When my son was one, we were sitting on the sofa together – and ouch! I remember the pain very well. It was followed closely by a feeling of absolute outrage.
My baby had bitten me!
It was a huge shock that this bundle of sweetness could do such a thing. It took a zillionth of a second for me to have the following thought: “I have to teach him that biting is not on.” I put him on the floor saying, ” No.”
The next time he bit me, my determination intensified. I told him in a very clear voice that he mustn’t bite. I wanted him to understand.
This didn’t work either.
So, when it happened again, I put him into a next door room – and shut the door. But even as I was closing the door, I saw it. I saw his lower lip tremble. I saw him look scared.
In an instant, a new feeling took over: guilt. Guilt that I was creating fear in my beloved baby boy. I felt so bad about this.
In fact, to this day I feel vulnerable sharing it – because this wasn’t my most glorious parenting moment.
But I feel it’s important to share it with you, because as parents we do so much PRETENDING that everything’s fine and that we’re managing – when we’re not, we’re feeling bad, confused and often ashamed – as I was feeling.
Of course, needless to say, he still didn’t get it about the biting.
Even if you don’t have a baby, even if you’ve an older child, I’m sure you can relate. Like one of the mums I’ve worked with – whose 6-year-old used to thump his little brother. One evening she had had a really lovely one- to-one story-time with her 6-year-old. Straight afterwards he went upstairs and knocked down his little brother. At this point the mum lost her temper, shouting and telling him that what he’d done was “totally unnecessary and absolutely unacceptable.”
She wanted him to understand that violence isn’t on.
At the same time, she felt really bad about shouting – and ashamed that she was turning into exactly the kind of mum she’d vowed she’d never be.
Are you familiar with this sequence? Frustration -> Explosion – > Guilt? If you are, I really want this to change for you, because I’m sure this cycle is causing you heartache.
So, what can you do about it? How can you get your children to understand – and avoid the frustration-explosion-guilt sequence?
This is what I’ve learnt over the past twelve years, being with my son, working with large numbers of families and being a parenting coach:
We can’t make them get it!
We can’t make our children understand that it’s wrong to bite – or to hit their sibling. There’s nothing we can say or do that will communicate this in the moment. There’s no way of putting it – or tone of voice that we can use – that will get your meaning across.
Children need time to learn these things.
So, we might as well let go of trying to “make them understand”.
Instead here are 3 tips to help you cultivate their understanding and to prevent the behaviour happening. Number 2, about preventing the situation from arising, is crucial if it’s a safety concern:
- Ask for the behaviour you want. You can tell your child clearly, and yet also kindly, that you don’t want them to bite – or whatever the behaviour is you don’t want.
- If it’s a safety concern, prevent the behaviour by not allowing the situation to arise. For example, if your child runs off in the supermarket, don’t go shopping with them for a while – or keep them in the buggy
- Model the behaviour you want by being as respectful and gentle with your child as you can. It’s possible to be gentle and firm at the same time.
This is not an exhaustive list at all. Helping our children learn to cooperate and become socially aware is a huge topic, which I teach in my programmes. However by reading this blog I hope you can let go of something that might be in the way for you – that belief that you have to get them to understand, once and for all. Instead try to feel as if you’re in a process with your child. When you soften, so will your child! That’s the beauty of it all.
When I let go of trying to make my son understand that biting wasn’t on, this is exactly what happened. I softened and gave myself time to help him cultivate his understanding. I trusted that he’d learn. (He did.)
So, I really recommend you step into a new life where you don‘t feel that incessant pressure on yourself to make your children understand that they mustn‘t do this or that – once and for all.
It can’t be done – ok?
Instead why not dig the soil, plant the seed, water their understanding and watch it grow?
Cultivating is a whole lot more fun!
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