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.
September 20th, 2015
Responsibility can seem like a daunting word. If we think about all the things we are responsible for, it can be frightening and overwhelming. We are responsible for ourselves, our responses, our relationships, our mistakes, our education and careers, our health and well-being … and while our children are growing up, we are responsible for all those things for them as well. But our goal is to teach them to be responsible for themselves.
When parents ask us how they can encourage their children to be more responsible, here’s what we suggest:
Be your child’s emotion coach
Today we understand the value of raising emotionally intelligent children – children who are confident, resilient, empathetic, compassionate and authentic. The way to raise emotionally intelligent children is to be their emotion coach. That means that when your children are upset, angry, jealous, disappointed, afraid, feeling inadequate, left out or let down… that you acknowledge the feelings and support your child to find her own solutions. Accepting your children’s feelings doesn’t mean that you are agreeing with them or accepting all behaviours. If your child says “I HATE YOU. YOU’RE THE WORST MOTHER EVER” and you respond with “you’re mad that you have to go to Granny’s and you can’t go to your friend’s party” … it is not a confession or agreement. It is just allowing their feelings to be heard. And once the feeling is released you may go back to address the behaviour.
Often, we are quick to invalidate our children’s feelings because we want to fix things for them and make everything better. Rather than advising them and telling them what to do, it is better for them to allow them to come up with their own solutions.
Teaching children how to deal with uncomfortable feelings with words will teach them to be responsible for dealing with life’s knocks in a positive way. We can also coach them to deal with anger by taking vigorous exercise or with sadness by listening to music or with overwhelm by putting something in order and we can model how we deal with these feelings ourselves.
Use the mistakes process
Children will make mistakes. For children to learn, we need to be able to see mistakes and failure as an opportunity to learn. The mistakes process will leave you and your children with new learning and a strengthened connection. This needs to be done when everyone is calm … so take some cool down time beforehand to be able to handle the situation positively. You’ll need to start by acknowledging the feelings involved.
Set up for Success
At the heart of positive parenting is teaching our children what they can be responsible for – given their age and stage of development. Setting up for success means being a proactive and prepared parent. It means teaching your child to tie his shoes throughout the summer holidays rather than thinking he’ll be able to do it on the first day of school. It’s about giving some thought and training rather than ambushing your children at the last minute expecting that they’ll be happy and willing to do what is required. Talking through things ahead of time with your children – whether it’s your 4 year old’s first day of school or your teenager’s first secondary school party – is preparing them so they are ready for what could happen.
When children have chores to do, they start to see themselves as contributing to the family. Add on the descriptive praise they receive from you when they have done the chore and they develop the feeling of being trusted. That in turn builds their confidence and motivation to continue to help out!
Chores teach children valuable life skills. Whether your children are making their beds and tidying their rooms, or cooking, cleaning up, preparing a table for dinner, helping in the garden, or taking care of a pet, we know that children gain a stronger sense of pride and dignity from being a contributing member of the family.
Writer Joan Dideon said: “The willingness to accept responsibility for one's own life is the source from which self-respect springs.” We want to give our children the gift of self-respect. By using these four parenting tools, you will purposefully ensure that you are passing on that gift every day.