Is it old-fashioned to insist on respect?

Posted by Samantha on Apr 18, 2013 in Boundaries, Respect
Cooperation flourishes in an atmosphere of respect...if children do not treat their parents with respect, parents will struggle to truly cooperate with their children

Cooperation flourishes in an atmosphere of respect…if children do not treat their parents with respect, parents will struggle to truly cooperate with their children

Yesterday at a parenting workshop, two parents were discussing their discomfort around insisting their children treat them with respect.

This was an uncomfortable idea for them.  It seemed old-fashioned and not quite right somehow.  Exploring the theme further, they discovered that both been raised with the idea “Respect has to be earned”.

It reminded me of a story I heard a while back featuring some teenagers, a Mum pushing a buggy and the headmaster of a school.  Approaching a gate on school grounds, a small group of teenagers arrived at the gate at the same time as the parent with a child in a buggy.  The teenagers pressed through the gate, forcing the parent to wait while they filed through the narrow space.

This Mom went straight to the headmasters’ office.  She told the story and said that she did not feel the teenage pupils had shown her the kind of respect that a parent on school grounds ought to receive: her opinion was that they ought to have hung back and allowed her to pass first, rather than the other way around.

The headmaster (allegedly) said something to the effect of “Respect has to be earned.”

But surely respect ought to be given freely to all people – regardless of race, gender, age, marital status, sexuality, educational attainment and so forth?

Surely people are worthy of being treated with dignity and respect simply because they are human beings?  I believe that any time we treat a person less than respectfully we are not living up to the promise of our own humanity.

I think I understand where the seemingly liberal and progressive idea that respect must be earned is coming from.  I suspect it’s to do with the reality that some people will not behave well enough towards us or others to make it easy for us to treat them with respect.

I believe in those instances it is more beneficial to simply withdraw from communication rather than to wander into being disrespectful ourselves.

Responding to everyone with love must surely be our highest calling.  And failing that, as we so often will, we must still at least aim for tolerance and respect.

We all deserve to be treated with respect, children and adults alike.


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No-one really wins a power struggle

Posted by Samantha on Jan 24, 2013 in Boundaries, Empathy, Relationships
No room for shaming here...

No room for shaming here…

I live very close to a primary school.  One morning as I came out my front door, Henry*, and his Granny and Grandad were getting out of their car.  Henry started whining.

“I don’t want to park here”, Henry moaned at his Granny.  My ears started tingling.  “How will Granny handle this?” I wondered.

“Well, it’s not your decision Henry, you’re not the driver.”

Wow, I thought.  Top marks to Granny.  Simple, honest, direct.  And very, very adult.  It was one of those moments when I mused again how we really have thrown the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to raising children these days.

Anyway, Henry wasn’t as impressed as me.  He stood stock still and refused to take his Granny’s hand when she held it out.

I instantly made up a story here.  My story went like this: Henry is normally taken to school by his Mum or Dad who arrive earlier and park closer to school.  While they’re on holiday, Granny and Granddad are filling in and they’ve parked outside my house, oblivious to the fact that they’ve upset Henry’s usual routine.  He’s not impressed with the extra walking that he quickly realises he’ll have to do.  He’s used to announcing his likes and dislikes and having his Mum and Dad take them into account more than his Granny did.  Now he’s cross with his Granny’s response to his announcement, as well as unimpressed with his Granddad’s choice of parking space.

What will Granny do next?

Feeling a little angry, Granny goes for a threatening tone when she next speaks.  She says, “Come along Henry. Now.”

Henry remains silent and motionless on the footpath.  Granny has wandered away from A+ parenting and is resorting to the kinds of techniques we have rightly tried to turn our backs on.  But she doesn’t know what else to do.

She’s getting crosser by the second, but Henry is made of sterner stuff.

Granny realises her threatening approach isn’t working.  The clock is ticking.  So she changes tack.

“What’s Mrs Bourke* going to think of you moaning like a baby?”   She’s referring, I assume, to Henry’s teacher.

There’s the tiniest hint of movement in Henry’s feet.  His defiance is withering in the face of his Granny’s shaming and belittling.  I can see him shrinking slightly.

It’s enough to move them forward.  Granny walks back and takes Henry’s hand in hers (not in the least bit gently I might add).  The power struggle is over.  Granny has “won”.

When I see this kind of interaction, I really wish that parents – and grandparents – everywhere could somehow learn to use empathy with the children they love.

How differently it might have gone if Granny had recognised that Henry simply wanted to park in his usual spot.  Then she might have followed up her great opening response (It’s not your decision Henry) with some consideration for how he felt in that moment.

Being able to respond to Henry with empathy when he said “I don’t want to park here” would have helped him move forward and accept the change in his routine.

Granny was great at knowing where her boundary lay (children do not decide where adults park).  But she didn’t know what to do to avert the power struggle that arose.  She didn’t know how to empathise with Henry’s desire for things to be different.  She didn’t know how to enquire about what was up with him – and still keep him moving towards school without the blows to his sense of self that her threatening and belittling will almost certainly have inflicted.

Perhaps the saddest thing about this exchange for me was realising that Granny will probably forget all about it.  But if incidents like this add up, our children and grandchildren eventually reach a point where they will not like spending time with us.  And we will be confused and bewildered about why.  We will be tempted to blame it on the children.  But that will not be the truth.

The truth will be that we did not know how to raise our children with respect for their dignity and personhood.  And because it is normal to want to avoid people who criticise and shame you, children raised in this way will turn away from the adults they love.

And those adults will be hurt by their children’s behaviour.

But the reason for their behaviour will not be a mystery to those of us who have been watching.

* not their real names


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Now look what you’ve done!!

Posted by Samantha on Dec 3, 2012 in Boundaries, Discipline, Mistakes, Parenting Dilemmas, Respect, Rules

We must teach them to listen to us. Otherwise we can’t keep them safe.

Last week I had a question from a parent wondering  what to do about a five year old girl who ignored her mother’s requests to stop playing with a snow-globe in the home of someone they were visiting.

Fearing a breakage, this Mum upped her requests to a clear (and no doubt reasonable) insistence that her daughter give her the glass ball.

However, instead of listening to Mum and cooperating, she ran away and moments later the sound of smashing glass was heard from another room.

It is difficult for many parents to know what to do in a situation like this.

The odds are stacked against us parenting well in these moments because our emotions are likely to be running high.  Our rational, thinking brain – the part we need to respond well – is in severe danger of being hijacked by the parts of our brain that deal in survival reactions (fight, flight or freeze) and high emotion.

Feelings of anger, frustration, shock, embarrassment, shame, exhaustion, guilt or fury can run high.

Every parent will have their own characteristic ways of dealing with such situations.  However, if you have a child who is more determined than average to make all their own decisions – regardless of ability or sense – you are probably more used to this scenario than the average parent!

This five-year old girl sounds like a spirited child.

Her Mum tries to be firm and to “take no nonsense” but nothing seems to work.  This is a common complaint from the parents of spirited children.

These children need very clear boundaries.  They need clear and fair (i.e. logical & related) consequences for violating them.  The consequences should not just be Mummy or Daddy losing the plot!

At the same time, they need buckets and buckets of patience and gentleness – often more than a parent has to give!  And yet if we don’t somehow find it in us to be as patient and loving as they need us to be, things spiral downwards because kids like this are temperamentally driven to fight us.

The answer lies in a balanced approach.  It’s about being in charge without fighting to be in control.

Spirited children tend to resist all efforts to control them!

A mantra like “Don’t fight and don’t give in” is invaluable.  Any parent can silently repeat this to themselves as they deal with any situation that comes up – and as we know, those situations will come up!

Resources like my CDs / downloads on power struggles and tantrums are helpful as they explain a lot about how kids brains work.  They also make loads of suggestions for how to manage family life in a way that keeps resistance to a minimum so that “snow-globe situations” come up less often.

You can also take a look at my discipline, boundaries and empathy blog sections.

Because it can be helpful to know that we are not alone, if you have a spirited child you may enjoy reading about my experience of actually doing boundaries and discipline with my spirited 6 year old daughter.

Best of luck!!

ps – incidentally, I believe that all families would benefit from a clear rule that says children are meant to do what parents say.  Yes, we must be careful to speak kindly and respectfully to our children and to allow them appropriate levels of autonomy for their age.  But it is not to any child’s benefit to grow up without the clear awareness that children are supposed to listen to adults, not because we said so, but because it is the right thing to do.


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The Naughty Step is traumatising our children

Posted by Samantha on Oct 20, 2012 in Boundaries, Connection, Consequences, Discipline, Punishment, Time Out

The Naughty Step kills connection…and if the connection is lost then we’re in trouble as parents…

This week the participants on my Update Your Parenting workshop were discussing the use of Time Out and the Naughty Step.  I was reminded once again of how much Supernanny has impacted parents since she first aired in 2004.  Just about everyone attending the workshop was using some version of Time Out.

My advice to parents is that they immediately stop using Time Out as a punishment and start using it as an opportunity to teach kids how to calm down.  For this reason I call my version of this parenting strategy Time Out….to Calm Down.

There are a few really important differences between the Beyond Supernanny version of Time Out and the Supernanny version.

  1. Time Out works better if the parent stays with a younger child
  2. You will need to stay with ANY child who is prone to getting very distressed at being separated from you
  3. Time Out is not punishment….it is teaching our children to self-soothe by breathing, positive self-talk and removing themselves from an overwhelming situation
  4. It is best if Time Out lasts between 30 seconds and 2 minutes – or as long as is needed to calm a child who has become very overwhelmed
  5. Sorry should not be forced at the end of Time Out
  6. Time Out is best followed by Time In – e.g. a hug, a joke, a chance to save face, a chance to reconnect through sharing a task etc…
  7. Time Out may actually be needed by the parent instead of / as well as the child!

If all this seems very far from how you do Time Out now, and what you’re doing now seems to work, you may like to know that child development and trauma experts are confirming what I realised 5 years ago through personal experience with my own son:

Time Out Supernanny style (putting a child in a “boring” place and ignoring them for a period of time equivalent to one minute per year of age) is shaming and traumatising our children.

We have known for decades that the effect of separation from parents goes through 3 stages:

Distress, despair, detach.

If we do not respond lovingly to our children when they are in distress, their distress escalates to full-blown despair.  If we continue to ignore them while they are in this state of despair, they will eventually detach.  What does detachment look like?  It looks like the Naughty Step is working.  The problem behaviour stops in the moment.  But it always returns because the Naughty Step approach does not address the needs behind the behaviour.

Detached from what you may ask?

Detached from their belief that the world is a safe and benign place where their needs will be met.  And ultimately, detached from you.

This is the uncomfortable truth.  Our children are detaching from us.  This is why we have limited influence as they get older.  To protect themselves from the hurt that we cause them when we do not comfort them when they need it, they detach themselves from their need for us.

Of course it is an illusion that they do not need us.  But it is an understandable strategy to limit their hurt.

We did not mean to do this when we began using the Naughty Step.  But as I am fond of saying, the data is in.

It is time to ditch this punishing parenting strategy.  Our relationship with our children is at stake.




Celebrating Grandparents

Posted by Samantha on Oct 6, 2012 in Connection, Hope, Love, Materialism, Relationships, Thought for the day

This Sunday is Grandparents Day.

I’d like to share some of my longing for that day.

I long for a day when all grandparents receive appreciation for an important job, sincerely undertaken, on a daily basis.

I long for the day when we share our appreciation of grandparents from a place of true honesty rather than a place of obligation.

I long for a day when all grandchildren experience the nurturing that comes from a meaningful relationship with a loving and present grandparent.

I long for a day when all grandparents step up to the challenge of being a loving presence in the lives of their grandchildren.

I long for a day when our older generation swap some of their holidays and coffee mornings for time with their grandchildren that doesn’t involve theme parks and presents. If they need help to learn how to do that, I want us to support them while they learn it.

I long for a day when grandparents recognise the depth of love that their grandchildren have for them when they are little and to receive this in deep recognition and appreciation of their contribution as grandparents.

I hope that this weekend we might take a little step closer to this vision of grandparents and their grandchildren.



Is there really a “good mother” gene?

Posted by Samantha on Sep 20, 2012 in Nature v Nurture, Parenting Dilemmas

I guess I can congratulate the Metro for not massively overstating the recent findings of Dr Ana Ribiero and her team.  Their article is here for those who would like to read it: http://www.metro.co.uk/news/912269-good-mother-gene-determines-how-much-effort-you-put-into-raising-kids

In a nutshell, the research shows that mice differ with respect to how much they lick, nurse and retrieve their young.  The headlines are because the scientists have manipulated this behaviour by manipulating a single gene.

Of course it’s a huge leap to say that licking, nursing, and retrieving mice pups is equivalent to “protecting, feeding or raising [human] children” as the Metro put it.

Another publication turns that into “Great Mums have a ‘good mother’ gene say scientists”.

The scientists say nothing of the sort!

My guess is that this highly trained scientist would certainly not claim that some women are born to be good mothers and others are not, nor that the essence of good mothering lies in a few physical behaviours – as the articles imply.

Thinking of my own experience, I was not a young girl who played with dolls as much as I noticed other girls did.  As an older girl I did not enjoy spending time with babies or young children.  As a young woman I was (publicly) certain that children were not for me.  Privately, I wasn’t sure but that’s another story.

Believing this idea that some women are ‘born’ mothers and others are not, I genuinely thought that I might not be ‘mother material’.  I really relate to Lucy Worsley’s point that “the reproductive urge” may have been “educated out” of her.

All that notwithstanding, today I am certain that I am a good (enough) mother.  Why?  Because I have taken the time to learn how to do it well.

Does that mean I am lucky enough to have this “good mother” gene – the one that’s supposedly behind how much effort you put into mothering?

If I have it, my pre-children behaviour makes no sense; if I don’t, then how to explain my post-children behaviour?  Simple: genetics is not destiny.

Parenting is a learned skill.  Mothers AND fathers can learn the elements of how to be a good enough parent.

They are the same skills that make us good enough people: the ability to love, to listen, to defer our own gratification, the ability to show compassion, to be patient and kind.  I could go on but I think that’s enough.

I can still get cross about this kind of reporting – reporting that reinforces stereotypes and encourages us to be deterministic.  (One day I hope I’ll just laugh this kind of thing off). This article and others like it may offer comfort to parents unwilling to look at their own behaviour and its role in their children’s lives.  Or it may promote the air of superiority that one can sense from certain parents.  My sadness is that for other more conscientious, realistic parents it may push the guilt buttons.

Don’t let it!

So, there’s a gene that determines how much you lick your child (I mean honestly!).

The only appropriate response I believe is: SO WHAT?


PS: for anyone thinking about doing something to improve their parenting skills please take a look at my webpage where I outline my series of parenting workshops designed to do just that – help us ALL be good enough parents!  http://www.beyondsupernanny.com/one-day-parenting-workshops



Do children need to play computer games?

Posted by Samantha on Aug 12, 2012 in Parenting Dilemmas, Play

Last week my irritation with screen-based computer games came to a head.  It’s not been the greatest summer weather-wise and poor weather always spells a more lenient attitude to screen-time in our house.

But what bothered me last week wasn’t the fact that my son and daughter play these games, but merely the fact that my son asked if he could play.

It bothered me because once he’d asked the question, then I had a dilemma: should I say yes or no?

I dearly wished that computer games didn’t exist because then my life (in that precise moment) would have been easier.  I wanted to abdicate my responsibility as a parent and blame the likes of Nintendo and Sony and especially the makers of Miniclip.com!

I said ‘No’ to screen-time that morning – the weather was good and it was the time of day when I KNOW that children need to burn off some physical energy (post-breakfast and pre-lunch in case you’re wondering).  Also, I’ve recently got in touch with this feeling of being a terrible parent if my children are indoors when it’s sunny outside – possibly that’s part of my heritage of growing up in Ireland!  So I said no.  But I was grumpy that I’d even been asked.

Then I started to mull over the fact that all behaviour is an attempt to meet a need.  What need were those annoying games meeting I wondered?

And very quickly it came to me.  The need for competency.  As an 8 year old boy, it is really important to my son that he has a sense of being able to do, what he needs to do in his world.  He thrives when he gets a sense of achievement, a sense of having attained some new skill.

Of course, from my adult perspective I know that greater competency at Fire Boy and Ice Girl isn’t really a transferable skill.  But suddenly I could let go of a lot of my irritation that had its roots in the judgement that “he shouldn’t want to play those games so much”.

I spent the next 24 hours thinking a lot more deeply about what I know about the effects of screen time on children’s developing minds and psyches.  I also attempted to balance this with my belief that I need to equip my children to live in the world as it really is, not as I imagine or wish it to be.  I thought of Sir Ken Robinson’s attitude towards modern technology and its role in education.  I thought about a friend of my sons, who at 9 years old can already produce his own graphic novels, movies, animations and music, using his iPad and various apps.  I watched that 9 year olds 18 month old brother proudly show me how HE could use his baby-apps.

I thought really hard about how I can allow my children access to all the good that computers have to offer whilst protecting them from the dross that is detrimental to them.  I came to the new and for me bizarre conclusion to lighten up on access to computers, but to change what my kids were using them for.

This is going to be a challenge for me because I’m not very interested in computers – except as they function as word-processors and encyclopaedias!  But I owe it to my kids to seek out the creative stuff that’s on offer and substitute that for the mindless gaming that I’ve been allowing albeit in limited doses.

For children between the ages of around 8 and 12 the need that takes priority over all others is the need to feel competent in the world.

If I want my son and daughter to spend less time playing computer games I’ve got to offer them alternative strategies to meet that need.

As my two like to say: simples!

Happy AND competent…no computer in sight…



When you and your child’s other parent don’t live together

Posted by Samantha on Jul 21, 2012 in Guilt, Hope, Parenting Dilemmas, Separation and Divorce, Worry

Ought a child have access to a parent who does not live with them?  My simple answer is yes.  Except when the better answer is no.

And it really is that ‘grey’ a situation in my opinion.

There are times, heart-breaking though it may be, when the better course of action may be for a child to have no contact with a parent for a time.

And there are certainly situations where a child ought to have more contact, difficult though that might be for the parent who would prefer to limit or eliminate contact with an estranged partner.

In all of these situations my heart goes out to the parents and children who live with the consequences of relationship breakdown.

Many parents are now raising their children while living apart.

For these parents the issue of how much contact is enough contact, for both the parent who does not live with the child, and for the child herself, is gut-wrenchingly difficult.

So difficult in fact, that many people prefer not to look at it too closely.  They do their best, and hope for the best.  I’m reminded of the lovely Michelle Pfeiffer quote:

“Like all parents, my husband and I just do the best we can, hold our breath, and hope we’ve set aside enough money to pay for our kids’ therapy.”

Still others are plagued by feelings of guilt that no matter what arrangement they have come to, their children will be damaged* by the breakdown of their relationship.

There are no easy solutions to this question of contact after relationship breakdown.  What is “best” for one parent may not be “best” for the other.  What works for the parents may not be in the best interests of the child or children.

There are a few things that are worth bearing in mind as you try to decide what to do.

  1. Children are hurt – heartbroken – by the failure of their parents to keep their relationship together.
  2. Children are also hurt (yes, heartbroken) by the failure of their parents to keep their relationship harmonious – that is, free of conflict – whether their parents are together or apart.
  3. Healing from this hurt and heartbreak is possible.

Whatever you decide to do, your child may grow up to believe you made the wrong decision.  Hopefully, they won’t believe that forever.

Hopefully, your child will decide to heal the hurt that their upbringing caused them.  Hopefully, your relationship with them will stand the test of time – no matter what choices you make about contact.

If you keep your child’s best interests in the forefront of your mind, and take care to balance their needs with your own, it ought to work out ok.

There is not one of us who has not got childhood pain to heal.


*For parents who find they have this difficulty I offer the idea that you substitute the word “hurt” for the word “damaged” and re-read the Michelle Pfeiffer quote and my 3 numbered points above.  Remember: hurt is an inevitable part of life….try not to be too hard on yourself….



Using consequences with a little toy-thrower

Posted by Samantha on Jun 15, 2012 in Anger, Boundaries, Consequences, Discipline, Empathy, Rules

Yesterday I heard a great real life example of how boundaries, backed up with fair and reasonable consequences for violating them, provide a sense of safety for children, which results in improved behaviour.

Borrowing an idea that had worked for another parent, this Mom told her young boy – who has developed a habit of throwing toys around, specifically aiming them at his younger brother – that if he did this in future the consequence would be that she would put a stair-gate on his open bedroom door, put him in the bedroom and he could throw the toys in his room if he still wanted to throw toys.

Since then, she has had to issue one reminder, which immediately resulted in a cease-fire.

She is amazed and relieved (especially as she’s not sure that she will even know how to get the borrowed stair-gate in position should it become necessary to do so!).




This solution is a good example of a BeyondSupernanny approach.  The parent takes physical action to limit inappropriate behaviour without shaming the child, by labelling them naughty or punitively banishing them to a naughty step or any other “time out” place.  The parent is firmly in their role as the authority and leader within the home.  The action is taken with a view to safety and leading the child towards a more healthy, functional expression of his emotions.  It is respectful.  It is gentle yet strong.

If this consequence is accompanied with empathy while it is being carried out, it gets even better:

e.g. “I see you’re getting really frustrated with your brother for knocking over your game, but I will not allow you throw toys at him and hurt him, if you want to continue throwing toys I will put the stair gate on your bedroom and you can go there to throw toys…..”

The child can then be shown more functional ways of expressing his frustration with his brother, e.g. by expressing his irritation to Mom and being heard and understood about how difficult and annoying it can sometimes be to have a younger sibling!

Remember – if one child comes to you with a complaint about a sibling, you don’t have to fix it for them.  Your children will work it out between themselves if you leave them to it (and take care to give them some tools like negotiation and compromise, problem-solving, expressing honest emotions, making “I statements”, walking away, etc).

Only intervene – as this Mom did – if someone’s safety is threatened!  You are the comforter, the safe haven, the listening ear.  Believe me, it’s a nicer role than the fixer.  Unfortunately, the role of fixer tends to intensify the sibling woes it’s supposed to be addressing.

These boys are now well on their way to having a better relationship with each other and with their mother.



Should we say sorry to our children?

Posted by Samantha on May 28, 2012 in Character, Communication, Connection, Mistakes, Parenting Dilemmas, Relationships, Respect

Children need to hear true apologies to learn how to give true apologies

I was recently asked what my position on saying sorry to children was.

Personally, I say sorry to my children on a regular basis.  I do this because like every parent, I make mistakes.  I still say and do things I regret and wish to make amends for.  Most recently, I did it yesterday at dinner.

Often I apologise when I put them to bed.  By bedtime, if we’ve had a “situation” during the day when I acted out of my lower brain, I’ll have had enough time to completely calm down and review the situation using my whole brain and recognise what I might have done differently.

I find that the more I make amends for my hurtful mistakes, the less I make them.  There’s nothing quite like taking responsibility for your bad behaviour to provide you with real impetus to change it!

Alfie Kohn in his book Unconditional Parenting recommends apologising around twice a month to your kids (p.126).  He admits this is arbitrary but excuses it on grounds that most other parenting advice he reads is arbitrary.

Why be arbitrary about it?  Apologies are for when you recognise that you have made a mistake, particularly one that has caused hurt to another human being.  Our feelings of guilt, remorse and regret are usually a good sign that we may have something to apologise for.

I want to make it clear however, that I am not advocating apologising to our children to alleviate our guilt.  That is not the right motive for making amends.

Making amends is an important part of how we connect with our children honestly, openly and vulnerably.  Making amends can include an outright apology, some expression of regret, acknowledgement of the wrong done or hurt caused, maybe a request for forgiveness, and importantly, a commitment to actually amend our behaviour going forward.

Making amends in this way, rather than merely apologising, strengthens our relationship with our children.  It is a crucial part of restoring the relationship after “big” mistakes.  Without appropriate amends after bad behaviour the relationship will not truly survive in the long run.

Making an apology is respectful.  It is taking ownership of bad behaviour and making a commitment to change it.

These are things we try to teach our children.

And the best way to teach a child to be honest, to be respectful, to be responsible, and to say sorry when they hurt another person, is to demonstrate these principles in our own life.  Not just occasionally.  Not according to some arbitrary criteria.  But rather whenever and wherever they are called for.

Should parents apologise to their children?  My answer is an unequivocal yes.  How often should you do so?  As often as your behaviour requires it.

Let your heart guide you.


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