On a pavement beside a busy street. For the past five minutes parents have been asking their two-year-old, ‘Would you rather go in the buggy or do you want to walk?’ The little boy keeps getting up and down, and the parents are at a loss: ‘Come on now, make up your mind! Which would you like to do? Do you want to walk or shall we push you?’ The boy grimaces and then starts to cry. ‘Now there’s really no need to cry,’ says the father. ‘We’ve been asking you what you want to do.’ Questions, questions, questions: a lot of time, words and energy. The parents are clearly irritated because their son isn’t giving them a straightforward answer. But can such a small child really do that?
Asking children to make decisions
This little boy isn’t crying because of the buggy, but because too much is being asked of him. At the age of two he can’t yet decide things as an adult can. Children can’t even do this at four or five. Developmental psychologist, Anna Jean Ayres, among others, has demonstrated this in her seminal research, writing, ‘Higher intellectual capacities only develop after the age of seven.’
Children are not partners
Children are not decision-makers, partners or friends, but are in the process of gradually developing their own capacities. For this process to succeed they need their parents to lead, guide and reflect back to them, in much the same way as an apprentice needs a master. It is therefore vital to avoid elevating a child into a position of power for which he is not yet ready. Don’t ask him whether he’d rather do this or that. Don’t endlessly explain things to him and try to persuade him, even if it is fashionable nowadays to thrash out any and every issue with the smallest infant. As we can see, this always leads to more stress for everyone involved. Adults get annoyed if a child doesn’t know what he wants. And the child grows nervous, uncertain and ‘difficult’ if he doesn’t feel secure with adults. To reach our goal of ‘stress-free parenting,’ the parents’ clear sense of their role is the primary, essential thing.
Clarity of roles
It is our job to clearly accept and acknowledge our role of responsibility as caregivers instead of always asking a child what he wants. Unlike a child, we have a life’s worth of experience that can help us assess a situation and offer guidance. If we do so, we give the child what he really needs: a sense that the grown-ups know what should be done. This is active love, which gives him sure ground beneath his feet and a sense of security. It means that the child doesn’t have to keep expending his life forces on small things. Instead he can use them for his own role of being a child and developing, taking his lead from our example.
Trying to please the child
‘But I ask my child because I want him to be happy,’ is a phrase we often hear. Let’s just observe, though, how continually asking a child whether he wants one thing or another affects him. Does this make him relaxed, calm or happy? No. He is much more likely to send out emergency signals in response, such as shouting, crying and making a fuss. Why is this? Small children live in the moment, and are as inconstant as a butterfly: something glitters, something else moves, something gives off a scent; their senses are always open to the manifold impressions surrounding them that spark their interest. Children naturally want everything. That’s why we’re asking for trouble if we expect clear decisions from them.
‘What would you like for lunch today?’ a mother asks her three-year-old in the supermarket. ‘Would you like broccoli? We could also have noodles. Or would you rather have pancakes?’ Back and forth it goes, becoming increasingly stressful. ‘Broccoli,’ the child says at last. The mother buys it and cooks it. But at lunchtime there’s a fuss again because Luke pushes his plate away. ‘But you said you wanted it,’ complains the mother, and is irritated because her child is being so ‘difficult’ again.
We can avoid such irritation if we grasp one basic thing: a child is a child and not a friend. To a mate of mine I might say, ‘Hey, I‘d like to cook a meal for you — what do you feel like eating?’ If he replies that he wants, say, ‘Sausages and mash,’ we can be sure he’ll enjoy it when it arrives. Children aren’t like this, so we should let them be children and have the courage to decide for them instead of asking for their approval and agreement in every decision. French writer, Jacques Lusseyran describes vividly how deeply a child longs for guidance. He describes the ‘joy of my childhood’ as being ‘that marvellous sense of living not yet on one’s own, but leaning body and soul on others who accept the charge.’ He calls this the ‘magic armour which, once put on, protects for a lifetime.’ All children need this ‘magic armour’ — and we give it to them when we take clear responsibility. On a ship, after all, the captain, not the deckhand, decides which direction to sail in.
What if my child doesn’t like my food?
‘What should I do if I don’t ask my child what he’d like to eat and he says, “I don’t like it!”’ Persist in acting as an example yourself, because children take their lead from us. Cook tasty meals. It doesn’t have to be expensive; simple meals are easily made, such as a lovely plate of goldenyellow saffron rice. On no account send children out of the kitchen because that ‘speeds things up’, but instead include them in cooking from a young age. They can wash potatoes, cut vegetables, stir salad dressing. In this way they will be involved with all their senses, smelling the appetizing aromas when, for instance, onions are sizzling in butter. This will get their digestive juices flowing. Then arrange things nicely: a lovingly laid table simultaneously awakens the child’s aesthetic sense. And then, during the meal, maintain your example by eating with pleasure yourself: ‘Mmm, the salad dressing tastes lovely today — delicious with fresh herbs and lemon juice.’ But what if the child still says that he doesn’t like it? Children often say this to see what will happen. If they see that whenever they say this it upsets the adults, it will give them an intriguing sense of their own power. A little humour solves the problem better than showing hurt or upset: ‘I’m sorry you don’t like it,’ and then keep eating yourself with enjoyment. Don’t even bother trying to persuade them to try a little. Children take their lead from what we do ourselves, the example we give, and we can trust in this. What best motivates our children is not words and arguments but our own example. In a subway I once saw these words written on the wall: ‘We don’t need to bring up our children, they copy everything we do!’ True indeed!
Children need clarity
Children accept the adult who is clear in his role, and clearly states what is to happen and how. It’s astonishing how quickly they grasp what you mean. On a tram journey, a father gets on through the first door down from the driver’s cab with his three-year-old in a buggy. The boy climbs out of the buggy and hammers on the driver’s cab. The father says, ‘Would you like a biscuit?’ The boy glances at him then hammers again, making an impressive racket. The father says, ‘Would you like a drink?’ He passes the child his bottle. But the child still goes on hammering. The driver comes out of his cab, looks the child in the eye and says, ‘Right, be quiet now, otherwise I can’t drive the tram.’ The child stares up at the man with wide eyes and is immediately still.
Instruction not diversion
Why does the child accept what the tram driver says? He does something very important, stating what he expects of the child at that moment: ‘Right, be quiet now ...’ This is a clear instruction. And this is what children need because they can’t tell whether something is right or not. Instruction not diversion. Here the driver gives the instruction. It is not just his words that are effective, but his whole presence and bearing. There is no trace of uncertainty, and his look and gestures speak a clear language. The child knows immediately what the driver expects — and this is the important thing. Children want to know what is expected.
Clarity of roles is the key
We must get away from the false idea that parents who take a clear role are being domineering. I believe that not doing this is actually less caring. As parents we are learning to be parents. To begin with we have little experience; we make mistakes and blunders. That’s part of the learning curve. But we should never forget that as parents we are examples whether we wish to be or not. We are, as it were, permanently on-stage. And children reflect everything: if we are unsure of ourselves as adults, this unsettles them. If we have poise, this gives them security.
Practising clarity of roles
Clarity of roles begins in your mind. What’s important is to recognize how necessary this clarity is, how it helps us to avoid cul-de-sacs in childcare. The moment we take courage as adults to take the lead, we can free ourselves from the ‘crazy circus’ of daily stress. Our natural role is to lead and to decide what is happening: when, where and how. We can practise this clarity and remind ourselves of it, for instance, by writing ‘Clarity of roles!’ on the mirror, in a notebook or on a pinboard. Put it up wherever you often look, so that you don’t keep making a rod for your own back and get irritated when a child fails to understand what’s expected.
Clarity of roles in five steps
‘Our child is really difficult: she never does what she’s supposed to,’ said the mother of four-year-old Joanna. ‘For example, in the evening, when I put on her pyjamas, she shouts and calls out “stupid Mum” and undresses again immediately. It’s the same every day. I have to resort to shouting back — then she’ll do it. But I feel bad afterwards and have a bad conscience.’ Joanna’s mother decides not to let her child manipulate her any more. She tries the following in the evening, when it’s time to put on pyjamas (see rules right): 1 She does no other tasks, for instance, leaving the washing-up for now. She does not answer the telephone. She is completely present with her child. Her sole focus now is that her daughter should put on her pyjamas without a tantrum. 2 She addresses the child by name. We often overlook this and call out something impersonal, but saying someone’s name calls on their full attention. Joanna notices that Mum really means her. 3 Eye contact is also important; it is not for nothing that the eyes are called the ‘windows of the soul.’ 4 Then a clear statement of what is wanted: ‘Joanna, it’s time to put on your pyjamas.’ Joanna wants to run away: that’s what she’s used to, ignoring what is asked and running off. But now? Today her mother has decided to keep a clear focus. What does she do? 5 She keeps her eye on the ball: ‘Joanna, look at me please.’ The child keeps looking away. ‘I’m waiting.’ Why is it so important that eye contact occurs, even briefly? We can experience this for ourselves: eye language connects — a momentary spark of contact is enough. Children also feel this, because they often try to avoid our eyes. But now Joanna returns the look, and that’s the important thing. Now she has understood, and she puts on her pyjamas without a fuss.
It actually works!
‘The five steps really do work,’ says a mother at our next meeting. ‘It even worked with my fifteen-year-old teenager. For weeks it’s been annoying me that he turns up his music so loud, so I tried to tackle it with the five steps. In the middle of the day, before he disappeared into his room, I took him aside. The first thing I noticed was how rarely I actually call him by name. I found it quite strange to say, “Thomas ...” And the eye contact — I never really paid any attention to it before. Then I said what was bothering me. I’d really thought about this beforehand: what do I really want? So I told him very clearly, “Thomas, please turn your music down lower than yesterday, otherwise it gives me a headache and I can’t concentrate on anything.” He said, “That’s fine. Anything else?” After a while he put his head out of his door and asked, “OK?” “Yes,” I replied, “that’s great. Thanks Thomas.”’
Helping children to grow
Children are precious. If we do the right thing by leading the way as adults, taking responsibility and setting a clear example, daily family life becomes more relaxed.
THE FIVE STEPS
Whenever there are difficulties because a child refuses to do something, does not ‘listen’ or runs away, the first thing we need to do is be very clear. The following five rules are very helpful:
1 Pay complete attention — no multitasking — be completely present.
2 Address the child by name.
3 Eye contact: look your child in the eye. According to a Chinese proverb, ‘The gaze is the second spine.’
4 State clearly what you want: tell your child exactly what this is about.
5 Keep your eye on the ball: stay with this until you have got there.