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November 15th, 2016

Trump Election shock

Many people were shocked and some were dismayed by Donald Trump’s election as president of the USA last week. But unless you live in America you may not have expected it to have had much impact on your children. I was somewhat taken aback when one of the 13 year old participants on the behavioural change programme I facilitate in Sydney anxiously asked me if I thought we’d go to war now Trump was going to be president. I also heard an account on the radio of principals calling special assemblies in primary schools to assuage children’s fears.

Some parents will have real fears themselves around the election of a man whose campaign was characterised by vitriolic hate-filled statements directed against women, Muslims, Latinos, immigrants, his opponent, the media and anyone who disagrees with him. The few policies he identified were inward-looking, protectionist and xenophobic. His utterances seemed impulsive, self-focused and lacking compassion for any other. So it’s not surprising that many worry that this man will be in a position of immense power from January 2017. I personally am very concerned at the display of such bullying tactics and the normalising of a hate and blame-filled discourse, not to mention his vulgar sexualised messages about women, judging them primarily on appearance.

If adults have these concerns then their children will pick up on the vibe of anxiety and may hear things that they don’t fully understand. They will draw their own conclusions if we do not explain to them what is going on and what we think will happen in a calm way, in words they can understand according to their age.

Some children will have been just getting on with their lives and may not have been really aware of the adult interest in politics but may now be hearing things at school.

Even if you think Trump may be the breath of fresh air that the US needs and embrace his policies there will probably have been aspects of his behaviour that you find distasteful. If your children have become aware of this it could be a great opportunity to communicate your values to them.

The family is the source of your child’s values. They see how you treat others, how you disagree with others and how you resolve disputes, how you listen to other opinions. Your rules will count for a lot as they are a statement about your values, a guide to what is expected and acceptable behaviour. But it’s what they see modelled that counts for most. They will see whether in this family we give everyone a say, whether everyone is treated respectfully. They will observe whether people who are different from them are regarded with fear and disrespect or interest, an attempt to understand and enjoy. If we treat our partners or our children with ridicule, treating them to put downs or sarcasm, or bullying tactics then our children will learn that that is how to behave. Whenever we discipline our children they take away from that interaction “this is how you deal with things that you don’t like.”

When someone in the public eye behaves in a way or makes statements that are contrary to our values we need to let our children know that we disagree with that stance or conduct without putting down that public figure.

About this time last year sadly we wrote about addressing children’s worries in the aftermath of the Paris and Beirut tragedies. Click here for our blog.  Here are some other ideas about addressing your child’s worries and teaching values:

  • Listen first. Your children may be anxious about what they hear or see on TV and online.  They may have questions.   Answer questions simply and honestly.
  • Ask them what they’ve heard and what they think about it. "What do you think of that?" "Do you agree or disagree with what was said?" "How did you feel when that happened?" "What do you think should be done?" "Is there anything you would like to do?" Your questions show that you respect their thoughts and feelings.
  • Give your point of view. If your children are young you don’t have to include all your adult perspectives but do be honest with them. When you don't tell the truth, they imagine much worse.
  • Young children are egocentric and are focused on how situations affect them. If they show signs of worry or upset, reassure them you will keep them safe. It is not your job to take away worries, fears, and anxiety. That is impossible. Your job is to be there and offer comfort, and to help your child process their worries.
  • Young children have a hard time understanding that someone can have both positive and negative qualities. Explain that you might not approve of certain words and behaviours of Mr. Trump, but that doesn't mean he doesn't have other good qualities.
  • With older children this is an opportunity to explain how the democratic processes work. Sufficient people believed in Trump’s ideas to elect him and we need to respect the choice of the people just as in Britain many who didn’t want to leave the European Union had to accept Brexit. Ask their opinions, including why so many people wanted Trump to be president. Don’t denigrate those electors and their choice. How about saying something like:
  • “This is a really surprising outcome.  I never expected it either.”
  • “It’s ok to be sad or scared.  What’s important, though, is that we always stay true to what is important to us.”
  • “I’m shocked too.  We have to trust that this is a man who really feels that he can do a lot of good for his country and will respect old alliances. We have to believe that he doesn’t want to stir up trouble in our region.”
  • “He hasn’t been a kind man during his campaign.  Let’s hope he now understands that to do this job he has to be respectful and collaborative.”
  • “It’s always important to talk about the things that scare us and to know that there are many people that care the same way you do.”

 

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June 21st, 2016

Acting like a man; lessons from father to son.

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:

  1. We are clear about what our values are
  2. We talk overtly about our values often and point out examples of those qualities in the children and others
  3. We model them ourselves, explicitly making decisions by reference to those principles
  4. We require it of the children, sometimes through explicit rules.
  5. We do not excuse unacceptable behaviour but we teach our children to behave in accordance with those values.

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.

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February 04th, 2016

What are we bragging about?

I recently had an interesting conversation with a friend about something her insightful son asked her. Her son is a terrific kid: athletic, wise, fun, friendly and incredibly hard-working and disciplined.  

There had been a dance at his school where the girls invite the boys to dance.  My friend’s son had not been invited.  He probably wouldn’t have said anything at all if he hadn’t seen pre-dance photos on his Mum’s Facebook page that her friends had posted.  There were the shots of girls dressed up, boys in tuxedos, corsages, poses … you know the photos.  He asked his Mum: “What are they bragging about?”  Then he offered this as his own answer: “Mum, they are bragging about their children being popular and social. They’re not bragging about the things that matter!” … the things that matter to him.  And, you know, he’s right! 

So, here’s the question again: what are we bragging about?  Do we want OUR Facebook pages to be showing that we value our daughter’s prettiness, or the length of her legs, or the way her hair looks?  Do we want our sons to be valued for their good looks and that they were deemed worthy of being invited to dance?  I decided to scroll through my own Facebook feed from the last few months … and while I consciously post very few individual photos of my child, there are clear themes that jump out! 

- A photo of my child and my husband both dressed up at a Halloween party.  I guess I want everyone to see that they are good sports and like to get dressed up!

- An outdoorsy picture.  I want everyone to see that my daughter loves to be outdoors.

- She did her first triathalon.  She’s athletic.

- The obligatory first-day-of-school-look-how-grown-up-and-pretty she is photos of her alone and with neighborhood friends.  She is cute, she has friends … and a dog!

- Jumping off a dock into the ocean at sunset.  She’s a kid that loves the water and is always up for fun with new friends.

- A photo with neighborhood friends as they run a lemonade stand and golf ball sale for local golfers to raise funds for the Nepal earthquake relief efforts.  I want people to see that she cares about making a difference in the world and that she has a responsibility to contribute. 

I could go on … but I guess what I want my friends to know about my child is essentially that she is sporty, has a global understanding and wants to make a difference; she is friendly, fun and pretty … and that she has a dog!  Here’s the follow up question though, how might my friends perceive what I’m posting?  How does that leave other children feeling if/when they see my posts.  And I know exactly what can happen! 

While writing this, a 1-year ago memory photo appeared on my feed.  It was a photo posted by a friend of the children from 4 out of 5 neighborhood families out on a hike.  The children from the 5th family hadn’t been invited … a complete oversight … not a malicious exclusion by any stretch of the imagination.  But, the son of said 5th family saw the photo on his Mum’s Facebook page and was left feeling excluded, hurt and angry.  

As parents, we are absolutely allowed to feel proud of our children and we do want to share our joyful experiences with family and friends.  I am not writing this at all as a judgement of what we should or shouldn’t post on our pages.  We should, however, post with a greater understanding of two things: 

  1. That our children may not want us posting anything about them anyway.
  2. And if they are ok with us posting, we need to be careful about the messages we are inadvertently sending out about We all know that our children are special and wonderful in so many ways.  What one child has in terms of sociability, another may have strengths in sports, or the arts … or community service. 

If your children are ok with you sharing their life experiences, check in from time to time to see how you are presenting your children to your world.  Is it a true reflection of the important qualities you value in your children?

Ann Magalhaes, The Parent Practice NY

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