Love…it’s easy

A major problem with the human mind is how quickly we think of the big, the grandiose, the larger than life, and then get stuck there.  So, in wanting to show our partner how much we love them, we think of going on a date to a fancy restaurant or buying an expensive present, not just asking, “so how was your day?” and actually listening to the reply. In wanting to be a better parent, we think about elaborate trips to the zoo or acquiring ridiculous cooking or craft skills, not just playing without distractions for a while.  In desiring to connect more with a friend we obsess over organising a night out together just like the good old days, rather than just connecting briefly by phone or text more often.  It is almost as if we want to make living and loving so much harder than it is.  Because, actually, loving another person and showing your love is pretty easy.  In spite of how quickly and easily grand gestures of love come to mind, really, love is all about the little things.

Remember when you were a child.  Remember a moment when you knew that an adult in your life cared about you.  Your memory may be of a parent, a grandparent, an aunt or uncle, or some other adult.  Remember that moment you knew you were loved, when you felt it through and through.  Pause and bring the memory to mind.  What was the moment?  I’m betting it wasn’t an elaborate trip to the zoo.  Was it, in fact, really simple?  Was it actually an ordinary, mundane, everyday moment?  Cooking together?  A shared book?  Cuddles on the couch? Being listened to? Being accepted exactly as you are?  That is what your child wants from you.  In fact, that is what your partner and your friends want from you too.  Loving moments are so simple and that makes them so easy to give.  We just need to make sure we aren’t distracted by our own grandiose plans.

Apply it to your life: Choose a simple, easy way of expressing your love for someone in your life and do it.  What happens?

Acknowledgements: This post was inspired by a thought experiment given by Kelly Wilson during his Acceptance and Commitment Therapy professional training in Brisbane (August, 2014).  You can view Kelly Wilson’s website here

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Ten things I wish more people understood about reinforcement

Reinforcement, the strengthening of behaviour through the consequences of that behaviour (reinforcers or reinforcing stimuli), is a key psychological concept, one that has been applied widely in homes, schools and workplaces.  Reinforcement has entered into our popular culture.  It is common to hear non-psychologists talk about the importance of reinforcing particular behaviours and the strategies that they use for doing so.   However, it is a concept that is often sadly misunderstood.

Here are ten things I wish more people understood about reinforcement:

  • Reinforcement does not mean stickers, or ticks, or saying ‘good girl/boy’. In fact, stickers, ticks, or saying ‘good girl/boy’ may be reinforcing or not depending upon the child and the context.  And there’s so much more to reinforcement than gold stars!  So please, put the sticker book away.
  • Reinforcement is defined by its effect. A particular stimulus is a reinforcer, for a particular person in a particular context, if it strengthens the behaviour that precedes it.  That’s it.  It doesn’t have to look like a reward, or be pleasant, or even make a lot of sense to an outside observer.
  • Reinforcement is change. Sometimes it is the addition of a stimulus that is reinforcing, for example, praise.  This is called positive reinforcement.  Other times it is a removing of a stimulus that is reinforcing, for example, you take medicine and your headache goes away.  This is called negative reinforcement.  The difference between positive and negative reinforcement can be blurry, but reinforcement always involves some change and it is the change that’s reinforcing.
  • Some reinforcers are more natural than others. When wanting to reinforce many people reach straight for artificial (contrived) reinforcers like stickers.  In fact, much reinforcement is natural.  That is, the reinforcer is a naturally occurring aspect of the situation that the behaviour brings about.  For example, if you actually enjoy reading, then you’ll read more often.  The reinforcer, the pleasure of reading, naturally occurs when you read.
  • Reinforcement happens, whether you are trying to do it or not. As reinforcement doesn’t just mean artificial reinforcement, but also natural reinforcement, you are reinforcing particular behaviours in your child whether you are trying to do so or not.  In fact, if any behaviour in any organism is being strengthened over time due to the consequences of that behaviour, or because the behaviour is itself enjoyable in some way, then reinforcement is happening.  That’s what reinforcement means.
  • Natural reinforcement is crucial to lasting behaviour change. Some parenting experts have expressed grave concerns about reinforcement.  What they are actually concerned about is the wide-spread overuse of artificial reinforcement (‘rewards’), and rightly so.  In fact, behaviours that are maintained by natural reinforcement are more likely to persist and to be experienced as freely chosen.
  • Particular stimuli are reinforcing in particular contexts. Stimuli aren’t just reinforcing or not.  They are reinforcing in a particular context.  So a big plate piled high with your favourite meal is likely to be highly reinforcing when you are hungry.  But after you’ve just finished eating a big meal?  Probably not.
  • We can learn to find specific stimuli reinforcing (or not). Some stimuli are inherently reinforcing, for example food (as long as you are hungry). But many reinforcers are learnt.  For example, money functions as a reinforcer for most of us because we have learnt that we can use the money to purchase reinforcers (like food).  Anything that happens at the same time as reinforcement may become reinforcing itself, for example, children may find nonsensical phrases or nicknames reinforcing if their parents usually use these phrases when giving affection.
  • Just because you think you are reinforcing behaviour, doesn’t mean you are. Just as we can learn to find particular stimuli reinforcing, we can also learn to stop responding to particular stimuli as reinforcers.  For example, many school children do not respond to phrases like ‘good try’ as reinforcers.  They’ve learnt that when adults say ‘good try’ they actually mean ‘wrong’.  So how do you know when you are reinforcing behaviour?  When the behaviour is strengthened over time.
  • Get your relationship right and you will have natural reinforcement on your side. If you are responsive, loving and kind, if you are sincere, honest and respectful of both your child’s needs and your own, if you regularly consider your child’s perspective and try as best you can to take their needs and wishes into account… then you’ll have tonnes of natural reinforcement strengthening exactly the kinds of behaviours you want to strengthen in your child. That’s not to say you won’t experience particular challenges.  But, overall, your child is likely to be kind, generous, happy and confident.

Apply it to your life: Get natural reinforcement on your side by building a strong, loving and respectful relationship with your child.  If you are wanting to strengthen a particular behaviour in your child, then think about what the natural reinforcers for that behaviour might be. Hint: consider your child’s perspective, what does he or she want?  Remember reinforcement is defined by the effects so experiment and see if the behaviour is strengthened over time or not.  Keep experimenting until you discover what works!

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Want you or your child to change? Here’s the formula

In our culture we fetishize willpower.  We get hooked on the idea that individuals change themselves through the internal flexing of their own will, somehow pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps.  We fall into the trap of thinking that we can force others to change through sheer will.  Complex and poignant interactions between people become reduced to mere battles, to contests of wills.  As parents, we may believe that we need to win, to best our children in these battles with our stronger will.  In fact, positive and lasting changes usually do not come from willpower.  In fact, there’s a kind of violence to this flexing of will, whether you are wielding it on yourself or on another.  Willpower is force.  Willpower is unkind.  There is a price to be paid for using force.  You’ll find that there’s a cost.  People don’t like being forced, not even by loved ones, not even by themselves.

Is there another way?  Is there a way of building positive and lasting changes?  A way that is also kind and nurturing?  Fortunately, there is a universal formula for behaviour change.  You can apply this formula in changing your own behaviour, in changing your child’s behaviour and in changing the behaviour of other people in your life as well.   Once you understand it, it is simple, really simple.  Instead of forcing your will upon yourself or another, take the time to truly understand why the behaviour is happening, and then, with kindness and love, you need to rig the game.  That is, you need to deliberately build a context that supports the changes you’d like to see and let that context do the work for you.   How do you build such a context?

  1. Make it fun, joyful, meaningful and enriching. We behave in ways that bring joy and meaning to our lives so think about how you can make change as fun and enriching as possible.  If you want to begin an exercise program then start by finding a way of exercising that you actually enjoy.  Make exercising meaningful by reminding yourself what you are exercising for.
  2. Make it as easy as possible. Ensure that it is as easy as it possibly can be to change.  Consider what would make change easiest for yourself, or your child.  For example, if you’d like your child to have a bath with minimum fuss then carefully time bathtime for a time of day when it is likely to be as easy as it can be for your child.
  3. Remove obstacles. What gets in the way of change?  Identify obstacles and remove them.  Want to get your family eating healthier food?  Remove all unhealthy food from your fridge and pantry.
  4. Build skills. Identify any skills needed for change and ensure that you and your child have the opportunity to learn them.  So if you want to stop yelling at your child, think about what you want to be doing instead and practise that.  If you want your child to stop tantruming so often then consider what your child could do instead of tantruming, for example, sharing feelings verbally.   Teach this to your child.
  5. Build supports. Make sure your support network is working for behavioural change.  If you want to change how you are parenting then share this aspiration with your partner, a family member or a friend.  Work towards change together.  It is much easier to change when the task of changing is shared.
  6. Let go of perfection. You can change.  Your child can change.  Neither of you will ever be perfect.  One of the biggest traps to behaviour change is to think that because you can’t reach perfection you might as well do nothing at all.  In fact, every little change makes a difference.  So build a context that supports change and if you fail more often than you succeed that’s okay too.

Apply it to your life:  Do you have a goal for behavioural change, either in your behaviour or your child’s?  How can you apply the formula for change to this?  Remember, don’t flex your will.  Rig the game.

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The non-existent problem of deciphering a newborn’s cues

It is now well-accepted that cue-based care, responding to a baby’s cues for feeds, physical contact, play or sleep, is the best form of care for babies, particularly for newborns.  However, this has turned into lists of baby’s cues, instruction guides on how to decipher their bizarre and yet supposedly universal signals.  Many of these instruction guides seem to suggest that children come into the world speaking their own peculiar language of grunts, ear-pulling, eye-fluttering and specific cries for specific needs.  It is ridiculous and it makes life unnecessarily stressful for new parents, many of whom feel like they need to learn a new language to parent their child.

In fact, instruction guides on deciphering a baby’s cues are just as useless as the “How to Know if He Likes You” articles so common in young women’s magazines.  Sure, the fact that he talks to you frequently could mean he likes you in that way.  It could mean alot of things…  There’s only one way to know if he likes you and that’s to put time and energy into getting to know him and to let your feelings and his become clear with time.  In the same way, sure, ear-pulling could mean your baby is tired.  It could mean alot of things…  There’s only one way to become adept at reading and responding to your child’s unique cues and that’s to put time and energy into getting to know your baby.  You need to experiment and see what works. Your baby’s unique cues, patterns, feelings and personality will be revealed with time.

You might say that’s all very well in the long-term, but what’s a new parent to do?  How is a new parent, still groggy and overwhelmed from the birth, meant to decipher baby’s cues?Don’t new parents needs the lists and instruction guides as a starting point? The truth is there isn’t much deciphering to be done in the early months.  In fact, to give cue-based care to a newborn there’s really only one question you need to answer: could baby be hungry?  If you think your baby could be hungry then offer a feed.  If you don’t think your baby could be hungry then mix up your baby’s sensory experience in a way that would feel good for you at the time: hold baby, walk with baby, rock baby on a rocking chair with some music, dance with baby, go for a walk with baby, spend time in your backyard, or have an outing together.

Notice what happens.  Did baby suckle hungrily, taking big gulping swallows of milk?  Did baby seem to enjoy the backyard, walk, dancing, or outing, did your baby liven up and relish the sights and sounds?  Did baby drop off to sleep on the feed or out on the walk?  With time, noticing how your baby responds, will give you a clear sense of your baby’s unique cues and patterns.

Apply it to your life:  Are you the parent of a new baby?  Put those instruction manuals aside and get to know your unique baby.  In the early months there’s really only one question: could baby be hungry?

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The benefits of babywearing

I’ve written a guest post on how babywearing  can be used to promote parent, family and infant mental health for Mental Health Week.  The post is on the Babes in Arms website here: The Benefits of Babywearing

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Pregnancy: our rules for when to confirm and when to share are breaking women’s hearts

When to confirm a pregnancy and when to share the news that you are pregnant are, of course, personal decisions.  What might be right for an individual woman varies according to her unique situation and personality.  But there are social norms, unspoken (or spoken) rules that many women follow, that many women feel they have to follow. The current social norm seems to be: to confirm as soon as possible (even before your period is late) and to share at twelve weeks (not before!).  This may suit some individual women, but as a social norm it is bad, really bad.  We confirm far too early and we share far too late and it is breaking women’s hearts.

Just a generation or two ago women needed to wait until their period was well and truly late to confirm a pregnancy via a blood test arranged by their doctor.  For the first time in human history women are confirming that conception has successfully taken place days before their period is even late (and without conferring with a doctor, midwife or wise woman).  Pregnancy tests, bought over the counter in pharmacies or even in supermarkets, goad women into doing this (“accurate 10 days post-conception!”  “test before your period is due!”).  The trouble is, what a positive result on a pregnancy test taken before your period is due is detecting “accurately” is that a conception has technically taken place (“chemical pregnancy”).  What a woman wants to know is not whether a conception has technically taken place, but whether or not she is “pregnant”.  That is, can she begin to expect her belly to swell and a baby to grow?  No pregnancy test can predict that accurately before your period is even due!  Unfortunately, many conceptions are not viable and may be lost without any further development.  With very early testing, comes very early pregnancy loss.  Very early pregnancy loss, loss days to a week after your period was due, is physically similar to normal menstruation.  That is, there is no passing of tissue, just blood and the pain and symptoms are similar to a normal menstrual period.  My generation of women are likely to experience chemical pregnancies, normal and healthy events along the reproductive journey that women in previous generations knew as late periods, as loss.   Many women today are being coaxed into having their hearts repeatedly broken while trying to conceive.

Although we are confirming pregnancies earlier, we continue to be told to shroud the first trimester in secrecy and silence, waiting until twelve weeks before sharing the news.  In fact, many articles and websites on pregnancy assume that the first trimester is necessarily marked by silence (what a strong message that must give some women!).  Many women are waiting until twelve weeks to share their pregnancy, not just with work colleagues and casual friends but with family and close friends.  Sharing sooner is discouraged because *cue scary music* you might have a miscarriage.  Yes, you might have a miscarriage.  Yes, that is scary.  But why is that a reason not to tell people?  The assumption must be that if you experience a tragic loss you are better off weathering it alone.  Um… no, very clearly no, in fact…  That’s about as unsound as psychological advice can get.  Social support is key to weathering all of life’s tragedies including miscarriage.  If you experience a miscarriage, you’ll be better off if those you love most, your family and your close friends, know.  If fact, depending on your exact circumstances, you may even be better off if your boss, work colleagues or casual friends know too.

This hiding of miscarriage by hiding the first trimester of pregnancy has another terrible social cost for women: miscarriage becomes an isolated and individual tragedy when, in fact, it is a shared loss.  The whole family loses when a miscarriage occurs and miscarriage is not rare, it is common.  Early pregnancy loss is an experience women share. Every second woman will experience a miscarriage by the end of her reproductive career.  This means that every woman who experiences a miscarriage already has in her social network an untapped resource: women who have experienced that same event and survived.  Our silence gets in the way of supporting each other.  Further, there is much about how the healthcare system deals with miscarriage that can and should be improved.  But this cannot happen until women organise and advocate for ourselves.  And that won’t happen if we don’t talk to each other.

The secret first trimester also means that women bear the often crippling symptoms of morning sickness and bone-aching fatigue alone, bravely soldiering on through their working days and social events, trying to hide their rising nausea, absolute exhaustion and bathroom dashes.  It is cruel.  It is particularly cruel when you consider that the risk of miscarriage drops at eight weeks with a confirmed heartbeat, just as first trimester symptoms really ramp up.  So, even if you don’t want your wider social network to know if you experience a miscarriage, the isolated soldiering on from weeks eight to twelve is still for nothing.  Viability can be confirmed via a scan at eight weeks, allowing you to share your news with your wider social network and receive support and understanding for your first trimester symptoms.

Women need and deserve the support of those nearest and dearest to them from the very beginning of pregnancy.  Women need and deserve the support of those nearest and dearest to them when experiencing an early loss. We aren’t meant to do this alone.

Apply it to your life:  Trying to conceive?   Consider waiting until your period is a full week late (or even two) before confirming with a pregnancy test.  In deciding who to share the news with and when consider: who do you turn to when tragedy strikes?  Share your pregnancy with those people, your nearest and dearest early in the pregnancy.  There is no point in waiting: you will need their support if you experience a miscarriage.  Share with your wider social network as soon as works for you, given your circumstances and symptoms.  Don’t assume that not sharing will make a miscarriage easier.  Instead, think carefully about how widely you want to share the news and when – what’s in your best interests?  Remember, confirming viability at eight weeks is an option.

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How to prepare your child for academic success

The foundations for academic success are built in the preschool years and there is much that you can do, as the parent of a preschooler, to ensure that your child is well prepared to flourish at school.  In order to promote your child’s academic flourishing it is necessary to understand where family and formal education fit into the picture.  Formal education, including literacy and numeracy, can be thought of as multiple interlocking towers, built piece by piece, ever upwards.  Some parents are tempted to begin building these towers at home, before school, in order to give their children a head start.  In fact, I’d argue that your time is better spent building a stronger foundation.  The towers of formal education all rest upon a foundation of oral language, curiosity, intelligence, relational concepts (relational frames) and social-emotional understanding.  The stronger the foundation, the easier and quicker the towers will be built.  So, how can we, as parents, help our children to build this strong foundation?

  1. Play, play, play and more play.  Play is the engine driving intellectual development so make your children’s play a priority in your home.  Provide opportunities for active play in playgrounds, for pretend play, for play with construction toys like blocks, for play with arts and crafts activities, for play alone, for play with other children and for play with you.  Make sure you often let your child lead the play.
  2. Provide ample quality toys to facilitate play: blocks, dolls, lego, craft bits and pieces, train sets, tea sets, doll houses, pretend kitchens, trucks, toy animals, swings, slides…  Quality toys are not a luxury or mere entertainment for a preschooler.  Quality toys, for preschoolers, are what textbooks, computer access and pen and paper are for a High School student.  Fortunately, we live a time when toys are cheap but if finances are an issue for you than consider buying second-hand or using a toy library and accessing your local park.
  3. Read to your child regularly.  Make reading time special and allow yourself to delight in the pleasure of the written word.  There are many delightful children’s books so find some favourites that you can enjoy too.  If you can’t afford to purchase a selection of children’s books then access your local library.  Talk to your child about the books that you are reading.  Ask questions like: What do you think she will do next?  How does he feel? What happened in that story? Who was that story about?
  4. Talk to your child.  From birth onwards talk to your child often.  Don’t restrict your language to the necessary chatter.  Instead, verbalise your thoughts, count aloud, talk about colours, shapes, textures, animals, talk about your feelings and ask your child about their thoughts and feelings. Language exposure fuels language development.  Language development enables academic success.  Literacy, in particular, relies on oral language.
  5. Talk about relational concepts and words.  Relational concepts (also called relational frames) relate two or more concepts in a specific way, for example: opposite, same, under, bigger than, before, and faster.  Relational concepts underpin much of what we consider academic intelligence and many are key concepts in mathematics (e.g. bigger than).  Notice relational concepts in your everyday life and find opportunities to explore relational concepts during play with your child.  For example, during play with blocks you might ask, “Hey, which block is the biggest?”

Apply it to your life:  Do you live these five tips?  Is there a small step you could take in building a solid foundation for your child’s formal education?


Hart & Risley (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children.  Baltimore, Paul H Brookes Publishing Co.

Ginsburg, K.R. (2007).  The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds.  Pediatrics, 119, pp182-191.

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How to handle your child’s boundary testing like a pro

All parents know that as children develop, they go through stages were they particularly ‘test the boundaries’.  During these stages, children often focus on testing out particular family expectations.  Suddenly a daily task that caused no distress or grief whatsoever becomes the centre of vocal and angry objections.  These ‘boundary testing’ times can be very stressful.  You might wonder what you did to cause your child’s sudden anger and defiance, or you might be at a loss to know how to respond.  How do you make both your expectations and your love abundantly clear? Well, I’m going to share how I handled a recent ‘boundary test’ with my daughter.  You’ll get to see exactly how a real life parenting researcher handles it: not edited book-perfectly but as a human being in messy reality.  Finally, I’ll distill my experience into some simple tips.

At the time of this ‘boundary test’ my daughter was two and a half and the testing centred on teeth brushing.  In the past, teeth brushing hadn’t been an issue.  It started with her responding to my requests to open her mouth by pursing her lips into a little O shape like a goldfish. I gave her the benefit of the doubt – perhaps she was experimenting, or being humorous?  I played along, making different shapes with my mouth too until I got a wide enough mouth from her that I could slip the toothbrush in.  This continued for several days, and I wondered: is this a passing game, or is she ramping up for a challenge?  Sure enough, the challenge came.  She refused, with anger and tears to open her mouth at all.  In that first interaction I also gave her the benefit of the doubt – perhaps she was tired, or sickening for something.  I didn’t back off altogether (that would have reinforced her tantrum) but I did lower my expectations to merely getting the toothbrush to touch her teeth at all, and I thanked her for letting me brush her teeth once that was achieved.   I ended the interaction before it escalated.  As time passed, it became clear that she wasn’t sick.  The next time her teeth needed brushing there was another tantrum.

We were in the thick of a boundary test and this particular boundary, brushing teeth regularly, was one we couldn’t compromise on.  I started by talking about the issue to the two other people who also brush her teeth, my husband and my mum.  She was testing the boundary with everyone.  We hatched a plan.  We would need to be persistent, to weather the storm.  We would also talk to her about why teeth needed to be brushed, not when we were actually trying to brush her teeth, but during the day when she was calm and happy.  I knew that, for the next several days, teeth brushing could take an hour or more so I planned my day accordingly.  As we enacted our plan, my husband and I ran into an unforeseen stumbling block.  My daughter, already several minutes into full meltdown, yelled that she wanted daddy not mummy to brush her teeth.  Of course, we had no issue with her choosing who she wanted to brush her teeth.  But we could not respond to angry yelling lest we reinforced the tantrum.  I said that we could do that if she asked in a normal voice, she did and I passed the toothbrush to my husband.  Going forward we decided that we would give her every choice that we were happy to give at the very beginning of the interaction so that she couldn’t throw a reasonable request at us mid-tantrum.  So now, before brushing her teeth we ask if she wants to have her turn first or second and we ask (if both of us are in the house), if she wants mummy or daddy to brush them.

So, what did being persistent and weathering the storm actually look like?  I’d get her toothbrush and tell her that it was time to brush her teeth.  I’d let her choose if she wanted to have her turn first or second, and, if my husband was in the house, if she wanted me or him to brush them.  With her choices locked in, and once it was my turn to brush, I’d ask her to open her mouth wide.  If she objected I’d say something like, ‘I know you don’t like it, but I have to do it to keep your teeth healthy’.  If she still didn’t open her mouth I’d say something like, ‘We have to brush your teeth.  I’ll wait until you are ready.’  I’d then sit silently near her.  If she asked me to play or talked to me about something else I’d say something like, ‘I’d love to play with you.  I need to brush your teeth first.  As soon as your teeth are brushed we can play.’  Any objections or yelling I’d simply ignore.  If she was clearly feeling sad or angry I’d say something like, ‘I can see you are feeling really sad about this.  I can understand that but I still need to brush your teeth.  If there’s some way I can help, like by giving you a hug, just let me know’.  If she asked for a hug I’d give it.  I would not, however, respond to the tantrum behaviour itself (hugging a child in response to tantruming may reinforce tantrum behaviour and it may also be unwelcome).  In fact, I was silent most of the time.  I actually said very little.  I took deep breaths and kept myself calm and centred.  I tried to project, with my stance, body language and facial expression that I was completely accepting of her and her feelings, that I loved and adored her exactly as she was… and I was going to keep patiently waiting, as long as it took, for her to be ready. Eventually, she’d open her mouth.  I’d slip the toothbrush in and say something like, ‘Thank-you that’s a lovely big mouth.  Let’s get rid of those germs and keep your teeth nice and strong’.  I wouldn’t push it.  Just getting the toothbrush in was enough at first.  The first few storms that we weathered were big, long and emotional. Within a couple of days, they’d become short objections.  Soon, teeth brushing returned to being easy.

So, how can you handle the next ‘boundary test’ by the children in your life?

  • Start by giving the benefit of the doubt.  Often children are just playing around, or tired, or getting sick.
  • When suddenly confronted with ‘defiance’ it is okay to lower your standard to the bare minimum and get through an interaction without escalation.  That way, you can wait and see what’s really happening and calmly think through how you’d like to respond.
  • It isn’t about ‘winning’ an interaction.  It is about shaping behaviour gradually with time.  Let go of winning.
  • Communicate with the other carers in your child’s life including your partner, family and childcare provider.
  • Be flexible.  Unexpected stumbling blocks are a part of life.  It is okay to adapt your plan.  If you are really uncertain, you can exit that particular interaction in order to give yourself time to think and get advice.
  • Give your child every choice you can at the outset.  Respect all reasonable requests.
  • Explain why a particular expectation is necessary, at a time when everyone is calm and happy.
  • If you know that persistence is necessary, then plan for it in your day.
  • Be persistent in weathering the storm. Wait patiently.
  • Ignore tantrum behaviours.
  • Don’t play or interact until your child has done as you’ve asked.  Let her know that’s what you are doing.
  • Acknowledge your child’s emotions with acceptance and love.
  • Don’t comfort in response to tantrum behaviours (firstly, that might reinforce tantruming and secondly, your child may well not want you to hug them when they are angry with you!).  However, if your child is clearly distressed then you can say that you are willing to give a hug if asked.  If your child asks for comfort it is fine to respond to their request with comfort (by doing so, you are reinforcing asking for comfort not tantruming – that’s a good thing!).
  • Stay calm and loving (take deep breaths!).
  • Say little.
  • When your child does as you’ve asked, thank them.
  • Don’t push it.  Bare minimum is enough for now.

Apply it to your life:  How do you handle ‘boundary testing’?  Try out some of my tips with your child.  What works for you?

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Why does my child keep asking why?

Preschoolers are overflowing with questions, many of them beginning with:  why? Why is the sun hot?  Why does kitty eat?  Why are you cleaning the floor? Answers are usually responded to with more questions. Why, why, why?

The question is: why do preschoolers ask why so often?  The whys seem to be a universal stage so asking why must be important developmentally.  Obviously, preschoolers have a lot to learn about the world so it makes sense, I think, if at least some of the whys are motivated by a desire for more information.  Asking questions, particularly about what someone is doing, can also be a way to connect with another person and start an interaction.  So, I also think it would make sense if at least some of the whys are aimed at beginning a conversation with us.  But, I think, neither of these explanations goes far in explaining the tidal wave of whys that is the preschool years.  After all, school age children also have a lot to learn about the world and a desire to interact with us, and while of course they do ask questions they no longer drill their parents relentlessly with whys as younger children do.  I think that the skill preschool children are acquiring with all of their whys is reason-giving itself.

Reason-giving, or attributing causality, is actually pretty complex.  Consider, there are actually several different types of causes and different causes are used for different things.  So, for people and animals we give intentional explanations, we attribute cause to mental and emotional states.  ‘Why did kitty scratch me?’  ‘Because kitty was angry’ For man-made objects we give teleological explanations, we attribute cause to purpose.  ‘Why is a knife sharp?’ ‘So we can cut food with it’ For the nonliving, natural world, we give physical causal explanations, we attribute cause to past physical events and natural laws.  ‘Why has my paint turned green?’ ‘Because the blue and yellow paint mixed together and blue and yellow make green.’  Children need to learn to give the right kind of explanation for the right kind of thing.  They also need to learn, with intentional explanations, the kinds of reasons we deem socially-acceptable.  So, while ‘because kitty was angry’ is a perfectly acceptable explanation for why kitty scratched a child, ‘because I was angry’ is not considered an acceptable reason for a child to scratch another child.  Tricky, huh?  There’s another level of complexity too.  How far back in the casual stream do you need to go in order to give a sufficient explanation?  So, the answer to the question ‘why are you putting food into kitty’s dish?’ is ‘because kitty is hungry’ not ‘because fifteen years ago I visited the RSPCA and adopted a kitten’ or even ‘because four billion years ago life evolved from the primordial soup on the planet we call Earth’ even though all of these events were a necessary part of the causal history leading up to the moment of putting food into a cat bowl on a particular evening.  We actually assume quite a lot about the world as we give reasons for one particular event, and knowing what we can assume and what we can’t is a pretty tricky business.  I think this is the reason why, in preschoolers, the whys just keep coming.  They don’t know how far up the casual stream to tread.

So, if I’m right and the tidal wave of whys is about understanding reason-giving itself, how should we respond?   Firstly, answer.  Give your child the best answers you’ve got, remembering that your child is learning not just the information you are providing but how to give explanations.  You can also reflect the question back to your child, that is, ask her what she thinks the answer is.  This gives her the opportunity to try out her reasoning-giving skills.  But above all, we should respond with patience and a bit of wonder.  We are watching our child learn a pretty incredible skill.

Apply it to your life:  Does your child corner you with ‘whys’?  Why do you think that happens?


Frazier, BN., Gelman, SA., Wellman HM. (2009). Preschoolers’ search for explanatory information within adult-child conversation.  Child Development, 80 (6), 1592-611.

Keleman D. (1999). Why are rocks pointy? Children’s preference for teleological explanations of the natural world.  Developmental Psychology, 35 (6), 1440-52.

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Managing your anger without losing your temper

A new article of mine has been published on Happy Parenting entitled: Managing your anger without losing your temper.  You can read it here: 

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