain that whatever it is that the grandparent is doing that has upset you, it's being done with love.

Perhaps the indulgent grandparent regrets spending so little time playing with his or her own children, and wishes they'd spoiled them a little more. That's going to press your buttons, isn't it? If you see your parent acting in a way they never seemed to act when you were a child, that will probably make you mad as hell! And that is the time to call on love, and put yourself in your parent or parent-in-law's shoes. Deal with your own feelings about your own experiences at another time- they don't belong in the ring with bringing up this child of yours.

And remember, grandparenthood is not the same as parenthood. Grandparents are often starting to face their own mortality. They probably are aware that they have limited time to form a relationship with your child. They probably desperately wish for your child to remember them fondly when they're gone. The door is open for going over the top!

Try to let go a little and step back. Children who do remember their grandparents fondly have a precious treasure for life. It's not about parenting ideology. It's about love, and connection, and relationship.

A grandparent isn't stealing or corrupting your relationship with your child, unless of course they're actually physically or emotionally abusive (in which case, get the hell out of there NOW, because you're destroying your child's trust in you to keep them safe). A grandparent is forming their own relationship with the child, and you can't and mustn't expect that to be the same as your own relationship with him or her. That power doesn't belong to you- it belongs to the two of them.

In practical terms, of course, there are still difficulties. Let's go back to the five chocolate biscuits a day. If Granny insists on allowing this, it doesn't matter much at all if your child sees her once a month. If, on the other hand, you're all living together for the long term- well, it matters a lot!

If you have this sort of problem, then the only way to handle it is to sit down with your mum or dad after your children are in bed and put their shoes on before you open your mouth. Make sure you come to the table prepared with some questions and your own reflections upon why this is happening. And please, don't even start before you've asked yourself this question:

Am I overreacting because of something I'm feeling?


Try your best to talk with love, not anger, because anger feels fine and dandy while you're shouting, but it doesn't solve problems.

"Why do you let X eat so many biscuits?" 

in a genuinely interested and puzzled tone of voice will get you a lot further than

"You've got to stop giving X all those biscuits every day. You'll rot his teeth. Haven't you read anything about child obesity?"

shouted from the doorway- even though the second option may feel better to you.

"I feel really worried about this"

(spoken honestly with eye contact with your parent) will similarly get you a lot further than throwing anger and blame around.

Don't try to solve all your problems in one talk. Spend your first talk-time hearing the grandparent's point of view. You will ONLY extract the truth with gentleness and love. Without that softly-softly approach you will get nowhere near the truth!

Maybe it will turn into a reminiscence session about when you were a child. Who knows? There may even be some personal healing to be had, if you can put aside your anger and fear and approach your own parents with love.

Remember how hard parenting is. Don't imagine that your own mother and father didn't have their own moments of anger and fear. Maybe you can ask them how they felt about your grandparents- whether they had different rules and made your parents worry about how it would affect you.

Ask them about their own childhood.

Get closer to them.

I know how hard you're trying to do the best possible job parenting your child. Once upon a time, your parents did exactly the same thing with you. They weren't perfect, and neither are you. Acknowledge that fact, and you're halfway there.

Can you offer your child's grandparents the respect and love that you offer to your child? Try it. It's still the answer.

You can read Part 2 of this series, about judgemental grandparents, here.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Detachment parenting

I worry about the extremes some mums will go to, in the belief that they're doing the right thing by their child. Every day I read of mums who've faithfully followed a 'method' of parenting, to the point where they've fallen over a cliff that wasn't meant to be there.

I could write this article about several 'methods' which have hidden pitfalls if people take things to extremes, but I'll start with the one that I see come up most frequently in my Facebook feed.

Attachment parenting is a method I'd never even heard of when I had my child, but having done a LOT of reading, I do get what it's about- or what it's meant to be about. It's meant to be about peacefully meeting your baby's needs so that baby feels secure.

Isn't that what most mums want? A secure, happy baby?

I practised some parts of attachment parenting unconsciously; it seemed natural and right to me, for example, to take my baby into my bed when he expressed the need to be with me at night, and to feed him whenever he asked, and to carry him pretty much whenever he asked.

Me with my best friend's baby. Carry
a child this size around all day? No
way- I would have ruined my back!
He was seriously heavy.
Within reason, that is. Not to the extent that I constantly compromised my own precious few hours of sleep, or offered the breast at every whimper, or hurt my back trying to carry a solid 18-month-old everywhere. I had to make sure I didn't ignore my own genuine needs whilst meeting my baby's. I knew that if I did, I would become a worse parent- not a better one.

And that seems to be something many mums find difficult. While I see how attachment parenting has great value for so many mums, I also worry about the mums who have fallen over the cliff. They're struggling with feelings of failure because they see themselves as not doing it right, because their own needs haven't magically disappeared. I worry about mums who are setting themselves up for future pain by ignoring their own needs completely.

That's where a little detachment parenting can be very, very useful in the attachment parent's work kit.

Detachment parenting doesn't mean ignoring your child, or not caring! Of course not!

It means taking a 'time out' for yourself from your parenting mission, stepping back and looking at the big picture. It means understanding that your child grows increasingly separate from you.

And so it must be, and so it should be.


Here are some signs that an attachment parent needed to practise a little detachment parenting along the way. (They're problems from real life. I didn't invent them.)

1. Their preschooler resolves every emotional conflict with his/her peers by suckling.

2. Their husband no longer sleeps with them and the relationship is falling apart, because there isn't room for him in the bed; there's no sex either, because there's no privacy.

3. They're in physical pain from carrying a heavy child everywhere.

Those are extreme cases- of course they are!- and I suspect that Dr Sears would be horrified to read about them. One of the tenets of his theory is that parents need to recognise stages of development in their child and have age-appropriate expectations- and certainly his method is NOT intended to cause marital disharmony or physical injury.

Well, it's easy for me to sit here and sound critical, isn't it? It's one thing to point out a problem with some people's interpretation of attachment parenting, and it's another thing altogether to try to fix it. So while some parents' problems make me shake my head in dismay, I feel like I have no right to do that unless I have something positive and useful to offer as well.

I've always found that understanding why people head for a cliff is the best way to change their course. Here is my theory of why attachment parenting ends in tears for some women (not all! Some!), and how to address the problem.


Many, many mothers have parenting or relationship 'war wounds'. There's no such thing as the perfect parent or the perfect partner, but some are so imperfect that they leave scars.

If our own childhood was torn apart by a lack of intimacy and care, if our current relationships are abusive or superficial and unsatisfying, then the arrival of a baby can be the most addictively wonderful thing that has ever happened to us. If all our life we've felt somewhat unimportant, then our life becomes meaningful in a flash with the birth of our child.

These are heady, intoxicating feelings. Combine them with the overdose of hormones pounding around our bodies when we give birth, and some overwhelmingly powerful emotions can come to the fore. We're meant to fall in love with our baby... but some vulnerable women may do so to extremes.

At that moment of finally being loved and needed unconditionally, perspective can fall by the wayside. When a baby becomes our entire reason for living, that is a worry. When the techniques designed to comfort and support a baby are extended past the point where they are developmentally appropriate- then Houston, we have a problem.

The example of the preschooler who uses suckling to avoid peer-related problem-solving is a perfect example. That is not developmentally appropriate. Children need to experience mild conflicts with their peers, learn how to negotiate their way through them, and learn that even if a problem is not solved the way they'd like it to be, they will survive.

My son was fiercely independent from a very young
age. He liked to move away from me, then return. That didn't
make me feel less loved and needed, or him less attached to me.
A baby is a very small human being who will need to learn to stand alone one day. Every day she becomes more capable, more able to express her individuality. The idea is to help him become less dependent, not to strive to keep him dependent. If a woman invests her whole sense of self in her child, either she will be shattered each time that child grows away from her, no matter that it's in a developmentally appropriate way- or she will actively (though not intentionally) cripple her child's ability to cope alone.

Broken parent, or broken child? Not a great choice.

And of course, the spin-off from that- when a woman is completely wound up in her child's every need- is that other relationships wither, including her relationship with herself. When the child grows away from her, that woman has nothing left. The day the last child goes to school, or moves away to go to college, is a tragedy. Menopause feels like death. She's not invested in her own growth, either; she has nothing to fall back on. Her partner- sidelined for all those years- has lost interest, strayed, found other means of entertainment.

What is needed here, before the love story ends in disaster?

The first casualty of being too close to something- in this case, to one's own child- is perspective. Hold your finger too close to your eye and try to focus on it, and everything else becomes a blur; you can't even see your finger properly.

Do you recognise yourself in what I said? Pull back a little. Breathe. Detach, just for a short time, so you can focus on the big picture.
Yes, a 2-year-old operating an
electric vacuum cleaner. Children
are capable. Be present and aware,
but try not to be too fearful.

Learn about child development. What should your baby be doing for himself at this age? What skills should she be learning? Think about whether you're actually getting in your child's way by being too helpful, too present, too fearful.

Ask for help to see yourself and your child clearly. Plenty of people want to tell us how to fix things- don't we just love unsolicited advice?!!- but that doesn't help, does it? We have to want to know.

And we need to choose who we ask for advice very carefully. Remember that not everyone who replies on a Facebook thread has sound knowledge or experience. Brainstorming can be useful, sure, but it's human nature to cling to the advice that tells us to go on doing exactly what we are already doing.

Not helpful.

The bottom line, as ever, is for us all to recognise the need to work on ourselves, even if we're currently convinced we're parenting really well. Time spent addressing our own emotional needs is never wasted. Time spent healing old wounds is precious and necessary. Time spent establishing personal support systems? Priceless.

Never let anyone make you feel bad for seeking professional help for your hurts. Never feel like a failure for asking for help for YOU, because sometimes that is the single most wonderful thing you can do as a parent.

If you know your relationship with your partner is in disrepair, try not to use your child as a way to ignore the problem. Your child's job is to grow away from you. That will hurt like crazy if you've given them a role they're not designed to fill.

Detach from your child for long enough to address the issue of your relationship. Do you want to stay and work on it, or leave?

If you know your relationship with your parents left massive scars of anger and pain, you can bet that it's messed with your own parenting skills in some way. Even I can trace mistakes I made all the way back to my own parents, despite the fact that I was very lucky on that score.

Deal with the wounds. Find help- an understanding friend, or better still, a professional to talk to.


If the idea of detaching from your child for even a moment makes you angry or afraid, maybe this is striking close to the bone. Look away from your own relationship with your child, because that's what makes you feel sensitive. It's a touchy subject.

Instead, try to reflect on your separateness from your own parents.

You were not part of them, were you? At first you were dependent on them for everything, but then you became aware of your own thoughts and feelings and cares. You needed to grow away from them, to lead your own life. If they clung to you, it was uncomfortable or irritating. If they got in your way as you tried to become independent, it was frustrating.

You don't want your growing child to feel frustrated, irritated, smothered by YOU. Do you?

Honour your baby's need to discover their independence. Educate yourself about stages of development. Allow that you can't protect your growing child from everything- nor should you. Let them find out who they are, away from you. Understand that the pain of letting go is a necessary part of parenting, and that nothing lasts forever.

Above all, remember that the woman in the mirror is just as loveable and just as deserving of tender care as her child. She, also, needs her independence. She needs to let her child go for longer and longer periods, so she can see who she is when she's not being a mother.

That addictive moment of being everything to our baby is ephemeral. We need to let it go, or it sours and ruins everything.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Real tools for kids: dangerous or respectful?

When my son turned seven, a friend of mine gave him a gift that he treasured for many years. Even now, twenty years later, he still has one part of the set in the kitchen drawer in his marital home.

The present was a set of half a dozen Victorinox kitchen knives.

Are you horrified?

Victorinox is the company that makes Swiss army knives. These things are wickedly sharp. I once cut my finger to the bone mishandling one of their pocket knives. Perhaps you're wondering what on earth my friend was thinking, putting such dangerous tools into the hands of such a young child.

But you know, every chef will tell you that the really dangerous knife is the one with the dull edge (how many of you have cut yourself trying to slice a tomato with a blunt knife?). And my friend knew some important facts about my young son:

1. He was already an avid cook.

2. He was not the least bit interested in hurting himself.

You know, I don't think he ever cut himself with those knives- certainly not as a child- and he never left them lying around. They were treated with great care and respect.

He was careful, because he knew they could hurt him badly if he wasn't.

Photo courtesy of Suzanne Axelsson

He was respectful and always put them away in their box- both to keep them sharp, and to keep them where he'd be able to find them. He knew they allowed him to do the creative work in the kitchen that he really wanted to do, and he was prepared to plan ahead to make sure that kept happening. (There was absolute hell to pay some seven or eight years later when one of the set disappeared after a party at our house. I heard about it for weeks.)

Now, let me tell you that this was a child who was disinclined to neatness and putting things away! His room was always absolute chaos- toys from one end to the other, Lego and train track and heaven knows what else all mixed up and all over the floor. But those knives- that was a totally different story. 

These are tools, but they're not real. They wouldn't have had
any respect shown for them from my child, no matter what
age he was. They would have been strewn all over the floor.

A two-year-old might be given the plastic toys in the previous
photo- but here's a two-year-old using a real hammer with
perfect competence. Photo courtesy Suzanne Axelsson.

WHY? Why did my son have a different attitude to the knives?

I suspect that the difference was that he was given a real set of tools. My friend had shown him great respect by trusting him to use those knives carefully and for the intended purpose, and he rose to the occasion.

Also, she knew him well, even though they saw each other rarely. She had managed to create a relationship with him in a very short span of time- and because she understood his interests, she chose the right real tool to give him. She showed real respect for him by doing this. 

So what's my point? What can we learn from this story?


We can learn that respecting children's abilities can create respectful behaviour in children.

We can learn that giving children real tools can be a game-changer, with long-term impact.

We can learn that relationship is the basis of knowing what a child wants to work with, and the key to them doing it safely; remember, play is the work of childhood.


Many adults are frightened by the thought of allowing children to use real tools- particularly those who look after groups of other people's children. 

"What if they hurt themselves?", they say. "I can't have my eye on them every minute. What if they hurt someone else? There are so many children with impulse control issues! It's too dangerous!"

Let me deal with those points, and show you HOW we can make using real tools in the classroom safe. (Parents can easily adapt these methods to use with their own young children.)

1. Children will not set out to hurt themselves, and they are unlikely to hurt anyone else if the preparation is adequate.

If children hurt themselves when using real tools, then the problem is either:

(a) that these children weren't interested in using them the right way (ie, it was the wrong type of tool to give to those children) 


(b) that the preparation by the adult was inadequate.

I am absolutely not recommending that we place razor-sharp knives in the hands of a room full of four-year-olds. However, a four-year-old is completely capable of having a turn of using a sharp knife to cut a birthday cake, for example, if the exercise is preceded by some sensible preparation. (In fact, many much younger children can do this given the right preparation.)

So how do you prepare children to use real tools?

I often start with story books which show a particular tool being used. This is a 'seed' for discussion, and that lets you find out whether the child or children are interested in using that tool. (What child isn't interested in cutting a birthday cake?!)

The next step is to open up a discussion about safety. I might say, "You seem pretty interested in using a sharp knife to cut something. Would you like to try?" (And wait for the response- no prizes for guessing what most 4-year-olds would say!)

And then I might continue,"But sharp knives can be dangerous. Has anyone here ever cut themselves? It hurts, doesn't it!! Do you think we need some safety rules? What rules do you think we should make?"

Remember- children are MUCH better at observing rules if they've had input into making the rules.

I would, of course, provoke responses about matters they hadn't raised. "Do you think it's safe to grab a sharp knife? Do we need a rule about that?" You have to think this whole process through before you start- I'd make my own little list of important points to cover in advance.

And finally, "What shall we do if someone breaks a rule?"

I'd write down the rules and consequences that all the children agreed on. I'd try to write it in positive language- for example, "only hit nails" would be a positive rule for hammers, and "only hold the handle" for knives- but it's actually more important to be faithful to what the kids say. I'd use their words wherever possible.

No, they probably can't read the rules at age four, but in a class situation I'd write them down as a poster and put them up on the wall. That is a literary learning experience! I'd milk it for all it was worth! I'd read it back to them, pointing to the words- their words.

And then, when the real tool came into the room, the groundwork would be done. The rules would be there in black and white, everyone would have had a part in agreeing to them, and we would all know what was going to happen if anyone did anything silly.

Once children have made their own rules by mutual consent, they are wonderful at policing them. You probably won't have to open your mouth.

2. Children with impulse control issues need you to do extra work on relationship and supervision. Then, refer to point 1.

We all know that children with impulse control issues need extra supervision and extra one-to-one attention. The fact is that these children can hurt others with seemingly harmless items- I've seen a child hit a peer with a simple wooden block so hard the peer had to be taken to the hospital for stitches. We have to supervise these children closely all the time. 

That is not an excuse to deny all the other children access to real tools.

But it does mean that we have to think harder about our preparation. 

We may need to find a quiet area, make good eye contact (unless there is an issue with autism) and discuss again with this child, calmly but enthusiastically, what has been decided by the whole class. 

We may need to make a point of asking this particular child (or these children!) what they think of each rule while the class is making them, and we may need to ensure they give an individual response about each consequence. "Do you think that's fair, Brett?" (We need to ask a few kids each time, especially anyone who's not paying close attention!- singling out the child we feel might have a problem with the activity is not constructive.)


Having a child with very severe uncontrolled behaviour in our room will usually mean having an additional staff member present for some hours of the day. Those hours are the time to use real tools, with directions for the extra staff member to concentrate solely on helping this child to succeed

(Note: those words are important. If you start with a negative mind set, a negative outcome is likely. Children read and respond to atmosphere.)

You might be surprised at how well a child like this responds to a 'real' activity- children with Aspergers, in particular, are often adept with real tools and might find themselves leading the class rather than feeling isolated!

All children are good at something. For some, using real tools
might be a breakthrough moment which gives them a real sense
of competence. Photo courtesy of Suzanne Axelsson.
And of course you don't have to start with a sharp knife, if that terrifies you out of your wits. You can start with a screwdriver and an old, non-functional piece of electronic equipment- "What do you think is inside this CD player?"- or toys which are past their use-by date. You can start with some soft pieces of wood, some small but REAL hammers and some sharp nails (a plastic comb can be used to hold the nails in place while children learn to strike the nail head; a magnet in an old stocking leg from panty hose can be used to pick up stray nails from the floor afterwards). You can start with any real tool your kids show interest in, as long as you've thought it through and prepared the class.


I'm singing the same song I always sing, aren't I? Respect, relationship, reflection. 

Children are capable beings, and if we respect their capabilities we will very often be amazed by what they can do. Offering them real tools is a way we can show this respect.

Children are people just like us, and they like and need to be part of a healthy, respectful relationship. They like to be involved in decisions that affect them. Involving them in making and keeping safety rules is a way we can enhance this relationship, as well as looking after their welfare and helping them develop risk assessment skills.

Teachers need to reflect if their planned activities are to succeed. Reflect on the children's interests and likely behavioural problems before you start- then plan and prepare, and you'll find that real tools can be a very positive contribution to your educational programme.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Don't set yourself up for guilt!

There have been a lot of posts and articles coming up in my feed lately about the myth of perfect parenting. 'Mummy guilt', in particular, seems to consume enough of us to warrant special attention in the world of online parenting.

We need to work, so we put our child in care. 

Our child still hits us, despite our gentle parenting. 

We couldn't breastfeed, 

or our child will only eat white bread and peanut butter, 

or we didn't parent our first child as well as this, because we just didn't know...

Those articles and blog posts will tell you this is normal. They'll tell you there's no reason to feel guilty. They'll tell you we all fail sometimes.

But reading an article which tells us not to feel guilty really isn't enough, is it? Failing, and feeling bad about it, does seem to be part of the parenting journey for all of us (and if you're telling me that either you've never failed or you've never felt bad about it, then you're lying to both of us). But getting past that sinking feeling when we mess up is something else entirely.

So this morning, I started to ask myself if there's any way I can help parents to avoid setting themselves up for failure and guilt, and I came to an 'aha' moment. It won't fix every bad feeling. But it can fix rather a lot of them.

This much life has taught me:

When things go wrong, we have probably contributed to that ourselves somehow. But the answer isn't guilt- the answer is reflection. 

The answer is thinking about what happened, and why, so we can avoid walking the same path next time.

Guilt is destructive.

Reflection is constructive.

How much time do we spend reflecting on where we came from- on our own experience of being parented- and on how our expectations about parenting have been hard-wired by our environment, before we have children ourselves?

Probably very little, unless we've been in therapy. Mostly, we walk blind into parenthood with some fantasy of being the perfect Earth Mother who does it all the natural way, or being the mother with perfect, well-behaved, bright children who never put a foot wrong, or the working mother who has it all because we chose the right childcare provider and school before the kids were even born...

Life has a way of making fun of our plans, doesn't it?

How about I give you an example of a hard-wired parenting mistake that stems from the parent's own childhood? Examples always bring philosophical ideas to life.

The failure

Let me tell you about a little two-year-old I know who refused to eat. He would take forever over his meals. His mother was trying everything! She was offering him everything, in the hope that he'd eat something. The table was full of child-friendly food, and he was having none of it- both literally and figuratively.

Did she feel like she was failing? My word she did, even though she was trying her heart out.

Did she feel guilty? Absolutely!

The reflection

When I talked to the mother about her childhood, it was clear that she'd been parented by an anxious and fairly rigid mother. She'd never been given choices at all as a child. Everything to do with eating, in particular, had been both contradictory and dictatorial. "You need to go on a diet!" might well be followed by "You need more food than that!"

This mum was determined to do better! Her child would have choices about food. Then he would eat what he wanted and needed, rather than learning the problems she herself had experienced all her life with food and body weight.

But it wasn't working. It should be working! What was she doing wrong? She was so worried!

The solution

Sometimes when you make a parenting decision which is a reaction against the way you were parented, your judgment can be clouded by the emotions involved. Some of her instincts were perfect- it's wonderful that she was trusting her child to know what he wanted to eat, and to make the choices for himself.

But her first problem issue was that her son was only two- and, forgetting or maybe not understanding that a two-year-old is very easily overwhelmed, she was unconsciously giving him too much choice. In fact, she'd transferred to him almost the same level of choice she would give to herself as an adult. Half the pantry was out on that table.

When I suggested that she offer a maximum of two choices to her son, the transformation was instantaneous- he would reach out to the one he wanted with little or no hesitation.

The other factor at play was that, like her own mother before her, this mum had learned to be anxious about anything to do with eating. And just like her, her son was a very sensitive child to emotions (most young children are, in fact). I suggested she step back, having given him that initial choice, and busy herself with something else. No hovering!

Again, the result was magical. Mealtimes became quicker, easier and guilt-free. When you take the emotion out of mealtimes, children can find their own body sensations of emptiness/fullness and respond to them without worrying about what will please or upset their parent and reacting to that.

So- do you see how this mum had accidentally set herself up for failure and guilt? Overreaction to your own childhood experiences can cause you to make less-than-ideal parenting decisions.

There are many, many things from our own childhoods that we might react against. A parent who comes from a home where there was constant yelling and violence, for example, may determine to become a 'peaceful parent' (please do!!), and then wonder why their child is acting out and making them want to fall back on their own parents' methods. They might start to spank, and plead online for help before they become their own parents all over again, despite their best efforts.

I've seen that time and time again.

Often the answer is that this parent has been giving boundaries without firmness in their tone, or making directions into questions, or giving an explanation of the reason for the direction without giving a clear direction at all. Perhaps they've been saying, in a tentative tone, "Pick up your toys now, okay?" and "It hurts when you hit mummy", instead of saying firmly (but quietly and politely) "Please pick up your toys now so we can go to the park" (and not going to the park if it doesn't happen) and "I won't let you hit" (and physically stopping the child from doing so).

It is hard for the now-grown, once-cowed child to learn and use a firm tone of voice as a parent, and to ask or state their requirements very firmly and directly. Don't think I'm telling you that reflection immediately fixes everything! I'm not! New habits must sometimes be learned, and that is always difficult.

But learning a new habit is much more constructive than sitting there feeling guilty because you failed, yes?

Overreaction isn't the only faulty response to our own parenting, either. Sometimes our respect and love for our parents blinds us to the fact that they, too, made mistakes. Of course they did. If there's no such thing as the perfect parent, then we didn't have one either.

That is a very hard pill for some of us to swallow.

I believed for a very long time that my mother was the perfect mother- till long after she'd died, in fact. She was always respectful to me, she always explained things, she supported my interests and I always felt loved.

It wasn't until my son was quite grown up that I realised that I'd copied one of her failures to the letter.

You see, I was never expected to do chores or clean up after myself. I was expected to do my homework, practise the piano, be polite to others and fastidious in my personal care, and entertain myself most of the time- all of which I duly did. (With the possible exception of the piano practice- but that's another story.) I copied those ground rules to the letter with my son.

What did I get for that? For myself, I got peculiar looks from my girlfriends' parents when I was invited to dinner and never offered to help wash up. I nearly got thrown out of my first share house for never washing my own dishes. I learned about chores the hard way, and it was NOT fun.

I never connected the dots about that before I had my own child. I just copied what my mother had done. And needless to say, my son has had 'tidiness issues' too. I won't go into too many details, but let's just say that I've had cause to regret not making daily chores part of the learning experience when he was young.

It never occurred to me that my own parent might have been wrong. If you'd dared to say so, I would have challenged you with great anger.

I see this same anger when I try to help parents who, for example, can't understand why their adolescent has become a stranger and won't  obey them. Their child is too big to spank now- what can they do? They've escalated punishments till there's nowhere to go.

It's nothing to do with the spankings, they say crossly. I was spanked myself as a child, and it never did me any harm!

Of course, it's too late to tell them how flawed their thinking is by then. Challenge the idea of spanking, and you challenge their respect for their own parents.

And of course, if you try to warn a spanking parent of what the consequences will be before their child hits adolescence... they won't believe you. They probably won't reflect on how they themselves felt as adolescents, how they rebelled, how little they told their parents about their lives as they 'broke away' and became independent for fear of being punished.

So copying your own parenting can be as fraught with danger as overreacting to it. It takes a lot of reflection to find that middle line between making the same mistakes and making the opposite mistakes!

And here I'm going to draw in another thread that's turned up in my Facebook feed lately: the cult of busy-ness. If you're too busy to spend quiet time reflecting on how you were parented, and what the pitfalls might be, then maybe it's time you dropped something.

Reflection is important. Of course it's more important than a new car, or a pair of shoes, or even than a house in a posh suburb- yet some parents get obsessed with income at the expense of their children, and then suffer the pangs of parent-guilt when something goes badly wrong.

Believe it or not, it's also more important than being with your small children every second of every day. You MUST have quiet time to think if you're going to try to avoid that sense of guilt and failure, and you can't think and reflect with a toddler pulling at your jeans and a baby crying.

To avoid parent-guilt, you need to prioritise some time-outs for YOU, where you can either be alone to mull over the past, chat with friends who are in a similar boat or even see a therapist if your childhood was a traumatic one.

Understanding why is the first step to healing failure and guilt. And you will never understand why if you don't give yourself the time to reflect. Please, take that important first step!

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

I was looking the other way

Tonight I am in a very sober mood. I am reflecting on failure tonight. It's a particular type of failure that could happen to any one of us, all while we believe we are doing our very best.

Many years ago I had the privilege of teaching music in an extremely high-quality private school. I dealt with many very talented young musicians every day, and their dilemmas were many and varied- if, for the most part, very much 'First World

I dealt with many adolescents who were crushed by the constant competition, shoring up their egos and their abilities and their confidence until they were in some sort of shape to pass their exams. How many hours I spent trying to defuse performance nerves!

I dealt with others whose shy talents needed my encouragement and time to flourish. I gave them that time with enthusiasm, and took great personal pride in their achievements under my watchful eye.

I dealt with many, many 'tiger mums'. They were, universally, a nightmare. I admit it: they put me off their own daughters. They prejudiced me against their offspring. And some of those young musicians didn't even need their tiger mums to help them- they did the pushing and the competing all by themselves.

I found that repellant.

In my defence, I was young. But I know I gave less of my time and patience to those who pushed.

I was too busy looking the other way. I thought there were others who needed me more, and I justified my decisions about how to spend my time easily. It seemed right to give my attention where it was needed most.

Some twenty years on from those years, today I was told that one of those young and (if truth be told) rather pushy prodigies- an extraordinarily talented young woman who seemed bound for concert hall success under her own steam- was dead. I know few details- nor, given my past attitude, do I deserve to- other than that it seems she killed herself.

And I sit here shocked to the core, because it never would have occurred to me in a million years that such a thing could happen to someone who seemed to have it all together from such an early age.

Now, I have no illusions of responsibility for what happened to this young woman. Mental health issues are terribly complex, and well beyond my field of expertise; perhaps the demons were circling back then, perhaps they were not. But the thought torments me that perhaps, by some miracle, my engagement with this girl way back then might have made a difference.

I am so aware of my failure all those years ago: I didn't even try to engage with that child as a human being. I didn't give her anything of myself, really, because I thought she had what she needed already.

I am so terribly aware that I made an assumption based on appearances alone. Because that young girl appeared to need me so much less than many other girls, I paid her little attention.

I thought she was okay.

Do you see where I'm heading?

I am so much older now, and so much more experienced. I've seen a lot of different scenarios, within families and within educational settings, where some children have appeared to have much greater needs than others and so have been given the lion's share of attention, resources, time and effort. I've noticed, increasingly, how much grease the squeaky wheel gets, and how easy it is to just assume about children who seem to be coping just fine.

I'm not saying we shouldn't invest vast time, effort and resources in those who need it. No way. Of course not.

But I do want to say this to you: every so often, look the other way.

A child with any sort of special need does need your extra help. Of course they do. And give that help you must, and you are probably completely exhausted from trying to provide as much help as you can. But every so often it's important to stop looking at that particular child, and look the other way.

One terrible true story: a parent who was so busy brilliantly looking after the rights and needs of one of their children, who had a special need, that they didn't notice that another of their children was being sexually abused.

Another terrible true story: the child whose academic success blinded her parents to the fact that she simply wasn't eating. At all. They were looking at only one part of their child, until she ended up in hospital on a drip.

Try not to be blinded by the obvious, as I so often was. Take the time to engage with all your children in a meaningful way, not just with the squeakiest wheel.

I don't want you to find yourself sitting many years from now, as shocked as I am, only just seeing in brilliant technicolor that all children have a need for our attention- whether that need screams in our ear, or just whispers a dangerous script inside a child's head until it's far too late to save them.