May 01st, 2018

I won't do it....and you can't make me!

Have you ever heard that line? Has your child ever just blankly refused to do what you’ve asked? Is there anything more infuriating to a parent than sheer defiance? It pushes buttons for most parents and makes us see red. We’re supposed to be in charge, right? We feel really powerless when our child refuses to do what we’ve asked, and we realise they’re right….we can’t make them do it. When they’re very small we can bundle them into their buggies or car seats (although it’s a real struggle if they’re doing that banana back thing) and pick them up and remove them from the playground or pluck them out of the bath. But that ability fades quickly. My middle son was always tall for his age and he very quickly got to the point where I couldn’t man-handle him anymore so luckily that forced me to find some alternative methods for encouraging cooperation.

It’s not only true that we can’t make our kids do things but I firmly believe that it’s the wrong approach to even try to force them into compliance. Wise communications guru Michael Grinder says “The power of influence is greater than the influence of power.” We do better when we use our influence rather than force partly because it’s much more effective in gaining cooperation but also because there are a number of downsides to using compulsion.

• If adults use their greater power to compel a child to do something they don’t want to do we are modelling a bullying approach to persuasion that they may well adopt themselves in their interactions with their peers and siblings, and even with us. How would you feel if your child said to a friend “You have to play my game how I say or I won’t be your friend” or to you “I won’t do my homework unless I get 2 hours of iPad time”?
• Or a child may respond to coercion by shutting down. She may become compliant alright but maybe also docile and unable to form or voice opinions.
• All human beings need to have some agency in their lives. Feeling like we have some control is essential for our happiness. The opposite experience, that nothing we do matters, that we can’t influence events, that our opinions or feelings don’t matter leads to helplessness, which is at the root of depression. All parents know that children start to exert themselves as toddlers and test the limits of their power. How parents respond to this is crucial for their happiness and for their ability to interact with empathy.

Of course parents need to be in charge. We have the mature brains and experience, perspective and impulse control (hopefully) that our children don’t have and it’s our responsibility to ensure that they are safe and to teach them good habits for life. But we can do this without force. We can balance the need to keep a child safe with their need to explore and develop (whether they’re toddlers climbing on the sofa or teenagers connecting with their peer group). We can follow a necessary adult agenda and balance that with their desire to follow their own agenda. We can teach them right from wrong without making them wrong. There are limits to their power but they must have some power. It is the daily judgments on where to find this balance that makes up parenting.

So how do we use influence rather than force? Make very strong connections with your child so that they want to do what you ask.

• Make sure you spend as much positive time with your child as possible, just having fun. Not doing chores or acquiring accomplishments, but just enjoying an activity together. Make sure fun time is regular- schedule it or it won’t happen. Ensure your child knows how much you enjoy spending time with her.
• Sometimes the adult agenda has to prevail. When this happens acknowledge what your child would like to happen and how he feels. Sometimes they have to take medicine or do homework or stop doing something they’re enjoying. I know you’d really like to stay at the park for longer wouldn’t you? You were having so much fun on the swing and getting it to go really high. You love the feeling you get from going fast don’t you? It’s exciting. We need to get home so mummy can make tea but I know that doesn’t seem very important to you right now does it? You’re disappointed. I wonder if we can think of something to make it easier for you? I’ll think of something and you think of something and then we’ll pool our ideas ok? You had a really good idea of singing the Dingle Dangle Scarecrow last time. Maybe you could think of a different song this time?
• Use all your language skills - words, facial expressions and body language - to let your child know how much you appreciate and approve of them. Descriptive (evidence-based) praise will convey that much more credibly than conventional praise. I appreciate that you didn’t make much of a fuss when we had to leave the playground. Although you were sad you thought of something to make yourself happier. That’s what I call good problem-solving. Because we’re going home now I’ll have some time to play after tea. Would you like to think of a really super-duper game we can play before bath?
• Give choices where you’re happy with both outcomes. Would you like to come back to this park again tomorrow or shall we go to the one near Jane’s house? Shall we play UNO or snakes and ladders before bath? Would you like to do homework before tea or after? Would you like to ride your scooter to school or walk?
• When your child doesn’t do what he’s supposed to think about it from his perspective. Why didn’t he do it? Chances are there was an emotion behind his refusal. What was it? Was he angry or feeling bossed around? Describe it to him. Maybe it feels like people are telling you what to do all the time. I guess you’d like to say what happens sometimes. You’re right I can’t make you do anything and people shouldn’t try to make others do things. And all of us have to do things that we don’t really feel like doing in the moment because it’s good for us or good for others. It can be hard sometimes. Let him know the feeling is ok and he is ok even though he needs to do what he’s asked. Explain why you’re asking him to do this thing. State your values. We all have to go to bed so that our bodies get the sleep they need to be strong and so that our brains work well and we’re not crabby. Mummy too. Ask him how you can support him to do what’s required. Be patient. You’re raising a child and it takes time.

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January 30th, 2018

How to Discipline a Boy

Many parents say that the ‘masculine’ characteristics they admire and want to encourage in their boys are courage, strength, responsibility, single-mindedness, straightforwardness, a ‘can-do’ attitude, solution-orientedness, good humour and energy. But parents also often say they also want their sons to do what they’re asked!

It’s easy to get into power plays with boys, to go head to head with them as they assert themselves and we adults wield our power to subdue them. We talk about not ‘letting them get away’ with stuff and we feel we need to show them who’s boss. Boys are naturally drawn to hierarchy -they love lists and systems and leagues and they are naturally competitive. But if adults compete with their boys for power or get drawn into battles with their sons their discipline fails. It fails at its essential purpose, to educate and to encourage self-discipline.

Discipline means a body of knowledge or ‘to develop behaviour by instruction and practice’. But in common parlance discipline has become synonymous with punishment. When the lady on the underground glaring at your child swinging from the poles in the carriage hisses that “what that child needs is some discipline” she doesn’t mean coaching and encouragement. She means a good clip round the ear!

Discipline is different from punishment in several ways.

Discipline

Punishment

Involves problem-solving

Involves something that hurts

Delivered calmly

Delivered in anger

Purpose: to teach, to help the child behave differently next time

Goal is self-discipline

Purpose: to be right, the child is wrong, to get revenge

Goal is obedience

Based on respect

Based on fear, humiliation

Leads to improved behaviour and self-discipline

Results in resentment, rebelliousness,  furtiveness and loss of self-esteem

When we discipline we are teaching our children how to negotiate with the world. We may inadvertently teach our boys to be bullies if we use our greater power to coerce them into doing what we want. Do we want them to learn to get their way by using force or manipulation?  Instead don’t we want to teach them to try to understand, use their words to negotiate and to problem-solve?

We always say to parents ‘don’t pick your battles’. Don’t use the language of battles at all. Battles are between enemies and the outcome is a win/lose one. Change this to a win/win model. This is what you get when you teach your sons to problem-solve.

Adults do need to be in charge because we have greater experience, perspective and more mature frontal lobes. But if we are over controlling we will create resentment and resistance. We do need to teach them right from wrong, of course, but that can be done not through making use of our greater power, but by using the influence that comes from a really positive relationship.

Boys can be very physical, very active and very loud. Sometimes parents feel the need to shut this down. But actually all that wonderful energy can be redirected, channelled into healthy activities. If your son loves to be active, use that to connect with him. Play his games with him. Gail (mother of a boy and a girl) said “Frankly, I’d rather stick pins in my eyes than play football but he loves it so much. When I get dirty with him and am hopeless at it he really loves it. Not just because he’s better at it than I am but because I’m entering into his world and he feels valued. His behaviour is always excellent afterwards.”

Rough and tumble is a brilliant way of communicating through your son’s favourite medium –being active – and it provides a great opportunity to connect and have fun as well as teaching boundaries around physicality, such as stopping when anyone says ‘stop’. It also encourages laughter and is a great way to release tension. Gail recommends it as an alternative to family therapy!

When you spend positive time with your son doing things that he enjoys (not homework or cleaning his room) you find out more about him and build connections with him. Boys don’t usually love sitting, eyeball to eyeball, having deep and meaningful conversations. The best conversations usually happen organically when you’re engaged in an activity together. Steve Biddulph calls this ‘sideways talk’. The best conversations I’ve had with my two sons have been when we’ve been walking the dogs or doing the dishes.

It may seem a very soft or at least tangential approach to discipline to play with your son and chat to him. But this is where connections form and without connection and relationship he has no incentive to do what you ask of him. Then all you’re left with is a form of punishment based on fear and humiliation. No self-discipline arises that way.

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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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