January 15th, 2016
or Zen and the Art of Parenting
by Rachel Cuperman, a Parent Practice client who did our 10 week course.
I first came across the idea of parenting classes several years ago. A friend had enrolled on a course to improve compliance levels at home with her two school-age kids. It seemed to involve pasta shapes in jars and being Very Positive and I remember at the time thinking “Why would you need to go on a course about parenting? Surely, it’s something you just, well, get on with?”
In my defence, I was then a newly minted mum. A total and utter neophyte. My bouncing baby boy spent his waking hours gurgling happily, when he wasn’t smiling benevolently. The behaviours of older children were still a mystery to me. Like a far away land, full of temper tantrums and tears. A land I secretly hoped never to visit. Hah.
Three years and another new baby later and the picture was rather different. My contended baby boy had turned into a strapping 3 ½ year old, with a will of iron and a frankly awesome temper. Our son was (and is) a joy. Loving, kind, affectionate and great fun. Until he didn’t get his way, that is. Anything that deviated from his agenda was met with nuclear strength resistance, violence and histrionics. It wasn’t uncommon for him to soil himself in fury. Each day became a series of skirmishes that ended in tears, exhaustion and remorse, on both sides. But the pattern repeated itself, over and over.
My husband and I tried everything we could think of to get a handle on the situation. In terms of discipline, we didn’t consider ourselves to be pushovers. We’d read the childcare books, watched the programmes, canvassed friends for their advice. We’d reasoned, cajoled, punished, done star charts and elaborate reward systems. But nothing worked, for longer than a day or two anyway.
Crunch time came when my son, in the grip of fury, kicked his nursery teacher. Being summoned to come and remove him was a mortifying and deeply upsetting experience, for all of us. We were now desperate and totally stumped. We didn’t understand why our son was so angry and what we could do to help him curb his undesirable behaviour.
It was at this point the friend at the start of this story aimed me back in the direction of The Parent Practice. And for this I will always be grateful. When I plucked up the courage and phoned them, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. What I got was the very sympathetic ear of the Elaine Halligan, one of the organisation’s excellent Facilitators. Elaine listened carefully as I outlined our situation. She was compassionate, practical and most importantly, said she felt she could help us turn our situation around. We decided to meet her for an initial consultation. And that consultation proved to be the start of a transformative journey.
Once she’d got the measure of our family set up, Elaine introduced us to The Core Skills: a set of tools and strategies which are designed to help parents cope with the myriad challenging situations that arise in daily life with kids, and are at the heart of what The Parent Practice teaches.
The first skill we learnt was “Descriptive Praise”. In action, this means noticing and mentioning the small good things your child does rather than focussing on the negative or on what they haven’t done. The thinking behind this is that your children are hard-wired to get your attention, positive for choice. I already knew that it was a good idea to praise children, but this type of praise is different from the ‘good boy’ kind I was used to. The more specific you can be in your appreciation, the more likely it is they’ll be motivated to repeat the behaviour. Essentially, you train them into good habits with positive reinforcement.
I can honestly say that using this single skill was transformative. It didn’t magically remove our problems but it made a massive difference. Immediately. Heartened by the results, I booked myself onto the course to learn more and I can honestly say its one of the most worthwhile things I’ve ever done.
The other parents I met were terrific. All of them were grappling with issues of their own. The weekly sessions gave us all the space to listen, think, discuss and laugh together and proved to be a great support.
As far as our little family goes, I can report that our son is a reformed character: happy, relaxed and much more able to cope with disappointment and take the rough with the smooth. The tools that we have acquired help both ourselves and our son cope better with difficult situations. And I’m sure its no coincidence that these situations now happen less and less often.
January 07th, 2016
Over the New Year weekend I was getting seriously irritated with article after article in print and online media exhorting me to shed weight, give up the booze, stop smoking, become more positive, stop procrastinating, get more organised, clear out my clutter and get fit, all of which just made me feel deficient. When I asked around I found that many others were seriously fed up with these New Year resolutions finding them smug, self-righteous and self-serving.
When I dug down to see what particularly irritated me about them I found that most of them suggested I had a problem that needed to be fixed. Of course. That is a well-tested marketing method and as I am also in business and need to pay bills I don’t mean to criticise people peddling their services by highlighting the need that their service or product addresses.
However when it comes to parenting we already experience much guilt about the way we bring up our children. You only have to go online to find out what a rubbish parent you are. It’s not just your mother-in law insinuating that your children are particularly problematic or that your child-rearing methods are particularly suspect. Parent-bashing is a favourite theme of the media. Even where you might expect a more empathetic approach, such as among other parents, there is criticism. Any parenting chat thread will have some quite judgmental voices suggesting you’re getting it all wrong. In our classes we often meet parents who worry about ‘getting it wrong’ and screwing up their kids.
At the Aspen festival of ideas in 2012 when discussing the purpose of parenting Ericka Christakis, early childhood educator and Harvard College administrator, said that “we live in what we call the ‘epidemiological age,’ where we have a lot of information about what is unhealthy and healthy” and this creates a “crisis of information” which causes a lot of anxiety. We feel so responsible for ‘creating’ a future generation of not just happy and well-adjusted adults but successful high-achievers too. This anxiety can be made so much worse when we hear about critical ‘windows of opportunity’ in our children’s development that we think we may have missed and we feel terribly responsible in a way that our parents’ generation didn’t. (Lucky carefree things).
Yet in the work we do at The Parent Practice we have a unique opportunity to observe masters at work. In our face to face work with parents we hear about the issues they have faced and the solutions they have devised. We have learnt much from our clients and have incorporated into our trainings many of the ideas generated by these ‘masters of parenting’. In our book, Real Parenting for Real Kids, we celebrate these masters and we bring their success stories to you. They would hasten to deny that they are masters but I am not talking about attaining any kind of perfection, just continuing to improve all the time, getting to know their children better and devising practical solutions that work in their own families.
In your quest for mastery (or just a bit of calm) if you’re setting goals for yourself it’s never effective to focus on what is wrong. Your brain will visualise your fat, unfit, smoking, disorganised, shouty self if you do that. You need to imagine your desired outcome instead. So rather than creating New Year’s resolutions which focus on what needs fixing think about what you can celebrate in your parenting. What small successes from 2015 can you acknowledge yourself for? Is it around playfulness or being connected with your child? Is it about being a good role model? Do you think you managed to pass on some values? Were you encouraging? Notice those good parenting moments, acknowledge yourself and make sure you do more of that in 2016.
Here is one example from Chapter one, Knowing your Child:
William was always reluctant to go to school at the start of each term, even after the half-term break. It didn’t make any sense to me, and I would end up pushing him through the door with tears in his eyes. Until we talked. And he told me that he didn’t like the newness of the fresh classroom. He didn’t know where he would be sitting, he didn’t know what lessons were coming up, he didn’t know what the new lunch menu would be like. And when I saw it from his point of view, and took into account his temperament of finding change difficult, and being a very regular child, I was able to make the shift from him ‘being a problem’ to ‘having a problem’.
We brainstormed how he could walk in, even when he wouldn’t be able to know what he wanted. We practised things for him to say, something to take in to show someone, just to get him through the door. That, in conjunction with accepting how he felt about the start of each term was enough. He went in with a little smile and a big breath, and hasn’t looked back.
Juliet, mum of two
Have a great 2016 and keep developing your parenting practice.
December 08th, 2015
It is only a few weeks before Christmas, the season of gift-giving, and I am, like many others, thinking about how to give gifts of meaning, that the recipients will really like. At this point I quite enjoy the process and am delighted if I think I’ve got it right. Closer to the date the thought process may become less deep as I scramble to get everything done –it may become “this will do for the brother-in-law won’t it?”
I heard three stories in the last few days that made me think about gifts, the thoughts behind giving them and receiving them. One was amusing and one appalling and the last one generated the kind of ‘aww’ moment that signifies Christmas for the sentimentally-minded like me.
The first was a story I heard on the radio. The presenter laughingly told a story against himself as a child when his brother had given him a tee shirt which for some reason didn’t hit the mark. He received the gift half-heartedly and when his cousin said he liked it the intended recipient happily offered it up! Apparently he was in big trouble and was accused of having ‘ruined Christmas’.
Closer to home my large family have operated a Kris Kringle system for years drawing names out of a hat to see who will buy just one gift on behalf of the whole family for one family member, with an upper limit on expenditure. My niece who is in her twenties decided that this year she wouldn’t be part of this family tradition. When asked why she explained that the previous year her (not very well off) aunt had given her a gift that was ‘below value’ so she didn’t see the point of it!
In stark contrast a friend of mine recently posted in Facebook about a conversation with her youngest where she asked her 3 year old what she wanted from Father Christmas. She was surprised when her daughter said ‘nothing’. Her mum checked and her little girl confirmed nothing - me have enough toysthat she didn’t need any more toys because she ‘had lots already’. You all want to know what that Mum’s secret is, don’t you? Well she doesn’t know herself but it prompts the question, how do we raise our children to be less focused on ‘things’ when we live in a materialist culture? If the first two stories made you cringe it may be that you would like to raise children who place value on matters other than possessions and who interpret gift-giving without reference to the price tag. Maybe you’d like your children to be grateful for what they’re given.
Research shows that materialism is linked to gambling, debt, marriage conflict and decreased happiness. If you want to encourage your children to be less materialistic and more appreciative two ideas come to mind:
Having a non-material focus in the family means:
Using non-material rewards
Professor Marsha Richins (Professor of Marketing, University of Missouri) has made a study of materialism and concludes that offering things as rewards and removing them as punishments can contribute to an association between possessions and a sense of accomplishment or achievement. This can morph into ‘I need things to feel good about myself’.
Instead when your child does something good
Emphasising other values
Values are caught, not taught. This means that children adopt the principles upon which they live their lives by reference to what they see done in their families. So if you hanker after the latest gizmo to hit the shops and pre-order or queue for days for the latest device you can expect your children to want to buy things too. If shopping has become a leisure activity for you and you suggest a day of ‘retail therapy’ as a way of spending time with your kids then they will also value shopping.
What conversations are you having with your children in the lead up to Christmas? Is it ‘what do you hope Father Christmas will bring you’ or ‘what do you think Grandpa would like’? What limits should you put on your own Christmas spend? Will you give the message you intend if your child receives many, many gifts from you?
3 practical ways of encouraging gratitude are:
Keep a gratitude book
Many families keep a book in which they record things for which they are grateful. Record 3 things that made you happy that day. Studies have shown that kids who focused on blessings for just two weeks reported feeling more gratitude, more life satisfaction, more optimism and were more positive even months later.
Model appreciation of things and people.
Say thank you of course (even if a gift is a bit bizarre) but also talk about being grateful for what you have and the people in your lives. Appreciate small things. “I love the way Daddy always checks with me if I need anything when he’s going up to the shops –that’s really thoughtful” “I love these crisp autumn days when the leaves are so colourful.” “I love the way Auntie Sally makes my favourite dessert when we go there for Sunday lunch. That makes me feel very cared for.” “These tools were expensive so I need to look after them carefully by oiling the blades so they don’t rust and putting them away carefully.”
Notice when the children are appreciative and comment on it -“When you say thank you for the dinner I made I feel really appreciated.” “When you say thank you for driving you to Kim’s house it makes me feel that you don’t just take the things I do for you for granted.”
Appreciate what they do with Descriptive Praise. “I really love it when you do what Daddy asks you to do quickly. Now we have time for two stories! “That’s sensible that you’ve put all the lids back on your felt pens. That way they won’t dry out.” Or dropping a thank you note into a lunch box or school bag or on their bedside table or pillow for them to find. Or maybe a text message for an older child.
Wishing you the gift of a happy and peaceful Christmas with your families where you really appreciate each other.
November 23rd, 2015
This is a question that parents have understandably been asking in our classes this week. What has happened in Paris and in Beirut recently is a very shocking and terrible thing and how you talk to your children about it will vary a lot depending on the age of your children and their temperament and your own values. While everyone will be appalled by what has happened there may be different aspects of it that you would want to highlight to your children.
If your children are under the age of 3 then hopefully they are unaware of what is going on. I would always try to make sure that this age group are not exposed to the adult content of news programmes and the pictures on the front of the newspapers.
If they are 3-5 then I wouldn’t raise it with them unless they ask questions and then try to do it without scaring them unnecessarily. We don’t want our children to be assuming that people they see in the street are ‘terrorists’ or even ‘bad people’ and we don’t want them to be afraid to go to sleep or to go out or to be terrified of you travelling. Calmly ask them what they know and don’t add to the list of horrific facts. If you can see that they are afraid then admit that this was a shocking thing to have happened and that it is natural to feel frightened at first. You will have to find a balance, determined by your child’s nature, between not promising them they will always be completely safe which is unrealistic, and making them jump at their own shadow. We face this balancing act already when we talk to our children about ‘stranger danger’. You could try something along the lines of “sometimes people get very angry and they do very terrible things and they hurt others. They forget to use their words to sort things out. That’s why it’s very important to learn to talk about problems and not hurt anyone.” This is putting it into words that they can relate to.
This theme can be used with older children too but they may be able to handle more information about what happened and they may be seeing for themselves some of the details in the media. School aged children will probably be hearing it about it at school so it’s good to discuss it with them. Ask your aged 10+ children for their ideas about why it happened and what world leaders can do about it. What can we do about it?
Some of you will have kids who are oblivious to what’s been going on and you’re surprised to find that they knew about the attacks at all. Others may have been asking you questions endlessly and worrying about how it happened and being tremendously concerned for the families, for the people of Paris and Beirut, and perhaps for themselves. You may be despairing of how to handle this barrage. You may have an example of both approaches within your own family.
This doesn’t mean that the first child doesn’t have any compassion or doesn’t care. But it is an indication of different temperaments. The more relaxed child may not be able to relate to something that’s happened far away and is beyond his experience and understanding. The latter child is just more sensitive than the former. It’s not good or bad –it just is. And we need to adapt our approach for each temperament.
For the former you may try to raise awareness a little if it feels appropriate whereas for the highly sensitive child you may be trying to temper it a little and to help him deal with his feelings. If you’ve got both in one family you may have to help one understand the other.
It will help to name the feelings overwhelming your upset child. Don’t try to brush it under the carpet or your child will not be able to tell you about his worries in future. “You are really upset, aren’t you? These events overseas have really worried you. You’re a person who feels things in a big way and sometimes that is lovely and sometimes it can be burdensome for you. I know you felt really sad for those families of the people who were killed. I’m glad you care. Sharing your worries makes them a bit easier to deal with.” It may help to use some kind of ritual to acknowledge the lives of the people who have passed away such as lighting a candle. This will give your child something practical to do.
If your child is very worried that something similar could happen where you live don’t tell her there’s no need to worry but acknowledge her worries and tell her about the steps that are being taken by the authorities to protect us. Sometimes it can help for children to have a worry box. Get them to write their worries down on a piece of paper and screw the paper up into a tight ball and then put it into the box. Then put the box away somewhere (not in the child’s room) until the end of the week. At the end of the week unfold the worries and see that they have not come to pass. You can put them back in the box or throw them away –whatever the child chooses.
You may wonder why I’m mentioning values here. Surely we all have the same values –that this was a terribly wrong thing to do? Well, yes. But there is an opportunity here for us to teach our children something about difference.
As we know this atrocity was committed in the name of an organisation calling itself Islamic State and even though they do not represent the majority of peace-loving people who practice Islam many negative words have been and will be said about Muslims. Those of us who are not Muslims can teach our children that most Muslims are good people and that they don’t need to be afraid of anyone wearing a hijab or otherwise looking a bit ‘foreign’. We can teach our older children that the aim of organisations like IS is to make us afraid and to stir up dissension between faiths and that is exactly what leads to conflict. Encourage them not to give these bullies the satisfaction. Tell them that you will be going about your daily lives and will not alter what you do because you are not afraid and that you will be kind to any Muslim person you see who must be feeling very uncomfortable.
I was brought up as a Catholic so I can point to the troubles in Ireland and say to my kids that they know full well that not all Catholics are terrorists. If your children have Muslim friends say to them “Ahmed is not a killer is he?” If you meet a woman wearing Muslim dress smile at her and tell your children why you’re making a point of that right now.
If you are a Muslim parent you may be feeling anxious for yourself and for your children. You may be feeling very angry about what is being in done in the name of your religion and tarnishing you in the process. You may have experienced prejudice. You may be clear what to say to your child about these events but wonder how to explain bigotry. It must be very difficult to explain to your child that others may judge and treat him unfairly because of his religion. I can’t tell you exactly what to say but I would acknowledge his pain and fear.
Whatever our faith, colour, physical abilities, social standing or level of education we can teach our children to respect themselves and others by how we interact with them and others. We can teach them not to fear difference or the unfamiliar by our modelling and by exposing them to different experiences and people.
Fear comes from lack of understanding and from feeling powerless. We can help our children to see that they can make a difference by taking small steps to build trust between different peoples. Taking positive action to address these problems and make the world a better place helps empower kids. When people of minority groups feel a sense of belonging in their community they will have no reason to act out their disaffection and they can feel accepted enough to speak out against prejudice. Whether Muslim or non-Muslim talk with your child about how he or she can take a stand against intolerance. Talk to them about how this may be difficult to do if their friends are bad-mouthing Muslims. Practice with them how to say something like “I don’t believe that.”
This was a terrible thing to happen but perhaps out if it will come a generation committed to not fearing people who are different and to talking through problems. This may be a learning process for you too if you’ve grown up in an environment with little exposure to difference races or faiths. Let your children know that you are expanding your own horizons!
November 20th, 2015
“The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.” Ralph Nichols
"Listening is noting what, when and how something is being said. Listening is distinguishing what is not being said from what is silence. Listening is not acting like you’re in a hurry, even if you are. Listening is eye contact, a hand placed gently upon an arm. … Listening involves suspension of judgment. It is neither analysing nor racking your brain for labels, diagnoses, or remedies. Listening creates a safe space where whatever needs to happen or be said can come." Allison Para- Bastien
My daughter, being an extrovert, used to come home from school talking nineteen to the dozen about what had happened that day. “Sophie told Hannah that she wasn’t going to be her friend anymore and Hannah won’t invite her to her party and …. I want to be friends with both Hannah and Sophie but if I go to Hannah’s party Sophie won’t be my friend anymore!...etc” I was very tempted to jump in with my pearls of wisdom that I ‘knew’ would solve the problem and teach my daughter some valuable life skills. Luckily something stopped me and I looked at her and just nodded and said hmmm occasionally. I discovered that if I bit my tongue and just listened my daughter would talk her way round to her own solutions. She needed opportunities to vent, she needed me to be her sounding board and, having off-loaded, she felt heard and understood.
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November 18th, 2015
When my sons were young their fighting really pushed my buttons. Christian could be really mean to Sam. He would provoke him mercilessly, saying “you smell” or “you’re ugly” at any opportunity and play his music really loudly when Sam was doing his homework. He would tease, call names and sometimes push, shove or hit him. Sam, in turn, could whine for Britain. He would come and tell tales on his brother, seeking to get him into trouble. These behaviours made me see red. I looked at these two kids whom I’d brought into the world and raised, and thought, ‘where did I go wrong?’ I thought Christian was mean and aggressive and would never have any friends and I imagined a future where I would be visiting him behind bars! I thought Sam was manipulative and would never learn to stand on his own two feet. These boys would never have the relationship with each other that I had envisaged for them. I’d obviously failed as a parent. I felt powerless and enraged and desperate. So I punished them, sending Christian to his room with a resounding character reference and withdrawing privileges and telling Sam off with a good lecture about tattle tales. I now know how ineffective those knee jerk reactions are. Of course the minute my back was turned Christian retaliated against Sam and Sam didn’t learn anything about resolving disputes. Had I been able to stay calm I might have been able to access some of the skills I had in my tool basket. But I had lost it and my skills went right out the window.
When we ‘lose it’ several things happen. We turn from that lovely, kind, empathetic parent into That Other Person and we say things that later we regret like “I don’t want to be your mummy any more.” Where is that other parent coming from? We answer that question in chapter 7 of our forthcoming book Real Parenting for Real Kids from which this is extracted.
When we lose it what happens physiologically is that our muscles tense, our blood pressure and rate of breathing goes up, the levels of the stress chemicals cortisol and adrenaline increase and our attention narrows, with our ability to hear and see reduced. The red mist descends and our ability to access the rational part of our brains is reduced.
This is not ideal - if we’re in conflict situations our ability to see and hear the other is crucial.
When we lose it with our children they know we have lost control. The effect on our kids is that they may lose respect for us or be fearful of us or they may learn that they can provoke us into irrationality. Often when we lose it and have a knee-jerk reaction we regret it later and we may over-compensate out of guilt.
Keeping calm in the face of children’s provocative behaviour is the holy grail of parenting.
The main points to remember in order to keep calm are:
Keeping calm is all about altering our thought processes.
Is he tired, hungry, under-exercised, 6 years old, a cautious personality or unable to put his feelings of inadequacy, hurt or upset into words? Even if we don’t understand exactly why our kids are doing what they’re doing thinking about possible causes rather than assuming they’re out to get us puts us in a more compassionate frame of mind. And helps us to stay calm…well, calmer.
When our children do something that ‘makes us’ crazy we assume that their behaviour has ‘caused’ our reaction. They made us do it. Honest, guv. When our children ‘misbehave’ that is certainly the event that triggers our reaction. But the causation is not that direct.
Our children’s behaviour triggers in us feelings that drive our responses. Our emotions cause our reactions, not their behaviour. And those feelings arise out of what we think about what our child is saying or doing, or who we fear our child is, or will become. We can reframe our assumptions and our expectations about our children and ourselves so that we respond in more constructive ways. Your child is not out to get you. He is persistent and wants what he wants when he wants it. He can learn, with guidance, how to wait and how to use words to express himself.
This is what Real Parenting for Real Kids is all about.