Thursday, 27 October 2011

Swimming Lessons

The Swimming LessonMy four year old son’s swimming lessons made me think about the optimal approach to educating children. At his second ever swimming lesson the instructor was trying to get him to put his head in/under the water. Alas, my son has too many of my genes (50% is a lot). Too afraid to do as he’s asked, he reverted to shouting – meaningless shouting – at the instructor. He wouldn't do anything else but shout; in effect, that was the end of his swimming lesson.
The question that popped to my head there and then was this: what is the optimal level of strictness for educating a child? If you’re too soft, as with this particular case, he’ll happily abuse you and learn nothing in the process other than reaffirm his understanding that ignoring requests with abuse is the way to go. If you’re too hard on him and just push him in the water you take a risk: he may find out there’s nothing wrong with putting one’s head under the water and that it’s actually fun, but he may be so badly traumatized he won’t want to come near a swimming pool again.
The following day we had a similar standoff. We met with friends on the beach and the kids were all playing together. At one point, my son picked up a glass bottle he found in the sand. I immediately barked the order for him to put it down; he looked it me, fully understanding what I asked him to do, but continued to hold the bottle. I barked again, to no avail. I barked for the third time, and when nothing happened still I went over and quite forcefully dragged my son away by the arm.
That same question popped up again, only in reverse: was I too harsh? Should I tried to appeal to his rational instead? In effect, I was pondering that good old question on whether children should be taught using positive incentives or whether they should be punished into obedience (or some mix of the two), but with a slight twist. In the above two cases, punishing our child was never on our agenda: we were either trying to educate our son or block him from danger.
I won’t pretend to have the magic answer. The current family status quo has my wife preferring the soft approach while I’m drifting towards pushing my son into the deep water. Both of us are aspiring towards the same goal, it’s the path to that goal that is different.
If allowed to expand the philosophy of my approach then I will point at the good old forgiving tit for tat algorithm. That is, start things gently and rationally, but when abused show the child – in a harsh manner if time and circumstances prevent the nicer, rational approach – what is expected of him. Once the child resumes behaving properly or when a good opportunity presents itself, go back to being nice to him.
The downfall of this approach is that it assumes the parent knows better than the child, which is not always the case: some times he does know better than I do and I just abuse my authority. However, given that we are dealing here in scenarios where no real harm should come to the child, neither physical nor mental, I can see some advantages there, too. As long I don’t turn out to be truly dumb, my son may learn that life is not always fair, that there are unavoidable punishments on the way, and that not everything in life is great. It could be a harsh lesson to learn, but I consider it vital none the less. It’s the truth we are all very familiar with: it's called "shit happens".

Image by Cowgirl111, Creative Commons license


Sarah said...

You are right it is all trial and error finding what works for your child and their temperament and then adjusting it as they grow and start pushing boundaries. Our little tornado has required firm boundaries with consequences from early on as when you try the softly softly approach he stretches the friendship. Where as our little blossom you can be more gentle with and get the same result.

I wonder how many couples out there share the same ideas on parenting and discipline straight away? It seems to me there is always one in the couple who is softer and one who is firmer and it can be such a source of conflict for the couple. A conflict that when you remain childless you don't have to face in your relationship. Just another way in the million of ways children change your life.

My parents were polar opposites in their approaches. Dad pushed and pushed us too far beyond our limit of comfort so that didn't work as we felt we were never good enough as he was always trying to make us something we weren't. Where as Mum was like if you don't want to do it don't so we probably missed out on trying new things and having that sense pride and achievement from accomplishing something new and growing as a person.

It is a difficult age to get the balance right as they can be so explosive with all these emotions that they don't know what to do with and working out how to channel them positively is impossible. Probably the best you can do is provide for your son a sense of unconditional love. That while you encourage him to try new experiences you are always there in the background proud of him and ready to support him and catch him if he falls. That is one of the most important functions of a family throughout a lifetime.

As for sticking his head under water we had the same stand off in our lessons and it took a term before he was willing to do it. We tried to reinforce in the week blowing bubbles and sticking his face n the bath so he knew the sensations on his face and not to breathe in. In the end it was just another one of those it will happen when they are ready kind of things. Still not pleasant when they are shouting the house down!

Wicked Little Critta said...

The first thing I'll say is that I also agree, I think one needs to take what one knows about a particular child and figure out what works/doesn't work regarding behavior.

Secondly, I'll throw this scenario out there: I'm currently working with a family with a 6 year old where his behavior is unacceptable, he's extremely oppositional and defiant. In watching the events play out, mom feels it necessary to try to explain why he should comply and why he needs to do as she says. But basically, when you're that young and you're focused on what you want to do, I believe that a parent's voice can turn into the teacher from Charlie Brown (hope people get that), and he's learned that he gets an extra 5 or 10 minutes doing what he wants to do because his mother is busy talking. So the initial request/demand is less meaningful to him.

Regarding the pool situation: I don't think I'll go there. ;)

Wicked Little Critta said...

An important side note: I'm encouraging the boys mother to take times that aren't charged with a power struggle to have conversations and explanations about behavior. Because I do think it's praiseworthy to want your children to understand these things.

Moshe Reuveni said...

Loved your comments (in particular the mother/father disagreements). I'll be a pain and focus on my specific pain: how do you do the rough discipline stuff, which you have to do to one extent or another at one point or another, while still projecting the sense of unconditional love?

"I think one needs to take what one knows about a particular child and figure out what works/doesn't work regarding behavior":
Totally agree, but again I'll be a pain (note the whole purpose of this post was to be a pain so I can gain knowledge from my peers, so don't take it the wrong way).
My question is, do you have solid measurable parameters by which I can see what works and what doesn't? I'm asking because I generally find that both the rough and the comforting methods usually work; the problem is knowing which method to apply when, especially when complicated calculations are rather tough to make in the heat of the moment.
For the record, I'm not sure I get the Charlie Brown metaphor all the way (lack of exposure).
For another record, we do hold talks with Dylan while away from the thick of the action where we discuss past conflicts. As far as I can tell these talks are quite effective, as much as anything can be effective with a four year old; however, they cannot compete with the level of effectiveness on offer by being strict. If you use the force you get 100% success, at least when the child is in sight; if you hold discussions and try to appeal to the child reason you can get gradual improvement but what we usually get is temporary improvements.

Wicked Little Critta said...

Actually, part of what we do is come up with measurable objectives for families so we know if what we're doing is working. However, the same still applies: it depends on the kid and the family. So why not make your own objectives? How many times a day does he not comply with directions? How many times would you prefer, or feel is appropriate? Set a goal for yourselves.

I think it's fantastic if both methods work. In your glass bottle example, there might be the issue of safety, which might warrant more force. But what we encourage parents to do, mostly, is make a plan. Figure out what they're comfortable with regarding limit-setting and consequences, and decide ahead of time the system they should use so that when situations arise, they have a "go to."

Sorry, I realize how vague this sounds, but I always hesitate to give too specific parenting advice, for obvious reasons (no kids).

P.S: For information on Charlie Brown:

Sarah said...

As a teacher my answer would be you need to focus on 3 C's Consequences, Consistency and Calm. Work out what are fair consequences to undesirable behaviour before it happens e.g., time out, taking things away, loss of privileges. If you say you will do something be consistent, they can't be empty threats, so you follow through every time so the kid knows you are serious and they can predict what the consequence will be. Try and be as calm as possible and unemotional as you do it as the more angry you are the more likely things are to get off track and the kid knows they are winding you up. There are lots of behaviour management programs out there we have been using Magic 1,2 3 and with that you don't have to enter into too much discussion and lose the moment.

So that is all the rational teacher stuff. Now as a real life parent I know it is so not black and white like that. In all my time as a teacher a child has never made me as mad as my own. Trying to be calm and rational and think ahead in a situation is really difficult. Especially when you are sleep deprived, sick, don't have support to give you breaks etc.

So how do you discipline with unconditional love? I think the best you can do is try to be calm, not say things you will regret, deal with the moment as best you can and then when it is over hug them to show them you still love them and move on. I think kids are better at letting things go than us grown ups. I know I can deal with something and still be annoyed that they did x,y or z and they have totally moved on from it.

You look back at your parent's short comings and wonder why they did what they did. I think that once you become a parent you gain the perspective that you are doing the best you can given the circumstances you find yourself in and so did your parents. It is a real circle of life thing.

You turned out more than ok so given that you are a reasonable person and a parent that actually cares about what you are doing the chances are no matter what you end up doing your child will be ok too. Kids are amazingly resilient like that.

Wicked Little Critta said...

Absolutely agree with the 3 C's. Calm in particular is helpful to communicate that you are remaining in control and you aren't confusing your disapproval of the behavior with disapproval of the child. I just recommended 1-2-3 Magic to a family last week! At first I didn't love the idea of counting to stop behavior, but then I warmed up to it because it's good that it gives the child a more understandable way to think about things and stop the behavior before the parent delivers consequences.

Moshe Reuveni said...

The idea of planning ahead may sound trivial and vague, but I find that consciously putting it in terms of trying to identify potential conflicts and thinking up policies to deal with them in advance (so that you don't have to think in the heat of battle) quite an eye opener. So thanks.
Obviously, planning ahead is hard. The child will always find a way to surprise the parent and speaking for myself my imagination has its limits (in the sense of me being unable to think every scenario up). But still, trying to plan ahead is better than nothing.
You may also think I'm dumb (as in, why didn't I think of that before). That's perfectly fine with me. I know I did some planning ahead in the past; the difference is that now I'll actively think it up in advance. I will look to plan ahead.

P.S. Thanks for the compliments, Sarah.