Saturday, 5 October 2013


Just keeping a promise here, but first a disclaimer. As a general rule I don't hand out parenting advice. People assume that because my kids have turned out well that I must be some sort of parenting guru, and that's not right. I was extremely lucky. I believe that all success, in any sphere, is part effort and part luck, and this is no different.

And the reason I tend to avoid it is twofold.

1) My kids are not your kids. Every child, every parent, every family, every situation has a different dynamic and there are many different variables. What worked for me may not work for you for any one of those reasons.

2) I am not coming in at the beginning. A lot of "issues" that crop up in the adventure of raising a child are the result of things already happened, history that cannot be changed. I am not good at "fixing" things that already exist. I've never had to do it, and I wouldn't know where to begin.

Therefore if I ever give any advice, it tend to be to new parents, or for new stages in life. And my absolute #1 piece of advice is START AS YOU MEAN TO GO ON.

Let's just remember what we are trying to achieve here. We are trying to create a good adult. The stage prior to that is all preparation. A training process. An apprenticeship. It begins right at the beginning.

Having said that, there is a common theme I hear from parents worried about making mistakes. Yes, you will make mistakes. But that is also part of the process. Kids also need to learn what they do after they make a mistake, and they learn best by example. How can they ever learn to apologize and make amends if they never see this in action?

So, keep your mind on the goal (a good adult), and you won't go far wrong.

The number one issue with raising children is discipline. If they do something that is dangerous, ethically wrong, or destructive, they have to be told to stop. Sometimes their bad behaviour will bring its own consequences, but it's not always possible to sit back and watch that happen. If your son climbs on the roof, you are not going to wait for him to fall off so that you can say "That'll teach you."

The reason children have parents is because humans are not born "ready to go", as some animals are. They need this training period for safety and to prevent them from being a danger or nuisance to others. Therefore, parents need to have hierarchical power, as the teachers in this arrangement. Generally speaking, a child has an innate sense of cause and effect, and a conscience, but they still need guidance, and indeed some need more guidance than others.

So, what do we do when a child behaves in such a way that he could harm himself, or others, or could cause expensive damage to somebody's property? We call this bad behaviour, and we want it to stop. How do we stop it?

Our first recourse is to use language. Babies learn the meaning of "no" quite early, and to demonstrate this, they often don't like it. Even a child of six months being fed in a high chair, and throwing food to the floor can understand "no", and then has to make a decision whether he'll co-operate or not. This is your first clue to his personality.

At some point he'll simply defy you. What do you do then?

Repetition, with an ever firmer voice might be enough for some children. They don't like Mom being mean like that, and want to avoid it. Connections are made in their developing brains that co-operation = fun Mom, rebellion = mean Mom. Many will opt for co-operation to get fun Mom back.

Some children, because of their personality type, or because the urge to do whatever it is they are getting told "No" for, supersedes their feelings about Mom's attitude, won't co-operate. Then you've got a problem.

This tends to crop up at around two years of age, but can be earlier. James was already defiant and mischievous at 10 months old. I lost count of how many times I told him to get off the coffee table, or took him down. He'd climb straight back up and dance on it. He was having fun. I saw both immediate danger, and a need to curtail this general behavioural tendency. James was a handful. No, he was a brat.

It was my experience with James that cemented my awareness that all kids are not the same, and that good kids don't simply arise from good parents automatically. He was my fourth child, and although my 3rd had been mischievous, nothing prepared me for his outright rebellion.

To make it worse, it was obvious to anyone watching him being a little imp, that he was having a blast. His objective was fun. Lots of fun. All fun, all of the time. He was laughing as he challenged me. It was not with any malicious intent, it was simply "I want to have fun, why are you trying to stop me?"

But of course, I had to stop him. You cannot allow a child to run wild, not just because of immediate risks, but because it sets a precedent. At what point will you begin to put your foot down? When he starts school? When he reaches your height? After his first arrest?

No, it was my responsibility to reign him in. He needed fun, but he also needed limits. Children who grow up without discipline tend to have no self-discipline either. They become a nuisance to society, or worse.

The trick is to guide this child without breaking his spirit. And it can be a very fine line.

I chose, many times to pick my battles. To err on the side of not becoming a boring nag, and giving him enough freedom to be James, without letting him "get away with anything". I had hecklers. One of them was his brother. Alex, 9 years older, often gave me a hard time. He claimed I was far too soft on him. I'm sure there were times that I was, but you can be too hard too. You have to find a balance.

Did I hit him? Yes I did. I swatted that boy's backside plenty of times.

Did it do him any harm? No. If you don't believe me, ask him.

Did it work? No.

I gave up swatting his bum, because it wasn't the right thing to do. It didn't achieve anything. Sure, I could have hit him harder, but that is abusive. There is a fine line. I do not support the idea that one should never hit a child, but there are limits, and without breaking them, this wasn't going to be an effective solution.

Many parents use the time-out method. I found no use for that. My kids could either be reasoned with (so there was no need for a time-out), or they couldn't (so there was no point attempting time-out, they wouldn't STAY there), so I had to be more creative.

You may or may not have heard the term "guerilla parenting". The idea is that you pretty much make it up as you go along. You know your objective, but other than that you have no real plan ahead of the event, just a bunch of strategies in your head to draw upon.

That was how it had to be with James. I had to outwit him. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't, but I never let him get the upper hand. At times I would allow him to do the thing he wanted to do, so long as it wasn't TOO harmful, until he bored of it, and then I'd go on strike. You want a cookie? Not a chance. You want a movie on? Nope. You want to go out? Think again. You've been a brat so now you get no fun.

Because FUN was his objective. If I could thwart that, he'd sulk, reflect, and gradually......gradually learn. It took a long time. Raising kids is not done in one day, and patience is a virtue.

If you don't think you can keep this up for 18 years, don't breed.

Parenting is not for the faint of heart. There is never a time when you can say "I don't want to do this anymore". You cannot give up, or even relax your grip. You are responsible for what you release into the world. Every decision you make will affect your child, and you want it to affect him positively.

Yes, it's tiring. It really is. It can be very frustrating. But know this: it is much easier dealing with the most stubborn, petulant toddler (and James would score a 100% on that) day in, day out, than it is dealing with the fallout when your 16-year-old is charged with a serious crime. And that is what you are trying to avoid.

He has to know, somehow, that you are the boss. A family is not the place for anarchy. It is not even a democracy. That level of co-operation and freedom of choice is for adults, and let's face it, not many of them are even ready for it.

But you don't have to be a dull boss. Fun bosses are much nicer. Rewarding a child by reverting to the fun parent works, but there has to be a fun parent to revert to. If you are too severe, always strict, always dour, there is no benefit to the child if he co-operates. And a constantly harsh, critical parenting style will lead to more rebellion, not less. It's like shooting yourself in the foot.

Balance, there must be balance.

I often hear the idea trotted out that that you should be a parent and not a friend, and that you can't be both.


You can indeed be both, and the best parents are. They are good friends, in fact they are the friends who give you vital guidance on just how to choose friends. Friends don't enable bad choices. Friends encourage you and support you, but they also warn you and remind you when you are wrong. Considering how powerful peer pressure is, if you can be a good friend to your child there is far less risk of him making friends with the wrong people.

And friends can be fun, but they can also stop being fun when they see you behaving badly. And you want your friends to be fun. There is no greater motivation to civilized behaviour than being accepted and wanted by civilized people.

One of the natural consequences of being a horrible brat, as a child, is that other children don't want to play with you. If Mom is part of that circle of peers, and indeed the most important one, plus she also the authority from being a parent, she can have a massive effect on her child. It is her dogged determination to only be a fun friend when he plays by the rules, that helps him learn about co-operation and compromise.

And this applies at every stage of growing up. Right from the get-go, and until such time as his self-discipline is firmly in place.

There are two results from this style of parenting.

1) An adult who no longer needs authority. He can make good choices, behave in a civilized manner, and in turn guide others.

2) An adult kid who actually wants to visit and socialize with his parents, the relationship having matured right along with the child.

It's a win-win; there is no downside.

James is absolutely right, life should be all about fun. He still believes that, and so do I. He's still mischievous, and so am I. Humour makes it all doable.


  1. "I believe that all success, in any sphere, is part effort and part luck, and this is no different." Goodness yes. I have always said I refuse either complete credit or complete blame for how they turn out.
    " I found no use for that. My kids could either be reasoned with (so there was no need for a time-out), or they couldn't (so there was no point attempting time-out, they wouldn't STAY there)," We lived in a one room cabin at the time, and I don't remember the time out method as a well known tool. But once I heard about it I always wondered how you made a melted-down child stay. What saved me from the overly sentimentalized seventies hippie parent trap was Thomas Millar's wonderful book The Omnipotent Child. It gave me permission to be a parent.

  2. "If you don't think you can keep this up for 18 years, don't breed." Yeah, right. I am sure all yours were meticulously planned?