As a parent or caregiver, what’s in your toolbox? What tactics do you use when you need to get across important information to your kids, or stop them doing something? Are there things you wish your kids would do more, or not do at all?
Modern parents don’t have enough tools at their disposal – so much so that my husband and I often joke that we should just follow the advice of dog-training manuals.
Let’s start with this gem from dog-training site AWL: “Dogs are not ethical beings; they do not know what is right and wrong – they only know what is favourable to do. This is why reward-based training methods work so well.”
The same could be said of toddlers – those loveable, passionate, irrational little humans!
Parenting has changed dramatically in the past 50 years. These changes have been positive for parents and kids. Smacking and other forms of physical threat are now less socially acceptable, making way for a more intuitive, collaborative style of parenting, which really works when you have a baby, but falls down fast as babies turn into toddlers and kids.
In my early 20s, I house-sat a lot – gigs that included looking after other people’s dogs. I remember one particularly rambunctious Blue Heeler who would take off into the bush or along the beach and didn’t answer to her name.
All I could do was call and hope she’d return. I remember thinking this was unsustainable – what if she ran onto the road?
Years later, with a similarly untrained toddler on my hands, I had the same feeling. After our tottering son ran out onto the road, coming to an impressive skid in front of a ute tyre, I realised we had to train him so he at least answered to ‘come’ and ‘stop’.
For safety – and our sanity – we need to train our kids to some extent. If there’s something you wish your child would do, such as playing independently or taking their plate up to the sink, you can train them to do it.
But there is huge social pressure not to appear as though we are being harsh with our children, or limiting them too much, which is why every day I see parents resorting to begging, wheedling, bribing and cajoling kids into doing everyday tasks such as getting dressed, going to bed or picking up after themselves.
I’ve been there, believe me.
It’s like we think a three-year-old will look up and say, “Oh, you’re right mum, it is pretty cold today and you look like you’ve had a hard morning already so I’ll put on my jumper without whining.”
It’s as though we’re supposed to be so likeable and nice that our kids will decide to help us out off their own backs. Sometimes they will. But it’s not a reliable parenting tool.
We parents sometimes get confused between situations that genuinely warrant our emotional support, such as starting at a new daycare, and routine tasks that can, and should, be simple, like putting on shoes in the morning.
If you find you are having a daily battle with your kids about daily tasks like eating, bedtime or getting dressed, it’s time for a rejig.
My husband, who has done a lot of the work to train our kids, reckons three times is all it takes to create a new habit, but you’ll have to hold very firm for those three times and weather the storm of protests.
Unfortunately, there will be screaming.
In dog-training language: “You can mould or change behaviour by rewarding the behaviour you want and ignoring –not rewarding or acknowledging – or managing the behaviour you wish to discourage or change.”
It sounds very obvious, but if we respond to behaviours that make our lives harder by letting our kids get what they want, we’ll get a repeat of those behaviours. If you’re still seeing the behaviour you don’t like, it means you’ve accidentally rewarded that behaviour.
This means that when we say, “It’s time to leave the playground,” we must be ready to make that happen or our kids will learn that ignoring us and running away gets them more playground time.
When it’s hard and you want to give up, remember the perseverance of the orangutan below, from one of my favourite clips. Everyone who has cared for a toddler can relate to this exasperated mother as she calmly, physically reinforces the boundary over and over again.
If she could speak, you know she’d be yelling, “Come!”