Changes in social practices

Do you enjoy shopping? Most of us would probably say that we spend money online and the feeling of purchasing and control gives us an immediate buzz. To the hunter gatherer instincts, it sounds like we have successful ambushed a kill when we use our credit cards to get what we wanted. But online shopping is one thing. What about high street shopping? You know, the one where you actually have to get active and move around, looking for the things you want? It is effortful and perhaps less enjoyable. The amount of time and effort spent trudging along makes it a disagreeable process.

And one of the forms of shopping that many of us are likely to find uninteresting is grocery shopping. Is it because of the repetitive nature of food shopping, that we have to do it so often? After all, familiarity breeds contempt, and our dislike from it may stem from doing it again and again. Or perhaps it is because we find it somewhat soul destroying to decide which multipack of toilet rolls work out cheapest?

And what if supermarkets asked you to pay first before you bought any item, and then refunded you any unused credit? You may think this is a crazy idea, but it is what some fuel service stations at ASDA supermarkets trialled. The rationale was that it would avoid theft, drivers leaving without paying, but the scheme was soon stopped.

Drivers were charged an initial fee to use the pumps, then paid for their purchases, and had to ensure that their initial fee was refunded to them. The reason for this unusual three-step purchase was to make it difficult for fuel theft, where drivers drive onto forecourts, fill up and then disappear without having paid for their fuel.

Fuel theft is on the rise, and investigating these cases takes up a lot of police time, which detracts from the real work of policing.

On the face of it, what it amounts to is paying in advance as a form of guarantee or security. While we may balk at the idea of an advancce payment at a service station, we already do it in other areas. We pay for school activities a term in advance. Most schools such as piano schools charge you a term in fees (although if you were looking for piano lessons in Hornsey N8, this visiting teacher doesn’t). The downpayment ensures they can do the payment for overheads they are likely to purchase in the course of providing these services.

Social media and the public use of phones have become ubiquitous from non-existent two decades ago. Perhaps putting downpayments in advance may be a social practice of the future.

Manspreading

Have you heard of the latest term to take the social world by storm? The most trending word in the Twittersphere is “manspreading”, referring to the commonly seen action of a man sat down and opening his legs wide open, as well as opening up the upper half of his body by pushing the elbows out and resting on the armrests on both sides. Now it is pretty clear from public transport that armrests are not actually for the purpose of putting your arms on; otherwise there would be two side by side. They are actually there simply to mark out the space between commuters, so a person who puts his elbows out on one is actually already crossing an unmentioned social line.

Manspreading is a common occurrence on many daily commutes but it begs the reason why people do it? It probably stems from insecurity. A person who worries about being encroached upon decides to take up more space so that there is some left when another person comes to claw back the remaining fifty percent of the armrest. Some also speculate that it is a sign of cocky confidence, to sit like a slouched king. Some people point to supposed medical reasons – it prevents the male testes from overheating and lowering sperm count. Whatever the reason, it appears that people just simply want more of what they need.

What can you do if you are a victim of manspreading? When someone sits in the seat next to you and opens out wide? Most of us are too polite to make a remark, which is why people go out and do it in the first place. And commenting on a person’s body, especially if the person is fat, seems like bullying. If you are victim, you can do this – as you get up at your stop to leave, deliberately swing your bag into what is really your entitled social space. Give the offender a whack. And don’t apologise for it. After all, he’s in your space.

Sometimes people go out of their way to be deliberately rude. The Classical composer Johannes Brahms seemed to make it a point of being rude and curt to others in his later years (you can read more about this in the N8 Piano Teachers website, and he was even said to be a cat-slayer!

What is the useful lesson we can take from these and impart to our children? It may well be to show consideration to others in a world that is increasingly so(cial) me(dia).

Teaching Children the art of balancing

Among the useful life skills we can teach or children is the skill of learning to balance. Because life is about balancing. And when I speak about balancing, I don’t mean the physical skill if riding a bike or going about on a scooter. I refer to the skill of leaning on one set of rules on one occasion, and on another set at a different time.

Why is balancing important? It is because as adults we give children many layers of instruction. Depending on perhaps how liberal a parent it, the instructions can come more positively-wrapped, or a series of admonishments. “Stay close.” “Don’t do that.” “Don’t go there.” When we give children a seires of instructions that we expect them to follow through, in their minds they will be working out the reasons for these. Why does Mummy not want me to go near the tree? Because she is afraid I may fall. Why does Daddy want me to stop at the end of the road. In fact, why is he hollering “Stop!” at me when I know to stop? Because it is dangerous.

The unfortunate thing about negative parenting – or what appears to be negative anyway – is that compounded over time it can just bury the child under a series of Not To Dos. And repeated over time, it does foster a spirit of not trying, because everything is dangerous. If we repeatedly rein in our children, and curb their spirit, affter a while they do it to themselves.

Growing up, I knew of a friend that had often been told by his parents not to do this and that. Perhaps it was because he was the youngest of three children, and their instructions to him to keep safe (“Don’t do that) were more a way of keeping him reined him while they tried to manage the other two children. Slowly this friend grew to adopt the spirit that had been trained on him. But when he was in his teens and seemed to his parents to be developing into some sort of anti-social spirit (he is fine by the way), they were trying to encourage him to go out and make more friends. “Go out and socialise! Go meet more friends! Leave your room and meet new people!” Unfortunately the advice he was receiving was in direct contradiction to what he had been previously taught.

We give instructions to children because that is the quickest way of getting them to do something that is safe. Some of it is positive, some is negative. Sometimes there are two different sets of rules for social situations. We sometimes, for example, encourage children to give their best and try their hardest. Yet, at a birthday party for a friend, sometimes we have to teach them the skill of letting the birthday boy or girl win at a game of say, pass the parcel. We have to teach the children which rule to adhere to, and the skill of balance – knowing which one to choose.

We encourage children to be compliant, but sometimes we have to encourage them to be creative and go against the grain too. The Classical composer Richard Wagner was trained – as most musicians were – in the past generational ideas of harmony, and while his earliest work displayed a strong influence of the past, he realised that it was artistically sterile to merely repeat what had been done already, and if he did so, his own self would merely be subsumed in a long ancestral line of artistry. He needed to break free, and this is why as his musical work progressed, it broke free of the past structures of harmony. But Wagner could not merely write chromatic and dissonant music in a complete break with the past. Otherwise his music would be completely at odds with the status quo and he would have been an outsider inhabiting a different world to his surroundings. It was in the balance of new ideas with old existing ones which produced his best masterpieces, one where new ideas of harmony blend with traditional ones. Wagner found his balance. You can read more about this from the piano teacher crouch end blog.

Balancing is the switching between two sets of rules as the situation dictates. In life we are often given set rules but none of them are fixed; only situational. The skill of balancing is an important one to pass on to our children.

Teaching children the art of conversation

Have you ever had a closed conversation? You know, the type where you try to demonstrate interest in another person, but end up getting rebuffed by short, simplistic answers, which appear to signal irritation and that you are wasting another person’s time by getting in the way of more important activities they would prefer to be doing.

You: How are you?
Child: Fine.

You: How was your day?
Child: Okay.

Some children are not aware that their responses may constitute closed answers. They may not realise that it is hard work on the part of the person asking the questions to keep thinking of ways to keep the conversation going. Perhaps children have not learnt the social skill of this yet, that in an interchange both parties have to contribute.

You: How are you?
Child: Fine. What about you?

You: How was your day?
Child: Okay. What about yours?

Teaching children this structure of social exchange is a good life skill we can impart to them. In the above examples, it is just three simple words they can utter, but the empowerment is not in the words, it is the knowledge that by using such phrases, they are signalling intent to continue with the conversation and showing maturity in being able to do so.

Children from as young as four can be taught this skill. We should not expect that this kind of social skill comes without being taught, but we can show to children, demonstrate through role play, that this is how adults sometimes participate in an exchange too.

Children can learn that when someone asks them “How are you?” the correct response would be “Fine; how about you?”

When the adult that initially asks this is a conversation receives the response then the onus is on them to keep the conversation going, because the child has already fulfilled the obligation in continuing the social exchange.

The response may not necessarily be “How about you?” It can be a question, anything else that pushes the conversation back across.

“I’m fine, what did you do today?”

“Not bad. Have you been busy?”

An exchange that goes back and forth, allowing both speakers to provide information in turn is a meaningful exchange. We should teach our children meaningful exchange in order as an important skill.

It all starts with something as simple as “How about you”.

Why and how to encourage openness to learning

One of the traits that should be inculcated in children is arguably the importance of keeping an open mind. Why is this so? Well, keeping an open mind means being able to enjoy and welcome new experiences, which result in learning something new. Imagine two different children – one goes out of the house to play and makes friends and embraces new experiences by which he or she is enriched by, and these experiences go on to form the basis of newer experiences which result in the child having a good all-rounded childhood. The other stays home and does not try, does not want to extend himself or herself. Being around the second child is very tiring because you are trying to motivate him or her all the time and not really getting much out of it.

But how do you yourself feel when you have to learn something new? The thought of a new experience perhaps depends on what the experience itself is – if it is something closer to our hearts, we feel a sense of excitement at it. But if it is appears to be something more radical, we are less certain (“okay…..”). But it is good to keep an open mind, for the reasons we have explored above. And in situations where we have a sense of reservation, or even caution at the thought of learning something unfamiliar, it is good to appear to try, so that we do not pass on our reservations and slightly negative approaches on to the children. The extension of oneself is a life-long skill that everyone – not just children – should learn.

In a new situation, our initial reaction could be of unwillingness, and then some people overcome it, while others are content to remain within it. We must try to find the will to overcome it, and not dwell on the initial negative outlook.

How do we encourage our children to keep an open mind? The first is of course to develop the trait within ourselves. And then encourage our children to try. Trying is possibly one of the best skills to encourage our children to do. And we could set up situations where the trying is more important than the achievement itself. For this reason, it is good idea to encourage the attainment of skills, where there is not necessarily a fixed final product, but one where the child is free to determine what he or she wants to achieve using the skills of learning.

For example, if we encourage a child to tinker on an instrument, such as a drum or tambourine, show them how it makes noise and what they can do with it, and them leave with it, rather than instruct them with a “do this” pattern and keep drilling them to achieve it. That is not learning, and that form of learning is closed, where the input of the child is seconded to the expected product. It does not breed openness; on the other hand, it builds a layer of negative receptivity.

There are various skills that are good for building an attitude of openness to life. Dance, for example, is good. Let children experience music and create their own dance. Painting or drawing is another – show them how to use the brushes or pencils and colours and let them create what they want, then appraise in a non-judgemental way. Modelling and duplo bricks are also viewed as creative products because there is no one correct way. And in the little things in life, try to encourage a different way of doing things. If your child likes running, try to encourage him or her to run a different path, or do it hopping or backwards if they can manage it! Look for ways to be creative, to build openness to learning. It is a beneficial skill for life.

Different Parenting Styles

We often talk about the kind of child we have, but how often do you hear of someone talking about the kind of parents there are? Here are some common types.

The Pause Parent
Pause Parents somehow manage to stay calm when their children aren’t getting on, even if they’re hurling abuse at each other. This is quite a feat, because sibling squabbles drive most parents crazy. The noise is exasperating and there’s always the worry that they might really hurt each other. Instinctively, most parents intervene when there’s an argument.

But Pause Parents know that if you dive straight in, you can inadvertently make things worse. You might take sides where you shouldn’t, say horrible things you don’t mean or mete out punishments you regret later. By keeping calm, Pause Parents give themselves a chance to think through what’s going wrong and the best way to solve it.

We’re not talking about disasters here. If someone is being tormented to the point of tears or given a black eye, of course Pause Parents would break it up immediately. But they try not to let low-level, everyday bickering get to them. They know how effective it can be to stay quiet and sort it out later when everyone is feeling more rational. Even natural Pause Parents can sometimes find it difficult not to interfere when their children fight. But by zipping their lip and saying nothing, they often get amazing results.

The Cheerleader Parent
Cheerleader Parents are great at fostering good relationships between siblings by being positive. They notice when their children are kind or thoughtful towards each other and try to ignore it when they aren’t. Like Pause Parents, they resist the urge to get involved every time their children bicker and they give them lots of positive attention the minute they start being more friendly. This encourages siblings to treat each other nicely and reinforces the bonds between them.

Cheerleader Parents use lots of specific praise to make each child feel appreciated and special for who they are. They know that when their children feel good about themselves, they’re less likely to be competitive. They also try very hard not to label or compare their children with phrases like, ‘He’s my well-behaved one,’ or ‘She’s always naughty.’ They realize that each child has a good side and a bad side, and that it’s natural for them to show both at different times.

The Tuned-In Parent
Tuned-In Parents know that conflicting emotions are often the root cause of sibling arguments. They’re brilliant at helping children process the feelings behind jealousy, meanness, attention-seeking or whatever it is that’s making them turn against each other. Once they acknowledge the feelings behind bad behaviour, they know better behaviour often follows.

So when their children argue, Tuned-In Parents try listening to each one of them in turn. Once children feel understood, they’re more likely to stop fighting. Even better, they may begin to understand the other’s point of view, which will help them build a better relationship in the long term.

The Physical Parent
Physical Parents know that when their children feel well, they’re more likely to get on with each other. They’re more tolerant and less irritable if they have regular exercise, good food and enough sleep.

So instead of looking for deep psychological reasons for rivalry, Physical Parents keep them off junk food, shoo them out of the house to play and get them to bed on time. They find that this can stop frustration and resentments from building up. These parents are also good at being affectionate and showing each child individually how much they’re loved.

The Sorted Parent
Sorted Parents are forward thinkers. They’re great at anticipating trouble between siblings and avert disasters by setting up clear expectations and boundaries. They know it’s much easier to head off problems beforehand, rather than trying to untangle them when everyone’s already wound up. This tactic is particularly useful in big families because of the potential for convoluted disagreements.

Putting in the groundwork ahead of time gives them a better chance of being heard and boosts their authority. When an argument does blow up unexpectedly, they don’t get disheartened. They know they can think through what happened and work out how to prevent it next time. Sorted Parents are also good at teaching their children how to handle frustrations. You may not be able to prevent them from annoying each other, but you can talk through better ways of expressing themselves than snatching, kicking or calling each other names.

The Commando Parent
Commando Parents have natural authority and they’re very good at being in charge. Instead of pleading or nagging their children to stop fighting, they are clear and direct about what behaviour is acceptable and what will happen if they step out of line.

These parents make it very obvious where the boundaries lie and don’t allow niggly disagreements to escalate into something worse. They realize they can’t force children to like each other, but they don’t let their children get away with swearing, thumping, or destroying each other’s stuff.

When trouble does flare up, Commando Parents are very good at containing it quickly. They aren’t shy about stepping in and they’ll certainly enforce consequences if they have to. It can be hard to gain this kind of authority, especially if sibling rivalry is already deep-rooted. But it is possible, and Commando Parents know how to make it happen.

The Laid-Back Parent
Laid-Back Parents are good at encouraging their children to do things for themselves. They don’t feel they have to watch them every minute of the day and solve every one of their problems. They trust that, more often than not, their children will treat each other well and can work through minor disagreements on their own.

Laid-Back Parents know that a certain amount of fighting is not only inevitable, but beneficial. Learning to share, negotiate, handle arguments and cope with jealousy are important parts of growing up, so they feel that if they stepped in every time to arbitrate, they’d be doing their children a disservice.

They’re also happy when their children spend lots of time playing together on their own because they know how good it is for their relationship. These parents aren’t neglectful: they wouldn’t hold back if someone was getting hurt. But most minor bickering doesn’t get to them, because they trust that their children are fine and can sort things out for themselves.

You’ll probably find you are a combination of two of three of these types and adopt different styles depending on the situation. And while the above are stereotypes, you may find it works to know how another kind of parent would act in that situation and how you may amend your parenting style accordingly.

Some reasons for toddler misbehaviour

Limit-pushing behaviour can confound even the most attuned parent or caregiver. Why would our sweet darling throw her toy at us when we’ve just asked her not to, and then add insult to injury by smirking? Is she evil? Does she have a pressing need to practice throwing skills? Maybe she just hates us…

Sensitive, intensely emotional, and severely lacking in impulse control, toddlers often have unusual ways of expressing their needs and feelings. If it’s any consolation, these behaviours don’t make sense to our children either. The simple explanation is the unfortunate combination of an immature prefrontal cortex and the turbulent emotions of toddlerhood. More simply: children are easily overwhelmed by impulses bigger and stronger than they are. In other words, your child very likely understood that you didn’t want her to hit you, her friends, siblings, and pets; dump her food or water onto the floor; whine, scream, and call you “stupid”; but her impulses made a different choice. And though she smirks, this isn’t out of ill will.

Always remember to never, ever take a child’s limit-pushing behaviour personally.

Our children love, appreciate, and need us more than they can ever say. Remind yourself of these truths multiple times daily until you’ve internalized them, because a healthy perspective on limit-pushing is a crucial starting point. Respecting children means understanding their stage of development, not reacting to their age-appropriate behaviour as if they are our peers.

Here are the most common reasons young children push limits:

1. SOS! I can’t function.
Young children seem to be the last people on earth to register their own fatigue or hunger. They seem programmed to push on, and sometimes their bodies will take possession of their minds and transmit SOS messages to us through attention-getting behaviour. When I think about my own children’s limit-pushing behaviour, the examples that immediately come to mind are about fatigue:

There was the day at RIE class when my toddler son (who has always seemed to have social savvy) suddenly started hitting and pushing. Ah-ha. He’s tired and has had enough of this. I let him know I heard him and that we’d be leaving: “I don’t want you to hit. I think you’re letting me know you’re tired and ready to go home, right?” But then I got involved in a discussion with one of the other parents and forgot for a moment and, no surprise, he hit again. Oops. Totally my fault. “Sorry, B, I told you we would leave and then started talking. Thanks for reminding me we need to go.”

Then there was the family trip when one of my daughters, age four at the time, uncharacteristically spoke rudely to my mother. Taken aback for a moment (How could she?) but determined to remain calm, I intervened: “I can’t let you talk to Grandma that way….we’re going to go.” I ushered her out of the room screaming (my daughter was the one screaming, although I wanted to). As I carried her to a private space where she could melt down with me safely, it hit me — we’d been traveling for six or seven hours. Of course she’s exhausted and just letting me know in her four-year-old way. Duh. My fault again. I cannot count the number of times my children’s behaviour has hit the skids because they were suddenly overtaken by hunger just twenty minutes after they’d been offered food. And their inevitable response — “I wasn’t hungry then” — always seemed so unfair. Apparently all is fair when it comes to love, war, and toddlers.

2. Clarity, please.
Children will often push our limits simply because they haven’t received a straight answer to the question, “What will you do if I do such-and-such?” And then they might need to know, “Will it be different on Monday afternoon? What about when you’re tired? Or I’m cranky? If I get upset, will you do something different?” So by continuing to push limits, toddlers are only doing their job, which is to learn about our leadership (and our love), clarify our expectations and house rules, and to understand where their power lies. Our job is to answer as calmly and directly as possible. Our responses will obviously vary from situation to situation, but they should consistently demonstrate that we’re totally unthreatened by their behaviour, that we can handle it, and that it’s no big deal at all.

3. What’s all the fuss about?
When parents lose their cool, lecture, over-direct, or even talk about limit-pushing behaviours a bit too much, they can create interesting little dramas which children are compelled to re-enact. Punishments and emotional responses create stories that are frightening, alarming, shaming, guilt-inducing, or any combination.

When parents say more than a sentence or two about the limit-pushing behaviour, even while remaining calm, they risk creating a tale about a child with a problem (perhaps he hugs his baby sister too forcefully), which then causes the child to identify with this as his story and problem, when it was just an impulsive, momentary behaviour he tried out a couple of times.

For instance, counter to the example I shared about my daughter speaking rudely to Grandma, which for me clearly indicated that she was out-of-herself and unraveling, my response would be far more minimal if a spark of rudeness was directed at me. Rather than react and risk creating a story around occasional whining, screaming “you’re stupid,” “I hate you,” etc., I would dis-empower those behaviours by allowing them to roll-l-l off my back. Perhaps I’d acknowledge, “I hear how angry you are about leaving the park. That really disappointed you.”

Always, always, always encourage your child to express these feelings. Again, testing us with these behaviours from time to time is age-appropriate, and if we react, we may encourage this to continue. Sometimes children will smile or laugh when they know they are re-enacting a story, but this is usually an uneasy, tentative smile rather than one of happiness.

4. Do I have capable leaders?
Imagine how disconcerting it is to be two, three, or four years old and not be certain we have a stable leader. The most effective leaders lead with confidence, keep their sense of humor, and make it look easy. This takes practice but — not to worry — children will give us plenty of chances through their limit-pushing behaviour until we get it right. Know what’s important, both for you and for the child. If you are not clear, the child’s opposition will persist, which will make you, the parent, even angrier. This in turn highlights the conflict that exists already, leading to an unhappy situation combining anger, guilt, and fear. A child has a difficult time growing up with ambivalent parents.

5. I’ve got a feeling.
Children will sometimes persistently push limits when they have internalized feelings and stress that they need to release. Trusting this invaluable process and calmly (but firmly) holding the limits for our child while welcoming his or her feelings is the quickest and healthiest way to ease this need for limit-pushing. Maintaining an “all feelings allowed” attitude will nip most limit-pushing behaviours in the bud.

6. The sincerest form of flattery (sort of).
Children are sensitive and impressionable, and we are their most influential models, so they will absorb our behaviour and reflect it through theirs. For example, if we snatch toys away from our child, she may persistently snatch from friends. A child is likely to behave more erratically whenever her parents are upset or stressed about anything, especially if her parents haven’t openly shared these feelings.

7. Seems the best way to get your attention these days.
If the comfort and validation of our attention has been in short supply, or if there have been compelling mini-stories and dramas created around our child’s limit-pushing behaviour, she might end up repeating them to seek this negative attention.

8. Have you told me that you love me lately?

When children feel ignored, or even just a bit out of favour with us, it rattles them, and fear shows up in their limit-pushing behaviour. Reassuring hugs, kisses, and “I love you” will certainly help to mend these bridges, but the messages of love that matter most are heard through our patience, empathy, acceptance, respectful leadership, and the genuine interest we take in knowing our child.

To love toddlers is to know them.

Tenets of respectful parenting

Basic Trust
Basic trust means believing in your child’s competence and supporting her authenticity. It is believing that whatever your child needs to know, she will learn. In this way she will grow to trust in herself and in you. This will promote her feelings of security and allow her to begin to develop good judgment.

Basic trust also means that you as a parent will learn to trust yourself and your instincts. The foundation of basic trust is built by observing your child in order to understand her and find out what interests her. By observing her, you will discover that she is competent, able to figure many things out on her own, and you will grow to trust her even more.

Often when we are busy teaching a child to grasp a ball, for example, or to stack blocks, we don’t realize what she already knows. And what she knows may surprise us. The question is: what is your child ready to learn? Pumping information into a child not ready to receive it is to convey knowledge that is not useful to her. Your child’s curiosity, interest, and readiness are what count. Observation is the key.

Erik H. Erikson, the famous psychoanalyst and Harvard professor who coined the term basic trust, describes it in Identity and the Life Cycle (International Universities Press, Inc., 1959) as an attitude toward oneself and the world formed during the first year of life based on one’s experiences. He notes that “reasonable trustfulness as far as others are concerned and a simple sense of trustworthiness as far as oneself is concerned” is the basis for a healthy personality.

Environment
The environment must, first of all, be safe for your child’s protection and sense of security. In an unsafe environment a parent can never relax to observe his child. At least one completely safe room, or a gated-off portion of a room if the house or apartment is small, is needed where the child can play.

A cognitively challenging environment provides simple, age-appropriate play objects to help a child grow and mature through problem solving during the course of play. For example, I recommend play objects like large cotton scarves and balls for young babies. Toddlers need different challenges such as sand, water, wheel toys, and climbing structures. An emotionally nurturing environment, provided by an attentive parent or carer, gives a child the confidence to solve problems.

Uninterrupted Play
Children play beautifully on their own. They do not need to be taught how to play. Children work out their conflicts in play, which is connected to their readiness. Readiness refers to the ability to solve problems at each developmental stage.

For example, a young infant is ready to reach for and grasp objects near her. A toddler is ready to fill a bucket with sand and dump it out. Note that problems occur naturally in an adequate play environment, where a child may need to figure out how to retrieve a ball that rolled under a chair. It isn’t necessary to create problems. A parent can observe his child’s play and, based on that observation, see what she needs—maybe a new object to play with.

If a parent, instead, interrupts and says to his child, “Let’s roll the ball,” then the play becomes therapeutic for the parent rather than for the child, and the adult’s goal becomes more important than the child’s interest.

Uninterrupted play promotes concentration and a long attention span. When we interrupt a child, we also stop what she is doing, whatever process she may be in the middle of, as she focuses on us. Our interruptions, no matter how well intended, become distractions.

Freedom to Explore
Play groups, where infants and children interact with each other, are desirable. Children have different agendas with adults than with their peers, and they learn from each other. When infants are freely exploring, however, there must be rules. Mainly, children should not be allowed to hurt each other. Once the rules are established and reinforced by the supervising adults, the children can be free to interact.

An Active Participant
It’s fine and healthy for a child to be active, even though it’s not easy to diaper a wiggling baby. Cooperation is encouraged during caregiving times. Your goal is to encourage your child’s active involvement by inviting her to become part of the process. For example, during diapering you can talk to your baby and ask for her cooperation, even if she can’t yet understand you. This sets up the beginning of a dialogue between you that promotes cooperation.

Sensitive Observation
It is often easier to engage in an activity with a child than to sit and simply observe her. But from our observations come the answers, though it takes time to understand one’s child. Parents are so involved with their children that they sometimes lose perspective. Nobody knows for certain what a baby is thinking or feeling, but observing is the best way to tune in to your child.

If, through observation, you can perceive and accept your child at her own developmental level and learn how to understand and respond to her needs, you have a better chance of preventing problems before they develop. Over time, observation skills improve with practice.

Consistency
Consistency goes hand in hand with discipline. As a parent, you set the limits. A rule is always a rule. Knowing this makes a child feel secure. For example, you may tell your child where she may or may not play ball. Setting limits and maintaining them consistently doesn’t mean that a child will always obey the rules. The important thing is that your child knows what is expected of her. Predictable routines reinforce discipline. Certain issues, such as safety, should always be enforced.

Respectful parenting

What do I mean by respect? That’s what this book is about. If you treat your child respectfully from birth, he may have a better chance of gaining confidence and developing good judgment. This plants the seeds of lifelong security. He learns how to relate to other people in a healthy way and how to realistically, rather than blindly, trust the world.

Respect is a two-way street. Equally important, you as parents have needs, too. Being a parent is the most difficult undertaking in the world, a twenty-four-hour-a-day job that requires your time, patience, and energy whether you are sick or well, in a good mood or not. And the task is no easier as your child grows into adulthood. Often parents are left with residual guilt, feeling “If only I had done this in the beginning . . .”

Implementing consistent routines help parents simplify their lives and develop the ability to recognize when they should step in to influence their child’s behaviour and when to save their energy for larger issues, such as for nurturing themselves.

The term “educarer”, combining educator and carer, means one who educates children in a caring manner. And I prefer to use the word carer rather than caregiver or caretaker because a carer neither gives nor takes. For clarity’s sake, I use the word “caregiving” when referring to an activity such as a “caregiving task” so that it won’t be confused with “caring,” which might be understood to simply mean loving.

A carer puts love into action. The way you care for your baby is how he experiences your love. Everyday caregiving routines, like feeding and diapering, can be educational and loving interactions. These everyday routines form the building blocks of edu-caring and respect. Allowing infants to learn on their own rather than actively stimulating or teaching them is a basic tenet. Children learn all the time, from the day they are born. If we refrain from teaching them, they learn from experience. What we need to do is not interfere, step back, and allow learning to happen. What young children need to learn is how to adapt to their families.

If you begin well, by trying to understand your child’s point of view from infancy, there is a greater likelihood you will continue doing this throughout your life. Many misconceptions exist about babies and small children, and too little knowledge is based on observation and empathy. Observing your child carefully helps you to tune into his unique rhythm and understand his unique needs.

This respectful approach differs from most other childrearing theories in that it is based on the simple concept of observing your child. In our fast-paced modern culture, child development fads appear and disappear like fashions that come in and out of style. Hanging black and white mobiles over babies’ beds, showing them flash cards, putting them in walkers to “help” them walk, all activities that push a child to learn, have nothing to do with the reality of a young child’s day-to-day needs.

Respect. Honour. Esteem. These words aren’t usually associated with young babies. Yet it is widely agreed that these concepts are vital later in life. A child’s personality is largely formed in the first three years. Her outlook on the world is being shaped. Why not engage in a respectful relationship with your child as soon as possible? The benefits will be long-lasting.

What does respect mean, in terms of parents and children? It means accepting, enjoying, and loving your child as she is and not expecting her to do what she cannot do. It means allowing your child the time, the space, and the love and support to be herself and to discover the world in her own unique way. It means trying to understand her point of view.

To respect your child is to believe in her competence and see her as dependent on you rather than helpless. It is to accept and support both her dependence and independence, based on the developmental stage she is in. It is love plus consideration, treating your child as you would treat an honoured guest. To respect your child is to create a little distance so that you refrain from interfering with her experience of encountering life. Respect means setting boundaries for your child and for yourself as a parent, and enforcing these boundaries. It is letting your child know your expectations of her behaviour so that she can cooperate and, thus, respect you. Respect means taking care of your own needs as well as hers. It is nurturing and honouring yourself.

A respectful approach encourages a child’s authenticity, or genuineness, which means encouraging her to be honest about her feelings. It tells a child, “to thine own self be true”. Be who you are. It’s an ongoing life struggle. No society allows total honesty, so we must all wear masks and learn to pretend at times. People lose touch with their real selves. That’s too high a price to pay to fit in.

You may wonder how to encourage the spirit of authenticity. Simply let your child be. Spend time sitting back and observing her. See who she is and what her needs are. Don’t expect her to do what she is not ready or able to do. Let her crawl until she can, on her own, take her first steps. Don’t encourage your child to smile when she doesn’t feel like smiling. If she is sad, let her cry. Don’t expect or demand behaviour that is not genuine. Rather, value what she does.

Children are often expected to “behave” rather than be who they are. In many situations people unwittingly teach children how to be less than honest. When a child cries, she is not asked, “What happened?” but is usually told, “You’re okay.” We do this as a society. The message is: if you are not okay, keep it to yourself. Often, too, with children, conformity, rather than honesty, is encouraged. But perhaps we can learn to let children feel free to express their emotions and, as they grow, learn how to control their impulses.

Dealing with toddlers

A toddler acting out is not shameful, nor is it behaviour that needs punishing. It’s a cry for attention, a shout-out for sleep, or a call to action for firmer, more consistent limits. It is the push-pull of your toddler testing his burgeoning independence. He has the overwhelming impulse to step out of bounds, while also desperately needing to know he is securely reined in.

There is no question that children need discipline. As Magda Gerber said: “Lack of discipline is not kindness, it is neglect.” The key to healthy and effective discipline is our attitude. Toddlerhood is the perfect time to hone parenting skills that will provide the honest, direct, and compassionate leadership our children will depend on for years to come.

Here are some guidelines:

1. Begin with a predictable environment and realistic expectations.
A predictable daily routine enables a baby to anticipate what is expected of him. That is the beginning of discipline. Home is the ideal place for infants and toddlers to spend the majority of their day. Of course, we must take them with us to do errands sometimes, but we cannot expect a toddler’s best behavior at dinner parties, long afternoons at the mall, or when his days are loaded with scheduled activities.

2. Don’t be afraid or take misbehavior personally.
When toddlers act out in my classes, the parents often worry that their child might be a brat, a bully, an aggressive kid. When parents project those fears, it can cause the child to internalize the negative personas, or at least pick up on the parent’s tension, which often exacerbates the misbehavior. Instead of labeling a child’s action, learn to nip the behavior in the bud by disallowing it nonchalantly. If your child throws a ball at your face, try not to get annoyed. He doesn’t do it because he dislikes you, and he’s not a bad child. He is asking you (toddler-style) for the limits that he needs and may not be getting.

3. Respond in the moment, calmly, like a CEO.
Finding the right tone for setting limits can take a bit of practice. Lately, I’ve been encouraging parents that struggle with this to imagine they are a successful CEO and that their toddler is a respected underling. The CEO guides and leads others with confident efficiency. She doesn’t use an unsure, questioning tone, get angry or emotional. Our child needs to feel that we are not nervous about his behavior or ambivalent about establishing rules. He finds comfort when we are effortlessly in charge. Lectures, emotional reactions, scolding, and punishments do not give our toddler the clarity he needs and can create guilt and shame. A simple, matter-of-fact, “I won’t let you do that. If you throw that again I will need to take it away,” while blocking the behavior with our hands, is the best response. But react immediately. Once the moment has passed, it is too late. Wait for the next one!

4. Speak in first person.
Parents often get in the habit of calling themselves “Mommy” or “Daddy”. Toddlerhood is the time to change over into first person for the most honest, direct communication possible. Toddlers test boundaries to clarify the rules. When I say, “Mommy doesn’t want Emma to hit the dog,” I’m not giving my child the direct (‘you’ and ‘me’) interaction she needs.

5. No time-out.
I always think of Magda asking in her grandmotherly Hungarian accent, “Time out of what? Time out of life?” Magda was a believer in straightforward, honest language between a parent and child. She didn’t believe in gimmicks like time-out, especially to control a child’s behavior or punish him. If a child misbehaves in a public situation, the child is usually indicating he’s tired, losing control, and needs to leave. Carrying a child to the car to go home, even if he kicks and screams, is the sensitive and respectful way to handle the issue. Sometimes a child has a tantrum at home and needs to be taken to his room to flail and cry in our presence until he regains self-control. These are not punishments, but caring responses.

6. Consequences.
A toddler learns discipline best when he experiences natural consequences for his behavior, rather than a disconnected punishment like time-out. If a child throws food, his mealtime is over. If a child refuses to get dressed, we won’t be able to go to the park today. These parental responses appeal to a child’s sense of fairness. The child may still react negatively to the consequence, but he does not feel manipulated or shamed.

7. Don’t discipline a child for crying.
Children need rules for behavior, but their emotional responses to the limits we set (or to anything else, for that matter) should be allowed, even encouraged. Toddlerhood can be a time of intense, conflicting feelings. Children may need to express anger, frustration, confusion, exhaustion, and disappointment, especially if they don’t get what they want because we’ve set a limit. A child needs the freedom to safely express his feelings without our judgment. He may need a pillow to punch. Give him one.

8. Unconditional love.
Withdrawing our affection as a form of discipline teaches a child that our love and support turns on a dime, evaporating because of his momentary misbehavior. How can that foster a sense of security? Alfie Kohn’s New York Times article, “When A Parent’s ‘I Love You’ Means ‘Do As I Say’,” explores the damage this kind of conditional parenting causes, as the child grows to resent, distrust, and dislike his parents, feel guilt, shame, and a lack of self-worth.

9. Spanking – NEVER.
Most damaging of all to a relationship of trust are spankings. And spanking is a predictor of violent behavior. A Time Magazine article by Alice Park (“The Long-Term Effects of Spanking”) reports findings from a recent study which point to “the strongest evidence yet that children’s short-term response to spanking may make them act out more in the long run. Of the nearly 2,500 youngsters in the study, those who were spanked more frequently at age 3 were much more likely to be aggressive by age 5.” Purposely inflicting pain on a child cannot be done with love. Sadly, however, the child often learns to associate the two. Loving our child does not mean keeping him happy all the time and avoiding power struggles. Often it is doing what feels hardest for us to do: saying “no” and meaning it. Our children deserve our direct, honest responses so they can internalize right and wrong and develop the authentic self-discipline needed to respect and be respected by others. The goal is inner-discipline, self-confidence and joy in the act of cooperation.