Managing Screen Time

If you feel like blaming your children or teens for their fixation on screens, just think of the times when you, as a sensible adult, have stayed up too late, against your better judgement, watching something unmemorable on television. Or the times you’ve been lured into checking out just one more Facebook post or YouTube video. If we, the mature adults that we are, find it so easy to get sucked into Screen World, just imagine how much more tempting it is for our children and teens. It’s only when we are in charge, when we are the deciders of what happens in our homes, that we are able to do our job of transmitting the values, skills and habits that we believe are important. When we are not in charge, our children’s immature values will prevail and will be reinforced.

I’m sure you’ve read or heard the advice about making parenting less stressful by ‘picking your battles’. What this usually boils down to is avoiding situations that would result in your child or teen whingeing, complaining, arguing, pleading, crying, slamming doors or throwing himself on the floor. The problem with picking our battles is that it’s the opposite of the teaching and training we need to do in order to transmit our values, skills and habits. In this context, what I mean by teaching is making sure our children and teens know what they should do. And by training I mean guiding them into the habit of doing what they know they should do.

Children often resist this teaching and training at first because changing habits is rarely easy. It’s natural for children to react to new routines and habits and rules with some complaining, crying, arguing or even tantrums – at first. So let’s not view this annoying behaviour as a ‘battle’ to be avoided. Let’s think of these negative reactions as immature ways of expressing uncomfortable emotions. A tantrumming child hasn’t yet learned how to express his upset in words, or perhaps he is so overwhelmed by the strength of his emotion that he temporarily forgets how to control his actions. Or it could be that this sort of misbehaviour has worked in the past, at least some of the time, to get your child some of what he wants. Whingeing or shouting or arguing might have bought him a bit more time to do what he wants. Or he might have noticed that sometimes you give up out of frustration or exasperation. Or maybe he’s learned that the crying and whingeing are guaranteed to get your attention.

Our job is not to avoid our children’s negative reactions, but to teach and train more sensible reactions. We will enjoy our role as teachers and trainers much more when we remember that children are, by definition, immature. They want what they want. They believe they need what they want. Let’s allow them to feel their childish feelings. Let’s not think of their upset feelings or the resulting misbehaviour as a battle. In a battle someone wins and someone else loses. But teaching and training isn’t about winning and losing; it’s about changing habits. Being in charge is not a static state of affairs. Over time you will probably refine your values. And as your children grow and develop, their needs will change. You will naturally continue to cycle back through the steps below until your children leave home.

Assessing

Before you can decide to take action consistent with your values about screen time, you need to discover exactly what’s happening.

Assessing (and reassessing) the current situation includes deciding whether what is happening in your home fits with your values. This step also includes listening to your children’s opinions and wishes. However, you will always have the final say because you are wiser and because it is your job to guide children towards the values you believe are right.

Planning
In order to plan effectively, first you need to clarify (with your partner if you have one) what your values are. This enables you to decide which rules and routines will guide your children towards those values. It may not be easy to come to an agreement with your partner. Although your fundamental values may be the same, how you each tend to put them into practice might be very different. Consistency between parents can be difficult to achieve. But we don’t have the luxury of deciding to ‘agree to disagree’. It’s not fair to our children to expect them to feel comfortable with two different sets of rules in the same home.

As you put your plan into practice, you will find yourself revisiting these steps many times, assessing the current situation in your home to see the results of your actions. It’s tempting to jump the gun, but don’t assume a strategy is not working based on how the first week or two go. Stick with a new strategy for at least a month. This gives your child time to get used to the new rules and routines. If a rule or routine isn’t going according to plan after a month or so, you will need to pause to assess what went wrong and then decide what you want to tweak.

Getting in charge of the technology in your home and staying in charge probably won’t be easy. You will be swimming against the tide, and you may get criticism from your extended family (especially if your child’s grandparents believe that love equals indulgence), maybe from other parents at the school gates, maybe even from your closest friends. On the other hand, your family and friends may be cheering you on, and they may want to learn from you how to get back in charge.

Staying consistent will be difficult at times. Humans are not by nature very good at being consistent; we change our minds and our plans a lot. And getting back in charge can feel like hard work, for one thing because dealing with our children’s initial fury about the new screen time rules and routines can be very upsetting. You may feel frustrated, angry, guilty, confused. You may feel like giving up. You will need to keep your wits about you; you won’t be able to let your guard down. That can feel exhausting at first, until the new routines are firmly established.

Parenting as a journey is a popular metaphor. A journey has a starting point and a destination. The starting point is that you’re not completely happy with what is happening with electronics in your home: your child is too much in charge and your values are not prevailing. You won’t reach your destination in one giant leap. You’ll be taking lots of small steps. And to complicate matters, you and your partner may be at different points in this journey towards getting back in charge.

When you use the Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting strategies, screen time problems will be significantly reduced, and most can be eliminated. Even a severe problem can be transformed. Soon it will become a moderate issue, and then it will become a mild issue. Eventually, with consistency, it will end up a very mild issue. That is probably the best result you can hope for, given that our children will always be surrounded by the influences of Screen World. But you can live with a very mild issue because your children’s objections will fade over time.

Your children and teens will find renewed pleasure in non-screen activities. You will get more cooperation and respect. You will see more self-reliance and responsibility. You will have the immense satisfaction of seeing your children and teens developing more mature values and habits. You can make all this happen.

Some reasons for toddler misbehaviour

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

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

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

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

Here are the most common reasons young children push limits:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To love toddlers is to know them.

Tenets of respectful parenting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Respectful parenting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dealing with toddlers

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

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

Here are some guidelines:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Embracing unconditional parenting

What do you do when a child throws a tantrum? If a child has a strop before bedtime and once things calm down, should you proceed with the normal evening routine of snuggling with her and reading a story together? The conditional approach to parenting says no: We would be rewarding her unacceptable behaviour if we follow it with the usual pleasant activities. Those activities should be suspended, and she should be informed, gently but firmly, why that “consequence” is being imposed.

This course of action feels reassuringly familiar to most of us and consistent with what a lot of parenting books advise. What’s more, it would have been satisfying on some level for us to lay down the law, for the parent to put our foot down, letting her know she wasn’t allowed to act like that.

The unconditional approach to parenting, however, says this is a temptation to be resisted, and that we should indeed snuggle and read a story as usual. But that doesn’t mean we ought to just ignore what happened. Unconditional parenting isn’t a fancy term for letting kids do whatever they want. It’s very important (once the storm has passed) to teach, to reflect together. Whatever lesson we hope to impart is far more likely to be learned if the child knows that your love for her is undimmed by how she had acted.

Whether we’ve thought about them or not, each of these two styles of parenting rests on a distinctive set of beliefs about psychology, about children, even about human nature.

To begin with, the conditional approach is closely related to a school of thought known as behaviourism, which is commonly associated with the late B. F. Skinner. Its most striking characteristic, as the name suggests, is its exclusive focus on behaviours. All that matters about people, in this view, is what you can see and measure. You can’t see a desire or a fear, so you might as well just concentrate on what people do. Furthermore, all behaviours are believed to start and stop, wax and wane, solely on the basis of whether they are “reinforced.”

Behaviourists assume that everything we do can be explained in terms of whether it produces some kind of reward, either one that’s deliberately offered or one that occurs naturally. If a child is affectionate with his parent, or shares his dessert with a friend, it’s said to be purely because this has led to pleasurable responses in the past.

In short: External forces, such as what someone has previously been rewarded (or punished) for doing, account for how we act—and how we act is the sum total of who we are. Even people who have never read any of Skinner’s books seem to have accepted his assumptions. When parents and teachers constantly talk about a child’s “behaviour,”they’re acting as though nothing matters except the stuff on the surface. It’s not a question of who kids are, what they think or feel or need. Forget motives and values: The idea is just to change what they do. This, of course, is an invitation to rely on discipline techniques whose only purpose is to make kids act—or stop acting—in a particular way.

A more specific example of everyday behaviourism: Perhaps you’ve met parents who force their children to apologize after doing something hurtful or mean. (“Can you say you’re sorry?”) Now, what’s going on here? Do the parents assume that making children speak this sentence will magically produce in them the feeling of being sorry, despite all evidence to the contrary? Or, worse, do they not even care whether the child really is sorry, because sincerity is irrelevant and all that matters is the act of uttering the appropriate words?

Compulsory apologies mostly train children to say things they don’t mean—that is, to lie. But this is not just an isolated parental practice that ought to be reconsidered. It’s one of many possible examples of how Skinnerian thinking — caring only about behaviours — has narrowed our understanding of children and warped the way we deal with them. We see it also in programs that are intended to train little kids to go to sleep on their own or to start using the potty.

From the perspective of these programs, why a child may be sobbing in the dark is irrelevant. It could be terror or boredom or loneliness or hunger or something else. Similarly, it doesn’t matter what reason a toddler may have for not wanting to pee in the toilet when his parent asks him to do so.

Experts who offer step-by-step recipes for “teaching” children to sleep in a room by themselves, or who urge us to offer gold stars, M&Ms, or praise for tinkling in the toilet, are concerned not with the thoughts and feelings and intentions that give rise to a behaviour, only with the behaviour itself.

(While I haven’t done the actual counting that would be necessary to test this, I would tentatively propose the following rule of thumb: The value of a parenting book is inversely proportional to the number of times it contains the word behaviour.)

Let’s come back to the hypothetical example. Conditional parenting assumes that reading her a book and otherwise expressing our continued love for her will only encourage her to throw another fit. She will have learned that it’s okay to wake the baby and refuse to get in the bath because she will interpret our affection as reinforcement for whatever she had just been doing.

Unconditional parenting looks at this situation—and, indeed, at human beings—very differently. For starters, it asks us to consider that the reasons for what a child has done may be more “inside”than “outside.” Her actions can’t necessarily be explained, in mechanical fashion, by looking at external forces like positive responses to her previous behaviour. Perhaps she is overwhelmed by fears that she can’t name, or by frustrations that she doesn’t know how to express. Unconditional parenting assumes that behaviours are just the outward expression of feelings and thoughts, needs and intentions. In a nutshell, it’s the child who engages in a behaviour, not just the behaviour itself, that matters.

Children are not pets to be trained, nor are they computers, programmed to respond predictably to an input. They act this way rather than that way for many different reasons, some of which may be hard to tease apart. But we can’t just ignore those reasons and respond only to the effects (that is, the behaviours). Indeed, each of those reasons probably calls for a completely different course of action. If, for example, it turned out that a child is really being defiant there may be an underlying cause to deal with at that time instead of the carrot-stick approach.

Considering in enhancing Children’s Interactions

Interactions with young children are profoundly important for supporting and extending their learning. They are so much a part of the daily experience of both practitioners and children that it is easy to assume that they come about readily and naturally. Our experience challenges this assumption. It would seem that something about the role of educator – as opposed to parent, carer or interested adult – puts pressure on practitioners to say things, and say them in ways, that are sometimes unnatural and often unhelpful. Why is this? Well, research into interactions between adults and young children in a variety of contexts suggests that by adopting the role of educator, adults sometimes force their own agenda onto children at an age when children are often highly motivated and driven by an agenda of their own, and do not welcome the interference!

It is important to examine the interactions that take place between early childhood educators and the children, from 6 months to 6 years, with whom they work. We can start by exploring both adult-led and child-led contexts and ask how interactions in these different situations can be made more natural, more purposeful and more effective – for children and for practitioners. Interactions are so important for young children’s learning and development.

There have been many attempts to identify the elements that lead to effective interactions between practitioners and children. But these are hugely dependent, of course, on the author’s or researcher’s definition of ‘effectiveness’.

In the influential study of under fives in Britain in the 1980s (Bruner 1980; Wood et al. 1980), Bruner describes the challenge of trying to achieve what he calls connected discourse (conversation) to occur. At the time, he and his colleagues were looking for a simple exchange between the adult and child where there was at least a three-element exchange on a single topic: A talks to B, B replies and then A responds to B’s response. Of 9600 half-minute periods observed, Bruner reports that only 2 per cent contained such conversations.

In Tizard and Hughes’ (1984) famous study of the difference between the interactions children and adults have in the home and at school, the authors analysed what they term passages of intellectual search, characterized by persistent questioning on the part of the child and the process of relating the adult’s answers to existing knowledge. They found that mothers were more responsive to the questions of the child than teachers in schools and that mothers built more effectively on their child’s existing knowledge, understanding and language.

The government-funded project ‘Studying Pedagogical Effectiveness in Early Learning’ (DfES 2002a) claimed that effectiveness is a result of the adult and child operating from a shared frame of reference that the researchers refer to as ‘a mutual learning encounter’, which includes not only the relationships and interactions between a practitioner and a child but also between the practitioner and the child’s family.

Around a similar time, Siraj-Blatchford and her colleagues in their report on ‘Researching Effective Pedagogy in the Early Years’ (DfES 2002b) introduced the term sustained shared thinking (or what Bruner termed joint involvement episodes: Bruner 1966) to describe ‘an episode in which two or more individuals ‘work together’ in an intellectual way to solve a problem, clarify a concept, evaluate activities, extend a narrative etc. Both parties must contribute to the thinking and it must develop and extend.’ This research identified that the quality and quantity of episodes of sustained shared thinking were contingent upon the qualifications of the practitioners in the different settings within their study.

More recently (2008), Robin Alexander’s research project ‘Talk for Learning’ has drawn on Gordon Well’s use of the term ‘dialogic inquiry’ to speak specifically about dialogic teaching, which he describes as the exchange between adult and child which formulates the extent and manner of the child’s cognitive development. Dialogic interactions he conceives as collective, reciprocal, supportive, cumulative and purposeful.

In 2007, Mercer along with Karen Littleton adopted the term interthinking to describe how teachers and primary/secondary age children work together to solve problems, ‘combining their intellects in creative ways that may achieve more than the sum of the parts.’ (2007: 4).

These different terms describing the nature of interactions are not exclusive, but they demonstrate in their different ways how researchers and educationalists have attempted to capture the complexity that characterises an effective educational exchange between a practitioner and a child.

Is there a project definition of ‘effectiveness’ that would adequately describe the findings of research? All of the terms cited above seemed helpful at some level or other in describing the nature of an interactive episode, but most did not offer an adequate yardstick, against which judgements could be consistently made, as to whether an interaction was actually ‘effective’ or not.

There are commonly-held criteria that are used in the judgement of ‘effectiveness’ altrhough there are possible limitations:

For an interaction to be ‘effective’, learning has to be enhanced. This alone might be seen as problematic for practitioners working with young children, as ‘enhancing’ could be appropriate in an adult-led context but sometimes result in overwhelming the child’s agenda when activity was child-led.

For an interaction to be ‘effective’, it has to be enhanced by the practitioner. This may seem obvious. But on many occasions learning is enhanced by other children; by the environment or by the child’s own independent enquiry. In an ‘effective’ interaction between a child and practicioner, the practitioner must make a contribution that benefits the child. The contribution made by the practitioner might be cognitive, emotional, social, dispositional or metacognitive, but if the practitioner intervenes or interacts without any discernible impact on learning or development, then that interaction is clearly unhelpful or unnecessary.

It is important to clarify that ‘something positive’ might not always refer to something cognitive. In keeping with the project participants’ commitment to the development of the whole child, ‘something positive’ might be cognitive, social, emotional, dispositional or, indeed, metacognitive.