October 30th, 2016
The countdown to Christmas is now on! In the weeks before the festive season (8 weeks, since you ask) many parents will use the (potential) forthcoming visit of the portly gentleman as an inducement to good behaviour. Otherwise known as a bribe or threat. Don’t cringe –we’ve all done it. Who hasn’t said “Santa won’t bring you any presents if you don’t behave?” Which brings up the whole question of bribes, a standard-issue tool in the average parental tool basket, but one that has some downsides. So what is the difference between a bribe and a reward? Or is there no difference? Are they both problematic? This is an important question that we ponder in our classes and I distil years of thought on this issue for you below.
My dictionary defines a bribe as ‘an illegal payment made in exchange for favours or influence’ but that’s not how parents use the word. A bribe is something appealing which is offered prior to a behaviour as an inducement to the child to behave in a particular way. Correspondingly a threat is the promise of an unappealing event if the child does not behave as desired. A reward would be given after the behaviour in acknowledgment of that behaviour.
But as in many things in family life it’s all a little bit more nuanced than that. Let’s look at the language of inducement.
Bribe = “I’ll buy you these sweeties if you promise not to make a fuss about sitting in the shopping trolley.”
Reward = “You have been so patient while I was helping Ethan with his homework. You didn’t interrupt and just did something else for a while. Now you have earned a game of UNO with me.”
In the first example, the ‘if you do X you can have Y’ model involves a loss of parental control. The child is firmly in charge as the parent pays a price for what they want the child to do. One of the concerns parents quite rightly have is that this price goes up! ‘Bribe inflation’ means that the child will raise the stakes and may end up only doing what’s required for a treat and that treat will get bigger and bigger. “I won’t do it for 3 sweeties. I’ll do it for 4.” This teaches our children that they can manipulate situations with their parents and that ‘rules’ are negotiable.
Another issue with this model is that the inducement is portrayed as the coveted thing whereas the required behaviour is something to be endured only to earn the treat. This is problematic if we are bribing our children to do things we think are intrinsically good for them. And why else would we be requiring them to do it? Eg we say “you can play on the iPad if you do your reading/homework” or “you can’t have dessert unless you eat your broccoli.” or “you won’t get a story unless you brush your teeth”. While stories and dessert and iPads no doubt have intrinsic appeal we actually want our children to see homework, reading, eating healthily and brushing teeth as of value in themselves. We also set up all kinds of problematic eating associations if we use certain foods as inducements.
When we use bribes our children are unlikely to learn anything beyond the skills of manipulation and bargaining, and the emphasis is on behaving well purely for material reward. In fact we want our children to do what’s required because it is the right thing to do.
So if bribes are so problematic what can we do? Is there a place for rewards? We think so.
Some rewards straightforwardly come after the behaviour, as in our example. But sometimes we may want to set up rewards in advance, while being wary of the pitfalls of bribes. A different way of speaking is the ‘When you have done X you will have earned Y’ model. This language is much more intentional and conveys trust that the child will do as required. This is much less coercive and focuses on empowering the child herself to learn the value of the behaviour, rather than being centred on material gain. Rewards may often be the natural positive consequence of the positive behaviour e.g. having extra time to play because they got ready so quickly or staying dry because they remembered their raincoat. Importantly rewards are earned and they occur after the child has accomplished something.
“When I see you leave Tom’s house without any fuss when I collect you this evening as we discussed, you will be able to invite Tom to come and play at our house next week, as you’ll have shown me you know how to make a play date a real success.” (Empathise that it can be hard to stop playing if you’re in the middle of something fun and that it’s the parent’s timetable that always takes precedence.)
It’s important to have realistic expectations. Don’t expect your young child to brush his teeth or do his homework happily just because these are the ‘right things to do’. He will acquire those values over time and then he too will think they are the right thing to do. In the meantime you will teach him to do what’s required (repeatedly) by:
The behaviours become habitual over time and then are internalised as values. Two things to remember about rewards:
October 03rd, 2016
If you had a child start school or nursery for the first time this term I hope they trotted off happily without a backwards glance. But if they didn’t you may have felt helpless and even guilty as they grappled with uncomfortable emotions. Many parents feel it is their job to keep their children happy all the time. But we can’t do this. In fact it is our job to help our children manage these uncomfortable feelings, realise they are part of being human, we all have them, they pass, and in fact they’re not all bad because we can learn from them. Becoming aware of our own feelings is the first step in developing empathy for others.
If you’ve been feeling guilty that you can’t assuage your child’s upset there are two things that may reassure you:
Parents are good at guilt. It may be the most common emotion we experience around parenting. I have the feeling that mums experience it more than dads but maybe that’s because I’m a mum. What do you think, dads?
What do we feel guilty about?
When I asked a group of parents they said they felt their role was to provide the best for their kids and a lot of their guilt was when they didn’t live up to this standard. What does that mean?
My test group said what it meant to them was providing:
What does it mean to you?
Expectations of ourselves as parents are very high. It starts early and can be fuelled by information available on the internet. We may plague ourselves with questions like: Did I do the wrong thing in allowing my baby to cry/not wearing him in a sling/not co-sleeping?
Access to information is now unprecedented and we don’t have to look far for evidence that we are screwing up our kids! Ericka Christakis, Early Childhood Educator and Harvard College Administrator speaking at the Aspen Festival of Ideas in 2012 said “we live in what we call the ‘epidemiological age’, where we have a lot of information about what is unhealthy and healthy”. She referred to the fact that the British Medical Journal not too long ago prohibited the word ‘accident’ in their reporting, because they argued that really are almost no accidents, ie incidents are avoidable. The logical conclusion is that it is the job of parents to avoid them.
Christakis continued, this view is that if you look at the antecedents for almost all bad things that happen to us in life, including famines and droughts, and children getting hit by cars, and suicide, that these are really preventable injuries. She said this leads to a huge shift in how we view childhood, because if we're starting to think that all these bad things are preventable then every time you decide not to put a helmet on your child when they're riding a scooter on the pavement you start feeling like a neglectful person. It creates a lot of anxiety to live in a world where we feel so responsible as parents.
At the same event Lawrence J. Cohen, Psychologist and author of Playful Parenting added “There's a taboo against putting a price on the safety of your child. And I think we have the same taboo on [aiming] at anything less than the absolute pinnacle of success, and if we don't then we're short-changing our children.”
This sense of responsibility and attendant guilt is fuelled by a propensity to criticise parents.
Ellen Galinsky, author of Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs noted that “We're so culturally prone to beat up parents”. If you go onto any online platform for parents you will see a lot of blame and judgment for parents, from other parents!
It’s worth noting here that there is a difference between shame and guilt and how those emotions make us behave. Shame is the feeling that I am a bad person, a judgement about myself as a person, whereas guilt is the feeling I get when I’ve done a bad thing, a judgment about my actions. When we feel shame we can feel worthless and then may lash out or try to avoid the situation. Feelings of shame are very linked to our sense of self-worth –what we believe about ourselves and our value. “Man often becomes what he believes himself to be” - Gandhi. Your thoughts about yourself shape your reality.
When we feel guilty about our actions we tend to experience regret and want to make amends. We think “I am a good person who made a mistake”. Guilt could actually be a good thing if it is a catalyst for change
Sherry Bevan, author or The Confident Mother, said “When we feel guilt, there is always a reason. The purpose of guilt is to tell us that we are hurting someone or doing something wrong.” She quotes Audre Lorde’s from Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, “Guilt is … a response to one’s own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change then it can be useful, since it is then no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge.”
Shame is not useful if my feelings about myself stop action.
It may be helpful to reflect on the reason for feeling guilt and decide what you can do to stop feeling guilty. Sherry mused “Assuming of course you want to stop feeling guilty. I sometimes wonder whether some people don’t enjoy feeling guilty. As if they enjoy being punished or feel like they deserve to be punished. Perhaps for some former ‘crime’ they committed”.
If you are feeling guilty about something, first get clear on what exactly you are feeling guilty about. Then ask yourself whether your guilt makes sense? If somebody else was in the same situation and said "I feel really guilty about xyz", would you think their guilt was justified?
If the answer is yes, what can you do to stop the guilty feelings? Are you expecting too much of yourself or of others? Are you trying to do too many things at the same time? And if the answer is no, if the guilt isn't justified, stop wasting time feeling guilty.
When you think of guilt as a catalyst, it stops being negative and you can use it to make a change for the positive.
My friend Caroline Ferguson who is a wonderful mindset trainer, suggests doing the following when we feel guilty:
My last practical tips:
August 31st, 2016
Children often have difficulties coping with change. These could be everyday minor transitions such as moving from one task to another (such as packing up toys and coming to have a meal) or from one environment to another (such as home to school) or even from one person to another (parent goes out leaving a babysitter in charge). Moving from holiday mode to term time routines involves change and at the beginning of the school year additional change as children move up a year or move schools or even start school for the first time.
Whatever the change children often need help dealing with a multitude of feelings which they frequently don’t understand. Their discomfort may be reflected in withdrawn, sulky, regressive behaviours or ‘testing’ behaviour. Or they may get physical symptoms of stress such as headaches, eczema, stomach cramps.
Some children have more trouble with changes than others, depending on their temperament. Does your child really thrive on routine and need warnings of changes in routines? If they are flexible that’s great but if they’re not try to see this trait as stability and organisation.
Preparing for change:
Children, like all of us, find it easier to succeed/cope when well prepared, even if what we’re asking them to do is different or a challenge.
Where there is change what is familiar and safe disappears and the future feels uncertain. Since there is a lot of fear in the unknown parents can help by talking a lot about the change, helping the child understand what is happening and making it more familiar.
If your child is starting a new school (perhaps for the first time) you can help familiarise them with the new school by:
For kids starting ‘big’ school:
Prepare by talking about common concerns:
To be effective and helpful to our children we need to be able to look beyond behaviour which may be annoying or downright difficult to its causes -usually feelings of some kind – and help the child to deal with those feelings. We can help our children to express themselves in words. This results in better behaviour and a strong connection between parent and child.
Emotion coaching isn’t about ‘making it better’ or making the child’s feelings go away. Instead it is about recognising, understanding and accepting their feelings and making sure the child knows it is ok to have them. It’s important that feelings don’t get suppressed or they may emerge later in behaviour or physical problems.
Children often feel things much more intensely than adults as they don’t yet have the experience to gain some perspective on a particular situation. They usually need help to express in words how they feel and help dealing with them.
The following behaviours indicate that a child is experiencing powerful feelings.
Stop what you are doing and convey with your body language that you are listening. Convey that you have the time and interest to listen to your child. You might sit close to him, cuddling him, maybe making eye contact if it is appropriate. Some children will find it easier to talk when they’re doing an activity alongside you or when the lighting is low. Use empathetic noises, such as ‘umm’ or ‘I see’.
Take time to look for the feeling behind your child’s action or words and imagine how he is feeling, reflect it back to him in words. Give your child the sense that this is manageable, that it has a name, it is recognised, that you’ve had that feeling too.
Give wishes in fantasy Giving your child her wishes in fantasy shows you understand how she feels without suggesting that the fantasy is really possible.
Don’t try to make it better children don’t need protection from feelings of sadness – they need to be able to express it.
“You might be wishing you didn’t have to change schools. I guess you feel sad about leaving your friends and teachers. Maybe you are worried you won’t know anyone and you won’t make friends quickly. You might miss your old school for a while and that is really normal”.
To ensure good communication the adults must make opportunities to talk. Sometimes these come up when you least expect it and they may not be at very convenient moments. Your child may open up at bedtime or something may come up as you’re trying to get them to school or the childminder. You can invite opportunities for conversation through reading books, playing fantasy games or doing an activity together.
Get your child off to a good start this year by understanding what’s going on for them.
July 19th, 2016
By Dr Amanda Gummer, MD and Founder, Fundamentally Children
Parenting can be tough, and at times stressful, but I think we would all agree that the hardest job in the world is also often the most rewarding. There is a great deal of work involved in bringing up children, but I have some good news for you – it doesn’t all have to be hard work, -there’s plenty of research that shows having fun with your children is the best way to help them to develop.
The importance of enjoying the formative years for both children and adults, cannot be over-stated. At Fundamentally Children, we believe passionately in playing together as a family, as well as encouraging children to play alone, thus allowing them to learn and develop naturally. This play helps them to learn about the world from their first few days, right the way through to adulthood.
But in a world that places pressure on us at every turn, we often worry about whether are children are playing in the right way, with the right toys, doing the right activities, etc. For this reason, the play diet is ideal for helping to get the balance just right.
The play diet
Moderation in everything might sound like a boring old mantra, but in the same way that nutrition is about balancing the food groups, a healthy play diet is about balancing different types of play activities. The play diet is a practical approach that you can use to help guide the activities you encourage your children to do. By developing a balanced approach and creating healthy habits as the norm, you can treat children occasionally and not feel bad.
Here are our top five tips to help balance your child’s play diet:
Let the child decide
Sometimes we are prone to over worrying about every detail of our child’s life. But an important part of development is allowing children to choose how they play. You can offer them a range of options (try not to put too many on the table, as this can become overwhelming) and then let them guide you. Try to ensure that, weather permitting, some of this play takes place outdoors. Whether that’s exploring the local forest, going out for a walk to the park, or kicking a ball around in the garden, there are lots of ways to encourage children to get outside and the benefits are huge.
The tech debate
We often feel instinctively guilty about the time we allow our children to spend on screen-based entertainment. There is indeed plenty of research to suggest too much screen time can have a detrimental impact and can contribute to obesity; a reduction in time spent outside; impaired social development; eyesight issues and more.
However, there is also growing evidence to suggest a small amount of screen time is useful for children. Learning to use and self-regulate media usage at a young age can help children be more resilient to inappropriate content they come across. The use of tablets, apps and the internet prepares them for a world full of technology, and playing the right sort of apps can in fact aid child development and help them to learn.
So the key when deciding on screen time is, again, moderation. We need to ensure our children’s screen time is not excessive and that they are benefitting from the other elements of the play diet, but if we give them access to the right apps, games, etc, then a small amount of screen time is not detrimental and can in fact be described as educational and can support development.
Spending time interacting with your child is valuable to you both as it helps promote a strong bond and allows your child to feel confident and secure. However the time you spend together should be authentic and feeling comfortable with the activity is paramount. Strengthening this bond can really help with behavioural difficulties too. If you are part of the fun, exciting times, as well as the less fun jobs and the disciplining, children are much more likely to take notice of you and do what you ask them to.
If you don’t enjoy certain types of play, it’s fine to admit this. No longer should we feel guilty for saying we don’t want to do certain activities or play in a specific way. It’s also important not to compare yourself to other parents, as we are all different and what works for one family may not work for yours. Spend some time working out what activities you do enjoy and focus on those. It’s OK to take the role of parent rather than their friend and avoid play you find boring.
Try to slot your favourite types of play into your routine so you can look forward to them. There may be other adults in your child’s life, who enjoy different styles of play to you, so encourage those interactions, as well as play with other children for a balanced approach.
Which products are best?
There is such a wide choice of toys, apps and products, each claiming fun and educational qualities, that it can be tricky to know which is best. So it’s well worth doing your research before purchasing. Read independent reviews from parents and children, and also from experts, to ensure the claims are true and you won’t be wasting money on something that could become clutter and not be played with.
For more expert tips on play, child development, and products, visit www.fundamentallychildren.com, or have a read of my book, Play.
July 04th, 2016
I find myself thinking about the first day back at school, even though the summer has yet to begin.
My teenagers will still need some help and ‘encouragement’ in September to get themselves organised, but it will be easier than it has been before. We’re used to it, after all.
So I am not thinking so much about the next first day back but more about all the first days that have come before. What have I learned over the last decade?
I am a self-confessed planner. Being organised makes me feel better, as if it proves I am doing the best job I can.
And for the last ten summers, I have focused on the practical details of the first day at school, including the Big Shoe Dilemma.
Do I go early, and avoid the queues and get it done, but risk their feet growing over the holidays? Or indeed, as once happened, getting the right shoes, only to lose them altogether by the time September arrived!
Or do I go later, and risk the mad scrum and the possibility they will have to turn up in the ‘wrong’ shoes because the ones they wanted, or needed, are not available in their size?
I have spent many hours of my summer working out the ‘right’ way to name socks, lunch boxes, pants, etc.
And after a decade of first days back, I get it. It was never about the shoes or any of the other practical stuff. And it was not something that I suddenly turned my hand to in mid-August.
It’s not about their external world, although of course this matters. The wrong lunch box can send your child into a spin, and the whole “where to put the name-tapes” also matters if you want to (1) keep a track of things and (2) have a hyper-sensitive child who really can feel every stitch and wrinkle.
It is about their internal world. Our children’s success, or otherwise, at school depends on what they carry inside, not on the outside.
What does it really take to do well at school?
Yes, you need shoes and pencils, and a water bottle. There is a whole lot to be said for being punctual and prepared. And I still believe in tidiness and hope, one day, my sons will voluntarily use a hairbrush. And, yes, it’s also a bit about knowing your numbers and letters.
More than anything it’s about knowing how to listen, how to co-operate, how to wait, how to focus and keep going when things get tricky, how to make things interesting, how to read other people and communicate. This is what helps children do their best at school.
And we can help them develop these valuable skills day in, day out, by paying attention to all the little steps they take in the right direction. Because none of these things come naturally to small people!
So this summer, I am not stressing about nametapes or shoes. I am going to keep my eye on the end goal and focus on their internal world – I want to notice every time they listen, wait, help, co-operate, plan and problem-solve, and make suggestions and show initiative. And I will say something to them about how it is appreciated and valued.
And, as teenagers, they have most of the practical stuff ‘sorted’ and sometimes their growing competence can mean I feel they don’t need me any more.
Is my work done? Of course not! And quite honestly I never want it to be! Helping my sons understand and manage their inner world is something I can do for a while yet. Oh, and I also need to teach them to iron!
What advice would you have for parents of children going back to school in September? How can they use the holidays to prepare?
Juliet Richards, facilitator at The Parent Practice
June 21st, 2016
Many of you will have read the account of the rape of a girl by a young male athlete from Stanford University recently. The girl had attended the same party as her assailant and had drunk a considerable amount. So much, that she was not conscious when the assault occurred.
The case has attracted a lot of attention, partly because of the manner in which the defence was conducted, because of a letter from the boy’s father begging for clemency because the boy had such a bright future ahead of him, and partly because of the eventual leniency of the sentence, just 6 months. The family, the legal team and (it would appear) the judge excused the behaviour on account of the defendant’s promising future. What about the girl’s future?
Parents reading the account will, no doubt, have had strong reactions, whether you have sons or daughters or your children are still much younger than this boy or are in the later teenage years. Most parents who’ve spoken to me about this case are appalled at the manner of the young defendant, his legal team and his father when he suggested to the judge that his son should not have his promising career as a swimmer jeopardised by “20 minutes of action.” So it begs the question what should this dad have done? What should we do when our children are in the wrong? This is a most difficult position for a parent to be in and one where we have to be courageous and live out our values if we are to really help our children at the eleventh hour. As much as we might think we have communicated our values to our children they will still do wrong sometimes. It also prompts the further question, how do we prevent situations like this arising in the first place?
For the record I have been in that unenviable position (albeit in a minor way) of receiving that most unwanted call from the school. When my son was very young he hit another child in the playground and caused a nose-bleed. He was suspended from school. It didn’t feel minor at the time.
We are usually quick to judge other parents and you might think that I had not brought my son up with proper values about using force. Well, we thought we had. But he was 7 or 8 years old and very impulsive. His self-esteem was low, with an as yet undiagnosed learning difficulty and he regularly felt humiliated at school. That does not excuse the behaviour but it did serve to explain it and to direct our strategies. When we excuse we do nothing. When we seek to explain we are trying to understand it. His upbringing was of course still a work in progress; he was still learning. And to be frank at that stage my husband and I were not particularly skilled. This episode was one of the catalysts that sent us to take a parenting course that transformed our lives!
How do you pass on the values that you really care about to your children? How do you equip them with those standards that would allow them by the time they go to university to know how to behave toward a drunken girl at a party and for those values to be so embedded that they would guide your child’s actions even if he was drunk himself?
Parents model those values I hear you say. Of course this is a really big part of how we pass on our values. But the father of this aspiring undergraduate may never have assaulted anyone in front of his son. Our values get passed on in much more basic ways when they are much younger. While the boy in this case may not have witnessed outright physical violence in his own family, what did he absorb about respecting others generally and particularly toward women, did his parents discipline him by using force when he was young and was he held accountable for his actions growing up? In particular as his sporting prowess grew was he put on a pedestal and excused certain behaviours?
In Rosalind Wiseman’s excellent book Ringleaders and Sidekicks she talks about how being a top athlete gives a boy exalted status and how those talented sportsmen are often not held to account for their actions. I enjoyed her story of a wise coach who observed such behaviours in one of his team. When the team was travelling interstate for a match this particular boy pushed to the front of the queue when boarding the plane. This behaviour may not seem like much in itself but it is a small example of thinking oneself better than others. The coach took the unusual action of making the boy apologise to all the passengers in the cabin over the public address system. When adults take steps over small behaviours the values get embedded.
We parents pass on our values when:
When children get things wrong it isn’t effective to get mad at them but we do need to hold them accountable. At The Parent Practice we recommend The Mistakes Process which helps kids recognise why what they did wasn’t a good thing to do and to make amends for it. We believe in redemption. When our children do something wrong we want to forgive them but forgiveness depends on there being genuine remorse. That is much more likely when parents discipline without anger and judgment.
So what should this dad have done? Of course he should have stood by his son. But that doesn’t mean condoning or trying to excuse his behaviour. He should have supported his boy to take responsibility for his actions, like a man. And we know that would have taken a great deal of courage. But if the father can show it, maybe the son can too.
In what ways were you held accountable as a child? How have you required your children to make amends? Do share your stories with us.