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.

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.

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.

The child-counsellor relationship in the counselling of children

Those of us working in nurseries have to develop the skills of being able to counsel young children – or at least listen and show empathy akin to being a counsellor. The relationship between child and counsellor is primarily about connecting with the child and staying with the child’s perceptions. The child may see the environment in which they live quite differently from the way in which their parents see this environment. The counsellor’s job is to join with the child and to work from within the child’s framework.

Approaching the child–counsellor relationship with judgement, affirmation or condemnation, invites the child to move away from their own perceptions and towards those of the counsellor. Instead, it is important for the child to stay with their own values, beliefs and attitudes rather than to be influenced by the counsellor’s values, beliefs and attitudes.

The child–counsellor relationship provides a link between the child’s world and the counsellor, enabling the counsellor to observe with clarity the experience of the child. This observation will inevitably be partially distorted by the counsellor’s own experiences, and some projection of these onto the child is unavoidable.

However, the counsellor’s aim is to minimize the influence of their own experience, so that their connection with the child’s experience of the world is as complete as is possible.

The child–counsellor relationship as an exclusive relationship
As counsellors it is important for us to establish and maintain good rapport with the child so that trust is developed. This development of trust can be supported if the child experiences a strong flavour of exclusivity, that is, a unique relationship with the counsellor which is not compromised by the unwanted intrusion of others, such as parents or siblings.

The child will have a personal perception of themselves, which will not be the same as the parents’ perception. For the therapeutic relationship to be effective it is important for the child to feel accepted by the counsellor for the way in which that child perceives themselves. It won’t be helpful if the child thinks that the counsellor’s views of them have been influenced by the parents or by significant others. This can be avoided if the child–counsellor relationship is exclusive.

Keeping the relationship exclusive means not allowing others to intrude or to be included without the child’s permission. Consequently, preparation of the child and parents for therapy requires specific attention because there is clearly an ethical issue involved. The parents have care and control of the child, yet in therapy we are proposing that the counsellor builds an exclusive relationship with the child. How do you think the parents will feel about that?

The situation may be aggravated in cases where parents are using public health services or the services of large non-government agencies. Some parents may feel disempowered and overwhelmed by the system, even though individual workers may try to create a personal consumer-oriented service. Such parents may be worried by the suggestion that they will not be fully included in the counselling process. This ethical issue can only be addressed satisfactorily if the counsellor is clear with parents about the nature of the therapeutic relationship and gains their acceptance of what is required.

Therapy is generally a new experience for the child and the parents. We may find that parents are likely to have a satisfactory level of comfort and to have confidence in the process if they are fully informed about the need for the counsellor to maintain an exclusive relationship with the child. It is helpful to warn parents that at times their child may not wish to disclose information arising from a therapy session.

It is also reasonable to expect that parents may feel anxious and believe that they might be left without information which they should rightfully know. Parents need to have reassurance that in time they will be given all the information that is important for them. They need to understand that children often have great difficulty sharing important and private information and that such sharing needs to be done when the child is ready and feels safe about sharing.

Sometimes, particularly at important points in the therapeutic process, a child may develop behaviours which are more difficult for the parents to manage than the presenting behaviours apparent at the commencement of therapy. It is helpful to warn parents that there may be a period of improvement soon after treatment begins which is often followed by a setback.

Passing general information to the parents, such as that mentioned in this and the previous paragraph, does not compromise the exclusivity of the relationship. However, to pass on specific details of a therapy session without the child’s agreement would certainly compromise exclusivity. As the child’s confidence in the counsellor increases and the counsellor’s understanding of the child’s issues becomes broader, the trust that the child experiences becomes stronger. This trust is reinforced by the knowledge that fears, anxieties and negative thoughts towards parents, events and situations will not be disclosed to the child’s parents or family members without the child’s agreement.

We may believe that a child has a right to privacy, subject to certain limitations, but must understand that it is sometimes difficult for parents to accept this. Clearly, it’s highly desirable to enlist the support and encouragement of parents so that the child feels free to talk openly with the counsellor. Counsellors have found that if we are open with parents about the nature of the child–counsellor relationship, parents will most often be very supportive of our work with their children.

Hence we try to build a trusting relationship with the parents in the child’s presence. Thus the exclusivity of the child–counsellor relationship is maintained, the child is fully aware of the parents’ acceptance of that relationship, and is given permission and encouraged by the parents to join with us.

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.