Our children are our future, and we have the awesome responsibility of being their guardians. Parenting is also a lot of fun, if we allow it to be.
Often we feel powerless to change behaviour that we see as “bad”, or we feel frustrated at children who won’t “do what they’re told”. However, parenting is a responsibility that requires great care and patience, and none of us wants to get it wrong.
If we have the fortune or foresight to have a planned child, we have a good start. We can then think about what we are getting ourselves into before committing ourselves. What adjustments will we need to make to our lives? Who is going to look after the child, when modern society often demands that parents must work to survive?
Do we really know enough about children to take on this responsibility? And do we know enough about ourselves? Can we cope when life might seem tough already? Is there a good reason for having a child - it must never be seen as a solution to relationship problems that are already under stress, for example.
Even if a pregnancy is unplanned, we can still prepare for the future of our child, so they come into the world loved and wanted. Good planning can reduce some of the inevitable stresses of parenthood.
There are no typically good or bad parents
Good and bad parents exist in all cultures and socio-economic environments. Money, for instance, does not guarantee better parenting. It just means that the issues are sometimes different.
If a child is being neglected in an area of great poverty because parents are out of work, or if a child is being neglected in an area of great wealth because the parents are always at work, the neglect still exists. The result is likely to be the same – a child who will run off the rails.
Good parenting is not something that can be bought. Good parenting is an attitude. It is unconditionally caring for a child simply because you are responsible for that child. It is still caring when the child gets into trouble or is disobedient.
Parents sometimes blame their apparent lack of parenting skills on their environment or circumstances.
“I have to work all day and I’m tired out at night”; or “I never have the money to do anything for the kids”.
The stresses of life are undeniable, but if we want to be better parents and change life for the better for our children, then we must make the change ourselves. It is likely to be a change in us, as parents, that will bring about a change in our children.
thinking about what you are doing;
thinking about what harm you could do;
putting your child in a safe place if needed;
phoning a friend or someone you trust;
putting one some of your favourite music (preferably calming music);
thinking about joining a parenting course – it will give you lots of ideas and methods of coping;
figuring out why your child is misbehaving;
hitting a pillow if you’re still mad (out of sight of the child).
It’s not just hitting
Hitting a child as a form of discipline or to correct behaviour is not only ineffective and harmful, it is also illegal – just as it is illegal to hit another adult (see Hitting children – section 59 in this publication).
But hitting is not the only way we can harm our children. We can hurt them with words said in the heat of the moment – swearing, yelling and putting them down as people in their own right. We can also hurt them by fighting and arguing in front of them.
Research shows the effects of emotional and psychological abuse can be just as harmful and long-term as physical abuse. In such circumstances, our children grow up to believe that abuse is a means of solving problems.
Can we blame them if, when they grow older, they want to take out their frustrations with us in the same way? Many teenagers grow up to abuse their parents, but worst of all, they become adults who repeat the cycle with their children – your grandchildren.
Alternatives to hitting, yelling and put-downs
Verbal abuse and hitting might change a child’s behaviour, but it will only be through fear. They will be angry and confused themselves. Some of the side-effects for children will be:
Fear, including fear for others.
A feeling of worthlessness leading to self-criticism.
Self-blame and feeling responsible for being hurt or others being hurt.
Taking it out on others with bullying and other anti-social behaviour.
Anxiety, depression or withdrawal.
A need to act like a parent, caring for other children or parenting the parent.
Apart from the fact that the recent amendment to section 59 of the Crimes Act does not allow us to hit children, we have a responsibility to use alternatives.
The first thing we can do when we are tempted to hit a child is to stop and think about whether it is something the child is doing that makes us feel angry or upset. The sound of a child playing at the end of the day when we feel exhausted could get on our nerves, but it is not the child’s behaviour that is to blame. If we pause to think first, we might find that the child has nothing to do with how we feel.
In such cases, either deal with what is causing you to feel the way you are, or take yourself or the child out of harm’s way while you cool down.
There’s a saying in carpentry: “Measure twice, cut once.” In parenting, we might need to think twice before doing something that cannot be undone.
If we make a mistake, we must be “adult” enough to admit it and apologise to our children. They will respect us more for it and are likely to have more compassion for us when things get rough. In some cases of misbehaviour, it might even be appropriate to do nothing. We might not like what the child is doing, but if it is not hurting anyone, it might be best to ignore it.
Sometimes, children will find out for themselves that what they do is not appropriate. Behaviour can sometimes be self-correcting. If a child fails to put clothes in the laundry, for example, they have only themselves to blame when their clothes are not clean the next day.
When we do need to deal with a child’s behaviour:
Recognise that it’s OK to be angry, but focus on the behaviour, not the child.
Use positive messages, reinforcing what you want them to DO, not what you DON’T want them to do and be clear about the behaviour you want, ie: “Keep your toys in your room”, not “Don’t leave your toys lying around”.
Tell your child without yelling or screaming.
Give the message that the behaviour is bad, not the child. If you want the child to change their behaviour, you will need to provide some guidance. Tell them what they did wrong and what you expect next time.
Let them do some of the talking and listen to what they say. They might have a good reason to feel they are being picked on.
Try distraction. Give the child something else to do.
Make a game of it and take it to the absurd, ie: “If you had helped do the dishes Dad wouldn’t have hit his head on the sink and he wouldn’t have had to go to hospital and we wouldn’t have had that car crash with the prime minister and then that silly law about putting kids in jail wouldn’t have been passed in Parliament....” It’s a great way of easing the tension for both of you.
If you need to correct behaviour, try emphasising that the behaviour will have consequences, such as withdrawal of a treat or privilege. Be clear about why it is being taken away and for how long, and stick to it.
“Time out” might be a useful technique for a child who needs somewhere safe and quiet to calm down and regain control.
The Office of the Children’s Commissioner, however, says that often it is parents who need a chance to calm down and regain control while the child is in a safe place. “Time out” should be used with care, and not misused as a form of punishment.
In the booklet Choose to Hug, the Commissioner suggests “time out” should never be used:
as a punishment or threat;
for more than a few minutes at a time;
if there is nowhere safe for the child to be;
if the child is not mature enough to understand why he or she is in “time out”.
The following are important guidelines, the booklet says:
the child should never be locked in;
the child should never be restrained (forcibly put in “time out” or held down in any way);
a place that should be peaceful and safe for a child (like a bedroom) should never become associated with anger and fear;
“time out” should never be used in a way that leaves the child feeling distraught, rejected or abandoned – a small out-of-control child is very frightened and overwhelmed by their feelings;
the child should always understand that they can come back to you for reassurance when they have calmed down.
Children will not be “good” all the time, but we need to ensure they are aware of good behaviour. Be positive when you talk to your children about their behaviour.
Take time to think about what your rules and values are and then make sure your child knows them. Tell them why those rules and values are important. Don’t expect your child to follow rules that are not adequately explained.
Thank them for their efforts, even if they sometimes get things wrong.
Look for things your child is good at and comment on it. Often we fail to see the positive side of children.
Recognise that they will sometimes fail to do things right, even when they try hard. It is only a learning process, so be supportive. Never put a child down for trying.
Show an interest when good behaviour is happening. Give hugs and smiles. Save the tangible things like lollies and toys for birthdays or other special occasions.
Give children confidence in themselves by letting them make some decisions that affect them, ie: “Would you prefer the red dress or the green one today?”
It’s OK to be angry
The strategies outlined in this booklet are not designed to stop you getting angry. Anger is a natural response – a child needs to be aware that some things will make you angry and upset. It is how you manage your anger that is important.
Hitting, yelling and being abusive is not a healthy response to bad behaviour. Tell your child that you are angry, make sure they know why you are angry, and make sure they know what you expect from them in future. Direct your anger at the behaviour, not the person. It is not the child that you do not like, it is the behaviour.