Parenting Without Punishment

Its been about 6 months that I have now consistently, consciously been parenting without punishment. And along with no punishment, no rewards either. This decision was after great struggle over the past 7 years in my relationship with my 9-year old son (yes, struggle began at the early age of 2), who is so amazing and also the most stubborn person I have ever known. I am very familiar with motivational research that shows that the ‘carrot and stick’ approach (punishment and/or rewards) is not effective in motivation, and actually, can cause the opposite effect of de-motivating people. This research is most prevalent in HR research around motivating/demotivating employees, and the research findings have been popularized by one of my favourite writers (and TED Talk speakers) Daniel Pink in his amazing and inspiring book Drive.

While many of us, myself included, know this research well, we don’t seem to apply these same principles in our parenting. And in the moment, when I am reactive and angry, it can be so easy to pull out a punishment. But, and this is the kicker, IT DOES NOT WORK. My son’s behaviour does not change because he is afraid of punishment or doesn’t want a consequence. His behaviour is in reaction to something much bigger going on in his life.

Why, even when I know this, do the punishments so easily escape my mouth? Because frankly, I have power over my 9-year old son. And I have been thinking about my power, and the (unconscious) abuse of this power in my day-to-day reactions. I came across this powerful online article by Teresa Graham Brett about ‘Adultism’ that shook me to my core – vhttp://www.kindredmedia.org/2011/11/adultism-the-hidden-toxin-poisoning-our-relationships-with-children/. I teach the Power Flower and the ‘isms’ to College Students, and I am comfortable identifying and speaking about racism, homophobia, sexism etc. But this article made me confront my own oppressive use of power in parenting: “…if we are using our power over the children in our lives, we are perpetuating injustice and oppression. We are setting children up to accept a world that is based on the more powerful controlling the less powerful.”

All of this collided with my reading the amazing book ‘Honey I Wrecked the Kids: When Yelling, Screaming, Threats, Bribes, Time-Outs, Sticker Charts and Removing Privileges All Don’t Work’ by Alyson Schafer. This book was critical in providing concrete tools on what parenting can look like, when I am parenting without punishment. Along with the arguments above for this strategy, Schafer writes from an Adler psychology perspective, which is that children misbehave because they are experiencing a negative feeling and are communicating this. It is our job to understand what they are trying to tell us through their misbehavior, and to help them to find another way to feel positive and re-engaged in their life. Instead of getting angry with the misbehavior, Schafer encourages parents to ‘get curious’, to play the detective in understanding what is happening in our childs life.

In her book, Schafer points out that we often say disrespectful things to our children on a daily basis, not even thinking about it. Statements like: “Why don’t you act your age” or “How old are you anyways?”. Statements that serve to knock kids down a notch or too. When I really reflected on this, I realized that I was doing this, often without even thinking about it. And I wanted it to stop.

Without a doubt, parenting without punishment has been a game-changer for me, my family and my relationship with my son. It has been incredibly challenging for me to check myself, bite my tongue and not react with anger, threats or consequences. I have tried to respond with love and patience, every time. I am trying to treat my children with the respect that they deserve, every single day. And it has been eye-opening for me to notice how, even when I am so committed to parenting consciously without punishment, it can be so difficult. Especially when I am tired, or trying to get the kids out the door so we don’t miss the school bus, or when I’m trying to multi-task.

However, it has been so worth it. I saw the results right away, within 48 hours. Our family has become calmer, my son is happier and we have found a sense of peace.  When my son does something wrong, I try to find out whats going on. But I also try to honour my feelings too, which sometimes means I need to take some space. I try to name my feelings, so that my children see that modeling. I say clearly, not angrily (but sometimes sadly): “I am feeling upset by what has happened. I need some space.” For the time ever, my son, who is so stubborn and could never before admit that he was wrong, has started apologizing on his own, when he knows that he has made a mistake. This was shocking when it first happened. I had never received an unsolicited apology from him before.

And we talk a lot about what is going on. My experience resonates with Schafers argument, that there is always an underlying reason behind the misbehavior. I play detective, and sometimes its challenging because he won’t just tell me what is going on. That would be too easy. But I often find out, even if it’s the last conversation before sleep, when he is most comfortable and ready to share. His reason behind the misbehavior usually has nothing to do with me, and is often a feeling of sadness and fear of not belonging with his peers at school. Usually there is some small but critical event in his day that has made him feel insecure about his significance and self-worth in his world. And when I find this out, it is my job to simply hug him, tell him that he is so very loved and that I believe in him. And especially after those most difficult days, I like to share my favourite quote with him: ‘tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it’ (Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables).

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Summer Loving and Learning

My 9 year old son is a different person in the summer. He goes to daycamp every day, and comes back happier, lighter and at peace in his spirit. We have spent this past school year with our son being so tense and anxious, looking to pick fights with us and his younger brother, defiance and anger often in his eyes. This was a tough year in our home. And through it all, we almost forgot who he really was. We started to believe that this angry, disengaged self was really him.

But here he is, coming home from camp every day, with a huge smile on his face, openness and peace in his eyes, and excitement to tell me all about his day. When he went to school, I would ask about his day, and he would just shrug and say, ‘It was fine’, in a voice that told me that it wasn’t fine. When I ask him about his day at camp, he can’t wait to tell me the stories and activities, the friends he has made, the funny encounters, and what he has learned. We love the summer.

But it begs the question, running through my head every day, “Why can’t school be more like camp?” It feels incredibly sad, and a missed opportunity, that at grade three, my son waits all school year for the summer. As someone who is passionate about learning (and works in the post-secondary sector), I am very concerned with his disengagement at school. I want my son to be excited and engaged with his learning, to be happy going to school and happy in his life. I want him to feel safe facing learning challenges that stretch him, to be creative and innovative in his thinking, and to make mistakes and learn from his mistakes. Is this too much to ask?

So what is it about camp, that is different from school, that captures my son’s spirit? A few elements come to mind:

  1. Active: camps are very active, kids are moving around all the time, instead of learning at a desk. People need to move. My son needs to move to learn, not because he has ADD but because people need to move. He is happier when he is able to be active, not at set times but throughout the day.
  1. Experiential: Hands-on experiential learning, like trying to sail a boat and learning about wind patterns, will be imprinted in memory because it is interesting and practical. This engaged learning is far more powerful than book learning that is remembered only for a test.
  1. Fun: Camp is fun! The songs, jokes and cheers. Doesn’t everyone want to have fun and enjoy life? Does school need to be so serious? Can’t learning be fun? I found this great article about a professor who doesn’t have exams or tests, but now reframes them as ‘celebrations’ – that is the spirit I am looking for!
  1. Connected: This is the game-changer for my son. My son makes an immediate connection to his counselors at camp. This does not happen at school. Based on this connection, he feels like he belongs and that he is safe. At the end of Day 1 at camp, he knows all of his counselors names. He talks incessantly about his camp counselors, and at the end of his week at camp, he is sad to say goodbye. I was pleasantly surprised when one evening, he gave up storytime before bed so that he could make all of his camp counselors snake puppets out of construction paper to give to them as presents (and he is NOT usually a crafty kid!). He selected which puppet should go to which counselor based on their personality. This connection just does not happen at school.

How hard would it be for schools to integrate these elements, to foster a (dare I say) fun, engaged and joyful learning environment? It would actually be very hard, because it would mean radically dismantling the culture of education that hasn’t changed much in 100 years. The culture of education that I am referring to, is where ‘learning’ takes place in desks and in classrooms, where kids line up when bells are rung, and fun is relegated to a once a year ‘fun day’ (listen to Sir Ken Robinson talk on this – he is very articulate and inspiring). Yes, dismantling this system of education would be hard. But for the sake of our children, it is time for change!

SickKids – Soothing Spaces

I recently spent five days with my little one at SickKids hospital. It was probably one of the most stressful times in my life, and definitely the most stressful time as a mom. Five days is such a short amount of time in the grand scheme of life, but when I was there, it felt like forever. The days were long, waiting for tests and doctors and results and answers, and the nights were even longer, sleeping on the pull-out chair beside the hospital bed and worrying about my life (and my other son) outside of the hospital. I met several parents whose child was living in the hospital for months and months, and I can’t imagine how hard that reality must have been.

I think a lot about space, and how space impacts us, in terms of how we feel and how we act. I believe strongly that space has an incredible impact on our attitudes and behaviours, and even small changes to space can make a big difference. During our days at SickKids, we had a lot of time to explore this hospital, and I was always looking for ways to entertain my three year old. In the midst of stress, we found spaces that provided much needed laughter and peace. These spaces made all of the difference in our day, providing us with energy and uplifting our spirits. My favourite spaces were:

  1. The Elevator

What could be better than an elevator to entertain a three-year old? We ‘rode the rails’ for hours every day. We pressed the buttons, got in and out, in and out, and the elevator was a source of endless entertainment. We met a lot of people on the elevator, going up and down, all going about their lives. I love how the elevator is so open, and the space of the hospital from this perspective feels so open and spacious. I was so appreciative of this space during our stay at the hospital.

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  1. The Tim Hortons train

The Tim Hortons at SickKids has a train that goes around and around the store. There is a button for kids to press that makes the train move. Again, this was a source of great entertainment for my boy, who loves trains. A few times a day, we would do the walk to Tim Hortons, and I could drink much-needed coffee while K pressed the button and delighted in watching the train move. I was very thankful for this space.

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  1. The Starlight Room Rooftop Space

This was the most important space for me during our time at SickKids. It brought K and I (and others) a deep sense of peace when we needed it. We weren’t able to leave the hospital, so we were stuck inside during beautiful sunny days. When I found the Starlight Room Rooftop Space (on the 9th floor – if you are looking for it, you can only take the middle elevator up to it), I almost cried with joy. The rooftop patio is beautiful, with couches and water features, and we were able to be outside! We were able to enjoy the warm sun and the breeze of the wind, without leaving the hospital. We spent a lot of time up on the rooftop patio, playing and making crafts and enjoying fresh air.

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These spaces at SickKids made my stay there bearable. SickKids is a special place, with amazing doctors and nurses and staff, and I am so thankful that little K was taken care of there.

Executive Functioning – Thinking about Thinking

My 8-year old son was recently diagnosed by a psychologist with an ‘Executive Functioning’ disorder. I had never heard of the term, and have spent the past month reading voraciously, trying to make sense on what this means.

We decided to pursue testing because of his emotional outbursts at school, conflict that he finds himself in with his teacher and his friends, and his general disinterest in learning. Our child has always been an intense, ‘spirited’ child (I read Mary Kurcinka’s Raising Your Spirited Child when he was 4 years old and cried with relief that there was a name for this intensity, as well as excellent strategies to manage it), but we thought his emotional intensity would calm as he matured. This was not the case, and sure enough, grade 3 has been tumultuous. But we were most concerned with his disinterest in school and learning – this is a kid whose emotional intensity is coupled with a passionate, enthusiastic and curious spirit, with a deep love of learning. Our concern amplified when we caught a glimpse of this spirit dimming.

Executive Functioning Disorder is a learning disability that affects the ability to plan and act in a goal-oriented manner. There are eight pillars that define Executive Functioning: 1. Initiation, 2. Flexibility, 3. Attention, 4. Organization, 5. Planning 6. Working Memory 7. Self-Awareness, and 8. Managing Emotions. The best book that I read about Executive Functioning so far is No Mind Left Behind: Understanding and Fostering Executive Control by Adam Cox. Everyone has different levels of competency in each of the pillars, and our son has some serious gaps in many of the pillars (especially 2, 4, 7, and 8).

Through my reading and learning, I have been challenged to think differently about emotions. Before this, I separated emotions from thinking as two completely separate internal processes. I assumed that emotional outbursts came from an emotional/mental health challenge, and not from a ‘learning disability’. In reality, emotions and thinking are deeply intertwined. Self-awareness, which is critical for emotional management and self-regulation, is one of the pillars of Executive Functioning. While I have always seen self-awareness as a sign of emotional strength, it is actually a thinking process; the ability to think objectively about yourself and to understand why you do what you do (or don’t do what you are supposed to do).

This has certainly challenged how I interpret events in my son’s life. For example, he struggles with resolving conflict in his friendships, which makes is a source of great sadness for him. While my interpretation has always been that he can’t resolve conflict because he is stubborn, hot-headed and won’t take any responsibility for his part in the conflict (lack of self-awareness), I now have a different take on it. He creates a fixed vision of what he wants to happen in his friendship (a serious lack of flexibility), and any change to his vision causes him anxiety. Once the conflict begins, he lacks the planning skills to think through steps of resolving the conflict. He also lacks self-awareness, which means that he gets stuck in his emotions.

So what to do? The good news is that Executive Functioning is a skill that can be taught and learned over time. While it may come naturally to some, the skill is actually learning a process of ‘two-tiered’ thinking or ‘meta-cognition’ (thinking about thinking). For example, to be successful in completing a complex project, you aren’t just thinking about the project, but the planning process is ‘thinking about thinking’ – what needs to get done and how, when, where etc. Visualization is a critical strategy to teach, where you visualize what steps are involved in completing the project. Visualization can be used as a key strategy to strengthen self-awareness – in No Mind Left Behind, Adam Cox suggests a strategy where you ask the child to pretend their life is a movie and they are main actor. Ask the child to play back (visualize) a scene from their life (for example a conflict situation) and analyze why the actor (himself) is doing what he is doing. What is causing him to make that decision? What is he thinking and feeling? Then ask the child to rewrite the ending, solving the problem.

I’ve been reading about the importance of character strengths such as grit, self-control, and resiliency, as key to life success and happiness. I wish that our schools focused on teaching children these new skills, instead of memorizing times tables (I was in shock when my son came home with his homework instruction to memorize his times tables – is this the best use of our time and energy? Why is this necessary? Questions for a different blog post…). In the meantime, I will continue to read, learn and do whatever I can to support my son with gaining the skills he needs to success and be happy in life. I hope what we can do is enough.

Learning and Reflecting through Soccer

In my family, with Spring and Summer comes soccer. I’m not talking about the World Cup, but I’m talking about our Wed evening ritual as a family to bring food, blankets and water bottles down to the grassy fields in the beach and to watch our 8 year old play his soccer game. I admit that I am a bit of a ‘soccer mom’. I played soccer my whole childhood, adolescence and even recreationally as an adult before I had kids and had to limit my extra-curricular activities. So I love the game. And I get really into it, yelling loudly (which both my partner and my 8 year old finds embarrassing) and I can feel my adrenalin pumping when my sons team is so close to scoring. But I also often feel VERY frustrated. Why? Because watching 8 year old boys play soccer can be very frustrating. If you have ever watched kids soccer, you’ll know why. Because the kids still just all go after the ball, without passing or thinking of their team. Often the ball just gets stuck in a mass of feet kicking.

In the process of attempting to ‘coach’ my son, I have realized that it is incredibly challenging to teach (and learn!) the concept of teamwork. Visually, by sitting on the sidelines, I have the ‘big picture’ view of what is happening (or not happening). I can see the dynamics – who is passing (or not passing) to who, who is communicating (or not communicating) to who etc. I can analyze the situation pretty objectively. However, its completely different for the soccer players, who are in the middle of it, and have one clear goal – to get the ball out of their side and into their opponents goal. This concept of teamwork seems to go right out the windown when they are out there in the action.

In my conversations with my son about soccer, I have also realized that there are so many amazing life lessons to be learned, through soccer as a metaphor. Here are a few that soccer has highlighted:

-Use the sides of the field. Choose ‘the road less travelled’. Strategically, while going straight down the middle might seem like the easiest way to score, the middle is crowded. Use the sidelines, to quietly get up the field and score! In my life, I learn from this: don’t always pick the obvious direction to move forward. Think strategically, and even if it takes a little longer to reach my goal, its worth it. Take the time to think, instead of just ‘plowing’ ahead.

-Communicate, communicate, communicate! While technical skills are important, the most important skill in teamwork is communication. Make eye contact, know everyones name to be able to call out when you are going to pass. Make a plan with your teammates and communicate this plan.

-Everyone matters in the team, and everyone has a critical role to play. Success is based on the whole team working together, and strategically utilizing everyone’s unique strengths. There is far too much emphasis and public recognition for the person who scores, but we need to recognize and celebrate the quiet team members who play a role in making the scoring possible.

And most important of all:

-The journey is far more important than the end result! My son and his soccer team played their best game ever against a very strong team, where they lost the game. Before that, my son’s team was on a winning streak, so everyone was disappointed because they lost. I wished that Morgan and his team would celebrate that game, where they played so well, communicated so well, and were a team (much more than in the other games). They were challenged, and in the challenge, was the learning and growing. And to me, that is what counts most.

Playing in Playgrounds

Spring is coming soon, and with Spring, comes playgrounds. With two very active, rambunctious boys, I spend A LOT of time in playgrounds. I love playgrounds – how they are free and spark both imagination and physical movement, how they create community amongst parents who are generally relaxed and don’t have a lot to do except chat with each other. I love how children are uninhibited on playgrounds, feel free to move, jump, climb and leap about. My son is the happiest when he is moving, and full of joy when he is playing in playgrounds. I am blessed to live in a neighborhood with many playgrounds within walking distance of our house, and we make full use of all of these playgrounds. Norway School is the closest playground, so we go there when we have just an hour before supper, when I know my son needs to run off some steam. “Froggie park” has a great splashpad, so this is a summer favourite. And of course, Kew/Castle Park is excellent with the castle (that my son has now figured out how to climb into the middle) and the potential for imagination games with the boats and hiding spaces. I have probably clocked over 500 hours in Kew/Castle Park over the past 7 years.

Besides Kew/Castle Playground, my other favourite playgrounds are:

Dufferin Grove Park – hands down! This playground is in the west end of Toronto (Dufferin and College), so far from our house, but we love it so much that we are happy to make the trek to go here. Dufferin Grove Park is an amazing example of successful community development, where residents were extremely active in reclaiming this public park, which used to be unused and scary with crime and drug dealing. Residents have worked tirelessly with city officials to vision and implement that vision into a community-based park. Residents continue to be extremely active in the park, and there are all kinds of community activities that take place at Dufferin Grove. There has even been scholarly research done on the volunteer engagement model at Dufferin Grove, as a best practice. There are so many wonderful elements of Dufferin Grove Park, but what I love the most is the digging area. They have dug out a giant area of dirt and rocks and wood, and they have water streaming through. They have child-sized shovels and watering cans, and my son has spent hours upon hours digging and carrying water, making rivers and making dams, hard at work.

-Toronto Island – Franklins Children’s Garden – a great example of integrating imaginative play with movement. My son also loves this playground, as it has the Franklin characters built into the playground. Lots of fun!

-Montreal – Salamander Park on Mont Royal is amazing! We have also spent hours here, it is beautiful because the playground is located on the mountain, and it is designed in a unique way to encourage children’s motor and cognitive development. It is a visually beautiful playground, and different from any other playground I have ever visited.

All this writing about playgrounds makes me wish I was a kid! Of course, there are now Adult Playgrounds that I might try to check out when I next next in New York! Wouldn’t this be a great stress-buster? I wonder if I would feel inhibited trying this out, or maybe not? Maybe I could let go and ‘be a kid’ for an hour or so.

Here are some amazing playgrounds from around the world! I hope to visit some of these in my lifetime!

Rainbow Loom Reflections

If you have a child in the 6-12 age range, then I’m sure you’ve heard of Rainbow Loom. It’s the new craze in the schools, and the top selling toy in Canada and the U.S. The toy was invented by a Malaysian father who one evening was watching his daughters make bracelets out of rubber hands with their fingers. He tried, and because his fingers were too large and clumsy, he couldn’t do it. So he hammered some nails into a board, making a makeshift ‘loom’ and started playing with the elastics. He and his daughters realized quickly that they could make really amazing, more intricate patters with the loom…and the rest is history. You can read his story here – http://www.thestar.com.my/Lifestyle/Family/Features/2013/12/13/Malaysianborn-father-strikes-gold-in-Rainbow-Loom-in-US.aspx/.

My 7 year old son is OBSESSED with rainbow loom. It is pretty much all he talks about with his friends and what he does when he gets home from school. He has been obsessed now for three months, and I would estimate that he has clocked over 50 hours making bracelets. The bracelet patterns are separated by beginner, intermediate, and advanced, and he is now doing the advanced patterns. I have found this all very interesting to observe. Beyond the development of skill (fine motor/dexterity etc), this Rainbow Loom fad has been incredibly positive for my son at a deeper level, uncovering and strengthening values and facilitating new learning, in these three ways::

1. Gender Bending: At Mo’s school, both boys and girls are into it and are making and wearing bracelets. Before Rainbow Loom, I have found this age to be very gender separate – the boys do their activities and the girls do theirs. Despite LOTS of conversations about this and the fact that Mo is being raised by two moms who are feminists and make it clear that ‘you can be who you want to be’, Mo has always been a ‘boy boy’ – his top interests have been trucks, superheroes, weapons, wrestling and sports. And before the Rainbow Loom, Mo has never been interested in making a craft or wearing a bracelet, and he would say that ‘only girls do that’. This change and interest in bracelet making has been fascinating to me. Quite frankly, it shows me the power of peers, that I think (unfortunately sometimes) is stronger than the power of parents (Hold On To Your Kids by Neufeld and Mate is an excellent book on this). Anyways, I love how it is now cool for boys to make and wear bracelets.

2. Teaching and Learning – especially Online: Mo learns how to make his bracelets through online videos, where someone is showing and teaching the step-by-step instructions on each pattern. Rainbow Loom has official online teaching videos, but kids are now putting up their own on Youtube, and Mo seems to like these ones even better. He listens to a 10 year old girls voice going through the steps, he can press pause and rewind when he’s missed a step, and he learns new patterns extremely fast through this method. It’s interesting to watch him learn in this way, and its amazing to see kids teaching and learning from each other online! Mo asked me about making a video himself to teach Rainbow Loom, and I think this would be an ambitious and interesting project, to see how he teaches (at the age of 7!).

3. Generosity: Mo is giving everyone his bracelets – our neighbors, his friends at school, the dental hygienist when we went to the dentist… He is making so many of them, and there are only so many he can wear on his arm. He is very proud of his bracelets, and I realized that 7 years old normally don’t have a lot of opportunities to practice generosity, because they don’t have money or things to give away. Rainbow Loom has provided an opportunity for him to practice generosity, and I love to see this in action.

Here are a few photos of Mo doing Rainbow Loom…

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