Kids behaving badly

Our mums sit down to exchange notes on keeping their kids in check. Here's what we thought...

Zdenka Callaghan
Zdenka Callaghan
Lucy Johnston-Smith
Lucy Johnston-Smith
Kirsty McIver
Kirsty McIver
Helene Smith
Helene Smith

Debate team
• Zdenka Callaghan, a full-time mum from Prague in the Czech Republic, has three children: Linda, nine, and three-year-old twins Alex and Adam. The family has been living in Safa for three years.

• Full-time mum of two Lucy Johnston-Smith has two sons, seven-year-old Henry and Samuel, four, and they live in Umm Suqeim. They have been in Dubai for three years and originally come from the Borders in Scotland.

• Originally from Edinburgh, Scotland, part-time lawyer Kirsty McIver has lived in Old Town for two years. She has a two-year-old son named Lewis.

• Helene Smith, a six-year resident of Umm Sequim, is from Albury in Australia. The full-time mum has two children: Alex, nine, and Llara, six.

What got us talking...
The supermarket, one of the most stressful places on the planet, invariably provides a fascinating anthropological experience: it’s one of the rare occasions when we can unabashedly observe how other people deal with naughty children. Look around and you’ll see the full spectrum of parenting styles – from serene smilers who appear to be completely unaware that their beloved has just upended a bumper box of popcorn and is now busy smearing jam on another customer’s jacket, to mums with steam blasting from their ears, screaming, shouting and eventually smacking their devilish tot. But what reaction is more appropriate, and, more importantly, how can you avoid that situation in the first place?

What do you think about children’s behaviour nowadays in comparison to 20 years ago?
Kirsty: My mother-in-law is a teacher and she says that children’s behaviour is appalling in comparison to 20 years ago. There seems to be a societal problem with discipline.

Helene: It’s different in an expat environment too, because many of us have home help so our children are being disciplined in ways that we don’t even know about. Also, if I was living at home, my children would maybe have one playdate a week. But here, my children play out every night, and within their group, everyone’s parenting style is different. If I’ve said to my kids to be back by a certain time and other kids are still out, they will come home and start questioning why.

Lucy: I think that’s compound living. We live in a compound too, and it’s the same with my seven year old.

Kirsty: But kids are influenced by their friends wherever you are in the world. You just need to establish what the boundaries are, reinforce them and not deviate. My son’s two-and-a-half, and you can’t really negotiate with him; he needs to be commanded. For example, he hates putting clothes on in the morning, and I went through a phase of (puts on a wheedling voice), ‘Oh come on, how about this T-shirt with Thomas on’ – but what he actually needs is (switches to strict voice), ‘Put the trousers on. Now.’

Zdenka: Children are more confident and outspoken than before. Today’s eight year olds act in the same way that a 15 year old would have 20 years ago.

Helene: That’s actually quite scary – what happens to the next generation? When I was growing up we always addressed people as Mrs Smith or Mrs Jones – it’s a respect thing, and because that’s now falling by the wayside it seems that a lot of other things are as well.

What about the methods employed by [UK/US TV parenting expert] Super Nanny? She recommends crouching down so you’re on the child’s level, and then explaining why what they’re doing is naughty...
Zdenka: I do that. I have three-year-old boys, and if I’m standing above one of them I’d be like a giant. So I always go to his level, take his hand and say firmly, ‘Don’t do that.’ You have to be simple and clear about what you want from them.

Lucy: But you need to adapt as they get older. My seven year old now negotiates back, and I find that actually it’s easier to walk away. I stop and think, ‘Why am I entering into a debate on something completely trivial?’

Helene: That’s so true. When I was first pregnant, I knew a woman with five kids. She said, ‘I have one piece of advice: unless they’re in a dangerous situation, always just walk away, and breathe.’ It sounds easy, but sometimes children push you to the limit. Alex will sometimes say that I’m the worst mother in the world and walk off – that hurts. But generally I go into ‘whatever’ mode and give him some time in his room to think about it. And I’ll always try to get to the root of why he’s behaving like that.

Kirsty: I think Super Nanny has a lot of good ideas. I use some of her techniques, like if Lewis starts screaming because he can’t have biscuits for breakfast I’ll say, ‘Go to your room and have a think about that.’ Then when he comes back he looks sheepish.

Lucy: I also use her idea about making them sit on the naughty step for one minute per year of their life – so instead of giving a random length of time, my four year old has to do it for four minutes, because attention spans grow as they get older.

Helene: A method I use when the two kids start at each other is to send them into a room together. I’ll say, ‘You both go in there and sort it out – I’m not the mediator.’ Then I listen at the door; it’s great! I hear Alex going, ‘Llara, if we don’t sort this out we’ll never get out of here.’ And now when they start bickering one of them will say, ‘You know where we’re gonna go, so let’s just stop.’ I also like to ask them to suggest their own punishments when they’ve misbehaved.

Is smacking OK?
Zdenka: I don’t smack my kids. I don’t think it’s good to smack children.

Helene: I used to stay with my grandmother a lot. She smacked me on the bottom one day and I was devastated! I told my mum and she said, ‘Well if your grandmother smacked you, you must’ve deserved it.’ And it was true. I can’t say categorically whether smacking’s wrong or right. If you do it out of anger, that’s wrong. But if you’ve warned them that if they don’t stop, that’s what’s going to happen, maybe a tap on the bottom is OK.

Kirsty: I would agree with that. It’s very popular right now to say that it’s not on. Smacking has become so un-PC, but I think in moderation it’s OK, although it’s a form, not the form, of discipline. I smacked Lewis once and it made me feel a whole lot worse than him, but he got the point. I was smacked a couple of times by my father when I deserved it – and I certainly didn’t do whatever it was again.

Lucy: I agree. But our parents would discipline very differently to how we do now. Certainly with my dad, smacking might not be the first thing he’d do, but he wouldn’t give it much thought.

Zdenka: In some countries it’s illegal to smack – in Norway, Sweden, Austria, if you smack your child, you can be reported and social services will come to investigate.

Lucy: That’s just wrong, because it doesn’t stop abuse, which is what they’re trying to do.

Kirsty: It’s absurd. You cannot stop abusive parents – if someone wants to beat their children, they will. It’s illegal to smack in Scotland too; it’s just another example of the law suddenly saying you can’t do something because it’s seen to be socially unacceptable.

Helene: I’m sure we’ve all seen a child going mental in Carrefour who gets a good smack on the bum, and I tend to think he deserves it. We often judge other people’s parenting, and we shouldn’t. I try and empathise with other mothers. She’s probably been up all night and we’re only human at the end of the day.

Kirsty: Being a parent is the most stress-ful job you will ever do; you’re trying to do the best thing all the time but sometimes you get it wrong.

If you do end up losing your temper in the supermarket, do you feel embarrassed that other people are watching?

Helene: I don’t think I’d get embarrassed because I’m confident in my parenting. I really don’t care what people think. I know that the situation is mine to own and mine to solve.

Kirsty: We were in H&M the other day and Lewis saw a Mr Men T-shirt that he wanted – so he took all his clothes off in the middle of the shop and put it on! I told him to take it off so we could pay for it and you just could not reason with him, he was screaming. My friend and I just started laughing, and he was outraged, standing there in his nappy! I could have got really embarrassed, but it was just humorous.

Zdenka: With small children, you need to think what triggers the bad behaviour. I don’t take my kids out after 7pm because they’re tired – it’s asking for trouble. If you know your child has tantrums in supermarkets, don’t take him there. Just avoid the triggers.

Lucy: But children have to fit into family circumstances as well. My kids have always been dragged from pillar to post, because I’ve never had home help. They’re expected to tow the line – you do have to get on with it, really. They might not always behave, but my expectation is that they have to get on with it.

Do you think kids have enough of a personal sense of discipline, for example motivating themselves to do their homework independently?
Zdenka: I think parents are responsible for giving guidance.

Kirsty: At some point they’ll probably be grateful for the times when you said you’re not going to pass your exams, or become a footballer, if you don’t put the work in. It’s not about pushing them but supporting them.

Lucy: But I think they also have to know when to take responsibility for themselves.

Helene: Yes, to a certain degree. But Alex is very self-obsessed – he’ll see what he can get away with. I can see him thinking, ‘I usually have to do my homework at five, and now it’s 10 past – perhaps she’s forgotten!’ That’s just how humans are. But I have seen different parenting styles and I know that some children come home from school, put their bags in a certain place, unpack their lunch boxes, and everything’s quite structured.

Kirsty: I only have one child and he’s a boy, and I’m very conscious of trying to make him a boy who can cope as a man. I would hate to have a mummy’s boy, because I know at some point I’ll be blamed by his wife for whatever failings he has!

Zdenka: I think people concentrate more on children’s bad behaviour than the good. I went to one of my daughter’s swimming competitions once and I was sitting next to a mother whose son had won three races out of four. All she said to him was, ‘What happened in the fourth race? I saw you slow down!’ There was no praise. I felt so sorry for him.

Kirsty: You’re right, you need to give praise. Even when they stop doing something you’ve previously told them off for, like the trouser example – if Lewis now puts on his own trousers, I have to praise that. He’s finally accepting that mum wants him to put his trousers on – and the rest of society does as well!

Helene: I agree – praising children gives them self-esteem and they grow as people. But I’m not perfect and I’m learning so much even from sitting here with you girls today; there are things that I’ll take home from this. I think that if you have an open mind as a parent you’ll pick up the good things and drop the bad, and we’re all heading for a better world.
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