You know what the most annoying thing in the world is when you are a parent? Other people telling you what to do as if they know better.
Backseat parenting drives me crazy. Until I’m the one doing it. I have dear friends who spank their kids, and I always try to talk to them about the science of it. They always respond with, “I know what’s best for my kids, just like you know what’s best for yours.” Which is exactly what I’d say if someone told me that I was doing it wrong. Every kid is different. Every kid has their needs.
However, during those discussions, I’d say there is science that backs up doing something other than spanking. They’d always ask for specifics. I never had them. Until now. So here’s an infographic explaining what 36,000 people and 88 studies found.
The biggest takeaway for me? Even if you spank with control, discipline, and good intent, your kids are more likely to have depression and engage in aggressive behavior in adulthood.
For those of you who spank your kids, let me just declare: I am in no way attacking your parenting skills or blaming you for anything. Parenting is hard. I’ve wanted to spank my kids on numerous occasions. But learning about the science can help you in the future.
Maybe it’s what you grew up with. Maybe it’s what you have always known. But the science is hard to ignore. Take from it what you will, but just know I’m not here to judge you — I’m only here to ask you to consider an alternative.
I think we can all agree that we want what is best for our children.
I was in the supermarket last week, listening to a multitude of beeps from scanners, when a new sound caught my ears. It was a kid, a preschooler, begging for one of those baby bottle suckers with the sugar inside. She wanted the cherry flavour.
“Mummy, can I have this?” the little girl asked.
“No, honey,” the mother smiled.
“But mum, I don’t have one.”
“We have plenty of lollies at home,” the mum reminded.
“But I don’t have this one.”
“I said no,” the mother replied, while looking through an entertainment magazine.
With having no luck breaking her mother down verbally, the little girl upped her ante. Her face turned red and words about unfairness and meanness erupted from her mouth.
And then her next strategy: crying. In between her cries and words, she delivered gasps of air, purely for effect.
“Just put it in the cart,” the mum replied. “But you can’t have it until after dinner.”
“Can I just have one bite in the car?” the little girl asked.
“We’ll talk about it when we get in the car.”
The little girl’s tears turned to smiles within less than one minute of her setting eyes on what she wanted.
Now, I’m far from a perfect parent, but I cringed knowing what this mother had just traded. Basically her soul. She traded a nasty temper tantrum for a life of bargaining between her and her little sweet pea. And the sad thing is, it doesn’t have to be that way, nor should it.
I wanted to hand the mum a laminated card with these five fail-proof sayings burned into the paper. They’ve worked for me for years and remind me of chocolate. Every single one of them is good and I pick which “flavour” depending on my mood.
Next time your mini cross-examiner is giving you the run-down, take charge, be a mum, and above all, be consistent.
If you say no, you better mean it. By changing your mind, your child has gained more than a lolly; they’ve gained the knowledge you can be broken down easier than a cardboard box.
Have fun practicing these phrases with your little interrogator:
1. “Asked and answered.”
This is the motherload of all chocolates. Although I use the four below, I use this one ten more times then I use anything else. Let’s replay the scenario from above.
Child: “Mummy, can I have this?”
Mother: “No, honey.”
Child: “But mum, I don’t have one.”
Mother: “Asked and answered.”
Child: “You never get me anything.”
Mother: “Asked and answered.”
If the child keeps at it, you become a robot, saying the same three most blissful words over and over and over again.
2. “I’m done discussing this.”
Child: “Can Ashlyn spend the night?”
Mother: “No, she just spent the night here last week.”
Mother: “I’m not discussing this again.”
Child: “But …”
Then, from the mother, all action, no words. Smile pleasantly, tilt your head to the right, give the best devil eyes you can, and then simply walk away.
3. “This conversation is over.”
Child: “Can I ride my bike?”
Mother: “No, it’s raining outside.”
Child: “But I’ll wear my rain coat and it’s only sprinkling.”
Mother: “This conversation is over.”
Child: “But pleeeasssee?”
Mother: “Asked and answered.”
Become your usual robotic self. Remember, you’re a rock.
4. “Don’t bring it up again.”
Child: “I want these shoes.”
Mother: “No, those cost too much.”
Child: “But I don’t like those.”
Mother: “You’re getting the shoes in the cart and that’s final. Don’t bring it up again.”
Child: “I need them!”
Mother: “You brought it up again. There went your dessert for tonight.”
Yes, you’re going to get more crying with that response, but remember: getting your child to understand you mean business is a marathon, not a sprint.
5. “The decision has been made. If you ask again there will be a consequence.”
Child: “Can I watch the iPad?”
Mother: “No, you know you’re not allowed having technology at the table.”
Child: “I won’t get food on it.”
Mother: “The decision has been made. If you ask again there will be a consequence.”
Child: “But I promise!”
Mother: “I told you not to bring it up again. No iPad for the rest of the day.”
Prepare for a few tantrums until your child learns they’re not going to get anywhere. This is part of their normal testing stage.
Your child will eventually realise nothing changes your mind. This is how you will earn your child’s respect and set up a relationship where your child accepts your decisions the first time.
Don’t forget: their best friend, Timeout, is only a few short steps away.
Here’s a success story: After years of using these phrases with my four-year-old, I’m reaping the benefits everyday with no tears or fighting back.
Here’s the conversation I had with my daughter, Charlotte, while writing this article.
Charlotte: “Can I have a cookie?”
Me: “Yes, you may have one.”
Charlotte: “Can I have three?”
Me: “This conversation is over.”
Charlotte: “OK, I’ll just break it in half so I can have two.”
Sure, I see some passive-aggressiveness in that last comment, but I still won the battle. She happily ate her one cookie and I happily continued typing at my computer.
You can have these blissful conversations, too. Laminate a card or start memorising, but trust me, they’re almost better than chocolate.
I’ve been meaning to write this piece for weeks, but I’ve been too busy parenting. In fact, I’m only starting this after the dog’s been walked and fed, the baby’s had some food placed optimistically in front of him and been convinced to go to sleep, and the dishes have been (mostly) done. There’s a pile of clean, unfolded laundry in the hamper and another wet one festering in the washer, but I’m choosing to ignore both. I know that if I take those five minutes to put the damp clothes in the dryer and another 15 to fold the dry ones, it’ll somehow be 30 minutes before I’m back at my computer, and this sliver of nighttime quiet is precious, precious time.
My husband and I didn’t give much thought to what would happen when our careers ran up against the challenges of having a child. We had muddled through the domestic stuff fairly decently until then―or at least that’s how it seems in retrospect. And then we dropped a kid into the mix and what seemed like occasionally uneven scales tilted dramatically in one direction. I don’t mean to imply that my husband doesn’t help. He’s a modern, enlightened, all-around good sport who is especially receptive when handed to-do lists, although he often greets them with an “I’ll do my best”―a phrase I’ve come to loathe for its impervious good intentions.
But the truth―and he would not contest it―is that I do more. Once, in a fit of peevishness, I tracked every minute he and I devoted to household work and tallied the figure at the end of the week. I had done over 12 hours, my husband just over five. I accounted for our totals for a few more weeks and then gave up because of―what else?―lack of time. Was this tabulating ungenerous and shrewish? Probably. Did that make its conclusions any less annoying? No.
The disparities are augmented on nights like tonight when he’s across the ocean tending to business, and I’m at home white-knuckling it on my own. Because of some combination of social, professional, and financial pressures, he travels more for work, works longer hours, and when, in a few weeks’ time, we have our second child, I’ll take about 12 weeks of leave from my job and he’ll take two.
We are far from alone, although we are, in many ways, on the extremely fortunate end of the spectrum. We have a babysitter who works pretty much full-time Monday through Friday, allowing us both to have careers, and local grandparents who help out with childcare. We’re able to pay someone to clean our apartment every now and then and someone to come fix cabinet doors that won’t stay shut. All this means that we spend less time than the average American woman or man on household work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics: She clocks in at 2.6 hours a day; he logs 2.1. (Childcare, in the BLS’s metrics, is broken out as a separate category, but women still exceed men in those responsibilities.)
WAS THIS TABULATING UNGENEROUS AND SHREWISH? PROBABLY. DID THAT MAKE ITS CONCLUSIONS ANY LESS ANNOYING? NO.
But all that good fortune doesn’t stop me from harboring resentment about the disparity in our household labors and wondering if the dream of an egalitarian marriage―hell, even the honest attempt―inevitably collapses under the responsibilities of child-rearing, when social pressures amplify and leisure time diminishes. Because, I thought in some subconscious section of my brain that I’d married a Marty Ginsburg (husband of Ruth Bader) or an Andrew Moravcsik (husband of Anne-Marie Slaughter), a man with ambition and drive but also a willingness to put his own career on the back-burner when his wife’s was taking off.
When a child says “please” and “thank you” during the early years (18 months to age 3), it’s pretty much a rote expression, automatic and mechanical. If you think about it, you probably had to prompt your child by saying, “What do you say?” so he would remember to express thanks. At that age, most young children don’t fully understand the social graces behind saying “please” and “thank you”; they just know they’re supposed to say them.
At around ages 4 to 6, when a child begins going through the developmental phases that ignite independence and assertiveness, is when refusing to say “thank you” can rear its head. Not saying “thank you” isn’t really about misbehaving, it’s more about the fact that the child doesn’t have a fully formed habit of saying “thank you” when he receives something he doesn’t like. They’re not old enough to understand all the complexities of using social graces. They need to be taught, without punishment, so they can learn.
Teaching a child to be grateful, like most things in parenting, is not a one-shot deal; it’s an ongoing process. Most parents are embarrassed when their child doesn’t say “thank you,” and rightfully so. However, if all you do is correct and punish after your child hasn’t said “thank you,” then the teaching moment easily can become a power struggle, not a lesson.
- Model, model, and model some more. Let your kids hear you say “thank you” a lot. When you’re given a gift or someone does something nice for you, say “thank you.” Say “thank you” to the cashier or the dry cleaner. Let your child know that when normal things happen, you express gratitude.
- Point out details. Make a habit of pointing out the little details you like about things. Share what you like in the pictures they draw, and compliment how nicely they’re eating, how quickly they got dressed, and how they stopped what they were doing so they could listen to you. This not only builds rock-solid self-esteem, but it also helps a child understand how to pick out one detail he does like from a gift he didn’t like so he can genuinely say “thank you.” After all, no parent wants to hear, “Saying ‘thank you’ for something I hate is lying!”
- Donate. We had a rule in our house: about a week before each birthday or holiday, the kids had to survey their toys and clothes and pick out a few things to donate to those who were less fortunate. To avoid possible last-minute hesitation about giving something away that was theirs, the kids were in charge of packing up the stuff and I was in charge of delivery. We also made sure to praise them for their generosity so they could see how the whole process worked.
- Practice makes perfect. This is especially true when it comes to teaching appreciation. Give your child opportunities to do nice things for others in the family. This teaches him about learning to extend kindness and about receiving appreciation in return.
If your goal is to release a respectful, well-mannered child into the world, then please know that refusing to say “please” and “thank you” does come up over and over again as they age. If you’re embarrassed, try saying, “Please excuse her, we’re working on social graces, again.”
Two newly expectant parents recently asked my husband and me for advice about becoming parents. At first, we spoke to some of the lighter, more common truths about having babies—the sleepless hours, the blowout diapers, the potential relinquishing of one’s hours to rocking, holding, changing, cleaning, worrying, wearing pajamas, eating takeout and watching binge-worthy TV. (This last part isn’t so bad, so long as the baby isn’t wailing.)
For some reason—maybe because I love these two soon-to-be-parents, maybe because I was feeling especially reflective at that moment—I went deep, and fast, to some of the darker truths about raising children. I dove straight toward parenting’s ugly underbelly. To my surprise, instead of expressing fear and disgust, these two people thanked me for being so honest about these lesser-known realities of parenting.
And so I thought, perhaps my own dark parenting truths are ones that everyone should know.
1. You might regret becoming a parent
Few parents have the audacity or cruelty to admit this regret to their children, let alone speak these feelings out loud.
But I’d bet that many of us have felt fleeting tinges of regret. Those times when we’ve locked ourselves in the bathroom to cry. Those canceled plans and forgotten dreams. Those moments when we’ve wondered why the hell we wanted to commit to this whole child-rearing business in the first place.
2. You might like children less after you have children of your own
Once, in a college class discussion, I toyed with the idea of letting children run the world. They could make all our rules and solve all our problems, I thought, because they had a far better capacity for innocence and perfection and infinite love than adults did.
My professor then asked me, “Haven’t you ever read ‘Lord of the Flies’?”
She had a point.
It’s easy to cling to the myth of the innocence and perfection of childhood before you are a constant caretaker of children. My years of babysitting as a teenager and young adult did not prepare me for what I would discover as a parent. These days, I know that children are neither innocent nor perfect. They are, perhaps, less flawed than adults. But they are still fundamentally flawed.
For the most part, I only want to be around the flaws—the snot, the whining, the capriciousness, the meltdowns, the jealousy—of my own children, and maybe a few select others. All the rest can just stay home. Or at least stay only for a very, very short playdate.
3. You might lose friends
Parenthood disassembles and reconfigures your life in a way that few other events or experiences can.
Like puzzle pieces, some friends still fit after that initial reconfiguration. Some don’t fit until much later, far beyond those early chaotic years. Others never quite find their way back into your life.
Becoming a parent has fashioned both a mirror and a magnifying glass in front of me.
4. You might give up pieces of yourself that you once loved
No one has it all. No mother. No father. No person. All of life involves sacrifice, and parenting always demands its share of it.
It’s like those friends who stay, or return, or never come back at all. Some dreams and passions and loves stay even after the babies are born. Some return. Others don’t.
5. You might find parenting unfulfilling
In fact, I would argue that parenting is not completely fulfilling for anyone—nor should it be. Our children’s lives cannot and should not consume our own (much as they might devour our time and attention). Our children are not and should not be viewed as extensions of ourselves.
Parenting can fill one with love and wonder and joy. But it cannot take the place of all the other possible loves and wonders and joys in the world.
6. You might one day feel as if your child is a stranger
It might be that first time they utter, “I hate you.” The moments when they disappoint you. The realization that they have gone off and developed friends of their own, interests of their own, ideas of their own. Sometimes the strangeness is quite beautiful. Other times, it’s frightening.
7. You might face hard, impossible truths about your own parents
Becoming a parent has fashioned both a mirror and a magnifying glass in front of me. I can see in sharper focus all the mistakes that my own parents made when I was a child. But I can also see myself making some of those same mistakes, and new mistakes of my own, now that I am a parent.
My heart breaks when my children walk out the door without me.
8. You might understand, for the first time, horrific things
A new mother once confided in me that she never understood how people could shake babies until she had a crying, inconsolable baby of her own.
I never understood what she meant until, years later, when I had a baby of my own. Red-stippled eyes, leaking breasts, my own tears like tributaries feeding into a river of my newborn’s snot and saliva. I felt the urge to throw things, to scream, and, yes, to shake.
As I set my baby down in his crib and cried my way out into the hallway, I thought of parents who had less support, less security. Less of an ability to stop, set the baby down and walk away.
“There but for the grace of God go I,” I thought.
9. You might feel true, blinding rage toward your flesh and blood
Audre Lorde once described motherhood as the “suffering of ambivalence: the murderous alternation between bitter resentment and raw edged nerves, and blissful gratification and tenderness.”
I feel this ambivalence nearly every day of my life.
10. Your heart might break, every day, forever
My heart breaks when my children walk out the door without me. It breaks when I think of all I cannot protect them from. It breaks when I consider how I would be destroyed if I were to lose them.
My heart breaks with love for them. And it’s a different, darker, deeper, more flawed and more broken love than I ever imagined before I had children.
Children don’t actually develop this kind of self-control until 3.5 to 4 years of age, and even then they still need a lot of help managing their emotions and impulses. You are the expert on your child. We have expertise in child development. We’re in this together. #ParentForward
Picking up the remote after you’ve told your child not to touch it five times in 10 minutes. Slapping a friend who took the last train off the table at child care—right after she agreed with you that ‘hands are not for hitting.’ Running directly into the ocean after you’ve clearly explained that he can’t go in the water without an adult. These are typical toddler moments that all come down to one thing: self-control, and the lack of it.
Why do young children have so little self-control? The part of the brain responsible for exerting control over the emotional, impulsive part of the brain is not well-developed in children under 3. This is why toddlers are much more likely to act on their desires, such as yanking a toy out of a friend’s hand, rather than saying to themselves, “I really want that toy, but it’s not right to grab, so I am going to go find myself another toy.”
In fact, Tuning In, ZERO TO THREE’s national Parent Survey, found that parents’ expectations of their toddlers often outpace what toddlers are actually able to do when it comes to self-control. When parents were asked at what age children have the ability to resist doing something that parents have forbidden:
- 56 percent of parents said children could do this before age three (including 18 percent of parents who believed children possessed this ability by six months of age)
- 44 percent of parents said children could do this at age three years or older
Children don’t actually develop this kind of self-control until 3.5 to 4 years of age, and even then they still need a lot of help managing their emotions and impulses.
It’s not surprising so many parents have an ‘expectation gap,’ especially with so many 2-year-olds who are so verbal and able to repeat many of the rules parents have laid out. It can be very confusing. But being able to repeat a rule or expectation is not the same as being able to follow it.
Life with your little one will be (hopefully) much less maddening when your expectations for her are in line with her abilities. It can be a relief to know that your child is acting his age; that he needs help to learn to manage his impulses, and that he is not “misbehaving,” or purposefully trying to drive you crazy, as much as it feels that way. Here are some ideas for nurturing self-control:
1. Recognize that it’s not easy being a toddler.
There are an awful lot of things toddlers need to do that they don’t want to do, like getting in the car seat, stopping play to take a nap when they are NOT tired, or sharing their treasures. Let your child know you understand: “You are really disappointed that we can’t go to the playground today.” “You are mad that I won’t let you have ice cream before dinner. I totally get that.” “You are so frustrated with that train—it is so hard to make it stay on the track.” Giving your child the words to describe his feelings is the first step toward helping him manage his emotions and develop self-control.
2. Play games that require impulse control.
Color one side of a paper plate red and the other green, and play some “stop and go” games. For example, when you are outside playing, your child runs toward you until you put up the red sign. Then she runs again when the sign is green. Play “freeze dance” with music. When the music is on, your child dances; when you stop it, she has to freeze. Read books about children who get angry or have tantrums, and talk about how to handle these big feelings. Use your child’s pretend play as an opportunity to teach self-control. When a stuffed animal gets really mad or does something it shouldn’t, problem-solve how ‘Mr. Bear’ might deal with the challenge he’s facing.
3. Make a plan for how to help your child cope with experiences that are especially hard for your child.
Some toddlers have a hard time with transitions, while others have a hard time at birthday parties or adjusting to large group experiences. Think about what situations tend to trigger challenging behavior from your child. Making small adjustments to family routines (like re-thinking taking your toddler to the toy store after a bad night’s sleep) can help to reduce challenging behaviors, with more ‘Yesses’ and fewer ‘Nos’.
4. Set appropriate limits with natural consequences.
Even though your child may not be able to follow a rule yet, it is still important to set expectations. The key is to take a teaching and guiding approach with clear and natural consequences. Stay calm and explain the rule (“No throwing toys. If you throw the truck, I will have to put it away for 5 minutes”). If your child tests the limit, which is to be expected, calmly implement the consequence. Through everyday interactions like these, children develop the brain connections they need to master the skill of self-control.
5. Take your own temperature.
As a parent, you have a lot of power. Your child is taking his cues from you when it comes to managing emotions. Learning to manage and make sense of your own feelings—and getting help when you need it (and we all do)—is the best way to help your child develop self-control. Responding thoughtfully, rather than reacting, is one important way that parents make the difference in how their young children are learning and growing
Your two-year-old refuses to share his toy with your friend’s child. He snatches back his Thomas train. You are embarrassed, send him to his room for a time out, and tell him to come out when he’s ready to apologize. Once in his room, your child throws a full-fledged tantrum, complete with loud crying and kicking the wall. Now he’s really in trouble and will have to be punished, but were your original expectations fair?
According to a recently published survey of parents of young children conducted by ZERO TO THREE and the Bezos Family Foundation, the answer is no. The study reveals there is a sizable expectation gap between what child development experts know to be true and what parents assume their very young children can do. And the consequence is great frustration for parents and too much punishment for children.
Many parents and even some preschool educators often have unrealistic expectations that young children should be able to share and take turns. As an early childhood educator, I often observed a negotiation that goes something like this. The adult tells the child she may use the toy for a certain amount of time (often, a timer is used) and then she must “share” and give another child a turn. The most common result is for the child to refuse to relinquish the toy when time is up, followed by tears and consequences. For this reason, early childhood programs have multiple copies of the same toy in their youngest classrooms.
Because 43 percent of parents think children can share and take turns with other children before age two, however, many of young children are punished or labeled as selfish. In fact, this skill develops between 3 to 4 years, so what is interpreted as bad behavior is really a matter of development.
As a preschool director, I often talked to parents who were angry with their little ones for not following rules. Some tried positive reinforcement techniques like sticker charts or resorted to bribes. Unfortunately, most relied on some form of punishment, most commonly putting their children in time outs for infractions. To their dismay, their children often repeatedly broke the rules regardless of the parents’ disciplinary technique and warnings.
Brain science research teaches that for children under age three, it is developmentally appropriate for them to be unable to control their impulses. Yet 56 percent of parents believe two-to-three year olds are being defiant when they break rules, and 36 percent believe this to be true for their children under age two. The truth is that children just start to develop the ability to control their impulses between 3.5 to 4 years, without it being consistent until much later.
Crying and tantrums drive most parents up the wall. This often leads to lectures, yelling, and punishment such as the traditional time out and/or isolation in a room. (Hopefully not spanking the child, but I’m sure that happens too.) While leaving a child alone in a safe environment until he calms down may work, tantrums often happens in public where there is no place to do this. Becoming angry and even hitting a child in this state is like pouring fuel on the fire.
What parents don’t understand is that it is unrealistic to expect children younger than 3.5 to 4 years old to control their emotions. 24 percent of all parents of one-year-olds believe that children have the capacity to control their emotions, and 42 percent of parents believe their children should have this ability by two years. Thus, according to the survey, the majority of parents of very young children think they should not have tantrums and emotional outbursts. Once again, I suspect many kids are punished for something they can’t control.
Assume most parents love their children:
According to the study, the good news is that most parents (91 percent), regardless of race, ethnicity, income and education level, believe their children are their greatest joy. They think they are adequate parents but also want to improve their parenting skills. The parents surveyed felt if they knew more about child development and appropriate expectations, they would be better parents. They wished they had more positive parenting strategies in their arsenal. And they understood the importance of the first five years of life.
The majority of those surveyed are really “good enough” parents, but they shared these important goals for improving their parenting skills:
- Manage their own emotions as a model for their children
- Have more patience
- Not lose their temper or yell at their kids
In order to achieve these goals, there needs to be a greater understanding of how expectations are often at odds with developmental ability. Perhaps this disconnect between what we want children to do and what they are actually capable of is fueled by the growing expectations we as a society have for very young children. The increasingly academic orientation of our early childhood and lower elementary classrooms is a perfect example of this phenomenon.