Respectful Discipline: How Can You Empower Your Children?

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As parents, we wield a huge amount of power over our young children. The word ‘No!’ started to appear more often in our house around the time that our firstborn learned to reach out and grab for hot coffee cups, or someone’s eyeball. Of course, you can say ‘that’s hot and dangerous’ or ‘that hurts mummy, please don’t do that’ or even, with false merriment, ‘mummy needs her retinas darling, please don’t try to detach them’. The meaning is still a clear negative.

When it comes to their children, parents can give power and take it away in a most unequal fashion. It’s no wonder that young children have tantrums. No one likes to be ordered about, or have their desires thwarted. Children are smaller, less good at arguing, and less able to control their world, their families, their bodies, and their emotions. However deep down the urge seems to be buried, they want to please and be pleasing. When there is a power struggle, parents can be sure of winning much of the time. Young children need parents to occupy this position of authority, but also to build that certain self-confidence that comes from gaining control of one’s destiny.

When disputes arise, how best to handle them with sensitivity to children’s need for power? A complicating factor is that there are different reasons behind power struggles, so they require different kinds of response. The question of how to both discipline and empower children has to be answered in a way which reflects these variations. That children require boundaries is widely accepted, so doing nothing is not a sound option. Also, it is worth considering evidence which suggests that forms of discipline which diminish a child’s sense of personal agency, tend to be unsuccessful. One such study, headed by Dr Laure De Preux at the London School of Economics, found that spanking, shouting at, or ignoring the child, increased undesirable behaviour, while reasoning with the child provided positive results.

A while ago, I read a post by Glossologics about the meaning of the word ’empower’. The term was coined to describe how a king or queen might delegate responsibility to underlings, giving them the power to act on their behalf. They would take a small chunk of power and hand it over for the designated purpose, and in all other matters the usual decree of the realm would apply.

I commented at the time that

I’ve been thinking about this word a lot lately with regard to parenting. When I think ‘what principle am I basing my parenting on?’ The answer is that I want to empower them to pursue fulfilling lives, to have the self-confidence and moxy to go after what they want (and perhaps also less lofty goals like getting them to tie their own shoelaces!). At the moment they are very little, so it is about asking stuff like ‘how can I help my daughter to learn to use the loo when she gets the urge’ rather than ‘how can I make my daughter admit she needs wee and put her on the loo in time’. The meaning of empowerment for me is to help her in attaining control for herself, rather than trying to control my child.

I realised later that this was a bit simplistic, as the definition deals more with learning behaviours which benefit the child and parent. There are, of course, other kinds of behaviour which parents need to discourage, based on safety, pragmatism, culture, morality, timing, or location.

So yes, there are the things we want a kids to start doing for themselves like eating, dressing, going to the toilet, and so on. For this we can devolve control to the child without too much conflict of interest. Once the usual ups and downs of learning are accounted for, it is straightforward. Though children vacillate between desiring independence and checking you are still there as back up, they all want to attain mastery of these things one day. Power struggles will arise in these situations when the parent tries to force the child, and research shows that it is counter- productive. Best to concentrate on removing obstacles to independence and providing ‘scaffolding’ where necessary. For example, rather than forcing a child to sit on the toilet on demand, making it easier for a child to access the toilet by leaving the door open, providing a child seat, and placing a stool at the base of the loo.

On the other hand, there are also the things they do unbidden, which you want them to desist: Those actions which experience has taught us are not a good idea; the behaviours which fly in the face of common human decency; the active screwing with cultural expectations; the rebellion against the law of the family unit. Sometimes one behaviour can be controversial for all the above reasons. Lapping water out of a puddle or hitting an unsuspecting sibling over the head with a bucket, are recent examples that spring to mind.

There are also the moments of curiosity: what will happen if I take a spoon and drop milk ever so gradually onto my jumper? So many experiments need doing in childhood. After ruling out hitting, yelling, or ignoring when these transgressions occur, there is still plenty of scope for dealing with them in different ways.

The consequences should probably relate to the action as far as possible, which means that there are no blanket measures which cover everything. However, showing respect for the child’s feelings and understanding of their wishes must be a steady bedrock for any number of approaches. At least then it seems that you are on the same side, rather than opposed parties.

I would argue that a greater sense of grievance should be communicated for doing things which harm others than for simply being gross. The means of imparting this would be various depending on family style. In our house, we usually draw attention to the injured party and encourage making amends. A repeat performance earns a timeout: sitting on the ‘timeout spot’ for a few minutes. On the rare occasion of a vicious attack, their is an immediate timeout policy so everyone can cool down. In my experience, I am not convinced of the efficacy of timeouts in preventing the behaviour from reoccurring, but find them useful for disengaging the child from a power struggle with me or their sibling. A bit of breathing space can be important in resolving difficult situations. It is not a perfect system, but one which our kids know about, and is established in our family, so they will probably remain part of our discipline approach until we work out something better or the kids grow out of it.

There are a number of things which you must make the child do or not because their wellbeing depends on it. A kid has to sit in their car seat during travel, cannot eat a poisonous plant, and must not run into the road or hurl themselves out of the window. Though many of these struggles can be preempted by removing the danger or otherwise child-proofing, this is not always the case. The child has to learn of worldly danger and there is no room for negotiation as far as I can see. In these situations, perhaps the best thing is to offer a brief and to the point explanation as to why the unwanted action is dangerous, as well as putting an unequivocal foot down.

Finally, there are the things which you are happy for your child to do, but not in the particular time and place you are in. For instance, the urge to dress up as a dragon when you have to be out of the door ten minutes ago, or to start an ambitious art project at bedtime, or to squirt water all over the place while standing on a slippery tiled kitchen floor. Perhaps a way of dealing with these situations is to either assure that the dragon costume or art project will be available at a specified later date and mean it, or to find a way for the activity to move to a more acceptable location. For instance, laying out the costume ready for the return home, or providing apparatus for outside water games.

In the end, we are not so different as the rulers of a principality. Young children do need looking after and we are responsible for preserving their wellbeing, demonstrating behaviour we would like them to learn (while knowing for a fact that we shall transgress at times too), and showing them where and when it is appropriate to act in particular ways . Children cannot do this for themselves and we need to support and yet, at times, curtail their personal freedom.

I do try to remember that when a high pitched whine is emanating from one of the kids, it indicates that something is interfering with their ability to control their world. Often, that something is me. If I do not want to listen to a load of wailing then reflecting on the following questions helps to assess the behaviour:

  • what does the child want to do?
  • Is it a reasonable thing to do?
  • If not then….
  • Is it unreasonable because of morals, hygiene, geography, or time?
  • what choices can be offered in place of allowing the unreasonable action?

This is not a ‘how to’ post, but an attempt to reflect on ways of disciplining with respect for the child’s position: setting clear boundaries, but also looking for ways to help them explore the social and material worlds they inhabit. I have not sorted out a perfect approach for my family, let alone everyone else’s! There are so many methods that are brilliant or useless depending on the current circumstances or personality of a particular child. I would love to hear how other parents answer this question: how do you balance saying ‘No!’ with empowering your kids?

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Fifty Shades of Green: Beware the Ides of March

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I have come to associate the changing of Autumn to Winter, Winter to Spring with coughs, colds, and mucus. Spring truly is green, and this year has been no exception. As I type, I have my snuffling youngest in my arms, where she recently passed out.

It’s times like this when I ponder the important questions: How can I best look after my children? What do they need me to do? Most of all, why must my kids cover me from head to foot in snot?

If you are a sensitive soul, who dislikes mucus and bogeys (or nose monkeys- my favourite Portuguese expression, ever) my advice is to turn back now. Watch this video to take the bad taste away.

Anyone still reading? Thank you for staying with me. I did a little research to get some answers, and found a few emerald-tinted surprises.

Bearing in mind that Biology is not my specialism, unless you count study at GCSE level, I began by clarifying what snot is and what it is for. Then, buoyed on by curiosity, why there is so damn much of it.

The human body is a rich source of nutrients and water which various pathogens, such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi, seek to colonise for their own ends. Luckily for us, our bodies have lots of clever tricks for preventing these invasions. The stars of the defence line-up are white blood cells, which can engulf and consume pathogens, thus destroying them. Other forms of defence involve the production of substances which harm pathogens like sebum, sweat, or stomach acid. Mucus is a mass of sticky protein produced by mucous membranes which line the natural entrances to the body, such as nose, mouth, genitalia. When they sense a pathogen attack, mucous membranes make mucus to trap the nasties and prevent them from exploring our bodies for a place to call home. It is unknown why they should produce so much of it in response to cold viruses, but it is thought that they tend to be a bit jumpy and go into overdrive when they sense a threat. In ‘Human Defences’ the movie, the white blood cells would be the most likely of heroes. The mucous membranes would be the supporting characters who mean well, and provide loyal support to the heroic white blood cells, but are given to dithering followed by enthusiastic overcompensatory action.

This explains a lot, but as yet, the reason why I am doomed to be covered all over in green streaks whenever my children catch colds. So I kept reading and thinking.

It is well-documented that when children are breastfed, they receive greater protection from illness:  when babies are exposed to pathogens they share them with their mother through activities like cuddling or drooling, so that her immune system can create antibodies, which are then passed to the infant in her milk. With their immature immune system otherwise handling only so many invaders, this gives the child’s chances of fighting off attacks a big boost. The act of snuggling in for a good wipe also releases oxytocin, which ensures that the breastfeeding relationship remains strong. So far, so good. There’s a description of how this all works on the Dr Sears website.

In an ideal world, this also acts like a sort of vaccine for the mother, as she is exposed to low dose of the virus and creates the correct antibodies before the enemy launches a full attack. Of course, sometimes you do catch stuff from your kids, but a notable number of times, I have been the only family member not to come down with a cold which is doing the rounds. This seems to be truer, the more children we have and the older they get. At the very least, there is the lovely warm oxytocin rush from being encircled by their little arms, before being used as a human hanky, which makes me feel better about it all.

Now, I am aware of a scratchy feeling in my throat and I wonder if I have just jinxed myself, but then I am writing in the space between getting my baby back to sleep at 6.30 am and my kids getting up at 7.30. I am a bit run down and that does make a difference to whether I pick things up. Unfortunately, those pesky pathogens prey on our vulnerabilities.

The breastfeeding factor explains why it is in my baby’s interests to cover me in bogeys and so on. It could also explain the older children’s behaviour: For most of human history, babies have breastfed for at least the first three years of life, which could explain why my older children continue to cover me in goo, even though they each weaned from the breast when they were around a year old. Even our eldest is still only four, and may well still have been a breastfed child, were we living in a more traditional society.

The story doesn’t end here though. When I was researching this, I came across a blog post about a hypothesis which suggests that breast-milk evolved first as a function of the immune system, and second as means of feeding young. This is based on what milk contains and how milk production occurs: Milk is full of immunoprotective proteins, which fight bacteria and fungi, and are also present in mucus secretions; the two main nutritional components of breastmilk, fat and sugar, are created by proteins, which are otherwise only associated with immunity; the parts of the body used to control milk-making also trigger inflammation and cause fevers, which is another facet of our defence mechanism. It is an elegant example of how nature likes to streamline processes by which our existence is possible.

Given that the body’s general defence system produces many other slippery substances like sweat, tears, and oils, it is quite plausible that breast-milk was once intended to cover the skin in a protective layer, in both women and men. This being the case, perhaps there is a message from deep within our monkey brains which tells our younglings they should rub themselves up and down on the nearest adult when ill.    

So, I’m left with a feeling of awe over the cleverness of the human body, and a mild queasiness at the thought that breast-milk is really, really similar to snot.

Curiosity satisfied, I can turn to the business of how to look after a snotty family. I read up on evidence for the efficacy of some popular home remedies and found that the best bets were chicken soup and honey. There is a summary of some research on the matter here.

I loved this super-simple, one ingredient chicken soup, by Jack Monroe. Though, my heart truly belongs to chilli and citrus scattered noodle soups like this one. The kids eat it without the chilli and citrus. They can cope with a little kick, but have yet to travel with me up the Scoville scale.  I also love to make this Korean ginger and honey tea. After all, it is nice to know you have centuries of Oriental Medicine behind you, when running round after sick kids and praying you don’t catch the lurgy. I mixed some with some baby oatmeal to make a porridge for the children, and I drank the tea.

Can you recommend a great cold-beating recipe? Hope everyone is well and full of the joys of Spring xxx

Inspiring Change: Childbirth and Motherhood In Sitcom

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An unforeseen complication of home water birth.

It was International Women’s Day yesterday, and to celebrate (albeit a day out) I will be linking up this post with lots of other bloggers over at Lulastic and the Hippyshake. Join me in a blogfest!

All the bloggers who are participating have written on the topic of Inspiring Change. There were many possibilities here, but I decided that I would write about something which has been bugging me: the way that childbirth and the early days of motherhood are portrayed on mainstream TV sitcoms.

I know that one doesn’t watch sit coms for verisimilitude. I enjoy kicking back for half an hour of mindless fun and have watched one show or another since I was a kid. However, I would love to see the genre break away from the tired old stereotypes it seems to rely on. The way that childbirth and early parenthood are represented is so hackneyed. If I could make a change, this is one which springs to mind. I think it would have a knock-on positive effect on popular ideas about what it is to give birth and become a mother: Not only would it be more interesting, but this could inspire people to be more open-minded about different ways of birthing and encourage greater community support to new parents.

There are two areas which I would like to alter: First, there is the general absence of originality which I think is a problem. I see the same stereotypical scenarios acted out again and again. Yes, this is entertainment, and enjoyable for its spectacle and element of the ridiculous, but why not draw ideas from a broader pool of human experience. Second, I feel irritated that there is a general sense that childbirth and early mothering are uncivilised acts, and should be locked behind closed doors until the woman has regained her glamorous allure and can be a member of society again.

In just about all the sitcoms I have ever watched, there are two basic birth experiences: Let’s call them ‘Childbirth with a Bang’ and ‘Childbirth with a Whimper’. In both cases, the water breaks or contractions start and the pregnant woman is rushed to hospital. She is then bunged into a hospital bed, where she remains for the duration. Doctors, usually male, mill in and out giving instructions. Mother-to-be sits or reclines throughout labour and delivery. There will be a chorus of birth attendants shouting ‘push’ at the appropriate moment. No one suggests that the birthing woman should do what she wants to feel good or listen to her own body. She obviously needs guidance and instruction, not an opinion. With the first option, there will be a lot of yelling, demands for drugs, and threats to nearby persons, climaxing in a banshee wail as the babe pops out. The second option will just have a little pretty misty-browed anguish, and a sort of yelp as the baby emerges.

This is super-sanitised childbirth which does not smear make up and goes according to plan. Everyone knows their role. There are no emergency Cesarean births, no forceps or ventouse. I suppose they are considered too scary for sit com. However, there is no nesting instinct, no mad last-minute decisions about finding a birth outfit, no water births, no birthing balls, no TENS machines, no desire to pace, or birth in an odd position.

Surely someone could find comedic value in crazed cleaning urges, the search for that lucky T-Shirt, a huge tub of water waiting for someone to fall into it, an enormous bouncy ball, or a machine which sends electric pulses into your body. Sitting down in bed is simply not the best use of dramatic potential when it comes to labour and birth positions. It would be fantastic to see representations of birth in mainstream TV that didn’t derive their drama from fear of birth, or make it so undramatic as to be bland. I have read a lot of birth stories and some of them are hilarious. Like this home water birth, which culminated in the woman’s water breaking right before delivery, shocking her husband into dropping the hose he was using to fill up the pool, spraying water all over the room. The baby crowned while everyone was doubled up in laughter. What a way to make an entrance.

As for images of the postpartum phase, there’s this moment in Season 4 of Sex and The City between Carrie and Miranda which drove me bonkers: Miranda has recently given birth to her son, Brady. Carrie goes over to her apartment to visit Mum and Baby, arriving to find Miranda trying to latch Brady onto her boob. After blanching at the sight of Miranda’s engorged breast (how distasteful!), Carrie launches into her latest drama over a guy, but realises that these troubles are nothing compared to poor old Miranda’s struggle to figure out her new role as a 24 hour milk buffet. As this truth hits her, Carrie is driven to silence over her alleged best friend’s anguish. What does she do about it? Does she make Miranda a cup of coffee? Offer to take Brady while Miranda naps or showers? Profer any kind of assistance? Nope. She smiles a big, patronising smile and says ‘Miranda! You’re a mother!’ and skips off down the road to stuff herself with cupcakes and buy some more shoes. The message appears to be that new mothers are best left to deal with all this unpleasantness alone until such a time as they at least begin to wear makeup again. Well, really!

At least, SATC must be given credit for showing how hard it can be to get started on breastfeeding, and to have the mother actually gain baby weight. Miranda’s exhaustion even lasts for more than one episode, albeit being subsequently resolved by a hair cut, or rather the regaining of above allure. Usually in hit sitcom/dramas, you see a token nod to the mothering experience: some occasional  breastfeeding, often attached to a joke which sexualises breasts; a period of wakefulness and yelling lasting no more than one episode; conflicted feelings about leaving the baby with someone else. Once trotted out, these plot lines are given their milk and put to bed, never to reappear. In a near future episode, a nanny character is introduced, a kind of grim reaper to baby-based story lines.

Following the appearance of the nanny, the mother character appears as her former self again, but sporadically wielding a baby, to show that she hasn’t lost it somewhere. The baby becomes either a silent presence in a carseat/sling/buggy, and is brought out only so that the adult characters can talk about its appearance. The child is returned to obscurity until it reaches a script-reading age. I find it sad that no one really interacts with the smallest cast member. No one’s dangly earrings get grabbed. There are no mega poo explosions, no spit up down the cleavage. I appreciate the difficulty in working with a baby, in that you can’t get them to do stuff on cue, but couldn’t someone please talk to the kid like a human being rather than an accessory for once? Or have their ear torn by enthusiastic little fingers.

The way parenthood is depicted is in isolation to the rest of the show’s characters and events. Couldn’t the character’s role as a parent be better integrated and developed alongside other aspects of their part in the show? I would also like to see the friend characters of both sexes get a bit more involved in helping out. After all, they all piled into the hospital to wait for baby to arrive. I think it is good that not all women are depicted as liking or wanting babies, but on the other hand, some greater eagerness to lend support would be nice. After all, there is usually some babysitting once the baby has reached silent accessory stage. It would be lovely to see a televised example of mates rallying round to take care of mundane household stuff for a couple or single mother while they bond with their new addition. Perhaps there could be some hilarious consequence dreamed up about the chums cooking some postpartum meals, tackling the dishes, or changing some nappies.

The reason I believe that change could be beneficial is that when people are faced with situations of which they have little or no immediate experience they draw on scripts from indirect exposure via TV, film, hearsay, literature. For many of us, popular culture products can end up writing our lives. I remember the distinct feeling of being in a movie during my first labour experience. The hospital bed and other accoutrements were so surreal, I fell into the pregnant lady role like butter on bread. I got scared. With my home births I was completely removed from this effect and I am sure that helped me to do my own thing and remain calm. I don’t think I am alone in that ‘ooh it must be my birth scene’ experience. With more examples of women taking an active part in birth, this would filter into our cultural consciousness to a greater degree and challenge the idea that all women want to birth the same way.

I don’t think I am alone in having felt unkempt and fat during the postpartum period. Having glamourised images adds to the social pressure to look a certain way and sets an impossible standard. Women are not strangers to this experience outside of birth and motherhood, but at this time when there is a struggle to lose inhibitions during birth and get to grips with a new identity afterwards, women might be more vulnerable. I also think the ‘baby as accessory’ phenomenon could be harmful. It sends a message that babies should conform to particular behaviours, which they rarely do. That is what makes them so hard to look after at times, but also a source of joyful surprise.

Finally, it makes me feel sad that some people, fictional or otherwise, are left to get on with parenting alone in the early days. Yes, the babymoon should be respected, but I know how much I appreciated the gift of a meal, some company, or another pair of hands to hold my little one in those first months of newborn time.

I know there are greater issues facing women today, but I think some creative script changing could inspire people to be more open-minded and open-hearted regarding the transitions of people becoming parents that happen in our communities every day.

Dear Sitcom, I will always love you. I hope we can work it out, but we may have to go our separate ways if you can’t change. It’s not so much that I need you to think outside the box as put something new on it. Best wishes, Alexis

To everyone else a very happy international Women’s Day! Xxxx

A Good Question: Why Do Gender Stereotypes Still Persist?

I just read this great post about children and gender stereotypes Why do gender stereotypes still persist?. The author makes the point that her kids’ thinking is clearly affected by gender stereotypes despite the fact that key influences in their environment, such as parental ideology, school curricula, and the media they have been exposed to offer balanced gender views. Our language, history, and all its exponents, from literature to advertising copy are entrenched in gender bias and as such, when will it be possible to imagine a generation of children who are freed from this inequality?

This is a topic of concern to me, but especially this week as we get our kids dressed for their Carnival, here in Portugal. I was relieved to be spared the ‘I want to be a Princess’ statement again. Phew! Rosie elected to be a butterfly, so I bought some yellow craft paper and away went. However, as part of the pirates and princesses project her class have just completed, she already made a pink princess crown this week. I’m assuming the boys didn’t. In her end of term play, their performance was about scientists examining the bounty of nature. The girls were flowers, ladybirds, and butterflies, while the boys were scientists and mushrooms. It worries me, but I am reassured to see her choosing to be a pirate or doctor at home, as well as prancing about in a pink crown. It also makes me cross, the way that seeing the colour-coded pink and blue aisles for toys in the supermarket does. I bet you can guess which aisle the dolls were in, and which one had all the Lego.

I was also reminded of this TED talk, which makes the important point that boys suffer from this stereotyping as well as girls. We are told the story of a boy who wanted to become a chef, but was put off when he saw that Easy-Bake Ovens were marketed to girls. Enter Big Sister, who successfully lobbied the toy company to produce a gender non- specific model.

Back in the UK again, the Early Learning Centre has been criticised in recent years for insidious gender stereotyping. While gender stereotypes are persistently referenced in this way, how can children break away from this patriarchal thinking? This brilliant article from The Alpha Parent blog, analyses one of their catalogues.

My mum told me a conversation she had with me when I was small and attending play group. I told her that I had been playing doctors and nurses with my friend Peter, and I was the nurse because I was a girl, and Peter was the doctor because he was a boy. ‘No, no, no, we can’t have this’ thought Mum. ‘Sometimes women can be lady doctors and men can be male nurses’. ‘OK’ I said, ‘next time Peter can be the lady doctor and I can be a male nurse.’ Thirty years on and this conversation is still happening. You’d think kids’ views would be more progressive, but it goes to show that a lot more still needs to change.