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A hard knot of tension forms in the pit of your stomach as you feel your patience tested to the limit. You try to catch your breath and slow it down, attempting to stem the rising hot crescendo of anger as it bubbles inside you, scared that you will erupt in public. As disapproving eyes stare at you, a sense of shame begins to permeate throughout your body, like a heavy, cold slithering snake, filling every part of your being. Finally, follows an air of helplessness and uselessness, as you despair at your inability to control the situation.
These feelings are doubtless all too familiar among parents of one to three-year olds. Tantrums behind closed doors are difficult enough to handle, but ones in public bring about a special degree of stress and anxiety. It’s little wonder that toddlerhood is referred to as “the terrible twos”, or “the troublesome threes”.
Parents are taught to ignore or punish their toddler’s bad behavior and pile on the praise and rewards when they are good. Toddlers are viewed as mini Machiavellian manipulators, scheming and plotting to get their own way, by grinding their parents down with their unruly behavior. Many parenting experts view toddlers as the enemy in a battle of wills that parents should seek to win at all costs, never backing down to the attention seeking behavior that is a tantrum. In today’s society, authoritarian discipline rules and at its heart is the belief that toddlers deliberately misbehave to get what they want. What if I told you however, that this sweeping assumption couldn’t be further from the truth? While the description that I started this piece with may chime with your own experiences, I wasn’t writing about parents’ emotions, but those belonging to toddlers. You see tantrums are just difficult for parents to navigate, toddlers feel just as bad, if not worse.
Why is it so rare that mainstream discipline methods consider how children feel? Most poor behavior is chalked down to manipulation, selfishness, deliberate naughtiness and attention seeking. The motivation behind the difficult behavior is always considered to be unpleasant and wrong. Solutions all seek to make the child feel bad about their undesirable behavior, whether that’s through punishing or shaming them, removing them from our loving attention (naughty steps and time-out rule here) or missing out on a reward or praise when they fail to act in the desired ‘good’ way. Parents of toddlers frequently pour over child-raising manuals and implement the ‘carrot and stick’
techniques beloved by so many. These same parents are frequently left to wonder why the discipline methods endorsed don’t have the same instant and seemingly permanent positive results shown on parenting TV programmes. The answer is simple – because none of these methods consider how the child feels. If you want to change the way children behave, you must start with changing how they feel!
A child who feels sad, angry, unloved or struggling with a lack of autonomy is a ticking time-bomb. If their feelings aren’t diffused, with parental help, they are going to explode (aka – a tantrum) – and when they do, the answer to long-term, effective discipline, is to support them to safely release these emotions in a way that makes them feel seen, heard and loved. Anything else is doomed to failure from the offset.
One simple way to implement more effective discipline, is to ask yourself ‘Why, How, What” the next time your toddler tantrums. WHY are they doing this? (all behavior has a trigger – tiredness, hunger, invasion of personal space, lack of parental attention, over-stimulation and so on), HOW are they feeling? (almost always the answer here is “pretty bad”) and WHAT do you hope to gain from disciplining them? (to teach them to respect others and their belongings and to behave in a more societally acceptable way most likely). Asking Why, How, What, predisposes parents to empathise with their children. It gets them on the same team, understanding that actually – tantrums are pretty rough for both adult and child. Most importantly it helps parents, from this position of team-work, to look for the cause of the difficult behavior, to extinguish, rather than just superficially palliate it, as most mainstream discipline methods do.
Understanding how children feel when they misbehave helps parents to select the most effective discipline methods, whether the child is eighteen months, or eighteen years, old. Most importantly though, taking a position of empathy and understanding towards children aids emotional connection, which in turn tends to dramatically reduce any difficult behavior naturally, without having to enforce any discipline methods at all. Not only is this approach the most effective and in the best interests of the child, it tends to be the easiest for the parent too.
If you would like to learn more about coping with tricky behavior in a way that is sensitive and respectful to your children (and most importantly, effective!), check out my Gentle Discipline Book. Available in the USA, Canada, UK, Australia/NZ and rest of the world in paperback, kindle and audiobook – now!
When you have a poor sleeper, it can often seem as if every other child in the world is sleeping better than yours. In truth, babies and toddlers who go to sleep easily and sleep through the night are in a very small minority. Sleep is unpredictable in the early years, rather than following a constant, positive upwards trajectory, it frequently dips and gets worse (see HERE for more). The sad reality, is that ‘good sleep’ (aka sleeping through the night reliably) often doesn’t appear until the third year of life. No wonder then so many exhausted parents, trying to juggle the reality of infant sleep while living in the modern industrialised world (the two are at great odds with each other), turn to sleep training to try to fix their children.
The difficulty here is in this desire to fix something that isn’t actually broken. Sleep training tends to punish babies and toddlers for problems that don’t belong to them. They are left to cry, put down while they still need a hug, denied milk when they are hungry and ignored when they most need comfort. I don’t actually believe any parent wants this for their children, yet their exhaustion leaves them with no other choice. Or so they think. There are in fact, many ways to gently improve infant sleep that don’t involve any sleep training at all. Here are eight of them:
- Sleep Friendly Lighting
A quick google image search for “baby nightlight” returns many beautifully designed, attractive lamps and light shows. Ninety nine percent of these inhibit sleep. Many parents don’t realise that lighting is a key influence on sleep. Light that is on the blue colour spectrum inhibits the hormone of sleep, melatonin, and tricks the body into thinking it is daytime and thus time to be awake. It isn’t just obviously blue light that is an issue though. Most white light is actually very blue, especially energy-saving lightbulbs and halogen spotlights. So too is light that looks green, blue, purple and pink. Which coincidentally tend to be the colours used in most child night lights. Research has shown that for light to be non-inhibiting it needs to contain very low levels of blue light. Naturally, our ancestors would have lit their nights with fire and candles, both sitting on the red colour spectrum. We can replicate this effect by using red light at night. If you’re not keen on red light (many toddlers associate red with monsters, or danger, and it is quite hard to read a bedtime story in red light) then consider investing in a Lumie Bedbug, a world first nightlight that features very low levels of blue light, while still producing a white/peach coloured glow. The Bedbug also features a special sunset mode, dimming gently over a period of 15 minutes, which is perfect for toddlers and older children. The cuteness of the little bug is a further winning feature, along with its sleep promoting properties.
2. Bedroom Temperature
Our modern homes tend to be well insulated, retaining heat and saving us money on our fuel bills. Central heating quickly and efficiently heats our homes too. This can and does cause a problem with sleep. The optimal room temperature range for the best sleep is 15-18C, or 60-65F. Unlike most infant room thermometers indicate, 18C/65F isn’t the best temperature for sleep – it’s at the very top end of the optimal range! Trying to cool the bedroom to somewhere in this optimal range can really help sleep. If you have air-conditioning and are in a hot country, you’re not going to get this low obviously, but turning the AC down a degree or two is worth thinking about. This doesn’t mean the child should be cold at night. The aim is “warm body, cool room”. More on this later!
Temperature aside, air conditioning and central heating can cause trouble with sleep in another way. Playing havoc with room humidity. Anything that dries the sleeping environment can mean that the child wakes more for milk. Where an adult may take a glass of water to bed to place next to their bed, babies and toddlers tend to wake and cry for milk if they have a dry mouth. This doesn’t mean that fixing the humidity will stop the child from needing to feed at night, far from it, but it will remove those extra humidity related feeds. This tends to be more of an issue for children who are mouth breathers, sleeping with their mouths open. The best humidity for sleep is around 30-50%. If you use air-conditioning or central heating, you may consider adding a humidifier to the room.
Remember in point three, we discussed “cool room, warm body”? This is where what you dress your child comes in. Sometimes adding an extra layer of clothing, such as a long sleeve vest, or upping the tog rating of a sleepsac can really help sleep. Generally speaking, in the optimal room temperature zone, you’re looking at 2-3 togs. While sleepsacs can help to keep kids cozy, by avoiding loose blankets and duvets that fall off the bed (I don’t recommend either under 4years), they can also inhibit sleep when the child rolls over and gets caught up in the huge amount of extra fabric around their legs. Some children also really hate having their feet covered by anything, unsurprisingly since we tend to sleep better with the ability to have our feet exposed. For this reason, I always recommend sleepsacs that have separate legs and uncovered feet, like these, or these (tip: leave the booties off!).
If you sing your baby to sleep, or use a mobile, or stuffed animal that plays music for fifteen or twenty minutes at bedtime, you could be causing your child to wake more. Why? Babies and toddlers have very short sleep cycles, lasting for 40-60 minutes depending on age. At the end of this sleep cycle, one of three things may happen. 1. They move straight into a new sleep cycle, 2. They wake fully and need your help to start a new cycle, or 3. They rouse slightly, but not fully, and if all is well they start a new cycle independently. Number three is where it is important to consider any constants in the room. If a child goes to sleep with music, that music needs to be present ALL NIGHT. At the end of a sleep cycle, that slightly rousing child needs to hear the same sounds as when they went to sleep, if they don’t, then the sharp change in environment may cause them to wake fully and need your help. Some companies try to get around this by designing noise and motion activated music players. These rarely work and I don’t recommend them. Because they ‘catch’ the child too late, when they are already roused and moving/crying. They have already woken properly by the time the music cuts in again. If you sing your child to sleep, consider recording yourself and playing your recording on loop all night, or consider playing a special alpha music for children recording all night. Alpha music for children is recorded to a resting pulse rate of 60 beats per minutes and includes elements of white noise, heartbeats and simple repetitive music, which aid sleep far more effectively than standard ‘sleepy’ music. This is mine (it’s on iTunes too). Pop the music on during the bedtime routine and turn it off the next morning. If you have an older child (2yrs plus), who sleeps through, but the issue is more getting them to sleep independently at the start of the night, then consider a children’s meditation recording instead. This is mine (also on iTunes)
This follows on from point five. The smell in the world that relaxes your child the most is the smell of you. If you could bottle your smell and spray it around your child’s bedroom it would surely comfort them. Many people pop muslins in their tops to absorb their scent and then leave the muslin with the child, or one of their t-shirts or pyjama tops. This can work well for some, but some – most – need more. To get more, you need to condition a smell. ie. you need to take a scent and make it yours. The easiest and most effective way to do this is to select an aromatherapy oil that you like (and is safe to use around babies and children). Lavender and chamomile are particularly good for sleep, blended together. Pop some of this oil on as scent/perfume each day for a month or so and then diffuse it in an aromatherapy diffuser in the room your child sleeps in for an hour or two before bedtime. You can get some diffusers that double up as humidifiers and red night lights too, like this one. Note, this is only recommended once your baby is at least 12 weeks of age, before this it’s best to keep any scent that isn’t you away.
7. A Consistent Bedtime Routine
Scientists unanimously agree. If there is one thing that has the biggest impact on child sleep, it is a consistent bedtime routine. While a similar bedtime each night is important for setting the child’s circadian rhythm (body clock), what is more important is doing the same thing in the same order each and every night. For instance a bath, followed by a massage, followed by a story, followed by a breastfeed or bottle. Try to keep the bedtime routine calm and play free (it is preparing for sleep after all!), but before you start the bedtime routine, try to fit in at least 30 minutes of playtime, especially if you work or have more than one child. Taking time to reconnect before bedtime starts has a great positive impact on sleep. Bedtime itself is important, particularly for toddlers and older children. In western culture we seem to have an obsession with a 7pm bedtime, however research suggests that we’re probably putting our children to bed too soon. A more biologically appropriate bedtime is around the 7:45-8:15pm zone (the time to aim for the child to be asleep, not to start the bedtime routine). Putting a child to bed before their body is chemically ready to sleep can result in bedtime resistance, more night waking and earlier mornings.
8. Bedtime Snacks
For older babies (well established on solids – ie eating 3 meals a day for a couple of months or more) and toddlers, introducing a bedtime snack can help sleep. Aim for the snack just before the bedtime routine starts, around an hour before the child goes to sleep. Bedtime snacks can not only fill up tummies that may be hungry, but they can also help from a chemical point of view. Incorporating a snack that contains tryptophan, an amino acid that influences the production of sleep hormones, is a great choice. Child friendly sources of tryptophan include cheese, eggs, nuts, seeds and wholemeal/wholewheat bread. My favourite bedtime snack is almond butter on wholewheat toast, with a few banana slices on top.
Following these eight tips may not magically encourage your child to sleep through the night, but hopefully they should have a positive impact, without the need to sleep train.
If you’re interested in more gentle solutions to child sleep issues, check out my Gentle Sleep Book (for 0-5yrs) and Why Your Baby’s Sleep Matters (specifically for 0-12mth breastfed babies). You can also learn more on my Sleep Facebook Page, where I run monthly Q&A sessions.
Parenting is hard work. Even when everything is going well. Parenting when it isn’t, can sometimes feel impossible. Parents who have committed to following a more mindful, gentle style of parenting can often be hit with ‘discipline burn-out’. Or as I call them the “I can’t take any bloody more” moments. You know the moments; where you wonder why you ever had kids, the ones were you think about dropping everything and running away to join the circus – child-free and the ones where you wonder why in the hell you ever thought you would be a good parent. These are the moments where parents chuck in the gentle towel and resort to yelling, punishing, shaming and everything else they swore they wouldn’t do and feel bad for when they do. For anyone reading who is just about at that level, or already there – here are three points to read and keep in mind, to keep yourself on the gentle path.
- Over-Estimating Children
Sometimes the most common reason why kids misbehave and discipline doesn’t seem to be working, is because the behavior expected is just not in-line with what is appropriate for a child of a certain age. It’s just not reasonable to expect toddlers to not tantrum, a three year old to not lose their temper and hit, kick or bite a baby sibling, a four year old to share all the time, a seven year old to keep their room tidy and a teenager to never yell, sulk or slam doors. If you expect any of these you’re doomed to fail from the off. That doesn’t meant these behaviors are OK, or acceptable. They aren’t. But kids aren’t adults and actually adults aren’t that great either. All adults have off days, days when they’re rude, days when they lack impulse control, days where they say something unkind, days when they sulk, days when they can’t be bothered to tidy. It’s just not realistic to expect kids to never have off days. It’s even more unrealistic to expect to be able to make them behave in the same way an adult behaves. Because they don’t have the same level of brain development as an adult. Lower the bar a little. Understand that your kid isn’t misbehaving deliberately, they’re just doing the best that they can with the level of neurological development that is appropriate to their age.
2. The Fix-It Mentality
Understandably parents want to solve behavior concerns. They want to be able to stop their baby throwing food from their highchair and their toddler from touching the expensive ornaments on the fireplace. They search for ways to stop their three year old from throwing objects in the house, stop their four and six year old siblings fighting and stop their teen from sulking. Any failure to extinguish these behaviors is seen as an ineffective discipline method. We need to move away from the ‘fix it’ desire. Sometimes, in fact a lot of times, behavior can’t be fixed. It’s not like diagnosing an electrical fault, changing a fuse – and bingo, problem solved. We’re talking mini people here, not wiring. Human behavior, especially that of the little kind, is grey – not black and white. It would be nice to tidy up everything and fix behaviors, shutting away away in a locked drawer forever but real life doesn’t work like that – it’s complicated and messy. Change the narrative – don’t think “how can I fix this?”, but “Am I being realistic expecting this to stop right now? Can I use my adult brain and divert it, rather than fix it?”.
Shifting from a ‘fix it’ to a ‘divert it and use my adult brain’ mentality makes you look at things differently. The baby throwing food from the highchair can’t be fixed, a better solution would be to ditch the highchair and sit them on a mess mat on the floor. The toddler touching precious ornaments can’t be fixed. A better solution is to put the ornaments out of reach or in a locked cupboard until the child is older, with developed impulse control. Switch from fixing to diverting and using your adult brain to bypass the situation, when discipline just doesn’t seem to be working.
3. Taking Supposed Failures Personally
Let’s clear this one up right now. There is no such thing as a perfect parent. Everybody messes up. Nobody is naturally calm at all times. Nobody has endless levels of patience. We all mess up. Stop taking everything so personally. Most of the time, this isn’t about you. It’s not about how you act, or how you’ve raised your child, or which method of discipline you choose. It just is. Most of the time, it’s the luck of the draw, with a bit of biology thrown in.
It doesn’t matter if you’re an authoritarian parent, hot on punishment and reward, or a gentle parent, focused on connection and empathy. Your kid is going to misbehave. Because that’s what they do, because – see point one. You’re in this for the long haul. What you’re doing now, in honesty, won’t have a huge impact on how your kid behaves today, or tomorrow, or next week. You’re parenting for results you’ll see in the next twenty to thirty years. While that lack of instant gratification sucks, it doesn’t mean that your effort is in vain and it doesn’t mean that what you’re doing isn’t working.
The other problem here, aside from feeling demoralised and ready to throw your gentle parenting manual in the fire, is that this self-blame is poisonous. It eats away at you, gnawing at your confidence with the jaws of self-doubt and blame. When you allow these feelings to grow, you treat yourself badly and when you treat yourself badly your temper and tolerance get shorter. The result? You become the parent you’re not proud of and that’s what your kids will copy. For the best discipline results you must work on your confidence and well-being, because in those years of delayed results, they are key.
How do you dig yourself out of a discipline rut? My favourite solution is to take a parenting break. I don’t mean getting away from my kids (though if you can do it and you want to – then go for it!), I mean I try to stop thinking about it. Switch the parenting books for chick lit, thriller, drama – or whatever floats your boat. Take a social media break, or at least a break from parenting related social media (and especially avoid any ‘perfect parent’ pages or Instagram streams, you know the ones that make you feel inadequate. Stop analysing what you’re doing and saying around your kids for a few days, let things slide a little, ignore the behavior that’s really bugging you and try to just have fun again as a family. Then return to everything when you feel more relaxed and recharged, but remember: lower the bar, stop trying to fix everything and stop taking it all so personally!
If you liked this article, check out my new Gentle Discipline book – for more on changing the way you – as well as your child – behave (hint, it’s all about understanding and shaping, rather than fixing and instantly changing!)
I cannot tell you how many times I hear the words “s/he slept so well between 10 and 16 weeks, we were getting five, six, even seven hour stretches in the crib/bassinet/basket and s/he would settle back to sleep easily and quickly after a feed. Things started to go wrong at around four months, I don’t what we did wrong, s/he was such as good sleeper, but since then it’s all been downhill. I just don’t understand”.
We (‘we’ meaning society) seem to think that baby sleep is linear. By that I mean we seem to think that it gets better as babies grow older. Or at least we believe it is static, ie. it won’t get worse again. The thing is, it’s not linear (certainly not in an upwards trajectory) and it’s not static. It goes up and down (mostly down in the first year). This is entirely normal and very, very common (that doesn’t mean there is anything wrong if your baby’s sleep got better and better, you’re just in the lucky minority!).
This chart is far more representative of what happens sleep wise in the first 18 months. Yes it is depressing, but it’s realistic and once you know that something is totally normal, not your fault and most importantly *not permanent* it is so much easier to relax a little.
As it happens, 3 months is the peak of sleep in the first year, that means it’s as good as it gets. There is a very, very high likelihood that your baby will sleep the best they are going to sleep until their first birthday (and later) around the age of about 3 months. It’s really not uncommon for 3 months to be happy to be put down, to only wake once or twice in the night and to go to sleep easily after a quick feed/cuddle.
Then 4 and 5mths happen, they’re not fun months. You get lulled into a false sense of security at 3mths, then suddenly your baby is waking every hour, won’t be put down and is awake for an hour or more refusing to go back to sleep. This is normal development, it is temporary and you didn’t do anything wrong! You also don’t need to do anything to change it, keep doing what you’re doing. Don’t be scared of bad habits and especially don’t consider sleep training. It’s temporary!
You often get a blissful little blip of better sleep around 5-6mths, then just when you think “finally, it’s getting a bit better”, bam, thinks get worse again, usually not as bad as they were at 4mths, but still far worse than you’d hope.
7-8/9mths are often months that promise hope, with any luck you’ll be back somewhere to where you were around 3mths (but probably not as good), but then – oh my goodness – 8-10mths hits. This is the worst sleep gets in the whole of the first year. At this age 84% of babies are waking (and feeding) regularly at night. Who would have thought that your baby would sleep significantly worse at 10mths than they did at 3?!!
Thankfully from around 11mths things start to improve again, fairly steadily for the next 6mths or so (although not the golden heyday of 3mths!). You can still expect nightwaking and night feeds at this age though.
I didn’t draw the rest of the chart, as it’s a bit depressing, but when can you expect ‘good’ sleep fairly reliably? somewhere between 2-3yrs of age (there is a common dip at about 2.5yrs however). That’s a *lot* later than most people think and certainly a lot later than most professionals advise, but it’s the reality, it’s just such a shame that we’ve lost touch with reality when it comes to infant sleep! The secret to all of this is you – what you can do to stay calm, rested and able to cope with this normal sleep pattern. Having realistic expectations is a huge start.
For more on baby and child sleep – see my Gentle Sleep Book.
I’m commonly asked for help and advice surrounding pacifiers (I’ll use this term as this is the most used around the world). Pacifiers can be a Godsend to some parents and a nightmare to others.
If you’re currently pregnant and reading, my advice in general would be to try to avoid using a pacifier if possible, but if you do use one then to try to wean your baby from it by six months of age if possible. This avoids having to specifically use some form of weaning as the child gets older. Pre six months pacifiers can work well to improve the sleep of fractious babies, particularly the initial falling to sleep phase. Post six months I find that they often become increasingly problematic when it comes to sleep and are the cause of many sleep issues. If the baby can keep the pacifier in their mouth all night, or they are able to find it and – most importantly – put it back in themselves without parental help as soon as they wake, then sleep is usually not negatively affected, in fact it can be really helped. In reality however these two points rarely apply to most babies, or even toddlers.
My tips to wean from the pacifier are as follows:
1. Only ever give a pacifier to your child if they are very upset and you cannot calm them down any other way (including feeding). If they are calm do not offer it to them. Once the baby (or toddler) is calm remove the pacifier ASAP.
2. Once you have followed point one for a week or two and your child has become accustomed to settling with other methods, select either days or nights to wean the pacifier. I would always suggest starting with daytime naps initially as this is usually easier than nighttime and you will usually be less tired and desperate too.
3. At the selected sleep time allow your child to have the pacifier if they are crying and not settling in any other way. Once your child has been asleep for ten minutes gently remove the pacifier from their mouth. If they start to cry reinsert it and try again in another 10 minutes.
4. Once you are able to remove the pacifier successfully after 10 minutes (which may take several days), move on to removing it after five minutes.
5. Once step four goes well, try to remove the pacifier after a minute or two of your child falling asleep.
6. Once step five goes well, aim to remove the pacifier at the point between your baby relaxing deeply and falling asleep.
7. Once your have achieved point six for a couple of days you should be able to soothe your child to sleep without the pacifier.
Remember – you are doing these steps for either daytime naps OR night sleep, not both, initially.
Once you have successfully removed the pacifier for naps, progress onto following the same steps for night sleep (following the points for each waking).
Usually it is possible to wean from the pacifier gently and completely over a four week period. At this point remove all pacifiers from your house and change bag so as not to confuse or upset your child if he or she sees them.
p.s: It is always good to introduce other cues to help your child to calm, particularly if you are removing one. Here I would suggest calm, rhythmical music, such as my Gentle Sleep Music, a calming scent in the room, such as lavender, and using a small very soft and sensory blanket to hold around or against the baby. I would also softly speak key words repeatedly while the child falls asleep (e.g “close your eyes little sleepyhead, it’s time for sleep and time for bed”).
Remember though, if the pacifier is not negatively affecting your child’s sleep, dental and speech issues aside, I see no reason to rush weaning. Some children really do benefit from the extra comfort that they provide for longer.
I am the first person to admit that I make mistakes as a mother, lots of them. I am absolutely not perfect, far from it. It is really important to me that people understand this. I have always been uncomfortable being referred to as a ‘parenting expert’ (although the term is necessary for SEO/marketing/PR), because an expert to me is somebody who gets things right most of the time and rarely slips up. Although I find experts inspirational, I don’t view them as ‘real people’ and often they can de-motivate me, when I think “I could never be as amazing as they are”. I don’t want people to look at me and think that I don’t make mistakes, because I do. Everybody does. Perfection just doesn’t exist, real does.
What does a real parent do? They try their best, but there are always times when they wish they had done better, times they slip up, lose their temper and act in ways towards their children that they are not proud of. There are two paths real parents can take and it is these paths that matter more than their mistakes. They can either ignore their flaws, become blinded to them and blame their sometimes ineffective parenting on their children. Or, they can accept their flaws, forgive themselves and learn from them. Teaching their children humility and apology. The latter is the parent I aspire to be and the one that is most beneficial to children.
If you aim to be perfect, you will fail. The pressure you place upon yourself will be too much. One day you will slip up and you will struggle far too much with your guilt. It is better to aim to be ‘good enough’. I have previously written about my 70/30 ratio HERE, in my book it’s OK to be proud of seventy percent of your parenting and feel that thirty percent could be improved upon – so long as you do try to improve it.
Not only are parental slip-ups inevitable, they are also incredibly important. Because if you don’t make mistakes, how will your children learn how to react when they make one? We spend our lives teaching our children, mostly through modelling appropriate behaviour to them. When you make a mistake, when you yell at your child, lose your patience with them and snap at them, they learn that ‘perfect’ is not a goal to aim for, they learn it’s OK to make mistakes and most importantly of all – they learn how to rectify them. When you lose it with your child and you apologise to them, explaining why you acted in a certain way and attempting to rectify the damage, you teach them an incredibly important lesson. How to apologise and make things right. If you don’t make mistakes, you deprive them of this important life lesson!
This doesn’t mean that it’s OK to mess up in a big way everyday, this is what my 70/30 ratio is all about. You need to strive to do your best, but recognise that sometimes your best is enough, even when you don’t feel that it is.
Praise is a controversial topic in Gentle Parenting circles. Many mistakenly think that gentle parents never praise their children and eschew any attempt to show children that we are proud of them. In fact, this is simply not true. Praise can and does form a role in Gentle Parenting, however it looks different to the praise that most people know and use.
So, what’s the problem with praise? Surely everybody likes to be praised? Doesn’t it help us to feel good and appreciated? Not, so. Research actually shows that certain types of praise undermine intrinsic motivation, that is it can make a child less likely to repeat a behaviour (that they have been praised for) because they want to. This is because praise works on raising extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation just means that children behave for external reasons – ie to receive praise, it doesn’t mean that the children are behaving in a certain way because it feels good, or because they want to. The more we extrinsically motivate children, the more we risk undermining their natural desire to want to help and ‘do good’ and creating ‘praise junkies’, children who only ‘do good’ to receive verbal rewards. Damaging intrinsic motivation is not the only problem with praise though. Research also shows that certain praise can damage children’s self-esteem. This may sound bizarre, surely praising helps children to feel better about themselves? Actually, it doesn’t. It can actually cause them to struggle when they don’t receive praise, doubting their capabilities.
Does this mean praise is strictly taboo in Gentle Parenting? No, it doesn’t. However praise should be used carefully and mindfully. There are certain ways to praise that not only avoid the pitfalls mentioned above, but genuinely help children to feel good. Let’s look at some.
1. Praise should be specific
Much of the praise children receive is unspecific and insincere. ‘Good boy’, ‘Well done’, ‘You did it’, ‘Clever girl’. Praise in this manner is actually dismissive. It shows the child that you weren’t really looking at what they did. It is akin to praising a dog, it may work for a dog who doesn’t have the same depth of thought as a human, but humans need more. If you are pleased with your child, tell them exactly what for. “I saw you give the ball to the little boy because he was sad he had nothing to play with. I felt really proud of you for being so kind”. Hopefully you can see why that is so much more preferably to “good boy”.
2. Praise should be effort based
When we praise children only for their achievements and ignore their failures, we run the risk of causing anxiety and feelings of inadequacy. If your child has tried hard to remember their three times tables, but has struggled for months to get there. Don’t just praise them when they finally succeed. The three months of ‘failure’ is ultimately what caused the success and it matters far more. The effort is what you should notice, not the outcome. “Gosh, you are so dedicated to learning your times tables. I just know you are going to get there soon with all this practice” is far better than “yay, you did it!”.
3. Praise should focus on what children can change
There are certain things in life children cannot change. Their looks being one. Praising children for their looks, or fixed characteristics that they have no power to change, can actually cause issues with self-esteem as they grow. Praising children, particularly girls, for their appearance is dangerous territory. It can actually cause issues with body image as they grow, particularly in their teens (something I have covered in depth in my Gentle Eating Book). Praise only what they have control over.
4. Praise should be descriptive
This follows on from point number one. Descriptive praise shows a child that you are really watching them and appreciating what they are doing. If you child shows you a drawing that they have done, don’t be tempted to say “it’s lovely, well done!”, instead try to focus on specific aspects of the drawing “I can see that there are two birds in the sky and some lovely big pink flowers. Why did you choose to colour the flowers in pink? Where do you think the birds are flying to?”. Children thrive when you really ‘see’ them.
5. Praise should focus on what the children can repeat and learn from.
Carol Dweck is a psychologist from Harvard University, famous for introducing us to the concept of Mindsets. She differentiates between a growth mindset (when children accept they are not good at something – yet, but believe that they have the ability to improve) and a fixed mindset (when children believe that ability is fixed and give up because they feel they are not good at something). Praise, scarily can and does encourage a fixed mindset. A way to shift towards a more growth mindset is to focus more on the effort, not achievement, as in point two, but with an important addition – asking the child WHY they think they managed to achieve something this time? Ask them what they did differently and what they have learned that can help them when they are struggling with something next time.
Don’t be scared of praise and don’t berate yourself too much when you slip up. Even the most practiced gentle parents (including myself!) slip up sometimes. You will still find yourself echoing the non-specific achievement based praise of your youth. I say “well done” far more than I would like, however being mindful of praise should hopefully see you shift slowly to that which is more gentle and effective.
Have you struggled with knowing how to discipline your child? Perhaps you’ve tried several methods that have had little results, or perhaps they worked for a while and then the behaviour returned. Perhaps you have found yourself confused about the best approach to discipline, or exactly when and why you should do something? The following five steps can help to achieve discipline that is not only gentle (yes – discipline can be gentle!), but effective.
- Be Mindful of Why You Feel the Need to Discipline
The next time your child behaves in a certain way and you find yourself wanting to discipline – pause. Ask yourself why you feel the need to discipline. Has your child done something that you find unacceptable? Have they broken one of your boundaries? Do you want to use the moment to teach them how to behave in a more appropriate way next time? Or have you just been triggered by your past experiences? Far too many parents discipline their children because of conditioned responses from their own upbringing. Just because your parents disciplined you for something, it doesn’t mean you have to discipline your child for the same thing. Or perhaps you feel the need to discipline because others are watching you and waiting to see your response. Again, remember that the only right time to discipline your child is when you believe that they need it, whatever anybody else thinks. Mindful discipline ensures that your child is clear in your expectations of them.
2. Ask Yourself Why, How, What
The best discipline happens when you work with, not against, your child. In almost every case, ‘unacceptable behaviour’ happens when the child is feeling some sort of emotional unease, or when adults simply expect too much of them. Understanding the reasons behind the behaviour is perhaps the most important task for parents. Before your respond, take a minute to ask yourself ‘Why, How, What’.
Why did my child do that? What triggered the behaviour?
How is my child feeling? What emotions could have caused the behaviour?
What do I hope to teach my child with my discipline?
There is no point jumping straight into the discipline unless you are clear on why your child is behaving in the way they are – and what you hope to achieve by disciplining them.
3. Understand the True Capabilities of Your Child
Far too many children are punished for being children. Punished for not having the impulse control and emotional regulation abilities of adults and punished for adults having expectations of them that are far too high. Punishing a child for an emotional meltdown, because they have immature regulation skills won’t help them to learn to regulate any quicker, but it may impede it. The next time your child behaves in a way that is undesirable, ask yourself “could they have handled this any better, with their level of brain development?”.
Being mindful of neurological development is critical when you discipline. Most mainstream discipline methods – time out, naughty steps, exclusion, shaming and loss of privileges – expect cognitive abilities from children that they just don’t have. Toddlers won’t sit on a naughty step, contemplate their actions and vow to do better next time, simply because they can’t. Preschoolers won’t hypothesise about future actions when they have been sent to their room, because they can’t. Effective discipline always starts from a position of understanding the neurological development of children and what they are capable of at any given age
4. Teach Through Modelling
The old Victorian adage of “do as I say, not as I do” couldn’t be more wrong. Children learn how to behave by watching their parents. The most influential discipline method of all is how you, yourself, behave. If you shout, or hit, in the name of discipline you teach your child that problems should be resolved with verbal or physical violence. If you rely on exclusion as a means of discipline you give your child a clear message that you are unwilling to be with them when they’re not feeling good. Every minute of every day, how you behave influences your children. If your child is constantly behaving in a way that you dislike, look to yourself for that same behaviour – they learned it somewhere.
For the best discipline, try to epitomise the greatest teacher you ever met, as much as possible. What was it about this teacher you admired so much? What qualities can you mimic? You simply have to be the behaviour you want to see from your child. A tall order indeed. Does this mean you have to be perfect all of the time? Far from it, the times when you make mistakes are perhaps the most valuable of all, because your child is watching to see how you handle them. Learn to be humble, admit wrongdoings, apologise for them and make them right. Especially when the wrongdoing is towards your child.
5. Reflect and Learn from the Experience
Have you ever noticed how many parents say “I’ve told him a million times and he just doesn’t listen”? Those same parents use the naughty step, or time out, several times each day, they fill up countless reward charts and yet the behaviour continues. Surely this should indicate that their current discipline methods aren’t working? Walter Barbe once said “If you’ve told a child a thousand times and he still doesn’t understand, then it is not the child who is a slow learner“, we would all do well to heed this advice.
Reflection, reflection and more reflection is key for effective discipline. What worked well last time and why? What didn’t work so well – why was that? Having a flexible approach to discipline, one that mimics a ‘growth mindset‘, is the only way. The best teachers are always analysing their teaching methods and results. Reflecting and learning from past experiences of discipline is key. Each day teaches us, as parents, something new and often it is our children that teach us. The day we think we know it all as parents is the day our discipline becomes ineffective.
If this article has piqued your interest in gentle discipline, check out my new discipline book. It is released under the title ‘The Gentle Discipline Book‘ in the UK and under the title ‘Gentle Discipline‘ in the USA and Canada in the summer. The book covers common tricky behaviours from babyhood right the way through to the teen years and how to cope with them in a gentle and effective way
There is a misconception in our society that children learn best by being punished and shamed. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. If you want children to behave better, you have to make them feel better.
Why do most ‘parenting experts’ only tell you what to do, leaving out the ‘Why?’ Surely that’s a more important place to start? To enter the teaching profession, you need to study how children learn long before you can ever begin to teach them. Yet as parents, we are thrown in at the deep end, holding a newborn baby in our arms without a shred of training. Taking some time to understand how children learn makes disciplining them infinitely easier.
Society today takes the view that children who misbehave are being deliberately naughty – that they plot and scheme to get what they want and make a conscious decision to behave in ways we dislike. But what if they behave undesirably, not deliberately, but because they cannot do anything else? most common discipline methods focus on encouraging children to do and be better, so that they are motivated by rewards if they behave ‘well’ and punishments if they misbehave. This would seem sensible, but it makes one huge mistake. It presumes that the child is not motivated to be ‘good’ and that they have the capability to change their behaviour. But maybe they already have the motivation? Maybe they already want to do better? And perhaps their brains – their capabilities – are holding them back? Are they behaving in a certain way simply because they cannot behave in any other? Mainstream discipline methods can achieve absolutely nothing here, except make the child feel worse.
When a baby is born they have 200 billion neurons and their brain is around 30 per cent of the size of an adult’s. Each day it grows by around one and a half grams and by the age of two it will have reached 75 per cent of its full size. During the first three years of life, around seven hundred new neural connections, or synapses, are made in the brain every single second. These connections serve as the ‘wiring’ for the brain. By the time a child is three years old they have formed over one thousand trillion synapses. These connections – formed through a combination of genetics and life experience – are of great significance to the future brain architecture and have a significant impact in adulthood. As such, the environment a child lives in, including their relationships with their main carers, can have as much influence on their brain development as genetics.
Regulating our emotions is quite a mature skill. As adults, we may be able to press the pause buttons in our brains when we are tempted to shout, swear or act violently towards somebody. If we feel anxious or scared, we may be able to talk ourselves out of our emotional discomfort by rationalising and diffusing our feelings. Children, however, do not have these skills – at least not to the same level as adults. And this difference in emotion regulation ability is the cause of a lot of stress for parents who expect their children to have the same capabilities that they do. In fact, self-regulation takes years to develop, and getting to know why your child lashes out, when you yourself are able to stay calm, should be a foundation of discipline. Sometimes, children who always shout or cry just simply cannot help it.
A good analogy for an emotional meltdown – or tantrum, if we are talking about toddlers – is to imagine a pot of water on a stove. The gas is on full and the water soon begins to boil. Soon it is boiling over, spilling down the sides of the pot. The gas is still on full, so the water continues to boil until the pot runs dry. That’s a meltdown or tantrum. Left to their own devices, perhaps in time out or on a naughty step, a child’s ‘pot’ will continue to boil over until either the source is exhausted or the child is so drained that they are ‘empty’. Some may think time out and naughty steps – or any other ‘discipline’ method where the child’s feelings and behaviour are ignored (in the false belief that this will stop it happening again) are effective. Yet how can the child learn anything, which is the true goal of discipline, if they are left to ‘boil over’ and run dry? Time out or the naughty step (which are essentially one and the same, with or without the addition of a designated step, stool or chair) rely on punishing the child’s wrongdoings by excluding them from those they love. The idea is that while they are excluded they are to consider what they have done wrong, how they made the wronged party feel and how they can behave better next time. Once they have done this and are calm, they are allowed to leave the exclusion area. It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? But most children who are socially excluded are between the ages of two and ten and neuroscience shows that at any of these ages a child is not capable of the complex thought that the discipline method requires. In order for them to analyse their behaviour and hypothesise about how they may behave in future they have to have a firm grasp of concrete thinking – or, rather, they need a good level of critical, analytical and hypothetical thought. These thought processes are all the domain of the frontal lobe of the brain, which is not mature until just before a child enters their teenage years. It is only at this point that their thought processes become more adultlike in terms of their problem-solving abilities and capacity to think critically. Without an appropriate level of neural connectivity in the frontal, thinking part of the brain a child is incapable of the thought processes demanded by time out and the naughty step. They cannot (and do not) analyse their behaviour and consider future outcomes. At best, they will sit or stand quietly because they have learned that it is the only way they are allowed to rejoin their friends and loved ones.
Understanding how children’s brains develop is one of the cornerstones of gentle discipline. Unfortunately, many of today’s most common discipline methods are not mindful of this stage in a child’s life. Effective gentle discipline should always consider the child’s current level of cognitive ability, both when looking for the cause of their behaviour and when seeking an appropriate response.
This is a small excerpt from my new discipline book. It is released under the title ‘The Gentle Discipline Book‘ in the UK and under the title ‘Gentle Discipline‘ in the USA and Canada in the summer. The book covers common tricky behaviours from babyhood right the way through to the teen years and how to cope with them in a gentle and effective way