Does Guilt Sell Parenting Books?

This post is in response to this article.  I’m not a psychologist (obviously) and my only experience with children and discipline is the 10 years I’ve spent rearing my own kid’s thus far.  The author of the article is obviously very passionate and well-educated in his areas of expertise and I don’t dispute that.  Here’s his Wikipedia page if you’d like to read more about him.

This post comes from my frustration (as just a regular mum) with the constant barrage parents receive from “experts” about how we should be raising our kids.  We are constantly being told that what we are doing may be causing our children psychological harm and that we need to strive to do better.  With all the advice based on brand new studies being thrown around every other week, it’s enough to do any one’s head in.  It feels as though there’s an entire industry built on making parents feel inadequate and most of all guilty.

Don’t get me wrong, when I was pregnant with my first child I read every book I could get my hands on.  I bought parenting magazines every month and I armed myself with as much information as I could cram into my poor pregnant brain.  These guide’s absolutely have their place and anything that can make a new Mum feel more secure in her ability to raise this wee babe is a positive thing.  Yes, we need to arm ourselves with information but not to the point where we are so consumed with guilt that we don’t trust our own instincts and instead are constantly trying to live up to an unrealistic expectation.

Am I the only parent who remembers the day she discovered the way our parents raised us (namely spanking/smacking) was now deemed harmful and wrong?  That in fact our parents were causing permanent psychological harm to us?  That hitting only teaches children that violence is acceptable and leads our kids to be violent and abusive adults?  That as children our self-esteem and inner spirit was being snuffed out completely because our parents dared to give us a good whack when we were particularly naughty?

When I had my own children the “new method” of child rearing according to parenting books, online forums and child-healthcare professionals was positive reinforcement (praise and rewards for desired behaviour) and time-outs instead of smacking when a child misbehaved.

Let’s be honest.  Maybe for a large portion of the years from the terrible two’s right through to primary school a lot of us manage to implement this “method” but there are times over the years (particularly if you have more than one child) when you resort to smacking/spanking.  Maybe no one else is willing to own up to it but I will.

I am not a perfect mother, but you know what?  Who among us is?  Sure, that Mum in the supermarket who answers every question her 4-year-old throws at her…

  • “Muuum can I have a chocolate?”
  • “Muuum can I have that?” (pointing at a feather duster or something equally random)
  • “Muuum why is that man is in a wheelchair?”
  • “Will I ever be in a wheelchair?”
  • “Muuum why is the floor shiny?”
  • “Muuum can we go now?”
  • “Muuum why is it taking so long”
  • “Muuum what’s that?”
  • “Muum I’m hungry!”
  • “Muuum I’m booored”
  • “Muuuum!”

…maybe she smiles and answers every question in a calm tone and makes you feel like dog poop.  You feel like poop for screeching for a moment’s peace not 20 minutes earlier when your child asked for the 100th time “but why is the sky blue?” on the car ride to the shops. 

I assure you, unless this woman has a psychological condition (yes I’m so cynical that I believe people who are happy and bubbly 24/7 have something wrong with them…a good kind of “wrong” mind you but there’s still some dodgy wiring going on…or drugs, lots of ’em) then at some point this woman will crack.  It won’t necessarily be in front of you, it may not even be in the car on the way home.  She might make it until her husband gets home from work and she can tell him through gritted teeth, “I need to lock myself in the bathroom for the next hour and not speak to ANYONE or I’m going to blow a fuse“.

Yes we’d love to keep calm at all times when dealing with our kids, we put up sticker charts and offer reward and on the rare occasion when our brain is all there and we see them doing some wonderous thing (like putting a dirty shirt in the hamper instead of under their bed or wiping the snot off their finger onto a towel instead of the walls, albeit probably the towel you’ve used to wipe your face) we give them a kiss and tell them, “great job“.

We’ve often had enough sleep to muster calmly explaining consequence and why things are against the rules.  We try to reason calmly with our tantrum throwing 3-year-old who is screaming his lungs out, laying on the floor and kicking in the middle of the shopping centre because you said “no” to buying him yet another ice cream cone.  We tell him that he’s going to get a time out if he doesn’t stand up and stop screaming.  We count to three and tell him he’s getting a time out.  If we’re on the ball we’ll be able to get him to the car, home and then follow through and give him the time out.

BUT, you know what?  Sometimes, just sometimes I’ve dragged (gently of course) that kid to the car and given him a smack on his behind.  I’ll admit it, because sometimes my screaming 3-year-old has played me (oh and don’t play innocent with me and claim a 3-year-old can’t be a conniving little mastermind trying to manipulate his Mum the best way he knows how).  After 7 full hours of dealing with Mr. Cranky Pants there’s no emotional resources left to speak calmly and resolve the issue with a “time out” when we get home.

Parents are people too, and the experts seem to have forgotten that somewhere along the line.  In today’s world it’s as if children are delicate little flowers that can’t take a stern word or have their feeling on a family decision dismissed every once in a while.  When did this happen?  Were we really abused as children when our parents set out rules and we had to just follow them, no if’s or but’s because it was for our own good?  Are kids today really so much more delicate and needy?

How many of us feel guilty that we didn’t live up to the parenting books and expert advice given at the turn of the Century?  We carry this secret guilt that we sometimes smack our kids, we half expect children’s services knocking on our door because our 4-year-old told their childcare worker, “Mummy smacked me on the hand when I tried to put a knife in the power point“.  This guilt is ridiculous!  This fear of giving that 3-year-old screaming at the top of his lungs a small smack on the bottom in front of everyone in the shopping centre because people will stare open-mouthed in horror at how awful a mother you are.  If anything society judging us just makes us hide it and THAT I think is far more likely to lead to child abuse.

Now, would you believe it?  Lo and behold this new method we were striving towards all these years was actually WRONG!  It was showing our kids that our love was conditional and thus (you guessed it) scarring them for life.  Start hoarding your cash parents because you’ll be up to your ears is therapy bills in the very near future according to Alfie Kohn:

In the course of researching a book about parenting, I discovered some disconcerting research on the damaging effects of techniques like the “naughty corner” (better known as time-out), which are basically forms of love withdrawal. I also found quite a bit of evidence that parents who refrain from excessive control and rely instead on warmth and reason are more likely to have children who do what they’re asked – and who grow into responsible, compassionate, healthy people.

This article that spurred my slight outburst is namely criticising the discipline method’s shown by Jo Frost in “Supernanny” and its clone “Nanny 911”.

I don’t disagree with his description of the formulaic nature of the program and I also don’t dispute that all reality t.v is cut in a certain way to tell a story that may or may not be in fact “reality”.  It’s television for crying out loud!

I think the article has been unfair in a lot of ways.  Firstly let’s think about the parents (cases) on Supernanny.  Most of these parents are not just after their 15 minutes of fame, their kids are actually out of control and every one in the household is suffering.  These parents are scrambling for those last threads of sanity, they are in tears, they are yelling often incoherently as steam starts to shoot out of their ears and they are spanking/smacking out of frustration.  They NEED help.

It’s all good and well to spout optimistic ideology of warmth and patience, listening to your children’s opinions and concerns when they’re throwing tantrums or resisting bedtime but who’s going to help that desperate Mum who can’t get her 3 children to stay in bed tonight?  Where are the experts when your 5-year-old is screaming that he hates you and runs off into the woodland because you asked him to wear his raincoat (given that its pouring down rain and all) and every time you catch up to him and try and talk to him he screeches bloody murder.  It’s easy to judge from afar, so very easy.

Sure most of these experts are parents themselves and may just be the kind of cool-headed people that can honestly say they follow their own advice.  Might I add though that they are probably not scraping for cash each week with one or both parents working long hours just to make ends meet.  They are probably wealthy enough to afford the best child care and the best schools for their kids and when they are at home they have the cash and work the hours that afford them endless patience with their kids.

The parents on Supernanny apply to the show because most of them can’t afford a group therapy session or one on one help from a professional.  Jo Frost is an experienced nanny, not a child-psychologist or a family therapist but a nanny who has gained a few skills over the years that can be of help to desperate parents.  Suggesting that she should be exploring the parents motivations and examining what their childhood’s were like is just silly.

“Time out” was done incorrectly in our household for years.  After watching a few episodes of Supernanny I explained it to the kids and started following Jo’s steps.  Sure it wasn’t a miracle cure but I think her method works much better for our family than my half arsed time out’s.  I explain to them why they are having a time out and for how long.  I set the timer and when the alarm goes off I reiterate why they were on time out.  They apologise for their behaviour and give me a kiss and cuddle and run off happily to play.

Kids need boundaries, they look for them, they step over the line to see where the boundaries lie.  Having boundaries and knowing the consequences for your actions makes a child feel secure.  If parents are clear on their expectations and always follow through then I think that ultimately leads to happy, healthy kids.

I think postive reinforcement teaches children important lessons about the real world.  Your first boss won’t ask you if you feel like serving customers today on your first day as a teen working in a fast food restaurant.  Your boss will expect you to do what you’re asked and it might just inspire you to work harder in school so someday you can get a better job where your knowledge earns you some respect.  Yes, we want more for our kids than just being an obedient employee but in the real world you have to prove you can be responsible and trust worthy.  You have to earn respect as an adult, it won’t just be handed to you.

I’m not saying Alfie Kohn’s methods are wrong (I haven’t read his book, I’ve only read a few of his articles) and if you are someone who can live up to those expectations then I admire your patience.  I admire parents who can stay positive and calm, taking any conflict with their child as an opportunity to show them love and understanding without feeling like an empty shell when night time rolls around and having no means to refuel before the next long day begins

We all know its hard.  Rarely has any child been born who is “easy” from birth to adulthood and I half suspect that if a child were that easy then they would receive a hard shock to the system when they stepped out into the real world and there was conflict (often constructive and vital to personal growth) around every corner.

Stop feeling guilty Mum’s and Dad’s, kids are far more durable than society gives them credit for.  If you love your kids and you do the best job you can on the amount of sleep you’re able to muster then you are doing a great job.

2 thoughts on “Does Guilt Sell Parenting Books?”

  1. Excellent post!
    I agree with EVERYTHING you wrote here! Not enough parents say “no”. I’ve witnessed it first hand. They just don’t’ know how to deal with a temper tantrum. It’s just easier to say “ok, here”.

    I’ve spanked my kids. I was spanked as well when I was little. I’m not worse for wear from it. I even got the belt! Never used that on my kids, but you knew you were in trouble when the belt came off!

    It’s all these parents groups that sleep with their kids in bed with them, breast feed til the kid is about 15, never laid a hand or raised a voice that has the laws all screwed up. The kid is living in a bubble. The outside world is a jungle and they don’t want little Mikey to get hurt. It’ll hurt is fragile psyche!

    This also goes in line with no competition in classrooms (spelling bees) or physical ed (no more Dodge Ball or relay races). If a child should lose, their self esteem is down the toilet and they’re ruined for life!! So pamper the child, let them think they’ve won with letting EVERYONE win, let the little girls ALL make cheerleading tryouts!

    THEN….when they get out into the real world and apply for a job or even a promotion….and they don’t get it, then what? How are they going to handle that rejection? Go home and cry to mommy? Then have mommy go in and get in the boss’ face about why he didn’t pick her/him for the job?

    Yeah, I’d like to see that happen and I’m sure it has.

    Time Out never worked for me, so I would just limit tv viewing or video game playing. Sending them to their room was out because all their toys were there. Mine weren’t that bad anyway.

    My biggest peeve? The moms that let their kids run rampant through a store without regard! Don’t get me started on that one!


  2. eek! I was sure I had responded to your comment Irene, apparently not! Sorry for the delay.

    We definitely limit t.v, video games etc as a discipline method too. Unfortunately one of my boys will push and push until I’ve taken every damn thing I can think of and I have to change tactics. It’s clearly just him as it works with his brothers just fine. Different tactics for different personalities I guess (difficult when none of your kids are alike…I feel like I need a cheat sheet to feed me lines based on which kid is driving me up the wall).

    I know what you mean about them abolishing competition in the classroom. Utterly ridiculous! In the U.K they recently had experts debating whether it was healthy to seperate children into groups based on their abilities (i.e Maths Group A, Group B, Group C etc.). Currently they have groups (something Master 7 is grateful for as he is just naturally very talented at Math and gets bored to death going at the normal pace) and they are thinking of getting rid of it because it makes the slower kids feel bad about themselves. For crying out loud!!! Our eldest was placed in the bottom group for spelling at the start of the year and his Dad encouraged him to learn the top groups list. Lo and behold one week he took the top groups spelling test and got 11/15. He’s been in the top group ever since. He has to work a lot harder then the kids naturally good at spelling but he likes the feeling of being in the top group and its worth the extra effort for him.

    The first year Master 10 played soccer he was 6, they played a different team each week, kept score etc. The second year they brought in, “Roo Ball” and stopped keeping score, basing positions on talent or playing competitively at all. Needless to say he didn’t care to play the third year. Might I add Master 10 was not terribly good at soccer (poor gross motor skills) but he still didn’t find, “we’re all equal” any fun.

    Crazy world we’re living in and I worry what the next generation will be like having been pampered and babied all their lives,


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