January 26th, 2020

Never assume…

Yesterday was Australia day. The 26th January is celebrated by many with barbecues and picnics and there is much talk of what it means to be Australian. In Sydney people flock to the harbour to watch a fly past and a ferry race. It looks like a joyful day. But appearances can be deceptive. It is not a joyful day for the first peoples of Australia for whom the 26th January is known as ‘invasion day’. That day marked the end of their free existence in close harmony with the land they loved and began a period of conflict and loss of culture.

This period began with an assumption. When British people arrived in Australia it was called ‘settlement’, not conquest, because there was a legal assumption that the land was unoccupied, that is the peoples who lived there were not recognised as people. Black people in many parts of the world have been assumed by whites to be ‘less than’; less intelligent, less cultured, less morally principled, less worthy. These assumptions deprive us of real connection with our fellow human beings. When we ditch our assumptions and get curious we find out about others. Inevitably we find we have more in common than we had thought and even something to learn from each other. In the recent Australian bush fires traditional methods of land management were shown to be particularly effective.

Closer to home perhaps we find ourselves making assumptions within our own families. We assume our children are blank slates for us to imprint upon, but they are born with their own personalities and develop their own ideas. We assume that as their parents our job is to control and to teach them, but they have much to teach us. We sometimes assume that their behaviour is a deliberate attempt to ‘get us’. This week I had a great conversation with Bonnie Harris for our podcast where she talked about the assumptions we make about our children’s behaviour that pushes our buttons and causes us to ‘lose it’. We often think it is their behaviour that makes us see red and react poorly. But in fact it is what we think about our children, and ourselves, that gives rise to the feelings that prompt our regrettable reactions. If my six year old refuses to get dressed and it’s 7.45am and we’re going to be late for school and work and I feel like I’ve tried everything but he WILL NOT cooperate, I might shout and threaten the cancellation of the promised outing to Legoland for his birthday…. If I assume that he should do what I ask, straightaway, and if he doesn’t it means he’s a bolshie, difficult child …and that I am an incompetent parent…then no wonder I feel powerless and react by trying to seize control through threats and punishments and maybe shaming talk! And we start the day with unpleasantness and we’re already exhausted before we get to school and work. And we’ve lost connection and maybe my words have chipped away at his self-esteem. And all of that came about because of my assumptions.

Let’s start with a new assumption. If things aren’t going well it means my child is having a problem with whatever I’ve asked him to do.

He is having a problem, not being a problem.

It may be simple: my six year old son gets distracted playing with his games. He doesn’t mean to defy me but he has different, six year old, priorities than mine. He has a hard time giving up on his play agenda and bending to my adult clock-dictated agenda. He struggles to curb his impulses because his higher brain which regulates emotions is undeveloped. 

Or if we dig deeper it might be more complex: he might be feeling very controlled. It’s Friday and he’s already had four days of adults telling him what to do. After school he either goes to after school care or an organised activity and when he gets home it’s tea time and then reading practice and worksheets and bed. He doesn’t get time to play with his Lego and he doesn’t get any say in what happens.

We can hold on to our parenting skills and respond in ways we’ll be proud of if we ditch the assumptions and get curious. When our children are behaving in ways we don’t like let’s ask ourselves why. Sometimes it takes superhuman reserves of patience to be a parent, so forgive yourself if you do lose it but then ask why did that happen, apologise and repair the relationship.

I might speak to my six year old like this: “I’m sorry I shouted at you this morning when we were leaving the house. I said you were behaving like a baby and that wasn’t right. Nobody deserves to be shouted at or called names. I was feeling anxious about being late so I need to try and find some better ways for us to be ready on time. Now that I’m calm and thinking about it I guess you were feeling bossed around. You wanted to play your Lego and you don’t get much time to play your own games. I’m wondering what we can do about that. Do you have any ideas?

This kind of conversation restores connection. With older children you can ask them what they were feeling but they won’t always know or feel able to express themselves. It’s fine for the adult to take a guess at the child’s feelings and suggest it to them. But wait to see how they respond. You’ll know if you’ve accurately identified their feelings. That is how they develop both a vocabulary of emotions and the ability to apply the words to their experience. It is how they grow in self-awareness, a key part of emotional intelligence. If we listen to our children, both to their words and what’s behind their words and actions, then we can learn. This way you are modelling for your children an approach based not on assumptions but on curiosity and connection.


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January 19th, 2020

Change is the only constant

My mind has been dwelling on change in families this week as I prepare for the first of our Parenting After Parting workshop series in collaboration with Families Lawyers in Partnership and as the news is full of the Royal family separation of Meghan and Harry as they find a new path for themselves. There’s also been change in my own family with the arrival of a new granddaughter in early December which delights her 2 ½ year old sister but also throws her world into turmoil. And we’ve had change at The Parent Practice as one of our team moves on to new things after many years with us.

There’s no doubt that change can be very unsettling. As adults we may accept in theory that change is the only constant but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. As adults perhaps we can be more embracing of it than young children. That will depend on our past experiences of change, our own temperaments and what the particular change we’re contemplating looks like. Harry and Meghan no doubt look forward to some aspects of their new lives. Of course they’re hoping for more freedom and less public scrutiny and a chance to build new careers doing meaningful work of their own choosing. That ambition to make a difference in other people’s lives and have a career which provides flexibility is one that many of us hold. This week at The Parent Practice we’ve had a wonderful group of people embark on our new online version of our Training for Trainers Programme with a view to enhancing their existing careers or creating a whole new career where they get a chance to contribute meaningfully to others through positive parenting programmes.

We know that children thrive on routine and they don’t always handle change well. Some children have difficulty even with everyday changes. Just transitioning from one activity to another or one place to another or dealing with different people in the course of their everyday lives can throw them. These kids don’t like surprises, even good ones. 6 year old Nathan was stroppy when his mum agreed to help out Tom’s mum by having him round after school even though Tom was Nathan’s best friend. He had a plan in his mind for how his afternoon was going to go involving his new jerbils and needed time to accommodate someone else in those plans.   It takes time for such kids to adjust even to things like stopping playing and coming to have a meal. And big changes like the arrival of a new baby, starting big school, moving house, a family break up or illness can throw up all kinds of emotions that they need support to handle.

If you have a child like this you will know it doesn’t work to ambush them. They need preparation and their hands held as they deal with changes. Just wishing they could be more adaptable won’t make it happen.

  • Give time warnings whenever possible. In 5 minutes it will be time to hop in the bath
  • Use schedules to let your child know what’s happening in their week
  • Keep their routines as consistent as possible
  • Recognise that poor behaviour is likely to be a sign of discomfort and respond with compassion, not punishment
  • Accept that they will feel fazed by new things –acknowledge that feeling and name it to validate it. If your child feels wrong for what he is feeling he will resist change even more and his self-esteem will suffer. I know you like to check things out first before trying new things. Would you like to watch the swimming lesson for a few minutes before you get in the water? What do you need to feel ok with this? Note that you are not saying you don’t have to do new things
  • Find a constructive outlet for your own frustration when things don’t go as smoothly or as quickly as you would like –vent to a sympathetic adult or go for a brisk walk
  • See this trait as a positive –your child is likely to be reliable. If you are supportive your child will get better at handling change over time

Even the relatively adaptable child will need help with the big changes in life.

If you are expecting a second baby you’ll probably be thinking about how to prepare your firstborn. She was born into a world of adults where she had a monopoly on parental focus. You can help your child deal with her feelings of jealousy by describing them and coaching her on what to do when she feels that way. She needs to be gentle with the baby but when she feels cross maybe a jump on the trampoline would help. Talk about how it has taken time for you to adapt to new things in your life and what helped you. Give her choices wherever possible to counteract that feeling of not having any control.

Family separation is of course a very upsetting time and children of all ages go through an individual grief experience as they mourn the loss of what was, or even what could have been. This is compounded by the fact that the adults are experiencing all sorts of emotions too. It will really help your child if you try to accept your own feelings and enlist the help of other trusted adults. Try to keep the other changes that go with a family break up to a minimum. There will be new accommodation arrangements but keep contact with friends and extended family on both sides and try not to change schools at this time.

Even when moving house or changing schools are seen as positive changes they still need lots of preparation. They will take energy to deal with so expect your child to be tired and for behaviour to decline.

When the external features of your child’s life are changing they need to know they can rely on the relationship with you at the centre of everything. Keep to your normal values but above all reassure your child of your love.

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January 05th, 2020

Fail-proof New Year resolutions for family connection

It’s the season for New Year’s resolutions! Yay! This is an opportunity to start the year off with positive intentions for the clean slate of 365 days before you. Right? Or maybe it is an opportunity to feel bad about yourself for the resolutions that failed by mid-February (or earlier) last year? You’re not alone if that was your experience. Research shows that 80% of resolutions fail by the second week of February. Cue feeling down about yourself at an already grim time of year in the Northern hemisphere.

Are you going to beat yourself up for making the same resolutions in regard to your family that you made last year if you feel like you didn’t do so well on them in the last 12 months? This is a fairly typical reaction when we resolve to be more positive or calmer with our children (or partner). Did you yell at your kids in the last year, having resolved not to? Really? Welcome to the club.

So why do resolutions fail? Because we tend to make them too big and at the same time not big enough.

We can be a bit vague with our resolutions. We vow to eat more healthily or get up earlier or read more books or take more exercise or be more patient with our children. These aren’t very specific goals and they tend to focus on the short term rather than the bigger goal of building our relationships. Resolutions also fail because we don’t get support with them or because we’re not clear on whether they really support our own values. Eg why do I want to read more books? It’s only when we’re clear on the why’s that we can work out the how’s of our goals.

My advice to parents is not to resolve to be perfect parents this year. You are doomed to fail. You know there’s no such thing as a perfect parent, don’t you? And you are a perfect match for your imperfect children. No disrespect intended. You will not turn into perfect parents nor turn them into perfect children with just a little more effort on your part. And aiming for something impossible to achieve is not only the definition of insanity but it will also set a poor example for your children who model their behaviour on what they see you do. It would be such great modelling for your children to see you accept imperfection in yourself and in them while working with them to support progress.

So what are some realistic goals towards becoming more positive and more connected with your children? Here are 5 specific, measurable and achievable ideas.

  1. Set up a pasta jar. This is a tool to remind you to descriptively praise your children at least 10 times a day. Notice what they do right and comment on it while putting a piece of pasta in the jar. One jar for all the kids. Separate jars encourage competition. Be generous as this is a motivational tool. Make sure that, in line with your acceptance of imperfection, you are focusing mainly on their intentions, efforts and small steps in the right direction rather than their achievements or the outcomes of their actions.
  2. Schedule special time. Diarise some frequent regular time to focus solely on the children (or your partner). This time needs to be ring-fenced –the children need to know there is a reliable set time for them, especially if the rest of your lives are really busy. Do you know any parent whose life is not busy? Ditch the electronic devices during this time. Many families use staggered bedtimes as a chance to catch up on the day and record in a ‘Golden book’ the good things about the day; the positive things each child did as well as things for which you’re grateful. Special time may involve 15 minutes of playing UNO after bath or going to a café or kicking a ball about in the park or building a Lego castle or doing a jigsaw puzzle together. Or just hanging out. The idea is to focus on each other, so screen time doesn’t count!
  3. Sit down to eat together as often as you can. Make a specific goal that works for your family. Ensure this is device-free time and don’t discuss problems during meal times.
  4. Do activities together. The nature of the activity will depend on the age of the children of course but it could be anything from going bike-riding or other outdoor activities to doing household chores, gardening or a DIY project or cooking to engaging in charity work together. This sense of common purpose builds real togetherness and belonging.
  5. Make some family resolutions. This gets children into the habit of setting goals and fosters connection. Your goals could be to reduce screen usage in the family, or eat less meat, or recycle more or get enough sleep. Get input from the children on what the goals should be and (depending on age) how to set smaller milestones on the way to the bigger goal. Make sure they are realistic and measurable.

Acknowledge your efforts towards your goals and when you slip up accept that this is inevitable from perfectly imperfect human beings and therefore isn’t a reason to give up. It may mean you need to adjust the goal itself or your approach to it. It may mean you need more support or more self-care. Like Thomas Edison you may have discovered one of the ways not to achieve this goal. That’s learning.

Wishing you joy and ease in your families in 2020.

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November 10th, 2019

7 ways to beat bullying

You may be aware that this week is anti-bullying week in the UK. Your child’s school may have been talking to them about it already. Some schools are engaging in activities like odd socks day to celebrate difference. If they haven’t already your kids will probably come home talking about it. I hope so because it’s with increased awareness through family and school discussions that bullying is best dealt with.

It’s worth pausing for a moment to consider what bullying is and is not. The definition by the Anti-bullying Alliance is a good one. They say that:

“Bullying is the repetitive, intentional hurting of one person or group by another person or group, where the relationship involves an imbalance of power. It can happen face to face or online.”

The intentional element of the definition doesn’t excuse hurtful, offensive, degrading or threatening words, or words which focus on the subject’s insecurities, on the grounds that the person saying them meant to be funny. If the subject isn’t laughing, it’s not funny. Even if others are laughing. It’s pretty clear if the subject has asked the speaker to stop. It’s definitely not ‘just banter’ if the speaker would be upset if someone said the same thing to them. But it doesn’t excuse it if the speaker says they would not be bothered by the same words. If the subject is hurt, it is hurtful. Some people are hurt by things that others wouldn’t be because of their experiences. Aboriginal footballer Adam Goode was offended when he was called a ‘gorilla’ because he has had experiences of racism that the 13 year old white girl taunting him had never had. Schools are much more aware of this these days and are less likely to excuse it as ‘just kids’ teasing’ as they might have done perhaps when you were at school.

The definition refers to an imbalance of power but that doesn’t mean that bullying can only be done by bigger kids to smaller ones or older to younger ones. An imbalance of power can exist because the bully belongs to a majority group of any kind, whether on the basis of race or gender or sexuality or faith or intelligence or what neighbourhood they live in or economic circumstances or membership of a club or even longevity at the school! Power can reside in physical strength or ability or come from status. Some girl cliques have been known to derive their power from their bullying, exclusionary tactics.

Of course there is an imbalance of power between adults and children based on size, strength and the authority invested in us by society by virtue of our position as parent or teacher or guardian. And we have a duty to ensure that we don’t use our power in a coercive way, to hurt. We all know that much of parenting is modelling so we need to be very careful that at home we are showing our children how to get their needs met through discussion, not by just railroading the other. Check yourself next time you’re tempted to say “You’ll do it because I say so!”

Parents often want to know what they can do in response to bullying and that’s a good question to ask but we also need to ask ourselves what we can do to prevent bullying in the first place. Here are 7 things you can do.

Make respect part of the culture of your family by:

  1. modelling it in your dealings with others and with your partner and your children. We know that we need to walk our talk. Can you brave enough to confront your own prejudices? Be aware that they will have arisen from the environment in which you were raised and choose a different path now that you are an adult. If you talk to your children about rejecting an old prejudice of your own that vulnerability will be very powerful
  2. treating your children with respect, warmth and consistent discipline. Research shows that this results in tolerant adults
  3. requiring it of your children. When you are clear about the values you want to pass on to your children they will be aware of your expectations and more likely to embrace those principles
  4. calling out disrespect or intolerance wherever you see it, especially when it is demonstrated by our so-called leaders –plenty of opportunity on TV or in social media! This includes requiring your children to rephrase their own statements if they’ve been disrespectful. “That’s an offensive/hurtful/ disrespectful/racist thing to say. We don’t talk like that in our family.” This needs to be done with understanding and without judgment. It also models a way of responding should your child be exposed to such talk. If a child makes a prejudicial statement like “homeless people should get jobs instead of begging” probe gently to see what the thinking was behind that remark. Then challenge his views, ideally by asking questions which lead him to see a different point of view. Eg “Do you think people choose to live on the street or would they prefer to be in a safe, warm house? So if they don’t choose it how do you think it could have happened that they don’t have a job or a home?...”
  5. talking to your children about all people deserving to be treated with dignity, justice and respect even if they are different from us or if we disagree with some of their beliefs or behaviours
  6. talking about how we all have differences and celebrating diversity. This will be easier if your child is exposed to difference. If your school environment or neighbourhood is not particularly diverse where can you find a more multi-faceted experience? Embrace food, literature, art and music from different cultures and help your child understand learning or communication differences that children in their school may have. Use books to talk about issues like different styles of family or gender
  7. you can also encourage your child to see the similarities between them and others who appear different at first glance

Change starts with us.


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October 07th, 2019

Your question answer - When school and home aren't aligned

My son is in year one at school. He has recently come home saying that his teacher has said that if homework is not complete that playtime will be docked. I worry about playtime being taken away as a punishment. One of the homeworks is computer based and it has a leaderboard. The teacher has said that they should all try and beat one boy who is a regular user on it. I don't know if I am being overly sensitive as so many other parents do not seem concerned about playtime being threatened or the competitive element of this approach.

This type of punitive discipline is damaging and the competitive approach to learning isn’t helpful either. I know the teacher is trying to motivate the children to do their homework and to improve their skills but there are many other ways to do that which don’t have such a detrimental effect. This kind of coercive approach is likely to stifle any enjoyment of learning and make the children resentful and perhaps rebellious. And encouraging competition between classmates encourages them to see their peers as rivals, people to get ahead of, rather than friends and collaborators.

On top of that at this age it is really vital that kids have breaks from academic work to relax, run around and engage with friends. Much learning happens in the playground too.

Many parents of children this age feel a bit resentful that their children have to do homework at all. The children have already had a busy day at school and they’re tired when they get home. Parents hate that homework becomes a battle ground. Professionals are also divided in their opinion of the benefits of homework for young children.

You are not being oversensitive –you are showing a more enlightened approach than the school or other parents who just accept this. However you do need to uphold the authority of the school because if you undermine them your son may not do what he is asked to do and get in trouble. This can have a detrimental effect on self-esteem. So you can move him to another school (not necessarily that easy) or you can speak to the school about why a more positive approach would be more effective.

Homework doesn’t have to be a battle. Here are 7 ways to make it easier:

  • Think of homework as an opportunity to help your child become an independent learner and to cement in what he learnt during the day
  • Plan to make the homework environment calm, without distractions and, ideally, with your company. Give him choices over when and where it is done
  • Show an interest in the topic/task and ask him what is interesting or useful about it
  • Break it up into smaller sections if necessary and set time limits for the work. The school will give guidelines for how long it should take. If he is focusing well but it takes longer stop work and let the school know that. Children can really only focus well for an amount of time equal to their chronological age plus one. So a 5 year old can focus on a learning task for 6 minutes
  • Ask him what he has to do and how he is going to do it and then let him do it himself with occasional dollops of descriptive praise from you about how he is working, the effort he is showing and any useful strategies he is employing
  • Empathise if he doesn’t want to do it, but be firm that it needs to be done
  • When it’s finished find 5 things to descriptively praise and then ask him to improve one thing

If you do decide that you will accept that this competitive approach is the school’s way I think you can still give your son alternative messages. Teach him to do his work without reference to the leaderboard. Tell him that it is much more fun to do the work and just enjoy it (and the learning in it) rather than doing in order to beat others. Give him the message that tasks become less enjoyable when they are all about winning. Reinforce this by a healthy attitude at home to mistakes and failures. We all make mistakes and must not be afraid of them. It’s how we grow. Focus on the learning/ fun in a task rather than the outcome. Never ask your son if he won a match or what his score is in academic tests. Focus on his effort instead. It doesn’t mean you can’t celebrate achievements but when he does well in something refer that back to his efforts. Eg you did really well at this …because you were concentrating really hard.

It’s tough to be our children’s advocate in a school environment that doesn’t share our values but remember that your child picks up his values at home.


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September 30th, 2019

7 positive rules for happy family screen times

Do you find you have to text or What’s App or message your child on one or other social media platform in order to get their attention? Even though they may be in the same room as you? Does your child get a rabid look about them if you try to prise the controls to their Xbox out of their hands so that they will go and have a shower? At least every third day? Do you sometimes look up from the TV on Friday Family Fun Night and find every member of the family is on a handheld device as well? Yep, we know, you’re all multi-tasking…Does your teenager not feel any experience is complete without having photographed it and posted it on Instagram? Maybe your child has forgotten what her friends look like without the added whiskers offered by Snapchat filters. Your child may be constantly online chatting with friends… while doing their homework (honest mum!)… but may also be worried about a toxic troll culture in that environment. Do you worry about their communication skills as conversation is reduced to 140 character soundbites? (Apparently now that Twitter allows 280 characters the average length of a tweet is 33 characters. Go figure.) Have you calculated how much time your son has spent watching cat videos on YouTube?

If this is your experience you’re not alone. There has been a marked increase in parental concern about their children’s use of technology and parents are finding it harder than ever to control it. Often suggested solutions are technological ones, and that will be part of it. Parental controls are a good idea and so are controls designed to help us help ourselves like iPhone’s Screen Time. The irony of using a device to help us monitor the use of our devices!

But technological controls will only go so far. There was a piece in the New York Times in the summer about parents hiring coaches to help their families wean themselves off screens.  Whole new businesses have evolved offering prescriptions of a very basic nature such as reading books, going outside to play and getting a pet. Other solutions are more extreme such as technology abstinence pledges.

At The Parent Practice we believe that children need to be educated in screen literacy and digital citizenship at home. I was interviewed by the Evening Standard on this topic last week and gave my top tips for managing screen life at home:

  1. Communication and connection vs coercion and control.
  2. Modelling is 80% of parenting so you need to be demonstrating a healthy balance of activities in your own life. Be honest; do you say you’re listening while scrolling through emails?
  3. Be really clear about your values around the use of technology and use of time for other things. Is it important to you that your children get outdoors; take some exercise; spend time in other creative pursuits (I’m not saying that screen use can’t be creative); read books; spend face to face time with actual people, especially family; do their homework; tidy their room sometimes… No doubt you also have ideas about how you want them to behave online and what sort of sites you’re happy for them to access.
  4. Hold a family meeting (with nice food) where you explain these values to the children and invite them to have input in creating family rules that reflect them. These rules would cover the how, when, where, what and for how long aspects of screen use. Put this in writing and sign the digital contract thus created. (TIP: this should be written in the present tense. Eg we put devices in the drop off zone at mealtimes and one hour before bedtime.) ALL the family need to stick to the rules agreed, including provisions for screen-free time and zones. So a lot of thought needs to go into creating them.
  5. Once the new regime has started descriptively praise everyone (including the adults) for their efforts to stick to it, even the smallest step int eh right direction.
  6. Empathise that change is hard and whenever they would like to be using a screen at a time that is not allowed. Acknowledge that screen use is VERY appealing, even addictive. When the child slips up (or you do) do not criticise or punish but refer to the rules and underlying values and support your child to get it right next time. Do not remove screen time as a punishment or offer it as reward for non-screen related behaviour. Screens are just part of our lives and children need to be educated in their healthy use.
  7. Celebrate the alternatives. Go for walks or bike or scooter rides together. Make mealtime conversations fun (maybe play word games or get some conversation starter cards). Read, cook or get crafty or do a DIY project together. Encourage kids to play. Talk about the kinds of games you played as a child.

Top tip: Do not buy your child their own device until they are of secondary school age. Even if they need to use a device of some kind for school work or you’re happy for them to entertain themselves on screens within limits the device itself should be a family one which the child borrows for limited times and for specific uses.


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