Better parenting

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.

We can’t get it right all the time

No parent can do everything right all the time. If you have a friend or relative that you admire as a parent, try asking them how they do it. Most likely they will tell you that they don’t believe they are doing it right, that they are always having problems with their children in one way or another. All parents want the best for their children. It might seem ironic in the case of a parent who abuses his or her child, but it is simply an extreme example of a parent who gets things horribly wrong. We can love but still cause such terrible hurt to our children – sometimes without realising it. If we want the best for our children, why don’t we do our best? Is it because we see our children simply as possessions with whom we can do as we wish? Is it because we don’t give them enough time out of our busy day? Is it because we don’t talk to them? Are we too “adult” to say that we love them every now and then? It’s OK when we try, but still don’t seem to get it right.

The value is in the effort, and the rewards might not be obvious straight away. But a kind word when previously there was a harsh word can work wonders for a child’s confidence and the parent/child relationship. We’re not alone in the parenting world of hard knocks and we can’t spend our lives trying to prove to ourselves or others that we can do it all. Anyway, there is often no “right way”, because parents and children are individuals, and have individual needs. What we can do, is become more aware of how we can become better parents and begin to apply some useful tips. We can read booklets such as this and others available from help agencies; talk to other parents, educators, friends and relatives; attend parenting courses, and observe those parents we admire.

With parenting there are no typically good or bad parents

Good and bad parents exist in all cultures and socioeconomic 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. Try:

  • 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 on 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).

If we are struggling to give our children our time and love, we must GET HELP. This is a key message of this crime prevention website. There is no shame in asking for help. Parenting is not easy and no one expects you to do it all on your own. We all need help sometimes – for families who have children with special needs, it might be that we need help all the time. DON’T BE AFRAID TO ASK. There are many agencies, both Government and private, that are available 24 hours a day to help parents. Some organisations have 24-hour phone numbers that you can ring – maybe you just want to get a problem off your chest, or you need to know where you can get further help. There’s a list of these on our website. Your greatest source of help, however, might be someone you know on a more personal level – a friend, relative, neighbour, teacher, or counselor. They can help you make decisions and give you perspectives that you might not otherwise see.

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. 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

Children are just human beings who have not grown up yet. They have much to learn, and as parents we can teach them a great deal. We can teach them that some behaviour is not appropriate. We might get them to change their behaviour by hitting and verbal abuse, but this will only make them themselves. Verbal abuse and hitting might change a child’s behaviour, but it will only be through fear.

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. So we must use alternatives whenever possible. 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’s making 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:

  • Keep calm.
  • 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.

Positive messages

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 okay to be angry

The strategies outlined on this crime prevention website 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.

What our children say

Who better than our children to guide us in our efforts to be better at parenting. Perhaps we should listen more to what they have to say about us. The following suggestions, contained in a leaflet produced by the Office of the Commissioner for Children, give some interesting comments from primary and intermediate-age children about how adults could help them be well behaved.

  • Talk things over with me.
  • Spend time with me.
  • Listen to me and respond.
  • When I am angry, let me cool down.
  • Don’t put me down, tease me or insult me.
  • Be fair.
  • Be sure I understand.
  • Show me what you want.
  • Show me you like me.
  • Keep your promises.
  • Don’t hit or abuse me.
  • Don’t expect me to do things I can’t do.
  • Don’t scream at me – just tell me.
  • Notice when I behave well, praise me and give me rewards.
  • Say you are sorry when you get things wrong.
  • Don’t get too angry.
  • Give me help when I need it.
  • Don’t over-react to my mistakes.
  • Notice me.
  • Let me have my way sometimes.
  • Don’t have favourites.
  • Meet me halfway.
  • Have a sense of humour.
  • Understand me.
  • Give everyone a say.
  • Encourage me.
  • Talk over problems.
  • Set a good example.
  • Be firm when you need to be, but don’t be nasty.
  • Don’t treat me like a baby.

The supermarket dilemma

Supermarkets have the classic environment for parent/child public confrontations. How many times have you found yourself wondering what to do with a screaming child as you try to do your shopping? Or wondering what to do when you see a parent abusing a child in the supermarket aisle? Children need to be kept occupied with activities when they are out shopping. Their natural tendency is to move, touch and explore. The very reason that supermarkets can cause such stress – that there is so much to distract children – can be used to parents’ advantage.

Try giving children responsibility for some aspects of the shopping, or play shopping games. Get them to choose the best apples or cheapest tomatoes, or see how many products they can find that carry a particular brand name. Who can see the toothpaste first? If the child can read, let them tick off your grocery list. Encourage children to participate by talking about what is happening around them and thinking about the chore you have to complete. Take a favourite book or toy, or a piece of fruit to keep them distracted.

Read the book (or tell a memorised story) at the checkout and let the child help with some of the verses. Play “I spy” and get the child to guess what you see at the checkout. If you find items at the checkout designed to entice children, ask the supermarket to remove them and put them on the supermarket shelves, where you can avoid them if necessary. Don’t get upset about behaviour that is not going to hurt the child or someone else. Ignore it if it does not embarrass you or bother other people.

Praise good behaviour and point out good behaviour in other children. Stop bad behaviour immediately and make sure the child is aware that you will not tolerate it in public. If they have a temper tantrum, leave your trolley with staff or an obliging shopper and take the child out of the store to a quiet place. Tell the child that the behaviour is inappropriate and wait until they calm down. If necessary, go to the car with them and wait it out. Then ask if they are ready to behave properly. Before you set out, consider whether you really need to take the child. If they are tired or irritable already, leave the shopping until a better time or leave them with a babysitter.

Make sure they eat before you leave, so they won’t pester you for treats. Discuss the behaviour you expect when you go shopping. Consider a small reward that you might buy as you leave the store, or discuss some activity you might do on the way home. If you are in a two-parent family, try to time your shopping so both parents can join in. One can shop while the other keeps the child occupied. Shopping with a friend can help keep you distracted and more relaxed. If the friend also has children, discuss your strategies with them. It can be fun to compare how your respective children react to different ideas

When you see it happening

It’s no fun seeing a parent hitting their children or yelling at them while shopping. Do you ignore it or intervene? If you decide to intervene, what are you going to do or say? Remember firstly, that the parent is probably acting that way because of some kind of stress. If you step in and tell them what a bad parent they are, you are likely to cop a fair bit of abuse yourself, and the child could get the blame for the incident. It might be better to offer some assistance to the parent. Suggest that you hold the child or look after them for a couple of minutes while the parent gets at least some shopping done on their own or gets the chance to cool down. Such an approach recognises the parent’s stress and indirectly offers some sympathy.

Use words that convey sympathy for the parent’s plight. “Your child is really making it difficult for you – can I help?” would be a good way to start. Sometimes it will help if you simply strike up a conversation to divert the parent’s attention until everyone has calmed down. If you work in a store where you see a parent hitting or abusing a child, advise them that the store is a safe environment where such behaviour is not condoned. Obviously if a child’s well-being is directly at risk because of a beating or severe verbal abuse, step in to stop it immediately and notify the store staff. They should then call the Police to have the matter dealt with.