Ahead of our event with psychotherapist Philippa Perry, we share an extract from her excellent new parenting manual.
Our feelings come into everything we do and every single decision we make. How we manage our feelings will have a bearing on how our baby or child learns to manage theirs. Feelings and instincts are closely linked, and if we deny how a child feels we are in danger of dulling their instincts. And a child’s instincts make them safer. For example, in the excellent book How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk, the authors tell a story of a child who goes with her friends to the local pool but comes home very soon after she left. ‘Why are you back so soon and on your own?’ asks the mum. The daughter explains there was an older boy at the pool who wanted to pretend to be a doggy and lick their feet. Her friends thought it was funny, but it made her feel icky. I believe it is quite likely that her friends had been trained not to react to certain things by their parents saying, ‘Don’t be silly, don’t make a fuss,’ rather than being encouraged to take their feelings seriously. If this was the case, it will have compromised their safety. It is too easy to dismiss a child’s fears about, say, trying a new food, but if we tell them not to be silly rather than listening to them, there is a danger that they will think they are being silly to feel what they do, when it isn’t silly at all.
Goodness, you may be thinking, it is hard enough to do all the practical things I need to do to keep my child safe, fed and clean. Now, as if that wasn’t enough, I need to feel with them too? But as much as I hate ‘tips’ and ‘life hacks’, if there is one big hack, it is this: do not get into a battle about what a child is feeling. Your eight-year-old might say: ‘I don’t want to go to school.’ Replying ‘You are going, and that’s that’ is something that can easily come out of your mouth when you’re in a rush and have your own agenda to worry about. But saying ‘You really hate school right now, don’t you?’ is easier for your child to hear. It opens up the dialogue rather than shutting it down.
And it is very rarely quicker to deny a child’s feelings. For example, we are often in a hurry, so we grab a toddler to try to put their coat on, and they do not like it. Then we ask them to put their coat on themselves but, by that time, they’re determined not to put it on. So, you see, it would have been better to put the time in first by respecting them and acknowledging their feelings. That means not grabbing them but warning them that it’s time to put their coat on, then observing, listening and reflecting what they feel back to them. If they refuse to put their coat on, you might say, ‘You hate being too hot, that’s why you don’t want to wear your coat. Okay, we’ll put it on once we are outside and you start to feel cold.’ And if you are always in a hurry in the mornings, get up earlier to give yourself the time to respect your child’s slower pace and to acknowledge their feelings. Then life is less likely to be a battle.
Extract from The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and Your Children Will be Glad That You Did) by Philippa Perry (Penguin Life, £12.99). Buy a copy here. Philippa Perry will be discussing the secrets of parenting with Idler editor Tom Hodgkinson this Wednesday 13 March at the Marx Memorial Library. Tickets available here.