Reaching the end of their parenting tethers, Kate Chevilly and her husband Mark enrolled on a parenting course to tame their tantruming tots, with surprising results.
It’s a typical weekday morning. At 7.45am, I’m dashing around the house, trying to muster five-year-old Charlie into the car because we’re late for school again. His cheeks are tear stained, my hand is smarting from the hefty smack I’ve just delivered, and we’re both feeling pretty rotten.
The reason? We’ve been battling each other since 5.45am. Charlie, as usual, has refused to get dressed. For two hours, we’ve cajoled, bribed, persuaded, threatened and shouted – all to no avail. In the end, with less than 10 minutes to spare, I attempt to manhandle my son into his uniform. The result? Kicking, hitting, screaming and pulling of hair ensues (Charlie – not me) and I receive a nasty bite to my arm. That’s when he gets the ‘last resort’ smack.
For the umpteenth time, I wonder how things have got so out of control, and with a stinging palm and teeth-marks on my forearm, Mark and I finally concede defeat. We enroll ourselves on an eight-week Positive Parenting course run by parent educator and former teacher, Therese Sequeira.
In theory I arrive late and without Mark because our younger son is sick and Charlie’s been playing up. Therese gives us a sheet of paper and asks us to write down the behaviours we’d like to change in our children. I write a long entry, beginning with ‘better listening and following instructions to managing anger and stopping violent physical retaliation’. There are other things too, but I’ve run out of space. ‘Right,’ says Therese, ‘give these to me, and we’ll have another look at them during the last session to check our progress.’ I hand it over, not holding out much hope. This week’s lesson is about how we react to our children. I realise I’m guilty of giving in to whining, while Mark is impatient and shouts too much. I vow to take a firmer approach. I tell Therese about our morning struggles. She says, ‘Stop giving him so many instructions. Tell him once and withdraw. Don’t get into a debate because then he’s getting the attention he wants.’ Hmm. I just don’t believe it’s going to be that simple.
In practice The next morning, Charlie refuses to get out of bed, so I follow Therese’s instructions to the letter. Charlie is told to get dressed once and left alone. We ignore all his ‘Nos’ and cries of ‘I’m sick!’ and wait. Twenty minutes tick by, during which Mark and I manage to stop ourselves from checking on him. We’ve got up very early, already believing our strategy won’t work. But, just as we’re giving up hope, Charlie appears fully dressed. We almost fall off our chairs – and he is delighted with himself. We dole out lots of hugs and praise, and leave the house on time, smiling for once. From then on, mornings (by and large) run like clockwork.
In theory Buoyed up by the previous week’s success, we both make it to class on time. Today’s session is about learning how and when to praise your children. I’d always considered myself a good praiser, but now
I realise there are times when we both focus too much on the negative stuff. Therese says if we praise Charlie correctly, his misbehaviour will be replaced by good behaviour. Our task for the week is to encourage independence through active praise (where you don’t just say ‘well done’ – but tell your child exactly why they’ve been good). We’re advised to respond to Charlie as soon as he requests our attention. Even just taking 30 seconds to acknowledge what he’s doing, she says, will stop him seeking attention in negative ways.
In practice Mark realises he’s guilty of escalating. That means giving Charlie an instruction too many times and getting angry when he ignores it, rather than giving him a consequence after the first time. We make a point of using active praise with Charlie at every opportunity and, most importantly, stop repeating ourselves. An incident in the park shows us how far we’ve come. Charlie hits a smaller child. Then our youngest son copies him. Normally I’d tell them both off, threaten them with a punishment and get nowhere. This time I reprimand them, order them both off the climbing area, and make them sit in the sand for five minutes. They both do exactly as I ask, which completely amazes me. Just two weeks ago, I’d have ended up manhandling Charlie, kicking and screaming off the apparatus – and would probably have taken him straight home. Even better, Charlie is given the Golden Award at school this week for having the most improved behaviour in the class. I can’t believe it!
In theory Today’s lesson is on managing misbehaviour. Therese runs through the six stages of discipline, which include aspects we’d never even thought of. ‘Don’t tell your child what not to do. Tell them what to do instead. Give them a positive command,’ she says. That basically means replacing ‘Don’t run!’ with ‘Walk!’ and so on. She also recommends us doing quiet time (making Charlie sit quietly away from an activity for a few minutes) as a prequel to time out in his room for more serious offences. We’re encouraged to praise Charlie once he’s calmed himself down and to discuss with him the reasons why he’s been given a consequence. If he’s badly behaved while we’re out, we are to follow this up with time out at home, even if the situation is calm by this stage. ‘Always follow though,’ says Therese.
In practice Charlie’s behaviour has improved so much that we don’t have to give him any time out. But our little one keeps breaking a golden house rule by climbing over two stair gates and going into Mark’s office. It isn’t child-proofed, and he could easily hurt himself. We decide to use time out as a drastic measure. We warn him first and walk him through it (as suggested by Therese) telling him ‘Daddy’s office is out of bounds. If you go in there, you will have to go to bed.’ But at the very next opportunity, he bolts over both gates and I have to retrieve him from a precarious desktop. I tell him calmly that he has to go to bed. I put him in his cot and shut the door. He screams non-stop for 45 minutes. When he’s finally quiet, I go in. He tells me he’s sorry and he won’t do it again. Both Mark and our maid agree that they will do the same thing again if he re-offends. His trips into the no-go-zone eventually peter out.
In theory Therese runs through high-risk scenarios, where it’s easy for parents to slip into bad habits, like when visitors stay, or when eating at restaurants. I usually struggle with the supermarket shop when both children are with me. We look at alternatives to my usual tactics, which consist of bribing the kids with food and toys. Therese runs through some strategies to make the trip more successful.
In practice Before the next shopping trip, as per instruction, I warn both children that this is a food shop, and we won’t be buying any toys or treats. I reinforce the ‘no toys/treats’ mantra again in the car, and, as it will be teatime when we finish, I tell them they can share a cheese manakish if they are still behaving at the check out. Once in the store, I allow Charlie to have his own trolley, and I chat to the little one as we make our way around. By the time we get to the frozen section, it all goes a bit pear-shaped. Bored with his trolley, Charlie wants to push mine, but the little one (who is sitting in the seat) doesn’t want him to. A fight breaks out between them. Charlie ignores my command to stop hitting his brother, so I put him in quiet time. Instead of making him sit on the floor, I put him into his trolley and park it at the end of the aisle while I finish off in the frozen section. He cooperates well and even apologises voluntarily to his brother, so I praise him. We reach the check out without further incident, and the boys get their reward. It feels good to be in control.
Weeks five, six and seven
We’re onto the phone call stage of the course. We’ve run through the main aspects of the positive parenting approach, and now it’s up to us to implement them consistently. Therese calls us once a week for an in-depth discussion on our progress, and offers advice with scenarios that we could handle in a better way.
Our final group session involves us looking back on the progress we’ve made. Therese hands us the list from our first session, and it’s like looking back on a different child. Charlie is so much more cooperative. He responds to us positively (most of the time) and is a pleasure to be around. Mark and I feel much more confident about our parenting skills and better still, Charlie’s teacher has nothing but praise for him. The great thing about Positive Parenting is that it fits easily into your life. You don’t have to spend hours making incentive charts or forcing your child to sit on a ‘naughty step’. Instead, it shows you an alternative way of communicating so that situations don’t get out of hand, and your children actually listen to you. Charlie is still our challenging son (and he always will be), but our handling of him now reaps rewards rather than tantrums. As a parent, you can’t put a price on that.
What is Positive Parenting?
Positive Parenting is an award-winning, internationally recognised programme run by Triple P that has been tried and tested over a 25-year period. The principles of the course have been developed by clinical psychologists and are easily implemented. With the help of an instructor, parents work out flexible strategies that best suit their family’s needs. Contact Therese Sequeira, The Parenting PLACE, at kidsFIRST Medical Centre, 050 552 9819, 04 348 KIDS (5437); www.parentingdubai.com.