Week four on "The Parenting Children Course" was probably the hardest session we have done so far, the one we have found most challenging and stretching. The discussion times were more difficult than previous weeks as a result - with some longer 'pauses for thought' as we contemplated how to respond to the material.
The course can be run over 5 longer evenings or 10 short-sessions. I've heard that evening courses tend to run with the five; but daytime courses being run in conjunction with parent & toddler groups or coffee mornings, tend to do the 10 shorter sessions. We are moving though it at the 5 - longer-sessions rate; but the DVD is arranged in two halves to facilitate running it either way.
The first half of session 4 focuses on our behaviour, attitude and actions as parents, and the way in which our practical example is hugely significant in the shaping of our children. There is a strong emphasis on listening to children, and developing an interest in their world, even if the things which delight them seem silly to us. "Active" or "Empathetic" listening is encouraged here, just as it forms such an important part of The Marriage Course. Things such as eye-contact, allowing them to express negative or critical emotions, or even anger are stressed - along with the technique of "reflecting back" which is such a critical element of deep listening. So far, so good - but then a stumbling block. The first exercise involved an element of role-play - the mere suggestion of which was enough to send a shiver round the group! A long discussion ensued in which there was a lot of reluctance to break into two's for the exercise. Eventually one member bravely said, "we can't say we've evaluated the course unless we've tried it" - so with a deep breath we did. It didn't last long, it has to be said - but it did lead to some useful discussion in the two's three's we were in.
Part two contained a lot of useful material about the use and abuse of anger - as it is displayed by three groups of people (i) toddlers (ii) older children and (iii) us - the parents! Toddler tantrums were addressed first, with a range of useful tactics discussed by both experts and parents. We've all been in the supermarket with a raging inconsolable little-one, concerned both with the plight of the distressed infant - and the embarrassment of appearing to be a failing-parent in front of the watching world. The tactics for coping with toddler-angst were as wise as the sense of camaraderie amongst fellow-sufferers engendered was emboldening. Personally, we looked back at the toddler years through the rose-tinted spectacles of nostalgia!
The anger of older children was looked at secondly. Here the emphasis was on allowing a child to express their feelings, but within the limits of permissible expression. Some children are not allowed to express negative or critical thoughts at all - and this extreme they said was damaging. The other extreme, allowing children to shout, swear, criticise the other parent, slam doors or hit siblings, is obviously unacceptable too - and must be met with sanctions. This though, can often be a result of the child perceiving that they are not listened to. The balance is to allow EXPRESSION but not AGGRESSION; while not imposing SUPPRESSION. Again in our own parenting we reflected on this and the fact that my wife and I both get this wrong sometimes but in different and opposite ways. This section - which hit right on the age of our children, was a helpful and useful reminder of the balance we should be aiming to achieve.
Children's rage is often not well articulated - which means that an angry child might yell at a sibling about a minor incident, when the real source of their stress is a problem at school, for example. The interviews with parents on the DVD were particularly insightful about this as they talked about the different ways in which their various children talk about their thoughts and reveal the sources of anger. This was thought-provoking stuff.
The session ended with an extremely searching and hard-hitting look at the behaviour which we as parents model to our children. If we have fits of rage, in which we lose control - this will determine our children's attitude to rage, and far outweigh any words we say to the contrary. The point here though - is not to attempt to dupe our children into thinking we are perfect; (that facade would be short-lived!) but modelling to them how fallen, far-from-perfect people maintain healthy relationships. That is, by admitting fault, saying sorry to one another, forgiving and moving on. While we cannot model perfection to our kids - we can model handling our imperfections in this way. We will also have to apologise to the children when we wrong them too. If we can manage all these things we will set them a useful example for later life, as they chose and develop and maintain relationships of their own.
So much to think about here...