May 20th, 2019

Why families need a failure-tolerant attitude

Yesterday there was a general election in Australia and the Labor party was widely predicted to win it. They had gone into the election with an unusually detailed set of policies for social and tax reform. In a shock result they were defeated and of course today analysts are poring over the loss to try to understand what happened.

You may wonder why I’m talking about an election result, particularly at a time when people across the world are expressing disenchantment with politicians. Well it’s because an election gives us a great opportunity to explore loss, defeat, and failure. In the developed world we are very focused on winning and certainly the new government and its supporters will be celebrating but if we don’t pay attention to failures not only are we likely to make the same mistakes again but we miss an opportunity to see that it’s not the wins or the losses that define us but what we do thereafter.

The leader of the ALP made a very gracious speech accepting that his party had lost, in which he acknowledged the hurt and the loss of the vision he had for his country, he congratulated the prime minister on his win and sincerely wished him and his family well and good fortune and good courage in the service of his country and he said that all had a responsibility to respect the result. He thanked many people who had helped in the campaign and he generously stood aside to make room for a new leader to lead the party to a future victory. He was very focused on the idea of success next time.

There is much to learn from this for our children. Children, like adults, experience failure on a daily basis and it is up to us as parents to teach them how to regard losses.

There are some very different approaches to failures. In one approach failure is just not an option. Success is defined by winning or high grades or scores and that is regarded as the goal, if not the only acceptable outcome. The focus is relentlessly on results. When a child comes home from school and we ask “How did the spelling test go?” we mean “what was your score?” The first question we ask after a sporting match is “Did you win?” Asking “what level are you on in the reading scheme?” rather than “did you enjoy that book?” is prioritising their place in the hierarchy over appreciation of stories and words and the truths expressed in them. This tells our children that winning matters, above all else. It prioritises results over enjoyment of the activity and whatever they may learn from participation in that activity. Coming first is more important than collaboration; your friends are your competitors; you have to do what it takes to get an edge over them. It sends the message that I am most interested in the end result. It is your performance that gets my attention and my approval. We unintentionally give the message that our regard is conditional.

When this happens not only can our children experience tremendous pressure and stress but they also do not learn to cope with failure. They do not learn that there is anything noble in defeat. They learn that it is to be avoided. And since it can’t be avoided they may learn to cover it up. They may learn to cheat so that failures can’t be seen or they may not be able to admit failures to themselves, thereby taking away any opportunity to learn from them. They develop a fixed mindset. This is the term coined by Professor Carol Dweck to refer to an attitude to learning characterised by a belief that intelligence is innate and fixed. People with fixed mindsets attribute errors to a lack of ability, which they feel powerless to change. They avoid challenges because challenges make mistakes more likely and looking smart less so. Students who hold a fixed mind-set, are concerned about looking smart with less regard for real learning. They have negative views of effort, believing that having to work hard at something is a sign of low ability. They think that a person with talent or intelligence does not need to work hard to do well.

In his book Black Box Thinking Matthew Syed explores two different approaches of industries to failures. He looks at how the aviation industry looks at any aircraft failure, especially crashes, very closely to see what can be learned to avoid future problems. He also looked at the medical profession where in surgery in many countries a culture of cover up has developed with a failure to admit mistakes. The different approaches stem from an attitude toward failure.

Sometimes people who find failures difficult don’t cover up their failures but embrace them. Since success gets so much air time they may believe that everyone else is successful, especially if they believe the carefully curated pictures of lives on social media. That makes one’s personal failures doubly difficult since we think we’re the only ones getting it wrong, when in fact failing is the norm. They believe that they are failures and their low self-confidence prevents them from trying anything new or persevering with anything difficult. They believe that they can’t do it. They may protect themselves by living within very narrow parameters and not exposing themselves to failures, whether socially, academically or in professional life. Some protect themselves further by self-criticism –we make sure that there is nothing our critics could tell us that we have not already fully taken on board.

The defeated politician I mentioned at the start modelled a different approach. This is a model of a successful life as one in which we live with purpose and we throw ourselves into projects that give our lives meaning. We do our best and if that doesn’t achieve a goal we acknowledge the hurt and we have the courage to look at it and learn from it. And then we go forward with self-compassion, hope and determination to try again. All of this depends on having a growth mindset where effort is respected and failures not feared.

We can create this model for our children in the way we approach results and talk about failures. Above all else our children need to know that making mistakes (including in day to day interactions with others) is part of being human. We need to model a failure-tolerant attitude that includes:

  • Admitting our own mistakes. This shows we are not diminished by them but we grow from them.
  • Talking about what we’ve learnt from our failures and how our brains grow more through struggle than in doing things that come easily.
  • Point to people who handle failures well like the rare politician mentioned above. Another MP who lost his seat said “I’d rather be a loser than a quitter” and that’s not a bad role model to offer to kids.
  • Not focusing so much on outcomes but on what’s learnt in the process.
  • Using praise which is descriptive, not evaluative and which focuses on effort and attitude and strategies, rather than results.
  • Never use or tolerate put-downs like ‘you loser’.

So go forth and fail with equanimity and with grace!

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March 17th, 2019

A Mindfull or a Mind-Full Parent?

Guest blog by Daisy Seale-Barnes of 'Raise and Shine'. Daisy teaches parents in SE London and is a licensee of The Parent Practice

'Mindfulness’ is a term bandied around everywhere these days and, unless you have been living on another planet, it is unlikely to have passed you by. Yet I appreciate that for us modern parents, who often find ourselves living with epic ‘to-do lists’ mindfulness might sound ‘all well and good’, but like a totally unrealistic prospect in the context of the busyness of real life and simply like yet another thing to feel guilty about not doing.

But, as a parent who has been practicing mindfulness myself for 6 years now, I can confirm that not only is it entirely feasible, I would go as far as to say that you don’t have time not to practice mindfulness.

Mindfulness creates the emotional state that you need to effectively deploy positive parenting skills, and this means that you can deal with problems early as opposed to letting them swell into painful situations that take a long time to resolve and clear up. Invest now and reap the rewards later!

Contrary to popular belief, mindfulness is not actually about sitting in the lotus position for hours, nor do you have to try to ‘clear your mind’ (quite frankly, mine rarely shuts up!) and you don’t even have to become that irritating person who floats around talking in an ethereal monotone about how much meditation they do ‘man’! In reality, mindfulness is about mental training and it’s for everyone, just like you and me i.e. exhausted, time-poor parents!

The brain consists of an elaborate system of neural circuitry. Without mindfulness we are prone to spending too much time in the more primitive part of our brain that produces powerful stress responses, including the flight or fight responses. These evolved to help protect us from threats to our survival but don’t serve us as well in modern life. That’s because the same strong responses that helped protect us from predators are triggered when a child flicks a pea across the room!

Mindfulness is about training the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for higher order functions such as attention, emotion regulation, planning, abstract reasoning and complex problem solving. That’s the part of the brain that can help us be the kind of parents we want to be.

Mindfulness training works because, just like the body, which is strengthened and kept healthy through physical exercise, the brain is a dynamic organ that can be strengthened via mental exercise. Meditation is just strength training for the brain. Who wouldn’t want a strong, relaxed brain that can override the rigid, anxious, autopilot mode that often dominates when we are put under the stress that is part of being a modern parent?

Whilst meditation is very effective (and these days there are a whole variety of excellent apps for guided meditations including some designed specifically for parents) it can be considered the ‘gym’ for the mindfulness heavyweights. Since we parents sometimes even find it hard to find time to go to the loo let alone the gym(!) when time is short there are other more feasible ways we can approach mindfulness practice.

One example is a simple technique I teach called ‘The Parent Pause’. Next time you feel triggered by something your child has done (note the fast breathing, jaw-clenching eye-widening, muscle-tensing, anger-rushing), try to ‘catch’ yourself before you react. Then apply The Parent Pause by focusing your attention on a single thing (this can be your breath, your hands, an object in the room, anything really). Hold this attention for just a few seconds and take a deep deliberate breath with a slow exhale. You will just have created a little thinking space in which you can now apply a relevant positive parenting technique.

Central to this technique and all the others that I teach, is the ability to pay attention. That’s because studies show that for the neural networks and brain structures to benefit you have to bring to your full and undivided attention to the practice. In whatever form you are doing it, noticing is the practice and is what will work the ‘magic’ that grows this part of the brain. Quoting Google’s Chade Meng Tan, each time we notice our minds have wandered and we bring it back to the task it is like doing ‘a bicep curl for the brain!’ As with physical exercise though, it’s a case of ‘use it or lose it’ so it is vital to keep practicing. But the good news is that neuroscience shows that practice produces almost immediate benefits.

It is this improved ‘staying power’ and ability to keep being aware that mindfulness training provides us with, which complements positive parenting so well. It is no use learning all the parenting skills in the world if, when we care for our children our minds are in five other places. Mindfulness keeps us present and helps us remember the skills we have learned when we really need them. In fact, mindfulness puts you in the perfect place to implement positive parenting skills.

Mindfulness is in essence all about noticing in a friendly, non-judgemental way. Descriptive praise, one of the fundamental skills of positive parenting, is about noticing the good things our children do. Likewise, emotion coaching, another core positive parenting skill involves really listening to our children in a non-judgmental and focussed way – and what is that if not ‘mindful listening’? And importantly, mindfulness helps us stay calm in those trickier situations when we are being challenged so we can respond rather than react wildly.

But please don’t get me wrong. I don’t claim mindfulness offers some kind of panacea. We’re all human: we make mistakes. What’s more, we are parents and our children are in a unique position to push our buttons! Yet, when we do lose it mindfulness allows us to embrace our imperfect selves and frees us to ‘hit the refresh button’ and respond to our lives with clarity and balance once again.

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March 04th, 2019

Changing screen habits, positively.

Did you know that the UK Chief Medical Officers recently published a report advising us to control our children's screen time use – suggesting banning screens at mealtimes and bedtimes and making sure children don’t have more than 2 hours on screens in one sitting?

You might be thinking how on earth do I do that? And you might also be thinking when they’re safely occupied in front of a screen is when I get everything done!

Of course we know it's a good idea to encourage kids to spend time outdoors getting fresh air and exercise. We all know about the problems of obesity. And we may be aware of all the benefits of fresh air and being in nature in combatting anxiety. We know our kids need to get adequate sleep to function well the next day and to aid brain development and avoid depression. We may also want our kids to be interacting with human beings IRL (in real life) instead of staying glued to a screen all day. But I know that this new advice will throw up all sorts of questions and challenges for many parents.

For a start, 2 hours each day may not seem very long if your child already exceeds that limit, especially if you include homework time.

Just how are you going to change current patterns and reduce time in front of a screen?

What are you going to do or say that's not going to cause World War III?

How are you going to deal with claims that you’re the worst parent in the world and it’s so unfair!

If you’re separated from your child’s other parent how on earth are you going to make this rule stick, given that they don’t seem to have any rules?

It's no fun having to play 'policeman' just as you come home from work - you're tired, looking forward to some relaxation and quality time with the family. No-one wants arguments, do they?

My book ‘Real Parenting for Real Kids’ tackles just this challenge in the chapter ‘Their Digital World’. This whole chapter is dedicated to screen time usage with extra tips and advice on how to get kids into good habits and values in a digital world without friction.

In this book, I teach several essential skills to enable you to bring out the best in your kids. Using case studies and examples I show how these skills can be applied to real life situations such as this.

You can learn to make small changes to the words you use and ways you respond and discover how easy it can be to change your child's behaviour.You can read more about my book here.

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February 24th, 2019

4 Secrets to Being a More Flexible Parent.

The key to good parenting is having the flexibility to throw away the approaches that aren’t working and think about what does work for your child.

If you’ve tried the ‘naughty step’ and you find that you’re having to wrestle with your child to get him to sit there and he seems to find it a great laugh can you let it go and try something else?
Instead consider that his sense of self is fragile and he’s trying to protect it with bravado. Of course, he doesn’t want to sit in the place that confirms his identity as a bad person. He wants to be a good person and needs your support to get things right and fix his mistakes.

When you scold your daughter for being mean to her younger sister and she cries and follows you around rather than staying in her room where you’ve told her to think about what she’s done, can you let it go and try something else?
Instead can you try to connect with her before correcting her behaviour? Let her know that you know she’s a good person who made a mistake. Help her to understand the feelings that led to her behaviour and show her other ways of dealing with those feelings. Eg use role play to rehearse how to tell her sibling how she feels.

When your 13-year-old won’t get off the computer and lies to you about how long he’s been on it and that he didn’t have any homework can you resist the urge to ban the computer for the rest of the week?
Can you understand the compulsion he feels about his game and being able to chat with his friends about it the next day? Do you get that this is an area of his life where he feels successful? Does his need to discuss the finer details of the game with his mates make sense as part of belonging to the group which characterises this stage of development? Do you have the flexibility to think in terms of problem-solving discussions rather than rigid sanctions? Obviously, the homework needs to be done but explaining the reasons for your screen rules and showing understanding about his impulses would help.

It’s November and the 11+ exams are looming and your daughter isn’t studying. Other parents in the year are offering their girls ‘incentives’ for good grades. Can you resist the urge to bribe your daughter?
Do you have the flexibility to think about empowering your daughter to take charge of her own learning by asking her what her goals are rather than making her grades be your achievements?

It takes some flexibility to give up on parenting practices that we think of as being set in stone. Sometimes our default settings feel like ‘instincts’. In fact, they are learned behaviours. These were the responses that our parents adopted, that we see other parents using and that we read about in parenting chat rooms, blogs, articles and books. But if these approaches are causing resentment, if your child is digging his heels in or you fear her self-esteem may be suffering, then do you have the courage to try something else?

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February 11th, 2019

Love is in the schedule

On Thursday it is Valentine’s day. You may not celebrate the day.  Even if you are in a relationship. Plenty of people think it is overly commercialised and an opportunity to extort money for cards, flowers, chocolates and dinners at prices vastly inflated compared to the rest of the year. You may feel you have no use for red, scratchy lace underwear or perfume that doesn’t suit. 

Ok so I’m being cynical. Maybe you relish an opportunity to celebrate your love for your partner and having a day set aside for it may be a good way to remind you of it and rekindle the old flame. 

When we go from being a couple to being a family many of us find there is no time to spend on our partners any more. Romance dies along with sleep and we find ourselves griping about the things the other forgets to do as the items on our own to-do list breed and multiply. A night out becomes prohibitively expensive when you add in babysitting and if you try to have a date night at home you may find yourself asleep on the sofa by 9pm. The things that we used to find endearing may now seem really irritating. The foot massage you used to give each other is replaced by the weekly nit check and daily search for matching socks. 

Our children so often become our priority and our couple relationship can take second place. Between work and the kids it can be hard to find any time for ourselves or our couple relationships. This is a big mistake. The relationship you have with your partner is the foundation on which your family relies. It is the template on which your children will model their own future relationships and sets the tone for the sense of belonging in the family. Having someone else to tag team with in the parenting race also makes it much easier. When parents are united about values and discipline the children feel more secure and push against the boundaries less. Of course the adults may have some differences in their styles of parenting, but what’s important is that both mum and dad present fairly similar expectations and limits. 

Here are some ways to develop a united front with your partner 

    • Schedule date nights where you don’t talk about the kids.
    • Set aside (other) regular times to communicate with your partner –discuss what your values are and what you want to happen. Work out your differences in private so that you can be consistent in public.
    • Where there is disagreement, compromise –consistency is more important than the actual rule
    • Acknowledge each other’s strengths. (I recommend the practice of writing down one descriptive praise for each other each day in a little book.)
    • Say positive things to/about your partner in front of the children. Speak to and about the other with respect. Your children will take their cue from you.
    • Be affectionate with each other in front of the children. (Yes they’ll say yuck but it will make them feel secure!)
    • Don’t criticise and try not to argue with your partner in front of the children. If you do disagree do so respectfully.
    • Don’t play good cop/bad cop: Check in with other partner before promising something to the children and if your child comes to you when you suspect they’ve already asked their other parent, ask them “what did mummy/daddy say?” and go along with their decision
    • Don’t compete to be the better parent. Remember that even when your partner is parenting differently from you s/he has the best interests of the children at heart.
    • If you’re not together with the child’s other parent then communication may be difficult. Children can cope with different rules and approaches in different households but be sure you never denigrate the other parent. 

    Involving an absent or disinterested partner

    • Consider why they’ve checked out. Are they working very long hours? Why? Is this a financial necessity? Do they feel more successful/ comfortable at work than at home?
    • Ask for their support, opinions, input on family rules, outings, holidays etc without criticism. Be honest with yourself and question whether your style of involving your partner in the past has largely been to nag and criticise them.
    • Ask for your partner’s involvement in small ways at first where they are likely to feel successful and enjoy the experience such as taking the kids to the park for a short outing. Build up to them taking a full share of the less pleasant aspects of parenting over time. Be appreciative even if you still think they should be doing more. 

    Healthy ways to deal with conflict:

      • Acknowledge and reflect back your partner’s point of view to him/her, especially where this is different from yours
      • Don’t criticise, but make requests and state your needs. eg I need more help around the house. Please can you take out the garbage each week.
      • State how you feel using ‘I’ statements, not ‘you’ statements – “when you leave the kitchen in a mess I feel as if you expect me to clean it up and I feel taken for granted.” not “you always leave the kitchen untidy –you really take me for granted.”
      • Confine yourself to the matter under discussion –don’t bring up history. Don’t use the words ‘always’ or ‘never’.
      • Avoid defensiveness ie denying responsibility for a problem. eg Steve has a sharp intake of breath after Maggie just braked hard in the car. She says: there you go again being a back seat driver! Accept some personal responsibility for at least part of the problem. “Sorry! That was a bit abrupt.”
      • Avoid stonewalling - where the listener withdraws from the interaction and doesn’t respond. It indicates an emotional withdrawal from the relationship. If you feel the need to withdraw ask for a break and agree upon a time to resume the conversation. 

      So take some time this week to focus on your other half and remember why you got together in the first place. Tell them what small things you appreciate about them.

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      January 21st, 2019

      How to stop a child from doing what you don’t want them to do

      A few days ago my 21 month old granddaughter came over to visit with a friend of hers. They were accompanied by both their mothers and had come over to swim in our pool. (Don’t gasp Northern hemisphere readers –we’re currently experiencing a heatwave in Sydney!) The two little girls enjoy each other’s company and were running around excitedly and revving each other up. When one started screeching the other one thought that was a hoot and joined in. The two mums were doing their best to stop the noise. They shooshed the girls and said “no shrieking”, “stop making so much noise,” but to no effect. I realised why. I could see that the toddlers were having so much fun letting off steam after being in the car and now they had lots of space to run around in. And they were getting lots of attention from their mums. My daughter in law and her friend, in their embarrassment, were giving too much attention to the very behaviour they didn’t want. Toddlers are fairly easily distracted so it wasn’t difficult to refocus their attention on something else and so end the noise. As soon as the adults paid attention to something else that is what the children wanted.

      Children are hard-wired to get our attention. They have evolved that way because they are born in such a vulnerable state compared to other animals. They are utterly dependant on adult attention for survival. And nothing gets adult attention like crying or shrieking. Whatever we pay attention to we will get more of. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pay attention when our children cry but if we give too much attention to undesirable behaviours we’ll get more of what we don’t want. Many a parent of a small child has fallen into the trap of laughing at something that seems cute the first time only to realise that if repeated that behaviour quickly palls or other people won’t be quite so entranced by it. I made the same mistake when L first threw something out of her highchair by reacting too much –she thought it was very funny and did it again of course. Subsequently when she threw things we just left it and distracted her with something else. She soon stopped doing it.

      Adults are used to responding to poor behaviour by saying “No, don’t do that. “That’s silly”. Or “Naughty!” Sometimes we might shout or punish or if the behaviour is really unsafe, such as when a child darts into the road, we might smack out of fear. These responses are supposed to dissuade the child from repeating the behaviour but often they have the reverse effect. Even an older child is very keen to get parental attention and if they can’t get it through positive behaviours they will seek it any way they can. Many time-poor parents inadvertently give too much attention to negative behaviour and not enough to the good things the child does.

      This week I’ve been preparing an in-service training for mentors on an adolescent behavioural change programme and realised the same negative patterns occur in the classroom too. When my son, (L’s father) was a little boy he struggled in the classroom because of dyslexia (at that time undiagnosed). He would distract from tasks that were too challenging for him by disruptive behaviour and would get in trouble. He was given demerits and detentions. In the Reception class he had a little book in which his teacher recorded all his missteps, every little (and large) misdemeanour and this was presented to me. When he was in year 1 his punishment on one occasion was to be sent to sit in the Reception year. The idea was to shame him into behaving. All of these sanctions were designed to inform him, and others, of his misdeeds to shame him in the hope that this would change his behaviour. It didn’t. But his self-esteem plummeted. And with that came more poor behaviour.

      Paul Dix in his book ‘When the adults change, everything changes’ tells the story of Chelsea who had a chart at school that recorded in two columns all her good and bad behaviour and she formed the view that one cancelled the other out, that if there were more good behaviours at the end of the day she was ahead. Dix recounts that when Chelsea was a young teenager and got in trouble for staying out past curfew she sought to wipe the slate clean by tidying up the house and pronounced “You can’t get me –look what I’ve done.” She did not learn to be accountable for her actions with this behavioural ledger.

      Likewise my son’s sense of self was so vulnerable that when his teachers shouted at him he made lied or made excuses for his behaviour and wasn’t able to accept responsibility. This isn’t what anyone intended.

      What does work?

      Paying attention to the child or teenager’s good behaviour gives our kids the attention they need. It makes it more likely that that behaviour will be repeated. It builds strong connections between us and our children which strengthens our influence –they are more likely to do what we ask. Then when they are doing something we don’t want they are more likely to listen to us when we (calmly) explain why that behaviour isn’t ok.  If kids get lots of messages about what they’re doing right their view of themselves is that they are capable and valued. This helps them be resilient and less anxious. Then when they get something wrong they can take responsibility because they see themselves as basically good humans who sometimes make mistakes. We can have problem-solving conversations with our children that help them clear up their mistakes without loss of self-esteem.

      To get into the praise habit have a look at our video on the pasta jar. Enjoy catching the good stuff!

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