Emma, mother of a two year old called me recently, furious. Her husband had smacked their two year old. This was a shock to Emma who had never contemplated she would have to deal with differences in parenting styles. She says, “I just couldn’t believe it, we have both been so on board with responding and guiding Mia with respect. Hitting a child is an absolute deal breaker for me.”
I asked Emma, “had you just assumed or did you ever have the conversation about your views on smacking?” You see, so often as parents, we don’t actually sit down together and really talk about what I call our ‘parenting toolbox.’ We each have our own parenting ‘toolbox’ filled with useful and not so useful strategies for getting through each day (relatively) sanely. These strategies have been collected and stashed away since we were children ourselves and may include the tactics our own parents used as well as the things we have learned from others along the way, including books, media and discussions with friends. Your partner’s exposure will of course be different to your own –and that is where most arguments arise.
The very first step in guiding children’s behaviour is to create a positive family environment: little ones are very sensitive barometers to our own stress and chaos, so by supporting each other and working as a team, things naturally run more smoothly all round. One way to reduce stress and arguments with your partner is to sit down together, without the children around, and discuss your parenting toolbox – what is useful and positive and what doesn’t fit.
To work out what we want to include and what to discard, we need to be aware of our own values and our expectations and what these are based on, as well as our child’s development and capacity to understand. For instance, we may remember our own parents being fairly strict with us and see this as a good thing, but our memories may be of a different age and stage than our own child is right now. In fact, we are unlikely to remember anything much about being a toddler, so our expectations of a small person with limited language and capacity for impulse control could be completely unrealistic.
While a one year old may have a basic understanding of directions, they don’t yet have the brain connections that enable them to control their urges to explore. This means that they will head towards something unsafe muttering ‘no, no, no,’ so you will need to physically move your child as you redirect them to a safe alternative and you need to childproof their environment as well as watch vigilantly for any potential hazards. A two year old may have some wild tantrums because he can’t yet manage his big emotions or express his feelings with language, rather than because he is trying to manipulate you. So, instead of taking tantrums personally, it’s better to look for triggers such as tiredness, hunger or frustration. By pre-empting these triggers and helping your child calm down when he is overwhelmed, you are sculpting stress-regulation wiring in his brain so he will eventually be able to manage big feelings like frustration and anger, appropriately. Of course, comfort doesn’t mean you give in to tantrums over things like ‘one more wiggles DVD’ . Instead, consider that your toddler is learning to cope with disappointment in a safe and positive space.
As you work together on your parenting toolbox, it’s helpful to acknowledge what you are already doing that is working as well as what isn’t particularly effective or may be creating conflict within your family, and you need to be willing to look at new ways of doing things and how to include different strategies in your toolbox. Discuss, do we need to skill up? Could we do a parenting class together? Where can we find a class or information that fits with our values?
As you define your family’s discipline style and sort out your parenting tool-box, you will find it more productive to discard tactics that set up opposition and power struggles and skill up on ways to teach children how you want them to behave that also foster connection and co-operation.
One great way to work out ‘what’s in’ and ‘what’s out’ of your parenting toolbox is to ask yourself, ‘does this maintain my dignity and my child’s?’ as well as ‘is it safe? Is it respectful?’ And, ‘does it feel right?’
If you are looking for new tools for your parenting toolbox, check out Pinky’s recorded interviews: Living Loving Guidance – respectful ways to help your toddler behave. Each recording is an interview with an expert in child development with a wealth of information about toddler development, behaviour and gentle respectful discipline.
This recording series can be bundled with Pinky’s book Toddler Tactics for a great discount.