Why Setting Expectations is Key to Encouraging Positive Behaviours in your Kids

© Karammiri - Dreamstime.com

© Karammiri – Dreamstime.com

Have you ever noticed how children seem to sense when you need them to behave … and do just the opposite?

I’ve become aware of a pattern developing in this vein hereabouts. I only have to mention that we’re off to the shops, Doctors, or anywhere that requires me to concentrate on something else for five minutes and they’re off. With a glint in their eyes and hands clapping in glee they shift subtly into planning mode.

‘How can we make mayhem for Mummy today?!’

They invariably come up with a set of behaviours that deliver maximum disruption for apparently minimal effort. Not to mention the fun-factor of watching me flounder and fluster as I wrestle to maintain dignified control in public. Of them. And of myself.

Rational me knows that they don’t actually go through this process.

Logical me understands that they are just being spirited, and its my own expectations that create the stress.

Detached me sees that they are looking for boundaries in a different environment, and that it’s my job to define them.

But in the heat of a busy situation, where I’m following an important adult agenda of one form or another, I’m not Rational, or Logical, or Detached.

I Am Stressed!!!

And that’s completely allowed. But that knowledge and freedom-to-be don’t really help much.

Last week I took Joe on an Admin quest. We have been registering our UK car here in France, and Gallic bureaucracy demands documentary-hoop-jumping of Olympic proportions. Flushed with the success of Phase One (which I had completed in blissful solitude the week before) I embarked on Phase Two with Joe in tow.

And a foolish level of optimism.

As we waited, he spotted a water cooler in the corner. He clocked a slightly older child playing ‘Snap!’ with the retractable corded barriers. He saw the pens, dangling invitingly from shiny chains.

Our number was called, and we approached the desk. From behind a dense plastic barrier, thick with grime, a lady babbled at me as I juggled reams of paper. I was distracted. Joe sloped off to explore. My Mummy radar was tuned only to keep track of his presence, not of his actions. My brain was too busy elsewhere.

Halfway through my game of document-tag with the lady I became aware of hushed murmurings behind me. I turned in time to see that Joe had balanced a plastic disposable cup brimming with water atop the pole of the retractable barrier. And was priming the cord for an impressive (and inevitably soggy) Snap!

Papers scattering, I lurched inelegantly for the cup and managed to avert disaster.

Joe looked miffed.

I muttered a few firm words about ‘behaving’ in his ear and returned to the now impatient lady in her plastic cave. Minutes later, glancing nervously behind me once more, I found Joe about to surreptitiously scribble on the wall with a pen. Cue more slightly panicky words on ‘behaving’.

Joe looked resigned. I could see he was already gearing up for his next episode of Mission Disruption. In a mad brain wave moment I lifted him up onto the narrow counter next to me.

He beamed at the lady.

She glared back.

I shuffled my papers together. Phase Two was just about complete. I allowed to relief to seep into my bloodstream a little. The stress began to slip away. I turned to smile at Joe …

Just in time to see him lick the plastic window and blow a loud, spittle-ridden raspberry at the lady.

I didn’t stop to see her expression.

So what is going on in these moments?

This Adventure in Admin was just one example of how the children act out when away from home.

In the supermarket they love to rush up and down the aisles. And steal grapes.

At the Doctor’s they seize the handheld cheque stamp on the desk and thump out ink onto hundreds of post-it notes.

In the DIY store I am forever liberating sharp things from tiny hands, or evicting one of my small charges from a kennel or dog basket that’s on sale.

These environments are new. Exciting. Different from home. The boundaries, rules, and unspoken understandings of how life works at home don’t apply.

Fresh places require fresh limits.

When I muttered to Joe that I needed him to ‘behave’ while on my Admin quest he really had no idea what I meant. Sure, he knows at an instinctive level that standing still and keeping quiet would probably deliver Mum-smiles.

But really … he’s only just 4. To his mind I could have been saying any one of the following:

  • ‘Behave’ … like you do when you’ve just had chocolate (running madly in circles)
  • ‘Behave’ … like you do when you’re tired (irritable and a displaying a lack of impulse control)
  • ‘Behave’ … like you’ve just been told off (subdued and upset)
  • ‘Behave’ … like you do at school (largely compliant and doing what he’s told, when he’s told)
  • ‘Behave’ … like it’s your birthday (bouncing off the walls with excitement)
  • ‘Behave’ … well, you get the picture ….

Asking a small child to ‘behave’ in an alien situation is like asking them to suddenly speak a foreign language. Without direction they simply don’t understand. And it’s their job to try out different modes of being in any given situation until they work out what is acceptable. And what’s not. It’s no surprise they opt to try out the fun stuff first.

‘What kind of ‘behave’ do you mean, Mummy?’

So now, when we go out anywhere I make sure we chat in advance about where we are going. I tell them what they can expect to find in the new place. We talk about what other people may be there, and how they will be acting.

I lay out a pick-and-mix of behaviours that are okay for them to choose from in that situation.

And I identify and share a few possible behaviours that will definitely not be okay.

This advance boundary-definition sets expectations that they can safely hang their hats on. They know what’s coming. They are prepared. They feel safe and secure in that knowledge. And they can assume some responsibility for their own actions.

I don’t expect my kids to be perfect (in fact, I hope they never strive to achieve this unattainable non-reality). But I know they expect me to let them know what’s expected.

How else can they be expected to learn?!

Angry Birds and Flying Cornflakes

© Scott Bauer, USDA ARS, via Wikimedia Commons

© Scott Bauer, USDA ARS, via Wikimedia Commons

An air of evening calm settled over the charming family campsite we were staying at. It was 9pm. Crickets chirped, Cicadas chattered, and Children chuckled their way from toilet-block teeth-brushing into snuggly sleeping bags.

And then. The foghorn sounded. Just as the children were drifting off to sleep …

‘Baptiste!!! Viens-la! Dépêche-toi!’

Which roughly translates from French as ‘Baptiste! Come here! Hurry up!’ It was the first outburst of many in a verbal tirade that lasted twelve minutes. It took place at the play area – just the other side of the hedge from our camping pitch, and about nine metres as the crow flies from the children’s tent. Mercifully the wee ones were so tired from their outdoor day that I could have detonated a kilo of explosives in the tent and they would not have stirred.

But still.

Such disturbance of the peace was surely unwarranted? Not to mention unnecessary. I’ve no idea who Baptiste was, but the poor lad’s only crime seemed to have been playing out and having fun in the designated play area. When Mum had decided it was time for him to return to the bosom of his tent she fired off a machine-gun burst of linguistic abuse that prompted a similar response from her harassed offspring before he reluctantly (and who can blame him?) unpeeled himself from the climbing frame and shuffled, sloth-like back to his canvas abode.

As peace descended once more I sipped my wine and thought what a perfect example this little episode was of the way kids reflect the manner in which we communicate with them. A purposeful, calm approach, sans yelling, would almost certainly have kept the whole interaction on a more relaxed level. Baptiste would doubtless have attempted to negotiate a little extra time at play – it’s what kids do. It’s the parent’s job to manage that. All that shouting achieved was to make both parent and child stressed, and to unsettle the lives of the 70 other individuals in the immediate vicinity.

It’s not always easy to keep your cool with kids. They have a knack for pressing all your most sensitive buttons, and seem to relish winding you up and setting you off to paddle furiously like a bath time turtle, before laughing in your face at the absurdity of it all.

Little tykes.

But an air of calm in the family can only be cultivated if Mum and Dad lead by example.  So next morning, when Joe inadvertently stood on his bowl of cornflakes, catapulting milk and soggy orange shapes all over his Duplo, the cool-box and the camping stove I didn’t shout. I suppressed the feeling of mass irritation that welled in my chest and molded it into something resembling mirth. With a smidgen of careful counselling on the avoidance of future cereal flinging thrown in for good measure.

Joe looked both sorry and relieved, and gave me a big squidgy hug before helping me clean up. I smiled as I silently banished my inner Angry-Bird back to her nest.

 

 

 

Girls can’t play with cars …

© TheBusyBrain (Stopped by Curiosity), via Wikimedia Commons

© TheBusyBrain (Stopped by Curiosity), via Wikimedia Commons

 

… in the same way as boys do. I have decided that this is one of life’s Universal Truths.

 

Here’s how a car-play session goes between Joe and Daddy:

Joe: Brrrrrrrmmm. BrrrrrRRRRMMMMM!!

Daddy: Brrrrrmmm. Rrrrmmmmm. BRRRRRUUUUMMMM!

Joe: ‘Again, again!’

Beams and nods. And repeat. Many times.

 

Now.  Here’s how a car-play session goes between Joe and Me:

Joe: Brrrrrrrmmm. BrrrrrRRRRMMMMM!!

Me: Brrrrrmmm. Rrrrmmmmm. BRRRRRUUUUMMMM!

Joe: ‘Not like THAT Mummy!’

Smashes cars together in frustration. Stomps off in a huff. (Joe, not me. Most of the time.)

 

Eh?

 

As a relatively self-aware Mum I know that I find it easier to relate to what are traditionally considered to be ‘Girl’ games. In the early days I used to try and encourage Joe to make a garage for his cars, and tuck them into bed. Naivety doesn’t even come close. In my simplistic mind it had worked for Ella so surely it was worth a try, right?

At some point it registered that Joe is a BOY. So I watched him playing with Daddy. And I made mental notes. And I tried very very hard to man-up my car-play:

  • I practiced my ‘BBRRRRRUUUUMMM’ in the shower. To amused looks from my other half.
  • I Googled ‘playing with toy cars’. Have you ever done this? Fascinating. And in some cases a bit, well, weird!
  • I watched Toy Story. Again.
  • I even crept into my boy’s room during school-time to have a play on my own in a desperate attempt to jettison any remaining awkwardness around all things mechanical.
  • I made myself available for motor-mania at every opportunity.

Things have improved without a doubt, but there is no getting away from it – Daddy-car-play is still preferable to Mummy-car-massacre in his eyes. Sigh. If Daddy’s not around then my pathetic attempts will generally suffice. Under sufferance, and amid much eye-rolling and fist-clenching from my boy. He’s very patient.

I used to think it was just me, but this weekend an impromptu session of Mum-therapy showed me I’m far from alone.

Dropping Joe off at a friend’s house for a birthday party I was corralled into joining the other Mums in their garden for a glass of the red stuff. Imagine. Relaxing on a Saturday afternoon instead of chipping ice off the freezer or getting tooled-up to do battle with the oven-spray. You know, they really had to twist my arm.

The party was in honour of a little pal of Joe’s who has just turned three (my boy is three-and-a-half). In a perfect reflection of text-book-preschoolers the group, which numbered four, spent a happy time largely ignoring each other. Until one decided it was time to play on the ride-on tractor. At which point cherry-picking, caterpillar-hunting, and random digging were simultaneously abandoned and the little men swarmed around the vehicular honey-pot in a mass of grubby knees and pointy-elbows.

We Mummy-guests offered objective support from a distance in our bubble of relief while the resident Mum exercised her parental muscles to resolve the conflict with a lesson in sharing and a fair degree of small-boy-lifting and re-siting (who needs kettlebells?). Re-filling her wine glass we did the empathy thing and then collectively reflected on boys and their toys.

To a woman we have all experienced the car-play scenario above. Many many many times. And it seems impossible to resolve, despite our best creative attempts.

I’m sure there are Mums out there whose car-play is to the satisfaction of their young male offspring. but now I know I’m not entirely alone I don’t feel so bad. I do my best. In car-play with my boy, in character-play with my girl. And every single time I do anything remotely child-related. That’s what being a parent is about after all. No instructions, no rule book. Just a terrifying fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants ride where the only thing you can do with any certainty is – your best. The odd cry of ‘Vive la différence!’ works too.

And so does the odd glass of red.

 

Living in Mid-Air

Mid-Air People

 

My daughter has quite an abstract approach to art. Her selections of shapes and colours are bold, and spill across the page in a confident mass. The balance in her drawings is quite startling for one so young and I suspect reflects her (sometimes over-) developed sense of fairness. Which itself becomes particularly apparent in circumstances where she perceives favour to be weighed against her!

Gluing a tiny selection of her prolific productions into a scrapbook for posterity, I was taken by one that depicted her and little brother either side of a house. The space around them was festooned with love hearts, and colours for each figure carefully chosen to represent their favourites of the moment (pink for Ella, blue for Joe).

What struck me particularly was the way both figures were suspended in the air. Despite there being a careful line for grass, an equally horizontal bar of blue above, and the house being firmly rooted on the ground, the children were shown suspended in the No Man’s Land of white horizon, as if at the top of a bounce on a trampoline. Grinning madly.

It’s a happy picture – most of her drawings are. Thankfully. I always remember that scene in Sixth Sense where the little boy says he draws rainbows instead of the images of horrific violence that were haunting him, in order to satisfy the school therapists – ‘They don’t have meetings about rainbows’. Guess we’re doing something right then.

Anyway, I digress. Suspended people. What’s that all about? I began to fester …

Does she feel ungrounded? Without a firm base in life? Is she watching too many Fairy movies and genuinely thinks people can fly?

Or did she just start drawing the heads too high up on the page and not want to make the legs look stupidly long? I suspect this last is true. Or maybe I’m kidding myself and she is less secure that I’d care to imagine. Guess I’ll never know for sure so should quit worrying and get a life!

On reflection I think this picture is a perfect example of how our kids are not yet bound by the constraints of knowledge that dogs us as adults. It’s a freedom I’m keen for her to retain in her arsenal of art techniques. And I hope she can grow to apply this freedom of thought to her life.

Imagine the impossible.

Dare to dream.

Convention is creeping in as her depictions of grass and sky squeeze ever closer together. But for now, mid-air people are very okay in her world. Long may that last.

Do the Strop

© Creatista | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

© Creatista | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

Do you ever feel like smiling when your kids are acting out?  I know that might sound like a weird reaction, but if yours are anything like mine, you may relate to this.  From time to time their attempts at throwing the mother of all strops result in me catching a fit of the giggles.  I could laugh until my sides split at some of the oh so serious faces they pull.  I appreciate that this is not the response of a sensitive and nurturing parent.  But I’m only human.  And their expressions are to die for.  And on some days I feel I am touching hysteria myself.

Admittedly I restrain myself if I sense their outburst is coming from a place of deep upset.  And this can be in relation to the simplest of things.  My daughter erupted the other day because little brother had disrupted the precision-made fairy bed she had set up on the coffee table, complete with acorn cups.  She was seriously affronted and close to acute internal devastation.  Clearly, a light chuckle from me was not appropriate at this juncture.

Yet sometimes … well, frankly they are just faking.

And they know it, and I know it.

And they know that I know it.

A gentle upturn of the corner of my mouth is enough to reveal the true nature of their actions, as they invariably redouble their efforts to gain my attention, with a challenging look in their eyes that dares me to proceed.  So I do.  For these instances I have developed an effective arsenal of responses:

  • A skeptical look and a grin – is often enough to diffuse the situation and send them happily away to seek out mischief elsewhere
  • Pulling their face back at them and then laughing out loud – shows them how ridiculous they look, and can lead to a fun gurning session
  • A declaration of war – in the form of a challenging “You are SO faking right now!” can often set them giggling too.  When swiftly followed by tickling and a little play-fight this settles things down nicely
  • I do the Strop – depending on the severity and nature of the fake, the kids have a great line in hopping from foot to foot, or stamping their feet.  Copying this can infuriate or delight them in equal measure, but usually makes them laugh in the end.  One time my girl actually went on to make a little dance routine out of it.  This, of course, was a very serious business.  No chuckling allowed.

Some days life can feel a little heavy.  I like to lighten the mood when I can, and most of the time the children appreciate this.  At least, I think they do!  I’m sure they’ll let me know when they have therapy later in life.  By which time I’ll be so old I won’t care, and will have perfected my own version of the geriatric strop.  Funny how life goes full circle!

A Mint Idea

© Victuallers, via Wikimedia Commons

© Victuallers, via Wikimedia Commons

Last night I cooked curry.  We had an aromatic prawn and tomato dish, vibrant red and pulsating.  A white basmati rice barrier kept the sharp sauce apart from the relative sweetness of the chicken dish that beamed yellow across the plate.  The whole delicious combination was delicately contrasted with a light, green scattering of fresh coriander.  Mm mm mm mmmmmm!

I’m an organised cook, and had extracted the necessary spices in advance from the depths of the shelf where they live in harmony alongside the herbs.  These brightly coloured jars were like a magnet to my little boy.  He found a stool and clambered up next to me, all busy and full of excitement.

“Mummy, me taste this?” he asked, proffering a jar of shockingly extra-hot chilli powder.

“Erm, no sweetie, not that one.  How about this?”  I offered the jar of cloves as an alternative.

Intrigued, he scattered them across the worktop (and the floor, and the stove, and down his jumper).  Then he tasted one.

“Bleurrrgh!”  he said.  “I not like that.”

“Well,” I explained, “these are flavours.  We add them in little bits to the food, and together they mix with all the other stuff in the pan and make it yummy.”

We spent the next 20 minutes opening jars of aromatic coriander and cumin, blinding yellow turmeric, woody cinnamon sticks and nutty cardamon pods.  We worked our way along the line of 20-30 spice jars, sniffing, dipping fingers, and rolling shapes and textures between our fingers.  We had a ball.  When at last we’d finished I got on with cooking, Joe keeping a watchful eye on me from his car in the corner.

“Can me have for tea?” asked my lad when I’d finished.  He is game to try anything edible.

So today we had what I call “Little Boy Curry” for lunch.  A mild chicken korma, packed with flavour, but light on spicy heat.  He loved it.

It got me thinking about flavours.

I’m pretty passionate about food, and love to cook.  I’m not always great at it, but can turn out a decent meal.  For me, getting the kids involved in food, and in the process of cooking, is really important.  I want them to learn about how to make healthy food choices.  It’s important they know that chips are made from potatoes.  But most of all I want to give them options.  If they choose later in life to stuff themselves with unhealthy processed gunk that’s their choice.  At least they will understand what they are doing, and know how to make a change if they want to.  So I encourage my kids to experiment, and take them shopping whenever I can.  When I have time, we grow our own veggies too.

Here is a great game to get pre-teens thinking about the food they eat:

  1. Decide on a flavour that can be found in many different forms.  Mint, Orange, Chocolate and Strawberry all work well
  2. Select 5-10 edible things that contain that flavour and create little samples on a plate – keep this hidden from the kids
  3. Sit your child down and blindfold them – working in a small group works best, as they get all giggly and really have fun
  4. Give them a little sniff, and then a taste of each food, and invite them first to guess the flavour, and then the food itself
  5. NEVER force a wary child to sample something if they are afraid – you can do it without the blindfold if necessary

This game is a great way to encourage children to engage with food, and to really think about the flavours they experience every day, but may never even consider.  You can talk about where the flavour comes from, how it is added, and other foods that might taste good as a complement.  It works best with the more adventurous child, but in a gentle form with only 3 different variations that you know will be a hit, it can also be used to encourage cautious kids to try new things.

Here are a few suggestions for sample foods for the flavour MINT:

  • A leaf from the herb itself
  • Toothpaste (just a little, we’re not going for fluoride overload here!)
  • A mint sweet – tic tac, polo, mentoes, humbug, any of these will do
  • A peppermint cream
  • Minty chocolate, such as an After Eight or Matchmaker
  • Mint sauce/jelly
  • Mint tea
  • Cucumber and Mint raita – a refreshing accompaniment to curry, made by mixing plain yoghurt with chopped cucumber, dried or fresh mint, and salt
  • Minted peas – cook the peas and toss with a little butter and fresh or dried mint
  • Minty chewing gum

Do Squirrels Like Sweets?

© Paul Whippey (Own work) – via Wikimedia Commons

Today’s philosophical question – Do Squirrels like sweets?  Okay, so this may be a bit heavy for a Sunday afternoon, but bear with me …

I was sitting doing some peaceful colouring at the kitchen table with my 2.5 year old son, when a red blur streaked past the window arresting the attention of us both.  We looked up the garden.  Nothing there.  We peered around the wall.  Nope, nothing there either.  Joe scratched his head.  He wondered if it was the deer we saw yesterday, lazily chewing dandelion stalks up the field until Joe gave a friendly but loud shout of “Hello Deer!”, and scared the poor creature half to death.  It bounced its way back into the forest in a blink.  Joe cried.

With his interest piqued again today, and keen to make amends to the terrified deer, my boy was not to be deterred from his quest to find the red streak.  So, rainbow picture abandoned, we embarked on a tour of the garden and land.  Minutes later, whilst he and I were knee deep investigating a particularly large molehill, Ella appeared breathlessly from the terrace full of excitement about the red squirrel she had just encountered en route to the front of the house.  From her account of the meeting the unfortunate squirrel was apparently subjected to an equally loud exclamation of some form, and set off for cover in a similar manner to the deer.  In any event, mystery solved.

“It’s a squirrel Joe!  A Squirrel!” she cried.

Joe didn’t look convinced.

“We need to make it a bed a give it some food,” announced my girl, ever the homemaker.

“Can’t me chase it?” asked Joe.

“No, that will scare it,” counselled Ella.

“Oh,” said Joe, beaten.

I left them to it, Ella marshalling Joe into finding grass and leaves for a soft bed, and collecting freshly fallen walnuts from around the two trees that annually shed their crop on our field.  In the early years here we used to collect, dry, store and eat them.  Then we realised that each year the crop was so large we were ending up with a growing (and wasteful) stockpile, so we now only harvest a few kilos each year, and leave the rest to the wildlife.  This keeps the squirrels very busy, and the children entertained.  But that was 12 months ago now, and they have forgotten all over again.

I supplied bowls for water, and shelled walnuts “in case the little squirrels don’t have sharp enough teeth, Mummy.”

All thoughts of the deer forgotten, they worked industriously, and both finally appeared in the kitchen, cheeks glowing with the freshness of the wet autumn day and muddy wellies tracking their progress across the floor.

“Come and look!” said Ella.  So I did.  I found a delightful little haven nestled between two planters.

“The squirrels in our garden are very lucky,” I said.  They beamed.

“I think they need sweets, to give them energy,” attempted Ella.  Nothing to do at all with the fact that this would necessitate breaking open the candy tub, from which she and her patient little brother would surely deserve a treat for being SO nice to the squirrels.  It was nearly lunchtime.

“No,” I said, decisively.  “Squirrels don’t like sweeties.”

“How do you know Mummy?” was the reply ….

Well, actually I don’t.  And I’m not likely to find out anytime soon, as the lunchtime deadline held fast, despite the hard-done-to protestations.

But her question did get me thinking …..!