What do children really need?

I find discourse on the ‘needs’ of children troubling at times.  By which I don’t mean that children don’t have needs.  Unquestionably they do.  Water, for example, is something that all human children undeniably and clearly need.  What I mean is that talking about children’s ‘needs’ seems to enable the speaker to slip a whole lot of personal opinion, ideals and values in the back door and present it as unquestionable fact.  This doesn’t mean that the opinions, ideals and values are wrong, or not worth pursuing.  But it creates confusion.  It makes it possible to ruthlessly stamp people who may disagree into the ground.  It makes it seem as if there’s only one option.  This is especially problematic because children’s own descriptions of their needs are not taken seriously.  So it is adults who define what children do or do not need and we can pass off almost anything as a need.  We can even pass off as a need experiences that children themselves strenuously object to!  To see how this might be a problem, consider what men have said about the needs of women, or what white colonisers have said about the needs of Indigenous Peoples.  The human race doesn’t have a good track record for being able to talk insightfully and truthfully about the needs of others.

So what are we really saying when we talk about ‘needs’?

What are we really saying, for example, when we say that children need to learn to sleep in their own bed?  Or that children need to learn to control their emotional reactions?  Or that children need to sit still and pay attention?

It seems to me that all of these statements are personal opinion, ideals and values masquerading as objective truths.  Again, I am not saying that the personal opinions, ideals and values are wrong or not worth pursuing.  But notice the difference between:

Children need to learn to sit still and pay attention

And:

I think it is wise to teach children to sit still and pay attention because we are living in a culture where children receive extensive formal education, and education predicts later success.  Being able to sit still and pay attention will help your child to get the most out of school.

It feels quite different doesn’t it?  The second is clearly a personal opinion, driven by specific values applied in a particular cultural context.  To me, it feels open, flexible and adaptable.  As if there are other options. In contrast, the first statement hits me like a sledgehammer.

So, what can we legitimately describe as a need?  Obviously, anything a child would die without can be classed as a need, so oxygen, water and food.  I think we could also classify as a need anything that has been shown to be beneficial for children in the long-term (i.e. anything that predicts physical and psychological health and wellbeing) AND that children deliberately seek and enthusiastically consume given the opportunity.  So, I think we can sensibly talk about children needing parental attention or proximity to attachment figures or social interaction or pretend play.  Children seek those experiences with relish.  But I don’t think we can legitimately talk about children needing to learn to sleep in their own bed, or control their emotional reactions, or pay attention… Of course, we can argue for the wisdom of teaching children these skills, in our particular cultural context, based on our individual values.  But that should be an honest discussion about values, opinions and ideals.  Not a ruthless push of a particular worldview with confusing and guilt-making talk about the ‘needs’ of children.

Apply it to your life:  Be on the lookout for discussion on the ‘needs’ of children.  Are they discussing genuine needs, or are they using ‘needs’ talk to push a particular opinion?  Of course, that doesn’t mean the opinion is wrong, you may well agree with it!  But is it helpful to confuse the issue with talk of ‘needs’?

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Are babies, comforted to sleep, shocked to later wake alone in a cot (crib)?

It is commonly argued that a baby comforted to sleep will, when waking later in their cot (crib), experience a shock when they notice that they are no longer in their parent’s arms.  This shock, it is reasoned, will cause the baby to call out to the parent for comfort.  This reasoning is frequently used to discourage parents from comforting their baby to sleep.  Parents are, instead, told to encourage their baby to ‘self-settle’ to sleep in their cot from day one.  Only if the baby falls asleep in the cot alone, it is argued, will the baby feel calm when they wake and find themselves alone in their cot.

This is nonsense.  It fact, although this line of reasoning is commonly used to recommend behavioural sleep strategies, it fails on behavioural grounds.  That is, it fails as a behavioural account of surprise.

To see why, imagine that tonight, after falling asleep in your bed as usual, you stir and wake at 2am.  As you become aware of your surroundings you realise that you are in the kitchen, curled up on the middle of the kitchen floor.  Would you be surprised?  Absolutely!  The question is, why?  The common-sense explanation is that you’d be surprised because you remember falling asleep in your bed.  But, as a behavioural account of your surprise, this is wrong.  From a behavioural perspective, the reason you’d be surprised is this:  that has never happened to you before.

Imagine that you drag yourself up off the kitchen floor and back into bed.  The rest of the night and the following day passes as usual.  You fall asleep in your bed again as usual and again you stir and wake at 2am.  Yet again, you find yourself in the kitchen.  You drag yourself back to bed, the rest of the night and the following day passes, you fall asleep in your bed and again wake to find yourself in the kitchen.  In fact, you keep waking at 2am and finding yourself in your kitchen, again and again night after night.  And here’s the thing: after days and weeks, would you continue to be surprised?  Of course not!  You’d quickly learn that waking up in the kitchen is now something that happens to you and the event would no longer shock.

So, from a behavioural perspective, it is ridiculous to claim that a baby who is regularly comforted to sleep and placed sleeping into their cot, would be shocked to find herself alone in her cot when she wakes.  After all, this is an event that has happened again and again since she was born!

Apply it to your life:  Do you enjoy comforting your baby to sleep?  Does it help your baby to settle to sleep efficiently?  Then, go ahead and comfort.

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You have a superpower… and it has a dark side

Humans have a superpower.  We use our superpower every day and it is part of why we have achieved all that we have as a species.  You can use your superpower right now.  Are you ready?  Imagine your favourite food.  Pause and really picture it in your mind’s eye – see exactly what it looks like.  Imagine biting into it.  Recall the taste, the texture, the flavour…

Feeling hungry?  Like eating your favourite food?  Did you even notice your mouth begin to water?

That is our superpower.  You responded to food that is not there.  You responded to your thoughts as if they were real.  Your ability to respond to your thoughts as if they were real allows you to do incredible things.  You can mentally place yourself in a situation that you’ve never been in before, explore what your reactions may be, and use this information to plan ahead.  You can mentally place yourself in the situation of another, and use this to understand their reactions better.  It is an awesome skill and one that you will use, as a parent, all the time. But all superpowers have a dark side…

The dark side of this superpower is that we can become stuck.  We can become stuck responding to our thoughts instead of responding to what is actually happening in our lives.  This is doubly bad for parents because guess where our children are?  They exist, not in our heads, but in our lives… The irony is that we can become so entangled with our thoughts about our children and about parenting that we miss our actual children entirely.

The solution?  Notice your thoughts for what they are…thoughts…and, good or bad, watch them come and go…  Bring yourself back into the here and now of your life.  Reconnect with what is actually happening, with what you can feel and sense right now with your physical body.  Pause for a moment as you read this and actually do it:

  • What can you hear?  A lawnmower in the distance?  A ticking clock?
  • What can you see?  Is it dark or light?  Look around you and take in your surroundings.
  • What can you feel in your body?  Can you feel the pressure of your chair supporting your back and legs?  The solid surface of the ground beneath your feet?

As thoughts bubble up notice this without getting caught in their pull.  “Ah,” you might say to yourself, “I’m noticing the thought that…”

Apply it to your life:  Notice times when you get stuck in your thoughts.  Can you bring yourself back into the here and now with your life?  What happens to your parenting when you are stuck living in your head?  What happens to your parenting when you bring yourself back into the here and now of your life?

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Online Conference: The Great Baby Sleep Debate

You may have noticed that infant sleep is a highly controversial topic.

Well, I’ll soon be presenting in a unique online conference that you may be interested in: The Great Baby Sleep Debate.

The Great Baby Sleep Debate Online 2014 brings together international researchers in the field of infant sleep, explores the latest science and its practical implications and encourages respectful and constructive dialogue between researchers and clinicians, between disciplines, and between different perspectives. The Great Baby Sleep Debate has a unique focus on interdisciplinary dialogue and respectful exploration of the controversial questions grounded in the latest empirical evidence.  We are online for the first time this year!

Presenters and panel members include: Prof Helen Ball, A/Prof Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, Ian St James-Roberts, and Prof Jeanine Young.  I will be presenting on supporting mother-infant dyads using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.  I will also, along with Dr Pamela Douglas, be presenting our radically different approach to parent-infant sleep in the first six months: the Possums Sleep Intervention.

The Great Baby Sleep Debate Online 2014 will be LIVE on the 27th and the 28th of June 2014 with a discussion panel on the 1st of July 2014 AEST.  Recorded presentations will be available until the 15th of August 2014 AEST.  You will be able to join in the discussions and ask your questions LIVE.  Check it out now:  http://www.possumsonline.com/content/great-baby-sleep-debate-online-2014

 

 

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The fear inside our judgement of other parents

What is it about parenting that makes us so judgemental?  I hate the judgement that we parent’s suffer, I have years of professional experience in being non-judgemental, and I genuinely believe that there isn’t one ‘right’ way to parent  and yet…if I am honest, I must confess that I am tempted to judge other parents all the time.  ‘Oh,’ I whisper to myself self-righteously, ‘I would never do that…’  Then I cringe in disgust at my own stupidity.   Just where does that hateful, self-serving little voice come from?  Just what is under all of that judgement?  What, exactly, is at stake?

Parenting is scary.  It can be terrifying, in fact.  In becoming a parent, we find that we’ve made ourselves vulnerable, vulnerable to being hurt dreadfully, vulnerable to experiencing true horrors.  We could:

  • Be forced to watch our children suffer
  • Discover that we have failed to prepare our children for the world
  • Experience a yawning distance between ourselves and our children
  • Find that our children have done things we consider abhorrent
  • Live to see our children die

With such nightmares haunting us we turn to talismans to protect us, to reassure us that none of these terrors could ever be in our future.  And one of those talismans is the just world delusion – the belief that the world is fundamentally just, that good things will happen to good parents and bad things happen to bad parents.  With the just world delusion, we can convince ourselves that as long as we are good enough and do all the ‘right’ things then our children will be safe.  But the just world delusion has a dark side.  To keep believing that we’ve found safety from our nightmares, we need to judge and blame other parents.  Any parents who have come to experience one of our nightmares must, somehow, be culpable.  We cling to our ideas of ‘right’ parenting with superstitious fervour; after all, these are the precious talismans that guarantee our family’s safety.

If we look under our judgement we find fear, and the terrifying reality that we are trying to protect ourselves from is this:  any and all of those nightmares could happen no matter what we do.  From this vulnerable, scary space we can realise something else: the same thing is true for every other parent on the planet.  We share the same nightmares.  And so, instead of covering our fear with judgement, we can use our fear to find compassion.  It becomes possible to respond to other parents, who do things we personally would not do, with genuine respect, non-judgement, and kindness.

Apply it to your life:  Do you notice a judgemental inner voice sometimes, too?  Can you notice the fear beneath the temptation to judge other parents, and within that, can you find compassion?

Find out more about the Just World Delusion 

References:

Lerner, M.J. & Miller, D.T. (1978). Just world research and the attribution process: Looking back and ahead.  Psychological Bulletin. 85 (5), 1030-1051.

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Protecting our children from sexual abuse

The horrible reality of childhood sexual abuse seems to pervade the Australian news of late:

  • The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, set up in January 2013, continues to investigate instances where institutions failed to protect children from sexual abuse and failed to properly respond to allegations.
  • Robert Hughes, former star of beloved 1980s Australian television show Hey Dad! has been convicted of childhood sexual abuse. Sarah Monahan, who played Robert’s daughter in the show, bravely told her story, as one of his victims, to the Australian public.
  • Rolf Harris, an Australian musician, songwriter, television personality and icon, has been charged with multiple child sex offences and is currently on trial.
  • Brett Peter Cowan, the killer of twelve year old Daniel Morcombe was found guilty.  After Cowan was sentenced, it was revealed to the Australian public that he had two previous convictions for child sex offences for which he had served little time.

These recent events reveal just how badly we are failing, as a society, to protect our children.  I know that we can do better, and I hope that we shall learn to do so soon.  I hope that the Royal Commission will assist us in finding ways to better protect our children.  Like many parents, I believe that the protection of innocent children is, overwhelmingly, a moral priority.

For now, I am determined to do all I can do, as a parent, to protect my child.  Here are my resolutions:

  • By responding to my child when she is distressed, by being there for her when she needs me, I have tried to teach her, through a million little repetitions that, in the midst of unspeakable emotional pain, I will be there.  That I can be trusted, even with the dark stuff.  I see that learning as my safety net. I hope it will ensure that if unspeakable horrors happen, her first instinct will be to come to me.
  • I don’t assume that anyone is not a child molester.  In fact, I assume that we will cross paths with child molesters on multiple occasions throughout my child’s childhood and that they will be friendly, charming and ‘nice’.  I watch for suspicious behaviour from other adults, as well as signs from my child: reluctance to see a particular person, special efforts put into charming my child, deliberately bringing about overly physical play or nudity.  I am on alert with everyone.
  • I know that many child molesters are not paedophiles.  Paedophiles are people who prefer sexual contact with children to adults: they are sexually abnormal.  Many child molesters are sexually normal, just morally perverted.  They may turn to sexual abuse of children because they enjoy the sense of power, or because adult sexual partners (or victims) are unavailable.  So, I won’t dismiss the idea that someone may be a child molester just because I know that they have a normal, healthy sexual attraction to adults.
  • I talk about childhood sexual abuse and protecting my daughter with my husband and our families.
  • We supervise her closely and we make our supervision known to others.
  • ‘What is your policy on abuse?’ will be one of my standard questions whenever my child is put into the care of other adults, such as when choosing a Kindy or School.
  • In our house we have talked about genitals using their proper names from the beginning.  Genitals are not mysterious to my daughter and so an abuser cannot use her natural curiosity to his advantage.  If abused, she will be able to describe what happened clearly.
  •  In our house affection is never mandatory.  Her affections are hers to give or withhold.  This ensures that if an abuser forces physical contact this will, in no way, be a ‘normal’ situation for her.
  • It is always okay to tell mum and dad about anything.  This does not mean that a secret has been broken.  We are conscious about making confessing to mum and dad okay for her, no matter what she is confessing.
  • Her feelings are respected, heard, and understood.  We don’t tell her how she should feel.  If she tells us someone makes her feel yucky then we will respect this and take it seriously.
  • I listen to my instincts in protecting my child and we teach her to listen to hers.

As I act to protect my own child, I also want to do all I can do to ensure that we build a society that prioritises the safety of children.   Doing so, I believe, also means building a society in which children are listened to and in which their needs and concerns are taken seriously.

Apply it in your life:  How do you protect your children from childhood sexual abuse?  How to you try to ensure that, if your child was abused, your child would tell you about it?

Resources:

Royal Commission

Brave Hearts

The Mama Bear Effect

 

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Become the mum you want to be

Motherhood can be challenging, stressful, and painful.  But it is also, for many women, one of their greatest sources of joy and achievement.  This Mother’s Day Weekend, become the mum you want to be:

  • Follow your own heart.  Let go of advice, judgment and criticism and, instead, follow your own heart.  Get in touch with what really matters to you as a mum.  Think about it this way: in 20 or 30 years’ time, when your children have all grown and the challenges that you are currently facing are long gone, what kind of mother do you want to have been?  Is mothering for you about being supportive?  Or kind?  Or loving?  Put those values at the very centre of your parenting.
  • Find the joy.  Notice the moments of joy in your life as a mum.  Joy is your heart’s way of telling you that you are on the right track.  When you are following your own heart you’ll find moments of joy and deep satisfaction even when life is stressful.  Think to yourself:  what am I doing now that matters to me?  What does this joy tell me about my values?
  • Don’t take the inner critic too seriously.  We all have an inner critic – a noisy inner voice that lists everything we are doing wrong and everything we ‘should’ be doing.  We can’t get rid of our inner critics.  But we can stop taking them so seriously.  You don’t need to listen enraptured to everything your inner critic says.   You don’t need to fight that inner voice either.  Instead, you can let the inner critic talk on while you get on with living your life.
  • Don’t be derailed by others.  Other people may have different values to you.  They may have found different strategies that worked for their children, or that worked in their circumstances.  You have every right to mother your way and in a way that works for you and your children.
  • Fill your life with little things that matter.  Start now by doing something small that matters to you.  Do you value being an affectionate mother?  Give your children a cuddle.  Do you value being supportive?  Well, then pick a little act you can take today that is supporting your children.

Happy Mother’s Day!

Apply it in your life:  What kind of mum do you want to be?  What small steps can you take, today, towards being that mum?

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Take it easy

Parenting is challenging at the best of times and, every so often, it is particularly challenging.  Here’s a really simple idea that I always recommend.  When parenting is particularly challenging, make the rest of your life as easy as you can.   Learning how to breastfeed for the first time?  Not a great time to renovate your house.  Wanting to toilet train your toddler?  Great- but don’t start toilet training when you are in the middle of your workplace’s crazy season.  Focussing on managing your child’s temper tantrums better?  Well, that’s going to take energy so why not plan to have takeaway for dinner?  Parenting can be tough but you are allowed to make things easier for yourself.  Really, it is allowed.

Apply it to your life:  Focussing on a parenting challenge?  How can you make things easier for yourself?

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Living with our protective instincts

Becoming a parent awakens a whole cluster of instincts, feelings and thoughts.  A dark and scary part of our psyche, inherited from ancestors long past and dormant until parenthood, wakes within us.  We find ourselves tasked with a single overriding mission: our child must survive. We discover that becoming a parent means being haunted by the fears of our ancestors.  We are haunted by fears of disease, of attack, of accidents, by fears that our child may die.  The overwhelming majority of parents report intrusive anxious thoughts about their baby’s safety in the early months of parenthood.   As a new parent, with a tiny newborn, my own brain seemed to replay endlessly at random intervals the panicked thought: ‘Is she breathing? Is she breathing?’  Even now, intrusive, anxious thoughts about her safety are a regular part of my life.

We also find, within our emotional life, an entirely new emotion: maternal rage.  Maternal rage is the aggression of the mama bear defending her cubs. I didn’t realise, before experiencing it, that it feels so different to ordinary rage.  Ordinary anger is hot, burning, it makes time speed up, it makes us reckless.  When we act on anger, we do things that we later regret.  Maternal rage is a different emotion altogether.  Maternal rage is cold, calculating, it makes time slow to a crawl, it gives us a chilling rationality. It is remorseless: ‘My child must survive.  Everything that must be done to achieve that must be done’. Maternal rage is cold for good reason.  Maternal rage is there to spark the aggression necessary to defend our children.  It is not there for fuelling attack which may only put our child in more danger.  Since becoming a parent, even my nightmares have changed.  Instead of being overcome with terror, running, heart pounding away from the threat, I find myself overcome with maternal rage, coldly, desperately ensuring my daughter’s survival within the terrifying dreamscape of my nightmare at all costs.  Waking, my first instinct is to check that she’s okay (‘Is she breathing? Is she breathing?’).

Along with the deepest joy, parenthood brings dark, uncomfortable and frightening thoughts and feelings.  My grandmother used to say that once you have a child you never experience a moment of peace again.  Yet, protective anxiety and maternal rage are a normal and healthy part of any parent’s psyche.  Our new instincts, thoughts and feelings may be distressing but they have served our ancestors well in the past and they will serve our children well too if we can learn how to live with them.  We need to stop dismissing and mocking our own protectiveness and, instead, understand and respect it.  That doesn’t mean that we need to take every anxious, panicked thought about our child’s safety as the literal truth or that we need to eliminate the ‘threat’ to our child every time we feel maternal rage arise.  It just means that protective anxiety and maternal rage are parts of parenthood that we need to learn to live with.  That dark and scary part of our psyche is supposed to be there.

Apply it to your life:  How do you live with your own protective instincts?

References:

Hahn-Holbrook, J., Holbrook, C. & Haselton, M.G. (2011).  Parental precaution: Neurobiological means and adpative ends.  Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews.  35, 1052-1066.

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FREE Brisbane Mother’s Day Weekend Event

I will be holding a FREE Mother’s Day Weekend Event in my hometown of Brisbane. Please join me for a FREE presentation and afternoon tea on Saturday the 10th of May in Aspley and discover:

  • True parenting confidence
  • How to manage criticism and unhelpful advice
  • Strategies for building a meaningful, rewarding life as a mum
  • Practical step by step strategies you can implement today
  • The strength to mother your way

The event is baby and breastfeeding friendly.  Please invite your friends!  You do need to register (for catering purposes).  To register, and for more information, please go to: www.koawhittingham.com/event-registration/ 

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