Well now that we’re into December and officially into the down hill run for the year I thought it might be good to talk a little bit about dealing with change. The end of the year is often a time when both children and adults are gearing up for big changes in their life. Perhaps moving house, one or both parents changing jobs, having a good friend move away or starting at a new daycare, pre-school, school or even starting high school for the first time. Change can be difficult for anyone, but especially for kids.
Some people seem to cope with change better than others…
Personally, I’m not very good at coping with change. Recently I’ve been reflecting over the past 12 months and I’ve actually had quite a bit of change in my life. I gave up my job which I loved, I had a new baby, I launched my first children’s book and had to learn a whole new industry and then my eldest child started school. My husband also changed his working hours more than once. There have been a few times this year when we’ve thought about moving to another city, going overseas or buying a house in another area of Sydney and I really haven’t wanted to. My instinct has been to sit tight. So personally I’m not wanting any big changes for 2013, but I know that for lots of families some change is inevitable.
So I’ve done some research into how to help children cope with change and here are a few ideas.
– Usually anxiety around change is fear of the unknown. For children they might be worried about not knowing who they’ll make friends with or who their teacher will be. So remind them of other times they’ve made new friends or coped with a big change.
– Give them as much information as you can about the details,even if you can’t answer all their questions about what life will be like next year. Take them to see their new house or new school or show them photos so they get a sense of what their life might be like.
– Focus on the positive aspects of the change so they have things to look forward to.
– Practice the rituals – getting dressed in the school uniform, packing up the back pack, practising where to catch the bus.
– Kids love routine, so it’s a good idea to keep some aspects of your routine the same, especially routines around meals and bedtime.
– And make sure they have plenty of notice about any changes that are happening. Many kids don’t react well to having things sprung on them at the last minute.
Often the changes that affect children most are things that they have no control of… so it’s important to be aware of signs that suggest they’re NOT coping.
Hopefully they’ll tell you if they’re feeling anxious or overwhelmed, but if not it may show in their behaviour. Whether that’s through tantruming or being withdrawn or not sleeping or eating as well as usual – all those things can be signs that kids are bottling up their feelings.
The good news is that young kids get most of their security from their relationship with their parents so as long as you remain constant and you’re available to talk to, that can be very reassuring for them. Also little kids are used to dealing with lots of big changes – learning to walk and talk are two of the most colossal changes a person could go through. Children are always learning new things about the world. So they may even cope better with change than we do.
If our kids are really concerned about a change, it’s possible that they’re taking their cues from the adults around them.
Maybe we’re the ones who are having trouble coping with the idea of our baby starting school, or of leaving all our friends. We need to make sure we’re not projecting our worries onto our kids and burdening them with things that otherwise wouldn’t concern them.
Have you had some big changes in your life? How have you coped with them? How have your children adapted to moving house, changing cities, moving overseas or starting a new school or pre-school?
As parents there are lots of things that we may want to teach our children, but one of the greatest gifts or skills we can give to our children is self-control. For Christians, self-control is listed as one of the fruits of the spirit, along with virtues like patience, kindness, goodness, but it’s probably also the virtue that is the hardest to teach.
How do you teach self-control? How can you show children what it looks like?
Obviously it helps if parents can model self-control, but I think it is also possible for children to learn this skill even if one or more of their parents may be lacking in it. My daughter actually taught me a great lesson in self-control. I said something that was a little negative and she told me off and said, “Mum you don’t say that. You just keep it inside your head.” And she went on to explain to me that if you want to say something, but you think it might hurt the other person’s feelings, you just keep that thought inside your head and you don’t say it.” I thought that was quite a good explanation of self-control from a five year old. Of course, the next step is learning to think less negatively so you don’t have to internally correct yourself all the time. (But that’s another whole topic!)
Of course self-control isn’t just about what we say, it’s also a skill that kids need to learn so they don’t throw tantrums, or hit other kids, or so they can overcome their distaste for a task which they may not want to do. All these things take time to learn. Even as adults we can’t always get it right.
But at least children have more of an excuse when they lose the plot. Developmentally, you can’t expect young children to exhibit the same ability to control their emotions and behaviour as adults do. When we’re born as babies we have zero self-control. Babies function purely on instinct and it’s only in the toddler years that parents have to start teaching those skills of self-control. Interestingly, brain research is showing that the neural pathways that children need to control their primal instincts are being forged when they’re very young. And those connections develop when a distressed child is comforted. So, when a baby is upset, their carer comforts them and the body produces the right hormones and chemicals to help them calm down. Then gradually as the child gets older, they learn to soothe themselves.
So if you want your child to be calm and self-controlled, you actually have to calm them down when they’re little, so they learn to do it themselves as they grow older.
The best way to do that is with your physical presence – holding them close, patting them, soothing them and speaking reassuring words. It sounds so simple, but when a young child looses control, comforting them and helping them get back in control of their emotions will be more effective than just dishing out a punishment.
However if a child is really struggling in this area, there may be other factors to consider.
In kids that have frequent outbursts of aggression, there may be a medical cause behind it. But like us, kids are also affected by physical needs that can influence their mood.
– Are they overtired, cold or hungry?
– Could their blood sugar be low? That can cause mood swings in some children. Include some low GI carbohydrates in their diet. Protein is also important in mood regulation.
– Consider artificial colours, food chemicals and additives. If a child becomes suddenly negative, anxious, aggressive or emotional, it may be a response to artificial colours, flavour enhancers and even natural food chemicals. Simply taking those things out of the diet can make a huge difference. (See Sue Dengate: Fed Up with Children’s Behaviour)
I just wanted to mention those things briefly because we can’t expect children to be self-controlled if their basic physical needs aren’t being taken care of first. It’s funny. Just tonight my daughter had a big wobbly at bedtime. It came after a big weekend. She sang in an eisteddfod on Saturday, we were out all day on Sunday and had a late night at church on Sunday night. By the time I finally got her into bed tonight, we were all feeling frazzled. I don’t feel I can hold her too responsible for her behaviour when she was probably hugely overtired. We all have our limits.
Do you have any ideas on how to teach self-control to kids? Do you find it easy to be self-controlled when dealing with your own children?
My eldest daughter started kindy this year. I’m very new at being a school parent and it’s been a steep learning curve for us all. But now that we’re four months into the school year I think we’re finally starting to get the hang of doing homework.
I don’t think we ever had to do homework at such a young age.
I know we had to do the occasional project and I remember that we used to go home with spelling words to learn in the primary years, but we certainly didn’t have homework in kindy.
It can’t hurt to get into good habits of learning and being disciplined.
I was talking about this with my husband. He said he didn’t do any study at all in all his 13 years of school. If he had assignments, he did them the night before. He still struggles to be organised and disciplined and I think it’s held him back a little in some areas of his life. So he certainly wants to see our children form good habits around study and discipline.
The other good thing about homework is that it gives parents a chance to see what their kids are learning and how they’re going with it.
My daughter just gets two pages to complete and they get the whole week to complete it. Homework books come home on Monday and they have to be handed back in on Friday so it’s not too bad.
For first term we were really quite haphazard with doing homework. The first time she brought back homework, Birdy was so excited she did it straight away. But she was also sometimes diving in when I wasn’t able to supervise properly – like when I was cooking dinner or feeding the baby. So sometimes she was starting it, but not finishing it, or working in pen and making mistakes and crossing them out, or not following the instructions properly – it was all over the place.
It all came to a head about two weeks ago.
It was Friday morning and her homework still wasn’t finished. She was supposed to be finishing it while she was eating breakfast. I turned my back for five minutes and when I came back, she was cutting up bubble wrap and dipping it in blue paint to make a cloudy sky picture. Very creative and all, but not getting the homework done!
That was when I thought: this just isn’t working! Something has to change.
Now we have a designated homework time. Homework has to be done between 4pm and 5pm on Tuesday afternoon. No play dates. No TV. No playing outside. And either myself or my husband has to sit with her the entire time and supervise properly. Not half supervising while talking on the phone or cooking dinner but really giving it our full attention. So we tried it for the first time last week and the difference was amazing! She still did all the work herself, but it was so much better, so much neater, and it was all finished in one easy sitting. Then when it was finished I said, “Well done, you can watch TV for half an hour now!” So I hope we can stick with that routine and make homework easier for everyone.
Do you think kids get too much homework now? Do you struggle to get them to complete it? Do you think it’s a helpful skill for kids to learn to do homework, or is too much pressure on children and their parents?
When the second child comes along, it’s quite common for the first child to have a few issues! A bit of jealousy that Mum’s so wrapped up in the baby, sometimes a bit of attention seeking behaviour. So far we’ve had an incredibly smooth run. Birdy has been nothing but adoring of her baby sister, which has been lovely. But I do remember very early on, when I finished feeding Molly, that Caillie said to me, “C’mon Mum, now you have to look after this kid!”. So even though she seems quite independent, she still needs to feel like I’m looking after her.
I think the age gap of five years between my children may have made things easier. It helps that she can look after herself a little, or make a fairy princess castle out of sticky tape and a shoebox while I’m feeding the baby. It also helps that she can understand her emotions and tell me how she’s feeling. We haven’t had to deal with crazy attention-seeking tantrums or a fit of jealous rage where she hits the baby over the head with her barbie doll or bites it’s ear off when I’m not looking. But because we haven’t had any obvious signs of jealousy I’ve probably been a bit slack about making sure Birdy knows she’s still just as special. And I got a bit of a rude wake up call the other day.
We were just hanging out having a chat when she said, “But Mum you love Molly more than me.” And I was like, “What did you say?” “You love Molly more than me.” I was so shocked I had to drag my mouth up off the baby-food covered floor before I could speak. So naturally I said, “No I don’t, honey. I love you both the same. I just have to spend more time with Molly right now because she’s a baby and babies need lots of looking after.” Part of the problem could be that I tend to smother Molly with physical affection. Unlike her father and sister, Molly just loves to be kissed and cuddled, whereas the only way to get a cuddle out of Birdy is through a long absence or dreadful illness. (I’ve thought about pretending to go to work just so I can get a cuddle when I arrive home!) I still don’t know whether Birdy genuinely thinks I love Molly more or whether she was just testing me out, but the fact is that I never leave Molly. Birdy goes off to school and to swimming lessons and to her friends’ houses, so there are lots of times I hang out with just Molly, but not so many times I do things just with Caillie.
To rectify that, I try to make sure that during at least one of Molly’s sleeps I do an activity with Birdy. We make something together, or cook something or read a book. I’ve also staggered their bedtimes, which works really well. I put Molly to bed at 7 and Birdy at 7.30 or 8 so that we have some time together to read stories together and talk about the day. It’s worth taking stock of how you do things, working out how you can find time quality time within the routine that you have. For me, walking home from school is a good way of spending time with Birdy while Molly is taken care of in the pram. Also one of the biggest challenges for me has been meal times. We always used to chat over dinner. But now I’m nearly always busy feeding Molly and getting her in bed when my husband and daughter have dinner. So I’ve decided to put a comfy chair in the dining room so I can sit with them and feed Molly while they have tea. Whenever there’s a big change in your family it’s good to reassess how you do things, and a new baby is certainly a big change for everyone, including the older siblings.
How did it work in your home? Did your older children become jealous or attention-seeking when the new baby arrived? Does the age gap make a difference? What did you do to make sure your older children weren’t neglected?
So what does a ‘traditionally built’ female detective have to do with discipline? Heaps actually!
Yesterday I was part of a panel chat about discipline on Erica Davis’ morning show on Sydney radio station Hope 103.2. I talked about the idea of restorative justice versus punitive justice. It probably sounds like an odd way of approaching behaviour management but for me the philosophy behind what you do is just as important as what you do. Especially when it comes to discipline. What we are doing needs to make sense with what we are actually trying to teach our children.
I first started thinking about these ideas when I was studying international relations and the use of state force. You see, the use of force is limited under international law. One of the new doctrines that was attracting a lot of attention at this time was the ‘responsibility to protect’. The generally accepted idea is that it’s not OK for a nation state to use military force against another country unless it is in self-defence. (Stay with me). But then what about when something like the Rwanda massacre occurs? This new doctrine says that the international community has a responsibility to protect a state’s citizens. If people are being butchered by their own state, the use of ‘protective’ force is acceptable to safeguard the innocent.
So I took these ideas home and started applying them to my then one-year-old. I decided to try not using ‘punitive force’, like smacking, but using protective force instead. That means if my kid hits another kid in a George W. Bush style ‘pre-emptive strike’, (ie. aggression dressed up in the language of self-defence, “But she was going to hit me, I just know it!), then rather than smacking my kid I would intervene to protect the other child. That could mean separating them (putting in a new border), making the ‘hitter’ play elsewhere (extradition), or physically staying present to make sure no more hitting occurs (peacekeeping troops). Hopefully this also sends a clearer message to the child. Rather than saying, “You’re not allowed to hit your cousin but I am allowed to hit you,” (like bombing Iraq) my actions will say, “Hitting is not acceptable, and I am here to protect you both.” (The UN).
Enter Mma Ramotswe, fictional proprieter of The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency and enforcer of common sense justice. Mma Ramotswe is a self-taught private detective (self-taught from the esteemed Clovis Anderson’s seminal instruction book, Principles of Private Detection) who goes about setting right the wrongs in her beautiful home country of Botswana. Mma Ramotswe solves mysteries and rights wrongs but she almost never involves the law or shames the wrong doer. Instead she finds ways to ‘restore justice’, to set right what was wrong without punishment. This doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences for the criminals, but the answer usually involves them taking responsibility for their actions in some way. Having read about 10 books in the series, I’ve found my thinking constantly being shaped by the idea of ‘restorative justice’, as opposed to ‘punitive justice’ which is designed to hurt the wrong doer and make them regret their action. Unfortunately, punitive justice tends to create bitterness and resentment between people whereas restorative justice is about restoring trust in the relationship. I didn’t even realise this concept had found its way into mainstream ideas about discipline until I saw it on the cover of Sydney’s Child last week. Apparently restorative justice is now being applied among at-risk kids in high schools with massive success. It’s harder work than just dishing up a punishment, and many of the kids would rather just take the wrap than face up to those they have wronged. But the long-term results are impressive.
If you’re not convinced, just think about how you feel when you have stuffed up in some way or have let someone down. What would your prefer? To be punished, or offered forgiveness? Adults are not immune from punishing each other. We do it by withholding affection or intimacy, by avoiding those who we perceive have wronged us, or by giving someone the silent treatment. (Is this really so different from isolating a child by sending them to their room or putting them on the naughty chair?) If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of this kind of treatment then you’ll know it hurts like hell. Especially if you don’t know what you’ve done to deserve the snub. Different people will respond to that kind of treatment in different ways. Either they will detach from the relationship so they don’t continue to be hurt, they will confront the person and demand an explanation, or they will try even harder to please the person who is punishing them. If on the other hand, you already know and have acknowledged what you’ve done wrong, then why do you need to be punished? What you need at that point is to be restored to the other person, which only comes about through the process of seeking forgiveness and extending grace. It’s as simple as saying, ‘That’s OK’, ‘Don’t worry about it,’ ‘Thanks for your apology’, ‘I appreciate that.’ I’m not saying that there’s never a time to send a child to their room or put them on the naughty step, but you need to be clear on why you are doing it and be sure that it makes sense in the context of what you’re trying to teach them.
At this point, the advocates of the punitive model usually say, ‘Ah but it’s different, because with children you have to teach them right from wrong by punishing them.’ But is that really so different to adult relationships? When adults hurt each other, we don’t usually do it deliberately. We usually hurt each other, or behave badly because we don’t yet know better. We didn’t realise that thing we did or said or failed to do would be hurtful to that person. We didn’t understand the way they think or feel, what they expected of us, or what their particular sensitivities were. Once we have learned and communicated without blaming then we can improve that relationship. Children usually also stuff-up because they didn’t quite realise what was expected of them, or they didn’t know how to deal with their feelings. Children, like adults, need to experience the consequences of their mistakes, but we don’t have to make those consequences disproportionate to the original problem.
It is self-evident that you don’t get punished for doing the wrong thing, you get punished for getting caught. (If you do the wrong thing, but don’t get caught, there’s no punishment. Also if you are punished unfairly for something you haven’t done, it creates resentment.) This can lead to deceptive behaviour, lying or far worse a child (and later an adult) who only behaves well when people are watching. Punishment says, “If you do that behaviour, you will be punished, so don’t do that behaviour again.” It’s a model based on obedience and good behaviour as the goal. What I want my children to learn, more than obedience or how to behave, is empathy. Punishment does not easily model empathy. When we punish, we switch off our own empathy temporarily. We leave our child crying on the naughty chair or in their room instead of comforting them, or we smack them with the deliberate intention of hurting them, even though we ourselves would not like to be treated that way. So the child in response has several choices; to also switch off emotionally and accept the punishment, to rebel against the punishment or to try harder to please us in the future. Learning to please others is not the same as developing empathy or consideration for others. Clinical psychologist Lyn Worsely talks about how even babies as young as six weeks who have experienced trauma will look to their caregiver for cues and create fixed expressions that aim to please their parents. It may be compliant but it’s not necessarily healthy. And it can lead to anxiety down the track.
So now when I’m faced with a conundrum, rudeness, an injustice or a behaviour I don’t like, I ask myself “What would Mma Ramotswe do?” (WWMRD?) How can this problem be solved in a way that respects everybody’s autonomy, encourages each person to take responsibility for their own actions and treats the child as a person in their own right, rather than a puppet, expected to dance when we pull their strings (which, by the way is the American approach to international diplomacy!)
Mma Ramtoswe isn’t perfect. She isn’t even real. She doesn’t have all the answers. She makes mistakes. But she’s prepared to admit it as the following passage demonstrates:
Mr J.L.B Matekoni looked suprised.
‘I can’t imagine you making any mistakes,’ he said. ‘You’re too clever for that. You would look at all the possibilities and then choose the right one. Every time.’
Mma Ramotswe snorted.
We all make mistakes. We don’t usually need to punish each other. We just have to admit when we’re wrong.