Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Why ANGER doesn’t change children’s behaviour

Ricky Gervais on The Simpsons
Recently I spent some time with a father who struggles to control his anger towards his children. He described a scene that had played out in his home shortly before our conversation:
My teenage daughter said something really cruel to her sister. Super cruel. So her sister is balling her eyes out and I ask what’s wrong, and she tells me her big sister has said this really nasty, hurtful thing to her. And I just lost it, like I always do. I raced into the room where the teenager was, and I’m like shouting at her, and I backed her into a corner and was slapping her arms, and then SHE tells me to stop abusing her. She doesn’t know what abuse is.
As we reviewed this unhappy incident, I asked the father what the outcome of his anger had been?
Had his daughter learned the lesson that he had hoped to teach her?

He speculated about whether his point had gotten through.

I asked him to stop speculating, and describe the outcome of his anger – the immediate repercussions. How did he feel? How did his daughter feel?

His response was slow in forming, but insightful. He said
The immediate outcome was that I acted like a jerk. I went off. For her, I think that I probably created a sense of anger in her towards me – maybe even hatred. And all she could think about was self-preservation.
I asked what happened when he walked away?
She packed up her school bag and ran away to go to school, but it was like an hour early or something stupid like that. She just took off and wouldn’t come back.
My next question was “What outcome did you want?”

He responded that he wanted her to stop being cruel to her little sister. When I asked if that was all he wanted, he nodded, and then hesitated. Then he said
I wanted her to not just stop it. I wanted her to know that behaviour like that is not tolerated in our house.
We talked about the long term outcomes from such a scenario, where anger is used as the ‘teaching tool’ of a parent. He had more insights:
When I’m angry she doesn’t hear what I say.
When I’m angry I betray her trust in me as her dad
When I’m angry all I really do is harm my own relationship with her
When I’m angry I’m ineffective as a teacher
I added that if we want behaviour to be internalised and to become automatic, we’re not going to get there through anger.

What do we do instead?

Instead of shouting, threatening, and backing our kids into a corner when they do the wrong thing, we need to be patient, soft, gentle, kind, and we need to talk with love. This is particularly difficult to do when we’re angry!

But for effective teaching, and for relationships to remain intact, anger is ineffective and counterproductive. Love, patience, kindness, and thoughtful questions (out of the heat of the moment) are far more likely to lead to effective teaching, and internalised morals on the part of our children – especially when they’re teens.

This dad’s anger led to insights and improvements. What can your anger teach you, and how can you manage it so that you can be an effective parent?

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Is P*rn Really That Big a Deal For Our Kids?

We Need To Talk... from Fight the New Drug on Vimeo.

I've started this blog post a handful of times and keep putting it away. I don't want to touch the topic... but I feel compelled to write about it.

The topic is pornography.

Why write about pornography? Well, put simply, if your child is aged 11, there's a VERY strong chance he or she has already seen it - and not just a bit of nudity. I'm talking about deviant, explicit, pornography - the 'hardcore' stuff. Here's a recent article from one of Australia's largest papers on the issue.

How should we behave if we find our kids have viewed this type of content? When I talk to parents I hear a broad range of attitudes regarding their feelings about children's exposure to pornographic content. These attitudes begin at
"I saw it as a kid and it never affected me"
at one end of the spectrum, while the alternative response is
"I will do whatever I can to protect my child from porn."
The question is particularly challenging because of the near silence on the topic from academic sources. A review of psychology journal database PsycINFO reveals scant research that considers how exposure may impact on our kids.

So... what do we know?

Pornography production, dissemination, and consumption is at record levels and growing. 

With the proliferation of the Internet, smart phones and cameras, and social media, this particular 'product' is accessible everywhere, and to everyone. This article from the Washington Times suggests the expansive reach of pornography has reached 'epidemic' proportions. Research (cited in The Age article above, and elsewhere) shows teens are aware that pornography appears 'everywhere in the media and society'.

Acceptance of pornography is at an all-time high.

There appears to be a general mainstreaming of pornography. The popular media normalises pornography consumption through references to its use in sitcoms, dramas, music, movies, and music. And no, I'm not actually talking about these media showing pornography. I'm talking about how characters in tv shows and movies joke about their porn use, or how songs glamorise it and condone it. 'Porn' has become a part of our language, something to joke about, and something to occupy our brief moments when we're looking for something to entertain us - although those 'brief moments' easily lead to hours of addictive consumption for regular users.

Pornography has changed.

Experts are unequivocal in their statements that the porn of today is unquestionably more obscene than it was even a decade ago. There is no question that it has become more deviant, more violent, and even more degrading than it ever was.

Children are being exposed to pornography at record levels.

Author of Big Porn Inc., Melinda Tankard Reist, reports that young people are being exposed to hard-core violent pornography before they even hold hands with, or kiss, a girl. She says 70% of boys have viewed adult content by the time they are twelve years old, and by the time they're fifteen, you'd find it close to impossible to find a boy who hasn't viewed it. Even girls are exposed to pornography at increasingly high rates with around half having viewed pornography by age twelve and 97% by age 16. 

Teens are aware that pornography is degrading and discriminatory.

One study found teens saw pornography as portraying a man's role as dominant, even brutal, and abusive and a woman's role as subordinate, and sexual. They felt that the content depicted a distorted reality where women were present in order to be used and abused.

Pornography provides a model of sexuality that IS followed. 

Teens tell researchers they don't actually like pornography, but they feel pressured to watch it. And they acknowledge that it provides them a model to follow. They feel compelled to act in accordance with the distorted depictions they view. This means they feel pressured to look a certain, sexualised way, and they also feel pressured to perform in a distorted, dominant (or subordinate) way - even abusively - when involved in personal intimacy.

What does this mean? Teens show an ambivalence towards pornography. They don't like it, can see it's negative impact, and yet they feel that it is the model they should follow in their own sexual relationships.

What is particularly concerning is that sexual abuse of children is on the rise - and it's being committed by other children. This is one frightening example of such behaviour, where four 8 year-old boys caused lifelong harm to a female classmate as they enacted scenes from pornographic material they had been exposed to.

While research doesn't yet provide us a clear link between pornography and young people's behaviour, an article about violence and pornography published in the Sunday Herald Sun (Nov 4, 2012) highlighted,
With all this exposure to pornography, violence and crime content, are we surprised by newly released Australian Bureau of Statistics figures that show sexual assaults and related offences committed by school-aged children have almost quadrupled in four years? They leapt from 450 to 1709.

I recognise that this increase is not necessarily accounted for by viewing pornography. There may be several other variables that contribute. However, the increase of sexualised content readily available for our children to dine on endlessly cannot be discounted as a contributing factor.

There are gender differences in pornography access, even among young people.

Boys access this kind of content more than girls. They also spend more time viewing it.

So are there any solutions?


But the approach is complex. Visit any newspaper article on the topic of children accessing pornography and you'll likely see comments from adults arguing strongly against any kind of safety mechanisms and filters or censorship to keep our kids from being damaged by this content. With such polemic views, the approach I'm going to suggest is a challenge.

I believe we need a whole of community approach - which means buy-in from the whole of the community. If we can place our children's welfare above our self-righteous proclamations of individual freedoms, we might have a chance of reducing the risks our kids face. As it stands, governments are not taking responsibility. They not only expect us to do ALL of the protecting of our children, but also expect us to do all of the reporting of illegal content. They could make it much easier with some form of online protections, but they wont. They publish some token pamphlets to say they're doing something... but there is no regulation, and limited or no filtering or blocking of explicit content.

Schools can help. The researchers cited in The Age article above indicated as much. While primary responsibility should rest with parents, it would be nice to have school's assistance. If they can help our kids stay away from pornography just that little bit more, it will help. One Australian commentator (who asked to remain anonymous) warns, however, that pro-pornography activists advising educational bodies as to how pornography can be used as a tool to help kids explore their sexuality.

Let me be clear - porn is NOT a teaching tool, and the research does clearly indicate that what it teaches is anti-thetical to what we want our kids to learn.

Beyond that, I also suggest that parents engage in the following:

First, discussions about pornography should be part of an ongoing conversation about sex and sexuality between parents and children. That conversation should begin when a child starts asking questions about why she is different to her brother. It should continue through the questions about where babies come from. And it should carry on through teen years as kids and their friends begin to have experiences with kissing, holding hands, and so on.

Of course, teens don't like having these conversations. They require tact, a willingness to listen, and care to not go too far in either discussing things kids may not know about, or in making them too uncomfortable. Nonetheless, these are conversations I believe we MUST have with our kids. (Usually with large bowls of ice-cream.)

Second, as children grow older they will be exposed to more and more of the online world. You won't always have control over their viewing habits. While filters can be helpful (and I encourage them on home PC's, laptops, tablets, and smartphones), they won't protect your kids when they visit other people's homes.

Third, don't make a big deal about it. When we make a big deal about things we only fuel the fire of curiosity. Instead of turning pornography into an increasingly enticing 'forbidden-fruit', be real about it. If you find your kids are deleting browser histories, being secretive about their online activities, or behaving in a way you think is strange and may be related to pornography consumption, go for a walk and have a frank and open conversation.

I'm not suggesting we should downplay it. I'm just suggesting we don't want to BLOW IT UP! If we do that, our kids will never come to us about anything... and this is stuff we need to be talking with them about.

Discuss limits, discuss addiction, discuss, discuss, discuss.

Is pornography really that big a deal for our kids? Yes it is. It is damaging their brains, and their model of what a healthy, mutually satisfying, intimate relationship is all about.

If you are interested in this topic, I highly recommend Melinda Tankard Reist and her group - Collective Shout. Get involved and keep our kids safe.

1.  Mattebo, M., Larsson, M., Tyden, T., Olsson, T., & Haggstrom-Nordin, E. (2012). Hercules and Barbie? Reflections on the influence of pornography and its spread in the media and society in groups of adolescents in Sweden. The European Journal of Contraception and Reproductive Health Care, 17, 40-49.

2.Bleakley, A., Hennessy, M., & Fishbein, M. (2011). A model of adolescents' seeking of sexual content in their medial choices. Journal of Sex Research, 48, 309-315.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Is Parenting about Power

Source: Tim Coulson
Have you ever asked your child to do something and they have ignored you, or worse, they've been back-chatty and argumentative? Chances are, if you've been a parent for more than a year or two, the answer is yes.

This morning my eight year-old, Ella, gave us some of that. She wouldn't take her school bag to school. She wanted to unload another backpack and take that instead. The requests were repeated. The refusals became more adamant. The morning routine was disrupted. It became this morning's parenting test for Kylie and I.


The way we respond to this situation says a lot about our parenting style.

Do we suggest that
'there will be consequences if you don't do what I have asked!'
(We probably haven't asked so much as we've told, but that's another topic for another day.) Do we promise goodies for compliance? Do we push, pull, coerce, threaten, manipulate, or bribe - even in subtle ways?

These are the standard principles of parenting in thousands of parenting books and programs around the world. Of course, the books don't tell us to threaten and bribe. Those words are too loaded. What they suggest instead is that we should use rewards for good behaviour and 'consequences' for bad behaviour, as though rewards and 'consequences' are completely different sides of a coin.

We're reminded in these books that when our children do as we ask we can give them stars and when they have enough stars they get some goody they've identified as worth working towards. When they don't do as we ask we can use time out or the withdrawal of privileges (usually technology) to punish them and teach them that their unwillingness to comply has 'consequences'.

Authoritarian Parenting

This style of parenting is called 'authoritarian' parenting. It is best exemplified through the term 'power'. Parents who use an authoritarian parenting style rely on their power to manipulate their kids through threats and punishments, or through bribes and rewards. All consequences for behaviour - good or bad - are distributed through the unilateral arbiter of what is right and wrong in the house (the mum or dad).

If I were to be authoritarian with Ella, I would offer her a goody for using her school bag rather than the back pack. If the goody were not enticing enough, I would make it bigger (using my power to do so), or I would suggest 'consequences' (read: punishments) if she chose not to comply (again using my power).

Research shows that when parenting becomes about power, there is a clear array of outcomes in children's lives:

First, relationships suffer.

Second, kids become sneaky. They make sure they don't get caught doing the wrong things and they manipulate situations so they do get caught doing the right things.

Third, kids learn to behave because of external factors rather than internal, autonomous factors.

Fourth, because morality is externally imposed, kids take longer to develop an internal sense of what is right and wrong and WHY.

Fifth,  kids whose parents use power to get things done have a model of 'power' in relationships. These kids are more likely to use power, threats, and bribes in their own relationships with friends, peers, and others in the playground. As you can imagine, such interactions are not positive in the long term.

But surely there should be consequences, I hear you say. Kids can't just do as they please.

Research clearly shows that our children need limits to grow up healthy and balanced. But the way those limits and their attendant consequences are experienced by children is key in determining how their sense of morality is developed.

Authoritative Parenting

Authoritative parents do things a little differently.

Authoritative parents are less interested in their children's compliance and more interested in the development of their child's character. As a result, authoritative parents set limits by working with their children rather than doing things to their children.

They talk with them, understand them, listen to them. They are warm. And they believe that children have answers inside themselves.

The research evidence is clear here too. Children who are raised with authoritative parents who set limits democratically and respond to them with warmth do better academically and socially. They feel more worthy, and confident. They may be more mature and have higher emotional intelligence. Their sense of morality and moral development is accelerated. They are empathic and compassionate.

Back to Ella

Because of my commitments during the morning, I asked Kylie to go and work with Ella. School had already started but the bag issue meant Ella was late. Kylie was a little flustered but agreed to sit with Ella. They talked. Kylie asked some questions. Then she waited. Patiently.

Ella opened her school bag. It smelled bad. She was embarrassed by the smell but couldn't find the problem. Together they searched for - and ultimately found - the smelliest leftover food Kylie had ever seen. It was unidentifiable.

Problem solved? Kylie thought so, but patiently asked Ella if she felt like she could take her bag to school now.

Over the next ten minutes Kylie discovered the food had nothing to do with Ella's desire to take a different bag. Instead it came down to this:

Ella told Kylie she feels unliked, unwanted, and unpopular at school. She felt as though having a new bag might increase the other students' interest in her. She might be a bit more popular today. Ella is not being bullied. She's just feeling like she has no friends. Our little angel needs love, friendship, and compassion.

Contrasting the two views

If we believe that kids are supposed to comply, that it's our job to make them obedient, then we'll use punishments and rewards (read: consequences) to make them do our bidding. And in so doing we'll miss the opportunities that exist for us to become involved (positively) in the important details of our children's lives.

An emphasis on compliance and consequences - which is what authoritarian parenting is all about - means we essentially ignore the reasons for our children's behaviours. Often those reasons are deep, painful, and important. Instead, we threaten and bribe, oblivious to our children's internal challenges.

An emphasis on developing character in our children leads to an authoritative approach. If we believe that our children's sometimes less-than-civil behaviour, backchatting, attitude, and temper is something for us to work with and understand, our approach will allow us to work together to find solutions to problem behaviours that may not even require consequences once we understand why they are happening.