My mom and dad took a course called Parent Effectiveness Training back in 1970, when ideas like discipline without hitting — and the very notion of a course in parenting — were groundbreaking. Not only did I survive the experience, I went on to take a parenting course myself — How to Talk So Kids Will Listen — when my own kids were young.
If you ever wondered about enrolling in a parenting program, there are many to choose from: Nobody’s Perfect, STEP (Systematic Training for Effective Parenting), Triple P (Positive Parenting Program) and COPE (Community Parent Education), to name a few. At ground level, much of parent education is delivered by dedicated unknowns, a mix of professionals and ordinary parents who started out taking the courses and worked their way up to the facilitator’s chair. They have a lot of knowledge and experience, so we decided to pick the brains of some Canadian family educators to bring you the best of their collective wisdom. Here are seven lessons we can learn from them.
Most parents could benefit from knowing more about child development
Until they have their own kids, “some parents haven’t spent much time around children, so they come to parenthood with little experience of child behaviour,” says Betsy Mann, who has been delivering parent education in Ottawa for the last 14 years. You don’t have to be an expert on early childhood development but, as Mann notes, “extended families are more spread out, families are smaller, and many young adults don’t get very much exposure to young children.”
Mann recalls a mother who had taken her two-year-old daughter to an indoor playground. When the mother decided it was time to go, she simply said, “We’re going home now,” and was surprised when her daughter had a meltdown. But, actually, that behaviour was completely predictable and normal, says Mann. “Two-year-olds live in the moment. A bit of warning would have helped this little girl cope with leaving an activity she was really enjoying.” This mom might have said, “You can go down the slide three more times, and then we’ll go home to get dinner ready.”
We can learn about child development from books or other media, but Mann believes there is no substitute for simply being around children. “Go to a park, a parent-child drop-in centre, a playgroup, a child care centre…and just watch a lot of different kids,” she says. “When you know what to expect, you’re less likely to be disappointed by your child’s behaviour.”
Effective discipline is not just about controlling your child’s behaviour
“I talk to a lot of parents who seem to be caught between ‘I have to either punish them or let them do whatever they want,’” says Rosemary Reilly, a professor of applied human sciences at Montreal’s Concordia University, who teaches courses in family life education. But there is a middle ground between authoritarianism and permissiveness. US author Barbara Coloroso calls this the “backbone” family, in which parents set and enforce reasonable (but not rigid) boundaries for behaviour, but also respect and listen to children and nurture their independence. That place on the discipline continuum can be hard to find, though. Parents who are afraid of being too authoritarian may have trouble setting limits. Meanwhile, those who have a horror of letting their kids run wild can be overly restrictive.
“Discipline is about teaching kids acceptable behaviour, not just reacting to bad behaviour,” says Mann. “A lot of parents have trouble seeing that positive strategies designed to prevent misbehaviour are the most important part of discipline. When you put breakables out of a toddler’s reach, develop a bedtime routine or set up a storage system that helps young children know how to put away their toys, that’s discipline too.”
Confidence is as important as technique
“Many parents have quite a bit of knowledge within them about what works and what doesn’t work with their children, but not a lot of confidence that what they are doing is right,” says Reilly. Self-doubt makes it harder for parents to be decisive and often makes them listen to the advice of others rather than listening to what their child’s behaviour is telling them.
So where does confidence come from? According to Reilly, it comes partly from harnessing the knowledge we already have. “Know yourself, your triggers, your limitations and your strengths, and know your child,” she says. “Though some general guidelines about parenting do exist, much of parenting has to do with appropriately nurturing and responding to the unique child before you. Not all strategies will work with every child.”
Parenting courses can build confidence by giving you a chance to reflect on your parenting in a supportive setting, says Sherri MacWilliams, a parent educator and doula in Charlottetown. “It’s easier to come up with strategies when you have a bunch of minds working together.”
Parents can also get some of their feelings validated; they find out, for example, that others have feelings like “I’m not liking my child very much right now.” MacWilliams says, “My observation is that after taking a course, many parents are more aware of their strengths and more confident and hopeful about using their strengths.”
It’s not just about your kid. It’s also about you
Some frustrated parents come to parenting courses wanting to get their child “sorted out,” says Toronto parenting consultant John MacMillan. “Often they say things like ‘What can I do to get my kid better organized or to get it into his head that he has to do his chores?’” MacMillan notes. “But as time passes, they begin to realize that they are the ones that have to change.”
That’s not to suggest that these parents cause their child’s misbehaviour. But focusing on themselves, rather than solely on what they want their child to do (or not do) helps parents get in touch with their real source of power, says MacMillan. “When parents focus just on their child, they tend to think, She’s resisting me,” he says. Stress, anger and resentment can follow — and derail disciplinary teaching. “When parents begin to focus on themselves, on their attitude and the way they respond to the child, they start to see that they have to do something different themselves to get the child to respond differently,” says MacMillan.
For example? Two approaches to the aforementioned chores are endless reminders (“Jessica, have you fed the cat yet?”) and threats (“Do that @#&% vacuuming right now or I’ll…”). Another approach, one that involves a change in outlook and behaviour on the part of the parent, would be to give children some control. After explaining why the need to do chores is not negotiable, give children, perhaps at a family meeting, a chance to make some choices about which chores they do and when. That approach worked in the MacMillan household when his now grown children were younger.
It’s important to look after yourself
Montreal family educator Domenica Pulcini says, “I meet a lot of parents who are stressed and exhausted and feel isolated from other parents.” No one ever promised that raising kids would be a picnic, but we don’t want to reach the point where kids are feeling our stress and agitation. The standard solution is finding time for yourself — a commodity that is in short supply for many parents — but Pulcini says simple things can make a difference. “Even an hour a week, to have coffee with a friend or to go out to breakfast with your spouse, can be very helpful.”
Parents can also help themselves by reaching out to other parents. “Young adults are usually connected to a lot of people, but when they have children, they often lose those connections,” says Pulcini. Playgroups, parent-child resource centres and parenting courses or groups are all good ways to meet other parents. Exchanging babysitting with another parent gets you time for yourself and helps build social connections.
There’s a difference between accepting your child and liking everything about her
Gerry Marshall, a mother and stepmother of six from St. John’s, was a consumer of parent education before she became a facilitator. One of her big challenges was the way she butted heads with her daughter Susan. “I relied far too much on power with her,” says Marshall. One time, she put Susan in her room for a time out and found herself holding the door closed, while Susan hammered a hole in the other side with her shoe. Marshall jokes, “That’s why I sometimes say to parents, ‘If threats and punishment worked, I’d say go for it. But they don’t work. I know because I tried it.’”
Susan also had trouble focusing and was easily frustrated by school work. “I felt a lot of pressure about having a child who didn’t conform in school, so I felt I had to make things better,” Marshall recalls. One evening during a tense homework session, she asked Susan to erase some misspelled words and rewrite them correctly. The girl erased a hole right through the paper, out of frustration.
Parent education helped Marshall find non-coercive ways to deal with her daughter; it also helped her learn the difference between liking a situation and accepting it. “Eventually, I developed some compassion for Susan’s difficulties and I was able to accept the kind of student she was, even though I didn’t like it,” she says. “Interestingly enough, when I let go of the iron-fisted approach, her marks stayed about the same, but our relationship improved. We were both happier and the atmosphere in our home became more peaceful.”
Don’t forget the big picture
“Raising children is a journey, not a destination,” says Sandy Shuler, a social worker and certified family educator in Calgary. “Parents often get very focused on the daily minutiae of parenting — sleeping, eating, toileting. That’s understandable, but it’s important to keep the big picture in mind as well.” In other words, raising children is also about what we want them to learn over the long term.
If your daughter hits her little brother, you will intervene to make sure the hitting stops and to make sure your daughter knows that hitting isn’t acceptable. “But if all you do is separate the combatants, children will not learn crucial life skills, like problem solving, negotiating and taking turns,” says Shuler.
Barb Farthing, coordinator of the Family and Schools Together program of Catholic Family Services of Saskatoon, says, “I suggest that parents ask what they want for their child in the long run, and then work backward.” Let’s say the problem is a conflict between an 11:30 p.m. curfew, which you think is reasonable, and the movie with a 10 p.m. start that your 13-year-old wants to go to with friends.
“If the goals are for the child to be safe and act responsibly, can you meet those goals in some way other than a strict curfew?” Farthing asks.Perhaps you and the child can work out a plan. Where will he be? How will he get home? If he’s walking, will he be with somebody? Will he have a way of calling if he’s delayed? “This type of planning can avoid the battle over the curfew while helping both the parents and the teen meet their goals,” says Farthing.
Another aspect of the big picture that parents need to keep in mind is the parent-child relationship. “Don’t lose sight of the relationship,” says Shuler. “It will take you further than techniques. You will not always feel that you like your child, but as long as you keep the connection going in some way, you’ll be better equipped to get through a lot of difficulties and challenges.”
Parenting courses Q&A
Q: Aren’t parenting courses just for families with big problems?
A: “There’s a stigma that parenting courses are for parents in trouble,” says Charlottetown parent educator Sherri MacWilliams. “But generally speaking, that’s not who I see coming through the door. Most are good parents who have one or two specific issues they need strategies for. Many go away with some new strategies, a better sense of their own strengths and a greater awareness of community resources.”
Q: Why go to a class when I can learn the same stuff from books or magazines?
A: “When parents who come to my workshops fill out feedback forms,” says Ottawa parent educator Betsy Mann, “the most common comment I get is along the lines of ‘It was really helpful to hear what other parents had to say’ and ‘It’s really good to know that other people face the same problems, and to hear how they dealt with them.’ In other words, the group is the best thing about the course.”
Q: How do I find courses in my community?
A: Contact your local parent-child resource centre, family service or children’s mental health organization, health unit or board of education.
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