sábado, 14 de julio de 2012

No, I don't punish my children

A few weeks ago Dave, Alex and I visited a friend we hadn't seen for a while. The drive from our house to hers was long and they both fell asleep in the car. When we arrived, my friend, who I'll call Sarah, and I hugged and started talking, happy to see each other. Her daughter and my boys, however, didn't remember each other at first and didn't exchange a word. I was holding Alex, who tends to get grumpy after waking up from a nap in the car. The moment I put him down he started whining and flapping his arms. For some inexplicable reason, Dave can't stand this sort of behaviour. It really baffles me because his own tantrums have always been dealt with a lot of patience and attachment parenting. Yet, as a two-year-old he couldn't stand to hear his baby brother cry. On this particular day, he was not in his best mood either. We had just arrived at a strange place, I was focusing my attention on someone else, they were being ignored by the child in the house, and Alex was by now crying his heart out. Dave yelled at him to stop it, and lying on the floor started kicking him.

I held Alex tight, trying to soothe him, while stopping Dave's kicks with my hand. He was covering his ears with both hands and still yelling, 'Alex, stop it!' I have been in this situation many times and I know exactly what is happening, because I know my children. I had told them where we were going and who we were visiting, but they still felt awkward and hadn't had the time to adjust. Both Sarah and her daughter Emily were watching with eyes wide open as if they had never witnessed anything like that before. It was uncomfortable for everyone. So I told Dave I was going to go outside to get our stuff from the car and Alex was coming with me to help. Dave is now old enough not to get scared to be left alone, but I still tell him where I'm going if I have to leave his side. He stopped kicking and said, 'ok'. Two minutes later, though, he was outside with Alex and me. As soon as we got out of the house they were both calm. So we sat down on the pavement and I talked to them about what had just happened. I told them I could see they didn't remember Emily and they were not comfortable in this strange place. Dave said he wanted to go home. I reminded him that we had driven a long distance and were staying the night at our friends'. We stayed outside for a good ten or fifteen minutes. When we got back in they were both relaxed and happy. Dave sat next to Emily on the floor and they stroke up a conversation. Soon the three of them were engaged in play and I could talk to Sarah again.

We talked about a lot of things, and it was not straightaway when she said, 'I have never seen a child behave as violently as Dave did before'. I was taken aback, because, well... I have. I see children behaving like this all the time and I accept the fact that young children (especially boys?) can be very aggressive. I choose to deal with this sort of behaviour by being patient and understanding, especially by not getting aggressive myself.

Sarah went on, 'What you did is just not right. Dave has to learn there are natural consequences to his acts. If you just let him do as he did, Alex feels like he's not safe in his own house, because Dave got away with it...'

'What?' I couldn't believe my ears. I tried to say something, like, 'Didn't you see I separated them and walked outside with Alex in my arms?' but she wouldn't listen; she was on a roll.

'If he can do this to his brother, what is he going to do to other children? What is going to happen when he's a teenager? He's going to go around hitting everyone, getting into fights and then he'll end up in jail...'

She went on and on, but it was me now who had trouble listening.

'What are you talking about?' I managed to say. 'If you read the research...'

'Oh, I know what the research says, I have done a lot of reading about child development, behaviour and natural consequences.'

'...people who end up in jail are precisely the ones who were punished and mistreated as children, usually by their own parents.'

Natural consequences, ha! Not the first time I've heard this either. That's the new euphemism some modern parents like to use for punishment. Sarah gave me this example: 'If you hit your brother, you won't go to hockey practice.' What is natural about that? That is Punishment with a capital P.

'Ok, then, if you hit your brother I don't feel like taking you to hockey practice...' she said. Still a punishment.

'But, Carmen... That's life', Sarah said, almost sadly, as if suddenly realising that I live in Utopia.

Well, yes, I know punishment exists. I know people get punished in real life. But I am trying to change the world here, in case you hadn't noticed. And with me lots of conscious parents. And we are doing it! The proof is that children today are better off than we were thirty years ago, and thirty years ago we as children were better off than our parents had been. Like a great friend of mine put it: 'Our grandparents gave our parents a lot of shit, our parents gave us some of that shit, and we are giving our children a litlle bit of that shit.' Humanity is getting better and it all starts at infancy and childhood.

So yes, I am one of those people who choose not to punish my children. Instead I talk to both Dave and Alex about their aggressive behaviour to each other and what it does: it hurts. Nobody likes to get hurt, so that's why we try not to do it. I was brought up in a different way, so sometimes I slip back into bad habits. I don't realise I'm actually punishing my children, like I was punished myself, by yelling at them, 'No hitting!'. There is no threat, but my yell and angry face is already a punishment. It is so hard to do it right every time, because it requires a lot of patience and effort, but it is so worth it. When I manage to do it right, like I did that day at Sarah's house, I remain calm, I don't let them hit each other, but I don't suppress their anger or frustration either. Afterwards, we talk about it. I tell Dave it makes me sad and angry to see him hit Alex, but I don't want to yell at him, because it pains me to hurt him in return. He says he doesn't mean to hit him, but Alex makes him angry! And then Alex chips in, 'because you did this to me!' ¡And you did that to me!'

I know there are years ahead of fighting between the boys, and it will be exhausting at times. Yet, because I've always chosen this approach, I think they are actually closer than most other brothers. They usually play together all day long and their fights are resolved quickly. I make them aware of their emotions, even the baddy ones. They learn the real natural consequences of their behaviour without me imposing any. If Dave hits Alex, Alex gets hurt and naturally doesn't want to play with Dave. Dave hugs him and begs him to forgive him. Sometimes Alex does straightaway and some other times he doesn't; he needs more time.

I know I'm choosing to travel a long path, but I think it will pay off in the end and I've never been one for a quick fix, anyway. Because I don't punish them, Dave and Alex don't hide any actions from me. They "behave very well" when they are in the care of another adult other than me! I could take that personally, but I don't because I know they act this way out of fear. Luckily, that doesn't happen very often. They don't fear me, so they don't wait until I'm out of sight to fight. I am always around to stop the hitting and show them how to resolve their issues without recurring to violence.

I try very hard not to hurt other people or myself not because I fear the consequences, but because I want to do good. If I believe this and put it into practice myself, why would I try to teach my children something else by hurting them? Yes, punishment is shameful, humiliating, embarrassing and ineffective. I don't do it.