Wednesday 24 January 2018

Comment: Forget the naughty step - here's why it's us parents who must change

'It’s not my children’s behaviour that’s most challenging – it’s my own' (Stock photo)
'It’s not my children’s behaviour that’s most challenging – it’s my own' (Stock photo)

Fiona Ness

I began to harbour suspicions about the 'naughty step' as a method of disciplining children when my three-year-old used it as a launching pad for punching through our glass front door.

Such was his anger on being extracted from the bosom of our family and made to sit on 'calm-down' time after his latest disciplinary infraction, he showed us just where we could stick this, the heretofore gold standard of parenting techniques.

From here on, I determined, there would be no more naughty step. No. He'd have to take his calm-down time standing up in the corner of the wet room instead.

In the relative safety of the wet room, I could also wave my finger and boom at him to "CALM DOWN", safe in the knowledge that the neighbours wouldn't call child services (it's also sound-proof).

So when he kicked me in the face after 10 rounds in the wet room, I just slumped down in the shower and wept. Instantly, the kicking and screaming stopped.

"Result!" I thought with an instant pang of guilt that made me sob all the more because you're not supposed to cry in front of your children even more than you're not supposed to shout at them.

A little grubby fist began stroking my cheek. "You're o-kay mummy" lisped the child on the other end of the fist, and then he sat down beside me and gave me a cuddle.

As I dried our eyes, I pondered if I was the victim of some sort of terrible mind control experiment. Just which one of us was Pavlov's dog? And did I really care as long as the tantrum had stopped? And come to think of it, were my other children still alive - never mind feeling valued and loved - after the hour I spent with the 'Destroyer of Worlds' in the wet room?

No amount of Supernanny had prepared me for this. The naughty step would have to go.

The problem was - with what should I replace it? Removal of vital resources? No. Avoidance or diversion tactics? Tempting, but no. Smacking? It had never done me any harm. No.

"Nothing works." The phrase went around in my head.

In 1974, American sociologist Robert Martinson had pondered the same question, and come up with the same answer: "Nothing works."

Mr Martinson was looking at the role of prisons (ie, the 'naughty step') in rehabilitating prisoners and slowing reoffending rates.

Politics has since used Mr Martinson's conclusion that "nothing works" to push up prison rates (use of the naughty step) in the West ever since. However, he had actually believed that his theory would empty prisons, rather than increase the number of prisoners being held there.

"The long history of 'prison reform' is over," Mr Martinson wrote. "On the whole, the prisons have played out their allotted role. They cannot be reformed and must be gradually torn down."

In short, he believed, the naughty step must go.

In a new publication, 'The Gentle Discipline Book', parenting guru Sarah Ockwell-Smith updates this guiding philosophy of corrections - as it applies to parents and children. She says the naughty step is a 'quick fix' discipline method that has long-term, negative consequences for the child.

This will no doubt upset parents like me who had clung to 'time out' as a humane step-up from smacking. And it's difficult not to snort while passing around the whiskey on the frontline of parenting, at Ms Ockwell-Smith's advocation of gentle discipline through "positive parenting, mindfully and respectfully…authoritative not authoritarian".

Because crucially, it puts the spotlight on our own behaviour, not that of the child we are attempting to manage.

For my part, when it comes to dealing with challenging behaviour in my children, Ms Ockwell-Smith showed me it's not their behaviour that's most challenging - it's my own.

Poor impulse control. Predisposed to violent outbursts. Wants everything their own way. Resistant to change: it's not them whom I'm describing here; it's me.

And if I can't change my behaviour as a parent - how can I expect them to change theirs?

Irish Independent

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