Saturday, 6 June 2009

The Secret of Happy Children

Sorry in advance, this is another long one, but bear with me, it may help you!

My aunt gave me this book when we were visiting her last weekend. My mum had given it to her when she was pregnant with her son, 15 years ago and, it turns out, my mum had been to talk by the author here in Stroud, which was when she’d bought it. And my aunt thought it might be nice for it to come back down this way for a bit.

I started reading it on the train home, when Rosemary was busy chattering away or eating or playing with her cuddly toy, Grommit. The irony wasn’t lost on me that I was reading a parenting book, instead of giving her some one-on-one attention, but she was happy. Really. She particularly enjoyed the game of ‘Boo’ we played with the book, where she shouted ‘Boo!’ at me and I shut the book quickly with a jump and ‘Ah!’ So, clearly it does what it says on the tin, even if you don’t read it.

For the most part, during the train journey, I was reading it out of interest and a little bit of amusement, because it was written a long time ago. The interesting thing was that a lot of the advice I was reading was things that have been taken on board by professionals and parents alike.

For example, early on Biddulph talks about how children hear and take in what you say about them, as well as what you say to them, so that it’s important to be positive, rather than negative and not use put downs, even in a friendly way (“Come here, cloth ears!” “Don’t be stupid, you do it this way.”). And to be careful what you’re saying when you’re talking about your children (“She’s not very good at reading.” “She just won’t sit still for a minute”).

Something else he talks about is ‘anchoring’ whereby a message has more effect when reinforced by other signals. So, your calm ‘Good boys’ and ‘Well dones’ or ‘No, don’t do that, loves’ will be overpowered by the times when you reach the end of your tether and scream ‘Just bloody shut up, you horrible boy!’ with wide eyes and gritted teeth. The reinforcement of the other signals will mean that he will believe that more than the other messages. That’s a bit worrying, because there are certainly times when I lose it, as do most parents I know. But the point of the book is that gives lots of means to avoid this negative anchoring and turn it into positive messages and anchoring instead (blimey, I sound like a self-help book; turn that frown upside down!).

The second chapter talks about what children want and it boils down to love and attention – as well as, of course, having their basic needs met. What a surprise! He talks about the importance of talking to children, right from when they can start to hear in the womb. Not just baby talk (though that’s important for learning language), but talking softly about what you’re doing and where you’re going when you’re carrying or pushing your baby, singing to them while you change their nappy and so on. Talking to your toddler, talking to your pre-schooler, to your school children and to your teenagers. Well, d’oh! We know all this now, but when it was written a lot of this was new (scientifically, at least – I’m sure there were many mums, and dads, who knew this instinctively; though there were plenty who didn’t).

And children want stimulation (and attention). And they’ll take their stimulation (and attention) wherever they can get it. So, if we just potter about doing the dishes and folding the ironing while they’re being good and playing quietly, but turn and shout at them when they start misbehaving, they’re going to misbehave more. Biddulph claims that just half an hour of full-on, positive, one-on-one attention a day, will make the majority of bad behaviour go away.

And I can confirm that, for us, this does seem to work. If you remember, I decided last month to try to make sure I gave Rosemary one-on-one time in the mornings, before playgroup/nursery school/my mum’s, instead of getting the kitchen cleaned or checking on blogs or other such things. And I’ve pretty much been sticking with it, doing lots of baking, colouring, playing doctors, and sometimes just chatting or singing for half an hour. And she’s, for the most part, much happier and better behaved, getting dressed nicely and playing nicely in the time when I’m not giving her attention. We have, in fact, settled in to half hour chunks, it seems. If she’s up very early, we might have a couple of half hour chunks, otherwise just one and the rest of the time I will stop what I’m doing to answer any questions or help her with something, instead of saying ‘In a minute’ all the time. So, when I was reading this book on the train, I was thinking ‘Yes, that’s very true. But how did people not used to know this?’

The three main reasons for children playing up that Biddulph gives are:

  • being bored
  • feeling unwanted
  • to get noticed.

Another important thing Biddulph mentions is active listening, which is something I think I’m inclined to do naturally, though have certainly witnessed some of the other kinds of negative listening that he mentions:

  • patronising
  • lecturing
  • distracting.

And, to be fair, I’m sometimes guilty of the latter two with Rosemary, and the first with other people.

Active listening is where parents ‘are interested, and show it by confirming the child’s feelings and thoughts and by helping the child to think it through’. I think this is something that I tend to do, and have even wondered if I do it a bit too much, so was reassured to read that it was a good thing.

The fourth chapter talks about emotions and how it is important to help children express their emotions in a safe way and be comfortable with them. This is something else that I’ve read in the child care books we’ve edited, or on parenting websites. I know my sister has been on courses where they teach child care practitioners how to help children deal with emotions. And it’s something I try to acknowledge, though do sometimes forget. When reading this chapter, I was reminded that I had noticed my cousin taking note of her daughter’s emotions and saying something like ‘I can see that you are angry. Do you want some time on your own to calm down or can I help you?’ and I recalled thinking ‘Ah, see! She’s recognising O’s emotions and helping her deal with them.’ So, again, this chapter was predominantly confirming things I already knew.

There were a few interesting box-outs in this chapter about tantrums, sulks and shyness, some of which had some suggestions that made feel a little uncomfortable, such as insisting on a shy child greeting a visitor, and using naughty corners or the like to reinforce it. As a shy child (and quite shy adult) this suggestion made me feel uncomfortable, though I have a feeling it might well be right, nonetheless. Fortunately, Rosemary does not have that problem at all. She’s surprisingly sociable considering her parents!

The fifth chapter was the one that hit home most with me and, while it also covered things that I had read about it, it did seem to bring something new for me. And actually elicited a few light-bulb moments - ‘So that’s what I’m doing wrong!’ This chapter talks about being an assertive parent as opposed to an aggressive or passive parent. I was pleased to read:

‘If you have this pattern in your relationship with your child – back down, back down, back down, blow up – then you need to know…:

  • about a third of parents experience this pattern, especially if they have young children, and are just beginning to gain experience in parenting
  • it is not a big problem, just a misdirection of your energies and can be remedied.’

I must admit to feeling uncomfortable at some of what I read in this chapter. A lot of it talks about making sure you, as a parent, feel that you matter too, that you do not come last in the family. I have only recently been able to feel comfortable about seeing to my own needs. For example, I used to get up in the morning, get Rosemary up, let the dog out to do is wee and only then would I go and do my own wee. Lately, I’ve developed the ability to say ‘I need to pee, so I’m going to do that now.’ Yes, I quite often have company, but at least I’m not holding it in for another half an hour while making sure everyone else is seen to first. As I’ve discussed before, I don’t feel I can do anything other than work when Rosemary is away at playgroup, nursery school or my mum’s. That’s work time. Chris can happily hoover the stairs or mow the lawn in that time. He’s happy to catch up with the news and so on during that time. I can’t. Because I don’t feel I have the right to use the time that I’m paying someone else to look after my child for anything other than earning money. That’s something I’m trying to change, but will probably be experiencing again when Eleanor (Baby Number 2 now has a name, by the way!) arrives, because I find the whole guilt thing is worst when they’re babies.

Anyway, according to Biddulph, being an assertive parent involves taking care of your needs and feeling that you are important. You may recognise this as the oft-chanted ‘A happy mum means a happy child.’ And it’s true, we all know, that we will snap more or be less (positively) attentive when we’re tired or stressed or have to sacrifice something we want, whether that’s a bath, a nice haircut, a pint of beer, whatever.

And then there’s action; how to be when you need your child to do something:

  • ‘Be clear in your mind. It’s not a request, it’s not open to debate…
  • Make good contact. Stop what you are doing, go up close… don’t give the instruction until he looks at you.
  • Be clear. Say “I want you to … now. Do you understand?” Make sure you get a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer.
  • If they do not obey, repeat the command.Do not discuss, reason, get angry or scared. Breathe slowly and deeply so that you become calmer. What you are signalling to the child is that you are willing to persist on this one and not even get upset about it. This is the key step, and what matter most is what you don’t do. You don’t enter into debate or argument, you don’t get heated, you simply repeat the demand to the child.
  • Stay close… When the task is completed … then don’t make much of this either. Simply say, “Good,” and smile briefly!’

I have to say that the first couple of times I tried this with Rosemary, it worked perfectly, to the point where I was shocked. She seemed to sense that I meant business and said ‘OK’ at the second command. But since then, I’ve lapsed a little back into my old ways and did even screech yesterday morning, which I hadn’t done for a long time. But I had been bargaining and over-explaining, which doesn’t work in that situation. I definitely need to practise this and, having seen it work and almost work when I’ve almost got it right, I really do think it will make a difference. If I can retrain myself enough.

I think the appealing idea about being an assertive parent is that it does not mean being horrible, which is what I think I’ve always feared about the whole ‘being firm’ thing. I think I’ve placed being firm more in the ‘aggressive parent’ camp, rather than recognising the idea of assertiveness. Of course, I’m crap at being assertive in many adult situations, so I probably need more training that others might. It doesn’t mean you don’t get to have fun together, or cuddle or be reassuring and affectionate. Quite the contrary. All these things are really important, too. It’s just about meaning business when it’s necessary.

According to Biddulph, the assertive parent:

  • ‘gives positive strokes
  • is not threatened by conflict
  • makes clear, firm requests and demands
  • sets rules and carries out the consequences
  • negotiates more as children become older and more capable.’

The rest of the book is interesting, though none of it was quite as enlightening as the assertiveness chapter. But other parents might well find enlightening information in them. Chapter 8 goes into detail about the importance of Me Time – though I don’t think he uses that term. Again, this made me feel uncomfortable, though I know it’s right and something I need to work on as much as the assertiveness.

All in all, I enjoyed this book and feel that I got something out of it, and hopefully Rosemary (and Eleanor) will end up benefiting, too. Despite it’s age (it was written in 1984, though has been updated since the author had children of his own!), it still has a lot to say to parents today, if only to reinforce some of things that many of us now do seemingly naturally. I would happily recommend it and it’s still in print, so there’s obviously something in it!

Do you have any parenting (or other books) that have hit home in some particular way and you’d recommend?


  1. It all sounds full of common sense and practical ways of going about things.

    I loved Elizabeth Pantley's book "The No Cry Sleep Solution", which charts a sensible way between the two opposing philosophies of either leaving a baby to cry himself to sleep alone, or responding to every whimper and then having a baby who can't sleep without constant parental help. It really had lots of good ideas to try.

  2. A great informative post i loved reading it! The advice given is very good and i would love to read the whole book. I'm a fan of the baby whisperer and i love her approach to looking after children. x x

  3. I'd really like to read that book having read your post, although some of it is what I've heard from others. Particularly the part about being positive about your child when they're around. I do that all the time and it really does help - S looks so pleased and proud of himself! Great post x

  4. A great review, Tasha. I have literally just ordered the book after reading it. Many thanks. Looks like it's the sort of book I need.

  5. I like Toddler Taming and Beyond Toddlerdom by Christopher Green. Talking to Tweenies by Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer. Before your Kids drive you Crazy by Nigel Latta. Rules of Parenting from the rules series.

    Gisela Preuschoff's Raising Girls is sometimes put up with Steven Biddulph books. I really didn't like her Raising Girls - thought it was absolute twaddle.

  6. an interesting post, thank you! i feel those elastic band moments (strangely coinciding with bad pms!) when i've lost my temper really undo a year's worth of 'well dones'.

    spending time with kids to talk and listen, seriously *listen* and not just think i've listened when i haven't has been tremendously helpful. we tried 'the explosive child' for Tiger who was going off the scale.

    actually, seeing a psychologist helped too! she said most of behaviour issues came down to needing attention. it probably marked the start of when i tried really making sure i was listening.

  7. Lovely post, and told us a lot about you as well as your children! You sound like a lovely Mummy. I did read this book years ago but, now that my children are 13 and 11, it strikes me more and more that the teenage years are like a regression into toddlerdom and so it was a good refresher course - thank you!

  8. I have this book somewhere I think. I'll route it out again and have a good read as there are some issues I think I need to work on, especially in our current situation. Great review. And aI love the name Eleanor, beautiful.

  9. Thanks for the review, it sounds like a book I would like. My parenting bibles are "How to talk so kids will Listen" and "siblings without rivalry", both also written in the 1980's by adele faber and elaine mazlish. The books are all about effective communication, empathy, offering alternatives to unwanted behaviour, and building strong self esteem; examples: "I hear how angry you are" "I wish it wasn't raining", "yes, brothers can be very annoying", "trains are not for throwing. If you want to throw, throw your ball". These books have honestly made me a better parent.

  10. THanks Tasha. I honestly don't have time to read another parenting book but your summary helped a lot and I'm now going to practice that assertiveness technique and see if I can get my guys to eat breakfast!

  11. Thanks, Iota. Nice to see you doing the rounds again - take care of yourself. I will look into that book, as we didn't do terribly well with Rosemary's sleeping as a baby, and are hoping to do a bit better with Eleanor, but without doing controlled crying, because I really can't bear it!

    Thanks, Amy. I recall seeing an episode of her TV show when I was expecting Rosemary and worried about how difficult things might be!

    Clareybabble: I think being positive is so important. I know some people worry that they'll give their children big heads, but I think, especially at an early age, it's essential for developing self-esteem and learning that it's OK to try out new things. But it's funny how you can be negative without even realising it. I catch myself these days saying things like 'Now, don't be silly. You know that won't work.' or laughing at a particularly odd way of doing something, neither of which is positive! It's still a far cry from telling a child they're horrible or stupid, but will no doubt still have an effect.

    Rosie: Wow! I hope you find it as useful as I did.

    Kelloggsville: Thanks for the recommendations. And the warning about Raising Girls. Now I feel challenged to read it myself, for some reason, though, and may have to see if I can get it from the library!

    Grit: I don't suffer too badly from PMS, fortunately, but at the start of this pregnancy my hormones turned me into an awful person. I was snapping at Rosemary and shouting at Chris and generally being awful. That's interesting that the psychologist said that most behavioural problems are down to needing attention. I think, once you realise this, you can really see it in action. I'm now generally stopping to think, whenever Rosemary kicks off about something (less and less common, these days, since we're making concerted efforts to give her more concentrated chunks of attention), to check if I've been slacking on the attention-giving, and almost always I have!

    Dulwich Divorcee: Thank you, you are too kind! I have a number of teenage cousins at the moment, and can really see what you mean. There are an awful lot of parallels between toddlers and teenagers. I, of course, was a perfect teenager and no trouble at all (my mum might disagree, though).

    Thanks, Jo. My aunt, who passed the book back to me, is a single parent and she found the book very useful. I'm sure it must be difficult for you all, working out new ways of doing things. And we are quite fond of the name, too - it grows on me more and more every day, in fact.

    Geekymummy: Thanks for the recommendations. They both sound like good books and ones that would be very useful to read. I think I'll be doing a bit of library ordering with all these recommendations!

    HOM: Good luck with getting the boys to eat breakfast! It's funny how one day they can gobble it down and have seconds and thirds and another day they won't touch it. Apparently (according to the book again), if you give your children a breakfast of complex carbs and high protein (e.g. scrambled egg on wholemeal toast, porridge and bacon, wholegrain cereal and yoghurt) they'll be happier for the rest of the day. I've managed to try it a total of twice since reading the book, and Rosemary was very happy both those days, but could be just coincidence. Finding the time to cook food when you've got a mad dash to get out the door is a challenge, though. Ham or cheese sandwich on wholemeal would work, though, I suppose.

  12. Sorry it's taken me so long to post a comment - I had to read this in two sittings because I kept getting distractd by children! Very interesting - haven't read this book but I have heard a number of people recommend his book called 'Raising Boys' - which, having two girls, I may never get round to reading! But yes, the chapter on assertiveness does sound a worthwhile read - I definitely need help with this. A friend recently recommended 'Helping Young Children Flourish' but I haven't got round to reading it yet - but she said there was a great chapter on parenting without punishment or reward (it was in response to my post on discipline) so it sounds like it's worth a read.

    And wow - did I miss the baby scan news??? Did you tweet it? How exciting! I'm so pleased for you. Two little girls - just like me!!! I'm sure they'll be fantastic friends - and yes, Eleanor is gorgeous - goes very well with Rosemary. So excited for you. xxx

  13. Thanks for the review. I'm another real fan of the Baby Whisperer which has a similar sort of philosophy - the idea being that your job as a parent isn't to help your children always be happy, but to experience and deal with the full range of emotions in a healthy, practical way. It's about being firm but fair, which I like.

    I really empathised with your comment about taking time to do non-work while children are in nursery. I'm a freelancer and single parent and I used to feel that when my daughter was in nursery, that was 'work' time.

    But this New Year, I realised I hadn't been to the cinema since she was born. Now,two or three times a month, I take an afternoon off and go and see a film. It's FANTASTIC. It's like proper grown up time that's just for me, I don't have to worry about anything or anyone else for a couple of hours. What I've found is it's meant I'm calmer and more able to focus on HER when I'm with my daughter as a result. Thoroughly, thoroughly recommend it as a strategy.


  14. Emily: Yes, sorry, it was a bit long. Amazed anyone managed to hang in there that long! That book sounds interesting. No punishments or rewards would definitely be nice! Let me know if it was any good when you've finished it.

    Did tweet the scan news, yes, but it was last Monday and you were probably busy unpacking and cleaning out your car after the journey home! I'm very happy to be having two girls and quite happy to stop there (at the moment anyway). It's funny how many people have said 'Oh, you'll just have to try again for a boy, then.' Um. Why? Full name will be Eleanor Brianna Goddard Clark. Brianna is after my dad (would have been Alexander Brian if it was a boy).

    Sally: I think maybe I need to take a look at the Baby Whisperer. I think I heard some negative comments about her, so dismissed her totally, but it sounds like there's some useful stuff in there.

    I'm very interested in your going to the cinema strategy, and may well take it up, or something similar, at least. I think it probably needs to be out of the house to work properly, otherwise I'd be tempted to do some washing or some work!

  15. very intersting, i know i don't give my children enough of my attention. I never thought that could be the reason they act up all the time...

  16. toddler taming is by bible,but I do enjoy steven biddulphs easy to read style. I think the key thing with kids is to treat them with respect. From that, the rest comes naturally...

  17. Zooarchaeologist: Toddler Taming is one of the ones I just received. I have contacted the publishers of all the recommended books (well, where I could find them!) to ask if they wanted to supply review copies and/or give-aways. The two Todder Taming books are the first ones to arrive, so they'll be the first ones to be reviewed. They certainly look good from the quick flick through I've done.

  18. Toddler Taming was excellent, although I followed his advice about 'tying your child's door shut' (yes really, I was going through a desperate time...) and gave my poor toddler nightmares for a week.

    Biddulph has written 'how to bring up boys' (not terribly relevant to you, but incredibly insightful) and 'how to bring up girls' (more relevant, but I haven't read it yet. In fact, could you try to review that? :) )

  19. MTJAM: Toddler Taming is the one I'm reading now and I'm loving it.

    Biddulph didn't actually write 'Raising Girls', just endorsed it, and the comments about it are mostly negative, so I don't think I have requested it. Though it might be interesting to read it to see if I have a different opinion. Hmm. Will think about it. Have four to be getting on with at the moment, anyway.