***this one gets an official 'long, go and get yourself a cup of tea' warning***
I've read a lot of parenting books in the last few years. Maybe you haven't - I guess you don't need to, since your kids are always perfect and all - but I'm unable to take any kind of decision or come to any kind of opinion without donating a large chunk of change to Amazon. (And now I have a kindle. I can order books on the bus. This might get messy). So yeah, I've read a lot of parenting books. I considered photographing our parenting bookshelf to illustrate, but which one to choose? There are three. Anyway. Here's the thing about parenting books. After buying about fifty, I've finally realised - I hate them.
I didn't always hate them, and I don't hate every one. I'm just in a very specific hating-the-books point in my life because the thing I'm perpetually looking up is Toddlers, specifically behaviour, the management of, specifically tantrums, how to deal with, specifically how to stop the neighbours calling social services.
Turns out there is a lot of really unhelpful stuff out there. For books that espouse such different stuff, they all feel weirdly the same. They all seem to merge into one - let's call it The WonderMethod - written by a man called Dr Wonderful. So here's what I hate about that.
I hate the self-congratulatory stories about other people's kids . These go like this: A woman, let's call her Mrs A, came to me and she said 'oh, Dr Wonderful, my child is totally out of control. I'm at my wits' end! Whatever can I do?' I observed the A family for ten minutes in my office and dispensed sage advice. Later that day Mrs A called me back and said 'Dr Wonderful, our problems are solved and it's all because of you! You really ARE wonderful!'. That was eighteen years ago. Baby A is now at Harvard.
I also hate the stories where they use stories about their own kids to prove what mad discipline skilz they have. These are the ones that go Mrs Wonderful, the Wonderkids and I were at the beach. Wonderboy wanted to take his baby sister, Wondergirl, swimming. Mrs Wonderful said no and Wonderboy got upset. Gently and calmly, I told him that he had two choices. He could play on the sand with his baby sister or he could go swimming with me. Immediately, he dried his tears and said "Gee, WonderDad! Those two choices are BOTH wonderful. I'll go swimming with you now, then play with Wondergirl later'. That was eighteen years ago. Wonderboy is now at Harvard.
But maybe the stories that annoy me most are the ones about other people, you know, the ones who don't use the WonderMethod. These stories generally imply that parenting in any other way is some kind of Faustian pact, a foolish sacrifice of your child's lifelong happiness and security (and, if it's a Christian book, their entire spiritual life too). These stories go like this: Some friends of mine, let's call them Mr and Mrs B, had a baby. They claimed to love and care for their child, but their words were proved false when they chose not to use the WonderMethod. That was eighteen years ago. Baby B is now in jail.
Of course, if you're a Christian and / or an adoptive parent, there are two extra layers of that the books throw at you - and the worst part is that these two layers of advice often seem perpendicular to each other.
The adoption books: A family, let's call them Mr and Mrs C, adopted a child. They didn't understand that their child never actually did anything wrong, she was just processing her grief. Once they began to validate her emotions and only ever do time-ins, she blossomed and her behaviour was never an issue, ever again. That was eighteen years ago. Little C is now so emotionally healthy that she leads the student counselling team. At Harvard.
The Christian books: Once there was a family, the D family, who did time-ins with their child. That was eighteen years ago. Baby D is now an atheist.
Another bugbear: most of these people have clearly forgotten what it is like to actually have children in the house. Even better - many of them seem to be men who have the gall to write books about how to do day-to-day discipline when they clearly spent their children's entire childhoods out of the house and at the office. Even if the office was a child psychologist's office, how is this not like taking parenting advice from Don Draper?
|I think she should go on the naughty step|
Someone who was always off being Dr Wonderful and never at home might know all there is to know about the amygdala but is very unlikely to really get what it is like to scrape jam off the cat for the third time in one day. I suspect there might be some kind of equation linking how smug authors are about parenting to the number of hours they actually spent parenting per week and how many years ago it occurred. But that's just a theory.
This is nearly the last, I promise - It also drives me crazy how these books assume that you only have one child to take care of. This is almost universal. Oh, yeah, and you certainly don't have to ever do the dishes or make dinner. The assumption is that you can always focus on whatever your child needs to help them be the emotionally healthy well behaved toddler that they really are on the inside. Sibling rivalry usually gets a short chapter towards the end and other than that it's assumed there is nothing - nothing - in your life that you might have to do other than plan and execute fun-filled activities to do with your munchkin. Which is fine, because that is totally my life. Yeah.
Oh yeah! (This really is the last one, I promise) - I also hate it when books give the impression that there is some magical way of disciplining children that they are actually going to enjoy. I'm particularly bitter about this one because I keep falling for it, even though I should know better. I keep kidding myself that if I just try hard enough, if I just read the right book, I will find a way to make my children like being disciplined. I want my story to go like this: A woman, let's call her Claudia, because it's me, parented her children with such love and grace that they never questioned her authority or threw pasta at her. If it ever happened that they
were naughty made poor choices, they would come and ask that she guide them back onto the way of happiness. That was eighteen years ago. Pink and Blue are now at Harvard. Whereas of course the child is not really supposed to like whatever the sanction is. Sometimes I lose sight of the fact that this is kind of the whole point. I don't think there's really any such thing as toddler parenting by mutual consent because toddlers have pretty much no idea from one minute to the next what they need or what is good for them. But sometimes I forget this and I want it to be easy. I want to find the magic button, even though I know full well there is no magic button.
I know the mentally healthy thing to do is to ignore all of the advice. I shouldn't let it bother me. But I can't ignore the issue altogether either - parenting is incredibly important, and it behooves us to take it seriously. We are our children's most important influences, we have no excuse for not doing our best. As my children get older and more wilful, this becomes increasingly clear to me. So my new philosophy is this: I am trying to focus on doing this well rather than find the one way of doing it right. Isn't that a great philosophy? You can borrow it if you like. You're welcome. But take it from me- it is of absolutely zero practical use.
This conviction to do it well, don't worry about doing it right doesn't help me when I'm facing off two screaming toddlers and trying to decide what to actually do with them. Let's say one of them has just hit the other one. Okay, so I'm not going to spank (and I'm not philosophically anti-spanking, by the way - there's a huge difference between spanking calmly (!) and hitting in anger and if you've only ever seen hitting then of course I understand why you would be totally anti-spanking but you might find yourself surprised by some of the evidence in the chapter on spanking in the ever-thought-provoking-book Nurtureshock, which surely you've already read because of the awesome chapter about why white parents don't talk to their children about race? Yes? But anyway spanking is a moot point in our house because UK adoption regulations determine that all adoptive parents need to agree to a no-smacking policy so we never had to make a decision about this. Okay, where was I?) Right. One of them has hit the other. I'm not going to spank. Most of the adoption books rain down dire warnings about the evils of time-out. So what am I supposed to actually do, I mean actually physically do with the hitter at this point?
It's really hard getting straight answers from people on this one. Even the books - the ones that don't fall into the you must use the WonderMethod or your children are forever doooooomed - are short on actual, well, verbs. You know - 'doing words', like send to their room or carry them to time out or talk to them or sit with them. There are an awful lot of adverbs about how to discipline- words like gently and calmly and consistently and lovingly and don't get me wrong they are fan-spanking-tabulous adverbs, every one, but I never know what verb the author is imagining these lovely adverbs are modifying. I've been reading a lot about writing recently and one of the pieces of advice I keep on reading is to ditch the adverbs because your verbs should be specific enough to not need them. And these books (and bloggers, and people, when I talk to them) seem reluctant to commit to specific verbs. If we shave out our discipline adverbs when we talk about how we parent (especially in adoptive parenting) we seem to be left with very little. Really, the adverbs are philosophy, not practicalities. It's great that an author is counselling me to be gentle and consistent but gentle and consistent in doing WHAT?
So okay then, I'll be specific. We have been doing a whole lot of emotional validation and 'time-ins'. I love the idea of a time-in. The child knows they are being sanctioned, but they also that Mummy loves them and isn't going anywhere. Awesome! It sounds like a great big circle of win-win-winningness. Okay. So, I love the idea of a time-in, but have you ever tried to actually do one? I can see how they might work for older kids - maybe - but it's just a disaster with my toddlers. I try to hold their hand and do all the talking about how I understand how frustrating it is that they can't do whatever it is that they want to - validating their emotions, etc etc, but honestly? I just turn into a wall of words. I lecture. I don't intend to do it but before I know it I'm talking, talking, talking, telling Pink or Blue or whoever just how important it is that they obey Mummy, that they don't hit don't whine don't pull hair don't bite don't stand on your brother's head I know how frustrated you are but mummy needs you to LISTEN and I'm telling them a whole lot of stuff that is both true and important but I know all that they are hearing is BLAH BLAH BLAH and honestly? That's not doing either of us any good. They get bored and I get frustrated and it doesn't take long for the circle of win to turn vicious. Also, while I'm quietly showering child #1 with focused time-in goodness, let's be honest: child #2 is either gawping and making faces (if we've stayed in the same room) or taking the opportunity to attack the cat (if we haven't). See above about how the books assume you've only got one kid to take care of. Maybe there are families for whom time-ins are constructive and helpful but for us they are ten different flavours of wrong. Time-ins do nothing to change their behaviour and they also do nothing to help our relationship. It makes me feel angry, much angrier than it should and then sometimes I yell. (Oh right, this is why nobody wants to talk specifics). So. I don't think this is popular position for adopters, but I am officially done with time-ins.
We tried doing the choices thing too, really we did. Here's how that story goes: Blue was thrashing and flailing on the floor. I offered him two fun, constructive re-direction choices. Blue continued to have a tantrum. That was two minutes ago. Blue is now in time out.
So yes! Time outs are now The Thing in our house. We're sort of 1-2-3 magick-ing the twins now - the general idea is three counts and then once they reach three they are silently and unemotionally taken to a time-out space. (I was inspired to read this book by Marcia and she has lots more about this on her blog). The book does have a few of the features I mocked earlier in this post but the general method is a winner for me because it stops me spewing forth words upon words. We modify it because I'm big into them saying 'sorry' and me saying 'I forgive you' after being disciplined, whatever form the discipline takes. (Once it's over, I want it to be over. I don't want them wondering whether I'm still mad). We've only been doing this for about two weeks but so far it's been much, much better. Who would have thunk it? Me, a time-out parent. As a Christian, it seems too wooly and thoughtless and only focused on externals. As an adopter, it seems to harsh. Maybe ignoring both of my instincts that means everything is okay. Yeah, that's a good parenting philosophy.
Every stage of parenting I hit seems to knock me much harder than I expected it to. I really thought that I knew what I wanted to do about sleep. And I didn't. And then about eating. And I didn't. (I haven't blogged about it much, but basically my children only eat grated cheese). Now discipline is joining the list. What's going to be next, I wonder? I can't even begin to imagine.
*And of course, adoption and theology both have a huge impact on how I think about parenting my child. As adopted kids, I know my children have a whole lot of stuff to deal with that most kids can't even imagine. But sometimes they are also really, really naughty. Adoption is a layer in my children's behaviour, but it's not the only layer. Adopted kids are naughty too. Adopted children have grief and attachment considerations to take into account and this makes my job as a parent more complex but not totally different from if they had been born to me. Sometimes when we theorise and categorise and psychologise about adoption in general and our children in particular I think it's easy to forget that children are not rational creatures. Sometimes they act out because of grief. But sometimes (often!) they act out because they are in a bad mood and determined to make everyone in the house suffer, just like every other kid on this planet. And as for theology - hmmmm., actually, maybe that belongs in a different post.