My newborn son is in my arms. I hold him in unconditional love, amazed by all that he is. I hardly know him: temperament, likes, dislikes, the sound of his laughter are all to be discovered. I love him without question or judgement or doubt.
When does this change? When do children have to start to earn our love? Perhaps you, like me, are thinking never: we love our children unconditionally our whole lives. Maybe, but is this the message that our children receive? Research tells us that if we use traditional forms of discipline, involving rewards and consequences, then the message our child receives is that love is conditional. Even the seemingly benign notion of lavishing a child with attention when their behaviour is good and ignoring poor behaviour gives the message “you love me more when I’m good”. This is how quickly love shifts from the unconditional embrace of the new born child, to love tainted with judgement.
When a child is demonstrating poor behaviour, they are more vulnerable and more in need of us than ever. Poor behaviour can be seen as deliberate choices designed to upset others. In reality we are all on a complex journey to learn difficult social skills, and the ability to regulate impulses and big emotions, which is what good behaviour amounts to, takes a life time or more. A child, whose brain is still developing and who has minimal life experience, is going to struggle. My three year old lacks sufficient understanding to conceal his legs as well as his head in a game of hide and seek, so knowing how to share and think about other children’s feelings in a new toddler group with exciting new toys is something he needs help with, not the threat of punishment. When a child struggles with a complicated maths question, we find new ways to explain and new ways for them to practice the skills. We would not threaten to take treats away if they got it wrong or remove our attention until they were coming up with the right answers. Like maths, good behaviour needs good teaching.
Research tells us that relying on rewards and consequences is not good teaching. It leads children to focus on what’s in it for them: “If I behave well, I will get more attention, stickers or a treat. If I behave badly, I will lose treats and be in trouble.” The type of consequences may have evolved, but the basic principles are the same. Reward good behaviour, punish bad behaviour and teach children to do what they’re told. While this might be useful for achieving mindless obedience (tempting when trying to get your child to have a bath at the end of a long day), it teaches nothing about the effect of their behaviour on other people’s feelings and does nothing to develop values such as kindness and compassion. It is another example of market forces getting in the way of humanity: do this and you can have that. Tragically, this is contributing to a world devoid of a moral compass. Collectively we are not in great shape and if we keep doing what we’ve been doing, selfishness, conflict and disillusionment on a micro and macro scale will continue.
The standard view of a myriad parenting guide books has led us off course, so what is our alternative? Sometimes the answer is staring us in the face. The alternative to trying to control children with discipline, is to be KIND. Kind in its simplest purist form, evident in the parent cradling the newborn, prepared to love and keep on loving this unknown being just because they are here and therefore worthy of amazing unconditional love. And also KIND, in the way that teaching children with complex special needs and being a parent has taught me.
As a parent you will know a lot about your child. The yet to be discovered characteristics of the newborn reveal themselves day by day, year by year as the child grows all too fast before us. If another child arrives, the uniqueness of each child is brought into focus. For teachers, it is one of the delights of a new class to discover the passions, struggles and temperaments of each child.
When a child in your care is behaving in a way that is negative to themselves or others, a helpful question to ask is “what do I know about this person?” This may be something the child is interested in, or knowledge of how capable their brain is of functioning at this age. The frontal cortex for example, responsible for so much of our reasoning and impulse control, is immature well into early adulthood. Focusing on your knowledge of the individual child will guide you to strategies that will work for them.
Every evening in our house, we were struggling at bath time as number one son was way too busy playing to contemplate washing! At age three, resisting the impulse to play with his toys in favour of the rationale for a bath, is beyond his developing brain. The traditional controlling techniques would suggest a reward chart to bribe him with treats or threaten him with missing out on these treats. A KIND strategy is to use his passion for playing.
Now we set up a mystery rescue adventure in the bath with some of his toys and he can’t wait to work out how he is going to save the day. Bath time is fun for everyone, as we watch his imagination unfold. This strategy won’t last forever and then we’ll ask ourselves again what we know about him and try something new.
Building our knowledge of strategies is key. A strategy is anything designed to facilitate an improvement in behaviour. This can be as simple as choosing to pause before responding to an outburst or as complex as creating personalised visual schedules. The more strategies we know, the more skilled our responses. Such is the power of knowledge.
INVESTIGATE THE CAUSES
It is sometimes easy to suppress unwanted behaviour with controlling methods of discipline. No wonder this is so popular. I have taught children who will stop acting out when the school’s reward system is mentioned. This does nothing to address the cause of the behaviour. The same is true at home. The power balance is such that children can be manipulated with the reward of our loving attention and fearful of its apparent withdrawal in timeouts. Leave the causes of difficult behaviour unresolved and the child will either learn to suppress their emotions or find another outlet. This can be extremely problematic, especially during the turbulence of teenage years.
There’s a great exercise when you’re repeatedly faced with a behaviour you don’t want. It’s called “I wonder if” and it is a conversation between two or more people who care about the child. The idea is to spend two minutes describing the issue to each other. Then take it in turns to finish the sentence “I wonder if the cause of the behaviour is…” for minutes minutes. Have a timer as it’s important to keep going. When you have finished, discuss what might be true. The five year old who is picking arguments with their younger sibling might be experiencing jealousy or acting out something that is happening to them at school. Discovering what is causing the behaviour will lead you to find a strategy to help them to deal with the problem. Seemingly similar behaviours may require widely different responses because of different causes. Punishing the child by sending them to their room will elevate their isolation and escalate the difficulty they are having with making sense of their emotions. Investigating the causes of behaviour is crucial because it guides us to find helpful strategies and it (re)inspires our compassion, taking us right back to that instinctive embrace of the newborn and unconditional love.
“The alternative to trying to control children with discipline, is to be kind. Kind in its simplest purist form”
Sometimes finding out the cause of difficult behaviour can be very easy: find a quiet time and ask the child. I have been called into schools to resolve a pupil’s behaviour, only to find that the pupil could tell me exactly the problem and exactly the solution. Helping a child to name their emotions and problem solving together is a very effective way to move forward.
While we all have moments when we fantasise about our children simply doing what they’re told, unquestionably bending to authority is probably not our ultimate goal. Take a moment to consider the qualities or values you would like your child to develop. Here are just a few of mine:
Loving; Kind; Compassionate; Happy; Confident; Resilient; Determined; Courageous.
If we can foster great qualities that will last a lifetime, imagine the world we will collectively create.
It is the little things we do every day that will foster our children’s values. Like many three year olds, my son started to lash out when things were not going his way. Removing his small allocation of TV time instantly stopped this unwanted behaviour. It soon became clear I’d made a big error. Next time he lashed out, he asked about his TV time. The strategy had of course done what research tells us it will. It had taught him about the negative effect on him and nothing about why violence is wrong. It has taken many weeks to unravel his confusion. Now we talk about how hurting others makes people feel. The change is slow, but now he is asking if he has made us sad and will try to make us feel better.
When we use any strategy we can be aware of where it fits on a continuum from controlling the child to nurturing their values. At one end we have using our power to give or take away what a child wants, and at the other end of the continuum we have empowering the child to find the right path themselves. Choosing to give the reason with an instruction is a tiny change, but when repeated over time it teaches so much more. Discussing and not just telling, takes it up another level again. Heightening our awareness of the long view for our children will guide us to nurture the values the world needs.
In all that we do we are teaching our children what is acceptable and what isn’t. We already know that if we don’t want our child to be looking at a screen during mealtimes, then it is essential that we resist the alerts on our own phones. We also need to become intensely aware of what messages we are giving when we are in the middle of managing behaviour. Shouting at a misbehaving child teaches that shouting is an acceptable way to get someone to do what you want. Snatching the toy from the toddler to give it back to the child they just snatched it from is bewildering. In our house we remind ourselves that whatever we do or say is going to come back two fold!
When we look back at the values we have listed for our children, how authentically are we demonstrating them ourselves? It is of course impossible to be perfect and this in itself is a lesson. It is essential to realise that our behaviour is the greatest strategy for teaching the values we want to see in our children.
Building our knowledge of our children and the many strategies that there are to help them, while investigating the causes of their behaviour to pick the best way to move them forward is time very well spent. Nurturing our children’s humanity, while demonstrating our own, is a life well spent. Like all the best challenges, raising children with conscience is thrilling and terrifying in equal measure. When we let go of the traditional messages about controlling our children, being kind is as instinctive as our embrace of a newborn.
Emma lives in Wiltshire with her partner and two sons, aged three and one. Deputy Headteacher of a school for pupils with special educational needs, she trains professionals and parents about practical behaviour strategies to empower young people.
READ: Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishment to Love and Reason by Alfie Kohn
WHAT'S THE ALTERNATIVE?
Rather than controlling children with discipline we can choose to be KIND
K - is for knowledge of the child and knowledge of the many strategies we can use.
I - is for investigate the causes: we need to focus on the underlying roots of behaviour, not the superficial appearance of behaviour.
N - is for nurture values: we should strive to empower children to develop values that will build their moral code.
D - is for demonstrate: we must demonstrate these values and be a role model of positive behaviour.
When we struggle with a child’s actions, returning to these four principles can help us find our next step.