January 30th, 2018
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.
Involves something that hurts
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.
January 16th, 2018
As a parenting goal cooperation should be the bare minimum we’re aspiring to. And indeed we often have loftier ambitions for our children. I asked my class yesterday what qualities they’d like to see in their children when they were adults and they said they’d like their kids to have the following characteristics:
Of course they wanted them to be happy and successful but the traits listed above were those that they thought would contribute to success and happiness.
We can encourage all of those qualities in our children but to do that we need to have a measure of cooperation. That doesn’t mean we don’t expect our children not to have feelings about what they need to do or want them to never express an opinion. (Although some parents have ruefully said they’d settle for some blind compliance.) But sometimes kids (and adults) need to do things they don’t particularly love doing. Of course as adults, with our more mature brains, we have greater perspective and ability to curb our impulses. Our ability to delay gratification and do something less palatable in the short term in the interest of a long term goal is greater than our children’s. (Maybe…)
It’s our job as parents to teach our children good habits that will last a lifetime. They need to do things like tidy their room or put their clothes in the laundry or brush their teeth or go to bed or do their homework or get off the computer or eat healthy food, which they may not see the point of. That’s why it’s our job. We need them to cooperate.
We all know that you can make a child do what they have to do using a stick approach. Maybe when you were a child you were threatened with punishments or withdrawal of privileges (also punishment) or were reprimanded and put down (punishment again) or even smacked (yep, punishment) if you didn’t do what you were told or expected to do. And you turned out alright. I’m sure you did. But you may nonetheless want to bring your children up in a different way.
And there are significant downsides to the stick approach. When a person holding a greater amount of power (the parent) uses that power to instill fear and to control the behaviour of a person with less power (the child) that is bullying. That’s not something we want to model for our children. When they think about it most parents agree that they want their children to grow up to be adults who, when faced with conflict, can use reason to persuade not just bludgeon others into their point of view. (Eg not Donald Trump.)
That doesn’t mean I’m advocating bribing your children to do what’s necessary for their own learning or for the good of the household. I’m talking about motivating your kids to want to do what you ask them to do. (Of course you need to ask them to do reasonable things for their own good not just get you a beer from the fridge when you’re watching TV.) Children have an evolved instinct to want their care-givers’ attention and approval. They want us to be pleased with them; they need it for their survival. I know it doesn’t always look like it but kids start off with a basic imperative to want to get things right and to please their parents. Though this can wane if their parents’ approval is not forthcoming.
So if we want our children’s cooperation one of the first things to work on connecting with them. Do you spend positive, fun time with your kids or is your time with them all about getting from A to B, doing homework, eating meals, doing chores and getting to bed? Do you end up nagging and chivvying or even shouting? If you don’t have a positive relationship there is less incentive for children to curb their own impulses to do what they want to do (difficult for their undeveloped rational brains) and instead do what makes us happy.
So let’s assume you’re prioritising spending positive times with them, playing, in conversation and doing things they like to do, not just ferrying them to enriching adult-directed extra-curricular activities. You’re giving them the message that you really enjoy their company. How else do you give your child the sense that you value them? Well, tell them. But don’t just say “you’re a great kid”. It has to be more descriptive than that to be credible. Instead appreciate them generally like: “I love it when you tell us stories about what happened at Scouts. You do a perfect impersonation of Akela. You really have observed the way he speaks very accurately.” Or “I was thinking of you today when I was walking the dog. I saw some daffodils just poking out of the ground and I was thinking that Spring is coming and how you love it when the flowers come out.” Or with more specific praise: “Thank you for remembering to feed the dog without me reminding you. You’re being very responsible about this dog.” “I know it’s hard for you to stop playing your new computer game when your time is up. It’s very compelling. It takes great self-control so well done.”
Against that backdrop it makes it much easier for you to influence your child. They are listening to you more. So when you have to ask them to do something use these 3 simple steps (simple to understand, not necessarily easy to do):
With these 3 steps you will be on your way to cooperation heaven.
January 08th, 2018
At The Parent Practice we usually like to focus on the positives. Not just because we’re a jolly little band but because it’s more effective for training. When we ask our kids to do things it’s more efficient to say what we want them to do rather than what we don’t want them to do. That’s because our brains conjure up images and they have a hard time processing negatives. So if I say ‘don’t think of pink elephants’ you will almost certainly be imagining a pink elephant. Likewise if you say to your child ‘don’t run inside’ he will be processing an image of himself running in the house. So instructions need to be positively framed. Instead say ‘walk inside’. Family rules also need to be positive for the added reason that lots of no’s feel very restrictive and may provoke rebellion. ‘Enjoy time on the computer after homework’ feels much less constraining than ‘No screen time unless homework is done.’
We also need to focus on the positives of what our children do because we get more of what we pay attention to. So if we notice and point out when they forget to hang up their towel or are mean to their sister but we don’t say anything when they put their book bag away or help unload the dishwasher then we can be sure to get more meanness and uncooperative behaviour. Children have evolved to do what gets their parents’ attention so we need to be careful what we prioritise with our words.
Another reason for positivity is that a positive connection between parent and child is the very best basis for discipline. Positive discipline teaches a child how to behave well rather than just not to get caught doing something wrong. It encourages self-discipline and the adoption of a set of values. Spending time with your kids doing fun things and letting them know how much you value them builds self-esteem and gives them a very strong incentive for accepting your influence.
But have you noticed that at this time of year with all the talk of resolutions how much they focus on negatives? How to get rid of excess pounds or drink less or spend less etc. While it’s not generally very motivating to focus on what we need to do less of there may be some merit in looking at some of the negative things we say in parenting so that we recognise them and can change. So many of the things that slip out of our mouths do so so automatically that we don’t even realise that we’re doing it.
So here are 4 things we shouldn’t say to our kids, what they sound like and why they kill connection: (before you read any further do realise that all parents have said these things –we’re human and we make mistakes but we’re trying to limit the number of mistakes we continue to make.)
Phew! Now go hug your child and tell them why you love them!
January 04th, 2018
Guest Blog by Dina Shoukry Weston
Do you want to raise kind, empathetic kids who care about others and stand up for what is right? Of course you do, who wouldn’t? Do you have time to do it? You’re probably thinking, “but when?” Well, here are 5 New Year’s Resolutions that can be incorporated into your daily life to raise socially aware global citizens or as I like to call them, KidCitizens!
Make giving part of your family’s everyday life by doing something for charity together in 2018. A Child Trends report showed that children who volunteer are more likely to have greater respect for others, leadership skills, and an understanding of citizenship that can carry on into adulthood. You don’t have to do anything overly complicated and you can do it with kids of any age from toddlers to teenagers. So whether you donate food to the local Food bank together, do a walk or run for a cause, hold a fundraising coffee morning or play date, or give money to a charity nominated by your kids, make sure you do something for charity with your children in 2018. If you are looking for ideas, check out these suggestions I prepared earlier!
Our society is becoming increasingly diverse. Have a look at your street, your town, your city and you will see people from all walks of life who given the chance, could enrich our children’s outlook on life in so many ways. So in 2018, go out of your way to look for opportunities to celebrate diversity. One of the easiest ways to do this is to diversify your kids’ book collection. Look for books featuring character leads from a broad ethnic background or disabled characters. Visit as many cultural events, exhibitions, performances as you can. The Chinese New Year in February is an excellent opportunity to do this. If you have friends from a different religion or culture, ask if you can join in their celebrations. Last Diwali, my family and I celebrated with a dear Hindu friend and we had the most magical time. Or travel the globe from your home through kid friendly dishes from around the world. Celebrating diversity is fun and needn’t be taxing.
A Jordans Cereal survey revealed that more than one third of adults don’t have a clue about wildlife and can’t teach their kids about the great outdoors. Let’s reconnect our kids with nature in 2018. Head out to your local park. Don’t just make a beeline for the playground, but walk slowly there and talk about the different trees, leaves and insects. Make sure your kids are taking in what they see – the sights, smell and textures - so that they can truly appreciate their surroundings. Let them climb trees and play with sticks. Risky play is healthy and encourages independence and calculated risk taking – skills they will need their whole lives. At home, plant tomatoes or herbs together or buy a grow your own butterfly kit. Talk about recycling, using less water and conserving energy. None of this is rocket science and you probably do many of these things already, but how much time do you take to explain it to your kids? One of the things I am doing with my kids at the moment is saying no to plastic straws in restaurants, as they are so harmful to the environment. If we don’t teach our kids to appreciate nature, who is going to look after it in future?
The issues our society faces are difficult to explain to young children and in many ways, we don’t want to infringe on their innocence. However, whether we like it or not, our kids are exposed to society’s problems every day whether it’s at school or on TV. The truth is, there are many opportunities to talk about tricky issues and they shouldn't be treated as anything extra special. For example, you can talk race, religion, culture, disability, homelessness, gender equality, refugees and climate change on the walk to school, at the bus stop, at dinner, anytime really. The whole point is not to fixate or over explain but rather to talk about issues little and often in a natural environment so your kids don’t feel lectured and quite simply put off. Thankfully, there are books and resources online on pretty much any tricky issue to help you. So in 2018, really think about tackling issues with your kids, it will help them to understand and empathise with their community and their surroundings.
Be visibly kind to others in front of your kids and they will be kind too. You can help a neighbor, write a thank you card to someone in the community, bake cupcakes together to cheer someone up, or simply say hello to someone you pass on the street. There are many things you can do and they don’t have to be grand gestures, just make sure you explain to your kids why you are doing them. I always ask my kids how it feels to do something kind, to which they always reply “good”.
Finally, remember to pick your moments, kids are kids and if they aren’t in the mood for your lesson on global citizenship, then leave it and try again another day. Raising a global citizen should be fun and provide opportunities to bond as a family.
Dina Shoukry Weston is a Wandsworth mum; copywriter and founder of KidCitizen, a social media campaign helping parents empower their kid to make a positive impact on their community and their world.
December 05th, 2017
As we head toward the Christmas school holidays many parents and children begin final preparations for the 11+ exams next term. You will probably have done lots of preparations already: your child may have done revision and past test papers, you may have purchased a clear pencil case, checked arrival times and made travel plans, made arrangements for siblings, planned a nutritious breakfast and early night …..
Even with all your preparations, your child will probably still get anxious. This is the real thing; they have not done it before, they know it matters and they may well have picked up that you are nervous. They probably also know that getting too nervous won’t help them. In fact some nerves are healthy as it makes use of adrenaline to spur on performance. But too much anxiety produces cortisol, the stress chemical, which can impede performance, especially memory. Some kids are temperamentally more anxious than others. Some kids you wish would show some sign that this is important….!
You might take your child aside for a quiet word….. “There’s no need to be nervous, everything is going to be fine, and you just need to breathe and stay calm so you can do your best”.
These well intentioned words might not hit the mark though. Hearing that you need to manage your nerves is not the same as being able to manage your nerves. Managing anxiety is a really important life-skill. We can use the remaining weeks (and beyond) to prepare our children, not academically, but emotionally.
We need to directly discuss our children’s anxiety about the approaching exams. It may not feel natural, it may even feel the wrong thing to do. But in fact it will help them if we say things like “I imagine as the exam gets nearer you may well be getting nervous; perhaps it is rumbling away and you’re not sure what to do about it” or “Maybe you’re scared about feeling scared about the exam, even though you have worked so hard on all those tests.”
The truth is anxiety is already present in our homes – so we’re not going to introduce it or make it worse by talking about it. In fact, when we NAME IT we have a chance to TAME IT.
Let’s give our children a chance to recognise and acknowledge their nerves, by identifying them and then supporting them to work their way through their feelings. We may still give the advice about breathing, but we approach it in a different way.
Talking about feelings generally at home helps children develop emotional intelligence. This helps them developing exactly the kind of skills that will help children in their composition and comprehension papers. Researchers have found strong links between emotional intelligence and creative and critical thinking skills.
In these last few weeks you can really boost your child’s emotional intelligence by:
We can also teach children to manage anxiety in a few ways.
When I asked my sons, I was astonished how clearly they could express their fear! One son said he feels cold and wants to stay very still; he described it as feeling blue and fragile, like glass. My other son described his anxiety as red and bubbling and it makes him want to run.
Obviously doing mad dances or tapping fingers or feet in the exam hall isn’t going to be an option, so it’s likely they will need some alternative calming techniques. (Juliet’s son takes blu-tak into exams, he squishes it between his fingers in his pocket. )
The trick is to use these techniques early enough – hence the need to spot early warning signs.
So, just as with revision preparations, emotional preparations will help your child deal with exam nerves but also develop emotional intelligence generally. And don’t forget about sleep and exercise….
November 14th, 2017
It is International Men’s day on November 19th. It seems an appropriate time for us parents to think about the type of men we want to raise our sons to be. Obviously not all men come in one model. Differences between individuals are usually greater than differences between gender and in the 21st century thinking may have moved on from a purely binary model of gender anyway. But whatever your son’s sexual orientation or place on the gender spectrum you probably have a picture in your mind, however unarticulated, about what a good man is. And there may be some differences when you think of your daughters as adults. Maybe.
Modern parents seek to avoid gender stereotypes, and quite rightly. We don’t want to restrict possibilities for our sons or daughters. But what are those stereotypical ‘male’ characteristics? My two sons are now adults and I’m glad they are ‘strong’, a quality often associated with masculinity. Women, of course, can be strong too but traditionally that strength was displayed differently.
Psychologists and linguists have noted that adults encourage this quality of strength or assertiveness in boys without even being aware of it by the way we talk to and play with boys and by how we direct their behaviour. There was a famous study called ‘Baby X’ which tested adults on how we treat babies based on what we think the sex is. The researcher Phyllis Katz said "We said this is Johnny. Just play with Johnny any way that you'd like. Or this is Jane. Just play with Jane anyway that you'd like." It was always the same baby. But when adults thought they were holding Jane, they held her gently, gave her dolls. When they thought the baby was Johnny, they played more vigorously and offered him a football. So while boys may be biologically more inclined to independently seek active solutions to problems (rather than ones based on communication and relationship) socialisation also plays a big part. We tend to use words with boys that are more associated with robust physicality; we tell them they are big and strong, whereas we have told girls they are pretty, quiet and good.
Assertiveness shows up in boys’ styles of communication too. Research (with one experiment involving taste tests of lemonade flavoured with salt instead of sugar and another based on receiving disappointing gifts) shows that boys will generally be direct to the point of rudeness whereas girls will be less honest to protect the other’s feelings. Researchers maintain this is because assertive language is more tolerated in boys than girls. When my older boy was little I worried about his strength and his physicality. It came out in aggression; he didn’t have words to express his strong feelings and he used his whole body to express himself, sometimes to the detriment of others or to his environment. But we learnt to use emotion coaching with him and now he has very good emotional intelligence. He can recognise, respect and process his own emotions; he can express his own feelings, and he understands those of others too. He is very good at recognising perspectives other than his own. He has learnt empathy. A very useful quality that he displays in abundance with his busy baby daughter and his exhausted wife!
An alternative model of masculine strength has been that men need to be stoical and hard and independent. Seeking help was weak. Batman did things alone. We laugh at the stereotype of men not asking for directions but it is not so funny when men don’t seek help with physical or mental health problems. One of the reasons given for much higher rate of suicide in men is their inability to express so-called weakness.
My younger son wasn’t so physical as a little boy but as he’s matured his strength has shown up in quiet determination. He has persevered to overcome the challenges thrown up by dyslexia and developed coping strategies around learning. He now has not one, but two, highly academic degrees and is applying that doggedness to seeking work in an industry which is challenging to break into. His resilience allows him to pick himself up after knock backs (or more often, no replies at all) to job applications and to tell himself that it hasn’t worked this time but next time it will. This involves a growth mindset which involves a belief in one’s own capacity to make changes. This is the antidote to pessimism and depression.
I’m not writing in this way to show off about my sons, proud as I am of them. Because I have now overseen their growth from boys into men I have a perspective that we don’t have when we’re in the middle of the hurly-burly of family life. When I was picking up after them, and feeding them, and driving them to activities, and feeding them, and tending to scraped knees, and feeding them, and trying to teach them not to thump each other and encouraging them to do homework, I didn’t always have this long view. Often I was just coping.
But when we’re parenting proactively we “start with the end in mind” as Steven Covey says.[i] If the kind of man you want to raise is one who shows his strength in gentle ways then you will need to ask the following 4 questions:
[i] 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families
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