The Parent Fairy: How and why I transformed my experience of parenting.
Despite the ever-increasing amount of parenting resources that are available to us, whether online, in books, or via classes, the way that our parents raised us is undoubtedly still a primary influence when it comes to how we bring up our children. We may choose to do exactly what our parents did, or the exact opposite, or perhaps just pick and choose the bits that we liked, and reject the bits that we didn’t. I am no different. My greatest influence in the early days of parenthood was my own upbringing. I was raised in a shouty, authoritarian household, with punishments, smacking and criticising a regular occurrence, so I quickly became a shouty parent myself.
Although it was far from ideal, I never questioned it, believing it to be normal. I don’t blame my parents. They were young, it wasn’t easy for them, and they raised me, my brother and sister in the only way they knew: the authoritarian way their parents had raised them. Although, my mum tells me that we had it easier than they did, so I guess I should be grateful for their relative leniency. I know from speaking to friends that the kind of upbringing I had was pretty common.
From the moment our darling daughter Rhian, now six, learnt to say ‘no’, everything became a battle. I shouted and punished, and genuinely had no idea that this might not be the right way to go about things. I thought I was a pretty good parent because I had never resorted to smacking, despite often feeling like it. But in my mind, shouting and punishments were fine, apart from the fact that they didn’t work, and only made her more defiant.
So I just shouted louder, attempting to increase my power by throwing in empty threats like “Do it now, or you’re never getting ice cream again”. I always felt terrible afterwards, and then moved on to bribery with ice cream, and thus the empty threats revealed themselves as blatant lies. I wish I’d had then the knowledge and skills that I have now, and I often worry what irreversible damage I caused. Most days when my husband, Brett, came home from work, I couldn’t hand the little monster over to him quickly enough. I assumed this was just how all parents felt, that nothing could be done, and hoped that one day Rhian would see the error of her ways and start behaving perfectly.
Through chatting to other mummy friends, it became clear to me that we all shared similar worries and frustrations regarding our children: not listening, not eating, not sleeping, not sharing, defiance, all the usual complaints. This made me feel a lot better: I was not alone. It also gave me an idea: I could become a parent coach (I realise that so far I don’t sound like ideal parent coach material, but bear with me). I thought it would be great to bring parents together to share experiences, support each other, and make them feel better, too. Surprisingly, at that point it hadn’t even crossed my mind that there might be gentler, calmer, kinder and more effective ways to parent, and that as a parent coach I could actually help people to put these new methods into practice.
When I began my coach training in 2014 (with a fantastic organisation called Parent Gym, who train volunteer coaches to run parenting courses in areas of deprivation), I was amazed by the whole new world of tips, techniques and approaches that was out there. How could I have not known about all these?! Well, probably because I didn’t think there were solutions out there to look for. I had just assumed that we had a naughty child and that I shouldn’t complain, because we were lucky to have a child at all.
I immersed myself into this shiny new world of positive parenting, and later on, gentle parenting, putting many techniques to the test, and completely changing the way I parent. Shouting and punishments were replaced with role modelling, listening and empathy. The naughty step was replaced with ‘Time out’, which was subsequently replaced with ‘Time In’ as I moved further towards the ‘gentle’ end of the parenting spectrum. Battles were replaced with rules, boundaries, choices, problem solving, and compromise. I began to regularly join Rhian in her world of play, so that we could connect at her level and I could really begin to understand her world, her worries and what was important to her. I learnt how to treat her as a human being with real feelings and needs, rather than someone I needed to control. I learnt to look at, and understand, the reasons behind her behaviour and help her to address these, rather than punishing the symptoms. Our home transformed into a calm, happy place.
My mum, whom I adore (and I’m not just saying that because she’ll be reading this) says “What a load of psychobabble; children need to be disciplined (read: ‘punished’) or they’ll grow up with no respect or values.”
There are very few areas where my mum and I disagree, but, sorry mum, this is one. How I parent is not permissive parenting. It is not that I condone or ignore misbehaviour. I just address it respectfully, and use it as an opportunity to teach the right way to behave. My husband and I introduced 10 immovable family values that underpin “Team Terry”. These are in a frame in our lounge (see photo), and whenever any one of us slips up, we apologise and take personal responsibility to make things right. So, Rhian certainly has values, including respect.
So, what exactly is the problem with shouting and punishments? When I ask the parents who attend my workshops to think back to how it felt to be punished and shouted at as a child, they say they felt hatred, defiance, self-pity, vengefulness and unworthiness. A child who is feeling these emotions is not doing any of the following: feeling sorry, thinking about how to make amends, thinking about the effect their behaviour has had on others. They are focusing on the impact it has on themselves, i.e. their punishment, the fact that their parent clearly doesn’t love and understand them, and perhaps how to get away with the misbehaviour without getting caught next time so that they can avoid further punishment, or how to get revenge on the sibling whose fault it really was.
Therefore, shouting and punishment not only damage our child’s self-esteem, but they don’t work either. They may get short term compliance, but they are not teaching our children anything that will make them change their behaviour in the long term. As the literature overwhelmingly suggests, including ‘Calm Parent, Happy Kids’: The secrets of stress-free parenting’ by Dr. Laura Markham, PhD, the best way to get our children behaving in the right way is to strengthen our relationship with them so that they want to do right by us because it feels good. Punishing (and this includes ‘Time Outs’, which although meant to be gentle, are one of the worst kinds of punishment because our child sees it as withdrawal of our love) and shouting do not help to strengthen your relationship, they do the opposite.
My mum says “Well I smacked my kids, and they all turned out great.”
Well, not quite. Like so many offspring of authoritarian parents, as I grew up I developed the following ‘textbook’ characteristics and behaviours: low self-esteem, depressive tendencies, rebelliousness, looking for love in all the wrong places, doing well academically (to gain parents’ love) but not having the confidence to put it to good use…. That was me to a tee, until I met my saviour of a husband in 2008. I can’t, and obviously don’t, blame my parents for the choices I made in the past, but there is clearly an undeniable link between how we were raised and how we turn out.
I don’t want to be one of the parents referred to by the poet Philip Larkin when he so eloquently wrote: “They F*** you up, your mum and dad”, so I am determined to continue building a strong relationship with Rhian. This isn’t always easy, as she is no angel, and she pushes buttons and tests boundaries just like any other six-year-old. I’m not perfect either, and sometimes it takes everything I have within me to remain calm and not throttle her. But I know that our job is to role model the Team Terry values, and support our daughter, so that she wants to behave in the right way because she knows it’s the right thing to do.
As I’ve learnt, albeit slightly late, our parenting choices are not restricted to doing what our parents did, or doing the opposite. There are other ways, and often these are far more effective and a lot less damaging. Nonetheless, our children will still look to us as role models when they become parents themselves. Let’s teach them well.