Here is a sampler of some of the articles I have written over the last 20 years or so. Feel free to browse! I hope you find the ideas and information helpful.
Most parents know what a stranded tourist would feel like; lost, alone and without a phrase-book, in the middle of an unknown country. A language barrier looms between us and our kids. Why is my baby crying? What does it mean when my infant grizzles like that? Why is my toddler flipping out into a full-blown tantrum, and what can I do about it? Why is my teenager rolling her eyes at me, locking herself for hours in her room – and how can I help?………
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INTUITIVE PARENTING – you know much more than you realize!
Most parents know what a stranded tourist would feel like; lost, alone and without a phrase-book, in the middle of an unknown country. A language barrier looms between us and our kids. Why is my baby crying? What does it mean when my infant grizzles like that? Why is my toddler flipping out into a full-blown tantrum, and what can I do about it? Why is my teenager rolling her eyes at me, locking herself for hours in her room – and how can I help?
Ever been there? Helpless, confused, frustrated, not knowing what to do – these are all regular stops on the journey of parenting. This is in spite of the fact that parents today have access to a bewildering and unprecedented array of scientific information about child development. The problem is; we are also overwhelmed by it all – there is so much to sift through. And to make matters worse, sometimes we are given conflicting information. Have you noticed that experts are often at loggerheads, polarized into opposing camps? So, although it is valid and important to have a gander at what the experts advise, how do we avoid giving our power away to them? How much inner wisdom is each parent equipped with, and how can we use our own intuition to weigh up and filter the advice we are given?
Here is a clue: you weren’t born at 23 years of age, all educated, ready to get a job and start planning your retirement. You were once an unborn child, a helpless infant, a babbling baby, an uncontainable toddler, a child and then…. an adolescent – with all the angst and smugness that a deluge of hormones can bring about. Not so long ago, you sounded, behaved and felt a lot like your child does now. You actually know a lot more about how your child feels than you might be consciously aware of – and this understanding can be the master key to your effectiveness.
All parents have parenting intuition, there is nothing magic about it. It is just a case of knowing how to hear its voice inside you. Listening to your intuition is as simple as this: learning to listen to the voice of your heart. But can we trust that voice? Doesn’t our culture tell us over and over not to let the heart lead? Don’t we prize rationality and efficiency over the mushy, gooey quagmire of the world of feeling? Could it be that intuition and the voice of the heart are romantic confabulations, the stuff of fairy tales? Apparently not. Modern science has rescued intuition from the realm of sentimentality and located its biological base.
Your heart is a brain
Have you ever wondered why love poems and love songs speak about the heart – no matter what the language? In every culture around the word, people point to the centre of their chest when they talk about love.
Have you ever felt a warm glow, a melting feeling, some tingling or buzzy sensations in the centre of your chest when you are filled with love for your child, or for any other person? Do you know why that happens?
In a revolutionary discovery that is sure to transform how we understand ourselves, it was recently found that the human heart is far more than a muscle that pumps blood around. The heart contains at least 40 thousand of its own brain cells, much like the ones in your head. Just like the ‘head-brain’, this ‘heart-brain’ makes its own brain chemicals in copious amounts – one of the main ones being oxytocin, the hormone of love.
Here’s where it gets really interesting. When they looked at the connections that join the head-brain and the heart-brain, neuroscientists found that more information travels upwards – in other words, the heart is wired up to tell the head how to think.
The heart rules the head
Much of how we live today, even the way we relate to our children, is a throwback to a period historians call the Age of Reason, from 17th and 18th century Europe. It was around that time that the French philosopher Renee Descartes made his mark in time with this sad utterance: ‘I think, therefore I am’. We Westerners must have thought that was good enough for us, for since then we seem to have prized rational thought over (and almost to the exclusion of) any other aspect of human consciousness. For centuries, we have been admonishing each other to not give sway to our emotions; not to let the heart rule the head. Look at the curricula of most schools, add up the proportion of time devoted to training the intellect as opposed to developing emotional intelligence, and you’ll soon construe the value we have given to matters of the heart.
Without the help of modern neurobiology, however, Descartes was bound to get it wrong. The truth about human beings is closer to this: ‘I feel, therefore I relate’.
Biologically speaking the heart rules the head, and it always has; much as we have long feared to admit to ourselves. And even inside the ‘head-brain’, the emotions seem to run the show. The emotional centres of the human brain (limbic brain) make decisions much faster than the rational, logical part of the brain (frontal lobes), so quickly in fact that this tends to happen subconsciously. The emotional brain then tells the rational brain, a more lumbering thinker, how to reason. The traffic of information is far busier from the faster, emotional brain to the rational brain, than the other way around. There are far more neural connections flowing from the limbic brain to the frontal lobes than the reverse. But because the rational brain works slowly and above the threshold of conscious awareness, it gets all the credit. And yet, by the time you make what you thought was a cool-headed decision, your mind was already made up, based on your feelings about the matter.
So, when you think you are being purely rational, this is an illusion. The more we come to terms with the primacy of emotional intelligence, the more this will open us up to a new world of intuitive sensing, releasing us from a life of cold and analytic calculation. To get in touch with our deeply intuitive nature, all it takes is a commitment to reversing the way we have been trained and validating the inner voice of the heart: a quiet and often wordless voice.
How is this important for parents? Working out what our children need in order to thrive is definitely not simply a matter of knowing the right information about child development, and having an armoury of clever techniques (the controlled-cry, the naughty-stool, the gold star reward charts, the one-two-three magic, ad infinitum). A deep and joy-filled connection with our children – the kind of connection that allows us to be a positive influence in their lives – rests on our ability to relate to their innermost feelings, to see more deeply than their surface behaviour. This kind of connection is far more powerful, influential and enriching than authoritarian behaviour-control – and it has something to do with our willingness to hear our intuition, the voice of the heart.
What is intuition?
More than a thinker, you are a feeler, a senser. Though you may not be consciously aware of this, your body remembers everything you felt as a child, as a baby and even as an unborn baby. The amygdala is a part of the brain that organizes emotional memory, and it is fully functional by the third trimester in the womb. Even though most people have no conscious recall of their lives before around three years of age, our bodies remember all of our feelings, since before we were born. That’s because narrative memory and emotional memory are organized by different parts of the brain. You have therefore retained a huge archive of emotional memories that can help you to empathize with your baby and child – if you are willing to lend these memories your attention.Your emotional memory – what many people call your ‘inner child’ – is actually your most important source of parenting wisdom. Your body has retained the knowledge of what you most needed when you cried just like your baby cries today, or how you wished to be treated when you once yelled just like your toddler does. The knowledge of what would have comforted you is not buried as deep as you might imagine.
To help you further, your brain contains a special and miraculous set of neurones that comprise the wiring of human empathy. Known as ‘mirror neurones’, they fire in sympathy with the feelings of people you care about, helping you to feel a little of what others feel. You know more than you realize about how your children feel and what they need, long before they can speak. Inside you is all the necessary hardware and circuitry needed for fully-fledged intuition.
Your heart-brain and emotional memory centres speak to you in a quiet inner voice, and they speak to you through bodily sensations. A pang in the chest might be telling you, for instance, something about emotional hurt, while a knot in your stomach perhaps speaks about anxiety or worry. Could that flutter in your diaphragm be a sign of great excitement? That twisting in the gut, is it fear? And sadness might show up as a lump in your throat. Although at the core we all share a common emotionality, there is no perfectly universal formula; it’s a case of getting to know how your own body speaks to you about your feelings.
As a parent, it is useful to know that since you are organically designed for empathic connection, your body also speaks to you about your child’s inner world. So, when you feel lost and hopeless about how to interpret what your little ones are feeling, a good place to start to is pay attention to what your own body is saying to you.
How our culture obscures our heart-voice
The systematic dulling of the heart-voice begins very early in our lives. How many times have you been told, in one way or another, not to listen to your feelings? When you were a child, did anyone ever tell you to stop crying because: ‘there is nothing to cry about’? Were you ever punished or shamed for expressing anger? Were you ever put down for being afraid? Or judged for being exuberant? When helping you to think about a future vocation, did the adults in your life orient you towards money and security rather than towards following your passion? No wonder we have lost so much of our connection to our feelings. No wonder we have lost touch with our heart-voice. The heart-voice still speaks, but we have learned to ignore it, we have in fact developed powerful and habitual ways of shutting it down.
Even as parents we add our part to a shared, social trance; a collective and unwritten contract that agrees to downplay our children’s emotional world. When small babies cry often they risk being characterized as manipulators, burdens, or ‘difficult’ babies. Everywhere practitioners and handbooks admonish us to leave our babies to cry alone, without comforting, until they cry themselves out – especially if they should have the temerity to cry at night. We tell our children ‘it’s nothing’, ‘don’t be silly’, ‘get over it’, ‘cheer up’ – while we remain embedded in a culture that says NO to human emotion. Sometimes it is our own finger-wagging elders that tell us we are spoiling our children if we listen to their feelings and allow them to express their views.
For too long the quiet voice of the heart has been hushed in our world, hampering our confidence and our effectiveness as parents. So, how do we find the heart-voice again; how do we pick out its sound from the many noisy voices that vie for our attention?
Learning to listen to your parenting intuition
When you witness your child experiencing any strong emotion, or expressing some need (for example: crying, screaming, acting out angrily), this acts as a trigger: it presses your buttons. Your child’s feelings and behaviours reactivate in your emotional memory systems any similar feelings and behaviours you have experienced throughout your life. Even if you have absolutely no conscious recall, your own childhood experiences are reawakened in the form of a fleeting body memory; a set of sensations and feelings.
In a micro-instant, your nervous system weighs up all you have personally experienced that is similar to what you now see your child going through. It’s amazing how fast your brain operates! Your nervous system examines these vast annals of feeling, the sum-total of your body’s emotional memory, scans what your mirror neurones are telling you about your child, and finally distils from all of these notes a single, meaningful impulse. Parenting intuition is the motivational signal that offers the most helpful suggestions – should we choose to stop dismissing it and to act upon it.
Learning to take instructions from our intuitive pulse is not unlike learning to speak a new language; there is, inescapably, quite a bit of trial and error involved. In order to develop your ability to hone in and listen to your intuition you need two simple things:
Bring your attention to your throat, your heart and guts. Notice any sensations in and around those places. What do these sensations feel like? What do they seem to be saying? Begin a quiet inner dialogue with your body’s felt sense. When you get an idea of what your body-sense might be saying, check back by asking your body: ‘Is this what you are saying?’ When you hit the right message, you will know because the sensation will immediately change; it will either become more intense, change in nature, or dissolve altogether.
Be willing to validate what your body is telling you and tentatively, to act upon it. The next step is to trust your baby’s or child’s response. Any changes you see in your child’s mood or behaviour will be invaluable feedback about the appropriateness of your response. If what you offer seems wrong for your child, don’t beat yourself up – be willing to adjust and try to offer your child something different.
Your body signal may be telling you what to do, or what not to do.
Countless harried mothers have been told by their nurse or doctor that when their baby cries too much, they should let their baby cry it out; to train their baby to ‘self-soothe’. Inside, most mothers’ hearts would beg to differ; they feel profound grief for their babies if they are unable to pick them up and comfort them. I have spoken to so many who, having ignored their own intuition and followed this advice, suffer great remorse for years afterwards. On the other hand, parents who listen to their hearts and remain a consistent holding presence for their babies, tend to have calmer babies and more self-assured children in the long run.
Your own childhood memories
The more you practice connecting to how you once felt as a child, the stronger your intuition will be.
Sylvia was having trouble coping with her 10-year-old daughter’s angry outbursts. Most of the things she tried to quieten her daughter would only make her angrier. When Sylvia began to recall what she most needed from her parents whenever she felt angry as a child, this changed her perspective fundamentally. She resolved to listen intently and non-judgmentally to her daughter’s feelings, to validate her anger instead of trying to quell it. This made an immediate and palpable difference. Conflicts were greatly reduced and an enduring warmth and lightness returned to Sylvia’s and her daughter’s relationship.
Tim was having trouble coping with his rambunctious toddler whose games were often noisy and messy – and he felt awkward about joining in his child’s play. His discomfort around his boy melted when he began to recall how his own strict, controlling parents used to suffocate his spontaneity as a child. This memory liberated Tim, who decided to learn how to be a ‘child’ – that is, more playful and spontaneous – again. The result: he felt much closer to his son and his son trusted and listened to him more.
Allan was a father who couldn’t stand the sound of his baby crying. It was only once he got in touch with how little he felt held as a baby and child, and once he was able to grieve for his childhood loneliness, that his empathy began to flow towards his own baby. From contacting this emotional memory, Allan knew that he needed to pick up, cuddle and rock his baby more generously. Over time, his baby responded well to Allan’s newfound nurturance, and he became more settled.
Candace tended to be anxiously overprotective of her little toddler, too often frustrating his attempts to run, climb and explore. This was leading to growing tension between them, but she did not see why. It helped Candace to recall how she felt when, as a toddler, her own anxious mother filled her mind with warnings of peril. She remembered how smothering and how frustrating her own mother’s fretfulness felt to her as a toddler, and how her mother’s over-anxious interference stifled her self-confidence. Seeing the world from a child’s point of view helped Candace to begin letting go and trusting her toddler, to have faith in his strength and self-preservation instincts. A more joyful, playful and independent little boy was the reward for Candace’s insights.
Your inner child holds the password that unlocks your parenting intuition in times of confusion. In fact, connecting to your inner child and emotional memory is the most important study-guide for being a parent. Without the intuitive wisdom of the inner child, we are at the mercy of confusing social and cultural forces, or excessively dependent on experts.
Here is a process you can follow, whenever you feel stuck:
- Think of a troubling and recurrent problem you keep encountering with your child.
- Ask yourself what was going on around you when you were the same age as your child is now. How were you treated by your elders when you felt like your child seems to be feeling right now – or acted similarly to the way your child is acting now?
- How did that make you feel at the time? Be sure you recall your own emotions, not what others told you about yourself. Do not censor anything that comes up, by telling yourself things such as: ‘this is unreasonable’.
- If you could have full permission to wish for anything, what do you wish would have been done for you differently? What did you most long for at that moment of your childhood? How did you want the adults around you to respond? Also: was there anything you really wanted to say, or shout, or do, which you were too afraid to say, shout or do because of threatened consequences?
- If there are any emotions that come up for you while doing this exercise, give that emotion some expression: write it down, yell it or cry it, speak it out loud, talk about it to someone you trust.
- Now think about your own child. What do you now think your child needs when this issue arises between you? Did your connecting with childhood memories help you to understand your own child differently?
As parents we need to balance the best information science can bring us, with the intuitive signals that spring from our hearts. This involves gathering up-to-date information about childhood development, and balancing this with an ongoing journey to rediscover the inner child. Our intuition speaks to us constantly via our bodies, through the voice of the heart – all we need is the willingness to practice listening to and trusting this voice.
Imagine yourself as a fly on the wall of a confessional booth in a small hamlet of devout churchgoers. In just a few Sundays you discover, to your bemusement, that almost every parishioner is racked with guilt about this or that indiscretion – but they each think they are the only blemished souls, while they view all other townsfolk as upright citizens. If only they would forego their virtuous appearances and share their truths with each other – they would feel so relieved to see they are not alone!
So it is with parent-guilt. Parents everywhere agonize in secret….
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Parent Guilt - A Silent Epidemic
Imagine yourself as a fly on the wall of a confessional booth in a small hamlet of devout churchgoers. In just a few Sundays, you discover, to your bemusement, that almost every parishioner is racked with guilt about this or that indiscretion – but they each think they are the only blemished souls, while they view all other townsfolk as upright citizens. If only they would forego their virtuous appearances and share their truths with each other – they would feel so relieved to see they are not alone!
So it is with parent-guilt. Parents everywhere agonize in secret: ‘where did I go wrong? will my child be damaged because of what I did, or because of what I failed to do? To make matters worse, these days there is so much more information out there about what babies and children need; we have double the fodder for self-recrimination. Gone are the ancestral days when a casual attitude to children’s feelings left our forebears largely untroubled by what happens to a child.
Guilt weighs all the more heavily now that so many us have plumbed the depths of what felt ‘toxic’ about our own childhoods – thanks to the many hours in therapy and personal growth workshops, the piles of self-help books on our night-stands, and of course, thanks to Oprah. We are the first generation to be swearing, en masse, not to do it like our parents did. And then there is that fleeting moment when you catch yourself wondering what your child will tell his or her therapist about you one day! Yegads!
And so, we worry in private about how we rate as parents, how our actions will affect our kids. So painful is this festering guilt, we tend to keep it buried; a conversation we have with ourselves in the quiet of the night. Rarely do we show one another how out-to-sea, out of control and vulnerable we sometimes feel. The result: most of us tend to live in an illusory world where parents all around us look as if they are coping so much better than we are, and we are alone with our quirks, pitfalls, ill-temperedness and embarrassing lapses in attentiveness.
Much as I long for guilt-relief however, I cannot stomach the glib remarks often used to give parent-guilt the brush-off. ‘Don’t worry about kids, they are resilient’, goes the mantra – and if we could only believe it our worries would go away. The hard fact is that every parent will sometimes, without necessarily realizing it or intending it, cause their children pain.
In one way or another, each one of us is wounded, and our own role models were imperfect. We cannot quarantine our children from our own humanly limited abilities to care and respond. Sooner or later, in every parenting relationship there is call for remorse, making amends and even apology. And though it makes us uncomfortable, our babies and children have every right to protest against us when we let them down. We make claims about children’s ‘resilience’ – but do we ourselves have the ego-resilience to hear them out, when they point squarely at our parental lapses?
So, what can we do when we make the painful discovery that something we have done has caused our child to hurt? And how can we deal with the guilt that comes up? Before we go any further, let’s look briefly at what guilt actually is.
What is this thing called guilt?
Guilt and remorse are very different; in fact they are opposites. Remorse is about the other: it is about allowing their feelings, listening with empathy, and it is about the desire and effort to repair any hurt we may have caused.
Guilt, on the other hand, is self-focussed – and it is about beating ourselves up. By definition, guilt is the fear of retribution. Guilt gnaws at your guts while it tells you ‘look what you’ve done, what kind of a parent are you? You should have known better!’ As a pre-emptive measure against the judgment of our peers, guilt strikes the first blow against ourselves. As guilt becomes hard to bear, it cloaks itself in denial, with rationalizations like ‘oh, I’m sure he’ll be alright, she is resilient, those are just crocodile tears’ – ad infinitum.
True remorse in action builds love; it heals, it is the very thing that allows us to move on and let go. Guilt, on the other hand, is a blind alley that keeps us stuck, and alienates our children from us. Though it is a natural and universal human reaction, it is one of the most corrosive of all emotional states – and it does nothing to help relationships grow.
The good news is, the key to letting go of guilt may be simply a question of perspective. If you sometimes agonize with parent-guilt, I’d like to suggest a few fresh ways of looking at yourself and your relationships that might bring you some release.
Should learners feel guilty?
We generally don’t mind acknowledging that we have more to learn when it comes to our hobbies, or our professions. Why should parenting be any different?
Pay attention to the things you tell yourself about you as a parent. The guilty self-talk that sometimes plagues our minds can sound quite alarming – it includes statements such as: ‘I have damaged my child! I am a bad mother! I am a failure as a father! My child will grow up to be dysfunctional!’
Do you ever talk to yourself that harshly when you make mistakes as you learn in other areas of your life? Sure, some of the mistakes we make as parents can have a big impact on our kids, and we should not take our responsibility lightly. But does that warrant attacking ourselves?
Most parents feel they should be able to handle parenting better than they do, and then become disappointed in themselves when parenting feels harder than they expected. If this is true for you, ask yourself how you came to expect so much from yourself.
All parents are learners!
Sometimes it helps to see ourselves in a larger context. How expert should we all be as parents? Most people seem to assume that humans have always raised their children the same way, in happy and loving families. The fact is, that the further back you look in history, the harsher and more neglectful parenting was – and this is true for a majority of the world’s civilizations.
I know of no better antidote to the ‘guilts’, than finding out that parenting is an ever-evolving work in progress. A quick glance at the evolution of parenting through the ages does wonders to liquidate our sense of guilt, and replace it with humility and excitement for learning and growing as parents.
During the Victorian era, European parents scarcely involved themselves in the messy business of child-rearing. The wealthy employed nannies for this onerous task, while the rest sent their children to work, often as young as four. Child labour laws were not enacted until the middle of the 20th century.
The Middle Ages through to the Renaissance saw a majority of parents offloading their babies to paid wet nurses, and evicting their children to live as apprentices or oblates to the Church. Most parents shunned close bonds with their children. Both at home and at school, children were regularly, and savagely, beaten. The whip, birch or cane were standard features in every classroom and hearth.
For historians of childhood, the documents make this quite clear: across all the major ancient civilizations, from Athens to Rome, from Egypt to China, from the Inca to the Aztecs, childhood was a nightmare. Few children escaped the kinds of treatment we now classify as abuse, child sacrifice was rife, and millions of children were abandoned.
As modernity gathered pace, the evolution of parenting accelerated. Corporal punishment, for instance, is fast disappearing. Yesterday’s spanking is today’s smack on the wrist (in Australia, that is). In grandma’s day it was the wooden spoon, and in the 19th century flogging was a la mode. Today, it is illegal in 31 countries (including New Zealand) for a parent to smack or in any way hit a child. A further 25 nations are preparing to introduce this law, and the list is growing rapidly towards worldwide prohibition.
The commitment to treating children respectfully is a surprisingly recent innovation. International awareness about child abuse first came into being when a concerned American pediatrician coined the term ‘battered child syndrome’ – in 1962. Prior to this, violence against children was not deemed to warrant public scrutiny. The art of breastfeeding was almost wiped out by artificial formulas during the 1960s and 1970s. With the help of dedicated counsellors and lactation experts, breastfeeding is painstakingly clawing its way back, though a generation of role models was almost lost.
Most of our generation were protected, fed, clothed and educated by devoted and loving carers – but few of us can say our emotional needs, as babies and toddlers, were deeply and consistently met. As the next rung on the social-evolutionary ladder, we seem to be the first generation (or two) to concern ourselves en masse with children’s emotional health. Ask your parents how it felt for them to be a child – and if your grandparents are still around, ask them the same question. You’ll probably find that most (though not all) would have fed their babies under strict schedules, and routinely left them to ‘cry it out’. Most of them would have used corporal punishment liberally. Most would have been caned at school and experienced much harsher conditions than what we allow today. For most of us, this is our psychological heritage.
Given this legacy, can you still expect yourself to be an expert at meeting your child’s emotional needs? We are collectively beginners: trying to heal ourselves while creating a new model for empathic parenting. Considering this historical backdrop, is it easier for you to acknowledge and forgive your mistakes?
For sure, we all have blind spots and as parents we occasionally stumble. Some of us are good at empathy but have trouble asserting strong boundaries. Some can be very assertive as parents but at times lack sensitivity. Some of us seem to relate better to toddlers than to babies, or vice versa. Nevertheless, because of the new emphasis on healthy emotional development around the world an opportunity exists to create a new society through our honest efforts to grow as parents.
Still feel guilty?
Who said listening to our children would be easy?
Empathy can be a hard-won skill. Psychologists and counsellors spend hundreds of hours learning how to listen to people’s feelings so that they feel heard. Despite all that training and even after years of experience, not one of us can claim that we don’t need to keep improving our ability to empathize. Good listening requires a conscious effort to be humble, open, and to set judgment and expectations aside – we can keep learning this forever.
So why are we surprised when we have an empathy lapse with our children? It’s fine to be remorseful, but why do we beat ourselves up? If even professional listeners need to keep learning and practicing their art, is it not OK that parents have much to learn about listening too?
Who said we were meant to cope by ourselves?
The supportive village that all parents need is largely missing from our culture. Parenting is done in private, and most parents have almost never touched a baby until they have their own.
The more anthropologists and social scientists understand about human parents, the more emphatically they conclude that we were designed to raise children in small co-operative groups, and not in nuclear families. Parenting is meant to take place where help is always at hand, in a collective setting where even the children begin rehearsing child-rearing skills from a young age. By the time an adolescent reaches adulthood in such a society, he or she is already thoroughly familiarized with how to care for children of all ages. When we in the West find ourselves struggling, not knowing what to do with our child, we risk blaming ourselves unless we ask ourselves these two questions: ‘do I have all the support I deserve? and: did my elders show me how to interact with babies, toddlers and children?’
Here is one of the most important ideas that all parents should understand: parenting is not meant to be as hard as it feels for most people. The main reason why we struggle, why our patience runs short, is that our nuclear-family situation is entirely un-natural, unreasonable and unsustainable. The fact that it is normal does not absolve it from being unhealthy. No parent is meant to be at home alone with one or more children; it is Nature’s design to always have a fresh pair of hands nearby that we can turn to long before tiredness becomes exhaustion.
So, the next time you find yourself reacting impatiently towards your child – and then recoiling in guilt – tell yourself this is a sign that you do not have enough support as a parent. Reaching out and hanging out with other like-minded parents can be so rewarding, while saving you and your child a lot of anguish. If your extended family is not available, you might like to, for instance, join one of the many ‘natural parenting’ groups in your area, or form your own. Consider this an essential, not a luxury.
Compassion instead of guilt
There is one last reason why sometimes we don’t respond to our children in the most appropriate way. Next time your child’s behaviour presses your buttons until you respond in a regrettable way, take a few moments to look inward. Try to recall how you were treated when you behaved in similar ways to your child, when you were about the same age. Remember how that felt from the inside, in the body of a child. In most cases, when we give our children less than the patience and sensitivity they deserve, this springs from a deep emotional wound dating back to our own childhood. In the course of my work, many parents have shared with me some deep regret about how, at one time or another, they have disappointed their children. A journey into their own childhood memories is always ripe with revelation; shedding new light on their own reactions, and replacing guilt with compassion for themselves.
Two benefits reward the self-inquiring parent: one is the relief from guilt that re-connecting with inner child feelings can bring. The other is how this opens our hearts even more towards our children.
When we do something that wounds those we most cherish, this is a signal that something in ourselves wants healing. It is not a time to beat ourselves up. Certainly, if our child is upset he or she needs our help, perhaps even our apology – and we should give these freely. But we also need to attend to your own need for healing, self-compassion, understanding and growth.
A group of psychological researchers in New York were once working with mothers for whom the sound of their babies crying was so grating; they found it very hard to comfort them. Since having a baby was so unpleasant to them, these mothers showed signs of Post Natal Depression. When asked to describe their own childhoods, many shared stories of abandonment, maternal remoteness, detachment and even abuse. Many of these mothers broke down and cried bitterly as they told their tale. What the researchers discovered next was most uplifting. Once the mothers had grieved openly in the presence of a caring individual, they found themselves spontaneously reaching out to their babies and lovingly comforting them in their arms. The babies’ cries had lost the power to trigger their mothers’ long-held pain.
Parenting does not improve simply because we avail ourselves of better quality information and advice. What most transforms our relationship with our children is the inner work: our willingness to learn, heal and grow.
A mother I once worked with found that her relationship with her daughter had soured when she became a teenager. She found herself often becoming angry at her daughter and feeling critical of her. Their relationship was increasingly conflicted and on their worst days, mother’s and daughter’s feelings for each other approximated hatred. The mother felt mortified with guilt, and anguished about the growing distance between them. That is, until she began to take an active interest in how her own relationship with her mother felt to her when she was a teenager. Her own mother had been incessantly nit-picking and judgmental of her, and had ‘never said a kind word to her as a teen’. As an adolescent she felt alienated, ashamed and angry. No wonder she found it so difficult to relate to her own teenaged daughter – she had never been allowed to be a teenager herself. As she shared this with me, she wept with anger and sorrow.
By shifting her focus away from her outward behaviour, towards how she felt inside, the mother’s judgements about her daughter began to dissolve, and her guilt and self-recrimination began to lift. The more compassion she felt for herself, the more acceptance she had for her daughter’s natural adolescent characteristics: her moodiness, her strong opinions, her questioning of authority and her thirst for adventure. Mother and daughter were soon talking more openly, discovering each other’s inner worlds, and a new friendship began to grow between them.
We are all familiar with the edict: ‘physician: heal thyself!’ Here is a new one for us all: ‘parents: parent yourselves!’
The benefit of releasing guilt
A healthy, emotionally secure child will spontaneously protest when they feel hurt by you, or disappointed in you – and they don’t trouble themselves to speak too elegantly! For toddlers it’s usually something along these lines: ‘you’re a bad Mummy! you’re a silly Daddy!’ Or perhaps something a little more colorful when it’s a teenager airing discontent.
I do not favour any parent accepting verbal attacks from their children. However, unless we listen empathically and validate children’s feelings, healing and renewal cannot take place. And here’s why our release from parent-guilt is vital for the flow of love between us and our children. It’s only when we are not in the throes of guilt, shame or inadequacy that we seem to have the spaciousness to respect our children’s right to protest. An intact self-esteem is what makes us strong enough to really hear our children when they say: ‘Dad, you let me down! Dad, you hurt me! Mum, you didn’t listen!’ A fair hearing is a gift, because only once feelings are heard and validated can love come back, and thus we move on. Children do not harbor grudges like adults can. Their resentment vanishes the moment they feel heard – and next thing you know you are being told you’re the best parent in the world.
Guilt or shame can lead us to stifle our children’s attempts at relationship-repair. When they claim their grievances, we turn away, we deny or downplay their feelings and this makes them feel unimportant. Our guilt makes us super-sensitive, and hard to talk to.
When parent-guilt is replaced by emotional honesty, it is as if the sun rises again for the family. Relationships become far more pleasurable, laughter returns to the household. Your child does not want you to grovel, to beg forgiveness, to put yourself down or diminish yourself in any way. All he or she wants is acknowledgment, a truthful recognition of what you did or did not do and how this made them feel, and to see that you’re interested in learning and growing. That’s not so hard; it just involves an open heart, humility and emotional vulnerability. The rewards are well worth it. By the way – if you can do this, you will be amazed how forgiving your children can be towards you.
So, what is it that makes us ‘good parents’?
As a father I have made so many mistakes, been so impatient, irritable and inappropriately pushy at times, that if my self-esteem was based on being a ‘good Dad’, I would be in trouble! So, what else should our self-esteem as parents’ be about?
I would urge all parents to redefine what a ‘good parent’ is: it is not so much about how often we get it right for our children, it is not about not making mistakes. Good parenting is about a willingness to acknowledge our errors and our lapses in empathy openly, and to be humble enough to apologize when necessary. Also, it is about maintaining an ongoing commitment to learning, healing and growing. If we enjoy our children for who they are and avoid taking ourselves too seriously, this goal is well within our grasp.
An integral part of parenting – one that few of us were told about in advance – is that sooner or later we wound and disappoint our kids. We love them immeasurably, but we hurt them at times. The reasons for this are legion, and it is a painful fact to acknowledge. Usually, we seem to have our parenting ‘blind spots’ in precisely the areas in which we were wounded as children – the very places where we need healing and support ourselves. These all-too human limitations do not define our relationship with our children. A loving relationship is not one in which hurt never happens. The most fulfilling relationship with your child is possible when it is regularly renewed through the telling, and hearing, of emotional truths.
Attachment parenting is probably the best approach to parenting babies that our culture has produced, since the dawn of what we call ‘civilization’. And yet…why do some attachment-raised children still seem anxious, angry, over-sensitive, even hostile sometimes? Were they not all supposed to be contented, confident and considerate?
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Beyond Attachment Parenting - the difference between babies and toddlers
Attachment parenting is probably the best approach to parenting babies that our culture has produced, since the dawn of what we call ‘civilization’. The new sensitivity to babies’ emotional needs has been a wonderful advance, endorsed by the best research that developmental psychology and neurobiology have to offer.
As a result, more and more of us thought that if we do it by-the-book: natural birthing, co-sleeping, baby-wearing, demand-breastfeeding, child-led weaning, elimination communication, everything would be OK. And yet…why do some attachment-raised children still seem anxious, angry, over-sensitive, even hostile sometimes? We gave them freedoms and attention unheard of in previous generations. Were they not all supposed to be contented, confident and considerate?
Secure attachment has been rightly located at the very heart of emotional health, and at the centre of what drives loving relationships later in life; but core development does not end there. Healthy attachment is essential, but not sufficient. The next stage of development is quite different, and it asks us to re-orient our relationship to the child in some fundamental ways.
The toddler, having emerged from the time of dreamy and adoring symbiosis with Mother, begins to seek a whole new basis for relationship – he/she is now ready to individuate. This new stage of development, equally essential to healthy relationships and emotionality, is about differentiation. Whereas a baby needs you to be an extension of himself; a toddler needs to see you as a separate self, so his own independent self can emerge.
The inner strength of a toddler, his autonomy and self-trust depend on parents who role-model emotional ‘realness’. This means allowing all your feelings – your love, your tenderness, your joy, your fun, your tiredness, your sadness, your anger – to be reflected congruently in your words, your gestures, your voice. The most nourishing thing for your child now is getting to see and know your ‘authentic’ self.
The toddler stage
As the baby tentatively ventures into the world of toddlerdom, a new kind of nourishment is needed for his empowerment – symbiosis no longer works. Once security is established, the child needs to grow a healthy interpersonal boundary, and a gradual change of tack is required from the parent who thus far has strived to respond to his every need. Now the child gains in strength through the gradual discovery of the parent as a separate person, with his own needs, desires, feelings – and limits!
As long as she isn’t cruelly punished or humiliated, a toddler’s tolerance for disagreement grows stronger and her resilience matures. This allows the parents more space to show her a broader range of their own feelings, to begin asserting more of their own needs and personal boundaries, and to expect some age-appropriate considerate behavior. The more the parents are willing to be transparent, authentic and emotionally alive in relating to the child, the more she is empowered to find her own separate and unique self. As long as parents modulate their self-expression to what the child can safely understand, this kind of interpersonal contact helps the child to mature.
The role of frustration and disappointment
Increasingly the toddler meets with limits as his power and motility grows: there are limits to running freely in any direction, limits to playing with anything he grabs, limits to screaming out loud in restaurants, limits to pushing away or striking others (such as a smaller sibling), limits to staying in the playground indefinitely when the parent needs to go home. The discovery that others have their own needs and boundaries can make a child frustrated and even enraged.
As long as parents can be assertive rather than punishing or shaming, strong limits actually help the child to feel secure. It is through the parents’ boundary-setting that children learn how to contain their own impulses when they need to.
When a child is given the space and the empathy to safely express his rage (tantrums) his hurt or his sadness, this is very empowering. His right of protest is what heals him; it gives him confidence that when the world is frustrating, this does not damage his core. He can still feel good about himself in the face of frustration, and this is what enables him to move on. The right to protest his disappointments gives him a rich inner core of self-love, this is the very resilience with which he will face the transience of life’s pleasures.
As adults, there are always occasions when we appropriately choose to contain our raw impulses, such as the desire to lash out angrily or violently, our sexual urges, etc. The way our parents restrained us as children sets the tone for how we contain ourselves later. For example, if our parents shamed us, we shame ourselves into inhibition, or if our parents punished us, we punish or sabotage ourselves. If our parents were assertive with us, we contain our own impulses when we freely choose to, without denting our own self-esteem.
The role of conflict
Since children are so unrestrained and exuberant at this stage, it is natural that there will be some conflict with their parents. Far from having to be harmful, this stage-appropriate conflict is both a necessary and rich learning experience. When parents are able to manage these conflicts sensitively, acting as role models for assertive and respectful self-expression, they prepare for their children a base for lifelong self-confidence and natural negotiation skills. This is an optimal time to learn that when it is expressed honestly and constructively, anger can enhance relationships rather than destroy them. These experiences demonstrate to the child that mature love encompasses all feelings, and it embraces opposing points of view. A child learns an enormous amount about respectful relating at this time.
Conflict with the parent is of itself empowering, but this depends on how it is handled. Parents need to recognize the gulf that separates anger from violence. The free expression of anger, if done responsibly – that is: without shaming, blaming or punishing – is a major conduit of love and intimacy. Anger is simply about revealing ourselves to each other, it is a meeting in passion. We should welcome this in our relationships with our kids, as in our intimate relationships with other adults. (I would caution however that the purpose is not to shock or frighten our child with our anger, and we need to avoid explosive or annihilating rage. If our children seem frightened of us, then we have been too overwhelming. They are less likely to feel overpowered by us if we give them equal space to be angry at us, if we listen to and validate their anger. Remember, the object is neither about overpowering nor about capitulation; it is about making contact).
Once my daughter and I were mad at each other – she was six years old at the time – and we were stuck together in arguing about what seemed to be the issue at hand, with lots of dead-end griping such as: ‘but you said..!’ (familiar, isn’t it?).
I decided to short-circuit the whole quagmire by temporarily bypassing the issue. I suggested to her: ‘what if we just show each other how angry we both feel’. She agreed. I helped her up four or five steps on our stairway so we could stand facing each other, far enough apart so she would not feel overpowered by my size. Up higher than me, she could see me eye-to-eye.
And then I helped her to make two fists in front of her, and asked her to scream, just scream without words. It was a shattering, ear-splitting scream; her face reddened, I saw her fury quake through her whole body, aimed at me through her eyes. And I roared back. A half-roar at first to check that she was not afraid. How wonderful to be free to roar together, in perfect safety. Raw and true relationship, with no winners – just two titans, equals, and in love.
My daughter is eight now, and has no compunction in telling me to shut up or even to go away when she feels it. And I have little inhibition in letting her see when I am pissed-off, or tired, or hurt. Sometimes, I have helped her to push against my shoulder or my back with her feet, or to thump against a pillow on my shoulder if she is mad at me or frustrated. This always ends in spontaneous laughter and hugs. My daughter feels her strength with me, and I trust her with so many of my feelings. I love my daughter senselessly.
The role of parental expectations and demands
From the toddler years onward we need to start introducing our children to some age-appropriate demands and expectations. This is how they gradually awaken to the sense that other people have their own needs and feelings, and thus they begin a journey towards consciousness of the ‘other’, towards respect and empathy. An assertive parent that asks for respect is also the role model showing the child how to be appropriately assertive.
Over the course of the parenting journey you will need to say no a million times to your child, and this is not just a hard reality; it is a gift. Here’s what I mean. Saying ‘no’ is not intrinsically wounding; what makes it hurtful is the feeling and intention with which we say it. Those of us that felt disempowered as children are likely to feel some resentment when our own children ‘get their own way’, and so when we say ‘no’, we can sometimes sound sour and cold. It is the punishing voice, not the word ‘no’ that does the harm.
Otherwise, your ‘no’ is an integral part of how your child gets to know you, your outer boundaries and definition, this is part of how they get to experience you as a whole person. An honest, transparent and non-blaming truth about your limits is actually nourishing. When you are ‘real’, your child feels your essence, your substance, your spirit. This feeds their soul, helps them to know themselves and to grow up.
Saying ‘yes’ when you mean ‘no’ feels confusing to your child, even frustrating. It is permissiveness without presence. Say for instance you are exhausted from a long hard day at work, and your child insists on you playing with her. You could try to be a ‘good parent’, over-extend and get on the floor and play. Your presence risks having an ‘as-if’ quality, you are only half-present, inside you’re wishing you could escape. In this instance you might be giving more to your child by being honest, saying: ‘I really don’t feel like playing right now, I want to rest (or be alone, or sleep, or whatever).
Sometimes, and to some degree, our children want us to be in charge.
Many parents of our generation have tried so hard to reject the old coercive and authoritarian ways, that we have overcompensated and disempowered ourselves. We need new role-models showing us how to be in charge when this is called for, but in ways that actually empower our children. This does not mean dominating our children compulsively, nor insisting on being in charge all the time – children can’t develop self-confidence if we never let go of control. But often there are situations in which, if we refuse to take command, our children will feel lost, insecure, abandoned.
There will never be a perfect guide on how to strike a balance between stepping back, negotiating, and making strong demands of our children. No book can offer certainty on an issue that is only resolved by parents’ willingness to err, to listen intently, to watch for feedback, to acknowledge mistakes with grace, and to say ‘sorry’ when warranted. But a rough guide for non-negotiable areas of parental authority might be: when the child’s health is at risk, or when their behavior risks hurting or disrespecting someone else.
Making ‘contact’ with the child, vs. controlling the child
A new paradigm for parent–child relationships emphasises ‘contact’ instead of ‘control’. ‘Real’ and effective ‘contact’ with our children requires our authentic and responsible self-expression. The idea of authentic ‘contact’ exists outside the paradigm of ‘control’, which forces parents to choose between coercive or permissive styles. In fact, it rejects this polarity altogether. Setting boundaries assertively through authentic ‘contact’, is accomplished mainly by making ‘I’ statements to the child. Respectful boundary setting means a clear statement about you, and about how you feel, as opposed to a negative statement about the child. In this way, it’s OK to occasionally be angry with children, because ‘I’ statements express anger in a responsible and non-hostile manner. An assertive ‘I’ statement gets the child’s attention, it compels them to momentarily look beyond themselves (it is stage-appropriate for little children to be egocentric!), and at least momentarily, see you as a person. The focus is not on hurting, putting down, guilt-tripping nor shocking the child. Instead, the goal is to command the child’s attention, to show yourself in a way that compels him to see you as an ‘other’, with your own separate needs and feelings.
It is through showing yourself – your willingness to be emotionally transparent – that your children gradually come to comprehend the feelings of others. Children benefit from open expression of emotions; from seeing when their parents are angry or vulnerable, as well as when they are happy and loving. There is much value in letting your children see you are annoyed, disappointed and even hurt at something they have done. Children learn best when they can see the kind of impact that their behaviour has on the feelings of others. A study conducted at the Barnard College Toddler Centre in New York confirmed that mothers who openly — but appropriately — expressed anger had children who were more emotionally secure.
This means more than just being gentle when trying to make contact with your child. It means being all of who you are. If you feel angry, look and sound angry. If you feel sad or hurt, look and sound that way. Let your child know what happened that triggered off these feelings for you. This is not about blame, it is about connection, about letting them know you and experience you in a genuine way.
How can children learn to have empathy unless they are faced with a parent who is transparent; emotionally ‘real’? When you play the role of authority, you are not being real, but distant and false. Here is what a real person is: sometimes sad, sometimes vulnerable, sometimes irritated, frustrated, elated, loving, angry, tender, confused, afraid, mistaken and uncertain. In other words, not so in-control. And it is your essential humanness that your children want (and need) to get to know. Your humanness is knowable to your children through your openness about your emotions. In this rich soil, their natural latency for empathy and caring can grow solid as a tree. When children are treated empathically, and when they can know their parents as real persons — that is, with their own needs, limits, and vulnerabilities — they mature emotionally. Ultimately, this is what best helps them to become naturally considerate, responsible and empathic individuals, with a strong self-worth and a keen social awareness.
When we show our feelings authentically and appropriately, this is good role modelling for our children. By seeing how we deal with our feelings, they learn how to deal with their own.
Mutual authenticity is the stuff of intimacy, the cornerstone of loving relationships. In this context, when conflict is embraced and navigated responsibly, it helps your child to mature and will bring you closer together.
The central importance of emotional support
Of course, being ‘real’ with our children is far easier for both child and parent when there are others around for the child to connect to, play with, get a hug from if Mum or Dad are tired or grumpy or wanting to be alone. Support makes all the difference; we are freer to be ourselves when there is enough of it around; boundaries are easier to set and our children listen to us more attentively. We are far more likely to feel able to set boundaries without frustration and annoyance, if our children’s and our own needs for emotional connection are met.
The pot-holes on the road to individuation
Most of the things that go awry when our child is trying to tease out a separate self, stem from our unrecognized and unresolved hurts dating back to our own childhoods. Either we over-protect our children in our efforts to prevent them from feeling how we once felt, or we act-out against them in ways that mimic the hurtful ways we were once treated. What follows are some examples of how our unhealed wounds can lead us to overcompensate in ways that interrupt our children’s developing autonomy and strength.
The ‘as-if’ parent
When we over-extend, and try to be giving and attentive beyond our true capacity in any given moment, we risk bringing an ‘as-if’ quality to our giving. Contrived generosity looks and feels quite different to the spontaneous giving that springs from a full heart. Think of a time when someone close to you offered you kindness or support, but something about their demeanor – a forced smile, averted gaze – tipped you off to their ambivalence. How did this make you feel?
As parents, it is entirely possible for us to do all the ‘right’ things by-the-book: co-sleeping, full-term breastfeeding, baby-wearing, etc. But if we don’t ourselves feel loved and supported, or if we carry deep, unattended emotional wounds from our own childhood, our gestures risk being mechanical. Our giving can have a flavor of detachment, even resentment or exhaustion. Parents are better off striking a balance between being ‘real’ – that’s when their presence is truly nourishing – and fully achieving all the touchstones recommended in attachment-based or natural parenting handbooks. Remember, your presence is nourishing to the extent that it is congruent.
As soon as you begin to feel drained or irritable when you are caring for your baby or child, this is the time to ask others for emotional or practical support, or to let someone else who loves the child take over while you replenish yourself. Your emotional depletion might also signal the need for more loving attention to the parts of you that have been wounded. Notice how much more pleasurable, joyous and easy parenting can be when you are feeling nourished, loved, supported, healed.
The softly-softly approach
Many of us have been so hurt by the authoritarian methods of the last generation – the ‘do-as-you’re told’, punish-and-shame approach – that we have sworn we will never treat our own kids that way. It is very easy to overcompensate in the effort to avoid ‘sounding like our own parents’. When setting boundaries with our children, we try to use a sweet, sing-song tone, a sugary voice. The effects on our children range from confusing to grating, to infuriating.
Parents who don’t strongly assert their own needs and boundaries with their child, who don’t express ‘negative’ feelings and always speak softly disarm the child as a way to avoid conflict. Children have a keen sense of the authentic; they know if our efforts to sound gentle are incongruent with how we really feel inside. This frustrates and irritates them quite considerably, and can contribute to endless whingeing, whining, or tantruming.
Our children instinctively expect us to be ‘real’, and they rarely let us get away with inauthenticity.
Parents who are afraid to say ‘no’
The fear of saying ‘no’ is another example of overcompensation, driven by parents’ memories of having felt neglected or deprived as children. To keep saying ‘yes’ compulsively well into the toddler stage and beyond risks producing an over-indulged child, who struggles to find a real reason to respect others. Compulsive permissiveness can also prevent children from developing healthy ways of dealing with the daily realities of frustration, ultimately this is very disempowering.
The self-sacrificial parent
Some parents appear to almost never have their own needs for space, for quiet, or they appear to have little or no personal interests beyond servicing the needs of their kids. They cling to their children and become enmeshed in their lives, stuck in a martyr-like role. Often this is because they themselves felt emotionally or physically abandoned as children, and cannot bear to allow their children to forge an independent identity. Alternatively, this is a parent who was herself over-protected by possessive parents, and was not given the freedom to separate out, to explore the world beyond her family nucleus and develop her own perspectives. Her own parenting style may be affectionate and loving on the one hand, but overindulgent and smothering on the other.
Parents who are afraid to seem angry or annoyed
If we were victims of punishment, threats and shaming at school and at home, we associate anger with hurt and humiliation. When our parents, teachers or peers were angry with us, this was usually followed by some kind of punishment, humiliation or attack. As a consequence, we confuse anger with hostility, not realizing that the two are quite different. Few of us had good role models who showed us how to express anger responsibly; free of blaming and shaming. Not knowing how to express anger safely and without attack, we hold back our feelings. Yet it is entirely possible to be angry without being hostile, to command a child’s attention without threat or accusation. Usually, it is also possible to communicate strongly and assertively with our children without the need for anger in the first place.
How these dilemmas impact on the child’s behavior
When parents do not set boundaries, when they do not express their own needs and feelings, they seem ‘unreal’ to their children. This makes it difficult for children to find themselves, they remain enmeshed and dependent, and they don’t learn by example how to express their own needs respectfully.
The parent who neglects his or her own needs and feelings seems to lack definition or solidity, and to the growing toddler and child this can be extremely uncomfortable. Some children react by poking and prodding, they behave provocatively in search of some spontaneous reaction that feels authentic to them. Their behavior might seem irritating, whining, or directly vexing. This is not because they seek ‘negative’ attention. It is because they need their parents to seem ‘real’ to them, they need to experience a ‘real’ connection. They want to feel met.
Example: a toddler wants a toy, her mother says ‘no’ because it happens to be another child’s turn to play with this toy. The toddler screams at her mother and hits her. The mother responds with a gentle, soft voice: ‘please don’t hit Mummy, that’s not nice’. She is refusing to appear unpleasant, and overprotecting the child from conflict. This makes the child even angrier, because she feels as if her mother is not really with her. Because she is not reacting to the invasion, she does not seem solid or present. The child feels frustrated, the mother’s syrupy response feels like no response at all. She lunges at her mother and attacks her further. The more her mother tries to be placating and sugary, the angrier the child gets, till finally she melts into a full-blown tantrum.
Frequently when parents feel stuck, they ask ‘what do I do?’ – when so often it is not about ‘what to do’ but ‘how to be ’. Many impasses in our relationships with our children seem to dissolve when we show our feelings to them in a way that connects with them. Many difficult or challenging behaviors are our children’s efforts to elicit that ‘real’ connection from us, they want to feel us through our responses.
There are no ‘good’ parents, this is a myth as fallacious as the idea of a ‘bad’ parent. That’s because when it comes to parenting, there is no finished product. As aware parents we are always becoming, it is our own journey of healing that makes us more available for relationship. And throughout life, it is this that heals all wounds: emotionally ‘real’ connection. The goal of parenting is ultimately not about ‘producing’ an outcome, such as a ‘happy’ child, a ‘confident’ child, a ‘successful’ child. It is about learning how to connect with our child at each step of the way. Connection is felt when we drop our armor, it comes from our emotional vulnerability, as well as our genuine interest in listening to and learning from our child, and giving him and her the respect and freedom to be themselves. Real connection is what heals, real connection is what causes us to grow, both parent and child.
As parents, teachers or elders, we tend to resort to shaming when we feel overwhelmed, irritated or frustrated, and we feel the need to control our children. But until very recently, little consideration had been given to its negative effects…
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'Good Children' - at what Price? The Secret Cost of Shame
this article was co-writen with my colleague Beth McGregor, psychologist
A five month old baby is lying in his mother’s arms. He is close to sleep, then wakes and begins to grizzle. His mother tells him that he should stop being a naughty boy, and that she will be cross with him if he doesn’t sleep.
An 18 month-old child is taken to a restaurant with her father and uncle. Her father goes to the bar, leaving the child with the uncle at the table. The child gets down from the table to follow her father. She is grabbed by her uncle and told that she is a bad child, and to stay in her chair. She looks around worriedly for her father.
At an adult’s birthday party a six year old is awake long past his bedtime. He is running around the hall with the helium-filled balloons. His father yells at him to leave the balloons alone, and tells him to stop being a trouble-maker.
What did these children learn from these experiences? Many would say that the adults’ responses were necessary to teach the child the difference between right and wrong: between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviour. Verbal punishment is common in almost every home and school. It relies on shame as the deterrent, in the same way that corporal punishment relies on pain. Shaming is one of the most common methods used to regulate children’s behaviour. But what if shaming our children is harming our children? Could it be that repeated verbal punishment leaves children with an enduring sense of themselves as inherently ‘bad’? If so, what can we do differently
What is ‘shame’?
Shame is designed to cause children to curtail behaviour through negative thoughts and feelings about themselves. It involves a comment – direct or indirect – about what the child is. Shaming operates by giving children a negative image about their selves – rather than about the impact of their behaviour.
What does Shaming look and sound like?
Shaming makes the child wrong for feeling, wanting or needing something. It can take many forms, here are some everyday examples:
- The put-down: ‘you naughty boy!’, ‘you’re acting like a spoilt child!’, ‘you selfish brat!’, ‘you cry-baby!’
- Moralising: ‘good little boys don’t act that way’, ‘you’ve been a bad little girl’
- The age-based expectation: ‘grow up!’, ‘stop acting like a baby!’, ‘big boys don’t cry’
- The gender-based expectation: ‘toughen-up!’, ‘don’t be a sissy!’
- The competency-based expectation: ‘You’re hopeless!’
- The comparison: ‘Why can’t you be more like so-and-so?’, ‘None of the other kids are acting like you are’.
How common is shaming?
Shaming is very common, and is considered by many to be acceptable. Shaming is not restricted to ‘abusive’ families, in fact it occurs in the ‘nicest’ of family and school environments. A recent study of Canadian schoolchildren, for instance, found that only 4% had not been the targets of their parents’ shaming; including “rejecting, demeaning, terrorising, criticising (destructively), or insulting statements”.
As parents we tend to resort to shaming when we feel overwhelmed, irritated or frustrated, and we feel the need to control our children. Until very recently little consideration has been given to its harmful effects.
Shame: a new frontier of psychological study
The use of corporal punishment against children has been hotly debated, and under increasing negative scrutiny in recent years. More and more nations legislate against it, schools ban it, international organisations devoted to its elimination are proliferating, and research psychologists have amassed mountains of evidence of its long-term damaging effects. In the meantime, the issue of ‘shaming’ as punishment has been largely overlooked. Only recently have psychologists begun to discover that shaming has serious repercussions.
Daniel Goldman (author of ‘Emotional Intelligence’) says that we are now discovering the role that shame plays in relationship difficulties and violent behaviour. There is a new effort by psychologists to study shame, how it is acquired, and lastly, how it affects a person’s relationships and functioning in society. The study of this previously ‘ignored emotion’ is such a new frontier because it is the most difficult emotion to detect in others. Dr Paul Eckman, from the University of California, says that shame is the most private of emotions, and that humans have yet to evolve a facial expression that clearly communicates it. Is this why we might not see when our children are suffering from this secret emotion?
How shame is acquired
No-one is born ashamed. It is a learned, self-conscious emotion, which starts at roughly two years of age with the advent of language and self-image. Although humans are born with a capacity for shame, the propensity to become ashamed in specific situations is learned.
This means that wherever there is shame, there has been a shamer. We learn to be ashamed of ourselves because someone of significance in our lives put us to shame. Shaming messages are more powerful when they come from those we are closest to, from people we love, admire or look up to. That is why parents’ use of shaming can have the deepest effects on children. However, shaming messages from teachers, older siblings and peers can also injure children’s self-image. Since children are more vulnerable and impressionable than adults, shaming messages received in childhood are significantly more difficult to erase.
Messages of shame are mostly verbal, but there can be great shaming power in a look of disdain, contempt, or disgust.
Why is shaming so common?
Shaming acts as a pressure valve to relieve parental frustration. Shaming is anger-release for the parent, it makes the shamer feel better – if only momentarily.
When made to feel unworthy, children often work extra hard to please their parents. This makes the parent think that the shaming has ‘worked’. But has it?
SO, WHAT IS WRONG WITH SHAMING?
The Damaging Effects of Shame
To understand the damage wrought by shame, we need to look deeper than the goal of ‘good’ behaviour. If we think that verbal punishment has ‘worked’ because it changed what the child is doing, then we have dangerously limited our view of the child to the behaviours that we can see. It is all too easy to overlook the inner world of children; the emotions that underlie their behaviour, and the suffering caused by shame. It is also easy to miss what the child does once out of range of the shamer!.
Even well-meaning adults can sometimes underestimate children’s sensitivity to shaming language. There is mounting evidence that some of the words used to scold children – household words previously thought ‘harmless’ – have the power to puncture children’s self-esteem for years to come. Children’s self-identity is shaped around the things they hear about themselves. A ten-year old girl, for example, was overcome with anxiety after spilling a drink. She exclaimed over and over: ‘I’m so stupid! I’m so stupid!’. These were the exact words her mother had used against her. She lived in fear of her parents’ judgement, and learned to shame herself in the same way that she had been shamed.
If children’s emotional needs are dismissed, if their experiences are trivialised, they grow up feeling unimportant. If they are told that they are ‘bad and naughty’, they absorb this message and take this belief into adulthood.
Shame makes people feel diminished. It is a fear of being exposed; and leads to withdrawal from relationships. Shaming creates a feeling of powerlessness to act, and to express oneself: we want to dance, but we’re stopped by memories of being told not to be ‘so childish’. We seek pleasure, but we’re inhibited by inner voices telling us we are ‘self-indulgent’ or ‘lazy’. We strive to excel, or to speak out, but we’re held back by a suspicion that we are not good enough. Shame takes the shape of the inner voices and images that mimic those who told us ‘don’t be stupid’, or ‘don’t be silly’!
Shame restrains children’s self-expression: having felt the sting of an adult’s negative judgement, the shamed child censors herself in order to escape being branded as ‘naughty’ or ‘bad’. Shame crushes children’s natural exuberance, their curiosity, and their desire to do things by themselves.
Thomas Scheff, a sociologist at the University of California, has said that shame inhibits the expression of all emotions – with the occasional exception of anger. People who feel shamed tend toward two polarities of expression: emotional muteness and paralysis, or bouts of hostility and rage. Some swing from one to the other.
Like crying for sadness, and shouting for anger, most emotions have a physical expression which allows them to dissipate. Shame doesn’t. This is why the effects of shame last well into the long term.
Recent research tells us that shame motivates people to withdraw from relationships, and to become isolated. Moreover, the shamed tend to feel humiliated and disapproved of by others, which can lead to hostility, even fury. Numerous studies link shame with a desire to punish others. When angry, shamed individuals are more likely to be malevolent, indirectly aggressive or self-destructive.
Psychiatry lecturer, Dr Peter Loader, says that people cover up or compensate for deep feelings of shame with attitudes of contempt, superiority, domineering or bullying, self-deprecation, and obsessive perfectionism.
Severe shame and mental illness
When shaming has been severe or extreme, it can contribute to the development of mental illness. This link has been underestimated until now. Researchers are increasingly finding connections between early childhood shaming and conditions such as Depression, Anxiety, Personality Disorders, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. In his book, ‘The Psychology of Shame’, G. Kaufman goes further to assert a link between shaming and addictive disorders, eating disorders, phobias and sexual dysfunction.
WHY SHAMING DOESN’T WORK
Shame doesn’t teach about relationship or empathy.
While shaming has the power to control behaviour, it does not have the power to teach empathy. When we repeatedly label a child ‘naughty’ or otherwise, we condition them to focus inwardly, they become pre-occupied with themselves and their failure to please. Thus children learn to label themselves, but learn nothing about relating; about considering or comprehending the feelings of others. For empathy to develop, children need to be shown how others feel. In calling children ‘naughty’, for example, we have told the child nothing about how we feel in response to their behaviour. Children cannot learn about caring for others’ feelings, nor about how their behaviour impacts on others, while they are thinking: ‘there is something wrong with me’. In fact, psychotherapists and researchers are finding that individuals who are more prone to shame, are less capable of empathy toward others, and more self-preoccupied.
The only true basis for morality is a deeply felt empathy toward the feelings of others. Empathy is not necessarily what drives the ‘well-behaved’ ‘good boy’ or ‘good girl’.
The myth of morality
We are naïve to confuse shame-based compliance with morally motivated behaviour. At best, repeated shaming leads to a shallow conformism, based on escaping disapproval and seeking rewards. The child learns to avoid punishment by becoming submissive and compliant. The charade of ‘good manners’ is not necessarily grounded in real interpersonal respect.
What should we consider shameful?:
Shame varies among cultures and families: what is considered shameful in one place may be permissible, un-remarkable, even desirable in another. What is called ‘naughty behaviour’ is usually arbitrary and subjective: it varies significantly from family to family.
In one family, nudity is acceptable, in another unthinkable. Being noisy and boisterous is welcome in one family, frowned upon in another. While one family might enjoy speaking all at once around the dinner table, another family might find this rude. Such examples help us to realise that our way is not the only way: that our own way of deciding what is shameful behaviour can be arbitrary and variable.
The History of Shaming
Children have been shamed for many hundreds of years. Historically, they have been thought to be inherently antisocial, and their behaviour was seen through this lens. One seventeenth century author wrote: “the newborn babe is full of the stains and pollution of sin, which it inherits from our first parents through our loins”. In the Middle Ages, the ritual of Baptism actually included the exorcism of the devil from the child. Children who were felt to be too demanding were thought to be possessed by demons. Some early church fathers declared that if a baby cried more than a little, she was committing a sin. It has been an age-old tradition to blame the child for the numerous challenges and difficulties encountered by parents.
This way of thinking about children has persisted into modern times, although in less extreme ways. For example, a child having a tantrum is often seen as ‘spoilt’, and deliberately trying to antagonise his parents. A crying child risks being described as a ‘little terror’ or ‘whinger’ who is ‘just trying to get attention’.
There is no question that parenting can be frustrating sometimes. But it is groundless to automatically assume that the child is out to upset us, or to attribute some kind of nasty intention to the child. This imagined malevolence is usually what underlies the impulse to shame children.
A SHIFT IN ATTITUDE
Respecting the child
It is entirely possible to set strong boundaries with children without shaming. However, this requires a fundamental attitude shift, beginning with re-evaluating what we think is motivating our children’s behaviour.
Children have a natural desire to develop a social conscience. When treated with the same respect as adults, and exposed to adults who respect each other; children will naturally develop a capacity for empathic, caring and respectful behavior.
‘Misbehaviour’ – or developmental stage?
Sometimes what we condemn as ‘misbehaviour’ is simply the child’s attempt to have some need met in the best way they know, or to master a new skill. The more parents can accept this, the less they are tempted to shame children into growing up faster. For instance, it is normal for toddlers to be selfish, possessive, exuberant and curious. It is not unusual for two-year-olds to be unable to wait for something they want, as they don’t understand time the way adults do. It is quite ordinary for three year-olds to be sometimes defiant or hostile. If we shame instead of educate, we interrupt a valuable and stage-appropriate learning process, and our own opportunity to learn about the child’s needs is lost.
A three year-old who defies her mother by refusing to pack up her toys – after being told to do so repeatedly – may be attempting to forge a separate and distinct self-identity. This includes learning to exercise her assertiveness, and learning to navigate open conflict. Toddlers can be exasperating. But does this mean they’re ‘misbehaving’?
Strong limits are essential, but if children are shamed for their fledgling and awkward attempts at autonomy, they are prevented from taking a vital step to maturity and confidence. In the period glibly called the ‘terrible twos’, and for the next couple of years, toddlers are discovering how to set their own boundaries. They are learning to assert their distinct individuality, their sense of will. This is critical if they are to learn how to stand up for themselves, to feel strong enough to assert themselves, and to resist powerful peer pressures later in life. If we persist in crushing their defiance, and shaming children into submission, we teach them that setting boundaries for themselves is not okay.
Even babies are thought to misbehave, such as when they don’t sleep when they are told to. How could a five month old child, for example, possibly be ‘naughty’ for failing to go to sleep? Though it’s difficult for parents when babies experience disturbed sleep, it is nonsensical to see a non-sleeping baby as ‘disobeying’ the parent, and to blame the baby for this.
Consider the example of an eight month-old who crawls over to something which has flashing lights and interesting sounds. He pulls himself up to it and begins to explore. He does not know that it is his father’s prized stereo. He finds himself being tapped on his hand by his mother, who tells him to stop being naughty. He cries. At eight months, a baby is unable to tell the difference between a toy and another’s valuable property, and would be incapable of self-restraint if he could. Children’s ceaseless curiosity – a frequent target for shaming – is what drives them to learn about the world. When children’s exploration is encouraged in a safe way, rather than castigated, their self-confidence grows. Unfortunately, we frequently call a behaviour which may be entirely stage-appropriate ‘naughty’, simply because it threatens our need for order, or creates a burden for us.
A flustered mother and her distraught four year-old daughter emerge from a local store. The girl is sobbing as she is forcefully strapped into her stroller. ‘Stop it, you whinger!’ screams the mother, as she shakes her finger in the little girl’s face. Children are often berated for simply crying. Many people believe that a crying baby or child is misbehaving. Strong expressions of emotion – such as anger and sadness – are children’s natural way of regulating their nervous system, while communicating their needs. Children cry when they are hurting, and they have a right to express this hurt! Even though it is often hard to listen to, it must be remembered that it is a healthy, normal reaction that deserves attention. It is tragic to see how often children are shamed for crying.
Here’s a further example of what happens when we are unaware of developmental norms. Until recently, toddlers were started on potty-training far too early, before they were organically capable of voluntary bowel control. Many found this transition to be a battle, and toddlers were commonly shamed and punished for what was a normal inability. What was once a struggle both for parents as for children has been greatly alleviated through more accurate information about childhood development. Shaming often takes place when we try to encourage or force a behaviour that is developmentally too early for the child’s age.
We have come a long way in our understanding about child development in recent decades, and made many advances in childcare as a result. Easy-to-read child-development books fill the stores, by authors such as Penelope Leach and William Sears, and these can help parents to have reasonable expectations of their children. Children and parents are both happier when parents have ‘reasonable’ expectations of the children.
Understanding instead of shaming
Is it possible to understand what motivates children when they are ‘behaving badly’, instead of shaming them? What might ‘bad’ behaviour be a reaction to?
When we don’t seek to understand children’s bad behaviours, we risk neglecting their needs. For instance, sometimes children repeatedly behave aggressively – over and above what can normally be expected of children their age. This could be due to conflict in the home, bullying at school, or competition with a sibling. Often what we expediently label as ‘bad’ behaviour, is a vital signal that the child in question might actually be hurting. Research has repeatedly shown that a consistent pattern of antisocial behaviours, for example hostility and bullying, are children’s reactions to having felt victimised in some way. Children often ‘act out’ their hurts aggressively, when they have not found a safe way to show that they have been hurt.
Ironically, shame itself can be the underlying cause of difficult behaviour. Since shaming is a judgement from someone with more power than the child, this makes the child feel small and powerless. Sometimes, children turn the tables: they reclaim this lost power by finding another person to push around – usually someone smaller or more vulnerable than themselves.
Children are usually highly sensitive to the ‘vibes’ in their environment, they pick up tensions between their parents, or other family members. At times ‘naughty’ behaviour may be the child’s way of reacting to this tension.
Kids are less given to act out when they are receiving enough attention, when their hunger for play, discovery and pleasurable human contact is satisfied. Provocative behaviour can indicate boredom, or perhaps the need for another ‘dose’ of juicy engagement with someone who is not feeling irritable, someone who has the time and energy to spare.
Finally, children can be grumpy or ‘difficult’ simply from over-tiredness. In this case, what is dismissed as ‘bad’ behaviour might be a child’s way of saying ‘I’m over the edge, and I can’t handle it’. Curiously enough, when we as parents react with verbal assaults, we are communicating the same thing. Isn’t yelling at children that they are ‘naughty’ or ‘terrible’ (or worse) a kind of adult tantrum, a dysfunctional adult way of coping with frustration?
It is worth remembering that some causes of ‘misbehaviour’ are a lot less obvious. For instance, children need to feel our strength, they are uncomfortable with weakness in our personal boundaries. They need exposure to our true feelings, and they sense when we are hiding or pretending. They need their feelings and opinions validated, and are highly sensitive to poor empathy. Frequently, they react to any of these conditions by becoming provocative. Sometimes we blame and shame children for their vexing behaviour, because the causes are hard to see.
Cultivating empathy: through remembering
Parents often do to their children as was done to them. It is known that violence can be passed down across generations. Many parents realise that they are perpetuating a cycle in which they are shaming their children, in the same ways that they were once shamed by their own parents. Those that have forgotten the sting and humiliation of being shamed, risk being insensitive to the shame they inflict on their own children. Change requires deepening one’s empathy toward the child, and this comes from remembering how it felt to be a child. The understanding that comes from seeing the world through a child’s eyes can help adults to influence children without shaming them.
As parents, it is not unusual to find ourselves struggling, frazzled, or nearing an emotional boiling-point. When we don’t find healthy ways to discharge this frustration, we risk taking it out on our children. Although irritation is a normal part of parenting this is not because children are ‘too demanding’. Children are children, and the fact that child-rearing can be difficult is not their fault. There are many ways to re-route our excess anger, such as screaming into a pillow, chopping some wood, going for a walk, or talking our frustration through with friends.
Everyone’s capacity for loving patience is finite; that’s human. When parents experience excessive strain this is largely due to our adherence to this myth: that it takes just two parents to raise a child. Our society has grossly underestimated the energy required to truly meet children’s needs. We can avoid shaming simply by sharing the load – by asking for, and accepting, practical help from trusted friends and community. When we hear ourselves shaming our children, we might take this as a sign that we are needing more assistance.
WHAT DO WE DO NOW?
A new paradigm for boundary setting:
Respectful boundary-setting implies a strong statement about you, as opposed to a negative statement about the child. In this way, children gradually develop a good capacity to hear and comprehend the feelings of others. Children benefit from open expression of emotions; from seeing when their parents are angry, or upset. It is OK to be angry with your children, to let them see you are annoyed at something they have done, (as long as you don’t shock or terrorise them). Children learn best when they can see the kind of impact that their behaviour has on the feelings of others.
Finally, it helps children to listen to and respect your feelings, if their right to express their feelings is equally respected.
Re-directing the child’s impulses
From time to time we are compelled to intervene in our child’s activity, when we fear that either a person or a treasured object might get hurt. Shaming can be avoided if, instead of just chastising or stopping the child, we also provide a safer, alternative activity. For instance, occasional aggression is part of normal, balanced healthy development. Children are often shamed and punished for this, when instead they could be shown ways to channel their natural aggression safely.
Sometimes it is important to re-evaluate whether we need to chastise at all. A guideline comes from considering whether the behaviour in question is actually causing harm to anyone, or creating a concrete risk.
The role model
Role-modelling is the most powerful teaching tool. Children don’t do what you say, they do as you do. The kind of respect they show others and themselves is a reflection of the kind of respect they have themselves been shown – and the respect they have witnessed displayed between the important people in their lives. Are we role-modelling the kind of behaviour that we want our children to display?
Many people are still convinced that smacking or shaming are the only antidotes for preventing antisocial behaviours in children. The suggestion of giving up shaming or smacking is misinterpreted by some as attempts to dis-empower parents; to turn them into guilt-laden, ineffectual and permissive wimps. Not so. The most effective and healthy boundaries can be set without resorting to violence or shaming. Being strong with children does not mean being harsh, or humiliating.
There are alternatives to shaming – which are healthier and more effective. Children who are shown consistent boundaries by parents who are able to express their feelings and needs, grow up with stronger self-worth and social awareness, free of the toxic effects of shame.
Over and over we have been taught that we should praise and reward our children a lot more. What could be wrong with that? On the surface, praise looks marvellous – the key to successful children! Scratch this surface, however, and the results look very different…
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REWARDS AND PRAISE - The Poisoned Carrot
We give our children ice-cream if they’re ‘good’, chocolate if they’re quiet, little gold stars if they eat their greens, maybe even money if they get good marks at school. We praise them with a ‘good boy!’ or ‘good girl!’ if they do something that pleases us. For the modern and discerning parent, the hitting-and-shaming method of ‘discipline’ is passe. Punishment is out, and rewards are in. Why use the stick, when we can better teach a child by using a carrot?
The New Age hype about praising and rewarding children for what we call ‘good’ behaviour has gained massive popularity. ‘Find something good your child has done, and praise them for it!’ say the nouveau ‘how—to’ books and seminars. Psychologists all over recommend the ‘star-chart’ treatment to modify your child’s behaviour. This trend is the offspring of a particular school of psychology – the ‘behaviourists’ – whose thinking currently dominates much of mainstream psychological and educational theory.
In fact, these days praising or rewarding your kids’ ‘good’ behaviour is so customary that almost nobody – until recently – has thought to question its validity. Praising or rewarding kids is just plain common sense, and good parenting – isn’t it?. Who would doubt that it’s good to give children praise, or prizes when they perform to our liking?
The praise-and-reward method is definitely hunky-dory, since it is backed by a ton of evidence from the most methodical and ingenious research that money can buy. Actually, it springs from the work of psychologists who painstakingly discovered that they could train rats to run mazes, pigeons to peck at coloured buttons, and dogs to salivate at the sound of the dinner bell – by giving them a controlled schedule of rewards. Psychologists soon became titillated about the idea of controlling human beings, by applying to us the same principles that worked on animals. Imagine their excitement when they realised that rewards work exactly the same on humans as on rats, pigeons and dogs. Modern psychological know-how has enabled us to manipulate children’s behaviour, thoughts and emotions in the same way as we can teach a seal, with a few sardines and a little flattery, to balance a ball on its nose.
One problem, though. We don’t particularly care about the quality of relationship we develop with a lab-rat. We are not concerned with rodents’ developing self-esteem, their sense of autonomy or independence, nor do we give a hoot whether the rat will get interested in trying bigger and better mazes of it’s own accord, long after we stop rewarding it with little food pellets. And that, as most of our experts have failed to tell us, is where the whole fancy technology of ‘reward, praise and reinforce’ falls to pieces.
Over and over we have been taught that we should praise and reward our children a lot more. What could be wrong with that? On the surface, praise looks marvellous – the key to successful children! Scratch this surface, however, and the results look very different.
But, rewards improve children’s behaviour and performance, don’t they?
Or so we thought. However, when the little gold stars or jelly-beans stop coming, the behaviour we were trying to reinforce tends to peter out. Children that have grown used to expecting praise, can feel crushed when it doesn’t come. This dampens their perseverance. There is plenty of evidence that in the long term, reward systems are ineffective.
Contrary to popular myth, there are many studies showing that when children expect or anticipate rewards, they perform more poorly. One study found that students’ performance was undermined when offered money for better marks. A number of American and Israeli studies show that reward systems suppress students’ creativity, and generally impoverish the quality of their work. Rewards can kill creativity, because they discourage risk-taking. When children are hooked on getting a reward, they tend to avoid challenges, to ‘play it safe’. They prefer to do the minimum required to get that prize.
Here is a good illustration of why we made the mistake of believing in rewards, based on benefits that appear on the surface. When an American fast-food company offered food prizes to children for every book they read, reading rates soared. This certainly looked encouraging – at first glance. On closer inspection, however, it was demonstrated that the children were selecting shorter books, and that their comprehension test-scores plummeted. They were reading for junk-food, rather than for the intrinsic enjoyment of reading. Meanwhile, reading outside school (the unrewarded situation) dropped off. There are many more studies showing that, while rewards may well increase activity, they smother enthusiasm and kill passion. Individuals anticipating rewards lose interest in activities that were otherwise attractive. It seems that the more we want the reward, the more we come to dislike what we have to do to get it. The activity required of us stands in the way of our coveted prize. It would have been smarter to just give the kids more interesting books, as there is plenty of evidence that intrinsically enjoyable activity is the best motivator and performance enhancer.
Can rewards and praise harm our relationship with our children?
You wouldn’t think that the positive things you say to your child about himself or herself can be as destructive as negative labels. But there are times when this is true.
Thanks to modern advances in behavioural science, our ability to seduce or manipulate children (and animals! and grown-ups!) to do what we want them to has become increasingly sophisticated. But the cost of manipulating through rewards has been great. Below are ten ways in which praise and rewards can damage our relationship with our children.
- Rewards and praise condition children to seek approval; they end up doing things to impress, instead of doing things for themselves. This can hold back the development of self-motivation and makes them dependent on outside opinion. When children get used to getting goodies for ‘performing’, they become pleasers, over-reliant on positive strokes. Rewards and praise can create a kind of addictive behaviour: children can get addicted to recognition, and thus lose touch with the simple joy of doing what they love. So many of us are addicted to prestige: we get depressed when admiration fails to come. Instead of doing what we do for its own sake, we fish for flattery or reassurance, and when the applause dies away, we sink into despair. Giving rewards or praise can be habit-forming. This is because the more rewards we use, the more we have to use them to keep children motivated. Praise cannot create a personal commitment to ‘good’ behaviour or performance. It only creates a commitment to seeking praise.
- One of the worst things we can do is to praise a child’s potential. Acclamations like ‘I just know you can do it’, ‘You’re getting better!’, ‘I know you’ve got it in you!’, ‘You’ll get there!’ sound supportive on the surface. But these compliments are loaded with our expectation that the child must improve in some way. It tells the child there is a target to keep reaching for in order to get the full ‘bravo!’. Praising children’s potential does not help them to like themselves for who they already are, and can make them feel disappointed with themselves. Underneath the praise is the silent implication: ‘you’re not good enough yet’. This seduces children to work harder to impress us, at the expense of their own self-esteem. As psychologist Louise Porter says: ‘If you want children to develop a healthy self-esteem, stop praising them’ (see reading list below).
- Rewarding children’s compliance is the flip-side of punishing their disobedience. It is seduction in the place of tyranny. Many studies show that parents who use more rewards also use more punishment, they are more likely to be autocratic. Praise is the sweet side of authoritarian parenting. It reduces the relationship to one of controller and controlled. That is why the more astute – or less gullible! – children feel something ‘icky’ in praise; it makes them feel condescended to. Praise is a reminder that the praiser has power over them. It diminishes the child’s sense of autonomy, and, like a little pat on the head, it keeps them small.
- Meanwhile, the rewarder is like an assessor, judging what merits praise and what doesn’t. This makes them somewhat scary to the child. Praise or rewards do not make children feel supported. It makes them feel evaluated and judged. Though ‘Good boy!’ or ‘Good girl!’ is a positive judgement, it is still a judgement from on high, and ultimately it alienates the child.
- The more astute children can see right through manipulation. They are onto us, they think our praise is slimy, and they are not easily outwitted by seductive tactics. In particular, when praise is a technique we have learned from a book or a seminar, it is likely to come across as false and contrived. Praise and rewards, like flattery, can stink of our efforts to control, and lose our child’s respect.
- Children, just like adults, naturally recoil from being controlled. We all want to grow toward self-determination. Praise can therefore create resistance, since it impinges on a child’s developing sense of autonomy.
- Rewards punish, because the child is denied the reward, praise or approval unless he or she ‘comes up with the goods’. Moreover, the child who is used to being praised begins to feel inadequate if the praise doesn’t come. Nothing feels more defeating to a child than to miss out on a reward that he or she had been conditioned to expect. Inside every carrot, there is a stick.
- When children are bribed with rewards for ‘good’ behaviour, they soon learn how to manipulate us by acting the part that is expected of them. They wise up to what it takes to get the goodies from us: the approval, the ice-cream, whatever. They become superficially compliant, doing what it takes to flatter or impress us, and honesty suffers. After all, who wants to be honest or real with a person who is evaluating them? Once relating is reduced to mutual manipulation rather than authenticity, this sets the stage for manipulative and dishonest relationships later in life. Manipulation erodes the functions of mutual trust, vulnerability and transparency, which are vital to healthy intimate relationships. As a result of early manipulation, we grow up trying hard to please, or we learn to use our wiles to impress, in order to get the goodies – at the expense of being our natural selves. We develop a phoney or false self that distorts our relationships with others.
- Among siblings, or in the classroom, reward systems create competition, jealousy, envy, and mistrust. Rewards or prizes for ‘good’ performance are a threat to co-operation or collaboration.
- Praise can make children feel robbed. If we are hungry for admiration ourselves, we can sometimes err by deriving it through our children’s triumphs. We use them to make up for our own wounded self-esteem or pride. If we are praising them because they have made us feel good about ourselves, they sense this. This takes away from their good feelings about themselves; our praise can act as rain on their picnic. Some children refuse to produce what they are naturally good at, because they are repulsed by their parents’ gloating.
Why are praising and rewarding so popular?
Rewards are an easy way out, easier than trying to understand why a child is, as many like to glibly call it, ‘misbehaving’. For example, why bother to find out why a child refuses to go to sleep at our convenience, (is he afraid? is she feeling lonely? is he still hungry? etc.) if we can simply reward him or her with a trinket for going to bed on time? It feels easier to fudge over the underlying problem by using a bribe. This gives the child the clear message that we are not interested in how he or she feels. Worse still, we risk overlooking a serious emotional problem. Rewards and praise can be a gimmicky quick-fix that ignores the child as a whole person.
Rewards work well for getting children to do something that they don’t naturally want to do, for the short-term only. This immediate behaviour change rewards us, and keeps us addicted to rewarding. The negative consequences of rewards and praise don’t materialise until later, so we fail to recognise rewards and praise as the culprit.
But children do need acknowledgment, and positive feedback. What can we do instead of praise them?
Often we want to express our delight and appreciation for our children; who they are as individuals, and the amazing things they do. Appreciation is different to praise because it is not manipulative. Manipulative praise, as opposed to spontaneous expressions of appreciation or acknowledgment, is loaded with the covert expectation that the child do the praiseworthy act again. Most children can sense this; they can feel the difference between genuine acknowledgment, and a deliberate strategy to reinforce their behaviour. So, how do we give our children positive feedback?
Avoiding praise or rewards does not mean holding back the love and delight we feel for our children, nor our instinctual desire to encourage them – far from it!. It is perfectly possible to join in with our children and celebrate every step of their unfoldment, without being manipulative. Here’s a few suggestions for how to acknowledge and encourage your children to your heart’s content – and theirs – while avoiding the use of praise.
Focus the child on his/her own pleasure at achieving.
Instead of lavishing children with congratulations, it’s better if they focus internally on the pleasure they derive from accomplishment. Children are naturally thirsty to achieve, learn and conquer. They are born with an insatiable zest for mastery, and each new attainment fills them with delight. It is this self-enjoyment which provides the greatest fuel for perseverance and further learning. When you see your child do something new, it can be wonderfully encouraging and supportive to say: ‘you look like you enjoyed that!’, or: how did it feel to do that?’. ‘I’m glad you did that, you look happy with yourself!’.
Help him/her to self-evaluate.
Whenever possible, it is a good idea to ask your child about their own self-evaluation. For instance: ‘how do you like your drawing?’, ‘are you happy with how that piece fits into the puzzle?’.
Ask them about their inner experiences.
Say, for instance, your child reads you a story he just composed. After sharing how the story made you feel, you could ask: ‘How do you feel about the story you wrote?’, ‘How did it feel to write it?’, ‘Did you enjoy telling it?’, ‘How did you come up with those ideas for your story?’. There are few things so nourishing to your child’s self-esteem, and so enriching to your relationship with him, than your interest in his inner world of feeling and imagination.
Use ‘I’ statements, instead of labelling the child.
Your appreciation touches your child more deeply when it is expressed in terms of your feelings. For instance: ‘I like the colours you chose!’, or ‘I love how you sang that song!’ – instead of: ‘what a good drawer you are!’, or ‘gee you’re a good singer’. Avoid labelling statements like: ‘Good boy for sharing your toys!’. Say instead: ‘thanks for sharing with your friend, that felt good to him – and to me’. Focus on your feelings, not on a moral or quality-oriented label. An ‘I’ statement keeps you from holding a position of power over your child. It creates an honest and fulfilling connection between you while not interfering with their experience of themselves.
Comment on the behaviour, not on the person.
Feedback and acknowledgment are definitely important. Imagine your child has just played you a new piece she has learned on the piano. Instead of saying: ‘What a good player you are!’, you could tell her how much you enjoyed the piece. Better still, be specific. Tell her what in particular you liked about her playing (eg. the passion or emotion, the beautiful melody, how carefully she played, her sense of rhythm, etc.)
How do we know when our positive comments are manipulative?
Ultimately, the problem is not about the perfect choice of words, or how much or when to make positive comments. When you do the right thing for the wrong reasons, it ends up being the wrong thing. Since the problem is one of intent, there is no other way but to become good examiners of our own motives. This takes practice, and the courage and humility to look within. When giving a positive comment, are you trying to seduce the child into pleasing you again, into making Mama or Papa proud? Or are you genuinely glad to see the child accomplish something that pleases him, or genuinely delighting in her being? Therein lies a paradox: that which is not intended to reinforce, but merely to ‘connect’, is the most reinforcing.
Is praise ever OK?
There is no need to muzzle ourselves, praise is wonderful when it is not used manipulatively. For instance, rewards should not be promised in advance, nor guaranteed every time the child does something you like. Positive feedback is best for your relationship with your child when it is offered spontaneously, when it springs from your heart, and not as a deliberate ploy to get more of what you want from the child.
Praising and rewarding are deeply ingrained habits, particularly as that’s how most of us were raised and educated. It may take practice to replace them with appreciation and acknowledgment, but the latter feels more fulfilling, and can bring you and your child closer.
Children can certainly be made to do what they don’t want or love, by offering them approval, praise or other rewards. But this does not make them happy. Happiness can only be derived from doing what is intrinsically rewarding to us, and this does not require others’ applause. Do we want kids to become reward-addicts, crowd-pleasers, and recognition-seekers, or do we want them to be self-motivated, faithful to themselves, following their own interests? If the latter is true, then the way is not to praise them but to appreciate them. At school, when the work is made intrinsically interesting, enjoyable, meaningful and relevant, this works better than reward systems to improve both the quality and the commitment to the work.
Children are born with an enormous desire to learn. They also have an innate capacity for honesty, empathy and considerateness. These qualities come forward as a result of our guidance, our role-modelling, and our appreciation. Rewards and praise for ‘good behaviour’ or ‘good performance’ simply get in the way.
Most of us have been told at one time or another that children aren’t supposed to remember anything that happens to them before – roughly – the age of two. Emotionally painful experiences during infancy will therefore have no lasting impact. These words might have been reassuring, if they didn’t also imply that our infants don’t remember the love we have given them, and so our love at this time has no lasting impact either. As science continues to throw open the mysteries of the brain, and the nature of memory, this kind of advice will gradually vanish…
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What your Child Remembers: new discoveries about early memory - and how it affects us
Most of us have been told at one time or another that children aren’t supposed to remember anything that happens to them before – roughly – the age of two. Emotionally painful experiences during infancy will therefore have no lasting impact. These words might have been reassuring, if they didn’t also imply that our infants don’t remember the love we have given them, and so our love at this time has no lasting impact either. As science continues to throw open the mysteries of the brain, and the nature of memory, this kind of advice will gradually vanish. Every emotionally meaningful experience – whether joyous or painful – is stored in memory and has a lasting impact on a baby’s developing nervous system. The way our world feels to us as babies influences our unfolding personality, emotionality and relating styles profoundly, for the long term. There are different kinds of ‘memory’, beyond the stories we can recount. And we ‘remember’ a lot more than we realise.
Within the limbic system of the brain – an area concerned with processing emotions – are the amygdala and hippocampus. The amygdala processes highly-charged emotional memories, such as terror and horror. The hippocampus processes narrative, chronological memory. The amygdala is mature at birth, so babies are able to feel a range of intense emotion, even though they cannot understand the content of the emotion and its relation to what is going on around them. The hippocampus on the other hand, does not mature until sometime between the second and fourth years. Until then, babies are relatively unable to organise memory meaningfully in terms of sequences of events. Only rarely does anybody consciously recall the events of infancy. However, the storage of the emotional content of memory is facilitated by the amygdala. We therefore remember every emotion and physical sensation from our earliest days, and even if we have no clarity about the events that took place, these memories imbue the way we relate to each other as adults.
Just as memory can be divided up into the dual categories of ‘Short Term’ and ‘Long Term’, there are also two qualities of memory: ‘Explicit’ and ‘Implicit’. The capacity for ‘explicit’ memory reaches full maturity at around three years of age. This is the kind of memory that is conscious and enables us to tell a story that makes sense of what happened. ‘Implicit’ memory is available from birth or earlier, it is unconscious, and is encoded in emotional, sensory and visceral recall. In other words, what we don’t remember with our minds, we remember with our bodies, with our hearts and our ‘guts’ – with lasting implications for our thinking, feeling, and behaviour.
The process of ‘forgetting’ is more superficial than we once thought: it only rubs out conscious recall. Even as adults we are mercifully capable of deleting any record of traumatic events. If we are unlucky enough to face a situations of panic or terror which we feel helpless to escape, the brain secretes endogenous opioids in order to numb us to overwhelming emotional or physical pain. These brain chemicals also interfere with the storage of explicit memory, though implicit memory of the trauma remains available. Experiences that are emotionally too overwhelming to deal with are stored somatically, as a body memory. Thereafter they are expressed as an unconscious response to stress. When we over-react to mildly stressful or even innocuous situations without knowing why, this might be the result of implicit, traumatic memories dating back to childhood or infancy.
The memory centres that govern narrative recall, emotional memory and body memory can operate independently of each other. Despite being in a coma, one man went into physiological anxiety states when exposed to a smell that was associated with a personal trauma. It is possible to have strong emotional reactions without conscious recall, even without consciousness! Another man whose damaged brain had lost all capacity for short term memory, still reacted aversively to specific doctors who had conducted unpleasant tests on him, without any recollection of having met them. A brain-damaged woman who had also totally lost her short term memory refused to shake the hand of a doctor who had earlier hidden a sharp pin in his hand. She was bewildered by her own refusal, since as far as she was aware, each time she met him was the first. So, much of what we think, feel and do is induced by implicit memories ‘written’ into muscle, sinew, fascia and viscera. Not one of our experiences is lost to us. Each experience, particularly those that are charged with emotion, adds to the complex mosaic of our personality.
Our brain has an amazing capacity to make associations. Something or someone that ‘reminds’ our brains of a traumatic situation – a smell, a song, a person that looks like someone from our past – triggers our automatic, self-protective ‘fight, flight or freeze’ responses. This reflexive reaction occurs too quickly; before the information reaches the cortex where it can be evaluated rationally. That is why we sometimes over-react to things, people or situations reminiscent of a traumatic event, without any conscious recollection of the event in question.
There are occasions when implicit memory can be made explicit. Since implicit memory is ‘stored’ in the body, repeating certain movements, gestures, breathing patterns, or assuming certain postures associated with highly-charged emotional memories can bounce these memories into explicit, conscious awareness. It is as if the body releases its secrets to the mind. Many individuals have been able to retrieve traumatic memories, both from adult and infant experiences, when induced by strong emotions associated with the original experience. In certain states of consciousness, in psychotherapy or meditation, people have spontaneously recalled things that happened to them as babies. Many have remembered how it felt to be a baby, howling for a mother who would not come. In reconstructing a particular body posture, or talking about a similar emotionally charged event, the contextual memories of unbearable longing, rage or terror come back into focus. It is equally possible for sweet, joyous memories of a parents’ loving face to resurface. This phenomenon is called ‘state-dependent memory retrieval’, and while it is not essential, it can bring healing under certain conditions.
But even if not consciously remembered, early memories show themselves indirectly through behaviour. It is intrinsically human to re-enact defensive reactions to forgotten traumas, though our reactions are no longer relevant. Often early memories become evident through persistent feelings that don’t seem to relate to a present situation, or through bodily sensations that don’t seem to make any sense. More commonly, these early memories of emotional pain or hurt are indirectly evident through persistent difficulties in relationships, particularly in intimate relations.
Implicit memory – or body memory – explains why, for instance, a woman who was molested as a child remains fearful of intimacy – at least with men that ‘remind’ her of the perpetrator – even without a trace of conscious memory of the traumatic episodes. A man fears being alone because it triggers an emotional memory of terror as he cried in the crib, and no-one came to comfort him. He has no recollection of the event, and all around him find him likeable and congenial. He has no understanding about his compulsive avoidance of solitude. Though successful and functional, many people can be avoidant, clingy, or perhaps insensitive in relationships. These are just some of the problems of relationship that have their roots in hurts we felt at the advent of life. To some extent, most of us suffer from some behavioural manifestations of painful implicit memories.
Unbeknownst to our ‘rational’ minds, we sometimes respond mistakenly to current challenges as if they were the hurts we suffered originally. This dynamic holds true in our relationships with our children. There are many reasons why, for instance, we might find our children’s expressions of need aversive and overwhelming. Here is a common scenario: when a baby screams, our bodies react the same way as when our parents screamed at us as children, we are neurologically conditioned to escape or push away, rather than to respond with spontaneous compassion. Alternatively, our baby’s cry might trigger in our bodies an implicit memory of a time when our own cries, as infants, were not met with a loving response. Either way, our baby’s cries evoke our own painful memory, and so we seek refuge. We are all biologically capable of a wellspring of spontaneously loving responses toward our children, and toward each other. Sometimes this love is blocked by automatic defensive reactions to unresolved, implicitly remembered hurts. We are not insensitive nor neglectful; we are wounded.
When a child is reprimanded, an image of the scolder’s looks of disapproval gets stored in the lateral tegmental limbic area of the brain. The growing child and adult judge their own behaviour through the lens of these stored inner representations, which are imprinted as images charged with feelings of shame. These inner visual and auditory records of the shamer usually – but not always – operate beneath conscious awareness. The experience of parents setting healthy boundaries literally grows the child’s orbitofrontal brain, whose purpose it is to contain and regulate raw emotion. But when the parent imposes limits, for some time following the symbiotic time of infancy, the toddler feels a degree of hurt and betrayal. This developmentally necessary change in the parent-child relationship is emotionally stressful. It is important that the parent soothe the toddler after imposing restrictions on him, to help him cope with his ‘shame-stress’. Reassurance of the parent’s love repairs the child’s wounded ‘self’ and restores his self-confidence. If parents diligently assist with their child’s shame–repair, he soon learns to take over, and based on his parents’ role modelling, repair his own shame when needed. Inner representations – stored as emotional and narrative memory in the brain – of a soothing and reassuring parent are used later in life as a template for shame-repair. This internal portrait of a reassuring adult is essential so that as an adult the individual won’t be disabled or overly inhibited by experiences of shame. Though this process is usually unconscious, it secures our ability to self-soothe, and to recover from shame when needed.
Psychological and social problems arise when a child grows up with too many images of a disapproving face stored in the brain centres that store implicit memory, without the subsequent images of a soothing and reassuring adult. A child that lacks these positive images, stored in his emotional memory centres, is at risk of slipping into depression, becoming overly inhibited, or defensively hostile.
From the earliest moments of life, parental nurturance shapes the child’s emotional make-up, literally altering the course of brain-growth. One of the key elements of secure parent-child attachment is affectionate eye-contact. A parent’s sustained, loving gaze and smile suffuses infants with indescribable joy. What ensues is a cascade of dopamine, endogenous opioids, enkephalins and endorphins in the baby’s brain – all feel-good chemicals associated with loving relations. This joy-precipitated surge of brain chemicals promotes the maturation of precise regions of the cortex, which are concerned with healthy regulation of emotion later in life. Every baby requires this kind of nourishing experience regularly and frequently, for healthy brain development.
By the end of the first year, the infant has stored an internal representation of her mother’s loving face in the area connecting the anterior temporal and the orbitofrontal cortices. These images, though rarely consciously remembered, form the basis for an internal working model of relationships. It is as if the child has filed a video-clip of her mother in her brain’s ‘hard-disk’. Henceforth, these inner representations will animate her core emotional responses, forming the basis of her fundamental relationship style. When she feels her emotional needs are consistently attended to, this engenders in the child an enduring expectation of a supportive world. This attitude is pervasive and unconscious, and it inclines the child toward friendly and considerate behaviour.
Just as we might not remember learning to walk, yet our legs and feet seem to play their parts perfectly, some of our most pivotal lessons in human relations were learnt at a time that our bodies, but not our minds, can remember. The greatest gift in these discoveries is the knowledge that every loving moment we share with our children, from the very beginning, will stay with them for life.
The impulse to blame others for how we feel is like a tunnel that we must pass through; not to linger in, but to accept as a part of our journey nonetheless. Our emergence to liberation depends of how we pass through this ‘tunnel’. So, what is it about blame that makes it necessary for the healing of childhood emotional wounds?
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"HE STARTED IT!" "IT'S YOUR FAULT!" - understanding your child's blame-stage
Children can be the most forgiving people in the world. Sound crazy? Well, here is how I came to that conclusion. I’m a psychotherapist. You could say I’m a member of the blame-your-parents industry. For 25 years, I have listened to people’s most heart-rending stories of tragedy, hope, terror, shame, loss, disappointment and triumph. Almost every time, stories conclude this way: “…but don’t get me wrong! My parents were good parents. Sometimes their life-stress was too much… they did their best.” In a flash, the adult sitting before me who was once a tender child, abandons his or her own pain to defend their parents’ honour.
Not one of us had perfect parents, yet most people tend to downplay the most hurtful things that their parents may have done. Curiously, we don’t tend to extend the same loyalty and forgiveness towards ourselves – the readiness to self-blame is ever-present: ‘I got smacked because I was a brat. I must have deserved it. I must have been too much for my mother, etc’
Here is the problem: unless we can allow ourselves to feel from the point of view of the child we once were; we cannot take-in the empathy that others might offer us – and without the give-and-take of empathy, there is no growth.
In a healing process, forgiveness cannot be the first cab off the rank. The premature attempt to forgive those who have hurt us simply blocks all other feelings before they can be expressed; it blocks a true connection with Self. For the healing of emotional wounds to take place, we need to begin with the inner-child’s perspective. Usually, the wounded child’s path towards restoring emotional balance begins with blame.
Bear with me: I suspect this idea might seem like trouble, since we all are told that blame is toxic, and we all tend to feel its corrosive effect on relationships. Individuals and families I have worked with have taught me to lose my fear of blame, and in fact to see it as a potential first step to release, empowerment, and a re-opening of the heart. Here is what I mean:
Once a person finds a safe place to vocalize blame: from the depths of their gut and heart to blame those who have brought them pain, then the next steps of healing flow more naturally. For a little while at first, we seem to need the freedom to be child-like; to say: ‘you shouldn’t have done that – I did not deserve that!’ Scary perhaps, but at times this might even include the passion of ‘I hate you’. By giving vent to any blame or resentment we have harboured, we are freed to feel compassion towards ourselves, opening an inlet for the empathy of others. From there we can feel empowered, we can grow and learn new ways of being and relating. So, if instead of trying hard to ‘let go’ of the past, we give ourselves permission to express our ‘negative’ feelings, the past begins to gently let us go free, one strand at a time.
Blame is like a tunnel that we must pass through, not to linger in, but to embrace nonetheless. Our emergence to liberation depends of how we pass through this ‘tunnel’. So, what is it about blame that makes it necessary for the healing of childhood emotional wounds?
Blame is a stage of childhood
From a small child’s point of view, Life is what happens to her. She is entirely at the mercy of her universe – how much effect can a little child have, realistically, on her destiny? From her perspective, you the parent are like a God. Looking up at you from two feet off the ground and thinking with a fledgling brain; the bad stuff really does seem like your fault! So when the weather is wrong, she may even see that as your fault ‘Why couldn’t you make the sun come out, Mummy?’
Blame as a developmental milestone
There is nothing elegant or refined about childhood. You have heard it said that lying is a natural stage for toddlers, with their wild imaginations. Well, so is blaming, and in fact it serves a vital developmental purpose. Round about the time when your child begins to stand, take his first few steps, and to discover language; the developmental stage of ‘attachment’ starts to wane. It’s goodbye baby, hello toddler. Whereas a baby does not have the equipment to handle conflict or disappointment – this is precisely what begins to grow for the toddler.
When baby becomes toddler, it’s time for parents to begin setting boundaries, for saying ‘no’, and increasingly for locking horns in disagreement. Conflict enters the home; and at times, love now also includes tug-of-war and wrestling! Here are some of the most common conflict themes:
Junk food wars: No more sweeties (when one more milligram of sugar will turn him into Jim Carrey on steroids)
Parental self-preservation: no more bed-time story (when your eyelids are drooping somewhere below your chin)
Square-eye prevention: no more TV tonight
Sibling politics: no, don’t snatch that toy from your little sister, no don’t push your little brother over
Weapon control: no don’t swing that stick overhead in the playground
Occupational Health and Safety: No running around the slippery swimming pool, no running-off near a busy highway
Conflicts as above are unavoidable – but more interestingly: they are necessary. Learning how to maintain love in the face of disagreement is part of the developmental plan; an essential strengthening experience for your child.
Think about it this way. In the attachment stage, the most important things for a baby to learn about are human trust, intimacy, dependability and affection. For a toddler however, the developmental task involves learning to manage and resolve interpersonal conflict – with respect, and without loss of dignity. Children need to learn that conflict will not destroy a relationship but instead can deepen it – if we know how to resolve conflict responsibly, that is. If everybody learned this well in childhood; wouldn’t this be a very different world?
How toddlers deal with conflict
For a toddler, the discovery that Mum and Dad are not so agreeable anymore – that they have limits, needs, feelings of their own – comes as a kind of shock. Initially, this feels to them like a betrayal, since as a defenceless baby they could (hopefully!) count on unending endearments.
At this momentous turning point, the secure and confident toddler begins to develop a revolutionary new strength. Something new emerges, something the baby could never do: the full-frontal protest. The toddler’s protest is very, very different to the protest of a baby, as you will see in the passages that follow.
It is by protesting her disillusions loud and clear that the toddler re-empowers herself. For the toddler, the protest is the very mechanism through which she makes things right for herself, when the previously heroic Mummy and Daddy have fallen from grace, and no longer seem to agree to all her wishes.
How the blame process works
Blame is simply the child’s immature attempt at protesting when the world is not how he wants it. To illustrate: if an adult’s ‘I statement’ to express displeasure can be likened to running; then infantile blame is like crawling. It is a necessary, preliminary developmental step. So, as a first tentative bid for independence, a toddler says to the world: “if you refuse to give me what I wanted, or to be the way I wanted you to be – then I won’t go easy. I will scream. I will ‘boo’ and ‘hiss’. I will give you a bad review on mummy.com I will downgrade your credit rating”. With folded arms and a raspberry on the lips, the toddler declares that you suck.
Is this a little hard to take sometimes? You bet! And that is why it is so important for us to understand the purpose: the toddler and child’s protest is an important building block for her growing sense of autonomy. It is partly through blaming that she begins to take over the task of self-parenting from you, to make things right for herself when the world disappoints her. Through blaming the child says: ‘if you are not exactly how I wanted you, then for now I can do without you!’ Or in other words: ‘if you are not there for me, then I am there for myself!’ Infantile blame is a primitive way of saying: ‘even when the world lets me down, I am still OK’
What the blame sounds like
Let’s face it; blame was never going to sound very nice. It goes something like this: ‘you are a poo-poo!’, ‘you’re too bossy!’, ‘you always make me pick up my toys!’, ‘you never let me stay up late!’ ‘you’re mean!’, ‘I never get what I want!’ (note that the words always and never get lots of airplay now). Sometimes it gets a little more spicy: ‘I hate you!’, or: ‘I don’t like you anymore!’ Sound familiar?
It’s not surprising that some parents are shocked by this. Take comfort: some of this is normal and it may take a long time for your child to learn more tactful and self-responsible skills for dealing with life’s constant let-downs. Outbursts such as these do not necessarily indicate that your child is getting ready to become a world-class bully.
Why protest is so important
All too often, the child whose protest is stifled ends up self-blaming and self-deprecating instead. The outcry implodes and turns against the Self, in the form of shame – as if life’s disappointments are evidence of the child’s unworthiness. Mum won’t read to me because I am a bad boy. Dad won’t let me watch more cartoons on TV because I am a bad girl. So, to begin with, what saves the toddler from sinking into shame is to make a fuss; to express the grievance outwardly, to push back against a disappointing world.
Alternatively, when protest is crushed, censored or punished, some children react later by inappropriately blaming or punishing someone else. The unexpressed angry charge lingers inside, to be unleashed later on some new unsuspecting target; the little brother, the family cat, another child at pre-school.
Researchers have found that survivors of childhood physical abuse (usually rationalised as righteous punishment) do not always pass this violence to their own children. What makes the difference? The buck stops with them only if they strongly and openly reject the treatment they have received, and maintain that it was inappropriate.
Certainly, most of us do not consider ourselves abusive or neglectful parents. But are we not all imperfectly human, and in our stress or ignorance wound our children from time to time? Do we not at times do or say regrettable things to our children? For a child, blame must be passed back to the perceived source, often to us the adults – or the blame will be passed inwards or passed forward.
How parents can help
Parents need this reassurance: saying yes to your child’s emotional expression is not the same as saying yes to violence. If we really get this distinction, then it is OK for your child to feel angry, what is not OK is that he hit anyone or break valuables. In other words, you can support the expression of emotion, without supporting destructive behaviour. Your child just needs the space – and the support – to let it out.
At first, your toddler’s protests may be full of accusation and derogation. As much as you can, be patient with this, he is just a beginner! Without a doubt, to speak our anger and disappointment responsibly and without blame is a critically important skill to learn, and to teach our children. With a toddler however, begin this lesson slowly and gradually, be patient with his lack of decorum, and wait until the primary school years before you insist on a more self-responsible approach.
Here are some examples of how we can support emotion but not destructive behaviour:
- ‘Its really OK to be angry with your sister – but its definitely not OK to hit her’
- ‘Well, I do understand your disappointment – but I still need to keep the rest of the candies from you today. I’m worried what more would do to your tummy!’
A sense of humour will come in very handy (as long as you are not teasing or belittling your child). For instance, if you are blamed for something that is clearly beyond your influence, you could good-naturedly say: ‘Wow! Do you really think I made it rain today? I must be more powerful than I thought…’
Your greatest asset by far will be a strong sense of Self. You will notice that when you feel secure in yourself, your child’s infantile blame does not wound or offend you.
Finally, we need patience, growing up from the blame-stage does not happen overnight. It is a piece-meal process. Over the years, the greatest impetus towards maturation is role-modelling. If you want your child to develop self-responsibility over time, then show her how you face conflicts, with your partner, your community, your world – by taking responsibility and not getting mired in your own temptation to blame others.
Most of us can at times over-react to the infantile blame we receive as parents. Our child’s blame presses a button. It reminds us of an earlier time, perhaps when we were young and someone shamed us, humiliated us, accused us or put us down – maybe it was our parents, our teachers, our peers, a bully at school or at work. It is not our child that hurts us – that hurt was already there, just under the skin. Our child simply acts as a trigger, he exposes a wound that we had forgotten; a place inside where we ourselves need healing.
When it’s time for your child to grow up
You’ll be glad to hear that none of us need accept blame forever. Blame is about lack of personal power; so as an individual becomes more empowered and self-confident, the need to blame others falls away.
As your toddler begins to enter childhood, leaving behind that magical world of imagination (round about late pre-school, early primary), then it might be time for you to begin making some new demands. For instance, you could begin saying: ‘it’s OK to be angry, I understand your anger – but I don’t like you talking to me (or your brother, etc) like that’ Gradually begin showing your child that her speech can have an impact. Be prepared to stand up to your child, to stand up for yourself or for someone more vulnerable. Making an ‘I statement’ is the best way to assert your needs and feelings without in turn blaming your child. But remember: The child whose feelings have been consistently respected will fastest learn to respect your feelings – as long as you are committed to asking for that respect.
How we block the growth process
As concerned parents, when we hear our children blaming we risk working too hard and too soon to train them out of it. At times, we might try to get them to take ownership prematurely and sound more like a grown-up. In a knee-jerk, we react to censor – perhaps as it was done to us when we were children.
Some parents respond by guilt-tripping, along the lines of: ‘Poor me, can’t you understand me?’ The more authoritarian among us might retort thus: ‘don’t talk back!’ ‘watch that back-chat mister!’ Yet other parents buckle under and give-in to the wishes of the protesting child: ‘OK, if it’s so important to you, you can have more chocolate’. All the above are recipes for losing the child’s respect, or driving the child’s outcry underground.
Growing up: from blame to self-responsibility and personal power
Getting stuck in blame long-term prevents us from growing up into self-responsible individuals. We all sense that blame is toxic. It’s the number one impediment to resolving conflict. And it’s generally awful to listen to. When we hear an adult blaming, we want them to ‘grow up’ – as if instinctively we know that blame is childish.
And yet, most of us get stuck in blame from time to time. How often do we hear ourselves – or our friends – issuing a tirade of blame against the government, or against corporations or some other authority? I’m certainly not immune to that. A blaming outburst is quite human; we all seem to do it.
A toddler is too young to be able to sustain a sense of self-responsibility, and realistically they are dependent and at the effect of adult decisions. No wonder they blame the world. But when as adults we get stuck in blaming, that is simply our ‘inner child’ showing. It is the part of us that still has some growing up to do; a part of our being that feels disempowered.
Consider this: when we hear ourselves stuck in blame, going over it again and again, that is a sure sign that we are feeling helpless, powerless to act, perhaps also feeling shame. Our blame language is a symptom, a signal that we need to learn some new way to express our personal power – or to examine how we have unwittingly contributed to the situation we are complaining about.
When for instance we linger in bitter blame of the government, or ‘big business’, that is sometimes a sign that we are not using our own power or initiative enough. Emotionally, we are like the child, and the ‘authority’ that we helplessly blame for the world’s ills is like the ‘bad parent’ or the ‘bad teacher’. If we choose to get involved in positive social, community or political action, we are likely to feel less mired in sourness or finger-pointing. I have certainly noticed that as I become more politically active and engaged (online petitions, blogging, letters to politicians, etc) I find that my tirades of blame, my rants of ‘anti-this’ and ‘anti-that’ become shorter and more infrequent. The language of ‘they’ gradually transforms into the language of ‘we’.
The hallmark of full, adult maturity is about taking ownership of our destiny, how our relationships work, and even how our world works. With the exception perhaps of those who are completely incapacitated by illness or poverty, we are each far more powerful as agents than we realized.
So, what if instead of punishing and moralizing against our children’s blaming, we elect to become good role-models of self-responsibility? Showing is always more powerful than telling.
Post Natal Depression (PND) affects at least one in ten mothers around the world. While this painful and debilitating condition afflicts mothers – within four weeks of giving birth – it is also stressful for family relationships and detrimental to mother-infant bonding. I believe we may be seriously downplaying the importance of mothers’ emotional needs, discounting the things that wound them; and disregarding critical steps to restoring their wellbeing.
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POST-NATAL DEPRESSION: Mental Illness, or Natural Reaction?
Post Natal Depression (PND) affects at least one in ten mothers around the world. While this painful and debilitating condition afflicts mothers – within four weeks of giving birth – it is also stressful for family relationships and detrimental to mother-infant bonding.
These days it is popular to explain PND as feminine hormones gone awry – though the evidence for this is poor. We have a variety of pharmaceuticals at our disposal – and of course, they can be helpful. But our over-reliance on the hormonal, ‘sickness’ model has a serious pitfall. If all we do is rely on allopathic approaches we risk overlooking some of the very real situational factors that cause depression. I believe we may be seriously downplaying the importance of mothers’ emotional needs, discounting the things that wound them; and disregarding critical steps to restoring their wellbeing.
If PND was biologically determined, you would expect it to appear in every culture. It doesn’t. Among the Kipsigis of Kenya, for instance, PND is unheard of. Why? What do they do differently for mothers? Are we, in our culture, doing enough to recognise the circumstances that trigger PND? Do we do enough to protect mothers from these difficulties and help them to overcome them?
Genetic predispositions to PND, are only a small part of the picture, and genetic vulnerability by itself is not enough to trigger this disorder. When a mother develops PND, something very real is hurting her – though often she cannot put her finger on what it is. Modern research, however, has shone a light on this subject.
Triggers From The Present
Every mother has been biologically programmed to expect an increase in emotional support when her baby arrives; she needs to be held, to feel secure and listened to by her partner, girlfriends and her own mother or kin. During gestation, childbirth and the months that follow mothers are emotionally fragile, and they require extra understanding. This is normal.
Fathers are vital protectors of their family’s emotional welfare, and their lack of emotional support can be costly. Some women who suffer from PND report that their partners are either unsupportive, or overly controlling. But even the most supportive partners may be insufficient, and in fact, both parents need the unflagging support of extended family, friends and community.
As at every other stage of mothering, a raft of emotional support for the mother is extremely important during labour. The sensitive support of a companion has such profound effects: it actually reduces medical complications quite significantly. Mothers who are accompanied by a female supporter – as well as their male partner – have a shorter labour, less incidence of caesarean section, and their babies are less likely to require neonatal intensive care.
Some of the emotional volatility experienced by new mothers might in fact be normal and healthy. Like the proverbial ‘mother-bear’, it is natural for some mothers to become more reactive than usual. This temporary surge of protective instincts is called ‘Lactation Aggression’. Because they are not reassured that there are valid reasons for these feelings, mothers feel ashamed and guilty. To top it off, they feel afraid of their own irritability, afraid of what it might do to their baby, and too embarrassed to seek the relief that comes with talking about their feelings.
It is not uncommon for mothers to feel burdened, and resentful; even to experience bursts of outright hostility towards their babies. It is unrealistic and unfair to expect all new mothers to feel nothing but radiant joy. The change of life brought about by a new baby can come as a formidable shock that few are helped to prepare for. With a precious new infant, we each forfeit much of our freedom, our personal space, our time to be alone with ourselves and with our partners. Some mothers feel that their status has gone; they are no longer important and worthy. If they have put a career on hold, they experience a frightening loss of identity. A kind of grieving process is called for, if one is to manage to gracefully let go of life as it was before baby. Because she had not anticipated any negative feelings, and she had expected to feel elated and in love with her new baby, the mother becomes disappointed with herself. She feels like a failure, and this compounds her depression. That is why every mother needs the ongoing empathic support of family, girlfriends who listen intently, who have travelled this territory and can mentor her through it. She needs friends who can hold her, share their own experiences with her, and reassure her that her emotional ups and downs are OK.
When a mother feels sad and cries, this does not necessarily indicate depression. Crying is the body’s natural way to release emotional pain. When mothers cry, instead of being told they are mentally ill, they should be listened to, loved and held.
Triggers From The Past
At times, clues to a mother’s PND might be hidden in her own childhood history. Some mothers who felt emotionally deprived in their early years find the demands of a baby particularly nerve-racking; and this places them at risk of PND.
A new baby powerfully evokes from our unconscious memory a plethora of feelings, both positive and negative, that we felt when we ourselves were infants. Though a mother may not suspect it, her baby’s cries could be triggering her own painful memories of infancy. If a mother has unresolved pain about some loss or abandonment, this pain may re-emerge when she enters motherhood – though she may have no idea why she is crying. Women who had difficulties with attachment to their own mothers, who feel their mothers were not caring enough, or that their fathers were overprotective; are more likely to suffer from PND.
If our own childhood emotional needs weren’t met, we might find our children’s dependency hard to tolerate. It is hard to give what has not been given us, and our babies’ cries assail our ears – unbearably. Researchers have found that women who are more bothered by the sound of a baby crying are more likely to develop PND once their own baby arrives.
A group of American psychologists who were working with mothers that were having trouble bonding with their babies, invited them to talk about their own childhoods. They helped these mothers to connect with their own childhood pain, and to weep. Immediately after this emotional release, these mothers spontaneously cuddled their babies. Their nurturing energies had been walled up behind a layer of frozen, unexpressed grief. For many PND sufferers, unresolved grief is the key.
So, an ongoing emotionally supportive and empathic relationship with her own mother can be a most potent vaccine against PND. If this is not possible, then it can be helpful – indeed, necessary – for a woman to talk openly and grieve her past, in the presence of trusted others.
Is it Depression – or Reaction to Trauma?
For some mothers PND may be a mistaken diagnosis: they might in fact be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). For many women, the experience of labour can be highly traumatic. Around 20% of mothers lose at least some memory of the labour experience: they report being in a ‘fog’. This partial amnesia is a kind of dissociation, and a classic symptom of PTSD. British psychologists have found that 2% to 5% of mothers get full-blown PTSD after a difficult childbirth. A much larger proportion suffer symptoms of PTSD, such as nightmares, intrusive thoughts, problems with breastfeeding, feelings of failure, feelings of estrangement and difficulty bonding to their baby.
The cold, clinical atmosphere of labour wards and the intrusiveness of defensive obstetrics are, for many women, thoroughly violating. More than any other time, childbirth is a scary passage when mothers need a profound and ongoing empathic connection, they need their fears validated. Mothers usually feel extremely vulnerable at this time, and modern obstetric wards place little emphasis on their psychological needs. Many women feel that their control is taken away from them, that procedures are carried out without their understanding or consent, and that their fears are dismissed by hospital staff. Moreover, in hospitals that separate new mothers from their infants, their powerful, instinctual need to remain close is brushed aside. Many mothers feel devastated by this separation; they feel strangely empty or bereft, perhaps without knowing why.
In my private practice, over the years, have heard so many mothers complain bitterly that when they express such feelings to hospital staff, they feel dismissed, told they are being ‘irrational’. Some hospital staff trivialise and minimise mothers’ emotional ups and downs through this delicate process, their terror, their pain, and their feelings of helplessness, as if the only thing that matters is that mother and child have survived the process physically unscathed. Depression begins when women’s attempts to voice their feelings are met with the message: “You have nothing to complain about.” This is completely crushing. We close our eyes to these traumas and their consequences at a grave cost to mothers, their babies and their partners.
Jean Robinson, research officer at UK Association for Improvements in the Maternity Services says that the incidence of PTSD among new mothers has risen along with an increase in interventions such as induced labour and caesarian section. But even after normal births, symptoms of PTSD can arise when mothers are made to feel helpless, dis-empowered and their right to make birthing decisions is taken away from them.
Often, what knocks mothers into a depression is that some fundamental emotional needs surrounding pregnancy, the birth of her child, and the day-to-day life of mothering are not being met. She may not even know how to validate these needs herself. The moment her baby comes, when her need for support is most acute, she finds herself alone for hours at a time, faced with a baby who wails for her attention. For many mothers, when they are alone, the day can drag on interminably. The task of mothering, along with her babies’ natural, healthy but unceasing calls for attention ends up feeling like a terrible burden. It was all supposed to feel wonderful, instead it feels like tedium. She expected to be bathed in joy, instead she finds herself struggling. She feels shocked; her illusions about mothering are dashed, and she blames herself. No one told her it was going to feel like this.
To make matters worse, her friends and family keep telling her how lucky she is, and how happy she should be. This makes her feel even more isolated, more ashamed, as if there must be something wrong with her. The worst aggravator for a mother is to be told she is being irrational. Such an un-empathic comment, at a time of emotional vulnerability, can be shattering.
It needn’t be this way. Our culture fails mothers. In modern Western cultures, few parents belong to supportive family or tribe-like groups. Mothers are supposed to be surrounded by help and assistance, offered enduring empathy and validation, as well as given a little of their own space from time to time. Few enjoy these conditions. Furthermore, a mother’s social status is ranked lowest in our culture. She feels unimportant, secondary, unwanted. Are these kinds of circumstances not reason enough to feel depressed? That’s exactly what they do differently in cultures where PND does not exist. Kipsigi mothers receive abundant social support throughout pregnancy and post-natally.
There are many more causes beyond those listed herein, as many as there are sufferers. A one-size-fits-all diagnosis can shut the door on empathy and understanding. We have dangerously underestimated women’s emotional needs surrounding pregnancy, childbirth and mothering – so much so that much of what we consider ‘normal’ and unremarkable is in fact traumatic. We undervalue maternal needs for support, empathy and practical help at a great cost to families. If we are to reduce, even eliminate the incidence of PND, then there is much more to be done to ensure that mothers’ psychological needs are taken care of, throughout the parenting journey.
The Children’s Wellbeing Manifesto is a 15-point social policy proposal for the betterment of children’s lives everywhere, based on tried and tested initiatives that have already proven successful, transformative and highly cost-effective around the world. This Manifesto was written collaboratively with:
Anne Manne, Australian journalist, social philosopher and author of Motherhood, how should we care for our children?
Kelly Wendorf, social entrepeneur, leadership mentor, founder and CEO of Equus
Robin Grille, psychologist, parent-educator and author of Parenting for a Peaceful World
To continue reading, click on the link below
The Children's Wellbeing Manifesto - Policy Initiatives Promoting Healthy Emotional Development in Children
All societies are profoundly shaped, for better or worse, by how we rear children. This has been the overwhelming conclusion of recent groundbreaking research across a range of disciplines. A new consensus is emerging on how we should care for our children. Throwing new light on how best to help children flourish, this knowledge offers compelling evidence as to the kinds of social policies that will help all parents in their vital task, thereby reducing a host of societal dysfunctions, improving public health and social sustainability.
The following propositions are based on the best initiatives that have been tried and tested in numerous countries, and/or withstood rigorous tests of cost-benefit analysis. Such investments in the wellbeing of children, psychologically as well as physically, have been convincingly shown to yield economic as well as social rewards far exceeding the investment. More significantly, they are measures aimed at supporting what is most important, irreplaceable and ultimately not measurable: familial love and emotional wellbeing.
The main source of children’s emotional wellbeing comes from relationships – from their deepest attachments to mothers, fathers, grandparents and a few cherished others. Early childhood in particular is a time when children’s wellbeing and capacity to flourish are overwhelmingly about love, attachment and connectedness, and so it is a time they should spend mostly in the presence of these vital attachment figures. In recognition of this universal truth, social policy must re-orient itself towards supporting young children’s right to remain, for the first two to three years, as much as possible in the presence of their ‘attachment’ relationships.
In a world increasingly driven by imperatives of profit and market forces, we hold that parental and family love matters most, it is at the very centre of human and social wellbeing; and thus we propose the following ways to support parents in the most important job in the world.
- Establishment of new community ‘hubs’ for parent support called: ‘Parent and Child Support Centres’ in every municipality.
Parenting is best done in company – in a convivial community of other parents and caregivers. Children flourish in connected communities, where social infrastructure is provided via a ‘hub and spoke’ model:
Beginning with prenatal visits to connect new parents-to-be to a community hub (the Parent and Child Support Centre) which provides contact with the local community of parents, connecting them with a broad range of social networks, services and facilities for parents and other caregivers. These ‘hub‘ centres should include ‘spokes’, i.e. outreach to specialist support services where necessarSome existing similar examples: Danish ‘Folk’ centres housing children’s services and networks, the Parent Support Centres of Boulder (Colorado) and Vermont, USA, toy libraries, playgroups, Bub Hubs, babysitting clubs, childcare cooperatives, homework clubs staffed by retired volunteers.
2. Increased support for early-intervention initiatives, particularly for disadvantaged populations.
Attachment-oriented home visits for all parents with a new baby, additional for ‘at-risk’ families. Visits to be continued after birth to assist new parents, providing practical advice and support when necessary and assessing the need for additional healthcare services. A range of combined measures can be utilised, including income support, parenting support and high-quality, childcare programs of a specialised nature (such as the Perry Preschool) and parenting support programs such as Newpin and H.I.P.P.Y (NZ Home Instruction Program for Preschool Youngsters).
3. Encouragement of hospitals to increase their focus on the psychological needs of mothers, fathers and infants surrounding labour.
Beginning with supporting and respecting mothers’ autonomy and right to choose, this can include: increased support for home-like birthing rooms adjoining hospitals, encouragement of natural birthing methods and home-births except in cases of clear medical risk, and counselling made available for new fathers.
4. Support for mothers to aim towards full-term breastfeeding (as recommended by the World Health Organization and UNICEF).
Necessary support includes:
- Adequate maternity leave provisions (see proposition #8) and workplace reforms (see proposition #10)
- Encouraging maternity hospitals to comply with UNICEF’s ‘Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative’ designation.
- Medicare cover for breastfeeding support services (see proposition #5)
5. Extension of Medicare health care cover to include:
- Home visits by lactation consultants
- Home-birth midwives and doulas
- multi-disciplinary care – including psychological and complementary medicine – for maternal and paternal post-natal depression.
6. Encouragement and expansion of support for non-profit, community-based or co-operative childcare.
Quality childcare is not compatible with profit-making for shareholders. Expand support for alternatives to corporate childcare, especially alternatives that also support working mothers – such as community childcare services, family daycare, parent co-ops. Provide generous allowances for grandparent carers.
7. Improvement of the quality of existing childcare.
Present regulations in Australian childcare are inadequate in some areas. Increased funding should be explicitly targeted at improving the quality of existing care. Raise the ratios of caregivers to babies to 1:2, and improve ratios for toddlers. Keep overall size of centre and groups small. Introduce national standards to replace the present hodgepodge between states and the Federal Government. Better pay and training for all childcare workers.
8. Support for children’s right to play.
Childhood is now dominated by the values of a competitive, achievement-oriented culture. It is increasingly spent within the confines of institutions – early childcare, school, after and before school care, holiday programs, and structured activities dominated and organised by adults. A child is not simply an investment unit where present inputs promise later returns. All adult caregivers should respect children’s right to dream, potter and play freely.
9. Introduction of maternity and paternity leave with pay.
European-style parental leave of two to three years, involving the right to return to previous job, as practised in France, Finland, Norway and Sweden. Britain has recently followed suit, introducing parental leave for two years. The Australian Industrial Relations Commission, following the ACTU test case, recommended an immediate extension of parental leave to two years and the right to part-time work. Offer parents a choice between home-care allowance or funds for a place in a high-quality childcare facility – as in Finland, Norway and France.
10. Support for fathers’ involvement in children’s lives.
No mother should be left isolated with the task of mothering, and no father should be expected to be disengaged from his children and family. Involved fathers help children flourish. The Parent and Child Support Centres should be father-friendly, i.e., have posters of fathers and children, not just mothers, and have information on fathering and fathers’ networks as a clear message that fathers are essential; that some fathers share the care or are primary caregivers, and are a part of the parenting community. Introduce paid paternity leave for up to four weeks at time of birth. Also, workplace agreements that accommodate fathers’ need to spend adequate time with their families, and fathers’ occasional need for carer’s leave.
11. Workplace reform: encouragement of mother/father-friendly workplaces
Workplace-based childcare, with guaranteed breastfeeding breaks.
Right to part time work for primary caregiver with children under school age.
Right to work a 6-hour day (with reduced pay) until child is 8 years (as in Sweden).
Expand carer’s sick leave.
Introduce the 35-hour week. Families need time all together.
Gradual Transition back to work after maternity or parental leave. The primary caregiver should not be given little choice but to return suddenly to a full working week, with babies in childcare for ten hours a day: an extreme separation model.
12. Free re-training and remission of education expenses for all primary caregivers on re-entry to workplace.
The entire visible economy depends upon the invisible heart: unpaid caring work. All of society benefits from this vital work. Yet caregivers often suffer a life-long ‘care penalty’ for performing this task. In any just, fair and sustainable society it is wrong to take a ‘free ride’ on caring labour while giving little in return. Unpaid work should also be part of the census data.
- Universal free, optional preschool for 3- and 4-year olds.
All pre-schools and childcare centres to have an open-door policy to parents, allowing for graduated and child-led separation from parents (as in the Swedish ‘open pre-school’ system). In this age group, it is important that a child-centred, free-play based learning program be adopted, which enhances the development of non-cognitive emotional and relationship skills, rather than merely a strict emphasis on cognitive skills (alphabet and numbers). The principal focus of education should be social development in a flexible learning environment that sees academic learning arising from the child’s emerging interests (emergent curricula) and his/her need for free-play – as is done in the ‘democratic education’ system in Israel, Europe and USA, and the ‘free school’ system in Japan.
- Legislation against all corporal punishment of children.
Abolish all corporal punishment at home and in all educational institutions, in line with our obligations under ‘Article 19’ of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. This has already been accomplished in 54 nations (as at November 2018), and 56 more countries have committed to a legislative process to introduce a complete ban on corporal punishment.
- Prohibition of television, print and in-school advertising and marketing that targets children under 12.
This has already been done in Scandinavia, and more countries are considering reform to their advertising codes. Children are to be respected as children, not exploited as consumers.