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:
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?