Like most mothers, I constantly strive to achieve harmony in my home and help my children know the difference between right and wrong. Many parents, crèches, early education centers and primary schools use a ‘bold step’ or ‘bold chair’ where the child who has misbehaved must sit and take ‘time out’ from an activity until they are invited back by the parent or teacher. Even Supernanny on television is a big fan of the ‘bold step’ and ‘time out’ concepts.
I have never been comfortable with the parenting tool of ‘time out’ but I couldn’t see any alternatives. When I did use it, I always felt like it was a battle of wits between myself and my son. The scene would play out as follows: him acting in a manner which I felt warranted punishment, me telling him to go sit on the bold step, him refusing, me ordering him to go, him still refusing, me dragging him there, him getting up, me putting him back etc. etc. By this stage, both of us have lost our heads and neither is thinking rationally. What could be the possible learning point here for any child? I, for one, cannot see any benefit for either him or me. However, in the absence of an alternative, I continued periodically to force my son to take ‘time out’.
One of the things that made some difference was helping my son to try to control his anger. For example, when his sister annoyed him, his immediate reaction had been to lash out. I suggested counting to ten, taking a deep breath or walking away. However, if the behaviour continued, I would have then ordered him to the ‘bold step’ and we’d be back to the battle of wits.
For the past six months I have been on a parent coaching course with Koemba and as a result have had my eyes opened to alternatives when it comes to disciplining my children. Besides the helpful tools and insights on the course itself, one of the features is reading and reviewing books on parenting. In his book entitled ‘Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason’, Alfie Kohn describes time out as ‘a version of love withdrawal when children are sent away against their will’. He believes that by removing the child, you might get the behaviour to cease but it is only a short term solution. It doesn’t examine what’s causing the behavior. He states ‘it is the child who engages in a behaviour, not just the behavior itself that matters’.
Kohn provides a number of alternatives to time out as follows:
1. If possible talk to your child and try to ascertain the reason for the behavior and explain why the behavior in question is not helpful;
2. If the child needs to first of all calm down, ask him/her if they would benefit from taking some time to themselves, e.g. in their room. It’s important that the child does not feel they are being forced to take time out;
3. If the child does not want to take time to himself/herself but it’s not appropriate to leave them where the behavior occurred, then the parent, as a last resort could remove the child and stay with them.
‘The Whole-Brain Child’ by Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson is a very interesting parenting book. It describes how a child’s brain develops and explains the difference between the left and right sides of the brain. When a child is upset, they are overwhelmed with right brain emotions and cannot employ left brain logic until they are calmer. The authors recommend that when a child is flooded with right brain emotions, parents should initially respond with their own right brains instead of trying to reason with the child which would mean using the left side of the brain. Responding with our right brain could mean making soothing sounds, being present for your child, listening attentively. I really like the following quote: “when parent and child are tuned in to each other, they experience a sense of joining together”. Once the child has calmed down, the parent can then apply logic and reason.
This book also explains how the upstairs and downstairs of the brain differ. Shortly after reading this section in the Whole-brain Child, I explained to my six year old son about “flipping the lid”. I showed him the illustrations in the book which were created specifically for children. They describe how our lids get flipped when we are cross or upset about something. It is only when we are calm, and our lids are back down, that we can be start to think clearly again. My son understood this message immediately. He was now able to put a label on how he felt when he got angry and wanted to lash out.
Since then my son has been learning to identify the signs when he is about to flip his lid. Even when he does lose his cool, he knows that he then needs to take time to himself until he calms down. He is effectively taking ownership of his own time out instead of me forcing it on him. Sometimes I just say, “Maybe you should go upstairs until you calm down” but most times he just goes to his room without any prompting. He then returns when he decides he is calm, not when I tell him to. That could be after two minutes or anything up to ten minutes later. When he returns we discuss what caused him to lose his cool, how he could have handled the situation differently, how he would likely deal with a similar scenario in the future, how he felt when he flipped his lid, how he feels now and how he thinks others involved in the incident felt.
While my 6 year old son is happy to go off on his own until he calms down, my 4 year old daughter takes a different approach. When she is upset and has flipped her lid, she wants me to stay with her while she calms down. She often wants me to hold her while she does this. Maybe, over time, she will follow her brother’s example and go to her room, but for now having me there is helpful for her. So, where an argument comes to a head between the two of them, he takes off to his room to calm down and she stays with me. When he returns with his lid back down and when she is calm again, we discuss the argument in a rational and non judgmental way. We all learn and grow from these experiences.
It has been amazing seeing my son and daughter develop in this way, taking control of their own emotions. In fact, my son recently said to me,
“Mam, you’ve just flipped your lid”.
That stopped me in my tracks and when I’d calmed down, I thanked him for pointing that out to me and explained that everyone loses their cool from time to time.
The bold step no longer features in my house. In fact my daughter has never been on it and I don’t envisage ever using it for my 2 year old son. It’s great to know that there are alternatives to smacking children or using ‘time out’. It’s up to every parent to find the one that best fits their family and their quest for harmony in their home.
Mother and Trainee Parent Coach
‘My daughter was 3 in October and is still not toilet trained. In all other ways she’s pretty advanced but she just seems terrified of using the toilet. We’ve tried everything – musical toilets, reward charts, taking her to see around a nursery school and explaining she needs to be out of nappies to go. But for some reason she is terrified of going. She knows when she needs to go and I don’t think its laziness as when she hasn’t got a nappy on she doesn’t wet. She just cries and says she needs to go and sits on toilet but says her wee wee won’t come out. This can go on for 2 to 3 hours and she’s miserable the whole time. We hadn’t tried since before Christmas but tried training her again this week but she’s totally stressed out and has started crawling round the house saying she’s only a baby. I just wish I knew how to take the fear away for her. I don’t know what to do… But I do know the answer is not smacking her…’
It makes sense that you’re concerned that your three years old daughter’s not yet potty trained, because it’s natural as parents to hope that our children will be moving through the milestones when everyone else’s are doing so. It obvious that you’re a caring parent – that’s why you’re asking! And I’m so glad that you know that smacking isn’t the answer (that would only increase her anxiety even further).
You’ve tried different tactics and to date you’ve found out what isn’t helpful for your daughter. (That’s great – you’ve eliminated some possibilities!)
It seems there’s a high level of anxiety for her at present.
So step one:
Choose to let go – of your anxiety. When you can let go of your anxiety, she’s more likely to literally let go!
Figure out what it would take for you to be relaxed about this and what you can do if you sense your anxiety rising. Even focusing on your breathing can help at times when you begin to feel stressed. Breathe in till count of seven – out to count of eleven for several breaths. Trust that this situation will naturally dissolve when you stay connected to her, in a way that shows that you trust she’ll do this when she’s ready.
A key element to her becoming calmer is for her to sense your calmness. Young children’s brains are still ‘under construction’ and at this age she is only beginning to emotionally regulate herself. Young children rely on the parent to calm them down. This is why you choosing to be relaxed about this is so important.
And when she’s stressed she becomes emotionally flooded. Which means the ‘reasoning’ part of her brain is temporarily out of action, so trying to reason about being a ‘big girl for school’ won’t work at this point. (In fact, if she’s worrying she’s ‘not a big girl’ it’ll increase her stress.)
You say, ‘I wish I could take her fear away.’ I’d suggest that you rather focus on being present to her in her anxiety. View this as an opportunity to reassure your daughter and to help her to be in touch with herself.
Reflect her experience and name her emotions.
Child: My wee won’t come out.
Mum: Your wee won’t come out! (Reflect what she’s telling you. Stay connected with her, whilst choosing to be calm about this).
If you sense her emotion, name the feelings. Maybe a tear runs down her cheek:
Mum: ‘You’re feeling sad?’ (Let your voice reflect that emotion).
Mum: ‘Tell me more.’
In other words, rather than ‘taking the fear away for her’ this is a wonderful opportunity to help her to name, claim and tame her emotions. (Emotional literacy is one of the most important gifts you can give your child).
Or she starts crawling and saying she’s only a baby.
Child: ‘I’m only a baby.’
Mum: (on the floor, close to her) ‘You’re only a baby.’
Follow her lead. Mirror her words and be present to her mood and her actions. Show you are there for her. When she senses you’re okay with this she’s more likely to relax.
By being present to her without trying to change her story, she can begin to make sense of her story for herself. (And you can gain huge insights too).
Here’s some other practical things you might try:
* Have you tried giving her a wetting doll (plus potty!) Give her the opportunity to act out whatever she needs to with the doll might ease her anxiety. And don’t be surprised if she plays out the same scenario repeatedly. By replaying it until she’s satisfied she’ll be able to release the bottled up feelings.
* I’m wondering whether she’s sitting on the big toilet (with an added toddler seat) or a little potty? Is the toilet itself what’s worrying her? (You could ask her if she would prefer to sit on a potty or on the toilet. She needs to feel she has control of the situation.)
* When my children were young we used cloth nappies. And our children potty trained at a much younger age. Apparently the level of absorbency of disposable nappies means that children don’t experience the sensation of being in ‘wet pants’, I wonder what would happen if you used towelling nappies.
* Give her plenty of liquids. Hopefully her bladder will then naturally do what its going to do.
* Be a role model! Let her come to the loo when you go.
* Importantly ensure that the loo is a pleasant place to be. I’d suggest sing songs, read stories, whatever will help to make it a relaxed time. But if nothing is happening, keep it ‘ no big deal’. Indicate that you’re confident she’ll be come back the toilet when she’s ready.
* Keep in mind, ‘What really matters here?’ It’s going to be an issue for her if it’s an issue for you. If you’re feeling stressed about it, its not the time to try. The key thing is relationship, relationship, relationship. It’s easy as a parent to become worried about something like this but when she senses the security of your ‘no pressure / no anxiety ’ presence she’s more likely to let go of whatever she’s holding onto, (literally and metaphorically).
* A great resource is Margot Sunderland’s book ‘Using Story Telling as a Therapeutic Tool with Children – Helping Children with Feelings’. She gives clear explanation how stories can give a child a means of dealing with challenges they face.
* You are the one who knows your child best. Trust your contuition (your conscious knowledge as well as your intuition) as to what’s needed and whether things will naturally shift .
* I’d recommend, when she does wee in the toilet, be careful no to go ‘over the top’ with praise. For me it would be ‘Oh, you did a wee in the toilet!’ Let your eyes and tone of voice give the gentle affirmation. She’ll have the inner satisfaction of knowing she’s done it. Extrinsic praise can block her own awareness.
* If there is no change and your ‘gut’ tells you there’s reason for concern, my recommendation would be to arrange a visit to a Play Therapist. ‘Children’s toys are their words and play is their language.’ If there is something deep-seated that’s not naturally resolving, a skilled therapist will provide a gentle environment for your daughter to express what she needs.
* When you focus on relaxing and being present to her and her experience it’s very likely that, rather than solving the problem, you’ll find the problem naturally dissolves.
Happy Valentines! Here’s a summary of the Parenting tweets I’ve shared through the day.
* Some children experience love particularly through Receiving Gifts.
* We can be mistaken that the child whose primary love language is Receiving Gifts is materialistic / greedy …
* … but it’s not so much about the value of the present. It’s ‘You thought of me when we were apart.’
* So the gift of a daisy / a pretty pebble can be of as much value to the child as an expensive item.
* Dads: Valentines is a great opportunity to also affirm your daughters of your love.
* Dads: Your daughter is unlikely to behave like a tramp if she KNOWs she’s your princess.
* Children thrive on knowing that Mum is Number One in Dad’s life.
* One of the greatest gifts we can give our kids is a stable loving adult relationship. To run smoothly relationships need maintenance – like vehicles.
CLICK HERE FOR OUR VALENTINES’ €1 MP3 SPECIAL TO YOU:
* Book Val Mullally as your guest speaker to discover insights & helpful tools to create more enjoyable & fulfilling family life.
* Valentines is about meeting your partner’s love needs. Perhaps reflect on the 5 love languages to ID what makes ur partner feel loved.
* Find out more about key elements of loving family relationship:
The debate rages and, no matter which side of the argument you’re on, you can see you’re right. And what if, in one sense, both parties are right?
I say both parties may be right because I’m looking past the ‘to smack or not to smack’ and I’m asking a different question. I’m asking ‘What is it we really want to achieve?’ And I suspect that both parties will agree without hesitation that what we want is young people who are respectful of other people and of others people’s property.
So what would happen instead of trying to outshout each other’s argument regarding whether or not smacking is okay, we reflect on what might be learnt from the mindset of the other.
Here’s what it looks like from my viewpoint:
The ‘Smackers’ are right about children needing boundaries. When you’re standing on the ‘Smackers’’ side of the fence it’s obvious that many good old -fashioned values and behaviours have been undermined. They are saying ‘children need boundaries.’ And they are absolutely right. Children need boundaries for our benefit and also for their own. A child without boundaries can feel very insecure because he doesn’t know where the limits are. I once heard a wise lady describe a child raised without boundaries as being like a blind person trying to walk in a room that went on and on, without any walls. Imagine how disorientating, and perhaps even frightening, it would be to have no walls to help you gain a sense of direction. Children need boundaries so that they know what to expect and what’s expected from them. In fact, the ‘Smackers’ are cautioning something really significant here – Discipline is essential if we want peaceful society. ‘Kids who are brought up with firm, fair, consistent boundaries don’t go off the rails so easily.’ Sue Atkins Certainly part of the problem with the UK riots had to do with lack of boundaries and discipline.
And what if the ‘Non-Smackers’ are also right because they have figured out that actually children are people too and all people deserve to be treated with respect? What if they’ve recognized that violence begets violence?
For some insight into why smacking isn’t going to achieve what’s needed, here are some key points that leading international neuroscientists recognise:
1. The child’s brain is still ‘under construction’. This means that the child will not always perceive things as we adults do. Yes, there are times when children will need our intervention and guidance.
2. Because the child’s brain is not fully developed, it also means that at times of strong emotion, children need adults who can be the ‘emotional thermostats’ – helping to keep the heat of roused emotions at a reasonable temperature.
3. When we are upset we don’t ‘think straight’. This is because we don’t have one brain. In a sense we have three brains, and the innermost section of the brain, often called the reptilian brain, is the part that reacts when the person is under threat. When we sense ‘danger’, the brain focuses its energy on this deep inner brain – causing us to go into reactive mode, of fight, flight, freeze or appease, to help keep us safe in an emergency. The cost of this ‘survival mode’ is that clear logical thinking temporarily shuts down. It makes sense that when a child is smacked, they are going to feel under attack, which means the primitive ‘survival’ mode of the brain is triggered, which means that they won’t take any learning from the situation. All the child will gain is a fear reaction that will get them to avoid being in the same situation again.
Will it teach them not to repeat that behaviour any time the authority figure is present to reinforce the punishment? Yes.
Will it teach them compassion or consideration for others? No, because the part reptilian part of the brain that is triggered when we are under attack doesn’t do compassion or reasoning – it only does survival. Crocodiles don’t worry about connection – they just do survival!
David Lammy UK author of ‘Out of the Ashes: After the Riots’  states in an article in the Guardian, where he blames anti-smacking law for UK riots. “The ability to exercise their (parents’) own judgment in relation to discipline and reasonable chastisement has been taken away. ”
What I’d like to say to David is that I agree with him that children need discipline but Punishment and Discipline are not synonyms. ‘Chastisement’ is Punishment – not Discipline. Punishment attempts to work from the outside in. Discipline works from the inside out.
Smacking (a.k.a, Punishment) isn’t going to achieve what’s needed because, in the words of leading neuroscientist Daniel Siegel:
“Discipline” really means to teach, not to “punish”.
What we want is surely to teach our children acceptable social behaviour.
Some parents resort to smacking children because they don’t know how else to maintain boundaries. Some parents don’t smack but resort to other tools of coercion and manipulation that ultimately might be just as harmful, (and much of this is advocated on popular TV Parenting programmes).
I appreciate that David Lammy MP is voicing that the violence that erupted in the UK is a signal that this is an issue that needs urgent and serious attention. When Smackers and the Non-Smackers choose to focus on the outcome we desire: ‘What is it we really want to achieve?’, here’s some of the factors we’ll most probably agree on:
Yes, society needs children to have boundaries.
Yes, children need to have boundaries.
Yes, everyone deserves to be treated with respect.
And it’s time to learn from experts in the fields of child development, attachment parenting and neuroscience about what’s needed to raise emotionally healthy individuals who respect themselves and others.
What’s vital is that parents and educators are equipped with helpful discipline tools that work, not just on the short term from the adult’s perspective – but ‘work’ in the sense that they are going to achieve the long term goals of a peaceful and respectful society, where everyone’s needs, including children’s, are taken into account.
Other related articles:
Helpful resources by Val Mullally related to this topic:
Managing Anger in the Home CD & MP3
Dealing with Discipline CD & MP3
Soon to be released: Children’s Challenging Behaviour
(Sign up for our newsletter to keep in touch with new releases).
 SueAtkins Twitter @SueAtkins 30/01/2012
 Adapted from Danny Silk
 Siegel, Daniel J and Payne Bryson, Tina, ‘The Whole Brain Child – 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind
‘How do I give my twelve year old freedom but also keep an eye on her without her thinking that I don’t trust her?’
What’s helpful when teenagers are pushing for freedom and you’re worried about their safety?
As parents we develop strategies to try to keep our teens safe – but not all are necessarily helpful.
The Checking Up Strategy
What I think isn’t helpful is ‘sneaky’ checking up.
I think of one mother who used to surreptitiously check her teenage daughter’s phone. The daughter resorted to renaming the ‘not- allowed’ boyfriend as ‘Jenny’ on her phone.
Life has a strange way of boomeranging – and if you do sneaky you’re likely to get sneaky.
One of the things that I did with my sons that was helpful was to have a policy that if they wanted to go out, we, as parents, would be phoning the parents who were hosting the event so that we could check arrangements.
They knew this was the deal and that we would not agree to them going out if there was anything that was of concern to us.
The ‘ParentPepTalk’ Strategy
I was so anxious that my sons would turn out ‘right’ that I thought it was my job to repeatedly remind them what ‘good’, responsible behaviour looked like. Now I look back I recognise that my sons had been taking ‘snapshots’ of ‘how we do life’ from a very early age. By the time they get to their teens they have a complete reference catalogue stored up –
how we do conflict
how we deal with upset feelings
what we do if we can cheat and get away with it
how we show love
what’s okay and not okay.
The endless list is already stored and the last thing teens need or want at this stage of their lives is the constant peptalk. When my son was in his early teens he told me about boys drinking at parties, he immediately got the ‘That’s not okay, please don’t you ever do that, I’ll be so disappointed, blaah, blaah, blaah’ ad infinitum lecture. So what happened within a couple of years is he stopped telling me what was happening in his life. The wiser me now recognises that he was telling me because he was trying to make sense of the standards we’d encouraged. It would have been more helpful if I’d just listened to what he wanted to share and asked his opinion.
We can get so worried by what we think might go wrong that we only focus on the negatives. What I know now is that if a child has a strong sense of self-esteem she’s not going to be trying to fill the ‘hole in her soul’ with drink, drugs, sex and all the other parent nightmares. A child with a strong self-esteem has an inner core she can rely on.
So how do we build young people’s self esteem?
Recognise that self esteem is much more than self confidence. Self Esteem is like a three legged stool and confidence is only one of those ‘legs’. Like any stool we need the legs to be of equal length and strength for a stable base. I’m most grateful for learning this concept through Jesper Juul’s book: ‘Your Competent Child’.
So let’s look at each of these:
Confidence comes from our sense of competence. Learning to be able to do things for yourself and to be able to figure out what’s needed is all part of confidence building. Obviously a situation that’s too big and overwhelming and beyond the child’s control will have the opposite effect and would damage the child’s confidence. That’s why it is important that we as parents both build our children’s confidence and also set clear boundaries around what we do and don’t permit.
Confidence is built when young people can figure out their own solutions. If parents are always rushing in to solve every dilemma, how do children learn? Ask yourself if there are times when it would be more helpful to let your child take the consequences of her action (or inaction).
Belonging In the teen years a sense of being part of the group becomes very important. The challenge comes when your child loses a sense of ‘belonging to herself’. Our need to feel connected to ourselves (our autonomy) and our need to be connected with others is like a see-saw. Both parts are necessary and the balance will only be kept if it’s firmly grounded in unconditional love.
When you get the first ‘teenage rumbles’ rather than resort to ‘Because I said so’ or caving in, focus on seeing these as opportunities to help the child keep connected with herself and her values and to learn to negotiate with you.
Worth Your child needs to know that nothing she does can add to or take away from her intrinsic worth. When she knows this she’ll know you are the ones to turn to when life’s uncertain.
When your child has a self esteem stool with three strong legs of confidence, belonging and worth, she has a stable base to deal with the challenges of teenagehood.
Our children are already born with incredible potential to beautiful, wise, creative, compassionate, wonderful people.
You’ll discover more insights and practical tools in my CD ‘Helping Your Child Cope in the Real World’. Also available as MP3.
Helpful books on this topic:
Your Competent Child Jesper Juul
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families Stephen Covey
Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood William Pollack
Great to see children thinking about what will make other people happy at Christmas. I know we’ll be flat-out with preparing the sleigh from Christmas Eve, so any final seasonal thoughts for Parents?
Percy Postelf, Mrs Claus and I all agree that Mark’s dad will appreciate a present that’s been carefully chosen. We started talking about the madness of Christmas shopping.
Remember the lyric ‘The fox went out on a windy night’.
As parents, you know that a fox in the hen coop can go on an unsatiated killing spree.
I sometimes think children can be a little like that when there’s an overabundance – ripping through everything without taking time to savour anything.
Maybe this festive season feels like a crisis time for some.
Here are two key thoughts that might be helpful:
1) Somewhere I read that the Japanese word for ‘crisis’ also means ‘opportunity’.
What would happen if we saw our current situation as an opportunity?
What if we all asked ourselves:
‘What’s the opportunity for our family in the current crisis we’re experiencing?’
2) ‘Less is more’ and ‘slow’ have become global movements. Reflect on how this might be true for your family this Christmas.
Let’s choose “less presents and more presence”.
“Happiness does not come from having more, it comes from loving what you have.”
If you’ve enjoyed these posts you’ll want Val Mullally’s parenting book Behave – What To Do When Your Child Won’t
Enjoying other people’s pleasure at receiving gifts, is one way our children may benefit when there’s less.
Christmas is the time for recognising what really matters in life.
Despite challenging circumstances, may this be a wonder-full and joy-full Christ-mas for each and every family.
Love and God bless to everyone.
Santa, Mrs Claus and PercyPostElf
P.S. To see my other Christmas letters:
Day 4 Christmas Surprises
Day 6 No Money This Christmas
Day 7 Christmas is for Giving
Day 9 When Grown Ups Fight
Day 11 Can’t Forgive at Christmas
I had a parent once approach me with the following:
“My daughter has never failed at anything. She’s extremely bright; everything seems easy to her. I worry about what will happen when she takes more challenging classes. How will she handle it if she finds something that is not so easy for her?
Eventually this mother revealed that she could see herself in her daughter. She also was a straight-A student in the early grades, but when she reached Chemistry and Trigonometry classes in high school, she was met with extreme discomfort. Instead of persisting, trying to get help with these subjects, admitting to her parents and teachers that she was struggling, she stopped trying. She was in the midst of an identity crisis. She had always been known as “The Brain,” and could succeed at everything she tried. Now she questioned herself.. What’s going on? Maybe I’m actually NOT smart! Her solution was to drop the difficult classes, identify with students who were not so bright, put up a new face that said: I’m done with all that high-achieving stuff. That’s for the egg-heads. I just want to do the bare minimum and then go out with friends.
On further discussion, the mother said that her parents had made such a big deal of her being “smart.” When she learned to read at an early age, her parents had her read for relatives and friends who came to visit. Everyone exclaimed about her smart she was. This became her identifying label.
It would have served her better if her parents had simply enjoyed her reading with her. She must have felt a growing sense of competence, as with accomplishing whistling or snapping her fingers! Her parents might have said, “You can read a lot of words all by yourself now. It looks like you really like to read. Is that right?”
When we assign the labels “smart,” or “bright,” to a child when she is successful we are saying, “Because you can do this, you are smart.” When the child encounters a more challenging task, it just stands to reason that she might say, “Because I can’t do this, I am NOT SMART.” This is what Martin Seligman (The Optimistic Child) calls a “stable attribution“.
If we think of “smartness” as stable, that means it doesn’t change. It is a characteristic that remains in us, not malleable.
If, however, we attribute our accomplishments to conditions that are malleable, our whole outlook changes. We remain in control of how well we perform.
Suppose 4-year-old Jack is reading along and comes to the word “traffic.” The “tr” blend and the length of the word make this one a challenge for him. If he has often been evaluated for his reading ability (e.g., “You are so smart!”) he might fear how he will now be evaluated (Yes, they pick up on this evaluation thing pretty quickly!). But if the parent is sitting beside him, just noticing Jack’s own feelings of competence, the evaluation doesn’t come into play. It might go as follows:
Jack: I don’t know this word.
Mom: Wow. That’s a new one for you. And it’s tricky. Let’s sound it out together.
Later, Mom might later share with Dad, in Jack’s presence, “We found a new word today in Jack’s book on trucks. It was a hard one, ‘traffic.’ We had to work at that one, so we sounded it out together and then Jack went on reading.
Again, a common thread this week is the importance of our interpretation of successes and failures. Our children will follow our lead.
See if you can pay attention to your own attributions and the labels you might give to your child. Are you aware of any? Please share!
‘Good girl’, ‘bright child’, ‘difficult’, ‘ADD’, ‘ ‘slow’, ‘shy’, ‘lazy’.
The list goes on and on – but what is the impact of the labels we put on our children?
Think about going to the store. You pick up a tin of peas.
What do you expect to get inside?
What you see is what you get – right?
The label on the can refers to what’s on the inside.
The labels we put on children are putting a name on what we see on the outside.
When we label the child we’re naming a type of behaviour that we’re seeing on the outside.
We’re seeing the lazy behaviour, or shy behaviour, or whatever.
And we’re presuming that that’s what’s on the inside.
The label is ignoring all the other wonderful aspects of this child.
The label limits us to seeing just some aspect of our child’s behaviour, as though that is who the child IS.
When we’re labelling children ‘What you see is what you get’ is often the outcome.
We’re putting blinkers on ourselves regarding all this child’s wonderful potential.
And we may well be putting blinkers on the child as to all he is and all he’s capable of becoming – his wonderful potential.
Label a child and he’s likely to live up to your expectations.
Even pet names: ‘My little monster,’ ‘cheeky monkey’, ‘my baby’ can have an alarming way of becoming a self –fulfilling prophecy.
So what’s wrong with positive labels, you may be asking.
We’re still limiting who that child is.
The child who owns the label ‘clever’ may find it difficult to relax, have fun.
He’ll have to be living up to his reputation of always knowing the answer.
And that might mean always having his head in the books.
”Little miss sunshine’ may end up denying her sad feelings, her angry feelings. She may become a people pleaser – because the message she received was that it’s her job to be the sunshine in every situation.
What about ‘good girl’?
Doesn’t every parent want their child to be good?
Well, yes, of course we do.
But stop and think about it.
We use the label ‘good’ when the child is doing what WE want them to do.
Does that mean that they’re ‘bad’ if they’re not complying with us?
When the child’s agenda is at odds with ours, she’s likely to resist or protest.
We might not like that behaviour but what’s it trying to tell us?
If our focus is to raise competent children who have a sense of who they are and where they’re going in life, it’s helpful to resist labels as far as possible.
I was recently at a Parent and Toddler group and watched a four year old carry the plastic cups back to the counter.
Resisting the automatic ‘good girl’ comment, I said, ‘Thank you.’
She came back with two more cups. I said thank you again.
The third time I said, I figured I needed something else to say:
‘You’re picking up the cups and bringing them back for us.’
‘And now you have two more cups!’
‘You’ve picked up all the cups off the tables. That was helpful.’
I had to think harder to find a meaningful response that fitted the unique situation. I also named the impact that this had.
If she hadn’t picked up the cups, that wouldn’t have meant that she wasn’t a ‘good girl’. She might have been tired, or occupied with something else.
Sometimes labels are given because we are seeking to understand some challenge the child is facing.
Perhaps a clinical diagnosis has been given.
This can be very helpful for the parent to have some sense of what challenges they’re facing.
I’m just asking that we bear in mind that this still only describes some aspect of who the child is.
There’s a big difference between saying,
‘My child is dyslexic.’
‘My child has dyslexia.’
The dyslexia (or whatever) is the challenge your child is facing.
It doesn’t define who he is.
Think about the difference between saying,
‘My child has a learning disability.’
‘My child has a learning challenge.’
A disability is something you have to live with.
A challenge is something that the courageous can overcome.
Language can limit.
Or we can choose to use language that affirms and believes in our child’s amazing, unlimited potential
Like the name on the tin, a label is just something that we attach.
It’s something we can also discard.
If we recognise labels that aren’t helpful– we can toss them today.
We can choose to see the incredible richness, the wonder of who our child is and can be.
A Young Mother’s Experience:
I was aware that something was wrong when Hannah was 24 hours old. On being discharged from the hospital we had been given a checklist of symptoms that required immediate contact with the hospital. In the past 6 hours Hannah’s nappies had become offensive to anyone with a nose in the surrounding neighbourhood! Following the hospital’s instructions we made contact. I explained our concern, the midwife remembered me:
“Oh yes, you were the mummy that was very reluctant to leave the hospital.”
I reminded her that we were discharged before my daughter was even 11 hours old.
“Well don’t worry mum, some babies are just smelly.”
So we commenced 5 months of life with a very smelly baby. Unfortunately, further symptoms developed over coming weeks. Hannah became very unsettled, appearing in constant pain, bringing her legs up to her stomach and screaming for hours, then entire days, and nights. We raised this with the health visitor and whilst I suggested the possibility of a dairy allergy, reflux was diagnosed. As I was breastfeeding, Hannah was prescribed an antacid several times a day. There was no improvement. A stronger drug was then prescribed at the maximum dose, with no improvement.
At 12 weeks we attended a vaccination clinic on a Tuesday. Following yet another sleepless night and 6 hours of constant screaming, we arrived late. Hannah continued to scream, unperturbed that we were in a public place. The other parents patiently waiting with their content babies insisted we go first, even though we arrived last, as Hannah was obviously distressed. I felt uncomfortable about jumping the queue and nonchalantly stated we were fine to wait, Hannah was always like this. Unbeknown to me, the Health Visitor was standing behind me. She asked me to come through to the clinic and then asked if Hannah really was always like this. Stunned, I looked at her and replied
“Of course she is, I told you this.”
“Tell me again” she said.
Hannah’s dose was doubled.
That Friday the Health Visitor called to the house. Hannah had been awake most of the night and had been screaming since around 8am. It was now midday. The Health Visitor offered to hold her, trying everything to calm Hannah down. Nothing worked. A small part of me felt elated. The Health Visitor left after an hour, advising she would arrange an urgent appointment with a paediatrician for further medication.
The following Tuesday I waited outside the paediatrician’s office at the hospital. Hannah was in fabulous form, content to sit and watch the activity of the hospital. The paediatrician called us in to his office. Without even a glance at Hannah he turned to me and said:
“I have just one question for you, how does she feed?”
Having prepared myself to share all of Hannah’s symptoms, I grappled to answer his question.
“Her feeding is starting to improve.”
Before I could finish my response the paediatrician whipped out a Dictaphone and started dictating his notes, which included a diagnosis of “so called silent reflux” and “mother has been advised to burp baby regularly throughout the bottle”. Stunned at his rudeness I interrupted to advise that Hannah was not bottle-fed. He resumed his dictation with the correction to breast feeding. He then rose to his feet, opened the door, signalling the consultation was complete. I stood, then asked if Hannah should continue her medication or if that would be altered, he advised me to discontinue it, as it wasn’t necessary. I asked if she could have a dairy allergy as my brother had one. “Of course not,” he replied. Concerned I then asked him what I was meant to do as Hannah screamed each day. He turned to me and patted my shoulder, saying:
“This may sound patronising, but sometimes mummy just can’t fix it. I’ll review Hannah in 3 weeks at my other office. In case you’re wondering why I didn’t see you there today, it’s because I’ve afforded you twice as much time here today than I can there.”
We left his office in under 4 minutes.
Hannah was prescribed a different drug the following week through the Health Visitor. There was some improvement. Exhausted and overwhelmed, in mid December my husband and I agreed we would reluctantly start giving Hannah a bottle at night to allow me the chance to get a few hours sleep. Hannah became increasingly worse. I telephoned the GP’s office the minute they re-opened after Christmas. The GP listened to my concerns then said he was unwilling to prescribe anything more until she was examined. He squeezed us in that day, and asked me to share all of Hannah’s symptoms, no matter how insignificant they appeared. Relieved I told him everything: the nappies, diarrhoea, difficulties feeding, constant screaming, vomiting, eczema, and now the raspy breathing and wheezing. The GP asked what I thought was wrong, I said I thought it may be a dairy allergy as my brother had one. The GP agreed and said we needed to immediately remove all dairy from her diet and mine.
Within 48 hours Hannah had transformed. She was smiling, content, cuddly and for the first time taking in her surroundings and exploring her body. I knew from the first day there was something wrong. Within weeks I had identified what it was. However, I handed my trust over to the professionals, and in the process forgot to trust my instinct, and have the confidence to assert that when it comes to my daughter, I am the expert.
Used with permission
Note from Val: We encourage you to always seek medical advice if you are concerned about your child’s health. But remember that you as parent intuitively know your child. Ensure that medical practitioners are listening to your experience and your concern.