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.

Considerations in counselling young childen

Sometimes children suffer longer than they should in environments that are stressful, abusive and unsafe because the adults around them lack the skills to open the door to effective communication. Engaging effectively with children requires skill and commitment, but it is a skill that can be learned, and these activities will help build your confidence and give you practical ideas and resources to use.

Social workers frequently have to work with children to address very difficult issues. It is often the first time they have met the child. It is important to keep in mind that the world view of children who have been abused and neglected is likely to be that the adults around them neither care about them nor have been able to protect them, and may have been the abusers themselves (Ainsworth et al. 1978). In these circumstances, it is imperative that we are able to convey to the child that we are safe, caring and interested adults.

When engaged in long-term work, there are additional challenges in building and sustaining a relationship with a child. Children who have been consistently let down by adults often build a protective barrier that means they are very cautious of, or even closed down to, investing in a relationship. It is not uncommon for a child to try very hard not to engage with a worker, to reject the possibility of a relationship almost before it has begun. For these children, experience of multiple losses has shown that it can be unsafe to trust (Fahlberg 1991). Their experience is that they have to attempt to self-regulate, to be emotionally self-sufficient, which, for an immature brain, often results in defensiveness on the one hand, or being emotionally over-demanding (Gerhardt 2004) on the other.

With every interaction we have with a child we have the power to begin to change this world view of adults, whether we are foster carers, social workers, teachers, nursery nurses or care workers. In effect, we can offer children a different working model of the world.

This healing process can begin with the child learning to engage and trust just one other person in her life. You could be that person. This is a huge privilege and also a huge responsibility, but the rewards and benefits are immeasurable, for both the child and the worker.

Children have the right to confidentiality during one-to-one sessions. However, it would be naive to think this can be absolute. Issues will arise in the course of working with a child that do need to be shared with others – either with the child’s immediate carers or, in the case of child protection, other professionals and potentially the child’s own family members.

The important thing is to be honest with the child from the start. The child’s developmental age will determine how you explain the level of confidentiality that you can offer (and this may also depend on your role). With younger children, counsellors talk about safe and fun secrets, ‘like when you have made a card for mummy and you don’t want to tell her before her birthday’. You can tell the child that we all like those kinds of secrets. But there are other secrets that are upsetting, maybe about the child or someone else getting hurt or not being safe. These kinds of things can’t be kept secret because they are too big for anybody to have to keep secret. We have to tell these secrets, so we call them ‘have to tell secrets’.

You can have this conversation using a series of picture cards and discussing which ones could be secrets. Why would they be secret? Are they ‘fun secrets’ or ‘have to tell secrets’? For children who can read well, having short scenarios written down can be more developmentally appropriate. In group work you could ask one group to act out the secret and one to discuss whether they think it is a ‘fun secret’ or a ‘have to tell secret’. Do both groups agree?

Issues will arise in sessions that you either need to tell main carers or that would be beneficial to tell. In this situation acknowledge this with the child and explain why it would be a good idea to tell. In a situation where it would be beneficial to tell, social workers may invite the child to tell the carer/parent with them and let the child do the talking while they are present, as support. If this is not comfortable for the child, speak directly to the carer/parent, preferably in the child’s presence. If the child doesn’t want to be there, or leaves half way through, that is fine. The aim should be to involve the child as far as possible.

Positive Parenting Tools

So, what tools and ideas will help your child learn all she needs to know? If punishment doesn’t work, what does? Here are some suggestions. Remember, your child’s individual development is critical in these years; remember, too, that nothing works all the time for all children. As your unique child grows and changes, you’ll have to return to the drawing board many times, but these ideas will form the foundation for years of effective parenting.

Get Children Involved
Education comes from the Latin root educare, which means “to draw forth.” This may explain why children so often tune you out when you try to “stuff in” through constant demands and lectures. Instead of telling children what to do, find ways to involve them in decisions and to draw out what they think and perceive. Curiosity questions (which often begin with “what” or “how”) are one way to do this. Ask, “What do you think will happen if you push your tricycle over the curb?” or “What do you need to do to get ready for preschool?” Children who are involved in decision making experience a healthy sense of personal power and autonomy. For children who are not yet able to talk, say, “Next, we_________,” while kindly and firmly showing them what to do.

There are several particularly effective ways of getting preschoolers involved in cooperation and problem solving. Here are three suggestions:

Create routines together.
Young children learn best by repetition and consistency, so you can ease the transitions of family life by involving them in creating reliable routines. Routines can be created for every event that happens over and over: getting up, bedtime, dinner, shopping, and so on. Sit down with your child and invite her to help you make a routine chart. Ask her to tell you the tasks involved in the routine (such as bedtime). Let her help you decide on the order. Take pictures of her doing each task that can be pasted next to each item. Then let her illustrate the chart with markers and glitter. Hang it where she can see it, and let the routine chart become the boss. When your child gets distracted, you can ask, “Whats next on your routine chart?” (Be sure not to confuse these with sticker or reward charts, which diminish your child’s inner sense of capability because the focus is on the reward.)

Offer limited choices.
Having choices gives children a sense of power: they have the power to choose one possibility or another. Choices also invite a child to use his thinking skills as he contemplates what to do. And, of course, young children often love it when choices include an opportunity to help. “What is the first thing you will do when we get home—help me put the groceries away or read a story? You decide.” “Would you like to carry the blanket or the cracker box as we walk to the car? You decide.” Adding “You decide” increases your child’s sense of power. Be sure the choices are developmentally appropriate and that all of the choices are options you are comfortable with. When your child wants to do something else, you can say, “That wasn’t one of the choices. You can decide between this and this.”

Provide opportunities for your child to help you.
Young children often resist a command to get in the car but respond cheerfully to a request like “I need your help. Will you carry the keys to the car for me?” Activities that might easily have become power struggles and battles can become opportunities for laughter and closeness if you use your instincts and your creativity. Allowing your child to help you (even when it’s messy or inconvenient) also sets the stage for cooperation later on.

Teach Respect by Being Respectful
Parents usually believe children should show respect, not have it shown to them. But children learn respect by seeing what it looks like in action. Be respectful when you make requests. Don’t expect a child to do something “right now” when you are interrupting something she is thoroughly engaged in. Give her some warning: “We need to leave in a minute. Do you want to swing one more time or go down the slide?” Carry a small timer around with you. Teach her to set it to one or two minutes. Then let her put the timer in her pocket so she can be ready to go when the timer goes off.

Remember, too, that making a child feel shame and humiliation—such as a child might feel if she was spanked in the middle of the park (or anywhere else, for that matter)—is disrespectful, and a child who is treated with disrespect is likely to return the favour. Kindness and firmness show respect for your child’s dignity, your own dignity, and the needs of the situation.

Use Your Sense of Humour
No one ever said parenting had to be boring or unpleasant. Laughter is often the best way to approach a situation. Try saying, “Here comes the tickle monster to get children who don’t pick up their toys.” Learn to laugh together and to create games to get unpleasant jobs done quickly. Humour is one of the best—and most enjoyable—parenting tools.

Three-year-old Nathan had an unfortunate tendency to whine, and Beth was at her wits’ end. She had tried talking, explaining, and ignoring, but nothing seemed to have any effect. One day Beth tried something that was probably more desperation than inspiration. As Nathan whined that he wanted some juice, Beth turned to him with a funny look on her face. “Nathan,” she said, “something is wrong with Mommy’s ears. When you whine, I can’t hear you at all!” Again Nathan whined for juice, but this time Beth only shook her head and tapped her ear, looking around as if a mosquito were buzzing near her head. Nathan tried once more, but again Beth shook her head. Then Beth heard something different. The little boy took a deep breath and said in a low, serious voice, “Mommy, can I have some juice?” When Beth turned to look at him, he added “Please?” for good measure. Beth laughed and scooped Nathan up for a hug before heading to the kitchen. “I can hear you perfectly when you ask so nicely,” she said. From that time on, all Beth had to do when Nathan began to whine was tap her ear and shake her head. Nathan would draw an exasperated breath—and begin again in a nicer tone of voice.

Not everything can be treated lightly, of course. But rules become less difficult to follow when children know that a spontaneous tickling match or pillow battle might erupt at any moment. Taking time to lighten up and to laugh together works where discipline is concerned, too, and makes life more pleasant for everyone.

Get into Your Child’s World
Understanding your preschooler’s developmental needs and limitations is critical to parenting during these important years. Do your best to be empathetic when your child becomes upset or has a temper tantrum out of frustration with his lack of abilities. Empathy does not mean rescuing. It means understanding. Give your child a hug and say, “You’re really upset right now. I know you want to stay.” Then hold your child and let him experience his feelings before you gently guide him to leave. If you rescue your child by letting him stay, he won’t have the opportunity to learn from experience that he can survive disappointment. Getting into your child’s world also means seeing the world from his perspective and recognizing his abilities—and his limitations. Occasionally ask yourself how you might be feeling (and acting) if you were your child. It can be illuminating to view the world through a smaller person’s eyes.

Say What You Mean, Then Follow Through with Kindness and Firmness
Children usually sense when you mean what you say and when you don’t. It’s usually best not to say anything unless you mean it and can say it respectfully—and can then follow through with dignity and respect. The fewer words you say, the better! This may mean redirecting or showing a child what she can do instead of punishing her for what she can’t do. It also might mean wordlessly removing a child from the slide when it is time to go, rather than getting into an argument or a battle of wills. When this is done kindly, firmly, and without anger, it will be both respectful and effective.

Be Patient
Understand that you may need to teach your child many things over and over before she is developmentally ready to understand. For example, you can encourage your child to share, but don’t expect her to understand the concept and do it on her own when she doesn’t feel like it. When she refuses to share, rest assured that this doesn’t mean she will be forever selfish. It will help to understand that she is acting age-appropriately. Don’t take your child’s behavior personally and think your child is mad at you, bad, or defiant. Act like the adult (sometimes easier said than done) and do what is necessary without guilt and shame.

Act, Don’t Talk—and Supervise Carefully
Minimize your words and maximize your actions. As Rudolf Dreikurs once said, “Shut your mouth and act.” Quietly take your child by the hand and lead her to where she needs to go. Show her what she can do instead of what she can’t do. And no matter how bright, cooperative, or quick to learn your child is, be sure to supervise her actions carefully. Preschoolers are often impulsive little people and your child will need your watchful attention for years to come.

Accept and Appreciate Your Child’s Uniqueness
Children develop differently and have different strengths. Expecting from a child what he cannot give will only frustrate both of you. Your sister’s children may be able to sit quietly in a restaurant for hours, while yours get twitchy after just a few minutes, no matter how diligently you prepare. If you simply accept that, you can save yourself and your children a lot of grief by waiting to have that fancy meal when you can enjoy it in adult company—or when your children have matured enough for all of you to enjoy it together.

Using positive discipline to empower a child

Positive Discipline is effective with preschoolers because it is different from conventional discipline. It has nothing to do with punishment (which many people think is synonymous with discipline) and everything to do with teaching valuable social and life skills.

Discipline with young children involves deciding what you will do and then kindly and firmly following through, rather than expecting your child to “behave.” As your child matures and becomes more skilled, you will be able to involve him in the process of focusing on solutions and participating in limit setting. In this way he can practice his thinking skills, feel more capable, and learn to use his power and autonomy in useful ways—to say nothing of feeling more motivated to follow solutions and limits he has helped create.

The principles of Positive Discipline will help you build a relationship of love and respect with your child and will help you solve problems together for many years to come.

The building blocks of Positive Discipline include:

Mutual respect
Parents model firmness by respecting themselves and the needs of the situation, and kindness by respecting the needs and humanity of the child.

Understanding the belief behind behavior.
All human behavior has a purpose. You will be far more effective at changing your child’s behavior when you understand the motivation for it. (Children start creating the beliefs that form their personality from the day they are born.) Dealing with the belief is as important as (if not more important than) dealing with the behavior.

Effective communication
Parents and children (even young ones) can learn to listen well and use respectful words to ask for what they need. Parents will learn that children “hear” better when they are invited to think and participate instead of being told what to think and do. And parents will learn how to model the listening they expect from their children.

Understanding a child’s world
Children go through different stages of development. By learning about the developmental tasks your child faces and taking into account other variables such as birth order, temperament, and the presence (or absence) of social and emotional skills, your child’s behavior becomes easier to understand. When you understand your child’s world, you can choose better responses to her behavior.

Discipline that teaches
Effective discipline teaches valuable social and life skills and is neither permissive nor punitive.

Focusing on solutions instead of punishment
Blame never solves problems. At first, you will decide how to approach challenges and problems. But as your child grows and develops, you will learn to work together to find respectful, helpful solutions to the challenges you face, from spilled Kool-Aid to bedtime woes.

Encouragement
Encouragement celebrates effort and improvement, not just success, and helps children develop confidence in their own abilities.

Children do better when they feel better
Where did parents get the crazy idea that in order to make children behave, parents should make them feel shame, humiliation, or even pain? Children are more motivated to cooperate, learn new skills, and offer affection and respect when they feel encouraged, connected, and loved.

When people talk about “discipline” they usually mean “punishment” because they believe the two are one and the same. Parents and teachers sometimes yell and lecture, spank and slap hands, take away toys and privileges, and plop children in a punitive time-out to “think about what you did.”

Unfortunately, no matter how effective punishment may seem at the moment, it does not create the long-term learning and social and life skills parents truly want for their children.

Punishment only makes a challenging situation worse, inviting both adults and children to plunge headfirst into power struggles. Positive Discipline is based on a different premise: that children (and adults) do better when they feel better.

Positive Discipline is about teaching (the meaning of the word discipline is “to teach”), understanding, encouraging, and communicating—not about punishing. Most of us absorbed our ideas about discipline from our own parents, our society, and years of tradition and assumptions. We often believe that children must suffer (at least a little) or they won’t learn anything. But in the past few decades, our society and culture have changed rapidly and our understanding of how children grow and learn has changed, so the ways we teach children to be capable, responsible, confident people must change as well.

Punishment may seem to work in the short term. But over time, it creates rebellion, resistance, or children who just don’t believe in their own worth. There is a better way, and this post is devoted to helping parents discover it.

There is a difference between wants and needs, and your child’s needs are simpler than you might think. All genuine needs should be met. But when you give in to all of your child’s wants, you can create huge problems for your child and for yourself.

For example, your preschooler needs food, shelter, and care. He needs warmth and security. He does not need a pint-sized computer, a television in his bedroom, an iPod, or a miniature monster truck to drive. He may love staring at the television screen, but experts tell us that any kind of screen time at this age may hamper optimal brain development. He may want to sleep in your bed, but he will feel a sense of self-reliance and capability by learning to fall asleep in his own bed. He may love french fries and sugary soda, but if you provide them you could be setting the stage for childhood (and adult) obesity. You get the idea.

From his earliest moments in your family, your young child has four basic needs:

1. A sense of belonging and significance
2. Perceptions of capability
3. Personal power and autonomy
4. Social and life skills

If you can provide your child with these needs, he will be well on his way to becoming a competent, resourceful, happy human being.

The Importance of Belonging and Significance

“Well, of course,” you may be thinking, “everyone knows a child needs to belong.” Most parents believe that what a child really needs is quite simple: he needs love. But love alone does not always create a sense of belonging or worth. In fact, love sometimes leads parents to pamper their children, to punish their children, or to make decisions that are not in their child’s long-term best interest.

Everyone—adults and children alike—needs to belong somewhere. We need to know that we are accepted unconditionally for who we are, rather than just our behavior or what we can do. For young children, the need to belong is even more crucial. After all, they’re still learning about the world around them and their place in it. They need to know they are loved and wanted even when they have a tantrum, spill their cereal, break Dad’s golf clubs, or make yet another mess in the kitchen. Children who don’t believe they belong become discouraged, and discouraged children often misbehave.

Notice the word believe. You may know your child belongs and is significant. But if he doesn’t believe it (sometimes for the darnedest reasons, such as the birth of another baby), he may try to find his sense of belonging and significance in mistaken ways.

In fact, most young children’s misbehavior is a sort of “code” designed to let you know that they don’t feel a sense of belonging and need your attention, connection, time, and teaching. When you can create a sense of belonging and significance for every member of your family, your home becomes a place of peace, respect, and safety.

Perceptions of Capability

Your preschooler will never learn to make decisions, learn new skills, or trust his own abilities if you don’t make room for him to practice. Parenting in the preschool years involves a great deal of letting go. Words alone are not powerful enough to build a sense of competence and confidence in children. Children feel capable when they experience capability and self-sufficiency—when they are able to successfully do something—and from developing solid skills.

Personal Power and Autonomy

Developing autonomy and initiative are among the earliest developmental tasks your child will face. And while parents may not exactly like it, even the youngest child has personal power—and quickly learns how to use it. If you doubt this, think about the last time you saw a four-year-old jut out his jaw, fold his arms, and say boldly, “No! I don’t want to!” Part of your job as a parent will be to help your child learn to channel his considerable power in positive directions—to help solve problems, to learn life skills, and to respect and cooperate with others. Punishment will not teach these vital lessons: effective and loving discipline will.

Social and Life Skills

Teaching your child skills—how to get along with other children and adults, how to feed and dress herself, how to learn responsibility—will occupy most of your parenting hours during the preschool years. But the need for social and practical life skills never goes away. In fact, true self-esteem does not come from being loved, praised, or showered with goodies—it comes from having skills. When children are young, they love to imitate parents. Your child will want to hammer nails with you, squirt the bottle of detergent or prepare breakfast (with lots of supervision). As he grows more capable, you can use these everyday moments of life together to teach him how to become a competent, capable person. Working together to learn skills can occasionally be messy, but it’s also an enjoyable and valuable part of raising your child.

Positive discipline is well, positive. It emphasises goodness instead of punishment, positivity instead of criticism. Used correctly, it empowers children and emboldens them to continually do the right thing for the correct reasons, rather than because of the fear of punishment.

When should you start potty training?

It would be so much easier if there were a magic age at which to potty train your child. You could simply wake up on the morning that he reaches, say, 26 months, plonk him on the potty – and hey presto!

However, every child is different. Some gain the necessary physical, mental and emotional developmental skills as early as 18 months, whereas others aren’t ready until they’re 3 or 4 years old.

Some get the hang of it over a weekend, while others take months. By responding to your child’s signals you can let him set the agenda, so that you’ll both find the transition from nappies to pants as painless as possible.

Weeing or pooing on the potty is a highly complex process. Really, it is. It may not seem very difficult to you, but when you break down the number of skills that are needed to succeed it’s incredible that someone as young as a 2- or 3-year-old could ever master it.

Your toddler has to be able to recognize the signs that he needs to go to the toilet, and then hold on to it long enough to get there. He then has to remember where the potty is, walk to it, grapple with his clothing and pull down his pants – and all this before he even sits down to do his business. Finally, he needs to wipe his bottom, get dressed and wash his hands.

In order for a child to succeed, he has to be physically and mentally ready. Scientists have identified a number of stages your child will go through while developing bladder and bowel control:

1. He becomes aware of having a wet or dirty nappy or clothing. This can occur from 15 months.

2. He recognizes when he is doing a wee or a poo, and may learn the words to tell you all about it. This takes place between 18 and 24 months, or later in some children.

3. He can tell you in advance that he will need to go, with sufficient warning for you to get him to the potty in time. On average, this occurs between 21/2 and 3 years.

4. He gains more control of his bladder and can ‘hold on’ for a while. This takes place from 3 years onwards.

Research has shown that a child cannot voluntarily use the muscles that control his bladder and rectum until he is at least 18 months old. There is a gap of roughly 2 years between the age when a child first starts to recognize that he’s wet, and the time when he can actually hold on and wait before he passes urine. Potty training will be faster if your child is at the last stage before you start; although with perseverance you can certainly achieve dryness earlier, it will be a longer, more drawn-out and, probably, messier process.

A child who is physically ready may still not be prepared to let go of her nappies. Motivation is the key, and a toddler who is becoming more independent and keen to do things for herself will be more interested in going to the toilet like a grown-up than a child who is at an earlier stage of her emotional development. Many children will show strong signs that they are physically, mentally and emotionally ready for potty training before the age of 3. However, at least 15 per cent of children are not potty trained by that age, and 4 per cent still haven’t mastered it by 4 years. It’s important not to panic that your child is falling behind. One research study presented at a European conference for bladder and kidney specialists revealed that for healthy children, bladder capacity increases significantly between the ages of 2 and 3 years, so that by the time they are 3 most children are able to hold on and stay dry for longer periods of time. Your child will get there, in her own time.

In the USA, pediatricians have a saying about potty training: ‘If you start at 2, you’ll be done by 3. If you start at 3, you’ll be done by 3!’

Research is now confirming what parents have known for years: that boys tend to be a little slower to gain control of their bladders and bowels than girls. One study showed that, on average, boys both started and completed potty training later than girls.

According to American research, the average age for completion of potty training (day and night-time dryness) was 35 months for girls and 39 months for boys.

This difference is thought to be due to several factors:

1 Boys’ nervous systems mature later. Girls can begin to gain bladder control from the age of 18 months, whereas with boys it may not be until after 22 months.

2 Women still tend to be the main carers, so boys do not see a same-sex role model as often as girls do.

3 Boys appear to be less sensitive to the feeling of wetness against their skin. But don’t get bogged down in the detail. Every child is different, and if your son seems ready then you should go for it, whatever his age.

Most children will show characteristic signs when they are ready to take on potty training – you just have to be able to recognize these and act on them. If that sounds too much like taking part in a complicated detection exercise, take heart from the fact that some children, especially those with older siblings, can make it very easy for you.

Is your child ready? Many children’s signals are subtler than my daughter’s were. Although there isn’t a checklist you should tick off, there is a gradual accumulation of indicators that your child is becoming physically, mentally and emotionally ready to learn to go to the toilet.

Your child may be ready to start toilet training if:

‘I can do it’ becomes a regular refrain, showing that your toddler wants to become more independent.

He has regular, formed bowel movements, and he may go red in the face and gain a very concentrated expression when he’s about to go.

He has the dexterity to pull his pants up and down by himself.

He’s very interested when his father goes to the toilet and imitates his actions.

He is developed physically so that he can walk and sit down on the potty.

He knows what wee and poo are and may talk about them when you’re changing his nappy.

You may notice that his nappy is dry for longer periods, up to three or four hours. This shows that his bladder capacity and control are improving.

He can understand what you are saying and follow simple instructions, such as ‘Go and get your teddy.’

He starts to recognize the sensations that he needs to go to the toilet and demonstrates this by looking uncomfortable, holding onto himself or grunting. Soon he’ll learn to tell you before it happens.

He may become uncomfortable and complain if his nappy is dirty. He may start to rip off his nappy every time he does a wee in it, which means he can go through ten nappies a day. If this is the case, simple economics dictate that it’s time to reach for the potty.

Potty-training practices have changed considerably over the years. Mothers from previous generations were encouraged to start extraordinarily early, and it was not unheard of to balance babies on the potty as soon as they could sit up, or even earlier. While it is important to balance the advice of previous generations with modern ones, perhaps it is best for all to sense when your child is ready, and then work towards it.