Ever since the arrival of Princess Charlotte, people have been talking about siblings, and what one can do to help their relationships. Shelley Davidow has written us a really interesting piece on how to change your mindset when dealing with discipline.
What do we do when our kids don’t listen, when they’re cheeky, when they’re insulting and rude when they fight with each other?
Our most primitive and basic response to children’s ‘bad’ behaviour is that we find ways of punishing them. This is retributive. We don’t want to be insulted, ignored, treated rudely and badly by the people we love most and bring into the world. Even if they’re toddlers! And our biggest fear is losing control, losing the authority to raise our children properly or give them the values they need to get on in the world. So we accept almost without question that some form of retributive discipline or punishment makes our children change their behaviour. In this model, we focus on a) what rule was broken b) who’s to blame and c) what punishment is deserved.
The very nature of punishment is to make someone suffer by putting them through something unpleasant or painful ”” But while a punitive response to our children’s naughtiness may work in the short term and serve to modify behaviour, it loses effectiveness over time. Children who are repeatedly punished learn quickly to focus on the avoidance of punishment. They then grow up and often lack the ability to self-regulate. The price of enforcing compliance is that it’s not really effective over time. It doesn’t solve problems either or help relationships.
If we are always punitive with our children, at home and at school, we raise people who are full of self-pity, rather than human beings who have compassion and empathy for others. We create narcissism rather than altruism. But if punishment is not effective and causes the build-up of stress and the breakdown of relationships, and if letting people get away with everything is not okay, what is?
The restorative approach is based on the idea that the wrong thing causes harm. Restorative discipline is an approach that works well over time. It seeks to heal and put things right by working with these questions: a) what harm has been done, and b) how do we fix it?
We can’t assume that children know what to do in each situation, so if we give them the expectations and the reasons, they are much easier to manage. Then, if things do go wrong, we can then talk about what’s broken (feelings, relationships or things) and how to fix them. Everyone who is involved in the problem is then part of the solution.
‘My four-and-a-half-year-old won’t tidy her room when I tell her to. I tell her she’s got fifteen minutes, then I tell her she’s got ten, then five, and she still doesn’t do it,’ said a dad at a recent restorative parenting workshop.
What he doesn’t understand is that his expectations, even though he is doing his utmost to be the best father he can, isn’t in line with his four-year-old’s universe. Small human beings cannot easily respond to timelines or rational arguments. Their prefrontal cortex is profoundly immature and it will be a long slow process before they can truly understand the idea of consequences. If that dad goes into his daughter’s room and says, ‘It’s nearly suppertime. Let’s clean up together,’ and if he sets a great example, there’s a really good chance that she will copy him because a) children of this age live in an imitative world, and b) she loves her dad and wants to do things with him. And if he shows gratitude and appreciation for her efforts, he will be modelling for her the behaviour he wants from her.
Consistency is also the key. We can’t be completely authoritarian, losing it one moment and then feeling guilty and being permissive afterwards.
As parents, if we stay poised, respectful and calm, we’re in the right place to handle the burdens of parenting when they arise. If we’re angry, we’re better off saying to our offspring, ‘I’m too angry to talk right now. Let’s talk about it tomorrow.’
In the restorative approach in a family, when someone makes a mistake, the expectation is that the mistake-maker fixes it. The ‘restorative chat’ is one that seeks to repair harm and fix things when they have been broken. This chat can be used with people as young as three, and especially with squabbling siblings. It’s so much more effective over time than ‘go to your room!’ The chat can also be used when one child behaves in a manner that needs addressing.
Questions: To the child responsible:
- What happened?
- What made you do that?
- Who do you think has been hurt?
- What can you do to make things better?
- What can Mummy/Daddy do to help you?
To the child affected:
- What happened?
- How does that make you feel?
- How has it affected you?
- What’s the worst bit for you?
- What do you need for things to be made better?
When stuck, any or all of these questions (to the person responsible) can help:
- Was it the right or wrong thing to do?
- Was it fair or unfair?
- What exactly are you sorry for?
- You didn’t answer my question.
As parents we’re often tired. We can easily get punitive, grumpy, humourless and cross. Yet we want our children to be kind, generous, considerate, empathetic human beings. We need to model the qualities we wish to see in them.
Here are the essential aspects of a restorative parenting philosophy:
- We aim to develop and sustain strong and loving connections that can withstand the ups and downs of family dynamics.
- We remain calm in difficult situations without reacting suddenly or emotively.
- We exercise patience.
- We take full responsibility for being the adults in the relationship.
- We’re able to manage situations restoratively; everyone involved in the problem is part of the solution.
- We value relationships above all else.
The restorative approach prioritises relationships and seeks to repair harm and restore trust. If we remember that punishment is not effective in the long term, and that children who are repeatedly punished learn to focus primarily on the avoidance of punishment, we may be more likely to take a restorative approach, which will keep relationships intact and help our kids grow into compassionate human beings who are responsible for their actions.
By Shelley Davidow, adapted from a chapter in ‘Raising Stress-Proof Kids’, Exisle Publishing at £12.95 exclusively for My Baba.