Increasingly, educators and media pundits are prompting parents to take a firmer stance with their children, when it comes to their children’s bad behaviour. So, why aren’t parents willingly coming to the party? It’s a complex history that’s led to this 2017 phenomenon.
First, for about 30 years, Australian parents have been fed a steady diet by behaviourist-thinking academics, who promote the idea that parents should be using a praise-and-rewards model of parenting. This approach is not all bad, but it has its limitation. While ‘rewarding’ wanted behaviour in kids can work to teach new behaviour skills – like tooth brushing – it tends to be not so good at helping children develop self-regulation skills. And, increasingly, the wrong use of praise is associated with rising levels of narcissism in children. Jean Twenge’s book, Generation Me, is a jaw-dropping reflection on the results of a population of children who have become over-entitled as a result of being over-praised. As a parent nowadays, you can feel somewhat wanting if you’re not riding that ‘positive wave’. Under the behaviourist banner it seems to me that most of the strategies on offer instruct parents to be ‘positive’ with their children. And if, as a parent, you aren’t riding that positive wave, it can seem you’re doing the wrong thing.
Second, the necessary discomfort that occurs when a parent sets a reasonable limit has, over time, become equated with some form of child abuse. Just like the stress industry has appropriated the use of words like ‘anxiety’ and ‘trauma’, many people have associated the word discipline with yelling or smacking. Parents who know they shouldn’t yell or hit, often don’t know what else to do when they need to discipline their child. Anybody seen to be correcting a child and causing the child some discomfort is viewed suspiciously. A parent with a crying child is now viewed as a potential abuser. It’s as though we’ve all become squeamish about saying “no”. Spooked parents, unsure of their right to set limits, tend to go soft when they should be firm.
Third, it’s become pretty-clear that there’s more judgement of parents than there used to be. Every single day, in magazine articles and in social media there is heated discussion about how parents, especially mothers, should behave. Social media allows the immediate and often unfettered responses to situations people observe and often the judgment is swift and merciless, without knowing any of the context or preceding events. If we lack confidence about how we are parents, we are more likely to be swayed by opinions that are not always well informed.
Fourth, in recent decades we’ve been taught that the best way to deal with behaviour problems is to talk them through with our children. While I’m not against this – especially if the child is heading into adolescence– the problem is that isn’t always the best option. Younger children can become overloaded with words, and unable to process what is being said. Talking through a problem also assumes that a child has the neurological capacity to understand what we are saying, the reasons we are giving and any complexity involved in the situation. Clearly this is not always the case, especially when the child is very young or the situation particularly complex. As well, a child who is tired, sick or hungry is not going to be paying attention when we try to talk about a disciplinary issue with them.
Fifth, the pressure faced by parents to always keep their children ‘happy’ takes an enormous toll. Many parents don’t insist their child stops their misbehaviour, because they don’t want their child to be upset with them. They don’t trust in their attachment and that this bond will keep them in a positive relationship with their child, despite the boundary-setting they may need to do. This ‘trust’ is not to do with trust in themselves or their child but in their child’s ongoing affection for them. So, because they don’t trust they can say ‘no’ – and still maintain a relationship – they give in at the slightest sign of distress. The thing is that parents won’t put boundaries in place if they’re worried about being liked – and there’s a whole generation of parents who appear to be afflicted by the need to be liked.
Given all of this, this is what I think.
Parents’ reluctance to be firmer, while understandable, is problematic.
Limits are healthy and building ‘restraint’ skills in children is an essential element in helping children become better self-regulators. Parents are the ones who have to help their children to develop these ‘mental brakes’. Mental brakes get honed when parents set limits and are able to tolerate the tension and discomfort a child may experience at this time. A child then learns important skills in maintaining emotional control which will stand them in good stead as adults.
So, next time you see a parent in a stand-off with their child in the lolly aisle of your local supermarket, just try and walk on. You may just be giving that parent the space they need to confidently set limits and help that child develop important lifelong skills.
Michael Hawton is a registered psychologist and a former teacher. His parenting books have sold over 45,000 copies worldwide – and his new book Engaging Adolescents is due out through Exisle Publishing on 1 May, 2017.