by Kirsten Andrews
My kids love their naughty chair. It was a big score at a garage sale some years ago when I was desperate to find a tool that would work miracles – much like it does with that oh-so-together (read: childless) British nanny on television.
As a mom to a toddler in the throes of the terrible twos and a newborn, I was willing to do whatever it took to turn that less-than-desirable behavior into something more manageable. Something more survivable. Something that didn’t leave me feeling like I was completely incapable of taking care of more than one child at a time. Because, let’s face it, it was kind of too late to return either one.
So I found the perfect naughty chair. It’s a peppy lime green. I figured the peeling paint (so long as it wasn’t lead-based) added a touch of charm to something that would ultimately be used for some quite un-charming moments.
How lucky could a mom get?
Well, it turns out incredibly lucky because in the next year I was able to take in a number of parenting talks by faculty at Cedar Valley Waldorf School in Squamish, BC where my children now attend preschool and kindergarten, and by Dr. Gordon Neufeld, an internationally renowned developmental psychologist and author (Hold On To Your Kids, with Gabor Mate) whose book has been translated into eight languages. It was then that I learnt exactly why it was this amazingly awesome naughty chair was falling short.
Truth be told, time-outs weren’t changing my life for the better; it felt like they were making it worse. My daughter would panic and become hysterical at the thought of being sent to her special spot.
To hear Neufeld explain, in his professorial way, time-outs were offered to parents by the pediatricians as an alternate form of punishment when they were told spanking was no longer acceptable. Virtually no research had been done around the impact such separation would cause. It was simply a way to distance parent and child when things got heated.
Neufeld firmly states that time-outs will not elicit desired change in behavior and that they can be damaging to the child’s psyche, sending kids “into alarm” when they are banished from our presence.
Nina Fields, a certified counselor and Neufeld parent educator based in Squamish, BC, suggests that children under five-years-old aren’t able to have “mixed feelings” as the prefrontal cortex of the brain hasn’t fully developed and ultimately they are acting from a more primal nature. They feel hurt and frustrated when a baby sibling has innocently taken their beloved toy, and act instinctively. But they aren’t deliberately trying to injure.
“That three-year-old is actually shocked and devastated when you don’t support their feelings, even if they hauled off and hit the baby over the head,” explains Fields. “What they are looking for is your compassion and understanding. They are in their own little world. Unfortunately most of us parents in North America tend to become equally frustrated and want separation, they may even be rageful at the notion that their older child has assaulted the little one in the manner that they did.”
Instead of causing a separation, which ultimately can lead to more anguish, Fields recommends bringing both children close. Tend to the injured party, mop the tears, AND keep proximity with each child.
“Above all else you really want to preserve the relationship. It is far more important to do that than to punish or give consequences in the moment, which we are often inclined to do,” she said. “We need to remain calm in the eye of the storm, not be triggered, and delay our desire for instant gratification, or in this case, correction.
“Some would argue that time-outs do work, or 1-2-3 magic, but at what cost?” she asks.
As a counselor, Fields has worked extensively with teens that come from homes with “really rough parenting.” She described the youth she engages with as defended and guarded. They come with a trunk full of repressed feelings and emotions, and can often be ticking time bombs.
“It’s crucial that we let children have their feelings – even if it’s anger, aggression and screaming. They must be supported and encouraged to do so. Sending children into a time-out may look like it works on the surface, in the instant we think that they are learning something about their behavior, but really they are feeling separation and rejection,” she explained. “If young children are repeatedly sent to a naughty chair, for example, they just shut down and store those feelings and they will take them out on people later in life.”
For kids who are frustrated – for whatever reason – parents can try to offer less damaging options. Depending on the age you might encourage them to hit or shout into a pillow or offer a stomping pad. For children six or seven years of age you can encourage them to tell you when they are feeling those sensations rise up in their body. Give them the language ‘Mom, I’m starting to feel like I might want to kick Marie. Can you help me?’
When raising young children we need to keep in mind that we can either escalate or de-escalate any given situation.
“As parents we have to come from a soft heart,” emphasizes Fields. “In the moments when we’re supposed to do that we tend to shame and banish. You want to be a gardener, not a sculptor in terms of parenting. You want to nourish those roots, so that when the tree grows it can bare fruit. And yes, it will take a lot of time.”
Fields also recommends addressing the offense later when the child isn’t in a defensive state. It may be 10 minutes, 10 hours or 10 days. Bedtime is often a good time to do this, and in the Neufeld circle they call it “touching the bruise.” ‘Remember when you hit your sister earlier today? You were really frustrated, weren’t you?’ Give them time to work through it, and don’t do it if it just raises the anger all over again. Wait for the right moment.
Kim John Payne, author of Simplicity Parenting with Lisa M. Ross, has a beautiful meditation called the compassionate response, and it’s something I often recommend when parents are faced – as we are – with uncomfortable feelings that come when witnessing things go in ways you never could have imagined. It was originally developed for use in domestic violence situations, and works to shift reactive habits of communication and offer a new way of seeing – in this case – your child in a different light. Parents can purchase an audio copy of through www.SimplicityParenting.com/store.
The compassionate response meditation works best as a practice, something to listen to or work with repeatedly until it becomes second nature. It involves bringing the “naughty” child close to you when you feel most like pushing them away.
The idea was illustrated beautifully for me when I was training to be a Simplicity Parenting group leader. Our instructor Davina Muse had us stand and hold a stool at arms length. You can imagine how hard it was to that for more than a minute or two! This is what it is like to hold your child at a distance when they aren’t in your favor. It can also be distressing! Bring that stool – or child – in close now. Most of us could stand there all day if we had to.
Ultimately, when things go south we must keep them near us, especially if it gets really ugly. When building blocks are used as weapons instead of for construction. When books are ripped purposefully and thrown at a favorite uncle. When cups of milk are deliberately dumped over a sibling’s head.
We must breathe and retain self-control. We must tend to the injured party, all the while keeping the Master of Destruction at our side, and wipe those tears and show compassion for the hurt. We may even need to apologize on behalf of the offender. Above all else, we must demonstrate how we want them to be in the world, later, when it is going to really matter.
So yes, my girls love their naughty chair. Especially the way it sits in our garden beneath the forsythia bush supporting a lazy cluster of Black-Eyed Susans each summer, year by year sinking that much deeper in the paint-flecked soil.
Kirsten Andrews offers Simplicity Parenting workshops and courses throughout the Sea to Sky Corridor. Visit www.SeaToSkySimplicityParenting.com for more information or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.