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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?