(Apologies, another long one.)
I recently watched my first episode of ‘The World’s Strictest Parents’ and it was fascinating. The girl who was sent away was still pretty dreadful to her mother on her return. The boy, who had been smoking since he was 11 and was downright ghastly to his Mum prior to his week away, changed completely. Many people would say, that’s just the way it is – others might say – see some things (in this case non-wavering boundaries) work for some children and not for others. Both of these comments miss the big picture.
Children need lots of ands not lots of ors. They need nurturing and boundaries and structure and freedom and playtime and quiet time etc NOT… they need nurturing or boundaries…structure or freedom…playtime or quiet time… And that was the difference between these two young people – he had been well nurtured, she had not. Once the boundary piece of the jigsaw was put in place, he thrived. She did better once the boundary setting had been established, but she was never going to thrive in the same way because she hadn’t had the extreme (by modern western standards) nurturing she also needed. One thing was very clear, though, without the non-wavering and non-negotiable boundaries both teens were a mess.
So what do we, personally in our house, do?
Well to answer that question, we need to remember that our brains learn best when there is either a small amount of stress for a long time – as in when children are playing (non-electronic) and other times when we are so fully engaged in an activity that we lose track of time. The other time we learn effectively is when there is an intense amount of stress for a short time. Like when we cut ourselves with a knife or bang our thumb with a hammer. Human brains also work well with anchor points or mini-rituals throughout the day.
And finally, we need time and space to process things for ourselves, if we are to learn for ourselves.
Details: 1. Chores (Mini-Rituals): All the boys have chores to do each morning and afternoon. They are few and are mostly around personal cares, caring for our animals and being a citizen of the house. They are also age appropriate – Mr Hare dries 10 dishes morning and night because he is 10 years old; Mr Owl does six because he is six; and this week Mr Butterfly began drying two – he’s two and a half years old. No point doing any chores before this age. Incidentally, getting rid of the microwave and dishwasher have been two of my best ever moves – certainly wouldn’t have done so when I had babies, but now…
2. Consequences (Short term stress – as intense as they want to make it): We have time-limits on when chores have to be done. This stops the boys faffing about, OK, it stops Mr Owl faffing about and Mr Hare is learning that there is something to be said for getting on with things. Call that, differences in temperament. The consequences are practical (real jobs that are repetitive), boring and non-negotiable. Before we brought this in, the consequences were explained, I haven’t reasoned or explained why since – they know, they process for themselves while weeding (or whatever).
3. We don’t back down. If I had a really tired child, I would help them to accomplish their chores, but the chores still have to be completed on time. When Mr B told me he didn’t feel like doing his two dishes this morning – I handed him the tea-towel and two dishes and turned my back – but said nothing. He did them, including putting them away. In the early days, the others missed out on doing lovely things because they hadn’t gotten around to completing consequence-tasks. They know that I won’t back down – not that I’m mean about it – just quietly matter of fact, and constant. They get on with it – or they miss out on a treat-event. (Trip to the hardware shop with Dad; visit to play with the neighbours’ kid; swim in the nearby river.) And, if I think I’ve over-reacted, I change things the NEXT time.
4. We use a Diane Levy strategy – ASK, TELL and ACT. (ASK in a normal tone- wait to see if they’re moving; TELL them again, right next to them – yes involves getting off one’s backside and moving over to them- spoken with a firm tone – wait to see if they’re moving; ACT…see below…)
5. We emotionally disconnect for a short period of time – this involves intense stress for a short time for them – just separation can do it for some children. (People could spank on a round little bottom at this stage – but that is a personal decision and not a discussion I ever get involved in.) Plomping a small child against the wall could be your emotional disconnection. Plomping them in their room could be your disconnection. Sometimes just breaking eye-contact or turning one’s body away can be disconnection. These events have to be taken on their own merits. The important thing is that they KNOW that you disapprove of their behaviour and you keep the learning with them – by not talking.
6. The VERY important thing about this process is that it is NOT a Time Out. As soon as the child is willing to do what you have (reasonably and age appropriately) asked – they can come and complete the task and carry on with their day. This reconnection stage is vital – they have to be in control of it and you need to reconnect with them, through eye-contact and/or touch – as soon as they are ready to comply. If you don’t, they stay in a heightened state of stress and that’s detrimental. We want them to process and learn for themselves. If it’s an old lesson, they really can process very quickly.
Our talking takes away from them thinking.
7. We say, No. The first 10 or so times a toddler throws books on the ground we might tell them why that’s not OK. After that we just say, No, firmly and move to the ACT stage of the above process. After several repetitions, certainly from the age of around two and a half, they *know* they’re doing something they shouldn’t. Again reconnection is vital and so is a sensible consequence – in the above example helping return the books to their correct spot would be the best consequence.
8. For violence or other nasties we just move straight to ACT. Again – anything you know you have already explained or stated as a rule – they k.n.o.w.
9. We don’t praise or bribe our children for good behaviour. That’s just expected. We do say, Thank-you, especially at the end of an ACT when they’ve complied. And we do constantly tell them that we are proud of their hard-work; kindness; manners; etc and that we love them and are proud to be their parents.
10. We don’t reason with them. We explain why the rule is there – at a time when there are no temper tantrums. Sometimes they question the details, and if necessary we’ll iron out misunderstandings or make changes. This is part of the teaching we do regularly as part of our normal routine and just as things come up. We never ever, ever do this during an ASK TELL ACT process. Their emotions are too inflamed to listen, and sometimes ours’ are too inflamed to explain kindly.
11. We use our body language – rather than talk. We hand them coats on cold days. We point to their bare-feet if they are going to school. We turn off the tele if they’ve snuck it on Saturday morning while we’re still asleep. http://hakea.wordpress.com/2012/03/09/walking-with/ shows a great way to implement silent discipline – I am intrigued by it and can see that it would work well – but it is time consuming, and dependent on another adult being able to look after other children while you ‘walk’ with the child concerned. Looking at it from a purely biological standpoint, you could say that the child imposes their own stress to evoke the realisation or change in behaviour. It’s a great example of silence working well.
In the silence the real learning begins.
12. We insist on manners, and keep adding to the list. Mr B knows, please, thank-you and is working on ‘showing his pretty eyes’ when he talks to people. The bigger boys are working on table manners and not telling me fart jokes. Tone of voice is also key and rephrasing things can make a big difference…
13. We’re the calm (mostly) authority in the boys’ lives. We’re the people they can really count on to show them how the world really works, not how we wished it worked – so they can negotiate it when we’re not around. But we also give them lots of time to think and process for themselves.
Of course, intense nurturing is vital and hours spent in personal exploration – but children must be able to function effectively within ‘the rules’ of their society. We don’t live with the Yequana in South America in some sort of long lost paradise, we live in a modern western world – where people stay up late and are over-exposed to electricity, have access to rubbish food and where life is stress for many of us. Manners are key to our survival. Knowing that the world isn’t all about us is useful. Having strategies to fix things when we’ve done wrong is essential.
Be big and brave. Stick to your guns and ignore their mean comments when you get tough – we say, that’s a shame – and no more. Your children will thank you for it…once they’re adults.