The most important career in the world: parenting
By Odette Umali
Every year millions of new mothers and fathers take on a job that ranks among the most difficult job anyone can have: taking a little infant and being responsible for their well-being and health – both physically and psychologically.
Looking back when I was pregnant with my first child, I was focused on preparing for birth. I attend pre-natal and ante-natal classes. I read books about what to expect at different stages of pregnancy and about the growth stages my child from birth onwards. I learned what food I should eat during pregnancy and lactation. Did all of these prepare me to be a “parent”?
I also realized that giving birth only marks the start of the real work of a lifetime. It seems that giving birth was the easy part. Once the baby is out, I will need to guide this person to achieve her fullest potential, to be a contributor and not a burden to society. She has to learn how to take care of herself, be independent, resilient and emotionally intelligent. How will I be able to do all of this? What if I fail? How do I prepare for this part of parental responsibility?
Research from the Parenting Research Centre about knowing how to parent showed a different between “experts”, and “public”. Experts saw parenting as a set of skills that could be acquired. The public thought parenting should be something that comes naturally, through “having a concern” for children. To shed light on this difference, I quote below the testimony of one parent who started as a participant and eventually became an instructor of Parent Effectiveness Training of P.E.T.
“I learned that parenting skills could be acquired. That I could learn how to really listen, to truly understand my child. I discovered how to talk to my child, and avoid words and phrases that could undermine our relationship. These encouraged them to change their behaviour because they wanted to, not because they were afraid. I discovered I didn’t need to reward or punish my children. In fact, I could involve my children in solving our problems together. I learnt how to develop a mutual relationship of warm and respect. I now see my children as innocent people who simple need to meet their needs of the moment. I respected them as my equal. These were all the skills that I learned in a course. I read them in a book, wrote about them in homework exercises, talked about them in homework exercises, talked about and practiced them in role-plays with other parents.”
How do we apply these parenting skills with infants and pre-verbal children? Dr. Thomas Gordon, the developer of P.E.T. offers the principles below for parents of small children.
When infants behave unacceptably, there is a good reason, but you have to try to guess what it is.
Effective parents must learn to be good guessers with infants and toddlers simply because these children can’t tell parents much about what’s going on inside them. Emily, six months old, starts to cry loudly in the middle of the night. Her parents are awakened from the sleep they need and naturally find this behavior unacceptable. But how can they get Emily to stop crying? Quite simply, they start guessing. Maybe she’s wet and cold. No, she’s still dry. Well, could it be we didn’t burp her enough? Let’s pick her up and start the burping process. Bad guess again – Emily won’t burp. Wonder if she’s hungry? We’ll act on that hypothesis next.
The guessing game works effectively because when infants do things that are unacceptable to their parents there’s a reason for it – usually a very logical reason. When parents start using the guessing game, they stop resorting to punishment.
When you can’t accept one behaviour, substitute another you can.
Another approach for changing unacceptable behaviors of infants and toddlers involves trading: substituting the unacceptable behaviour for another behaviour that would be acceptable to the parent. Laura, your curious one-year-old, has found a pair of your new stockings, which she finds enjoyable to touch and tug on. You find this unacceptable because you’re afraid she’ll snag or destroy them. You go to your drawer and pull out an old pair that is already snagged and beyond being wearable. You place this pair in her hands and gently take away the new pair. Laura, not knowing the difference, finds the damaged pair equally as enjoyable to touch and tug. Her needs are met and so are yours. Again, when parents start thinking in terms of trading, they stop using punishment.
Let kids know how you feel, even it you can’t use words.
Older children often modify their behaviour after a parent sends them an honest message that conveys how the parent is affected by the child’s behaviour, as in:
“I can’t hear on the phone when there’s so much yelling.”
“I’m afraid I’ll be late if you take too long to dress.”
“I love that little dish, and I would be sad if it got broken.”
But children too young to understand words won’t be influenced by such messages (called “I-Messages” because they convey to the child “Let me tell you how I am feeling”). Consequently, the I-Message has to be put into a nonverbal form, as in the following examples: While Dad is carrying little Tony in the supermarket, he starts to kick Dad in the stomach, laughing with each kick. Dad immediately puts Tony down on his feet and continues walking. (Message: “It hurts me when I get kicked in the stomach; so I don’t like to carry you.”)
Changing the Environment
Most parents intuitively know that one effective way of stopping many kinds of unacceptable behaviour is to change the child’s environment, as opposed to efforts to change the child directly. What parent has not watched a whiny, pestering, bored child get totally (and quietly) immersed when her parent provides her with some materials that capture her interest, such as clay, finger paints, puzzles, picture books, or old scraps of colored cloth. This is called “Enriching the Environment.”
At other times, kids need just the opposite. They’re keyed up and hyperactive just before bedtime, for example, so the wise parent knows how to “Impoverish the Environment.”
Most unacceptable (and destructive) behaviour of toddlers can be avoided by serious efforts on the part of parents to “Child-proof the Environment,” as with:
- Buying unbreakable cups and glasses.
- Putting matches, knives, and razor blades out of reach.
- Relocating medicine and household cleaners.
- Keeping the basement door locked.
- Securing slippery throw rugs.
About Odette Umali:
Odette Umali is the Managing Director of Gordon Parenting which is the authorized representative for Parent Effectiveness Training or P.E.T. for Hong Kong, Macau and the Philippines. For more information, please visit www.gordonparenting.com or Facebook page: Gordon Parenting.