Next time your facebook feed brings up an article about a parenting practice that is different to yours, just try something. Instead of reacting, instead of becoming defensive, and dismissing it, just read it and let the information percolate. Just sit with it. And every time your brain tries to go on the defense, when you find yourself constructing a list of reasons why the information is wrong, ask why.
Why is it so important to me that my way is correct?
Why am I so against this?
And sit on that. Really actually mull it over, over days and weeks.
When I was pregnant I used to watch Supernanny and World’s Strictest Parents with my mum. It was something we’d been doing for a few years at that stage, watching the episodes and discussing them after, and while I had a niggling feeling that Jo’s insistence that saying the word sorry was more important than the tone or body language or behaviour that accompanied it was somewhat off, I believed in her techniques. I even bought her book, albeit secondhand.
At twenty eight if you had asked me what the biggest problems with “kids these days” were I would have said 1. lack of time with their parents 2. their parents buying them stuff to alleviate their guilt over the lack of time, and 3. a lack of discipline.
I used to watch my aunt and uncle, and my sister-in-law and shake my head at how their kids behaved. The back chatting and lack of respect, the tantrums and constant video games. My cousin at this time was fifteen, and well known for being difficult. She’d been difficult her whole life. I remember going to Australia Zoo with her at ten and she pitched a massive fit over getting the wrong ice cream. So her dad got her a new one. Her mum told me she knew to pick her battles by now, but I felt that they were just rewarding her tantrum.
My brother was the first cohort of Queensland kids to go the entire way through school without the cane. It was still allowed for the first two years of my schooling. Boys in my grade one and two classes used to get given the cane when they misbehaved. I don’t remember what they did to earn it, but I remember them being sent to the office. I would look at my brother’s year, two grades below mine and shake my head at how undisciplined they were. I’d watch my brother get bullied and think, “if they still had the cane those bullies would be whipped into line”.
In my teacher training I spent hours writing copious notes on behaviour management techniques sold to us at government sponsored professional development courses that could be summed up with three words - rewards and sanctions.
Praise and reward the behaviour you wanted to see, with stickers, and certificates and whole school award assemblies. Use classroom management techniques like “Johnny is doing the right thing, he has his book out and is ready to read.” or giving the "on task students" a physical sign of recognition; patting their head, marking their work, touching their book etc. The idea being that as you walked along each row, acknowledging the good behaviour and skipping the off-task students completely they would realise they were not getting any attention for doing the wrong thing, that the only way to get your attention and therefore your love and praise was by doing the right thing, thus they would come on task. It was physical shaming. To be paired with verbal shaming if necessary. “I”m still waiting for two people to be ready.” or “Marnie and Eva are speaking out of turn, they are holding the whole class back from being able to move on to the next activity.” Use peer pressure to your advantage, we were taught. If that failed, well then it was detention.
The key to compliance in the classroom, according to a veteran teacher from South LA, whose book I devoured, was leverage. And with detention, you could leverage something they cared about - time with their friends. Take away their lunch time, or even better, keep them back after school or have them give up their Saturday (a practice I wished wholeheartedly was legal in Australian public schools) and you have leverage. With leverage you can then instill rules.
But the biggest key to not being a pushover? Stamp out even the smallest infraction, straight away and consistently. If the students know that they will receive a detention or be sent to the principal for sitting incorrectly in their chair, then after about a month, they won’t bother anymore. You will have row after row of compliant students, with their feet flat on the floor, both knees facing the front. Who brought all their supplies, and are on task from bell to bell, only speaking when spoken too. Even in the worst neighbourhoods, even with kids who were otherwise in the school to prison pipeline. Even as a relief teacher.
Along with this book, I’d spend hours watching TeacherTv episodes on behaviour management, “master teachers” who plied their grade 10’s with stickers for every possible thing, (Raise your hand to answer a question, get a sticker, complete three maths equations, get a sticker, bring your pens and book to class, get a sticker.) Or who instilled a sense of understanding how hard it was to teach them by making them stand up in front of the class and teach.
I was taught to have buddy systems with another teacher, who I could send students to when they were disruptive, armed with reams of busy work that the buddy teacher would check off at the end of the class, and bemoaned the “Responsible Thinking Classroom” as a ridiculous government scheme that like at-home suspension, just rewarded kids with less class time; unless of course they were given a pile of busywork they had to do whilst there.
I believed completely in all of this, yet at the same time there was something about it that niggled at me.
My favourite teacher was UK teacher of the year (multiple times) Phil Beadle whose entire approach to teaching was based in respect.
He was one of the teacher’s used for the BBC4 documentary series The Unteachables - The BBC website bills them as “the class from hell”, Beadle’s website describes them as “nice kids”.
He used hands on, culturally relevant, actually engaging materials. He played games, let the students swear and wear their hats in class, joked with them and treated them like they were good people. In one video of his I watched, he starts the very first lesson by telling the students that he doesn’t care what their permanent record or other teachers or even their parents say about them. He believes in them, believes they are good people and he will treat them as such.
I found it very difficult to reconcile these two very different approaches to teaching, and the raising of children in general.
On the one hand I completely believed that more punishment, more consistency, more rules was the key to both compliance and achievement. That was what I was taught at uni, but it was also what I had absorbed my whole life from society around me. From my parents and first dance teacher (the combined efforts of whom had not only stamped out all my willfulness by age 5, but left me still viscerally afraid of “getting in trouble” as an adult. Yet even when I was pregnant, I still commended my mum for “getting on top of my behaviour” early, claimed I was fine, (and would happily have shut my child in the toilet to cry out their tantrums if it weren’t for the pesky fact that it could land you a visit from child services these days.)
From my perception of kids who’d grown up with the ‘soft’ punishments of lines and detention, to what the university told me was ‘best practice’. Everyone I knew, my parents, my relatives, my teachers, my colleagues and my friends thought this way, and disciplined this way.
Compliant kids were good kids.
On the other hand, I had the evidence I saw of teacher’s like Beadle (who clearly wasn’t just a reality TV manipulation since he’d won teacher of the year) and my constant inability to successfully employ the tactics I was taught in class.
I liked the kids too much as people, I found myself giving warnings and simply ignoring low level misbehaviour to give the kids a chance, I didn’t give a crap if they swore or wore their hats inside, but had to insist they didn’t because that was school policy, resulting in unnecessary power struggles and wasted class time. What other teacher’s called backchat I saw as asking a genuine question, or even friendly banter.
My supervising teacher on Prac had a very relaxed approach with her students, who loved her, worshiped her, but hated me, causing me to feel trapped in a cycle of constant one-upmanship. Having to continuously attempt to increase the sanctions, to stamp out more and more behaviour and rebellion, because they were purposely trying to make me crack.
The school system shows the fundamental problem* with sanction or punishment based approaches to discipline really clearly. When the kids up the game, you have to up your punishment. But there’s only so far you can go.
*There are two major problems with punishment based discipline. One is that as the child becomes accustomed to a level of punishment, it ceases to be as effective, and the parent or teacher must increase the level of severity. The second is that, despite all the parents on social media claiming that smacking is fine as long as you follow certain guidelines and don't abuse your child, how parent's view their disciplinary actions does not line up with the reality.
Legally you can’t hit the kids, you can’t keep them after school, you can’t scream abuse at them until they are cowering in terror. The worst possible punishment you can give is an in-school detention.
The dropout rate for teachers is about four years. It has been for at least 15 years now. The news is always filled with stories of teachers who have had been assaulted by student, Grade one students who throw chairs at others, and call their teacher a fucking bitch. It’s easy to buy into the idea that this is all a result of teacher’s having no real disciplinary powers left. That once the cane was gone, the rot started to set in, so surely if we brought it back, if we had a punishment that kids actually cared about, then we could stamp out the rebellion and bring order back to our classrooms.
But teachers like Beadle break the mould and have greater success, even with the students that cultural wisdom tells us need the hardest line approach, the ADHD and ODD kids, the disenfranchised, the urban poor, the refugees and black kids, the pot-smokers, the clowns, the ones with serious anger management issues. Why?
That was the key question I started asking. And the more I asked it, the more I researched, the more information I read, and ideas I was exposed to, the more I continued to ask it. Why is this “the way things are done”. Why do we consider this “best practice” but there’s no research to back it up, where did this idea even come from? How do they do things in other cultures or at different periods in history?
WHY do we believe that the best way to raise a child is to punish them?
Why do we believe that children - Babies even - are willful and manipulative and inherently violent and uncontrolled, and that we must “nip it in the bud” and “not let them get away with that” or we will pay for it later with rebellious off-the-rails teens. Why do people believe that a lack of spanking has caused a rise in youth crime and jail admittance, or that if your toddler runs out into the road the best way to teach them that their actions are dangerous is with a smack?
The more I started reading, the more I started looking at the world around me without the “punishment is necessary” blinders on, the more I started wondering if punishment is actually necessary?
I don’t honestly know when it was that my stance changed, it was such a slow and gradual process. But somewhere along the line, before my child was one I had read enough research, been exposed to enough examples of a different way, questioned my previous assumptions and beliefs enough, and learnt enough about child development and socio-historical parenting that I had abandoned the generally accepted parenting path. Instead of reading the research and dismissing it because it didn’t match my anecdotal experience, or was counter to my previous beliefs, or made me feel judged/have to question the validity of how my parents raised me, I just read it, and thought about it, and let it sit in my brain for a while, and read some more. By the time my son was two, I was a self-proclaimed crunchy mum. Bedsharing, babywearing, extended breastfeeding, baby-lead solids, pro-homebirth, an intactivist, considering home-education and completely against both punishment based and praise based methods of discipline.
My four year old has never been hit, never been left alone to cry (either to “teach” him to sleep, or to “teach” him that tantrums won’t work to get him what he wants). He has been parented through his tantrums, with love and empathy and hugs, i’ve never screamed at him, or taken away his toys, or put him in time out. He doesn’t even know what time out is. I refuse to use Santa as a manipulation technique and have told him outright that he will get presents no matter how he behaves, and anyone who tells him otherwise is just trying to control him. I varey rarely tell him to “say thank you” or please. He has never been made to apologize to anyone in either words or hugs, but I apologize to him all the time. I help him clean up when he makes a big mess, he’s allowed to do all sorts of things other people deem “misbehaviour” climbing on the couch, jumping on the bed, playing on the train or bus. He sat on the table for the better part of a year because he hated his high chair and wasn’t tall enough to reach the table from a standard chair. He is allowed to eat when he’s hungry, in any room. He’s never had a bedtime or a schedule. He has choices in what he wears, eats and does with his time. He hasn’t had a sticker chart since he was 18 months old, and has never been given rewards for potty training or the like. He’s never been forced to “share” - aka give up what he’s playing with because another kid demands it. He has been taught to stick up for his right to refuse hugs or kisses. He “still” sleeps in my bed most nights. If he hits me, I simply tell him “it’s not ok to hit people” and remove myself from his range. He gets a chocolate at the supermarket no matter how he behaves and often gets ice cream after having a tantrum - the exact same thing I judged my aunt and uncle for.
According to popular belief, my son should be a total brat, completely wild, unable to follow instructions, hurtful to other kids, bad mannered, have no understanding of road safety, stick knives in powerpoints for fun, be going to cause teacher’s hell etc etc.
The actual result is nothing even remotely like that.
Before you assume that we don’t have any rules or boundaries, and that Respectful/Peaceful/Gentle Parenting is Permissive Parenting, you should read these:
Peaceful Parenting Philosophy
Respectful Parenting is not Passive Parenting
Positive Parenting is not Permissive Parenting
Positive parenting Is not Permissive
And before you claim that I just got lucky with a good kid. He had the same temperament as myself and my cousin - Me who was locked in the toilet and shoved under the cold shower to stem my constant tantrums and ‘willfulness’. My cousin who was known as the family hellraiser - the brat. C was also an extremely clingy high needs baby, the kind popular belief tells you are going to be impossible to kick out of your bed and are going to be sooky mummy’s boys their whole lives.
Meanwhile we do have rules. They are:
We’ve had others in the past, like no touching electrical sockets, but as he has learnt to use them correctly it’s no longer a rule. We will have others in the future as they are needed, and some of the current ones will be retired.
So what’s the result of Peaceful Parenting a toddler?
Well he’s started sleeping by himself with no training necessary, and he goes off to kindy without even saying goodbye some days. He has been able to consistently be trusted to wander ahead and stop at street crossings since he was two. To stop at driveways since he was three. No yelling or smacking necessary. He still has tantrums - he’s four, it’s expected and normal for his level of brain development, but they are usually short lived, having become shorter and less often over the last year, without any punishment or intervention. When he spills something, he cleans it up. When he does something wrong or breaks something he comes to me and tells me, when he wants something he asks or gets it himself if he is capable. He says please and thank-you without prompting 90% of the time, which is better than most adults. He’s been on 24hour flights at two years old and behaved to other people’s expectations the whole time. He is starting to be able to think through his actions before he does them, and decide if it’s a good idea or not. He is kind to other children, (and other adults) shares his toys willingly, (but in a way that is actually sharing - taking turns, not just giving up something because someone else demanded it) and plays with kids of all ages. His teachers and other adults regularly comment on how “good” he is.
And probably the most telling thing. My mum would now do as I have, if she were raising a child herself, or went back to teaching pre-school. She has completely given up her previous beliefs and approaches to discipline and parenting simply by seeing gentle parenting in action.
Instead of assuming that I was making a statement about her parenting, instead of feeling judged and attacked, or having to defend her choices and actions. Instead of constantly telling me to do things her way, undermining my choices by doing differently when I wasn’t there or making digs, she just stepped back and watched, and absorbed. She didn’t tell me that clearly it wasn’t working when he was in the middle of his sitting on the table stage, or peak tantrum stage. And whilst she slips up sometimes, (hell I slip up sometimes too) she has always been open minded enough to try to do things my way.
And she wouldn’t go back. Despite it being easier for her to fall back on her old patterns.
Link - Respectful Parenting is not always the Easiest Peaceful Parents Confident Kids
If I were to die, and she had to take over raising C, I could be confident that she would continue to the best of her ability to parent him respectfully.
Which brings us to the concept of “the best of your ability”.
Yesterday I liked a pro-peaceful/respectful parenting post, and was reading through the comments. Predictably there was one from a mother who claimed that the post was judgmental and shaming to parents who were just doing their best, and had enough stress to deal with. That parenting is really hard, and as long as kids aren’t being abused or neglected that we need to lay off, because everyone is just doing their best.
This is a pretty common response to peaceful parenting articles. (The most common being the claims that punishment is necessary or the old “I was smacked and i’m fine” defence.)
But you know what doesn’t tend to happen? People going, “hrrm, that’s interesting, I’m going to read more/ have a think about that.”
People automatically go on the defensive, justifying their actions.
They read the research and it goes in one ear and out the other, because they have already gone into defensive mode the minute the researcher suggested something they didn’t want to hear.
I think this says a lot about our collective parenting.
When you are confident in a decision you have made. When you have made an informed choice. When you truly believe that you are doing the right thing, then you don’t need to go on the defensive.
But most parents don’t actually make choices. They follow the crowd.
They parent the way their friends and family and the popular books tell them too. They never stop to question it.
And when somebody else questions it near them, they rush to justify, when someone near them goes “off-script” and starts parenting a different way, they feel judged or try to convince the other parents that they are making a grave mistake.
They have to. Because they need to stamp down that momentary blip of consciousness that asks them, “But how do you know you are right?” or “what if there is a different way?” or “what if we could do better that fine”. They have to justify their actions, because they aren’t really doing their best. Because to do your best requires you to seek out help, to consider all the possible ways of achieving something, to learn the information you need in order to give yourself the best chance possible.
Claiming that you are doing your best, whilst you blindly follow the parenting practices of everyone around you and dismiss out of hand both other people’s loved experiences and any research that even hints at the fact that their might be a better way, is like sitting your final Uni exam without having attended class or picked up a book all year. Yes you did the best you could with the knowledge you had. But you actively avoided or dismissed the opportunity to gain new information, to question previous assumptions, to test out hypothesis, to learn new skills, so did you really do your best?
So next time your facebook feed brings up an article about a parenting practice that is different to yours, just try something. Instead of reacting, instead of becoming defensive, and dismissing it, just read it and let the information percolate. Just sit with it. And every time your brain tries to go on the defense, when you find yourself constructing a list of reasons why the information is wrong, ask why. Why is it so important to me that my way is correct? Why am I so against this? And sit on that. Really actually mull it over, over days and weeks. Just be open to learning new information and see what happens.
Oh and BTW- that cousin, the family brat? She's still thought of like that by everyone but me and my brother. We actually spent time with her a couple of years ago and discovered that whilst everyone else was judging her for how she behaved when she was 5 or 10 or even 15, calling her disrespectful and bitchy, and horrid, and getting pissed off if she didn’t want to socialise with them……she'd grown into a lovely, responsible young woman, with a keen understanding of social issues and politics and a group of friends who she consistently rallies around in their times of need.
Why, and how often people smack- The research
"Previous studies on parental corporal punishment have relied almost exclusively on parents self-reporting how often and under what circumstances they use slapping or hitting to discipline their children". Such reports can be unreliable, of course, so Holden and his colleagues decided to conduct a pilot study using “real-time” audio recordings.
"In 90% of the incidents, noncompliance was the immediate cause, such as sucking fingers, eating improperly, getting out of a chair, and going outside without permission. In 49% of the incidents, the parent sounded angry prior to spanking or hitting. On average, less than 30 seconds elapsed from the time when parents initiated nonviolent discipline to when they used corporal punishment. In 30 of the 41 incidents, the children misbehaved again within 10 minutes of being hit or spanked. The youngest child hit was 7 months old. One mother hit her child 11 times in a row. Most remarkably, the researchers noted an unusual finding: The rate of corporal punishment exceeded estimates in other studies, which relied on parents self-reporting. Those studies found that American parents of a 2-year-old typically report they spank or slap about 18 times a year. [But] “The average rate we observed using the real-time audio equates to an alarming 18 times a week,”" [293 times per year]
The behavior of the adults who used corporal punishment frequently violated six “best practices” guidelines that advocates of the discipline (such as the evangelical Christian group Focus on the Family) claim make spanking “appropriate.”
It should, they say, be used 1) infrequently, 2) selectively (for only serious misbehaviors), 3) calmly (not in anger), 4) as a last resort, 5) on the buttocks, and 6) no more than twice in a row. (Unsurprisingly examples of corporal punishment in the actual bible do not live up to these guidelines either)
“When all six guidelines are considered together in one incident, it is clear that parents were rarely, if ever, using [corporal punishment] ‘appropriately,’” write Holden and his colleagues. “The recordings reveal that most parents were responding either impulsively and/or emotionally, rather than instrumentally and intentionally.”
“Among the 12 mothers who engaged in [corporal punishment],” the researchers add, “the median rate was once every 6.3 hrs of interactions. In about three-quarters of the incidents, parents hit their children for extraordinarily mundane social convention offenses, rather than serious infractions, such as rights or prudential violations. Most poignantly, one child was slapped for turning pages of a storybook."
Hi I'm Nicole