Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Quote A Day #1 - Baby Hearts

I have a strange fascination with reading parenting books.  I have the most insane collection of parenting books.  Even parenting books I know I am going to dislike, I read.  It's like I have to compulsively know what's out there, and most of them make me think or reflect in some way.  I have been thinking for a while I should review some of these books, but I didn't know where to start.

Now I have hit upon the idea that I will take one thought-provoking quote for one book each day, and rather than review the books, just take the quote as some food for thought, and write some reflections.

So here's day one.

The Book:

Baby Hearts: A Guide to Giving Your Child an Emotional Head Start by Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn.

The Quote:

"One of the strongest predictors of empathy in a child is whether she was treated empathetically herself when she needed comforting.  Hugs and kisses in such situations do more than just pacify a child.  They also model how one should react to a person in distress." (p96)


When I was a child I used to like to visit my young cousins on school holidays to babysit.  One of my earliest and memories of these visits was when my cousin Malcom was a toddler and I must have been about 10 years old.  We were playing and he grabbed a toy off me and I decided I better do the responsible thing and teach him some manners.  I took the toy back off him and said 'say please'.  He said please, so I gave it to him.  Then, to reinforce the lesson, I took the toy back off him and said, 'say please'.  He did.  So I took the toy again, and he started to get upset and tried to grab the toy.  'No,' I told him.  'You have to say please!'  He started to wail.  This brought my Aunt into the room just as I was trying to coax him to take the toy again.  

"What do you think you're doing?" she demanded.

"I'm teaching him not to snatch," I said.

"And how exactly do you think he's supposed to learn that when all you are doing is snatching the toy from him over and over?"

I was dumbstruck.  It hadn't even occurred to me I was snatching because I was taking the toy for such a benevolent purpose.  I felt so stupid.  And because I felt so stupid, the memory has stayed with me to this day.

She didn't use the technical term for what was happening - 'modelling' - but I understood exactly what the problem was.

The tricky thing about parenting is that you have to act in a certain way, and that models behaviour you don't necessarily want your child to adopt.  So you have to take certain objects off your children, even if you are very permissive.  They simply cannot have the hot cup of tea, or play with the knife, and you have to stop them if they yank another child's hair, or at the very least intervene if they upset another child by stealing a toy.  The trouble is that every time you do intervene by throwing around your parental power to seize the inappropriate object from the child, you are showing your child it is ok to grab an object and take it away if you are the stronger person.  With very young children who don't understand language it is difficult to explain why it's ok for mummy to forcefully remove the fragile TV remote from your hand, but not ok for you to forcefully remove a favourite toy from another child's hand.  Why is it ok for mummy and daddy to refuse to share their iphones, but insist you have to share that fascinating wooden block?

To some extent modelling behaviour to a child that you wouldn't want the child to adopt is impossible to avoid.  It's impossible because we're human, and because we're parents and to some extent we have to take charge because things have to get done and the baby doesn't appreciate the bigger picture.  All you can try and do is to keep your modelling of undesirable behaviour to a minimum.

I try to share even the objects I am attached to, and if I can't share them to find an attractive alternative for my baby to play with instead.  I try to convince myself that doing the laundry and cleaning up toys is in fact a wonderful activity that I enjoy, and to enthuse my baby to join in with me because it's so much fun - rather than projecting the idea that these are boring chores that I would still hate even if someone paid me to do them.  (Funnily enough, after I'd been doing this for a while the chores themselves felt less unpleasant.)

It easy enough to see what you're modelling with mundane activities, but it gets harder when you're reacting to some unpleasant behaviour that pushes your buttons.

A child who is a whingy, sooky la-la can be profoundly irritating.  I have to keep reminding myself that while training a child not to be a sooky whingy la-la by ignoring them may work to get rid of the sooky whinging,  it also runs a very good chance of creating a child who thinks that a person who is upset ought to be ignored, who does not think to offer comfort, and wouldn't know how to offer comfort even if it occurred to them to do so.'

These are things I've thought of, but I'm sure there's others where I remain blissfully unaware of the messages I am giving.  There are also things I know I should do better - such as consistently modelling healthy eating, or taking a bit more care with my appearance, or keeping the place neat and tidy - but even though I know this, I have trouble modelling these things because I find them hard to do myself.

Then there are even trickier things, where you are not sure what you want to model.  Do I want my baby to think women have to shave their legs?  Is occasionally seeing mum and dad drunk a bad thing because they see you drunk, or is it a good thing because it models moderation with alcohol because you only do it occasionally?

One thing's for sure.  This parenting gig is not straight forward!

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