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Inspiring families with fresh thinking on parenting

Yano — Inspiring families with fresh thinking on parenting

‘Traditional parenting stunts children’s emotional growth’

Posted on 15th April, 2013 | filed under Featured, The Big Debate


The traditional approach of rewarding good behaviour and punishing bad behaviour is damaging our children’s emotional health, says Jane Evans. It’s time to re-think the way we parent

For the past few years I have been exploring the idea that traditional parenting – based on rewarding behaviours we want more of and giving consequences or punishments for behaviours we want less of – does not offer children the best long- or short-term emotional health outcomes. This approach has been around for hundreds of years so why question it now, especially considering the popularity of Supernanny, who uses a clearly defined reward/consequence-based model using a naughty step and reward charts that are easy for adults to grasp and put into place?

This traditional approach hinges on teaching compliance and conformity in order to keep others happy, and doesn’t leave room to explore feelings. Being told off, punished and temporarily rejected by the person a child needs to feel emotionally closest to can be confusing for them, and can drive a wedge into the child–parent relationship. Paediatric psychologist and author of The Family Coach Method Dr Lynne Kenney told me: ’We can secure compliance in the short-term with punishment, but if we wish to raise ethical, competent, skilful children we need to teach them how to identify and manage their emotions.’

If we are teaching children that in order to be acceptable to adults they have to get things right, and right can vary, then what are we setting them up for in life? Surely, the greatest long-term benefits come from teaching children to consider their own and others’ feelings, as this matches a pre-wired natural desire we are all born with to connect with others. Children naturally want to please others, especially those who care for them, as this helps them get their survival needs met. Giving a child insight into the feelings caused if they hit another child, snatch a toy, or run up a huge phone bill can be more beneficial as it taps in to the drive to stay connected.

If we don’t explore feelings with children from birth onwards on a regular basis, how will they develop the ability to know what led up to their outburst or meltdown, or the effect this had on another person? There is a danger that they will develop into adults who are unable to express empathy and seem cold, and who could potentially manipulate their way through life, over-ride their own feelings and put themselves in vulnerable situations.

‘The most vital element in socialising children is for parents to talk about the child’s emotions and help the child to think about what other people might be feeling,’ says psychotherapist Sue Gerhardt, author of Why Love Matters and The Selfish Society. ‘Research has shown that if the mother talks about her child’s own feelings, there is more chance that her child will develop a sense of conscience.’

How a child feels is often overlooked and ‘bad’ behaviour becomes a cause for concern and the focus for attention. Children’s behaviour is all about learning and communicating with the wider world and is shaped by our responses and interactions with them. If they snatch a toy from another child, rather than shaming them, it may be more helpful to give them an insight into the feelings around it. Try saying, ‘We need to wait for a turn as Jack looks sad now – were you feeling worried about not having your turn? What can we do to help Jack feel better?’ rather than ‘Don’t snatch off poor Jack. Now you’ve upset him – you need to learn to share with others. Come away and play with this instead.’ Everyone’s feelings are explored and the message about waiting for a turn is delivered without the child being made to feel bad.

If we don’t encourage a child’s ability to consider, express and understand their own and others’ feelings, we do them a great dis-service. These qualities open doors, keep us mentally well and allow us to connect emotionally with others, forming stress-free relationships at work and at home. Maybe it’s time we moved towards a feelings-based model of parenting that teaches a child how to behave with kindness and acceptability.

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‘Traditional parenting stunts children’s emotional growth’ was posted on 15th April, 2013 by Jane Evans under Featured, The Big Debate

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Jane Evans

About the author: Jane Evans

Jane Evans has built up a wealth of parenting and early-years knowledge throughout her career as a parenting worker for a domestic violence organisation, a respite foster carer, a child-minder, a children’s practitioner in a family centre and a support worker in a child-protection team while working in and with schools and pre-schools. She now uses this as the basis for the training she delivers on parenting and children affected by trauma and for her bespoke parenting course for those affected by trauma, either post-domestic violence or as adoptive parents, foster or kinship carers. Jane has also written an early-years story book to enable children to explore feelings relating to domestic violence, which is to be published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
  • http://twitter.com/Workingmumcoach Elinor Wilde

    This makes so much sense and it isn’t new – so how come it’s so hard to put into practice? Even when we have great intentions to parent this way, when we are tired and stressed we can revert to default modes of parenting which often are about control and punishment. So important to look at what your individual barriers are to stopping us putting a feelings-based approach into action. This is the really juicy stuff I enjoy looking at with parents. Thanks for this well written summary – a great reminder why feelings matter.

    • Jo Carr

      I agree entirely – it’s not just about the child’s feelings or emotions that caused them to react but also your own as a parent that caused you to react a certain way. Being consistent is the most difficult thing. However, I do think that there needs to be a certain element of ‘telling off’ when it is needed; in my opinion children still need very clear guidance of what is right & wrong – and that needs to happen right at the point they exhibit the positive or negative behaviour. I learned from my parents that the most important thing is to make time to explain why you believe that what your child did was either very good, or naughty, and allow them time to discuss their feelings about the situation as well. And that is something I always try to do. Also when I have over-reacted, and got upset without due cause,I aim to apologise and explain why Mummy got upset – nobody’s perfect after all…

  • mummytc

    If you want to explore this more then look at the Family Links Nurturing Programme, it looks at both the childs feelings and the parents as well as other positive parenting tips – a really great programme.

  • Laura Henry

    Jane, great blog! In my work with early years settings. I say it is about helping children to self-regulate their behaviour, rather than managing their behaviour. It is the same with parenting. All about empowering parents and providing the tools to support their child’s different emotional state. Also, give children the language to explore their feelings and label them.

    The high-scope approach for excellent resources:


  • Jane Evans

    Thanks Laura, mummytc, Elinor & Jo for joining in the debate on whether it is time to move away from a punishment/reward based system. My feelings from my work and research is that there is no reason why children can not learn about behaviour and relationships by examining emotions as this will stay with them better than feeling bad and upset.

  • mamapbee

    I absolutely agree with you parenting is not about setting rules or charts its in many ways an ad-lib way of managing because a parent helps the child to get to know themselves and feel confident in their values and beliefs that can only be done on an add-lib basis according to what transpires in the childs life, eg divorce/loss relationships etc.

    I dont work to any plan its really according to what I discover along the way and I do that by being aware of my childs world and who they interact with I am very much a part of their world you have to be connected otherwise you end up being her indoors.

    but most of all I follow my own MUM’s method to be engaged and always there if they need a second opinion but remind them one day they will have to do that for themselves so have the solution ready before you ask for my opinion.

  • Jo Cormack

    Totally agree with you- my book on addressing picky eating (out imminently! ) contains the same argument in relation to food.

    Research shows that when children are rewarded for eating something, their liking of that food decreases…

    Great post- thanks, Jo

    Follow me on Twitter: @johannacormack

    • Jane Evans

      Thanks Jo it’s hard to convince others that rewards are not the way forward to encourage a love of something as we live in a world of incentives! Am looking forward to your book it sounds great.

  • Naomi

    All very well, but try doing that with three small children including screaming twins! For us the ‘time out’ (we don’t call it the naughty step) is the only way we can talk with a child – that lovely conversation about making their sibling feel sad is only possible away from the rest of the screaming. How do you get them to stop screaming unless they have somewhere they can sit and calm down? It’s great to have an ideal way to parent, but I think tried and tested ways are often unavoidable.

    • Jane Evans

      Thanks Naomi that is so helpful of you to have brought it all to life. It sounds as if you are using more of a time in approach as you are staying with your child and talking things through with them. It is more concerning when children are put somewhere to ‘think’ until they can ‘say sorry’. Being with our child helps to soothe them so they can then unravel it all with us and learn.
      I am far from the ideal parent! If we aim for calmness and kindness we will miss the mark sometimes but it’s a great place to start from and return too amongst the chaos of everyday life.