According to Mentalhealth.org ‘Mental health problems affect 1 in 10 children and young people.’ As I read this statement I can’t help but think that I’m partially to blame for this statistic. I started my parenting days with advice from the likes of Super Nanny. Armed with numerous books and tools, like the naughty step and reward charts, I felt like I had this. I was in control. However, now my eldest is 16, I look back at the discipline techniques that I used and I’m mortified. For those of us who followed these disciplinary guidelines, are we responsible for stifling our children’s emotions? Have we created children that are emotionally dumb?
Last year I read The Gentle Discipline Book by Sarah Ockwell-Smith and I rather think the answer to these questions is ‘yes’. Many of the techniques she refers to, I used. Distraction, reward charts and the naughty step to name just a few. Now I find out (15 years too late) that all of these can have detrimental effects on our child’s emotional growth. These techniques rely on punishing a child’s wrongdoings by excluding them from those they love. I know, evil mummy alert! And as ever…a whole lot of guilt. However, it wasn’t published until 2017, so how was I to know.
Sarah Ockwell-Smith believes that the secret to raising co-operative, polite and helpful children is through teaching and learning, not punishment or rewarding. Children may change their behaviour temporarily but it doesn’t prompt a desire in the child to change. Take the naughty step, for example, a time-out space to ‘think’ about what you’ve done! At the age the children are, usually between 2-10, are they capable of these complex thoughts? The simple answer is ‘no’. The child is simply conditioned into learning that if they just sit quietly, the quicker they’ll be able to re-join their friends. I used this technique and loved it because it was simple, instant and I felt in control. My youngest is 8 and I aim to set boundaries and limits and enforce them, as Sarah suggests, with compassion and respect. I now try to have more humility and patience.
Distraction is another popular discipline technique, that potentially teaches a child to avoid feeling. If George wants a toy that Jack has, surely George needs to be taught that it’s ok to feel upset. If George falls over surely he needs to recognise and learn to deal with the pain and sadness, not ignore it. “Come on now, don’t cry!” The reason for this distraction method is clearly because the parent doesn’t want to feel embarrassed and cause a fuss in public. What was I thinking? It seems so obvious now.
Forever striving to be a better parent, I’m in the middle of listening to the audiobook ‘The book you wish your parents had read (and your children will be glad that you did)’ by Philippa Perry. I cling to the knowledge that just because I made mistakes it doesn’t mean that all is lost. Philippa refers to ‘Rupture and Repair’ and this is where humility comes to the forefront. If we can admit that we’ve made a mistake then we’re in with a chance.
Philippa encourages you to validate your child’s feelings. Makes sense. Now, this doesn’t mean that you have to let them have their own way all the time but teaches them that emotions are normal and healthy. If children don’t learn to identify and understand feelings how can they possibly feel mentally stable whilst growing up and how can they deal with the multitude of feelings bubbling under the surface every day.
If parents are making these mistakes could it be that schools and teachers are too? Behaviour policies are mostly designed to reward good choices and sanction poor choices. Sounds great in theory and again, control comes to mind. Teachers will feel that they have control and are able to discipline their class. But if we look at the long term, is this going to produce well-rounded members of society or robots who learn that to get by, you keep your head down, don’t speak, don’t question authority and more importantly, don’t feel. Shouldn’t we be trying to understand why children behave in certain ways? I don’t believe that a child who has had detention is going to think ‘Right, I’ve learnt my lesson. I won’t do that again.’ Maybe they’ll just start to think that they’re a bad person and start to live up to that label, self-belief and self-esteem damaged in the process.
I’ve come to the conclusion that sanctions breed hostility. I need to validate my children’s feelings, be honest about mine and define them clearly.