Daring children to fail

It seems that we are such a goal-oriented society and measure our progress by the attainment of success, that we have forgotten that in failure there is much to learn to.

Think of a child making a Lego set. He or she follows the instructions, and then perhaps after a nunber of steps encountes a point where the pieces do not fit as the diagrams intended.

What do you do? Should you just break up the whole thing into the constituent blocks and then start all over again?

Strangely enough, this is how some people approach their learning.

Some piano players that I have encountered, for example, are so intent on getting it right, that when they make a mistake, they merely keep returning to the first bar, and try playing again from the beginning hoping to get a complete error-free version.

The problem with doing this is that you get familiar with the opening stages of the process. You don’t really learn as much as dealing with the difficult stage. What you are doing is repeating the process and banking on, or gambling on, that the next time you do it right something will magically sort itself out.  You have not really learnt to deal with the obstacle, as you have attempted to do the thing again and hope it will be right.

Imagine if you were that child playing with Lego. You hit a snag and somewhere something must have gone wrong.

What should you do?

You should retrace your steps, until you get to the point where you can identify what you have built does not match with the instructions. There you learn where you went wrong, how you misintepreted the instructions, and how to watch out for that step again if you ever decide to build your model from scratch.

If you do ever make a mistake and then decide to start from scratch, you may think your perserverance is a positive factor, but actually it is not. You are merely masking a lack of initiative to solve problems by hoping hard graft can make up for a lack of perserverance and the will to develop intelligent problem-solving skills.

Daring to fail is not a bad point. It gives us the opportunity to gain maturity and intelligence by overcoming the problem ahead of us.

In life, everyone frequently hits a snag. This presents an opportunity for growth. This is what we should teach our children. Dare to fail, dare to make mistakes, so that in overcoming them we grow. You don’t need to produce perfection. If you don’t try for the fear of making an error, you have lost out on the opporunity for growth.

Achieving Greatness

Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.

We often wish for our children to achieve good things in life. Perhaps they have a skill that could be nurtured. Perhaps it could be art, music or drama. Maybe a child shows an engineering bias or a love for machinery, or craftwork. We want them to be the best they can be, to do the best they can achieve. But often we could end up visualising the final product, conveying it to them, that we neglect to convey to them the little steps we take to get there.

Too often we forget that to achieve big things we have to do things in little stages. To get from A to Z, you can’t just fix your eyes on Z and hope that by the sheer force of willpower you will be able to drag yourself all the way. It is possible, of course, depending on the size of the task, but willpower can be discouraged if you pull for too long with no end in sight, and affect the effort as well. Imagine you are pulling a heavy car tyre from one place to another, using a rope. (Why you would do that is beyond the scope of this discussion, but this is only a hypothetical example.) If you pull the heavy weight and have to move it one foot at a time, if you keep your eyes and thoughts transfixed on the end goal, then you are really going to be discouraged by how the gulf seems to be still there even though you are shifting with all your energy with each tug. And after you have done that for a while, you will feel discouraged and that will manifest itself in your effort. You will pull with less energy – why invest all the energy for little return – and when you end up in that state, it will turn out to be a negative cycle. You pull less, you move less, and finally you stop.

It is much easier mentally to break the big task into little stages and work towards the completion of each stage. Have you ever heard of people who have accomplished big projects, then told others of how, had they realised it was going to be so big at the time, they would have never started?

The achievement of a great task starts with little steps.

So perhaps a good life skill to teach our children, before we teach them to work hard and never to give up, is to be able to break tasks up into little things, to strategise. Then direct full effort into fulfiling each stage. Otherwise brute effort without direction is a waste of effort.

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.

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.