Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Transition from Spanking to Parent Coaching

Parent coaching is going to be around for the long haul. I'm biased in my opinion, of course. You can judge by the end.  Sometimes parents are hesitant to come in for help because they are afraid of what it might mean about their parenting skills. My thought is that the parents who come in for coaching are the smart ones. They are the ones who are doing now what will become commonplace a few years down the road.

Parenting is hard work. The exception to this is for the few parents out there who have children with exceptionally easy temperaments. Most people who have children with easy temperaments assume that they are brilliant parents. That is an okay illusion to have about yourself in that circumstance. But it leaves you a little judgmental about parents who have children that they struggle with. The rest of us have kids with temperaments that can make them harder to parent. Though the qualities that can make a child hard to parent can end up being very positive traits later in life such as being energetic and being a leader. For those of you that fit in the "rest of us" category, the first step is to realize that not every behavior that your child comes up with is your fault. There is a huge amount of research showing that kids are born with very distinct traits that have absolutely nothing to do with how you parent them. That is just who they are. The good news is that how you respond to their temperament can influence both their behavior, and your relationship with them. Not all their behavior is your fault, and there practical ways to handle it.

The Shift Away From Spanking
As far as discipline goes, our grandparents, and all previous generations for that matter, had a much easier time with discipline than we do. If their child got out of line, they got smacked, spanked, walloped, ridiculed or even beaten. The interesting piece is that this can never be the same again. We've progressed in our treatment of children. We see that spanking sends ironic messages to kids (e.g. the "don't hit" irony) and damages the relationship with the parent. But parents who spank now, unless they live in communities where most everyone does something similar, will not get the same effect that their grandparents got. Because the effect depended on children looking around and thinking that getting spanked was something that happened throughout the community. That will never be the same again. I think that's progress though it has a catch.

The Down Side of the Shift
So here's the problem though. Parents who don't have children with easy temperaments are left without any effective way to handle behaviors that push to the end of the line. There are all sorts of therapists and websites that will tell you that you just need to work with children in democratic ways and that if you do they will cooperate. Now some of these ideas work in certain contexts and I help parents use them all the time. I'm here to tell you though that this isn't the case when it gets to what I call "end of the line" behaviors with young kids, hitting, kicking, scratching, biting and spitting come to mind. You'll also find therapists and all manner of books that will tell you that if you child has been raised with attachment style parenting that you are to encounter these problems. That is a complex topic, but suffice it to say that you child being well attached does not mean that you won't run into these problems. Those bevhaviors are simply natural for kids to try out.

The majority of parents who come in to see me are educated, intelligent kind people who have worked hard and read a number of books trying to set reasonable limits with their kids. But having well-attached kids and using democratic principles just aren't enough. Instead of putting up with the hitting, kicking and spitting, some have given up on setting limits because they are sticking to their values about not spanking, but they just don't know what to do with those end of the line behaviors. Or the kids have gotten older and now parents handle them with a combination of bribes, threats and lectures or allow them to drift off into endless "screentime". When parents of these older children try to set reasonable limits, they get the older child version of end of the line behaviors which usually involves door slamming, name calling, tantrums and breaking property.

Now What
Now from the stats I'm aware that a large number of you are thinking, "Well if you just smacked them on the butt when they were little the problem would have been solved." Again, I don't think so, because unless you live in a community where that is condoned, you can't do it with the effectiveness that grandpa did. I also see a large number of parents who did try spanking and that also have ended up with results they don't like. Spanking may get you immediate compliance, but in the longterm it is a much dicier proposition. In addition to that the reason most parents try not to spank, even if they do in moments of deperation, is because they believe it is wrong, not just because it doesn't provide the results they want.

Here's what I think has happened. We have put a whole generation of parents in a very difficult position. They realize that there is a moral problem, not to mention the effectiveness problem, with hitting kids to get them to behave. And make no mistake, spanking is hitting. It is just a specific culturally condoned variety of hitting. It progressed historically from simply beating your kid; to slapping them in the face; to hitting only on the rear with paddles, belts and switches; to only hitting them on the rear end. I think that has been a very good series of changes. And I think that we now have to figure out as a society how we support parents as they go about setting reasonable limits in the household.

The Upside
The good news is that there are a whole host of other techniques that are very effective that help you to elicit your child's cooperation and set reasonable limits around the household needed to raise responsible, happy people; not to mention just being needed to make living in a household livable. These involve the sharing of control where you don't have it, or where you don't need it so you can have control as a parent when it is needed. It is connecting with your child in ways that leave them much more willing to follow your lead. It means learning about your child's temperament and how to work with it, and around it. And it involves having some humane ways to enforce those end of the line limits. A specific version of timeout is usually needed that respects the child's autonomy and that encourages the development of self-calming skills. The lack of those self-calming skills is usually central to the sort of obnoxious behavior were talking about here.

Timeouts some training to be able to pull off effectively and respectfully. I know if I weren't in the line of work I am, as a former teacher and a mental health professional. I would have spanked out of desperation. But it can be done without the spanking, and done well. I've helped a lot of parents to learn how.

Keep in mind that there are dozens of ways to do timeouts in ways that will run you off the rails in short order. That is part of the problem. If parents have tried a couple of variations on timeout that didn't work, they are convinced that "timeout simply doesn't work."

The Suggestion
So we now treat kids more humanely than we once did. And letting them run amok, hit their parents and call them names certainly isn't going to be acceptable, much less helpful to the kids. But the alternative skills to spanking aren't easy ones. They certainly take more gray matter and self-calming skills than spanking did by a long shot. But let's not expect parents to reinvent that wheel all by themselves. Way too much time and energy are burned up, and damage can be done over time to the child's self-concept and to the relationship with the parent as parents try to figure out how to parent without spanking.

So my suggestion—which after all I've written so far is going to have to be elaborated in another post—is that we need to think differently about parenting classes, parent coaching and counseling. These need to become commonplace rather than the exception. You need a contract, you see an attorney. You need your teeth cleaned, you go to the dentist. You have a 4-year-old you can't get to bed, you come see me. We also need to start thinking in original ways such as offering parenting classes in high schools. We've progressed in the right direction. We just need to do more as a society to help parent than send them to the bookstore on their own. The solutions are low cost, reliable and relatively straight forward to implement. So let's get to it. And in the meantime you want a little support from a parenting class, a parent coach or some counseling by all means don't feel bad about it. Quite the opposite. You my friend are walking the path of the future.

Start a discussion in the comments whether you spank, see a parenting coach or something in between. Keep it civil and you'll get heard.

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