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Thursday, December 16, 2010

So what's this thing called parenthood, anyway?

Before you start reading my advice and comments on how to deal with your kids, you really need to know a bit about my philosophy of parenthood, because that's crucial to the way I think. You'll need to wear the same hat to get the same results.

To me, parenthood is a gradual process of letting go. It's also a fascinating observational and interactive experience, much more hypnotic than any computer game. Watching a child's personality unfold in a safe (but not TOO safe) environment, and giving a gentle nudge in another direction when the train threatens to leave the rails, is hugely interesting to me. Placing the STOP signs in a way that will ensure they're noticed and not resented too much is also a great challenge. The greatest challenge of all is dealing with the fact that they're not you- they're themselves. They won't think exactly the same, or behave exactly the same, or necessarily want the same things from life. LET GO! and watch, and wonder... and see if you can work out how to help them become who they are.

You can't force a child to behave in a certain way. Have you noticed that? All you can do is nudge them in the right direction, make it easier to go one way than the other way, and put up a stop sign if they're obviously going to hurt themselves. You have to rely on their love and respect for you if you want them to listen to your advice and obey your stop signs. Even when you're furious with them, they need to know that it's the BEHAVIOUR you hate, not the child, or they start to tune out and withdraw.

So, how do we create that state of love and respect?

Love and respect start with treating your child like a small human being. No, that isn't a little adult down there (though some very bright children might give you that impression- more on that later, my comment stands), but it IS a little person with rights, feelings and unfolding attitudes- attitudes which you help to form with every action you take towards them. Even an 18-month-old can understand 'No, you'll fall and hit your head, OUCH!!' accompanied by sign language/mime as you carry them off the table they've climbed on. They will also understand a smack; a smack means 'mummy's hurting me'. (Well, did you give them any other information?)

Do you remember how it felt to be a child? Did YOU like it when your mother said 'Because I say so!', or did you feel angry, confused, unloved, misunderstood, frustrated? How did your parents discipline you? How did you feel about it? Did you enjoy being smacked, or would you have preferred a simple but firm explanation of why NO was an okay answer? Get down on the floor on your knees, and look at the world from your child's eye level. Would you like being stood over and shouted at or struck by a fully-grown man or woman? Do you think you'd remember anything they said, or would you be scared shitless? Remember, you can't get up off your knees and hit them back... you're down there for years, till you grow up.

At the other end of the tracks, love and respect do require that you create the right boundaries for your little individual. Letting them do absolutely anything they want is as good as saying 'I don't care', just as letting them do absolutely nothing they want is as good as saying 'I own you'. (NB: NOBODY owns their child. You are a caretaker of a baby human, that's all, and you get to choose what sort of caretaker you are.) You probably know your child better than anyone else; at the end of the day, who's going to cop the blame for whatever they do wrong when they grow older, and who are they going to thank when they get something right? Mums and dads usually wear most of the responsibility, whether they took someone else's child-rearing advice or did their own thing. For me, I'd rather do what feels right to me for my child, because I want to be able to look that child in the eye all their life and feel like I've been honest with them about who I am, too.

In between those ends of the childcare tracks, letting them be themselves and creating appropriate boundaries, the big message is BE AUTHENTIC with your children. That's just a fancy way of saying 'be honest'.

Don't use a special voice to talk to children. When I walk into a family gathering, within about half an hour I have every child in the place hanging around me, whether I know them or not. This is because I both acknowledge them with as much respect as I give out when I greet the adults- eye contact, a hello with their name and a smile, and maybe a compliment on what they're wearing or something they're doing, and I also ask to be introduced if it's been overlooked by their parents or ask them their name directly- and even more importantly, because I talk to them in my normal voice, as though they are real human beings, ALL THE TIME. (NB I am NOT a fan of baby talk, even with babies. More about that later, too.)

Tell them the truth, or as much of the truth as you (with your parental knowledge of your own child) feel it's safe for them to know. Explain things to them. If you're sad or angry, tell them why; having an obviously upset parent who won't explain what's going on is terribly frightening, and will cause little imaginations to fly through some horrific scenarios. Remember, little children use body language to translate what's going on when they don't understand all the words.

Make sure you treat them the way you would like to be treated (the Bible got that one right). Do you like it when your boss constantly criticises you, but never makes a comment when you do the right thing? I rest my case. Don't talk critically about a child over the top of his or her head. THEY ARE NOT DEAF. (And even if you do have a deaf child, odds are they'll lip-read what you're saying, so again my comment stands.) I have heard even trained childcare workers, who ought to know better, say appalling things to me about children who were standing right there next to us, and then wonder why they have trouble handling them (PS- the strategy for this, if your Great Aunt does makes some ghastly value judgement about your kid at Christmas dinner in your child's earshot, is to bring the child into the discussion yourself- 'what do you think, ---, is that true?' and if you think it's bollocks, tell the child- not the Aunt- that, right there in front of Great Aunt Rudeness herself). Apologise when you make a mistake that has affected them. DO NOT apologise for doing what you really believe is the right thing, but DO explain.

And treating them as you'd like to be treated brings us to quality time. After all, what do you say when your partner spends all night every night at the computer, or comes home from work and goes straight out to golf all weekend, or sits talking to her girlfriend for hours on the phone after dinner when you've actually got some precious free time? "You never spend any time with me. Do you really love me?" 
Well, guess what? Your kids would like to be able to ask the same question, but they don't quite know how. Get down on the floor and PLAY whenever you can. It will lower your blood pressure, as well as significantly improving your chances of your kid still talking to you when they hit adolescence. Make that investment now! When they're 10 going on 17 and start answering back, it's TOO LATE!

So, does that make sense? It's worked for me... for over 30 years. That's a LONG time to be dealing with children!


  1. As it happens, I was in town watching a very young mother with her two daughters. Hayley must have been four and Ella must have been two and a half - Mum wasn't a whole lot older. They were waiting for a taxi. I watched for around half an hour. Given that the kids had absolutely nothing to do or think about, they were amazingly well-behaved, but every time they stirred or said a word, Mum snapped at them and told them how naughty they were. They both looked terribly hurt every time - they hadn't yet worked out that "you are naughty" is grown-up-speak for "I am tired". At one time she told them that this was the naughtiest she'd ever seen them. I caught both the girls' eyes at different times, and smiled at them. They smiled back - but Mum saw it once and scolded the child in question, telling her that if she smiled I was going to steal her and do nasty things to her. How do you deal with parenting like that? Sooner or later, the kids are going to reckon that if they get called naughty when they're being good, they might as well *really* be naughty. And what's the chances that Mum was treated like that as a child, and they will grow up thinking it's the normal way to raise kids?

  2. Well, there's a perfect example of labelling the child instead of the behaviour, based on one's own perspective only. Not helpful, and not conducive to the child continuing to listen to the parent's messages.

    We are indeed slaves to our own parenting, until we open our eyes and realise that there are alternatives. Unfortunately by the time some parents realise this, it's too late and the child has tuned out; who wants to listen to negative, critical messages all the time? No normal person- and children are little people.

  3. Thanks PJ- now, who wants to be the first follower? lol And what would you like me to talk about?

  4. I'm so glad to have stumbled across your blog aswell as Janet Lansbury's. My daughter is 17 months old and what I have learnt so far from the RIE approach to parenting has been nothing short of enlightening. I feel much more confident as we approach the challenges of the toddler years & beyond! Thank you from the bottom of my heart for all that you do! PS Are you based in Melbourne by any chance?

    1. Thanks, H! I am on the North Coast of NSW, but have many friends in Melbourne.


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