“What’s the Gentle Parenting stance on Santa (or Father Christmas if you’re in the UK)?”
“I’ve heard you’re not allowed to do Santa if you follow Gentle Parenting – is that true?”
I think many are confused about Gentle Parenting. It is simply a belief system that children deserve to be treated with respect and that any discipline used should be mindful of their neurological development. There is no ‘gentle parenting stance’ on Santa. Those who follow gentle parenting come from all walks of life and hold different beliefs. Some will fully embrace the Santa myth, others won’t.
TLDR: There is no Gentle Parenting stance on Santa!
One thing gentle parenting does shun is the idea of punishments and rewards. Research shows us that neither are effective discipline methods, because they both focus on extrinsically manipulating behaviour, rather than working to find the root cause of the problem and solving it. This means that, at best, rewards and bribes can only produce a temporary positive effect, but in the long run their usage can actually make behaviour worse. The same is true of punishments and threats. They presume the child is choosing to misbehave and can change their behaviour, but in most cases the child would rather they didn’t behave in such a disregulated way too. Punishments simply punish children for having a problem and don’t do anything to solve them.
Constant monitoring of behaviour and threats to tell Santa that children have been naughty/not getting any gifts is a sure fire way to lose the festive spirit and cause stress in both parents and children. What is won’t do however is improve behaviour, parents find themselves in a cycle of increasing threats and worsening behaviour, then comes the question – do they follow through with their threats and ruin Christmas for everyone? Or do they go back on them and lose what little authority they had over their children, who will quickly learn that they don’t follow through on their threats.
In addition, the idea of an ‘all seeing’ judgemental mythical being spying on children is quite trauma inducing. There’s no surprise that so many children break down in tears when they meet Santa and why so many have nightmares about ghosts, monsters and the like. How can we pretend that big brother Santa is real, while on the other hand reassuring that other creatures of the night are not?
However you try to spin it, when we lie about Santa to our children we ARE lying. It’s tricky, I understand wanting to spread joy and magic, but do we need to lie to do that? What about when our children realise we were lying? When they find out Santa isn’t real and Christmas all of a sudden loses its magic?
This is why I embraced the story of Santa and St Nicholas with my own children, we still visited Santas Grottos, we still left out mince pies and a carrot for Rudolph, we still wrote letters to Santa, we still watched all the Santa movies, the only difference is that my children knew he was just a story and they knew that we were pretending, it didn’t make it any less magical. They also knew Harry Potter, Unicorns, The Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairies were stories, but the wonder of childhood imagination meant that they still embraced the stories with joy.
To this day, my children (15, 17, 19 and 20) still indulge in the story of Santa. We still leave out a mince pie and a carrot, whoever remembers is the one to take charge and nibble them for others to find, we still visit Santa’s grottos (they were the oldest children at the one we visited last year by a good 10 years!). This isn’t a gentle parenting stance though, just my own individual belief of what’s right for my family.
p.s: For lots of Gentle Parenting mythbusting and Q&As, check out the brand new updated and revised (with two brand new chapters!) edition of ‘The Gentle Parenting Book’. Out April 23.
I’m delighted to share with you the introduction to my new book ‘Beginnings: A Guide to child psychology and development for parents of 0-5 yr olds’. If it piques your interest in the book, you can find order information at the end.
Introduction The first five years of a child’s life underpin their future personality, health and relationships. In that time – just under two thousand days – a child’s body and brain will grow and change far quicker than at any other time in their life. The way that parents and carers respond to them during these years has more of an impact on their development than anything else.
We are the architects of their lives. An exciting yet terrifying thought, isn’t it? Surprisingly, many parents and carers are unaware of what is happening in their child’s brain and how they are developing, perhaps because the relevant information is so often written in dull medical jargon, or only found in weighty textbooks.
Over the last two decades, I have been asked thousands of times if I can recommend a book about child development – one that covers the common queries about physical development, such as, ‘How does a baby learn to walk?’ as well as, ‘How do children learn to talk?’ and questions about brain development. Parents and carers want to understand what neurological stages their children are going through and how this affects their behaviour. They want to be better informed so they can help their children to blossom into confident and happy individuals who will meet their full potential. But they just don’t have the time to trawl through a three-hundred page textbook to do so. And rightly so – they have other things to do!
Beginnings was born out of a desire to fill this gap and provide parents and carers with the information that they’re desperate for, in a way that is not too technical, but not patronising either. It’s the book I wish I had read when my own four children were small – and the one I hope they will read in the future, when they have children of their own.
So what will you find in this book? We start with a chapter on life in utero, providing descriptions of how a foetus develops and grows, with an emphasis on the astounding brain development that occurs during this period. Chapters 2 to 5 divide the first year of life up into blocks of three months. There are so many incredible changes in the first year that to do justice to them, we need to break the chapters down into smaller age periods. Chapters 6 and 7 look at life from the first to the second birthday, as babyhood comes to an end and the beginnings of toddlerhood emerge. Chapter 8 considers the fascinating world of two-year-olds, while Chapter 9 deals with the development that takes place once a child turns three. Finally, Chapter 10 is a study of four-year-olds, right up to their fifth birthdays.
As you move through this book, you will notice that each chapter is broken down into the following: • Brain development – changes that take place in the brain and neurological growth • Physical development – what happens to your child’s body, including physical milestones • Feeding and eating development – your child’s relationship with food at the various stages and physical changes in their body that affect eating • Sleep development – how sleep varies at different ages, including sleep milestones and how these are affected by physical, neurological and psychological development • Social and psychological development – how your child experiences and interacts with the world around them, and their relationships with yourself and others close to them • Language development – how your child learns to communicate, including the emergence of talking and elements that influence it • Play ideas – to help your child to develop, bond with you and, most importantly, keep them entertained.
These sections will make it easier for you to skip straight to any areas of special interest or find answers to any pressing questions you may have when you don’t have time to read the whole chapter.
As well as longer descriptions of physiological and psychological development, you will also find the following throughout the book: • Neuroscience Nuggets – small, easily digestible, bites of brain science • Fun Facts – interesting and entertaining facts and figures • Anthropology Titbits – beliefs and behaviours concerning childhood from different cultures around the world and from different periods of history • Parenting Q&As – common questions that parents ask me (and my answers) • Parent Observations – real-life experience from other parents • Quotes – child-development-related quotes from wellknown figures, past and present
There is arguably nothing quite so astounding as the beginnings of a new life. If you’re interested in reading ‘Beginnings’ you can grab a copy HERE.
I was a typical sulky and moody teen, but I never did anything that caused my parents too much heartache. I never got into trouble at school, I was always home before my curfews and I was generally compliant and obedient. My mother struggled with her health throughout my childhood and I regularly assumed a caretaker role; I cooked meals and cleaned the house and usually did what was asked of me without too much fuss.
I grew up learning to hide my feelings, so as not to be a bother. I learned (incorrectly as it turns out) that through my behaviour I was directly responsible for my parents emotions. If I was ‘naughty’ they got angry – and so therefore, their happiness centred on my behaviour. When they were stressed, I learned to not add to their burden any more with my own worries. I kept my emotions to myself and I learned to be resilient, I learned that I was the only person I could trust with my feelings and I learned to not rely on others when I needed help.
Fast forward to adulthood and I fully embodied ‘The Good Girl Caretaker’ role. My whole career has centred on helping others and allowing them to unburden their feelings onto me. I became a chronic people pleaser, scared to have boundaries, taking on more and more and not stopping to consider my own needs.
Then I became a mother and the caretaking ramped up a gear. Everything I did – physically and mentally – was about caring for others. I was constantly reliving my childhood – being good and reliable and caring for others, pushing my own needs aside to do so, getting on with it and not asking for – or accepting – help.
We often mistake being ‘a good girl’ as a positive thing. So many want their daughters to be ‘good’. But it’s not positive – it is toxic. The pressure and weight of constantly burying your feelings and needs in the pursuit of caring for others eats away at you. It gets so very heavy.
What happens when you can no longer carry that weight? You explode. I would shout (and shout and shout and shout). Others get physically ill, or their mental health takes a toll.
Now – if you’re a mother too, your emotional displacement is often directed at your children (or your partner). You become a seriously uncalm mother – and because you’re a ‘good girl’ who doesn’t like upsetting others, you take your apparent failure to be a calm parent to heart – you enter a cycle of blaming yourself and believing you’re not good enough.
But here’s the thing – you ARE good enough, you always were. You just didn’t realise it because your whole life has been about how others feel. Maybe now it’s finally time to take care of yourself?
Recognising that you were (and still are) a ‘good girl’ is a powerful first step to becoming a calmer, happier, parent and, if this post speaks to you then you’re exactly the person I wrote ‘How to be a Calm Parent’ for – it’s out now. Find a local stockist HERE
Maybe see this as a sign that you deserve to be calmer and happier – not for your children, or your partner – but (finally) yourself.
How to be a Calm Parent is out now – Your guide to lose the guilt, control your anger and tame the stress – for more peaceful and enjoyable parenting and calmer, happier children too
“I just can’t take any more!”, “I’ve had it up to here with being a parent!”, “I literally don’t have the capacity to handle this”, how many times have you said something similar?
Every parent knows how it feels to be emotionally and physically wrung out, exhausted and unable to handle their children. We all know how it feels to be desperate for a break, and by a break I don’t just mean a brief week or two in the sun, but real, tangible time away from the demands of everyday life (including our children!).
I genuinely believe that parenting would be a whole lot easier if we could only admit how bloody hard it is, and how desperate we are to have some respite now and again.
Just because we may struggle with our lives and the demands placed upon us, it doesn’t mean we hate our children though and it definitely doesn’t make us a horrible person. It makes us a real person, with real needs and real limits to what we can handle at any one time.
Parenting is tough and with everything else life throws at us it can sometimes feel impossible. We must acknowledge this fact, before we can attempt make things easier.
While the physical toll of parenting is no-doubt exhausting, personally I find the mental load far more of a drain. We get to switch our bodies off for several hours at night, when we lay still in bed, or collapse on the sofa once all the children are asleep, but our minds continue whirring. Whether we’re dreaming about next week’s dinner menu, or frantically planning a last-minute World Book Day costume, once we become a parent it becomes harder and harder to switch off our thoughts.
The cruel dichotomy of Mother Nature is that the more time we allow our bodies to be still and rest, the more space we give our minds to run marathons around our head. As we grow, the free and fanciful daydreams of childhood become quickly replaced by the responsibility and demands of adulting. Parenting is adulting and then some though, because now we’re not only thinking for ourselves, but we also have the mental burden of thinking for our children – and often our partners, too.
What happens to us when we carry too much of this mental burden, alongside the very real physical demands of parenting, particularly younger children? We break. We snap. We scream, we shout, we cry. We become the antithesis of a calm parent.
The irony here is that usually it is our very attempts to be such a good parent, to ‘do it all’ for our families, that lead to our demise. Therein lies the problem, to be a calmer parent, we must learn to share the load and to carry less. To entrust some of these all-important parenting jobs to others and, sometimes, to ask for help if it is not offered. Doing everything alone, or rather attempting to, doesn’t make us a better parent, but it certainly makes us a far less calm one.
Although physical burn out, the deep-seated exhaustion that accompanies sleepless nights and the relentless physical toil of parenting, particularly in the early months, can be highly damaging, particularly when it comes to the physical toll on the body and relationship to illness and immunity, emotional burn out, can be even more damaging when it results in cynicism and connection problems with our children. Mostly importantly however, the emotional exhaustion is a major culprit behind the inability for parents to control their tempers and emotions around their children.
If we are at rock bottom emotionally, it takes very little to trigger an explosion in us. Emotional burn out is the dark side of the selflessness, self-sacrifice, and devotion to their children so common amongst parents, particularly those inspired by a more gentle, respectful style.
What is the answer to parental burn-out? Let’s start with what isn’t. Relaxation techniques are not going to resolve it, as the common stressors still remain and therefore so does the stress response. While job related burn-out can sometimes be resolved simply by leaving the role, this is clearly not an option in parenting. This is why I didn’t ‘How to be a Calm Parent’ with a focus on mindfulness, self-care and breathing techniques, as so many parenting, or self-help related books do. These can all be helpful tools, but often they are superficial, if the deeper issues are not discovered and ultimately resolved. To reduce burnout, we must work with the root cause and learn to lighten the load a little.
Want to learn more? How to be a Calm Parent is out now – Order your copy HERE
Six years ago I interviewed headteacher, Rob Dell, asking him whether he thought mainstream schooling and gentle parenting could mix (see it HERE). The article proved insanely popular, so I thought – given the huge changes that have occurred in education because of the Covid pandemic – it would be a good idea to catch up with Rob again, this time with a focus on moving forwards and helping children at school. I hope you enjoy it as much as his first interview!
Sarah: What were the biggest hurdles with virtual schooling for you, and your school, professionally during the Covid lockdowns?
Rob: The biggest hurdles were that none of us had experienced anything like this before, so we were improvising the best we could. Rosemary Works School is a small, family-feel, personable school, so the idea of remote learning was quite the challenge. We had a sense that a full lockdown was potentially on the horizon as early as February 2020, so we ordered activity books in the core subjects ahead of time ready to give out when the Government made the announcement, and we looked into how we could engage with the children on a daily basis. For the first lockdown, we settled on daily, pre-recorded online videos that our teachers sent a link to along with the activities for the day, and some project-based activities for the afternoons. We organised a timetable for our staff to care for and educate our key- workers’ children mindful that we wanted to minimise the amount of different people interacting with them. That group worked with laptops and headphones to view the same videos the teachers sent out to parents. This took a lot of organising and reassurance – another hurdle. At the time, understandably, staff and parents were anxious about covid-19. Parents transformed their homes into offices and makeshift classrooms in a very short space of time and the adjustment took some settling in. People were worried about their families contracting the virus and the isolation some felt with lockdown and, with Rosemary Works School being in London, many families had limited space both indoors and outdoors, and many worried about their children’s mental health and their own finances. We needed to create new policies to safeguard pupils and staff, especially after a few weeks of lockdown when software like Zoom and Teams were possible offerings, but we wanted to get it right to ensure we maintained, best we could, the well-being of our community. We sent out questionnaires to parents to see how they felt about our provision and made changes based on the results, and teachers and I met weekly in Zoom staff meetings to check in with each other. When the Government announced a partial reopening of schools in June 2020, we worked hard to ensure we could bring back as many children as possible based on the then guidelines of no more than 15 in a setting, bubbles, etc. By the end of the summer term, we had been able to welcome back every child to school mindful that the long summer was approaching and the need for children to return to a normal routine was essential for their wellbeing, particularly for the Year 5 pupils that could have ended their penultimate, and arguably, most important term learning remotely. The second lockdown in January 2021 was a better experience for us all. By then, we had put in place a robust structure for daily live lessons and our teachers gave plenty of opportunity for individuals to stay on a call after the lesson had ended if they needed 1-1 further support. This worked extremely well and parent surveys reflected this. We set up software and email addresses for pupils so that they could communicate with each other, upload work and receive personalised messages from their teachers. I checked in with some of the live lessons to offer a pep-talk, and we had fortnightly virtual celebration assemblies which the children tuned in to both at home and for the key workers’ children at school. Thinking on your feet and responding to the ever-changing Government guidance was professionally challenging, whilst maintaining staff, pupil and parent morale, but the team at Rosemary Works did extremely well and we were delighted to welcome everyone back to school in March 2021.
Sarah: What effects (if any) are you seeing in children now they have returned to schoolafter the Covid lockdowns and virtual schooling?
Rob: Once pupils had returned after the first lockdown, it was a challenge to motivate some of them back into a routine. They were used to the comforts of being at home and grabbing a snack or drink when they felt like it, and despite our best efforts to encourage a structured timetable to support parents and their children, it took some children a few days to assimilate. Nevertheless, they did and they were grateful to reintegrate back into bubbles within school. The second lockdown return went remarkably smoothly. We had devised and implemented a ‘recovery curriculum’ to ease children back, and it was only as the term went on that we realised that one or two pupils displayed inexplicably out of character behaviour which I put down to the turbulence of the past year. Missing grandparents, holidays and structure created an aftershock, and, with our PSHE lead, we increased the importance of maintaining well-being best we could by focusing on the more social aspects of being back in school with friends and colleagues. Introducing activities like Niksen was invaluable to the overall recovery and return to the new normal. We also looked closely at pupil progress, especially among the children with SEN. After a round of assessments, we were delighted to learn, having analysed the results, that no children at Rosemary Works regressed, stopped or slowed down making progress academically. A testament to the incredible efforts of our teaching team and to the resilience of our pupils (and parents!).
Sarah: Do you think enough is being done to help children with their mental health since the start of the pandemic?
Rob: Good schools, such as ours, would have placed a greater emphasis on the well-being of children since the start of the pandemic, and it was always my endeavour to ensure that safeguarding them was our highest priority. It was an uncertain time for adults, so one can imagine that for children, it was disorientating, frightening at times, and a break to routine which all children need in order to feel safe. I had heard of some schools that offered limited support from the start of the pandemic, whether it be opportunities for children to effectively learn at home or wellbeing support. It takes a lot of organising, cooperation from staff and from families to make it work, but I understand that without good broadband and a laptop, some families and schools would have been at a disadvantage.
Sarah: Do you have any special programmes or measures in place to help the children in your school since they returned after lockdowns?
Rob: In addition to the recovery curriculum, which placed a greater emphasis on reintegrating our pupils socially and offering opportunities to talk about their experiences or use our ‘worry monsters’ (which are soft toys that live in classrooms where pupils can insert messages which the teacher reads periodically and talks about in general terms with their classes), we also reintroduced fortnightly mindfulness sessions with our amazing teacher Jyotismati, we increased sporting provision both in school with a specialist team and out and about at Shoreditch Park and we offered extracurricular clubs (within bubbles) like karate, cook school and booster club. We also reintroduced Conversation Café – a chance for children to enjoy a hot chocolate, some toast and to use our cue cards to converse with someone in their bubble that they’ve not had the chance to get to know. These were invaluable and we continue to use them now.
Sarah: Do you see any benefits in virtual schooling?
Rob: Given the choice to return to home schooling, I’d rather not, however there were a few benefits to home schooling dependent on individuals’ circumstances. Essentially, if parents were able to successfully juggle their busy workload, home-schooling, managing the household, etc. and had the time to spend with their children that they normally wouldn’t have had to bake, play, take long walks, etc. then these were invaluable, unforgettable benefits. However, there was a lot of unavoidable screen time. We made the decision to offer two hours a day for children in Years 1 to 6 to engage in English and Maths lessons plus one lesson in the afternoon, but we also actively encouraged them to do activities away from their laptops. So, the quality of project-based work I saw was exceptional, again, when parents could afford the time to support their children. There were some outstanding movies that some children made, amazing science experiments, sculptures, recipes – in fact a great deal of wonderful work. Overall, a return to virtual schooling would not be my preferred route should there be a potential return to lockdown. Zoom meetings will never offer the same qualities as person-to- person interaction. When in school, teachers are brilliant at ‘reading the room’, adjusting pupils lessons and approaches according to the general feeling and instinct that goes with class teaching supported by their teaching assistants and by each other. Is there anything you learned as a (head) teacher during the pandemic that has/will improve your practice in the future? The main thing I’ve learnt is that the partnership between school and home plays a vital role in the development and healthy progress of children as seen first-hand during the lockdowns. Should there be another lockdown, I would continue to take the views of parents and staff to ensure we adapt our curriculum and provision to ensure we maximise the opportunity, and I’d consider it just that. An opportunity.
Sarah: What do you think about the ‘zero tolerance’ school behaviour approach that the new Government’s Social Mobility Commissioner Katharine Birbalsingh and the ‘Behaviour Tsar’ Tom Bennet advocate for? Do you think this is the right approach to take to ‘fix’ the UK’s education system?
Rob: Behaviour management is a very subjective topic and it should be personalised to the school setting, its demographic and the ethos the school imbeds. Zero tolerance should be adopted by all schools but the handling of this should be carefully considered. At Rosemary Works School, we have a robust behaviour policy, clear indicators with a display in our classrooms of the ‘three strike rule’ and our expectations are crystal clear and foster mutual respect between adults and children. Mutual respect is the important point here. Adults speak to and treat pupils with respect so as to expect it back. We are all called by our first names and reject the ‘us and them’ approach. ‘Bad behaviour’ is dealt with under the assumption that the individual needs help. Putting aside ‘persistent bad behaviour’ for now, we believe in dealing with contraventions to our school aims in a supportive way by talking through the issue and expecting pupils to realise for themselves what went wrong and, with our guidance, how to put things in place to rectify the matter in hand. This is highly effective and I rarely see children ‘reoffend’. However, with pupils that show persistent bad behaviour, we look deeper into why this might be happening, involving families for additional support and sometimes healthcare professionals. Punishments like detention or missing play are counterproductive and in my professional experience over the past 26 years, I’ve never had a pupil reflect on their behaviour as a result of missing out the invaluable free outdoor time or Golden Time they sorely needed. They simply resent the fact that they’ve missed out and cannot see beyond that. That said, if there has been concerning behaviour, I might well use some of their break time to talk it through – partly to send a message to others that we have taken it seriously and there is a consequence and also to ensure they have the best opportunity in the next lesson to focus and do their best. Schools need to afford the time to explore the reasons for bad behaviour by digging deeper into the cause. They should celebrate good behaviour and know what expected behaviour looks like. Having displays in the classroom of individuals’ behaviour is potentially damaging and, again, counterproductive as is offering stickers for expected or good behaviour. What I’ve learnt at Rosemary Works is that children respond very well to visiting my office with their excellent work or effort in another one of the school’s aims and being effusively complemented by me. I’ll take a photo of them and send it to their parents. The draconian approach to zero tolerance is a wholesale regime of crowd control and, in my opinion, it fails to tackle the route of bad behaviour. To invest in an individual takes a lot of time and effort, but the long-term benefits outweigh the short-term ‘bandage’ of detention or missing out on a valuable lesson.
Sarah: What do you think schools, with limited funding and resources, could be doing to support children more holistically?
Rob: It’s a difficult one, but from what I’ve seen in other schools, the relentless machine of academic achievement and ‘success’ as a school culture could be reconsidered. Rosemary Works achieves incredibly good results that sometimes match and often beat both local state and independent schools but with a more measured approach to achievement mindful of the fact that in order to get the best out of children, sometimes it’s wise to slow down and take stock. I mentioned Niksen earlier which is the principle of doing nothing and being bored. We’ve known for some time that children develop great ideas and creativity when bored, but we now live in an overstimulated world. Children are overscheduled and many participate in activities beyond the offerings that I had of weekly cubs back in the day. Moreover, some parents feel the need to stimulate children when they say they’re bored. As an example, in restaurants, there are menus for children to occupy the wait by colouring in and one often sees children watching or playing on their tablets or parent’s phone. Niksen is a few minutes at any time of the day or week to stop, take a short walk and quietly watch the world go by – the contrails in the sky, people-watching, making daisy chains, etc. I have observed that pupils who have had some Niksen time are able to concentrate much better during lesson times because they’ve had this opportunity. In turn, the quality of education, when it matters, improves. This costs nothing, so there is no reason why all schools shouldn’t take this or a similar approach to consider the speed with which children are expected to learn. In addition, we created two new areas of the curriculum that we believed would best meet the needs of 2020s children. Enterprise and Global Awareness Studies. Enterprise is reserving a block of time or weekly sessions to learn about money, goods and services, commerce and how to make money. Children instinctively love these aspects and it underpins the maths curriculum and PSHE brilliantly. Our aim is that when pupils make a profit, they donate the proceeds to one of our local charities. Global Awareness Studies focuses on some aspects that we believe are missing from the national curriculum. We believe that children should know more about the world, ecological matters (i.e., the Global Goals) and we take an unconscious bias approach to literature, the arts and how we speak. These, too, have cost nothing. It’s important for schools to be responsive and be mindful of the needs of modern children and their responsibilities for a more sustainable future.
Sarah: How did you cope personally with the lockdowns, work and having three children of your own to (help) educate?
Rob: It was an extraordinary time. Reinventing the education system practically overnight was a huge challenge but one that I relished. Let’s face it, one doesn’t go into education expecting any day to be the same! Fortunately for me, I came into school one or two days a week during lockdown to support the staff and key workers’ children, and I had three or four days working at home. My wife (a very experienced and talented teacher) was able to support our three academically and with art projects, and I was responsible for movie-making, music, long walks and most of the meals! At times, it was stressful – the never knowing what to expect next was exciting, but also required me to think on my feet and have many discussions with the senior management team, staff and parents to ensure we maintained the best possible provision. I miss certain aspects of it – the additional time at home with my family when I could afford the time to have fun (which in hindsight I would have made more of), and I had first-hand experience of the juggling act so I had full empathy for parents who also had a wobbly, spinning plate from time to time and was well qualified to offer support best I could.
Rob Dell is the father of three children (two at secondary and one at primary school) and is passionate about education and making a positive difference to the lives of children. He has a BEd in Education and has worked in primary schools since 1994. For ten years he worked in an Inner-London school as a class teacher, then spent five years in the first academy which opened in Bexley, where he became head of teaching and learning, then deputy head, then head teacher. The opportunity arose to become head teacher of a small independent school in Hackney and, having worked in state education and academies, he was keen to see how independent education worked. Since 2009 Rob has enjoyed developing the school to be a truly wonderful place to be both for children and adults alike. He has pioneered some innovative approaches to learning and is very proud of the achievements of his staff and, principally, the children.
Come and meet Sarah and Rob, at a special evening to discuss publication of ‘How to be a Calm Parent’ – for more information, or to book a ticket click the image below.
You may feel like the only one in the world struggling, but I promise you EVERY parent experiences times when they struggle. I have had more difficult days than I can remember, something that seems to surprise people when they speak with me. Regardless of my job, I’m not immune to the stresses and strains of parenting. I’m human just like you and I have inherited a short fuse from my own mother. Add to this the stresses and strains of everyday life and the problems and challenges it brings, alongside having to parent in a society that is not at all supportive of parents and you have a perfect recipe for burnout.
It’s not your fault that you lose it at times. It’s not your fault you don’t love every minute of parenting and it’s not your fault that sometimes, you wonder how you’re going to make it through the day. Parenting is bloody hard.
So, what can you do if you’re having a hell of a day (or week – or more)? How do you get through the day when you feel you have nothing more to give? Give these tips a try:
1. Start with accepting your limitations.
You cannot do everything and be everything. Stop trying to be superhuman. Be kind to yourself and know that you are doing your best and that is good enough. Try to avoid comparison, or temptations to try to be perfect.
2. Set boundaries.
Learn to say “no” (it doesn’t make you rude, or make people hate you, I promise!). It’s time to prioritise your own wellbeing if you’re feeling so wrung out you don’t know how to go on. You can only do that when you put your needs as close to first as possible.
3. Reset your expectations.
Often, when we’re struggling with parenting, it’s because we’re expecting something of our children that is developmentally inappropriate. If you’re trying to get your baby to sleep through the night, your toddler to stop tantruming, your four-year-old to have impeccable table manners, or your tween to stop back-chatting, you are wasting your time. You are doomed to failure – why? Because what you’re expecting of them is not in line with their physical or neurological capabilities. Your will always feel like a failure and be overwhelmed with frustration when your attempts go awry repeatedly. The thing is, it’s not you, it’s not your child – rather it’s your expectations that are problematic. Understanding what behaviour is age appropriate is incredibly freeing.
4. Let go of some control.
You don’t need to uphold every boundary you ever think of with your children and it’s OK to be flexible with them if you need to. For instance, if you’re feeling exhausted and you would normally cap screen time at an hour, it really isn’t problematic to let it go on for an extra hour or two, if that time gives you some much needed rest. What can you do to make things a little easier for yourself right now?
5. If you feel the need to shout – go out!
I’m a huge fan of the healing properties of nature. Whatever the weather, put some appropriate clothing on you all and get outside. Go for a walk, jump in puddles, hit the local playground, or beach. Getting moving and getting outside helps to release endorphins and will help you all to be calmer.
6. Switch off the parenting advice.
Yes, this is incredibly ironic coming from me – but I find when parents are really struggling, they bury themselves in parenting advice. Out come the books, the videos, the discussion forums – begging for answers. But, actually, the more you rely on external experts (even me!), the more you disempower yourself and experience ‘over-analysis paralysis’. If you’re really struggling, my best suggestion is to ignore it all (yes, even me again!) – watch a funny movie instead of a parenting video. Read a great fiction book instead of a parenting book and stay well clear of social media (unless it’s catching up with friends and family who make you feel happy and valued).
7. Check the basics: Sleep, diet, and exercise.
This is a catch twenty-two, isn’t it? When we’re feeling rough, we tend to neglect ourselves. Our sleep goes to pot, we feel too lethargic to exercise and we tend to reach for the sugar and processed carbs. Trying to focus on getting these back on track a little can really help. Get moving, it doesn’t have to be an expensive class there are plenty of freebies online, check your essential nutrients (top of my list when I’m struggling with my mental health are B vitamins, sleep wise I’m extra aware of magnesium and if you’re feeling really wrung out physically keep an eye on your iron levels).
8. Find some support.
Do you have a good friend? relative? partner? or someone else you can offload to? What about an online support group (that makes you feel good about your parenting?), or a local group you can attend? If not, consider calling a national charity helpline (such as Samaritans). Having somebody to speak to and offload can really make an enormous difference.
More than anything else though – know you are not alone and, most importantly, know that ALL parents lose it at times, what matters most is how you repair any rupture with your children afterwards. Take some time to calm down, regroup and collect yourself and then apologise and reconnect. It’s not slipping up that’s the problem – it’s what happens afterwards that matters the most.
….and, if you’re reading this article, I’m pretty certain that you’re already a GREAT parent!
For lots more tips on understanding your emotions and actions as a parent – and how to be calmer -check out ‘How to be a Calm Parent’
This article is a little excerpt from my latest book ‘How to be a Calm Parent’:
The older I’ve become, the less keen I am on the use of rules, but I think it’s important to set the scene and simplify a little here. Throughout this book I will discuss many things that impact on our state of mind and actions as parents. I think it’s important to take a holistic view and to ask WHY we struggle to be calm before we even begin to think about what we can do to be calmer. The answer to the ‘why am I like this?’ question is anything but simple and straightforward. I do however believe that having a few, simple, guidelines to start with makes the process to becoming calm easier, hence here are my top seven rules:
1. Everybody can be a calmer parent. It doesn’t take any special personality traits. Privilege does inevitably mean that life is sadly infinitely easier for some, but we can all do some work and make some changes, regardless of our life situations, that will have a positive impact (although I do accept that lack of privileges can and will limit the changes possible)
2. Everybody loses it at times. Nobody is calm 100% of the time – nobody should aim to be. We must lower the bar when it comes to expectations of what we can achieve, and we must not compare our ‘inner selves’ (our inner most thoughts and feelings) with the ‘outer selves’ (the carefully curated illusion) of others. You’re not alone. All parents act in ways they’re ashamed of. Everybody has to try hard to hold it together. Losing your temper doesn’t mean you’re not good enough or are lacking willpower and it definitely doesn’t make you a worse parent than somebody else.
3. It is not your fault that you aren’t a calm parent. Read that again and stop blaming yourself. Parents carry such a burden of guilt and instantly blame themselves when they get angry and short-tempered with their children. But it isn’t your fault, we are who we are due to the way we were raised as children, due to the situations we find ourselves in, and the relationships we have with others. Don’t think “what’s wrong with me?”. Instead see yourself as a combination of things that have happened to you and the environment you are in – you are not flawed. The good news is you can assert some control over how you process these experiences and the hold they have on you in the future.
4. You are still going to have lots of big feelings. You are not aiming to get rid of the big feelings, just to cope with them in a healthier way. You will still feel anger, frustration, worry and disappointment, in both yourself and your children and that’s OK. All feelings are OK. In short, the key to being calmer is allowing and accepting these big feelings and turning reactivity into responsivity. Putting a space between your child’s actions, your feelings, and your response. Becoming calmer is about self-awareness, self-acceptance, and self-forgiveness, not trying to turn yourself into some sort of emotionally devoid robot.
5. Messing up doesn’t undo all the good you’ve done before. A bad day is simply that, a bad day. It does not make you a bad person, or a failure. Even if that day stretches into weeks, months, or years. It doesn’t undo the work you have previously put in to becoming calmer or cancel out the good days. It also doesn’t have any impact on what you can achieve in the future. The road to calmer parenting is full of ups and downs, you will mess up, you will feel like you’ve taken a million steps back some days, but you just need to keep going and accept the topsy turvy progress route. Real life is messy and so is real change.
6. The journey to becoming calmer takes time. Make sure your goals are realistic, you’re not going to change overnight, or even in a month or two. You are going to be a work in progress for pretty much the rest of your life and that’s OK, because even a tiny change is still a change! Although it may sound terribly cliched to say, a thousand tiny steps will get you further than one giant leap. Commitment and consistency are key; repeated small changes are better than one-off attempts at enormous change.
7. You will not screw up your child when you ‘lose it’. This is maybe the most important rule to really and truly assimilate because the guilt we carry with us when we screw up, can have such a damaging effect on our future attempts. Children are resilient, our mistakes as parents actually help them to grow. What matters more, is how you heal any rift that happens afterwards. Later in this book I will talk about the ‘rupture and repair’ cycle, or as I prefer to call it ‘holler and heal’. Knowing how to heal any hurt caused during our inevitable ‘uncalm’ moments is part of the foundation of calmer parenting. So too is learning to palliate any feelings of inadequacy and guilt that accompany them, to turn them into something productive instead.
Did you enjoy this excerpt? How to Be a Calm Parent is part self-help book, part parenting book; aimed at parents who know that they need to be calmer to raise well adjusted, happy children, but who struggle with their own emotions and stress levels.
‘How to be a Calm Parent’ is out now.
You can order HERE in the UK and HERE in the rest of the world.
This article is a little excerpt from my book: ‘How to be a Calm Parent’:
Time and time again I come across parents who feel that they are failing their children because they have flaws. They believe that if they are not always ready and able to meet their child’s needs, then they are not good enough. Each failure, whether small or large and however frequent or infrequent, is deemed an indication that they can never meet up to the high expectations they hold for themselves. Many parents live in a perpetual and tortuous cycle of shame, guilt, and regret, all because they uphold the unobtainable goal of parenting perfection. If there is one trait that holds us back from becoming calmer parents, it is surely perfectionism.
The sad reality is that those who focus on perfectionism are undoubtedly good parents, because they are so desperate to better themselves for the sake of their children, but that same perfectionism can also be their undoing. Perfection is nothing but an illusion, but when it comes to parenting, perfect seems to be the goal to aim for. If what we are aiming for is an illusion, we are all doomed to fail, yet the quest for perfection is rooted in the desperate desire to avoid failure. Thus, we enter a vicious circle of expectations and aims set too high, leading to unavoidable failure, leading to guilt, depression and dented self-esteem and confidence, causing us to once again assess our parenting skills and aim for the fallacy of perfect, each time driving our psyche down a little more, that nagging voice in our head whispering, “you’re just not good enough”. It is a toxic, debilitating, cycle that we must break if we hope to be calmer.
What underlies perfectionism?
A large majority of our behaviour as parents is rooted in our own childhood and the way we ourselves were raised, as well as the relationships and interactions we had with our parents and caregivers. The origins of perfectionism are no exception to the rule here and it is highly likely that your perfectionist behaviour is rooted in your past.
It isn’t just our upbringing that leaves us vulnerable to perfectionism though, we live in a consumerist society that preys on our, perceived or real, imperfections and insecurities to sell things. If we all accepted our unique flaws and had confidence in our abilities, looks and lives in general, we would be much harder to sell to, in fact we would be a marketer’s nightmare. It is much easier to sell a product, or an idea, to an audience who feel insecure, who are constantly looking for that holy grail to reach the pinnacle of perfection. For this reason, then, most advertising is designed to undermine our self-esteem and contentment and we voluntarily surround ourselves with these toxic messages constantly.
What else feeds into our desire to be perfect parents?
Here we only must look at the value, or rather lack of it, attached to child raising today. Childcare isn’t valued, by society and especially not by our Governments. Those who work in the childcare industry are sorely underpaid and their choice of career is often deemed one for those who are unable to achieve higher paid, more intellectual, or qualified work. If you choose to be a stay-at-home parent, the media considers you to be lazy and a leech on society if you accept any state financial help. I can’t tell you how many stay-at-home parents I have met who have introduced themselves as “just a mum”, or “just a dad”, if asked what their job is. It’s almost as if we feel that we must apologise for not contributing to national productivity and the public purse. Raising a tiny human, although possibly the hardest and most complex job there is in the world, is considered as an easy, work-shy, choice. This lack of societal value attached to child-rearing, leaves us with the subconscious belief that we must somehow be perfect at it, to prove to the naysayers wrong and prove to ourselves that we are ‘worth it’.
As parents, it is imperative that we learn to fail with grace. We must learn that our failures are not just OK, but debatably more valuable than our parenting successes, because it is failure that is ultimately the precursor to learning and achievement, for both parent and child.
Why ‘Good Enough’ Should be Your New Goal
Sadly, the idea of ‘good enough’ is often associated with subpar parenting in our culture today. For some it is used as an excuse for repeatedly prioritising their own needs over those of their children, rather than a more balanced approach where both needs are equally considered. However, ‘good enough’ is not the same as ‘poor parenting’, it is not subpar, indeed it carries benefits that – if it were a real thing – ‘perfect parenting’ doesn’t have. We must let go of the fallacy of the perfect parent, or ‘the Nirvana parent’. Instead, we must be prepared to welcome failure, to make peace with it and to view it as a learning and grounding opportunity, because failure is unavoidable in parenting. We must raise our children to be ‘good enough’, so that they don’t carry with them our perfectionism.
Did you enjoy this excerpt? How to Be a Calm Parent is part self-help book, part parenting book; aimed at parents who know that they need to be calmer to raise well adjusted, happy children, but who struggle with their own emotions and stress levels.
‘How to be a Calm Parent’ is out now
You can order HERE in the UK and HERE in the rest of the world.
From an evolutionary perspective, fears and anxieties surrounding being left alone at night are entirely normal and actually important. This innate fear would have kept our offspring safe, at a time when they would have been most at risk if left alone. While life has changed immeasurably as our species has evolved, this natural fear has not moved with the times. We know our children are safe from predators, warm, dry and comfortable tucked up in their beds at night and so do our children, when you hold a rational conversation with them that is. Their instincts and psyche often says otherwise though.
Fear of the dark is perhaps the most common fear in childhood (and a fear that many adults still possess – it’s estimated that around 10% of adults suffer from Nyctophobia – fear of the dark), it’s believed that the fear stems not from imagining monsters lurking in the dark – but from the fear of not being able to see what is around you, i.e: a lack of sensory input, which can leave children (and adults) struggling with the lack of awareness of their environment. Once again, this makes huge sense if you think of the fear in evolutionary terms. If you have a child who is anxious about going to bed, or being left alone overnight, my top recommendation is to always add a nightlight to their bedroom, to be left on all night (do make sure it gives off red light though – see HERE for why). I would also recommend adding plug in red nightlights in any hallways outside of their bedroom too, even if their bedroom door is closed, the thought of a dark hallway lurking the other side of the door can be problematic.
If the cause of your child’s nighttime anxiety seems less obvious, my recommendation would always be to look to the daytimes for the cause. This may seem illogical, after all – if the anxiety only presents, or is much stronger, at night – why would you look to the daytime as the source of anxiety? Quite simply, nights allow children to ponder more on their fears and worries, without the hustle and bustle and busyness of the day and daytime anxiety often manifests the most at night. If you think of a time when you yourself have been incredibly anxious about something, I would wager that the anxiety seems stronger at night, when you get into bed and have nothing else to focus on but the thoughts in your head. If the daytime anxiety is also linked to separation from you in some way (perhaps starting daycare or school, a new sibling arriving, or a divorce or separation where the child is physically separated from you while with their other parent for example), then the impact at night is likely to be stronger, not just because of the above reason – but it is also amplified because a further separation from you is enforced at night, when you sleep in separate rooms. The best way forward here is to focus on the underlying anxiety and ways to help your child to be calmer and more confident in the daytime (if you have a 7 year old or older, this is covered lots in my new BETWEEN book), the happier and more relaxed they feel in the day, the more likely they are to relax at night.
If your child is scared of being separated from you at night for whatever reason, the simplest and most effective solution here is not to try to encourage the separation through a convoluted series of rewards, praise, leaving them alone for increasing amounts of time, or moving chairs away from their bed and the like, but to embrace their need for you and allow them the connection with you that they so desperately need. If it’s possible space wise, move them into your room temporarily, or move into theirs for a while. Stay with them while they fall asleep and if you do need to leave, reassure them you will be back as soon as they need you. Meeting a child’s need for connection is really the best way to help them to feel confident alone, you don’t make separation anxiety worse by staying with the child, on the contrary, you make them feel more confident when the separation is reduced. If you do want to slowly move towards your child settling more independently at bedtime (or overnight), then trying my pop in, pop out, or bedtime buddy idea in THIS article can help. I would also make sure that bedtime is not too early for the child. Very often parents try to get their children to go to sleep at a time that is not suited to their chronotype – simply, if you’re trying to get your child to sleep before their body is ready, then they are going to struggle to not only get to sleep, but stay asleep, too. If your child is three years or older, then I would aim for sleep onset to be between 8 and 9pm at night (with their bedtime routine starting around 45 minutes earlier).
Finally, make sure your child has tools to help them with their anxiety, the bedtime buddy idea I mentioned previously helps here, but also look into using audiobooks, sleep relaxation recordings (you can find mine on Amazon, iTunes, Apple Music, Spotify) and relaxing sleep inducing music. Teaching children some simple breathing techniques (e,g: imagine their belly as a big colourful balloon filling up with air as they slowly inhale to a count of 4, and then slowly deflating as they exhale to a count of 8) and some grounding techniques (such as ‘I Spy Senses’ – where they play a game with themselves focusing on one thing they can hear, one thing they can smell, one thing they can touch/feel and one thing they can see) can really help too. It also helps here to have a conversation about anything that may be worrying or scaring them, such as something they have seen on TV, or heard other children talking about and helping them to differentiate between fantasy and reality and knowing what things exist and what things only exist in our minds and imaginations. Above all though, make sure your child knows that they can always talk to you about their fears, safe in the knowledge that you won’t ever belittle or ridicule them.
Ultimately, the biggest solution to nighttime anxiety is time, fears, nightmares and separation anxiety are all outgrown as children get older (well – aside from the 10% of adults still scared of the dark that is!). Rest safe in the knowledge that, like most other parenting dilemmas, this is something that will pass given time.
Shyness is often seen as an undesirable trait in our society, especially in children. I was a shy child, in fact I’m a shy adult. I spent hours as a child waiting on the sidelines, looking in at others socialising with ease, wondering what it would be like to be them. As an adult I still struggle in social situations, but now I realise that my shyness is not a flaw. I’m an introvert and proud!
So, what can you do if you have a shy child, or suspect that you are raising an introvert – to help them to embrace, not feel embarrassed about, who they are? Here are my top ten tips:
1. Don’t view shyness as a personality flaw. Most shy children are simply introverts and introversion is not a problem that needs to be fixed. Instead, it is much easier – and far more healthy for the child – to accept their personality and see the positives (introverts often possess heightened empathy and intuition, great imagination and an analytical mind. Introverts also tend to make great listeners and often have a great deal of focus as they grow).
2. Understand attachment theory. In order to feel safe to explore the world and everybody in it, children first need a strong attachment to primary caregivers who act as their secure base. A place that they can return to when the world gets too much, somebody to make them feel safe and supported, to diffuse anxiety and to give them the boost that they need to go out and explore once again. A shy child who ‘clings’ to their parents is doing exactly what they need to do to recharge and build the security that they need to branch out into the world.
3. Acknowledge that you cannot force the shyness out by pushing the child to do things that they don’t want to do. Forcing (however well meant) a shy child to go and speak to others, join in with play, order their own food, or pay in a shop, will not make them less shy. Flooding them with exposure will instead likely make things worse, increasing any social anxiety. Give the child opportunities to branch out on their own if they feel confident enough to do so, but be there to support them (and never pressure) if things don’t feel right.
4. Focus praise on effort, not outcome, especially in social situations. Instead of clapping and cheering when they do manage to speak to somebody, or put themselves in the spotlight, focus instead on the tiny moments where they were brave, regardless of whether they ‘succeeded’ or not. The time they put their hand up when somebody asked a question, but put it down again before they were chosen to answer is just as valuable – if not more so – than the time they stood up and spoke in front of a room full of people.
5. Make sure that they know that you love them unconditionally and that you’re proud of them, no matter how they socialise with others. Shy children can struggle with their self-esteem, so need to know that you think they are wonderful as often as possible. Explain the difference between introverts and extroverts to them and help them to understand that there are all types of personalities in the world and that none of them are wrong or undesirable.
6. Stand up for them and speak out if others tease or berate them for their shyness. The next time a stranger says “what’s the matter with you? Are you shy?” – say “s/he just doesn’t feel like speaking right now, we all have days like that” and move on. Those small moments when your child feels understood and protected by you will make a huge difference in the future.
7. Be mindful of social situations and how your child will cope in them, but don’t hold them back because of your own anxieties and fears. If your child indicates that they would like to go to a group, or an event, then embrace their wish, regardless of any concerns you may have about how they will cope socially. They could very well prove you wrong!
8. Help your child with some stress and anxiety management techniques, so that they have something to help them to cope if/when they find themselves in unavoidable anxiety inducing situations. A simple breathing technique, visualisation, or fiddle toy (even just a hair band on their wrist to twiddle) can really help.
9. Build some quiet time into your child’s schedule. Introverts need time away from others to offload and recharge. Don’t be tempted to fill up all of the weekend, or summer holidays with busy activities and play dates, allow some days to have free time at home, with plenty of opportunities for art, music, reading and writing and all important solitude.
10. Don’t swoop in and rescue them immediately. It can be tempting to hover and helicopter parent a shy, or introverted, child, but while you should absolutely be there, ready and waiting, to help and support on the sidelines, you should allow your child time to experience and resolve things on their own before swooping in to fix things for them – they may just surprise you!
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