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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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June 13th, 2016

Boy in the Woods Found

The sensational story of the 7 year old Japanese boy Yamato Tanooka who was left in the woods by his parents as a form of discipline and then got lost has of course attracted all sorts of comment, with much criticism of the parents. But there has been little discussion about what the parents were trying to do and whether it was effective.

In case you’ve missed it (because you’ve been lost in the woods yourself?) Yamato had been throwing stones at cars and people and his parents decided he needed to be taught a lesson. Their buttons had been pushed. They’d had enough and decided to take action. Most of us would applaud them at this point –we don’t want to have kids pelting us with pebbles while their parents smile benignly at them, saying ‘boys will be boys’. (You know you’ve seen similar).

They put the boy out of the car and drove off intending to return in a few minutes. The boy, apparently quite distressed, ran after the car but got disorientated and took a wrong turn so when the parents returned to the spot he was gone. He went some distance along a track until he found shelter where he was found, several days later, physically unharmed.

Imagine how those parents felt. The terrible fear for the boy (there were bears in those woods), the fear for themselves (which showed up in them lying to the authorities about how the boy came to be missing), the guilt and shame (so clearly expressed in images of his poor father hanging his head). Who knows how it had happened. Maybe one parent was more angry than the other so there was conflict between them. Maybe they’d given several warnings already and felt really disrespected when the boy continued his behaviour. Maybe they thought it was essential to do something dramatic to reassert their authority and teach the boy a lesson. Generally when we make mistakes in our discipline the consequences aren’t the potential loss of life of our children and they’re not played out in the full glare of media attention.

When my middle son was just a little bit older than Yamato he too engaged in some stone throwing activity with his cousin (boys and projectiles!) –in his case off a high-rise balcony, oblivious of the effect on cars below. I’m pretty sure if I’d had some bear-infested woods nearby at the time I’d have thought that was a pretty good option! In our case this was part of a series of incidents which very clearly showed us how little we were in control of this boy and so we were feeling powerless, angry and embarrassed. Our buttons were being pushed too! Luckily my husband and I had recently started the parenting course that was the beginning of The Parent Practice journey, so we had a few emerging skills to hand.

A key message we had learnt was that discipline has got to be about teaching, not just revenge for the wrong-doing. We talk about ‘teaching children a lesson’ but we have to be careful that the child learns the lesson we intend.

When the Yamato story broke many people rang in to a radio programme to which I was listening with their own stories of discipline in childhood. A surprising number talked about their parents putting them out of cars and driving off, only to return a few moments later. What do our children learn from this? Momentarily we learn that if we are really bad our parents will abandon us. This breaks a fundamental primal bond between parent and child, causing great fear and a belief that we must be truly awful people. Then when the parent returns we learn that they were bluffing. So we learn not to trust their word. Even if we don’t abandon our children in the woods we frequently threaten to leave our children in shops when they won’t come as quickly as we want. It can make a small child hurry up (older children know we don’t mean it) but they do so out of fear and they get the message that our care for them is conditional upon them doing what we say. While they couldn’t articulate it they feel manipulated and controlled and that feeling is at the heart of much poor behaviour.

You may be wondering what we did with our own stone-throwing miscreant. Luckily there were other parents (my sister and her husband) involved which I think helped us to stay calm. (It doesn’t always have that effect-embarrassment can make us do weird things in our attempts to demonstrate our authority.) We agreed a course of action together. We calmly explained to our sons why it was wrong. Although you’d think they’d know, the impulse of the moment hijacked their thinking brains. We then involved them in making amends. The boys had to admit to the manager of the building what had happened and the parents had to undertake to pay for the damage to the cars. The boys were to earn the money to repay the parents by doing extra jobs, for a very long time. But at no point did we indicate that the boys were no longer worthy of our love or care. Our boys learnt a lesson from this episode about taking responsibility…and also that the family would tell the story at their expense, but with humour, for years to come!

What is the craziest thing your parents did by way of discipline? What about you? Do share with us your experiences of discipline that really teaches what you want your child to learn. www.theparentpractice.com/blog

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June 06th, 2016

Cake and/or ice cream, to choose or not to choose

An article appeared in PsyPost (a psychology and neuroscience news website) this week about how children confuse simple words like ‘and’ with ‘or’ which had The Parent Practice team excitedly sending emails back and forth (don’t laugh it’s to your benefit!)

Apparently young children (under the age of 6 at least) confuse the word ‘or’ with ‘and’ so that when parents offer cake or ice cream children hear ‘cake and ice cream’.  Doesn’t that explain a lot?

Researchers in linguistics at MIT and a team at Carleton University have conducted studies with children between the ages of 3 and 6 and found that there are subtle differences between how adults and children clarify the meaning of sentences. Both adults and children test out the meaning of statements. Take the sentence “Max ate some of the biscuits.” Now suppose you find out that Max actually ate all of the biscuits. So the sentence “Max ate some of the biscuits” is still technically correct, but it would be more accurate to say, “Max ate all of the biscuits.”

Adults can make this distinction – we can compare the two sentences and consider the implications of using ‘all’ or ‘some’ and recognise that each alternative spells out a specific new meaning. But guess what? The researchers discovered that children can’t make the same distinctions as adults. When they hear ‘cake or ice-cream’ they are very much focussed on two of the three words! And the subtle and important implications of ‘or’ is missed.

What can parents do? Should we not offer children choices? Offering choices is generally thought to be a good idea as children at this age have so few opportunities to make decisions for themselves and can feel very frustrated and powerless.

But choices have downsides. If you have a child in this age bracket you may have watched them choose cake, only to be terribly disappointed with their choice later and wished they’d chosen ice cream… and have a meltdown. When a child realises that making a choice means giving up on something or losing something it takes maturity they may not have yet to handle the responsibility of that choice. Their pre-frontal cortex which governs perspective and the ability to weigh the consequences of decisions will not be fully mature until their 20s. Under the age of 6 the brain is still in its infancy and is largely governed by emotions.

So what do we do? Not give them any choices at all?

No. We think there is still merit in giving choices for under 6s (perhaps less for under 3s) but with this knowledge we can be very clear about the potential for confusion and support our children to handle the implications of their choices.

“William would you like some dessert? You can have yoghurt or fruit. You know that means just one. I’m going to put the one you choose on the table and the other one in the fridge. That will be for tomorrow. Which one for today and which one for tomorrow?”

William chooses fruit but later wants yoghurt. “Oh you want both the fruit and the yoghurt. That’s hard for you to remember that Mummy said just one. I guess you didn’t understand that and now you feel so disappointed. Maybe you wish you’d chosen the yoghurt.” This may seem like a big fuss, especially when it’s between two fairly healthy options but the parent is supporting the child to deal with disappointment by naming the feeling.

“Hannah, you’re going to have to think carefully about how you want to spend your birthday money. There’s enough there for you to buy one thing. You liked both the bubble factory and the butterfly mosaics but you can only choose one. I’m sure you wish you could have both. And when you choose one you might feel sad later that you didn’t choose the other one. If that happens come and tell me and I’ll give you a hug. That’s the tough bit about making choices. The good bit is you get to choose something that you really like yourself. You get to be in charge of this decision.”

Giving those pesky feelings a label helps strengthen the neural pathways between the emotional part of the brain and the logical part and at is the core of developing emotional intelligence.

Does your child get to choose sometimes? Does he sometimes change his mind? Does she want both? Next time there’s a meltdown tell them you know what it’s like to really, really want something when a few minutes ago you really, really wanted something else. It’s so confusing! Let us know how you get on.

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