Franke’s story is an extreme example of a more common problem, in which frustrated, exasperated parents use bribes, threats and punishment – otherwise known as the “carrot and stick” approach – to manage their child.
A misguided principle
Parents who punish tend to be coming from a good place, says social worker, parent educator and mum-of-four Gen Muir. “They’re thinking I need to raise a child who eats their dinner, is polite, doesn’t fight, doesn’t meltdown.”
But it is misguided and ineffective.
“We have unrealistic expectations of children’s development,” she says, adding that the frontal lobe, which relates to our social skills and ability to control our responses, doesn’t fully mature until 25. “When they have a meltdown or hit, they’ve gone into fight or flight. We’re assuming our kids are choosing to be naughty. It’s wrong.”
A developing frontal cortex means “there’s a Ferrari brain and bicycle breaks”, says child psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg. “You have to be the adult in this situation and manage your own emotions. I think the kids who do best in this world have modelled for them anger management and problem-solving and conflict resolution.”
Punishment also doesn’t help a child learn that an emotion led to a certain behaviour, like hitting, for instance, and so doesn’t help them to develop the skills to regulate that emotion. This can lead to adults who also cannot regulate their emotions. And because punishment doesn’t solve the underlying problem, parents have to resort to increasingly harsh, radical measures to get a response.
“No threat is going to teach them to do it differently,” says Muir. “It decreases cooperation. So, over time, you’re less likely to get results.”
And whether it is physical or psychological punishment, using threats, withdrawing love or shaming, it decreases the connection the child has with their parent.
Muir recalls a chat she had with a dad in one of her parenting classes, who said he wanted to parent in a better way and foster an emotional connection with his children, but wouldn’t have dared to ever have a meltdown like his children.
“I think the kids who do best in this world have modelled for them anger management and problem-solving and conflict resolution”
Child psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg
“He said, ‘My dad would have hit first and asked questions later. My concern is: do my kids respect me? Because I respected my dad and I knew not to do that’.”
She didn’t suggest that it was fear, not respect, that he had for his dad. Muir explained that research shows kids who are hit or punished harshly are less likely to go to their primary caregiver if they need help. The man paused and replied that as a teenager and as an adult, his dad would be the last person he would ever go to with a problem.
The power of a good – or bad – parent
In his forthcoming book A Therapeutic Journey, British author and philosopher Alain de Botton writes that the power of a bad parent to cause lasting damage is almost without limit. A good parent, he says, knows a child needs to be cuddled, spoken and sung to, played with, held close and looked at with unconditional care and “will as good as die without such care”.
“Spoilt people are those who are denied love, not those who had their fill of it,” writes de Botton. “A good parent is, furthermore, not so fragile that they constantly need to be obeyed … they don’t need to install terror.”
Developmental psychologist Diana Baumrind first described the different parenting styles in the 1960s, including the authoritarian or “rigid ruler” style, who focused on punishment and obedience and the permissive parent who lacked boundaries, expectations and the propensity to say “no” to children.
Both the authoritarian and permissive approach were “two absolute car crash parenting styles”, says Carr-Greg, the author of new book Grandparents.
Today, many parents simply feel confused about how to be good parents.
Aiming to be “good enough” parent can take the pressure off ourselves and our kids, says Dr Jo Prendergast, a psychiatrist, mum and author of teen parenting book, When Life Sucks.
“When parents try to be perfect and have kids behaving perfectly they just have so many battles,” she says. “They’re kind of like a ref on the sports field who’s just blowing the whistle continuously to the point that the players just go, ‘we are not playing anymore’. And it all turns to anarchy.”
Instead, she suggests parents lower their expectations, and pick their battles.
“No one’s ever died of an untidy room,” agrees Carr-Greg. “It’s not something that you need to worry about. And instead of wrestling your phone off the kid, why don’t you use screen time?”
What can parents do instead?
A good-enough parent doesn’t have to get it right all the time. “At least once a week I’ll say ‘unless you clean your room, there’s no Nintendo’ or ‘we can get an ice cream once we do this’,” admits Muir, who says this is fine so long as we realise that this won’t improve behaviour in the long term.
“We need to be able to hold a boundary in a connected way without using threats, bribes or punishments.”
How to hold a boundary (the right way)
- Take a breath, unclench fists or jaw and take a moment to regulate. “In that first step we’re overriding our automatic programming in the sense that we would have been sent to our room or punished. We’re doing that to take our brain out of fight or flight,” explains Muir.
- Find compassion by making the most generous assumption we can of our child and remember they have a developing brain.
- Acknowledge the child’s feelings and set the limit clearly. Follow through and reiterate that it’s OK for them to feel upset. Parents should not tolerate hitting or kicking, Muir stresses.
Helping our children feel safe and learn to regulate their emotions involves knowing they can come to us. When Muir works with parents whose child hits, for example, she suggests they tell the child that if they ever feel they need to hit, they will help them, and will stop it from happening. “This is the first step in regulating. They cannot stop without your help, but they know they can come to you.”
Importantly, remember to look after yourself. “I think at least 50 per cent of parenting is the parents’ wellbeing, parents psychological awareness, parents looking after themselves, and getting support or counselling if they need it,” says Prendergast. Get help when you need it, from a psychologist or via a parenting course. Triple P – Positive Parenting Program, Tresillian and Catholic Care all offer free or subsidised programs.
Be as calm and consistent with your kids as you can, but don’t beat yourself up if you mess up, says Prendergast.
“The vast majority of parents lose the plot at some point,” she says. “If we go, ‘Hey, sorry, I yelled before I was feeling really stressed, but that was unfair’, it’s modelling to the kids, that things can go pear shaped, but then they can come right again.”
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