Saturday, March 8, 2014

Book review: Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids

While I was at my parents' house, I borrowed this book, which is by Laura Markham, and easily finished it in a day or so.  It's not a tough read.  I was familiar with Dr. Markham already from her website, Aha Parenting.

For the most part, I really liked the book.  The focus is on emotional development, how to nurture it in your kids and why it's important.  I wouldn't say it's a thorough look at every aspect of parenting, and it certainly couldn't be called a discipline book, though it has a few suggestions.

It's divided into three sections.  The first is about centering yourself, because you can't be the calm parent that your kids need unless you deal with your own baggage first.  I absolutely agree with this.  Too often we expect a level of self-control, calm, and respect from our kids that we don't have ourselves.  How can you tell your kids to use a respectful tone if you yell at them?  And it's not just about example -- negative feelings and outbursts can be catching.  I know when I was a kid, anytime people were upset around me, it was hard to distinguish their feelings from my own feelings.  Sometimes I would just go off alone, and other times I acted out.

I didn't find much that was very helpful to me in this section, though.  Most of what she says about mindfulness, slowing down, counting to five before reacting, I already try to do.  For deeper problems -- if you were wounded in your relationship with your own parents, for instance -- all she can really tell you is to seek help from a therapist.  It's fine advice, anyway.

The next part is about building your relationship with your child.  And here's where she has the clever bit -- at least, I have found it very neat.  When your child is throwing a tantrum, deliberately being defiant (like how Marko used to look me in the eye while overturning a basket of clean laundry), or just mouthy and rude, that's a sign that they have some negative feelings they have to deal with.  Our usual impulse is to try to make our kids just stop .... distract away from the tantrum with a new treat, punish the defiance, correct the bad attitude.

Dr. Markham says that this just leads to more outbursts later because the child is still upset.  So her method is to encourage an outburst, particularly crying for little kids.  (Getting your child to giggle, if they're not too upset to, is also good, and the big kids can talk through their feelings to feel better.)  You remind them of why they're upset while holding them (or staying nearby if they don't want to be held) and let them cry until they are all done crying.

It seems kind of weird, and I didn't do it for a long time after I read an article about it because I didn't like the idea of making my child cry.  I don't try to force them to stop or distract them from a fit, I figure if they're going to throw one, that's what they're going to do and it's no good trying to stop them .... but to encourage it?  One time I did do it at bedtime, back when we were teaching Marko to go to sleep alone.  I told him, "I am going to leave soon, and you are going to go to sleep by yourself."  He cried hard at that.  Every time he started to calm down again, I would start to leave.  He'd cry, and I would come back and hold him.  Finally he just stopped crying when I tried to leave, I left, and he went right to sleep.  Maybe he was just exhausted at that point.  But I think in some sense he had to deal with how upset he was that I was leaving .... yet with me present, so he wasn't just crying himself to sleep alone.

This past Thursday, Marko was having one of those awful days.  He was tired after our long trip the day before and still angry to be home, which is so much less exciting than the airport.  He was mad because he'd been watching cartoons and I had told him it was time to stop soon.  I figured the whole day was going to be a wash, if already at eight a.m. he was being this bad.  So figured I might as well try the "Aha Parenting" trick.  I held him while he cried about his cartoons.  I told him that I knew it was hard to be back home, because home is not so exciting.  I said that we all miss Grandma and Grandpa and his aunt and uncles, and it's okay to be sad about it.  I reminded him that we have lots of fun things to do at home too, and that made him cry more.  I said that he was going to watch to the end of the cartoon and then he was going to find something else to do.  He screamed and screamed.  (Michael, luckily, wasn't perturbed -- sometimes he demands lap time anytime Marko gets it, and that would have been problematic.)

After about ten minutes, he'd pretty much quieted down, so I said, "Would you like to finish your cartoon, then turn it off and find something else to do?"  He said, "Yes."  And we did not have another "incident" all day.  No meltdowns.  No whining.  No defiance.  No picking fights with Michael.

Well, I guess I'm a believer now!

Her other big point is "special time" -- ten special minutes of intensely paying attention to each child.  I don't know about that.  I definitely pay attention to each kid for at least ten minutes a day, but if I set a timer and said "this is your special time," it seems guaranteed that the other kid would break in with demands.  Special time with each kid is something that has to be stolen sneakily when the other kid is busy with something else.  And sometimes, I would say the most special time is with all of us together -- like when we go for a walk around the block together, or read a book.  I'm not sure they need it to be one-on-one, so long as I really am paying attention to both of them.

Of course, at their ages, Marko most wants to be listened to and Michael wants to be on my lap, and I can do both at once pretty well!  Maybe when they're older, they'll need something more individual.  Who knows.

The third section, about coaching your child to be a success, I didn't really like at all.  She says that if you are highly responsive to your child (which I'd say I am), you can also be highly demanding (which I'm not).  She spent the first half of the book telling us that our only influence on our child is their love for us, that we have to nurture the relationship by letting little things go and having twenty positive interactions to every one negative one.  Then in the last section, she says that we should have high expectations, push our kids to do every last bit of homework before playtime (plus extra if they aren't doing well in school), make them do chores, get them to be organized -- in short, dozens of commands and criticisms you're going to have to make every day.  How the heck are kids going to comply with all that -- especially without any form of punishment?

In my point of view, peaceful parenting has to go along with a certain amount of hands-off.  How can we tell our children, "I am not going to 'pull rank' on you and make authority everything by punishing you," and at the same time demand things of them that are neither to their own benefit, nor necessary for the rest of the family?  Schoolwork is one of those things.  Dr. Markham even admits that homework in the early grades hasn't been shown to increase learning one whit.  But she says that since the schools give it, you have to make your kids do it so that they succeed in school.

It just seems a rather tough sell: "Do this thing that you don't see the point of, which in fact there is no point to, solely because you love me and want to please me."  How far can you push this?  And isn't it a bit manipulative to do so?

I have very good results getting Marko to do things if I can show him that it is either good for him, or good for someone else in the family.  His own self-interest motivates him, and his care for others is beginning to get him to be considerate of their needs too.  I think this is great.  But if I can't connect what has to be done to one of those two things ..... I have a pretty tough time motivating him.  He might do it, if he feels like it, or he might not.  And I'm not wasting my influence with him on getting him to say "yes mom" or wear matching clothes, much less do homework.

She also says you shouldn't let your child try stuff on his own and fail, because then he'll think you're not on his side because you didn't help him, and he'll start thinking of himself as a failure.  So if he forgets his lunch, and you can easily bring it to him, you should, or else he'll be angry and hurt that you let him be hungry.  (If you are really busy and can't, you can just empathize and promise a big snack when he gets home.)  And if he's not turning in his homework, and his grades are slipping, you can't just say, "Boy, I guess that homework really does affect your grade!  You want any help?"  No, because he might choose to keep neglecting homework, the bad grade will devastate him, and then he'll give up on school.  And not wanting to be good in school is not an option.  You have to be proactive, hover over him to get him to do the homework, check his bag to make sure it's in there, etc.

Even if I did send my kids to school (and I can't imagine this, because it's so far removed from how I parent altogether), I wouldn't do this.  A little failure now and again, when you're young and can turn it around, is not the end of the world.  I don't think you learn to be responsible by having your mother check your schoolbag.  You learn by finding out what happens when you forget.  Scientists are now telling us that kids who are never allowed to fail as kids are paralyzed by the fear of failure as adults.  They simply can't imagine what it would be like.

So, in this case Dr. Markham parts ways with things that I do and believe, to the point that I couldn't see much wisdom in her advice in the third section.  What she calls coaching, I see as helicoptering.  It's in my nature to be much more hands-off.

Would that work for some people?  Maybe.  I just can't imagine it wouldn't result in a lot of frustration, constantly coaxing your kids to be high achievers.  Wouldn't that hurt the relationship too?  And once the kids see you as pushy and more interested in what you want them to do than in how they want their lives to go, haven't you lost the one thing you had to manipulate, I mean influence, them with?  Dr. Markham is a therapist and family counselor and has all kinds of experience, so maybe she's seen her method work for people.  But maybe it would totally fall on its face for some other families.  What can I say but, your mileage may vary?

For the first two sections, though, definitely a thumbs up.  If you don't want the book right now, try her website and poke around -- a good deal of the same material is there.


Anonymous said...

I think she's saying that you empathize and provide some scaffolding. You don't start the trapeze way off the floor, and you put a net under it. You let them know you care, even while you let "love and logic" natural consequences occur. You don't create them artificially, and you don't go "tough luck!" In fact, I think she's saying EXACTLY what you are saying.

Sheila said...

Of course you provide some scaffolding, but some of her actual examples were things I'd never do. For example, checking a child's bag daily to make sure the right books are in it. It's one thing for a first-grader. But at some point the child really does have to take over that job for himself. And as kids get older, they actually resent that level of micromanaging, because they want to be responsible for things on their own.

It really came clear to me when she showed a diagram of the different types of parenting, and called parents who are responsive but not highly demanding "permissive," and kept going on about how bad this was, whereas I feel that giving your kids all the affection they want while stepping back a whole lot on control is actually a great thing to do.

Anonymous said...

I believe she is very much talking about the kindergartener through maybe third grade in that book.

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