Unconditional parenting

Last night I started reading Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn. It’s been sat by my bed unopened for two years, since I was pregnant with DS and DD looked like she was about to embark on the ‘terrible twos’, and I ordered a rash of parenting books to join the ranks of baby books on my shelf.

So why open it now? We’ve been having some mysterious clinginess ishoos at nursery, where she’s been quite happy since she was seven months old but now keeps bursting into tears. I’ve been worried about the nursery thing, which makes me feel even more guilty than I do anyway about working two and a half days from home.

My mum’s advice was to do the same as she did with me when I was hysterical every morning before school when I first started: bribe her. Apparently a child behavioural specialist in the late 70s advised my mum to tell me that if I didn’t cry at school I would get a treat on the way home. She says it worked immediately. For some reason, this didn’t sit comfortably with me: I don’t like the idea of negating DD’s emotions, or asking her to pretend she is fine when she isn’t (I’ve obviously been doing this since I was four and it hasn’t necessarily been a good thing!). But I tried it last week and lo and behold, the promise of going for coffee and cake anywhere she wanted on Friday morning if she had ‘no silly tears’ (trying to make it clear that real hurt and upset tears were fine, it was the tears for no apparent reason that we were trying to stop) worked. She had a ‘happy day’ at nursery and we had a lovely time with babycinos on Friday morning.

But yesterday the bribe didn’t work and she had a bit of a ‘sensitive’ day, as her lovely male key worker put it. And I thought: there has to be a better way than this. I’ve never been a fan of reward charts (apart from stickers to mark potty training progress) and naughty steps, although like every other mum I know, I praise and reward good behaviour and threaten the withdrawal of treats for bad behaviour. It’s the only way I know.

So I opened Unconditional Parenting. One stone cold bath later, and I have a whole new way of thinking about parenting. The premise is that responding to ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviour with rewards and punishments may work for short-term control of our children, but if we think about the adults we want them to become (eg happy, thoughtful, inquisitive, independent, creative, fulfilled, loving etc), these techniques may actually do harm in the long term. Unconditional parenting, says Kohn, is about working with children, not doing stuff to them. It’s about recognising their feelings (that they may be unable to articulate other than in tantrums, hysterics or naughtiness), and letting them know that we really do love them, always, just how they are, just for being themselves, not because they have been ‘good’.

Is it possible that children see withdrawal of treats or punishments, however minor this seems to us, as a withdrawal of their parents’ love? To me it seems unconditional parenting isn’t just about making it clear that we love our children unconditionally, no matter what their behaviour, but that we respect them as individuals with their own personality and feelings, rather than as nuisances to try and get under our control.

I haven’t got to the bit of the book where Kohn talks about how to practically handle tricky situations differently, so I haven’t actually got any new tools at my disposal yet. But even the first few chapters of the book struck a chord with me and made me think that maybe there is another way of handling my kiddies. I’m still a bit resistant to the idea that it’s not all about getting them to do what they are told, I must admit, but I’m keeping an open mind.

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Am I a hypocrite for being a godmother again?

Yesterday I became a godmother for the fifth time. That’s ten parents who for some baffling reason have thought I’d be the perfect person to guide their offspring’s spiritual growth.

The first two babies are my much younger cousins, and being their godmother when I was only a teenager was a lovely gesture from two aunts who I was very close to, but hasn’t really worked in the long term, about which I feel bad. The third is a good friend’s little girl, who now lives on the other side of the world so although I think of her often, it’s going to be a challenge to really get to know her as she grows up. The fourth is my gorgeous nephew, who I see every week and is only 12 days younger than my son – a very special bond reinforced by being his godmother. The newbie to this motley crew is the adorable son of one of my very best friends, who I met while we were both doing NCT classes while she was pregnant with his older sister (my DD’s best friend). Again, a special relationship that feels even stronger now.

I am extremely proud to be a godmother. It was a real honour to be asked, and a very emotional moment each time. And yet when my own children were born, we chose not to baptise them. Me and DH were both christened and confirmed in the Church of England, spent much of our youth in church choirs or as servers during Sunday services and Evensong, and got married in church. As we’ve got older, our feelings about all organised religion are changing and evolving, and though I’m yet to fully articulate my current beliefs, baptising my babies and officially stating they are a member of any religious group not through their own choosing  just didn’t feel right.

Instead, we had rather spiritual, though entirely non-religious, Naming Day ceremonies, with a script written by me, adapted from the Civil Ceremonies guide. They were led by celebrants, and included promises from me and DH to our children, and the family and close friends we asked to be their ‘godparents’. The word ‘god’ still feels perfect to me, as what it means to me is far broader than the man with the white beard. For me, being a godparent is about spirit, rather than religion.

We asked DS’s godparents, for example, to make the following promises:  ‘We promise to love, respect and treasure you always. We promise to share our talents, interests and experiences with you to broaden your understanding and appreciation of life. We promise to watch over the development of your spirit, encouraging you to use your heart and your head in decision-making, and to be true to yourself and your values. We promise to always be ready to advise, encourage and comfort you in all your endeavours as a child and an adult.’ I still well up when I read those words, echoed in our own promises to our children, because they feel completely right.

 The first Naming Day was a village hall party followed by champagne and a lunch buffet, and the second was an afternoon tea party. Both were memorable and special occasions as we named and welcomed our babies. I tried to avoid too much hippyishness, although we did light a ‘Baby Blessings’ candle each time, there were a few mentions of nature, and for the first one we suggested the guests might like to plant trees in DD’s name. (By the time DS’s Naming Day came around, I was too knackered to continue being quite such an eco-zealot. I didn’t even make my own organic purees – so shoot me).

I’m also not a massive fan of the exact language of the baptism service – the parents and godparents are asked to state some quite hardcore stuff, as the Church of England website makes clear: ‘When you bring your child for baptism, you will be asked to declare publicly on behalf of your child that you believe in God and that you will bring your child up to follow Jesus. You will be asked to answer, on your child’s behalf, that you have decided to turn away from everything which is evil or sinful and instead to turn towards Christ.’

Before the service and celebratory lunch yesterday, I’d been thinking about this after reading Insomniac Mummy’s blog post on the dilemma of whether or not to baptise her daughter.

So am I a hypocrite to love being a godmother and yet not really subscribe to the doctrine within which that title was awarded to me?

Look who’s talking

I just LOVE the bit when babies are learning to talk. With both of my two, it’s started slowly with mama, dadda and bear (they are both addicted to their Flatout Bears made from Aussie sheepskin – gorgeous, if the most expensive comfort object ever!). Then they moved in fits and starts through their own attempts at everyday stuff like ‘Chacha’ (our cat, Charlie), bowl, spoon, cup, juice, ball, car, and the ubiquitous Organix ‘bar’. During the learning to talk stage, every time they spent a weekend with lots of adults, their vocab went through the roof, from about 16 months onwards. I loved it first time round, and I am loving it again now.

'Chacha' taken by DD

Now DD is heading for her fourth birthday this summer, I take it completely for granted that she can chunter away nonstop about anything under the sun and is learning more stuff all the time. I can’t really remember a time when she was as little as DS, now nearly 20 months, and was just learning her first words. When I was pregnant with him, two years ago, I started writing a little memo of all the stuff she was doing and saying, including some of her favourite and most interesting words at the time. I’m so pleased I did this, because it’s gone so quickly. Most memorably, her coat was a ‘toot’, your hair clips were ‘pips’, and she started picking up phrases like ‘as well’, ‘back in a minute’ and ‘really is hot’. Perfume was ‘mell-nice’ because it made mummy smell nice, and piano was ya-yo, and breakfast was ‘fuff-fuff’.

Both my children have been really into learning the names for things and trying them out, desperate to make themselves understood. As a wordy sort of girl myself, this is a total joy to me, and it also makes life so much easier. Yesterday, for example, I didn’t realise that DS needed his nappy changing and had a sore botty until he clutched his crotch with a distressed look and said ‘poo poo dore, mummy! Up!). Like his sister at the same age, he’s trying to string the few words he knows together to make sense of things and tell me things.

He doesn’t know ‘lots’ or ‘other’ yet, but he can say ‘more’, so when he wants both his bears he says, ‘bear, more bear’. He doesn’t know ‘flying’ yet, but when he sees a plane overhead he says ‘airpane!’ and then a few second later, ‘gone!’. He can’t say blackcurrant squash, but he does know that I’ll happily make him a weak warm high juice drink, which is ‘hot juice’. He can’t say biscuit, but can say ‘caca’ and knows a biscuit is similar to a cracker. He also uses the syllables he can say and remember of more complicated words, combined with pointing – ‘eeee’ at bathtime means he wants to brush his teeth, and ‘ek’ is breakfast. The latest obsession is hot air balloons since we saw one last week – now know to one and all as an ‘airbuddun’.

Some of their words are so cute, I don’t correct them – hair clips are still ‘pips’ to the entire extended family. So tell me, what are the cutest things your kids came up with when they were learning to talk, and what words do you still use in their original uncorrected form?

An audience in the loo

How much physical privacy do you have in your house with small people running around? I ask because it has dawned on me that I have virtually nil. While DH can go and have a leisurely shower or ‘sit down’ loo visit with a golf magazine and the kids don’t bat an eyelid, the moment I attempt to shut the bathroom door, all hell breaks loose. I don’t think I’ve had a poo in peace for nearly four years.

DD always thinks of something essential she needs to ask/wants my help with at the exact moment I need a wee, and joins me in the loo. When she was potty training, she’d sit on the big pink potty next to me when I went. DS always wants a ‘duddle’ when I park my bottom, and insists on hugging my knees. There are some things you just want a minute or two to yourself for, without a small person attached to you or inspecting the toilet.

I don’t want my kids to be in any way uptight about their bodies or what comes out of them, so I’ve always been deliberately relaxed and matter-of-fact about what happens in bathrooms. ‘Everybody poos,’ chants DD like it’s a family mantra, ‘even the Queen!’ Sometimes, though, it would be nice not to have to run and shut the door before they realise where I’ve gone, or to schedule visits to coincide with Balamory or breakfast, or to have a shower without a small face peeking round the curtain shouting ‘mummy wet!’, or a bath without my nipples being tweaked, or to get dressed without my woefully stretchmarked tummy being poked and laughed at.

Somehow DH just doesn’t have this problem. He’s always been very private with the children about bodily functions and nudity and they never question it. He always locks the door  when he’s on the loo or in the shower, never emerges from a bath without a towel, and closes the bedroom door to get dressed until he has his boxers on (apparently described by DD at nursery as ‘big, big boy pants’, much to the nursery team’s ongoing amusement).

Possibly because we had a little girl first, he’s very conscious of not wandering round with his willy out. And possibly just because I’m a mum (and was lucky enough to have two normal deliveries and breastfed both of them for a few months), there’s less of a boundary for me between their delicious little bodies and my big saggy one. Children’s poo, wee and vomit are part of everyday life for me, but for DH having to change a really disgusting crappy nappy is still a major event that requires contorted facial expressions and a measure of protest.

Anyway, have you found a way of being completely cool about all things bodily with your children and still managed to retain or reclaim any privacy? Or do you always seem to have a small person close by if not physically attached when performing your intimate ablutions?