Category Archives: Discipline

Blog block and some link love

Hi everyone. I've been going through a massive writing/blog block. Most of it has to do with feeling completely overwhelmed with my work while I plan a very, VERY big transition. I haven't actually come out with this move fully to all the officials that need to know, so I'm going to keep this vague for another 2 weeks. But it does mean that I've been having a hard time focusing on pulling together the right research for several posts I have in mind.

I'm also selling our house in 10 days.

And looking for a new house.

And generally losing my mind through it all.

But I haven't forgotten about you all. And I am by no means planning on abandoning this space. I really love writing this blog and all the great interactions I've been having with some many of you bright, funny, fascinating parents out there. So please bear with me while I get my sh*% together.

For now, here are three articles suggesting very different perspectives on discipline / parenting approaches. Food for thought for sure, but I just couldn't put together my pros and cons lists coherently enough to make this a "real" post. It's hard not to form SOME opinions though, as you'll see if you read them. Maybe they'll inspire or piss some of you off enough that an interesting discussion can ensue in the comments:

1. Here's an article about the merits of "permissive parenting," one of the three parenting styles we've discussed in this previous post.

2. Here's one suggesting that spanking our kids could lower their IQ.

3. And then there's this one, an article that espouses the varied merits of spanking children.

I'd be thrilled to hear what you all think of these various views. In fact, I wish we could all just meet at a coffee shop and have a proper chat about it all — I could sure use the company and the caffeine…

Parenting styles

Developmental psychologists have been studying parenting for around a century. It's a general topic that's received lots and lots of attention. One of the most popular and productive approaches to research on parenting has been the studies and theories around the idea of "parenting style." We've been talking a lot about parenting "techniques" or "methods" — those ideas are supposed to be much more specific than parenting style. Many methods or techniques may fall under the same parenting style umbrella. Parenting styles are supposed to describe the complex pattern of parenting; they are more approaches than specific parenting behaviours per se.

The research on parenting style is largely based on Diana Baumrind's seminal work in the area, starting in the 1960's. The styles that she identified are meant to describe variations among all sort of "normal" families — in other words, this classification system was not a way to identify clinical or seriously distressed families. The categories capture two main components of parenting: Parental warmth (or "responsiveness") and parental demandingness (or "control"). BOTH aspects are considered to be important dimensions of parenting that predict children's well-being later in life.

Most people talk about 3 styles, but there are actually 4, if you take all the possible combinations of the two dimensions:

1. Permissive Parenting: Also referred to as "indulgent" (because child psychologists can sometimes be mean with their labels). This parenting style is characterized by HIGH warmth and LOW demandingness. So, there's lots of affection and love that's expressed in the family, but there are very few rules and boundaries that are set. Limit-setting is minimal and discipline is often either unenforced or very lax.

2. Authoritarian Parenting: These parents are LOW in warmth or responsiveness (it's usually the latter — they aren't focused on responding to the child's emotional states, basically) and HIGH on demandingness. These are families who place a great deal of value on children being obedient. They set firm rules, have firm disciplinary consequences and they provide highly structured, organized and predictable home environments.

3. Authoritative Parenting: These parents are HIGH on both dimensions. They are warm and responsive to their children's emotional needs at the same time as they set clear standards for behaviour and enforce those standards with predictable discipline strategies. They are assertive with their children, but they also place high value on raising responsible, cooperative, but also self-regulated children.

4. Uninvolved Parenting: Most parents reading this blog will not fall into this category, given you're reading about PARENTING and are searching for information about your child and his or her well-being. The uninvolved parent is low on both dimensions: there is little warmth and little demandingness.

You can probably find yourself in one of these categories quite easily. The tricky part is that they're not "pure" categories in that each category can be further divided according to a third dimension: PSYCHOLOGOCIAL control. This is a really important aspect to consider, I think. It refers to control attempts that CAN BE intrusive and disruptive to the child's emotional and cognitive well-being (they aren't always, let's keep in mind). The prime parenting strategies to psychologically control children include: guilt induction, shaming and strategically withdrawing parental love. So, within each of the parenting styles, you can be high or low on psychological control as well, and that makes for a very different type of parent in each case. Classically, the big difference between Authoritative and Authoritarian parents is that the latter is much higher on psychological control — both types of parents set out clear limits and follow up with predictable consequences/discpline if those rules are not followed, but Authoritarian parents do so through strategies that induce shame and guilt while Authoritative parents more often use problem-solving, explanations and negotiation.  

It's probably going to come as no surprise to hear that Authoritative Parenting has been empirically linked to better outcomes for children than the other types of parenting styles. Children and adolescents of Authoritative parents turn out more socially skilled and more skilled at the pragmatics of everyday life than kids from the other types of parents.

Also not surprising, the Uninvolved parents produced children with the most troubled outcomes; compared to the other types, these children were more socially, emotionally and academically impaired. 

There are some interesting variations in these results when you consider ethnicity and cultural background differences, but in general, the Authoritative parenting style usually wins out on almost all outcomes we would care about for our children. Of course, WITHIN each category, there are lots of parenting BEHAVIOURS that are more or less effective for children's well-being. And you can probably predict by now that I will say that temperament will play some role — some children will be able to flourish under Authoritarian parents, if they're less sensitive to shame or guilt and/or if they simply were "born with" a sense of their own efficacy in the world or a less rebellious spirit. Another child in the same family may not fare as well. Also, surely parents' own personalities will have a large impact on how these parenting styles are actually manifest in day-to-day interactions with their children.

I think it's interesting to consider these dimensions of parenting as a first step, but I'm much more interested in the boundaries between the typologies and how various parenting behaviours can feel really wrong in some parenting contexts, but just right in others. For example, I think guilt can be a very effective, useful and PROSOCIAL way to influence our children's behaviour, especially as they get older than 5 or so. Too much is no doubt detrimental, but perhaps a little may be necessary to promote empathic, ethical behaviour from our children. How high would I rate myself in psychological control?  Does its detrimental impact depend on the larger parenting context (the love, warmth, connection, openness in a family)? Does that control work differently at different ages? You won't be surprised to know that I think the developmental age of the child is critical to consider: As children get older, it may be optimal to move from being relatively high on demandingness/control to relatively low, ending at the end of adolescence/early 20s with an ALMOST equal balance of power. In terms of warmth, I suspect high levels of it would be important throughout development, but perhaps the way we express this warmth will be less overt as children grow up and get creeped out about us wanting to rock them to sleep just one more time… (Yes, THAT book comes to mind).

Do you think these dimensions are useful when you consider your own parenting style? What were your parents' style of parenting and do you think that influences yours? What's missing in these dimensions for you?

More Ideas On Dealing With That Anger: Wear It Out, Hug It Out

Video-thumb-activity-184I'm picking up on a theme here from the many awesome comments received in response to Bella's last post. A few people mentioned that the empathising-with-the-angry-child strategy didn't seem to work as well, especially for some younger kids. Many of you pointed out that the anger seemed to need to run it's course and that trying to reason or empathize, in the moment, just seemed to make things escalate. Someone expressed concern about the message we send when we immediately act to divert attention away from the anger. Are we teaching our kids that expressing bad feelings should be avoided at all costs? Let me pass on a couple of thoughts.

To "Mom2boys" and others with little ones that start to strike out when they are angry, you might want to get your
hands on "
No Biting" or "No Hitting" by Karen Katz. Fun, light, lift-the-flap books that are great for redirecting toddler misbehaviour. E.g. One page on the left in "No Biting" says "No
hitting mommy" with appropriate picture. On the right page it says, "What can you hit?". Lift the flap and it says "A drum!". There is a great picture of a mini drummer letting rip!.  My son LOVED the whole series
by Karen Katz (the art work is beautiful) but particularly this book and it seemed to work. After a couple
of readings he would run and find his toy drum when he was mad and just have at it.

This brings me to my first suggestion: Wear it Out! 

Perhaps with younger and/or more intense children who are not yet able to self-regulate very well, you can help them wear that anger out and therefore get to a more reasonable place. My son was not actually very big on "tantrums" (I'd know way before that the anger was brewing, which was a bonus because I could move to cut it off at the pass) but he sure is intense and when he did really lose it, it wasn't subtle. He couldn't even hear me, even if I was empathising, so I would try to help him work the anger out. I'd say, "It's fine to be mad/angry, let's go in your room and punch your pillow until you feel better."  Sometimes I would bring the pillow to him and he'd actually lay into it. After a few minutes of me actually ALLOWING the anger, he (or is it we?) wore it out. My take on it is that it is a more action-oriented way (as opposed to psychologically-oriented) way to empathise or acknowledge that anger and then help your child get to the point where other techniques like distraction can take effect. I remember this to be especially helpful at around the 18 months to 3 years age, when kids really are more action-oriented anyway, generally speaking. 

My second suggestion?
Hug it Out! 

Your anger is pretty scary to children -
justified or not, non-maligning or not and we need to acknowledge this. Even if
you are totally justified in your anger (and in parenting, there are MANY times when we are), it's important to repair. 

It's not that different from any other relationship. Lord knows I've had very justified outbursts towards spouse, but even then I think it's good to "make amends" when you've had your say. It puts things on a more even footing rather than having the memory of the interaction being more like that of a powerful-figure-scolding-the-helpless. The repair can help re-establish a sense of partnership and hopefully lead to more co-operation on the issue in the future. It also says, it's okay to be angry and to express it. We'll come out the other side and it'll be okay.

Maybe not right away, but even
when X seems fine after the outburst has subsided and we've moved on, I try to revisit the issue briefly, say at bed time. I usually say that "I don't like
yelling, don't want to make you feel bad…I just get frustrated and then I
don't know what to do anymore. So I yell. Can we please try to avoid that
next time? Can you please try to listen to me when I ask you to….?" Then I usually say, "I think maybe we should hug it out." And we do, and we feel like comrades again.

And on that sweet note…I leave you to a lovely weekend.

–by Tracy

(with apologies for the varying font, I cannot for the life of me, fix it!)

Is being mad all that bad?

I've been thinking about this week's challenge a lot, as I try to implement more constructive ways to express my anger to my children. And one of the things that keeps coming up for me is: How bad IS it really, to lose my cool, to lose my PhD and to just be, well, my Romanian mom to my own children? My mother was a yeller. When she was (or is) mad, she yelled in the most stereotypical "Latin" style. She was also one of the warmest, most affectionate and most supportive parents I know. I never for a moment doubted her love for me, her adoration, her over-the-top belief that I was the smartest, most beautiful, most perfect person in the world (she literally expressed these things daily). But if I messed up, she wailed at me. She freaked. She was known to go on some nutty tirade for hours before she finally calmed down. And she would never EVER use "I statements" or try to constructively problem-solve with me about whatever the problem happened to be (she would later, but not in these conflict moments). And she was even known to call me "lazy" or "insensitive" or "thoughtless" or other things that, indeed, attacked my personality or character. So how did I come out of that relationship with a reasonable sense of self-worth, confidence, and so on? How did I come to see her angry tirades as one of her personality flaws rather than something scary or damaging?

I realize this is starting to sound like I'm saying, "Hey, what's the big deal with all this anger?! My mom freaked out on me and I turned out alright. It must be fine to rage against your kids." But let me be clear that I'm NOT saying that. I think there are lots of good reasons to try to constructively communicate our anger without frightening and belittling our children. And believe me, I'm not into making a big huge argument on a case study of 1… particularly when that sample of 1 happens to be me. But I think I'm not the only one with this experience. So what I've been wondering is how our children are "protected from" or "resilient against" their parents' angry outbursts. I'm particularly interested in this because I think that a whole lot of us WILL lose it once in a while, despite our best intentions and our copious reading of parenting books and blogs. We'll lose it and then we'll wonder how much we are actually damaging our children.

I don't have a direct answer to this question, but here are some thoughts. First off, it may be that the more global family context (the general warmth, connection, and loving support that is just FELT or UNDERSTOOD among family members) is more important for long-term development than any single episode during which parents might screw up once in a while. There are a few studies that seem to suggest that this is true. Second, John Gottman's work with marital couples is interesting to think about in this context. He finds that the most successful marital interactions (i.e., the ones that don't end up in divorce) are the ones that maintain this "golden ratio" of 5:1 of positivity to negativity. In other words, he finds that couples who remain in their marriages for a long, long time (I can't remember the span, but I think his studies go out to 20 years at least) express five times the amount of positivity than they do negativity. The reason this is SO FREAKING interesting to me is that there are at least 3 types of relationships that can maintain this 5:1 balance and they are SO different: (1) the "validating" couple are the couples that talk a lot about their emotions, they share their fears and empathize a whole lot with each other and they have a relatively few negatives expressed daily, but not a lot, and still 5 times as many positives, (2) the "withdrawn" couple: they have almost NO negatives and relatively few positives, but again, the ratio of 5:1 holds, and (3) the "volatile" couple (count me in this group): these are couples that express a whole LOT of negativity, but a whole lot MORE positivity, again, 5:1 ratio.

So, what I'm thinking is that maybe that "golden ratio" holds with parent-child interactions too. Maybe if we screw up, lose our cool, rage in front of our kids or even TO our kids, maybe it's still relatively ok if we balance that with a boatload more positive stuff every day. I have no idea what the "golden ratio" would be for parenting… but I could see 5:1 being a good start. Of course, I want to believe this because I DO screw up and I will continue to do so, I suspect. But I also think about this because I really believe in the power of cutting ourselves some slack. I think that if we allow that we will sometimes lose our cool and that doesn't mean we're parenting failures, it will set up the conditions for us to more easily repair our interactions with our children. The alternative is often that we feel intensely guilty or frustrated or ashamed when we DO lose it. Equally likely is that we feel resentment towards our kids for "making us" rageful, mean, bad parents. And the intensity of these emotions can often make us feel stuck such that we can't flexibly move to a place where we can re-establish a connection with our kids. This all has to do with how important I think repair really is in our relationships with our kids. I'll address this more in the next parenting challenge.

Does this ring true for any of you?

Parenting challenge #2: Be honest… you’re angry

 "Anger ventilated often hurries toward forgiveness; and concealed often hardens into revenge."  ~Edward G. Bulwer-Lytton

This week's Parenting Challenge was inspired by a number of comments and subsequent discussions that were brought up in the comments section of the first Parenting Challenge. In particular, a number of us made the point that trying to be playful during conflicts or discipline episodes is so hard sometimes because we're just too damn angry to feel playful. When we feel angry, we don't WANT to come up with a cute little "pretend" scenario that will gently pull our child into complying with our wishes. Some people observed that  the "playful parenting" solutions like trying to involve our children in pretend play may only work in more calm contexts in general, rather than the more heated temper tantrums or times when we're over-the-top sleep-deprived and at our wit's end. 

This week's Parenting Challenge comes from Ginott's classic, Between Parent and Child. This book has a ton of explicit and implicit parenting gems (while at the same time feeling very dated in some of the examples, language, and so on). One of the most useful discussions I found in the book was the one on parents' own anger and how to deal with it. Ginott says that ALL parents feel angry at their children sometimes, and oftentimes it is completely justifiable. The problem begins when we try to completely deny those feelings. Usually, our children feel our tension anyways, so the first point is that when we try to swallow our anger, our children feel some strange vibe in the air that is unsettling at best for them. The second point Ginott emphasizes is that anger in and of itself is not a bad thing — it is an emotion that signals both to ourselves and to our child that something is amiss. LACK of anger in some contexts can in fact communicate indifference to the child… not such a good thing either. The feeling in and of itself isn't so bad, it's what we do about it that can have either beneficial or harmful effects. Finally, Ginott makes the point many of us have acknowledged: like it or not, angry feelings INEVITABLY arise when we're parenting. Figuring out how to deal with it best is what we can aim for (rather than the complete elimination of this "basic" / biologically-based emotion).

Here's the challenge then: Let's try to actually EXPRESS our angry feelings, instead of completely quashing them. But let's try to do so with Ginott's prescrption:

"Anger should be expressed in a way that brings some relief to the parent, some insight to the child, and no harmful side effects to either of them." 

Tall order, I know… But the idea is that we don't want to express that anger such that it ESCALATES our bad feelings or our child's bad feelings. But we DO want to communicate our frustration in a way that opens up the possibility for repair and connection, with some learning potentially thrown in. I'll talk more about repair (either this week, if that feels right, or next). But I think before we think about how best to repair interactions when they go awry, we need to first think about how we can express those negative/angry feelings in the first place. 

So, there are a few tips given in the book about communicating anger:

  • Accept, WITHOUT ANY GUILT OR SHAME, that we will get angry at our children sometimes. 
  • We can express our feelings of anger as long as we don't do so by attacking our child's personality or character (e.g., avoid saying things like "I'm so angry because you're a lazy / slow / stubborn / mean / bad / stupid / etc. child.").
  • Use "I" statements when expressing anger: "I feel frustrated when you don't listen to me." "I'm getting more and more angry the longer you take to pick up your toys." "I'm angry at you because it took me 30 min to cook dinner and you just threw it all over the floor."  
  • If the first mild expression of your anger gets no reaction, elaborate and express your wishful actions: "I'm so angry that you dumped your toys out of the bin right after I cleaned them all up. It makes me so, so angry that I don't want to play with you now." "When you hit your baby brother, I see red, that's how angry I get. It makes me want to stomp upstairs and not let you play with baby brother." 

The idea here is that expressing your authentic feelings of anger does two things: (1) communicates your dislike for some behaviour you'd like your child to change in a way that is more "real" and, thus, more easily understood and respected by your child and (2) allows for you to move on from that emotion, because it's expressed and you no longer have to expend so much energy to suppress it. This is energy you could more productively use to flexibly figure out a solution to the conflict. 

Again, I'll refrain in this first post from giving a bunch of theoretical background why expressing anger with our children might be important. I do want to add my own developmental thoughts (preliminary as they may be): (1) Very young children who can't understand the words for particular emotions are going to have a tough time with this one, but it's not impossible to start even with them. A one-year old may not fully understand the words you're using, but she may still get your facial expressions and your intentions to communicate something important, so all is not lost on the very young with this approach (and obviously, we parents are still benefiting from being able to express some of our frustration and practicing how to do so in a safe, non-insulting way, so that when they ARE old enough to understand our words, we'll be more versed at this strategy). (2) Children around the age of 2.5 years old will be able to really understand emotion terms and get their impact. Before that, you're not wasting your time, but it's more like you're setting the stage. After that, there will be variability in terms of how interested children will be in learning what you're teaching them (just like there's variability in how interested kids will be about numbers, letters, trains and dolls). (3) Children in "sensitive windows" of development, particularly the 18 – 22 month and the 3.5 – 4 year old stages may be particularly vulnerable to our expressions of anger because of the emotional challenges they're dealing with (e.g., struggles with autonomy vs. independence with the 18-month old; battling with potentially overwhelming feelings of shame and/or jealousy with the 3.5 year old). That doesn't mean we shouldn't still try to express these emotions, but being aware of our children's increased vulnerability may help us temper the manner in which we express ourselves. (4) Children over the age of 3 or so, or children with older siblings, may particularly benefit from watching their parents express anger in a non-violent, non-explosive, but nevertheless authentic way. Their cognitive capabilities are such that they may even initiate repair strategies with us… not a bad outcome. 

As usual, I could go on and on with elaborating why this might be a tough strategy to implement, the kinds of contexts that it would be impossible to do so, and the different types of children for whom it might work or blow up in our faces. But I want to leave most of that discussion to you. Let us know: Do you express your feelings of anger to your children? Do you think it's a good or bad idea to do so? When you try to communicate angry feelings, how does your child react? What makes it difficult for you to talk about your angry emotions? Were your parents able to communicate anger in a way that was not terrifying or soul-crushing? 

Parenting challenge #1: Let’s pretend

Playful Parent book cover
Today is the first day of a series of posts that will provide a bunch of small suggestions for effective discipline strategies, or parenting approaches, or whatever you wan to label them. Read more about the Parenting Challenge in this post. In short: The idea is that we can all use a few more strategies to try out in our most trying situations with our kids. None of these strategies is meant to stand alone as THE. ONE. BEST. WAY. TO. DEAL. WITH. YOUR. KID. I'll put a new challenge up every Monday and you all can come back to the comment sections with feedback about what happened when you tried it: the good, the bad, and the ugly. We can all learn so much from each other: we have kids of different ages, with different temperaments, we OURSELVES very different personalities (with varying experiences of being parented that have shaped those personalities), we come with different parenting philosophies, varying family structures (married, single parenting, grandparents around, siblings in the picture, etc.). I'm willing to bet that all the strategies I put out here will vary in effectiveness with all those differences.

I'm going to try not to write pages and pages about the philosophy behind this or any other technique on Monday — I want to simply put the idea out there. For the rest of the week, I'll try to provide you with some background and research (when there is some) on the strategy, interspersed with OTHER topics, so you guys don't die of boredom from this one theme. 

Your mission, if you choose to accept it, comes from excerpts from Playful Parenting. It's SO simple and yet I find it so difficult to implement if I'm in a crabby mood, generally stressed or I'm sleep-deprived (usually they coincide). The idea is to take any discipline challenge or conflict type that seems to recur and turn it into a game of imaginary play. Remember the words: LET'S PRETEND. And when you least want to do it, when you most want to put your foot down and insist that she JUST LISTEN to you… stop, breathe in, and say OUT LOUD "Let's Pretend." Say it as cheerfully, loudly, and animatedly (that's not a word, I'm guessing). This is one of those instances when you'll probably be faking it until you really mean it. With this "LET'S PRETEND…" introduction, most post 3 year-olds will stop in their tracks and you'll have them watching you for more instructions. Now here's the part that can take some practice. "Let's pretend…" what? You've got to come up with something that will pull a child into complying with your wishes without him realizing that that's actually what you're doing. But the mere act of pretending, WITH YOU ESPECIALLY, changes any power struggle into a fun way to connect and collaborate. It can work miracles. (There's a good reason why generations after generations have used the "here comes the airplane/train/car, open the station!" to get kids to eat a few more bites). Here are just a few examples:

  • If your child doesn't want to get dressed in the morning: "Let's pretend that our clothes give us super powers! Once you put on your pants and shirt, what superhero will you be? MY clothes make me SUPER STRONG, maybe yours will make you invisible/able to fly/etc."
  • If your child doesn't want to switch off the t.v.: "Let's pretend that [enter whatever character she's been watching on tv] is down the hall and wants to play with us. Who do you want to be [in the tv show]? I'm going to be [enter character]." 
  • If you need 10 more min to get ready in the morning/to finish a conversation on the phone/etc.: "Let's pretend that I'm the queen who is coming to visit your castle for a feast. You're the King who has to get all your animals ready, cleaned, dressed, and at the table ready for my inspection! The Queen will be in your room in 10 mind… QUICK! Prepare for the feast!" 

Seriously, there's way too many examples to list. I JUST used this strategy a second ago, to buy myself 10 more editing minutes with this post. I told my boys: "Let's pretend that I'm Sir Toppenhat [dear god are you ever lucky if you don't know who that is] and that I will be coming to your train station. The trains need to be all cleaned and in their right order for the big race today!" Off they went to assemble the trains for the big race. Guaranteed that if I had told them to go play so that I can finish my work they would (a) have never left or (b) if they had, they would have been back in 30 sec asking if I'm ready to play. But providing them a REASON that I HAVE TO stay away for a few minutes worked. In fact, they just called back to me: "Don't come in yet, Sir Toppenhat! We're still working on the track!"

Some considerations:

  • Kids much younger than 2.5 years old may not be as into the pretend stuff. There are lots of reasons that pretend play usually starts after that age (I'll spare you that review for another time). With younger kids, you can just ACT OUT whatever pretend scenario you want, without having to tell them to "pretend." (So, act like the big monster that will eat their food up for them if they don't eat it first; Pick up your child and fly him around the hall once he FINALLY gets his "super flying boots" on, etc.)
  • Some kids are less inclined to pretend play than others. No big reasons, just some are more fantasy-oriented than others (just like some kids like to play with numbers and letters and others are bored stiff with that stuff early on). Most kids WILL get into it with you, if you "practice" these pretend scenarios with them.
  • The older the child is, the more I would try to enlist them to make up scenarios with you. 
  • It's a good idea to come up with a few of these pretend scenarios BEFORE a conflict or power struggle arises. In the throes of these conflicts, we're often angry, frustrated and exhausted, not the best context for coming up with magical situations to play out. If you have a few pretend situations that you know will peak your child's interest, think of how they could apply in all sorts of conflict situations.

This will be a great challenge to get your input in the comments section because some of us are more challenged in the fantasy make-up stuff than others (I count myself as one of the less "naturally" imaginative… but I'm learning). Give it a try and tell us: How did it go? What did you come up with? If it didn't work so well, why? If it DID work, what was so effective? Any new insights, thoughts, concerns that come up because of this exercise for you?

Edited to Add: CLEARLY I needed more than 10 more min to edit this post properly…

Flexibility in parent-child relationships

OK, first off, we're on with the parenting challenge thingy! If you don't know what I'm talking about, read my last post
and join us! I think it would probably work best if I post a
description of a parenting approach/discipline method every Monday (and
you can forgive me if I mess up and sometimes post on Tuesday,
especially on long weekends and such). Then we'll all have that week to
try something new with our kids. Throughout the week, you all can come
back to that Monday post and leave comments about how things are going,
questions about the approach, or rants about how sucky it all went and
who the hell do I think I am ruining your family life. I'm going to do
my best to take a more gist-like approach: I'll describe a method and
then give you my take on how it might be adapted to different ages
and/or different scenarios. I'll also try to supplement the description
of the method with some empirical studies or reviews of research that
provide some support for these various methods, either in the same post
or subsequent ones during the week. And I just want to be very clear:
many of these "approaches" are going to be RIDICULOUSLY simple things
that may seem TOO simplistic. The idea isn't going to be that any ONE
of these approaches are going to help you with EVERY one of your
discipline or parenting challenges. They'll just be one more little
tool you can add to your parenting toolbox (ugh… can that metaphor
be any more overused? Sorry, but I'm too brain dead to come up with
something more witty).

Now, on to today's topic: Flexibility. A few of you asked to talk
more about this idea. Given it's one of my main areas of research,
goodness knows I can ramble on and on about this topic. It CONSUMES me.

I've studied a bunch of parent-child relationships, both "healthy" ones and those that were in some serious trouble. For the latter group, I've worked with agencies that provide interventions for families with children who have "clinically-elevated" levels of aggression and depression (with a large does of anxiety as well). As part of my work (a review is in this paper), I've tried to identify the differences between these more healthy parent-child relationships and the ones that are more distressed. One of the most ubiquitous findings that keeps coming up, over and over, is the importance of flexibility in parent-child relationships. My thinking started way back, on the more theoretical level, thinking about evolutionary advantage. In much of evolutionary theory and, in particular, evolutionary psychology, organisms are considered optimally healthy when they can readily adapt to changes in their environmental context. Similarly (and with a whole lot more academic arm-waving), we can think of interpersonal interactions as being optimally functioning when they are flexible or able to adjust to any new challenge that might arise. In contrast, when relationships or interaction patterns are "rigid" or repeated no matter what the context might throw at them, problems seem to come up.

So how on earth would you test such an assumption? I've run a few studies that have looked at flexibility (both in parent-child and peer relationships). There's a few ways we've looked at this, but one is to look at troubled parent-child relationships and look at the parent-child interaction patterns that have developed over time. We've observed (literally, videotaped) hundreds of parents and their healthy or more troubled children interacting with each other while they engaged in different types of activities (for example, they are asked to play some board games, try to problem-solve a conflict they identified, clean up a mess, share a snack and so on). In one study, we videotaped these interactions and found that children with elevated levels of aggression, depression and anxiety are indeed more rigid in their interaction patterns with their parents. I'll spare you the analytic models we ran and skip to the gist of the findings: Instead of expressing many kinds of emotions, and controlling those emotions when the situational demands changed, aggressive and depressed/anxious children and their parents remained stuck in one or very few emotional states.  For example, it was common for families to become angry in the problem-solving interaction and then remain angry when asked to change activities (for instance, play a game).  BUT! it was just as common for these families to show neutral or closed emotional states across all activities. Healthy family often got angry, it's not that they never showed negative stuff at all, it's just that they shifted in and out of these emotional states as their context changed. The inability to experience a range of emotional states as the context shifted was the strongest predictor of future problematic behaviour, more so than just how much negativity parents or children shared with each other (the predictions, in one study, went from 4.5 years old to about 6 years old).

Why would it be important for a child’s healthy development that family members display a variety of emotional states with one another?  We might expect that a task such as conflict-resolution would produce anger and frustration in most families. Playing a game or sharing a snack are more likely to elicit positive emotions.  Sometimes it's appropriate to be anxious and hesitant, other times to be excited and spontaneous. My growing thoughts about these data are that, without the opportunity to experience a range of emotional states in family interactions, children don't get to develop an adequate ability to regulate (i.e., adjust, control) their emotions. They become entrenched in particular emotional habits that feel inevitable, and they lack the skills for shifting from one state to another when it might be advantageous to do so.

I can go on and on (oh! I will, in another post, because I have some cool intervention data that shows that when families are benefiting from treatment, they're becoming MORE FLEXIBLE. Yes, yes, I am indeed a little tickled by those findings. But I'll shut up now). And I can include a trillion caveats to this research including that these findings may not hold for all cultures, all age groups, different socio-economic backgrounds, and so on. But to tell you the truth, I actually think flexibility in parent-child interactions / relationships IS crucial across all these domains… I just don't have the data.

So I'll leave it at that for now, since I've rattled on enough, and I'll ask you what you think… Do you think that flexibility, rather than the altogether lack of negativity (anger, sadness), is as important as I do? Are there cases in which you think it isn't so important? Does this ring true for you? How about the way you were parented… would you characterize your childhood relationship with your parents as "flexible?"

Parenting challenge? Pick up a new parenting tool and tell us how it worked

I've been thinking about how we can all learn more from each other: How we can share what we've read and what we've tried with our kids that's worked. And I've also been very aware of how helpful reviewing all those discipline books (and many others I didn't include in that last post) has been to my OWN parenting challenges this week. Having to go back to some of those books and review my dog-eared pages was fabulous for getting me thinking about new ways to approach recurring discipline episodes with my boys (it's also made me realize that I didn't tell you the stuff I DIDN'T like about those listed books… I'm rather critical when it comes to parenting books, so you can imagine that providing you with those balanced reviews would have taken me another 5 pages). I've actually had one of the best weeks in months with my boys, largely because I've been more conscientiously applying various approaches that I've forgotten about or simply not tuned into.

I think one of the best things we can do as parents is to try to remain FLEXIBLE. I've written a couple of dry-as-sand academic articles about the social and emotional benefits to children of flexible parenting. By flexible, I mean the ability to use a whole lot of different solutions to the same discipline problem, the ability to express a range of emotions (both good and bad), without becoming stuck in one emotional state for too long, and the ability to repair interactions when things get ugly. I want to write a whole lot more about this issue of repair, and how important I think it is for parent-child relationships (and healthy development in general). I've been studying the benefits of "repair" in family interactions for almost a decade and I think it's so critical.

But back to the more general idea of flexible parenting: One way to try to become more flexible as parents is to simply add parenting tools (with some evidence of efficacy) to our toolbox. This flexibility will manifest differently for different parents, depending on what you already do, the extent to which you're happy with what's working and you're unhappy with what's not, the age of your child (of course!), and so on.  

So here's  my question/challenge: Would you all be interested in reading blog posts about, and TRYING, some different parenting techniques or discipline strategies (from the books I've already reviewed) and then reporting back on your results? The way this could work is that I could post a description of some little method or a more general approach or mindset that's advocated in one of the 10 books I listed in my last post. Then we can all try to implement the approach in the following few days and report back in the comments about how great or how completely hopeless that particular technique proved to be. This would almost be like our own little study (biased to high-hell, but still…), especially if you all were willing to give a little information about your child's age and explain the reasons for your success or lack thereof. Of course, certain approaches are going to work better than others for certain issues, different ages, different parents with various parenting philosophies, etc. But I think we could all learn something new and maybe even have some fun with this, if there's lots of participation. I would be FULLY into participating myself, of course.

Extra bonus: You won't feel like you have to go out and buy a bunch of books — I'll make sure to give you a smattering of approaches from a bunch of authors.

What do you think? Thoughts on how to make this work? Is this just a lame idea?

The best ten books on discipline

I keep promising you all a list of some of my favourite books on discipline. It's been hard for me to get down to a definitive list because there are bits and pieces that I think are great in so many books out there. So the challenge in making this list is to not overwhelm you with 40 books that you have to sift through reviews for while still being comprehensive in terms of hitting the biggies. But I AM skipping some great ones, and I hope we can think of this list as a starting point and get some feedback from readers about what's been mBooksost helpful to them as well.

Another few caveats: (1) I tend to prefer books that describe a general approach, rather than one specific technique. I like to pick and choose different techniques from various sources, but what I most value in a parenting book is a different perspective, a new lens through which I can reframe my challenges. Every time I read or re-read any of the books on this list, I am usually inspired to think differently about discipline challenges IN GENERAL. And I find that it is this fresh perspective that helps me parent more flexibly and tune into my child more consistently. (2) You'll see that the books on my list also don't generally use the term "discipline" in their titles (except for one) and that's because the authors are concerned with giving us the tools for raising happy, kind, empathic, non-aggressive children… and that's not ONLY about displine, but the whole big whack of parent-child relationships. (3) The the books on this list are ones that I continue to return to, rather than read once through, get what I need, and then give them away. So that's the last criteria I used for the final top 10 and that's why some of the more obvious ones did not make it. (4) Finally, I'm generally old-school when it comes to my favourites. I'm oddly skewed towards books that were written a few decades ago. I think they've stood the test of time for a reason (but beware: some of the language in these more dated books are off-putting, what with all the assumptions of mothers being at home all the time, fathers being secondary figures in the house, and general language that's downright sexist in our current thinking). 

My Top Ten Books on Discipline (NOT in any particular order…):

1. Playful Parenting: I can't tell you how many times I still pick up this book. It's on my night table and I often find myself rifling through my dog-eared copy to remind myself to Chill-the-f$#@-out! The book reminds us to HAVE FUN with this whole parenting gig. Easier said than done, but I find that the general approach of the book continues to inspire me to come up with new ways to approach old problems. Instead of the power struggles, the book shows us how to make conflicts into games. Instead of focusing on "discipline" and the "rules" of the house, the author shifts our focus to laughing, rough-housing, joking and bonding with our children. It doesn't solve EVERY discipline problem, but for me it gives me the gentle reminder that my toughest conflicts with my kids can often be solved better through flexible strategies that engage my children's compliance through play and imagination rather than through power and force of will. 

2. How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk:  This is another on my bedside table. From the same group that brings you #3 and #7 on the list, this is chock-full of great insights about how to approach conversations with children of all ages so that they're more receptive to your wishes and so that you understand your children better. As the title suggests, the authors provide you with ways to create a context that encourages really effective communication skills — I think their approach helps us reframe communication with not only kids, but with spouses, coworkers, etc. It's compassionate, effective, concrete and can result in some seriously fabulous results, from my experience.

3. Between Parent and Child: Yes, it's dated, but I love, love, love Haim Ginott. Here's a famous quote of his, that I continue to use: “If you want your children to improve, let them overhear the nice things you say about them to others.” It's a classic, more suited for older kids (over 3 or so) than younger ones. Here's one of a bajillion review/summaries out there: "Perhaps Haim’s genius was helping parents capture the meaning behind children’s words and deeds. There is nothing quite as soothing
for children as being understood. There is nothing quite as helpful for
solving parenting problems as the feeling of parents and children
working together. Ginott’s approach was unique because he joined great compassion with solid limits" (from the website).

4. Parenting with Love and Logic: I like this book because of its straightforward, practical approach. I like its emphasis on parental modeling of "responsible" behaviour and problem-solving. I also appreciate some of the techniques that are offered up as very concrete ways of teaching children how to make responsible choices on their own (and helping parents deal with commonly occurring conflicts like back-seat battles in the car,
homework, and keeping bedrooms clean). I have some beefs about it too, but I think it's worth the read. 

5. The Mother of All Toddler Books: Ann Douglas is awesome for so many reasons, but one of the most straightforward is that she is amazing at pulling together a whole bunch of resources, methods, techniques, and so on into one definitive compendium. This book gives you a bunch of approaches to try out with your child, depending on age, temperament, and you parenting style. It's a really great resource not only for discipline (how to deal with whining, tantrums, and so on) but also deals with other typical toddler challenges like potty training and eating.

6. Raising Your Spirited Child:  I've recommended this book before. Here's the review, which says it all… "Mary Sheedy Kurcinka's first
contribution is to redefine the "difficult child" as the "spirited"
child, a child that is, as she says, MORE. Many people are leery about
books that are too quick to "type" kids, but Kurcinka, a parent of a
spirited child herself and a parent educator for 20 years, doesn't fall
into that trap. Instead, she provides tools to understanding your own
temperament as well as your child's. When you understand your
temperamental matches–and your mismatches–you can better understand,
work, live, socialize, and enjoy spirit in your child. By reframing
challenging temperamental qualities in a positive way, and by giving
readers specific tools to work with these qualities, Kurcinka has
provided a book that will help all parents, especially the parents of
spirited children, understand and better parent their children." (From

7. Siblings Without Rivalry: From the same lineage (Haim Ginott) that brought us "Between Parent and Child," these followers of Dr. Ginott tackle siblings specifically. Lots of you mentioned sibling jealousy issues that may be underpinning the most difficult discipline episodes. This is a great book to re-think how to raise children as team members in a larger family. It provides a thoughtful, compassionate perspective on the sibling relationship in general and then gives practical approaches for addressing episodes of sibling conflict (with lots of examples).

8. The No-Cry Discipline Solution: In the spirit of her other "No-Cry" books, Pantley offers some concrete strategies that pull parents out of power struggles and into a place of confident guides for children's appropriate behaviour. I like the fact that there ARE some concrete methods that you can pick and choose from and that she's very much into taking the child's perspective in these discipline struggles. She encourages parents to remember that they know their child best and to choose the methods that will best suit their child's temperament and needs, as well as their own goals. 

9. All the Louise Bates-Ames books: If you're looking for actual techniques or methods, these aren't the books for you. But her series of books (e.g., Your Two Year Old: Terrible or Tender; Your Three Year Old: Friend or Enemy, etc) is fabulous for giving you a real sense of the developmental challenges and the cognitive and emotional milestones that are being hit at each age. She's also very compassionate and often funny when empathizing with parental challenges at each age.

10. Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense: Because so many of you mentioned that mealtimes were big battle grounds with your children, or that feeding was a real source of anxiety for you as the parent, I wanted to include this one. This is one of the better books I've seen out there on helping parents relax and enjoy mealtimes with their kids. There's good, solid advice about nutrition and stage-specific issues that will come up around feeding. Many parents report feeling a whole lot better after reading this book and implementing strategies to avoid power struggles.

OK, that's my top 10 list… for now. What have I missed? What book have you found indispensable when it comes to discipline or general parenting approaches?

Some strategies for dealing with the dreaded temper tantrums

Periodically, I've received emails about temper tantrums and how impossible they are to deal with. Tantrums usually escalate in frequency from about 18 months to about 2.5 years old. Most kids don't full-out tantrum anymore by the time they are 4 or 5. But apart from waiting these hellish episodes out, what else can we do? Here's just one example of an email that I think summarizes most parents' concerns:

This is an email of desperation.  O is going through another series of wicked temper tantrums – tantrum every morning when we change his diaper (doesn’t want it changed), tantrum getting dressed, tantrum when dinner isn’t ready right away every night, tantrum putting on his mittens, tantrum last night because I called “may” by its proper name “milk” AND dared to put it in a yellow cup.  Often these tantrums are accompanied by the classic face-down on the floor fist beating etc. 
So, we wait them out.  He escalates to the point of hyperventilation and my heart starts to break and I fear that I am being the worst mother ever, sitting passively by while my child gets more and more worked up.  We tell him, “O, I’m not going to do XX while you are screaming at me.  You have to stop whining/crying/ask nicely etc.” After a while (15-20 minutes), he’ll stop, he’ll say, “I’m done now.”  I try distraction but, often, he’s too worked up to be distracted.

This is SO classic and, indeed, distraction and ignoring are often the most commonly suggested ways of dealing with full-out temper tantrums. But there are a few additional strategies to consider. Part of the problem with the (approximately) 2-year old stage is that their verbal skills can’t catch up to their thinking skills, so they get easily frustrated. And also? 18 – 22 month-olds are ALWAYS frustrated. So are 2.5 year olds. It's just part of the major developmental transitions that they're plodding through.

Here are some thoughts and suggestions to manage those temper tantrums when they pop up:

1. The idea of ignoring the temper tantrum when it occurs and not giving into the tantrum-ee's demands is straight out of any behavioural modification program of reinforcement (It's part of the "coercive cycle" we've talked about before). Those are still good ideas. The only thing I’d add is to walk away from the child and go to another room when he’s tantruming — but remain in earshot so that he doesn't feel totally abandoned. Having you present, even though you’re not giving in, can be amping up his frustration (you are the evil being who is blocking his goal DAMMIT!). It’s not that he’s intentionally freaking out (in other words he’s not manipulating in any sophisticated way — he doesn’t have the cognitive capacity), but you ARE the object of his wrath and his hysterics are simply communicating that, as well as expelling his anger/frustration.

(Although you can see why many parents feel like they ARE being manipulated by these temper tantrums. Check out this video.) 

2. Forget the mommy guilt. Crying isn’t a terrible, bad thing that we should try to avoid in our kids at all costs. The only way our children learn to regulate their emotions is to express them first. As parents, we can try to take what we all feel, and the original poster expressed so well: “my heart starts to break and I fear that I am being the worst mother ever, sitting passively by while my child gets more and more worked up.” And reframe it with this: "Kids cry. Kids get pissed off.  Crying and raging aren’t in and of themselves bad (many kids just need to emote… A lot, especially when they can’t reason or talk it out). And I'm not a bad mom for simply witnessing his distress." You are doing everything possible not to escalate, you are not punishing him for his emotions, you are just there to witness them and therefore you’re inadvertently teaching him that emotions CAN be expressed (doesn’t mean he’s getting what he wants, but he can wail all he wants and you won’t hate him).

3. Try this set of responses, from the fabulous book, How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk (works for some, not others). Give words to his feelings, mirror those emotions, repeat the rule you're trying to enforce, fantasize with him about his wishes. The steps are as follows: (1)  When he’s starting to whine/complain (but is NOT tantruming yet), give him words to express what he feels (e.g., O, you’re feeling so mad that mama won’t let you watch TV! Mad, Mad, MAD!), (2) Scrunch up your face and look mad, so he gets that that’s what he looks like and YOU get that that’s what he’s feeling, (3) Repeat your rule, accepting his feelings, but not his behaviour ("You can only watch TV after dinner; You can be mad at mommy but you can’t throw things/scream, whatever"), (4) Fantasize with him: "You know, I ALSO wish it was TV-watching time. I LOVE watching TV with you O! I wish mommy didn’t have to work, but I can’t WAIT until after dinner when we can watch together." Seriously… sometimes this set of steps work MIRACLES. The trick is to REMEMBER the steps in the heat of our frustration and anxiety.

4. Provide him with lots of opportunities throughout the day where he has the illusion of control (if not the reality). He’s being told what to do all day long: with parents in the morning, with child-care providers or at daycare, during mealtime, and so on. Children sometimes need to feel like they have some say in the way their day unfolds. Most of you have heard this stuff many times and have mentioned this in the comments sections. Provide choices: Do you want the blue or the red pants today? Do you want to take off your diaper now or after breakfast? Do you want to have cereal or toast?. Also, I'd suggest being very attuned to his behaviour so that you can catch him being strong, good, powerful, brave. And then praise the hell out of him (he needs to feel his power and control and that you recognize those things, not just put him down for it).

5. Look for reasons for escalation of tantrums: Sleep changes? Nap dropping? Missed snacks? Missed meals? Too much sugar/preservatives? Too little sleep at night? Sick? Teething? Too many transitions? Working on new skills (e.g., verbal)? This doesn't help us deal with the tantrums in the moment, but it does help us understand them better and it may help us to avoid them sometimes as well.

What are your favourite ways of dealing with temper tantrums? If you're past this stage with your child, what was the best advice you received?