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Archive for the ‘unconditional parenting’ Category

This is a guest post* by Sarah Brykczynski who writes at Moonbeam Disco.

I’ve been told I have far too many rules in my family, and I’ve also been told that I don’t have anywhere near enough.

In my family there are lots of rules but they can basically be broken down into two categories, rules that keep us safe, and rules that keep us functioning as a family. The first category would include not leaving things in high traffic areas of the house where someone could trip and fall. The second category would include not ever hitting each other. When we are angry we might sometimes yell at each other, but we always choose words over hands.

Some of the safety rules that we have just apply to our son, because he is after all not even four yet.

For example, a safety rule we have is that preschoolers only use dangerous tools, like sharp knives, with an adult. These tools are only ever used with hand over hand supervision. They are used often and thus far he’s not cut himself while helping me slice cucumbers, nor burned himself while helping assembling his police station made from plastic bottles and containers.

My child wants to be able to do everything I can do, and I’m teaching him how to do it safely, to the best of my ability. I’ve not meet very many parents that share my perspective on how important it is to teach children how to do things safely and properly.

In my opinion this world is filled with dangerous things; this doesn’t mean you must avoid these dangerous things (like stoves and sewing machines and power tools) you just respect the heck out of them and follow all the safety rules.

This doesn’t mean my child has free access to these things, but he has used them, and he is learning how to use them properly. There are also some safety rules that apply just to the adults. For example, dangerous tools are always put away safely after use, so after using the hot glue gun unplug it and put it back in the arts and crafts drawers.

There some rules I thought only applied to my son that it turns out apply to me too.

One our most important safety rules is the “STOP” rule, and it’s just what it sounds like; if someone screams “STOP!” at you then you stop whatever you are doing immediately. The stop rule is a very, very serious rule that only ever applies to incredibly serious situations.

For example, if I saw my child about to smear chocolate all over the couch I wouldn’t yell “STOP”, but if I saw my child about to run onto a busy street I would yell “STOP!” It is because of this that the stop rule is effective. 

But somehow when I try to explain this the idea does not get across to most people. Yes I let my almost four-year-old walk independently down the street with me (i.e. not holding my hand) next to traffic because I know that if I yell “STOP” he will.

So what happens if he doesn’t stop right? Well, I honestly don’t know because it’s never come up. (Also I know my son very well, and if he’s over tired, over hungry, or just in a kind of mood where I think it’s possible he might not stop then I don’t give him the opportunity, we hold hands instead, and I don’t think he’s ever had a problem with this.)

The way it goes is that he if is about to do something incredibly dangerous I yell “STOP” and he stops, then asks “why?” I explain how what he was about to do would have dire consequences.

I’ve been told “Well that would never work with my child, no matter how many time I tell my child to stop something, my child just won’t stop.”

And I usually have to bite my tongue; because this is not some kind of a control measure used to prevent children for “misbehaving”, but so many families use it this way.

This is a safety rule that ensures a child’s safety and freedom. I mean, if you yell “STOP” and the child asks why and the answer is “because it will make a big mess” (as opposed to “you could end up badly hurt, even in hospital”) then it will not be an effective safety rule.

The whole system is based on trust.

I trust that he will respect this rule and he trusts that I will enforce this rule to keep him safe.

If you can’t trust your child or your child can’t trust you then the whole system falls apart.

I can hear all those skeptics saying “But to trust such a small child especially in matters of his personal safety is negligent because he only needs to not listen once to be seriously injured or even killed.” Well, I agree with the last part one hundred percent and so does my son. He takes our rules very seriously.

As for the other sort of rules, they are important too, and they ensure that we can all live together in harmony. While failure to comply with these rules do not have dire consequences, they nurture the trust and respect we treat each other with. We don’t have any family functioning rules that only apply to preschoolers. I think of these more as social survival rules, rules like we don’t messy with each other’s stuff. So preschoolers wouldn’t crayon on a wall, and adults wouldn’t recycle paperwork without consulting the owner of the paperwork. 

 My son has stuff, and he knows what is his. I have stuff, and he knows what’s mine. I know that if he is using his scissors to cut up his papers, I can be in another room without fearing he will start cutting up things that are not his. If he finds something that he wants to cut, and it’s not his, he will ask me “Can I cut this?” because he understands. Why is it sure a hard concept to grasp that children (and their property) deserve the same respect adults (and their property) do?

 Why is it so hard to see that my rules work really, really well for my family? And why do complete strangers feel they are obliged not only to try to undermine our rules but also question our ability to care for our child because we trust and respect him? 

*This blog was set up to talk specifically about issues in the UK as the conversations on the internet regarding gentle/natural/unconditional parenting do generally seem to be dominated by the US and Canada. However, guest posts from outside the UK are acceped if they are generic in nature rather than discussing issues unique to that country.

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One of my favourite poets is Adrian Mitchell, the late “Shadow Poet Laureate” who died in December 2008.

Mitchell is best known as a political poet, but many of his poems were concerned with family, friendship and love. This includes a number of moving poems about his parents, with whom he clearly had a happy, loving and warm relationship. (He wrote a response to Philip Larkin’s This Be The Verse which begins: “They tuck you up, your mum and dad…”)

Along similar lines, I loved this poem from his final collection (Tell Me Lies: Poems 2005-2008):

Early Daze

I was born on the Moon
On a sunlit night
it was Saint Diablo’s Day
My Egg cracked apart
with a happy heart
I dived into the Milky Way

I was found in that bath
by my Father and Mother
A Unicorn and a Dove
They took me to their home
In an ice-cream Dome
And all they ever taught me was to do with Love
And everything they taught me was to do with Love

I’m not a big one for new year resolutions, but if I had one ambition for the coming year it would be for our children to be able to say at the end of it, of me and E, “all they ever taught us was to do with Love”. Easier said than done, alas…

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Our pace of life, especially when in the company of more conventional parents, is noticeably slower than most. Whenever I’m in the company of time-out using, school-using, toddler-taming people, I always feel like I’m being hurried along a bit. I ignore this feeling, of course, because I’m one of those annoying obstinate, opinionated people who has the courage of their convictions, but it’s there nonetheless. I feel hurried, not just in that moment of that day, but in life in general. There’s a real feeling I get around conventional parents; they seem to always have somewhere else they have to dash off to; they always seem in such a rush to get to the next stage in their children’s development; they always seem to be in such a hurry that they hardly notice the child it’s all supposed to be for. And R and I just sit and watch them from our nice, calm bubble, and we really do seem to share the same complete refusal to be rushed I have blogged about many times before.

I’ve noticed that maintaining the ideals of peaceful, non-coercive parenting is much easier when we are on our own. After some contemplation, I’ve decided that this is because of the time-pressure put on us by other people, that is absent when we are alone. If we are on our own, and R is having what I, for want of a better word, often call a “meltdown” or an “episode” (because I will not use the word “tantrum”), we can take our time. R can take as long as he needs to work through whatever it is, and to scream as much as he needs to, and I can take as long as is needed to hold him, or just be present, or softly speak reassuring words to him, tell him that I love him, and whatever else is appropriate at the time.

If this happens when we are in a cafe, shop or park where other people are, even though the process of the “meltdown” is the same, and we need to do the same things, there is an unspoken (or sometimes tutted) time-pressure there. This is even worse if we are in a more obviously parenting or childminding setting, like soft play or the park, for instance. The presence of other people, and especially other parents or parent substitutes, brings with it eyes to look at you, and ears to hear you, and an immense pressure to ‘deal with the situation’ (ie support and love your child) as quickly as possible, and return the child to its more desirable seen-and-not-heard state.

The result of this is that those wonderful peaceful parenting ideals sometimes get a little squashed in the rush to get those eyes and ears off you; to no longer be the focus of so much (usually negative) attention. Sometimes in a situation like that, all those phrases I hear trotted out so many times by the time-out and bribery users, come into my head, and almost, almost out of my mouth. I start to think, it would be so easy, and so much quicker.

But I don’t want R to learn that his “moments” are unacceptable. I don’t want him to think there is any part of himself he cannot express, because it would draw disapproval or embarrassment, especially from me. I don’t want him to feel that he has to somehow rush his “meltdown” because he is inconveniencing other people. This is where I have to try and block the other people out, and just focus on R and what he needs in that moment, and take. my. time. This is when the contrast is sharpest, between the rush rush must get on can’t stop world of the conventional parents and me with R in out little bubble, trying with all my might to keep calm, slow down, focus, and make sure he knows I love him.

It doesn’t always work. I get embarrassed, not because of R or anything he is doing, but because of the other people. Even at home, I’ve used some kind of coercion (“Do you want to go and see Jane?” “Yes.” “Well, let me comb your hair, then.”) when we’ve been in a rush to get somewhere. But there it is again – the time pressure; and I realise then that I’ve been putting that pressure on myself, not even waiting for someone else to do it. Those are the times when the conventional-parenting-speak has come out of my mouth before I’ve had the chance to take a breath, and stop it. And I almost always immediately say something like, “Oh sorry, mummy’s talking rubbish, just ignore me!” and we have a laugh about it.

So, it takes time. Time to really be with R; time to ignore the nay-sayers; time to think before regurgitating conventional-parenting-speak. Time is the most important thing we have together, and we do our best to take it. Every day we take………….our………………………………time. 🙂

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A thoroughly infuriating, although predictable, article from the BBC today tells us that something called “tough love” is good for children. That “it is confidence, warmth and consistent discipline that matter most” when raising kids, and that “a balance of warmth and discipline improved social skills more than a laissez-faire, authoritarian or disengaged upbringing.”

Isn’t that lovely? All parenting styles on this whole planet neatly summed up for your reading pleasure, or…not. There are, as we know, as many ways to raise children as children themselves, but this list containing only “laissez-faire, authoritarian or disengaged” parenting betrays an all-too common prejudice against parents who fit into none of these categories. As usual we are not recognised, we do not exist. We manage to parent without being authoritarian or disengaged and without any guidance from the state, and that just won’t do.

I don’t doubt for a second that trying to balance warmth and discipline when raising your children is better than being authoritarian or disengaged but, thank goodness, they are not the only options. There IS another way. There are lots of other ways. Personally I find the words “warmth” and “discipline” hard to reconcile, because that is not the way I parent. The word discipline does not get used in our house, and the concept is not practiced, although I hope that we as parents and the atmosphere in our house do generally have a degree of “warmth”. Neither are we disengaged or authoritarian. It is perfectly possible to be both disengaged and authoritarian anyway – this list is meaningless!

There is so much in this article that I’d like to pick to pieces, but for this post I’ll focus on the “tough love” aspect.

So, let’s think about that for a minute. What is “tough love”? As I said to Ruth earlier, I dislike the term intensely, because to me all it does is let parents who know they are disrespecting their children off the hook. I have it in the same category as “it’s for your own good” and “we only want what’s best for you”. It’s a get out clause that allows the adults to justify their actions towards the child by making it sound like they are doing it for the child, instead of to the child, which is actually the case.

We know that “tough love” and disrespect for children is fully approved of by the Government by the fact that it refuses to outlaw “reasonable chastisement” ie the hitting of children by adults. They must really like this report, then, and indeed it goes on to make several recommendations to the Government, all along the lines of more interference into private family life by local government lackeys in the form of Sure Start schemes and Health Visitors.

And of course to your average non-thinking BBC believer that all sounds quite reasonable – they recognise that a certain type of family struggles more with raising their children in the state-approved way, and so the state “helps” those families. But just think about those very narrow definitions of the different ways of parenting; you’re either “authoritarian” or “disengaged” or “laissez-faire” or you might even be one of those lucky families who manage to get it right and instill “warmth and discipline” – and where does that leave the rest of us? Where does that leave families who would rather raise their children in the way that works best for them, regardless of what the state approves of?

The whole game is given away at the end of the article by Parentline Plus chief executive Jeremy Todd, who says:

We welcome this report and hope that it stimulates debate among policy makers around how best to support families to transform our society into one where we top the league tables for outcomes for children and well-being.

Got that? “support families to transform our society into one where we top the league tables for outcomes for children” I bet Ed Balls wishes Todd had kept his mouth shut. Doesn’t he know the line is “It’s for the chiiiiiiiiiiildren”? You can’t go telling everybody it’s really about league tables to make the country look good (and more than likely getting yourself a nice fat pay rise into the bargain)!

So, we understand now, if we didn’t before. They could not care less about our children; they just want them to perform in the proper state-approved ways, and meet all the state’s tick-box criteria for childhood, so that we can get to the top of the all important league tables that Jeremy Todd thinks we should care about so much.

There are going to be a lot of us letting the side down then, aren’t there, if that’s the case. Send in the Sure Start advisors and the Health Visitors to make sure we buck up our ideas.

I mention Ed Balls because it is him who makes these decisions regarding our children: whether to listen to reports or take advice, or dismiss them. That’ll be the same Ed Balls who’s wife Yvette Cooper had this to say to the Guardian in 2007:

It was the 2001 election, and I’d agreed to do a Today interview from home. Ed [Balls] was away, and it was just me and my eldest, who was two. I’d asked a friend to stay over to look after her while I was on air, but the press office had got the time of the interview slightly wrong, and I was still getting up when I heard the package before me begin. So I was frantically looking for the number of the studio, and I got through just in time. Then I heard a thump. It was my daughter, who had fallen out of bed, and was coming howling down the corridor. I had to leap up and slam the door in her face, and then put the duvet over my head so the listeners couldn’t hear her. I couldn’t even say, this has happened, could you call me back, because I was coming off the back of a feature about children’s hospices, and I would have sounded flippant. But I couldn’t actually take in any of Humphrys’ questions. I knew she wasn’t hurt, but I just felt a terrible sense of guilt, about doing everything badly.

Emphasis mine. No, Yvette, you did not “have to” slam the door in her face at all. You did not even “have to” put a duvet over your head to muffle the sound of her screams. There are many options for what you could have done. You could have put the phone down and gone to your daughter, realising that she was more important than any radio interview could be, but you didn’t. And these people want to give us parenting advice? No thanks, “think tank” Demos, Ed Balls and all the rest of you – you can keep your advice to yourself.

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Llamacroft observes how things have changed in society during the past 10 or 20 years, but when it comes to my approach to parenting it’s the past year that has seen big changes.

When I accepted Ruth’s invitation to join this site, I commented that I felt a bit of a fraud joining a site for those who practise “unconditional” or “gentle” parenting. “Making our first attempts at practising” would be nearer the mark. On a bad day, “utterly failing to practise”. But let’s see how we go. 🙂

Judging from previous entries, it looks like my wife and I came to “unconditional parenting” somewhat later than other contributors. I’d never even heard of the concept until Ruth offered me a copy of Alfie Kohn’s book as part of a book swap over Twitter earlier this year, and at first I was pretty sceptical of the idea. It seemed far removed from how we’d been parenting our three sons – now aged 8, 5 and 2 – to that point.

We’d never been disciplinarians, but we’d been influenced by people who were (people like Douglas and Nancy Wilson). People who’d encouraged us to see parenting as a matter of authority, with “bad” behaviour constituting an attack on parental authority and therefore requiring to be dealt with as such. We regularly smacked our two eldest children – though even then we balked at those writers (such as Gary Ezzo) who argued that even children under the age of 1 should be smacked if they “resisted authority” by “disobeying” their parents.

Alfie Kohn completely upended our view of parenting, in ways that we are still working out. But what he said fell on fertile ground: giving voice to our intuition that parenting worked best when we treated our children as human beings rather than as subjects in our parental kingdom. In particular, we were approaching the stage where our youngest would supposedly become “smackable”, and I realised I never wanted to smack him as I had the others.

Kohn’s approach also seemed far more appropriate for us as Christians – believers in a religion supposedly of grace and unconditional love rather than law – than the chastisement-focused approach that dominates “Christian” parenting guides. I’ll try to expand on that in a future post, but for now here’s a post I wrote on my own blog about Alfie Kohn recently.

As I said above, I can’t pretend that we’ve been 100% successful in implementing unconditional parenting. Our boys are all lively and (like their parents) strong-willed, and this can lead to a confrontational relationship at times. Like, daily ;-). But what has changed is that we see it as a relationship rather than as a matter of authority. (And we don’t smack them any more. And I’ve stopped saying “Because I say so!” as a reason for complying with my requests!)

I’ll try to expand on that last paragraph in another post: am conscious this post has become quite long!

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Think about the way things have changed even just in the last 10 or 20 years, regarding how we talk about disabled people, how we treat the elderly in society, how REAL change has happened, and all the better for it.

Now consider these statements and imagine they were said to one of those groups in society.

‘He should not be doing that.’

‘He needs to shut up.’

‘Give her a good slap.’

‘You’ve got to let them know who’s in charge.’

‘What is it then male or female? Can’t tell with those clothes.’

‘What have you done to him?’

‘Isn’t he a bit big to be in a push chair.’

‘If she does not like it MAKE her eat it!’

‘If he cries at night just ignore the cries.’

‘Don’t hug them every time they feel sad, they will become dependent on you.’

‘Ewww do you HAVE to feed them in public?’

‘Her favourite food? Oh well why don’t you just give her any old thing?’

Except all these things were not said to an elderly person or a disabled person. All these comments have been made to my children or to me about my children, in a city which prides itself on being tolerant. They are cruel comments, they are hurtful. If as I suggested at the start they had been said to a disabled or elderly person there would be outrage. For some reason there still exists the belief that it is ok to talk to children or about children in this manner. It is not! The ‘what have you done to him’ comment was made by someone who actually stopped in the street and peered at my son who was at the time bandaged up due to eczema. It still makes me feel shaky thinking about it, and my son still remembers it. I don’t know any other better way to put this that children are people too, a bit of a tired phrase but a simple truth that is sadly and often overlooked.

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Hello to you all and many thanks to Ruth for adding me as a contributor to this fabulous blog :-). In this post I would like to write about my parenting approaches.

Firstly, I hope you guys will not think I am something of a fraud who does not belong here when I say I began my parenting life, with both of children very much traditional and routine orientated.

When I had my daughter (now 3) I was at a real loss as to how to get her to sleep at night. She would sleep all day and scream all night unless held. I therefore turned to the dreaded Gina Ford and Baby Whisperer for advice on ‘getting my children to sleep though the night’. For both my daughter and son (born 18 months later) we had set times for meals and naps as this is what has worked well for us although the children were not forced into any routines. We more fell into a good routine once I returned to work when my youngest was 13 months. In addition to this I have always had set bedtime with the kids in their own rooms. Again though this has never been an issue for my children as they both seem quite lazy and fond of sleep like their mum :-).

So now you may say ‘what is she doing here then?’ Well I would say, where I fit in here is more likely with ideas of discipline (or as some would say lack of it) and education and learning.

I studied a Psychology degree at university and have taught Psychology as a subject and always, even before having the children had an interest in developmental and educational psychology. I knew that while positive reinforcement worked as a means of behaviour control it was not a long term solution. I knew that lack of unconditional love can cause serious problems in later life. I knew that children should not grow up believing they will only be accepted if…

However when my own children got to an age where it was necessary to consider discipline to begin with I approached this using learning theory and behaviourism techniques such as ‘time out’, ‘reward charts’ and positive reinforcement. I think this was down to the fact that it had been ‘drilled’ into me by playgroups, health visitors and SureStart that this was the only way to discipline without smacking (which I am very anti). However, in my heart I knew that this was not the right way to go about things in the long run as it does not encourage any moral development or allow a child to see WHY they shouldn’t do something. The use of these techniques caused me to feel like I was constantly on my children’s case, I felt stressed and anxious and did not like myself for the way I spoke to my children.

I began to read Ruth’s Twitter posts and blog and so much of it made sense. I had already read about unconditional and attachment parenting in books and online forums and although that route had not been for me in terms of bed sharing and anti routine (although of course I have nothing against this it just doesn’t match my obsessive personality) their ideas of education and discipline have always been of interest to me.

I also became a little stressed out about developmental milestones, manners and saying please, sorry and thank you. My instinct told me that these would come naturally through observation. However when I saw friends talking about what their children could do (mainly children who went to nursery or childminders) or who hounded their children about manners I began to think maybe I was raising ignorant children if I didn’t do the same.

As for developmental milestones ; I remember buying Gina Ford’s book about Toddler Years and seeing all these things my child *should* be doing such as taking sips from a cup at the table whilst eating, making attempts to get undressed, using the potty, drinking from an open cup initially I worried as my daughter did not do these things.

Now however, I realise (although I think I knew all along) these things don’t matter at the age of 2 or 3. What matters is my daughter is unique, confident with both adults and children, inquisitive and adventurous. I feel a sense of pride when I see her scaling a climbing frame that many children double her age would struggle with or when I see her dribbling a football with the skills of a pro or asking question after question confidently to adults such as playgroup leaders and mummy friends (although maybe they find this annoying he he). These are the things that really matter at 2 or 3 not being forced to use table manners and saying please and thank you.

I will end this piece by saying one of the ideas I believe in strongly is in allowing children to act ‘age appropriately’ (term taken from Ruth I think). I have always let my children loose in restaurants and open spaces (so long as it is safe) and have not chastised them for running too much or being too loud. Myself I am a very lively person who can’t concentrate on things or sit still for a long time. I may had be considered to have some form of ADHD if I had been a child nowadays and not in the early 80s. My Mum said I would never sit still at playgroups during singing or story time or in assembly at school and I still feel a sense of unease in large staff meetings at work where we have to sit and listen, I am very claustrophobic and somewhat neurotic. My daughter, it seems, is exactly the same so far be it me to criticise her when if we are who we are is really down to nature it is essentially ‘my fault’ she is this way.

I would like to add I am not an experienced writer and have not written long pieces for a long time so I hope you can follow this even if the standard is not great! I will improve :-).

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