Just because people have been telling parents the same things for decades doesn’t make it true. Or helpful.
I slept like a baby.
Has there ever been a statement that hides the truth about children and parenting more than this, seemingly innocent one?
Let’s compare life before children and life after children, shall we?
Life before children:
“How did you sleep last night?” your best friend asks you, handing you a fancy coffee in your favourite trendy coffee shop.
“Oh, I slept like a baby,” you reply, stretching your arms up in the air, a look of pure joy on your face. “That new £400 mattress was so worth it.”
“How did you sleep last night?” your husband asks, handing you a mug of freshly brewed coffee.
You grab the mug and guzzle it down as fast you can, not caring that your mouth and throat are burning. The baby is finally sleeping, but you know that she’ll be awake any second now and you need as much caffeine as possible to be ready for the day.
When your exhausted brain catches up, and you can make sense of your husband’s question, you take another burning gulp of coffee to prevent yourself from screaming, “What do you think? The baby was up at least ten times last night!”
Coffee swallowed, you force out a smile and say, “Oh, I slept like a baby.”
When I found out that babies didn’t sleep, I felt lied to. When I found out that it’s still normal for toddlers (and even five-year-olds!) not to sleep through the night, I couldn’t believe just how much deception new parents have in store for them.
As your parenting career continues, a whole host of ‘helpful’ statements get thrown at you from well-meaning family members, friends, and so-called ‘parenting experts’. They’re meant to make you feel better, but instead, they highlight just how crap you are at parenting.
Well, here’s the thing. You aren’t the problem. The problem is that you’ve been fed a whole host of lies and it’s about time they get called out.
Now, let’s dig in. There’s quite a few of them, so today we’ll cover 1 through 4!
Parenting lie #1: Parenting gets easier as kids get older
Anyone else waiting for things to get easier? I find that the older my kids get, the harder parenting is becoming. The newborn stage was a confusing and exhausting time with my first, but I sailed through it with my second even though on paper, it should have been worse.
The toddler stage was hell on wheels with my first, but again, I sailed through it with my second. Yes, my second has an easier temperament than my first but that isn’t the only reason why I find parenting him easier.
The main reason why I find parenting my second easier than my first is that I know so much more through my experiences of parenting my first and I’m ready (most of the time) for whatever the second throws at me.
Having two school-aged children I have to contend with things I never had to until now, and it’s highlighted two reasons why we should stop telling parents that things get easier as kids get older.
The first is that it makes us wish time away and we disconnect from the child we have right now. I’ll never get the first eight months of the 7-year-old’s life back.
The second reason is that it sets us up for a greater sense of failure (like we need another excuse to feel like this!): “things are meant to be easier, yet I feel more stressed and confused than ever. I really am crap a parenting.”
What we should be saying instead:
“Every stage is different.”
If you want things to be easier in the next stage, find out as much as you can about what to expect from trustworthy sources. By trustworthy, I mean information based on actual evidence about children’s brain development and how it impacts their behaviour. I know some of you will cringe about the word evidence, but the evidence tells us what children can and can’t do at certain ages based on the development of their brain.
Can a four-month-old walk? No? Why not? Well, because her legs aren’t strong enough, her brain hasn’t developed the ability to coordinate the movements needed for walking, and so on. Sleeping through the night, controlling your impulses, having empathy, seeing things from another person’s point of view, those are also skills that can only be achieved when the time is right for that particular child.
Once we know what children can and can’t do at certain ages, we can enjoy them in their current stage and learn how to support them on the journey into adulthood. Growing up is just as hard, if not harder, for kids as it is for parents.
Parenting lie #2: She’s just doing it for attention
Newsflash! She is doing it for attention. But not in the way you’re thinking. She’s trying to tell you something and hasn’t got the words and language skills to do it yet. So, what’s a kid to do? She has to use her behaviour to tell you.
Children are attention seekers for a reason: their survival depends on it. Infants are dependent on their carers. They can’t do very much on their own yet, so if they weren’t skilled at using behaviour (i.e. crying) to get the attention of their caregivers, it would be difficult for them to survive.
“But my child can talk, can’t she just tell me what she needs?” Yes, yes she could. But first, two things need to happen: one, she has to know that she has a need and what it is, and second, she has to know how to communicate her need using the right words, the right actions, etc. A lot of learning needs to happen before she can do all of this, especially when it comes to communicating how she’s feeling.
Until children learn how to communicate how they’re feeling, they will have to use whatever worked in the past to get your attention. They’re a bit like celebrities in that respect: negative attention is better than no attention.
So what’s a parent to do then?
If you want your child to behave in a more positive and socially appropriate way, then you need to teach her what to do. You can’t expect her to suddenly know how to change her behaviour.
What we should be saying instead:
“She’s letting me know that she needs something or is struggling to do something and needs my help.”
If you want your child to ‘do the right thing’, then you need to model it. Show them what sitting nicely looks like. Show them how to share without expecting them to always do it. When they’re upset and hitting or throwing, show them how to behave more positively by staying calm when they do something that upsets you. The new behaviours won’t happen overnight, but every time your child sees you acting a certain way they are learning, and one day, they will start using their new positive socially accepted behaviour.
Parenting lie #3: He’s doing it to manipulate you so he can get his own way
Parenting is a relationship between people with emotions. No matter how big or small the people are, each has their own emotions and the behaviour of one will trigger feelings in the other. That’s just the way things work.
The manipulation lie is probably the one that upsets me the most, and there are two reasons for that. The first reason is that when we feel our child is manipulating us, we’re putting our emotions before our children. We are focusing on how hard WE are finding the situation and not how hard our children may be finding the situation.
Whatever age your kids are, you still have been on this planet a lot longer than they have. Which means they still have a ton of stuff to learn and figure out. They will make mistakes. Lots and lots of them.
The second reason this idea that kids manipulate parents to get their own way upsets me is that it’s impossible for children to manipulate. They can learn that “when I do A, B happens”, but that’s just learning. It isn’t manipulation.
Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Author and Parent Educator, explains why it’s impossible for children to manipulate. She states that that manipulation requires the following skills: hypothetical thinking, critical and rational thinking, empathy, and impulse control. All of these skills just happen to fall within the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain in charge of decision making, logical thinking, as well as controlling behaviour. As Sarah explains, “Scientists believe that the final development of the prefrontal cortex does not occur until the child enters their twenties, or even until twenty-five years of age.”
Their twenties, sometimes even as late as twenty-five years of age! You’re toddler, even your ten-year-old, has a long way to go before he’s manipulating you to get what he wants.
What we should be saying instead:
“It’s not about me, it’s about him trying to communicate with me.”
It’s much more helpful to stop taking the behaviour personally and see it for what it really is: a way to communicate needs and struggles. Once we do this, we stop putting ourselves in an ‘us versus them’ battle, and we can respond more calmly and help meet our children’s needs and guide them through whatever they’re struggling with.
Parenting lie #4: Kids need to be punished, or they’ll never learn
Somewhere along the lines discipline and punishment became the same thing. The definition of discipline is ‘to guide’ or to ‘teach’. Alfie Kohn, the author of Unconditional Parenting and many other books on parenting and education, explains how through the use of punishment, we go against some of our parenting goals because we’re focusing on control and not helping our children develop.
You see, parenting is a balance of short-term and long-term goals. While parenting strategies like time-out, consequences, ignoring and rewards may give you a short-term improvement, it doesn’t help children learn the more important long-term goals of self-regulation, self-reliance, thoughtfulness, loving, or confidence in themselves.
In fact, Dr Laura Markham, a Clinical Psychologist and Author, notes that “research studies on discipline consistently show that strict, or authoritarian, child-raising actually produces kids with lower self-esteem who behave worse than other kids – and therefore get punished more! Strict parenting actually creates behavior problems in children.”
What we should be saying instead:
“What kind of adults do I want my children to be, and how can I guide them?”
Conventional parenting advice and strategies are based on learning theory, which focuses on the measurable outcome. By measurable, I mean something that we can see noticeable improvements on. In the case of raising children, this means their behaviour.
So when we use ignoring to try to stamp out behaviours like whining, the whining may stop. But why did the behaviour stop? Is it because the need underlying the whining stopped? Not likely. Whining most often stops because children learn that sometimes their needs get met, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they can trust people to help them, sometimes they can’t.
The best way to help our children learn expected and desirable behaviour is by developing a close connection with them and become skilled at uncovering what behaviour means. Then, we are in a strong position to meet our children’s needs and support them in learning new, more positive and socially acceptable ways to behave.
Once a need is met, and new behaviours are learnt, the old behaviours fall away because there’s no need for them. Your close relationship with your child is maintained, and most importantly, your child feels loved, understood and supported.