Controlling our children with praise and rewards

It may be fairly easy to understand why some parents do not agree with punishment, in any form, because they believe it to be disrespectful to the child, damaging to a child’s self-worth, damaging to the parent-child relationship and ultimately, ineffective in the long run. Teachers will be familiar with the temporary compliance that punishment may bring but do the ‘troublemakers’ ever realise why their behaviour is wrong and start to make better choices? Or do they display anger and rebel further in the future? The child feels controlled and isn’t involved in their decision making, meaning they are less likely to make good ones in the future. In any act of defiance, any tantrum, any unacceptable social behaviour, there should be an opportunity for the child to learn. How can they do this when we work against them rather than with them? All they really learn is to do what they are told or suffer. These consequences only make the child interested in how their actions affect them and therefore do not learn to see other people’s point of view in order to become compassionate, moral decision makers. The research is clear as day; punishments don’t work. It seems obvious to me that we need to work with children, taking the time to understand them, and resist the urge to control these situations, if we want them to grow up to be ethical, confident, sociable adults with good thinking skills.

However, it might be harder to understand why anyone would think that offering their child praise, a form of reward, could be damaging in similar ways. After all, how can something that is intended as positive encouragement and often given with love, do anything other than boost self-confidence and motivation? I have been really interested in this topic since it was first brought to my attention during my Montessori studying and I have recently finished the book ‘Unconditional Parenting’ by Alfie Kohn, which puts a lot of emphasis on the negative impact of positive praise. I am sorry to say, particularly if you are someone who goes out of their way to avoid punishment but focuses instead on the ‘good’ behaviour, that verbal praise, along with tangible rewards, is actually just the other end of the same spectrum.

When we tell our children that they are ‘good’ for behaving in a certain way we are telling them that we approve of them for behaving in that way. Despite how we dress it up, we are making sure that we are still in control of their actions. Just like when we punish them for doing something we disapprove of, we are conditioning our children, in a similar way to how we would train a dog. We are giving them the message that we will only love them if they please us and do as they’re told. I know what you are thinking; of course I love my children regardless of how they behave! But it isn’t what you, the adult, knows. It is what the child hears. Being condemned when you do this and praised when you do that; you have to earn my approval, acknowledgement, attention…you have to earn my love.

Montessori disagreed with any form of reward or punishment and children were viewed as having the best intentions from birth; children are not born ‘bad’ or ‘naughty’. When we suggest that a newborn baby is ‘good’ – something that so many people said to me when Poppy was younger – we are saying that there is a possibility that they can be ‘bad’, which for a child who has no understanding of the world or social interactions and is only behaving on their most basic human instincts, is a ridiculous thing to suggest. Labelling a child as good or bad we are merely gauging how much of an inconvenience their complex behaviour is to us without understanding the reasons behind it. I find this baffling that we are not interested in getting to know our children better but instead want to tell them how to be to fit in with us. Being eager to learn about my daughter as an individual and unique person I agree with Alfie Kohn who advocates ‘working WITH’ strategies in favour of the ‘doing TO’ approach to raising children.

We should be cautious of manipulating children in any way to comply with what we want. Encouraging a child to be obedient, either because of a fear of punishment or a desire for praise, may backfire when they become old enough to be influenced by people other than yourself. Everyone knows of a teenager who had been good as gold all their life, until one day they got in with the wrong crowd. They might appear to have changed their behaviour drastically, but in fact they are likely to be complying, as they always have, to somebody else’s rules. They are basing their actions on someone else’s judgement and lacking the confidence to follow their own minds, because they have never learnt how.

But there are more reasons to avoid rewards and verbal praise and you may find yourself more able to relate to this information as you read and reflect on your own life. Humans are intrinsically motivated to learn. Babies and children have an overwhelming urge to explore the world and find out how things work. They do not need anybody to tell them that they are doing a good job at splashing in puddles or that they are a good boy for putting the puzzle piece in the correct hole, the discovery they have made is satisfying enough. If we offer them rewards they get the message that what they are doing is something that they wouldn’t want to do, otherwise we wouldn’t have to bribe them. Instantly, their interest in the task declines. Thereafter the effort they put in is a means to an end, the end being praise, because unfortunately, the more a child gets the more they will want. That means that despite their innate desire to learn independently, if they are constantly being told that they are doing well – a quick, easy and satisfying assurance- they will become reliant on this reward and act in order to gain more approval rather than being driven by their intrinsic motivation. This is a key aspect of the Montessori approach, where concentration on their work is fundamental to their development and praise of any sort is seen as an unnecessary distraction. Both Montessori and Alfie Kohn suggest, and it has in fact been proven, that work motivated extrinsically is of far lower quality because the person becomes more focused on achieving recognition than they do on the task in hand. I notice this in Poppy already and when she is really focused on something I daren’t say a word for fear of breaking that vital concentration that is visible evidence that her brain is developing as I watch her. A quick ‘well done’ is enough to draw her out of her own learning and suppress her ability to think for herself. A child who is being conditioned to behave according to their parents or teachers standards, simply notices how the adult perceives their work or play and then alters it to suit the adult. True child-led play is an incredibly valuable, natural part of growing up that we cannot afford to interfere with.

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We can apply this degeneration in quality of work to the workplace as well. Alfie Kohn cites very interesting research that shows how incentives in the workplace do more harm than good whilst intrinsic motivation improves the quality of work being produced. And what happens when the rewards are no longer there? In a workplace you might see employers disengaging because they don’t see the point if they aren’t being acknowledged for their hard work and at school grades are a fine example of where rewards fail to encourage long-term commitment. I myself worked very hard short-term to get top marks at school, and yet didn’t internalise any of the information, nor did I feel genuine interest in anything I was studying. I took the easiest route to what I had been conditioned to think was success, which meant cramming in information, memorising it as if it were lines for a play, regurgitating it all under exam conditions and having nothing but a piece of paper with a meaningless A on it to show for it afterwards. Similarly, if a child becomes confident of how to gain rewards, even verbal ones, they are likely to take the easiest, most tried and tested route to do so. They won’t take risks or think outside of the box, because they see no point when they only have one end goal in mind – reward. This results in them missing out on a lot of learning opportunities considering exploration and discovery are key to learning. For example, imagine a child takes a drawing of a rainbow to their teacher who instantly says “Good girl! Clever girl! You drew a rainbow!” The teacher ends up with a picture of the same rainbow for a week. In the meantime the child could have been exploring how to draw different objects or use different materials. But moreover, is this the sort of adult we want our children to grow up to be? Taking the easiest route to self-gratification?

So it seems that there are many reasons that praise and rewards are detrimental to a child’s development, and on top of that they have been proven to be as ineffective as punishments in what they supposedly set out to achieve. Of course, there are times when you feel that you naturally want to give your child encouragement and the good news is that you can offer something constructive that will not only help the child to reflect and feel proud of themselves but also ensure that their intrinsic motivation remains as strong as ever. It might seem difficult to get your head around, and impossible to change a habit passed down through generations, but instead of focusing on the details and what not to say, try to focus on working with your child and avoiding all elements of control. If this is in the back of your mind at all times it might be easier to banish the praise forever because it starts to feel so wrong.

There are plenty of ways to show children that you are interested in their actions or efforts without showing judgement. Asking them questions is one of the best ways to do this whilst allowing them to reflect on the situation and learn about themselves. For example, “How did you paint those animals? They are really detailed!” or “I noticed that little boy appreciated your help just then, how did that make you feel?” You are simply observing but inviting your child to think. It might not feel natural at first but soon it becomes a part of everyday conversation and brings you closer to your children. For the big achievements there are phrases that can be used to share your child’s happiness and boost their confidence. For example, a simple, “You did it!” allows the child to reflect on their achievement, keeping their own goals as the motivation for their efforts. It says, “You did what you were trying so hard to do for so long. You must be really proud right now” in one little phrase. When your child has behaved in a way that is convenient to you and you would usually shower them with “Well done!” and “Great job!” try commenting on the effect their choices have had. For example, they are ready to leave the house on time; “You are ready to leave, which means we will be on time to collect your brother. He will be so happy!” Again, the child is able to reflect and learn how their actions have consequences on others. There are many alternatives to praise and rewards, and I have included some links below to help you get started. But one thing to also consider, is do you need to say anything at all? What are your reasons for saying it, and will it benefit the child?

If this topic has made you re-evaluate your approach to parenting then I urge you to read Alfie Kohn’s ‘Unconditional Parenting’ which highlights many aspects of what it means to show your child unconditional love and why you should relinquish control. One thing is for sure, verbal praise is not something to be used to enhance a parent’s unconditional support and love for their child, because in reality it equates to completely the opposite.

Read more here:

Montessori rewards and punishment

Alfie Kohn – Punished by Rewards?

Alfie Kohn on praise

Alfie Kohn – Five reasons to stop saying “Good job”

Alternatives to praise:

What to say instead of praise

Alternatives to “Good Job”

 

 

Clarity.

As you will have noticed, I have been on a bit of a blogging break. And, like any good break, I have come back with a clear mind and having learnt a few things about myself. As this blog acts as a sort of diary on this journey of self-discovery that is parenthood, I thought it was necessary to write it all down. It might seem a little over-analysed to you, but that is because it was, and that’s OK.

I recently went to visit a couple of Montessori nurseries, with the view of completing my dreaded 420 hours work experience in order to gain my full diploma that I have been working so hard towards for what feels like forever. I had been putting this off knowing in my heart that I didn’t want to leave Poppy, but with the 2016 deadline for completion on the horizon I thought I had better face reality if I wanted to reach graduation day. I decided that maybe it was a good thing to do something for myself now that Poppy is getting that bit older. The idea was that she would attend the same nursery I worked at (in a different room) and seeing as I am passionate about Montessori I started to tell myself that perhaps this environment would help her to thrive even more. I convinced myself that I was excited about the extra work I would be subjecting myself to. I started to imagine how much Poppy would love it and that maybe by the end it would be hard to leave the wonderful place we had grown to love.

Montessori is a method of education, but I believe it is so much more than this. It is respect for the children, love of nature, trust in the human mind and body and it’s natural ability and overwhelming urge to learn and a focus on hands on experiences to satisfy those innate driving forces. Parents and teachers alike can adopt all of these principals, and much of Montessori’s philosophy fits so perfectly into our home environment, even though we are planning on going down the ‘unschooling’ route of home education. So I felt hopeful, despite our choice to stay away from school and our ‘alternative’ approach to parenting, that a Montessori environment might just be the only place I would be happy to leave Poppy. Perhaps all of my worries about how often she still breastfeeds, how accustomed she is to having me near her every minute, every day, how well I know her better than anyone else could and how when she isn’t with me I have a feeling in the pit of my stomach that something is missing…perhaps all of those worries would just fade away when we walk through the doors of that beautiful, idyllic, understanding and gentle Montessori environment. Of course they didn’t.

I was open-minded. At least I tried to be. But it dawned on me pretty quickly that a classroom, Montessori or not, was still a classroom, and a teacher, loving, caring and gentle or not, was still not Poppy’s mummy. The picture in my head of the perfect Montessori setting quickly disappeared when I noticed some fundamental ‘rules’ being broken. The baby rooms full of plastic, a teacher reprimanding a child in front of the whole class, the shelves cluttered and verbal praise being thrown around left, right and centre. To the untrained eye this might seem like no biggie, it happens all the time in regular nurseries and schools, but it goes against the most basic of Montessori principals. Being so passionate about Maria Montessori’s work – her methods and the reasons behind them – I hated to see it not being implemented in these well-regarded schools. I started to feel disheartened; my own efforts at creating a Montessori home environment weren’t looking too bad at all! But I tried to remain open-minded and told myself that it was unrealistic to expect everything to be perfect.

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Poppy playing in her Montessori inspired bedroom

As I spoke to the teachers showing me around I tried to gauge how similar their views were to my own, whether or not our alternative parenting style would fit together with the way they ran their nursery. I didn’t really care about where I did my teaching placement, but if it wasn’t right for Poppy, it wasn’t going to happen. I smiled and nodded when they said things that I didn’t agree with. I tried not to recoil in horror when I looked at their menu and saw junk food and a lack of wholesome nutrition (unfortunately true for many settings these days it seems). They answered my questions about things that they knew I felt strongly about, and their friendly voices and sympathetic eyes almost made me feel like they really did know best and I was living in cloud cuckoo land. After voicing some of my concerns over leaving Poppy, one of the teachers introduced me to the staff as somebody who was ‘very precious about her daughter, and her daughter is probably very precious about her’. Wait a minute, aren’t all Mum’s precious about their children? She said it in the nicest possible way but I have worked in childcare; she didn’t realise I knew that it was code for ‘This woman is an over-protective psycho and is going to make our lives very difficult’. The thing is I remember telling anxious parents the same thing once upon a time, that their very attached child who cries every time they leave them will be just fine, as soon as you are gone they won’t even remember why they were sad. I believed it, and sure, it may have appeared to be true. But how do we know how they are really feeling inside? Especially when we hardly know the child. Don’t get me wrong, Poppy is confident and increasingly independent and very sociable. She would be fine. And the comfort she would have gotten from a member of staff would be fine. And the reduced milk feeds would be fine. And the way that people would have spoken to her, in a tone that I wasn’t quite comfortable with, would be fine. And the fact that she would have had a biscuit as a snack everyday instead of her usual green smoothie, would be fine. It would all be fine. I suppose. But what if ‘fine’ just isn’t good enough?

I came home from the second nursery almost feeling convinced that I was being an over-the-top, paranoid, too-hard-to-please, obsessive mother who absolutely had to relax if I wanted us to fit in and be classed as almost normal. But then I realised that spending just one hour in an environment that was so far from what we now consider our normal, I was being sucked in and questioning myself where I never had before. I am so happy with our parenting choices, our life is amazing and Poppy is thriving; why should I change that to fit in somewhere we don’t even belong? The fact is, being in a nursery even for just four hours without me is most definitely not the best possible situation for Poppy right now. I knew it I just couldn’t quite acknowledge that my reasoning’s were important enough to ignore the influence of others. I had to speak to someone who would tell me I wasn’t crazy before I started to believe I was. I messaged one of my lovely friends who I know completely ‘get’s’ me when others might not. And after I had spoken to my wise friend everything was clear again. No matter how many nurseries I visit, I will never find the right one, because as she put it, Poppy and I are still one. No one can ever love and care for her like I do, understand her needs entirely, or accept and work through her overwhelming frustration and tears when her sock is just ever so slightly bunched up by her toes which means she feels it every time she steps down on that foot (this happens everyday). Most Mum’s will relate to that, and yet we are constantly given the message that we need to break away from our children, give them the opportunity to be independent or they will never learn how to be; stop holding them back, smothering them, spoiling them, molly-coddling them and learn to let go. Stop being so ‘precious’. But this isn’t a natural way to teach independence. Why is attachment so feared in our society? Since when was it so terrible to love your child so much that it hurts to think of leaving them with someone who won’t do it as well as you can. As my friend pointed out, it is human nature to protect and nurture our young, and that protection covers all manner of things, including the emotional stress of separation and all of the things in the world that you, as a parent, decide might be harmful, in any capacity, to your child, their development or well-being. Yes I go above and beyond to make sure I am doing this at all times, from the diet I feed her, to the medicines I choose to use, from the techniques I use to teach her to the way in which I communicate with her. And I will avoid anything that I believe could be detrimental to these efforts, to the most important years of her life and to our strong, secure relationship. If this means that I come across as an obsessive weirdo at times, then so be it. These little details, and the niggling issues I had with the nurseries, may be small and seemingly insignificant to others but to me they make up the beginning of my child’s life, and that is huge.

And so it was decided. I am completing my exams to be awarded a certificate but I won’t be graduating and gaining the full diploma. It was difficult for me to accept that this is not failure but another turning on our journey. I have learnt so much, and will continue to do so, and it will enrich Poppy’s childhood for sure. But for now, I need to focus on family, and just be a Mummy to Poppy…because I am the only person who can be.

As I am sure you can tell, this post isn’t just about deciding not to send Poppy to nursery. It is about the realisation that it I do not have to compromise in any area of my parenting. The truth is, I often feel awkward or embarrassed when voicing yet another opinion, or explaining to family why we don’t do things this way, or requesting that they try to do things that way. I spoke to my Dad recently about why we don’t use verbal praise like ‘good girl’ in the same way we don’t use punishment or any other conditioning techniques (I will write a post about this soon). I found myself feeling a mix of guilt and defensiveness before the words even came out. I don’t want people to feel like I am criticizing them; especially people who I know love Poppy so much. Incidentally, my Dad was, and has been with many things, very understanding and open-minded, which made me realise that I didn’t necessarily need to feel so worried. I am no longer going to protect other people’s feelings or indeed my own feelings of being judged as over-reacting, if it compromises Poppy’s chance to the best possible start in life. I have taken on that label of being a bit whacky or weird because we do things differently, but in reality I am simply passionate, dedicated and motivated to do the best I can. There is nothing wrong with that. I need to realise that so that other people can too. This post is about realising that you are perfectly entitled to be unconventional, you are allowed to want complete control over how your child is raised and you have the right to say no. This post isn’t about anybody else’s choices; it is about me not apologising for mine.
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Thank you to my friends who are there when I need that clarity, who give me the confidence to write things like this, who I would be lost without. You know who you are.

Clutter-Free Birthdays

photo 1ghAs you may know, Poppy has recently had her 1st birthday. But instead of buying more toys and ‘things’ for her, I decided to have a clear out. You see, ever since learning about the Montessori approach I have been dreaming up her perfect minimalist bedroom layout that will inspire her to learn through exploration, instead of overwhelm her with colourful, noisy stuff. It is quite a challenge as Poppy’s bedroom is so tiny (more reason to avoid clutter), and thankfully her birthday has come and gone and her minimalistic bedroom has remained in order.

Children, especially babies, don’t need hundreds of gifts when it comes to birthdays and Christmas. The more they get, the more they expect, but the endless toys then have no value to the child as they are so easily replaceable. Spoiling a child does not encourage gratitude or foster a respect for their belongings. Instead they feel entitled to objects and become possessive, and any parent knows how ugly that can be. With so many toys to choose from they don’t need to be imaginative in the way they use them, they simply discard them when they become bored and move on to the next one. When a child has few toys they are far more likely to spend longer concentrating on all of the different things they can do with them, becoming resourceful and developing flexibility of thought which will help them in all areas of life. They also look after their things better and when things do inevitably get broken they experience true disappointment and learn valuable lessons from it. If a child grows up with the view that material things are to be desired in great quantities, with no sense of responsibility or value for those objects, surely we are just breeding more selfish and greedy human beings. We are doing our children a disservice by allowing this snowball effect to happen, and why? Because as parents we crave validity from our children? Their faces light up and you get endless hugs and kisses! Of course any parent would love that! But I bet it doesn’t last, as the gifts get bigger and your wallets get lighter your children’s reactions get less satisfying as they become harder to please!

So what are the benefits to a more minimalist approach? As well as avoiding all of the above you will be creating an accessible environment that will help them to flourish. A tidy, organised bedroom is helpful for a child to organise their minds and make selections based on what is in front of them, which is difficult when there are flashing, bright pieces of plastic hanging out of every crevice and toy boxes crammed full. This mess will send their minds into overdrive, and that is a very damaging state for a child to be in as it does not allow for natural learning to occur. I know I can’t focus when the house is a mess! A calm, organised environment is at the heart of a child’s learning, and this fosters a deep concentration that will unlock never ending learning opportunities. A child raised in this environment will be contented, as learning is what they are designed to do and their energy is not being wasted on pointless activity or darting from one thing to the next without purpose. When you have just a few educational toys available the child will be able to get the most out of them they possibly can and return them to where they belong by themselves, because every toy has its own place. That last sentence has got to be enough to keep Mum and Dad happy too, right?!

Of course there is room for a few toys that don’t have a specific educational purpose. But choose wisely and be frugal. For example, I am thinking of buying Poppy a rag doll for Christmas, as she loves her teddies and as her play develops she can use a doll to learn about responsibility and different roles (hopefully wearing her in a sling and pretending to breastfeed if I have set a good enough example!) I have written about play before, and it is so important that children develop a good imagination, but a big part of this is using one thing to represent another. Limiting the number of toys they have available to them encourages them to think outside of the box, and turn wooden blocks into a campfire or a bedsheet into a tent. Of course, if they already have a pop up tent then it has already been done for them, so they don’t need to think and ultimately they will learn less during their play.

With all of this in mind I have started as I mean to go on, and for Poppy’s 1st birthday I got creative, making two out of three gifts myself. The third was the little wicker chair; something we knew she would love at this age and that would promote further independence. I also made some 1st birthday gifts for Poppy’s friends recently and it was great to hear how much the babies loved them and I am sure they went down even better with the parents because they were hand made. This is something I will be continuing and hope to involve Poppy as she gets older. This way I hope that she will start to appreciate the effort and love that goes into gifts and understand that it isn’t all about how big, expensive or new something is. Even Tim said that his birthday present of 365 reasons why I love him in a jar, one for each day of the year, was the best gift he had ever received.

For people who did want to buy Poppy gifts, I requested that they looked in charity shops first, and I was really pleased that a few people did. Again, this will be something I continue, because when Poppy notices a pencil mark on one of the books, at least I can explain to her that another child has loved that book before her and it is now being reused instead of thrown away, an important lesson in todays economy.

So here is my small list of DIY 1st birthday presents. They were mostly Montessori inspired, cost little and were easy to make:

Nature frame:
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Montessori promotes a love of nature, and classrooms will often contain real plants and pictures of real wildlife. Children are fascinated by the world around them, and I find it such a shame that we spend so much time inside, away from that. So in an attempt to bring some natural beauty indoors I created this photo frame filled with stunning photographs of animals and scenery. The frame was from Ikea, and I was so happy when I found it as it was perfect for the job. I have hung the picture just above Poppy’s floor bed so that it is at her height. She loves pointing at all of the animals, although at the moment each one makes the noise of either an elephant or a lion.
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Photo album:
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Poppy loves looking at our big picture frame full of photo’s of the family. It is a great way to help a child establish a sense of identity, familiarising themselves with faces they see regularly, their immediate community. So I put together a mini album of friends and family that can live with her books for her to choose anytime. The album was £4, so I am not worried if the pages get a little bent.
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Montessori latch board:
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This idea came from the internet and I made it for Poppy’s friend. We are going to make one for Poppy too but just haven’t got round to it yet! It is great for fine motor skills and fosters that deep concentration that is key to learning. I guess it is also a sort of practical life activity as it includes thing that children are likely to find around their homes. You can add all sorts of things, such as light switches, door knobs and any type of latch or bolt you can think of! I secured them onto an Ikea chopping board, which worked perfectly. (Note: you might want to wash the items thoroughly first as some hardware stores items may have some chemical residue)

Treasure basket:
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You all know how much I love these! I made a mini one for a friend of Poppy’s a couple of month ago and have recently made Poppy a nature treasure basket as well as one full of purses, pouches and containers all made of different materials and with different openings for her to practise opening and closing. This is a great idea for this age as they also love carrying things around in bags and boxes and transferring objects. This is probably the easiest gift to make and there are so many variations, it never gets boring!

Matching colour board:
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I am cheating here because this one wasn’t made by me. In fact it was made for Poppy from the friend we gave the latch board to! But I love it and love that it was hand made so had to include it on the list. I was told the idea was from pinterest, and I am sure there are loads more ideas on there and on the blogging scene too.

A poem:

I am not going to share it on here, but I wrote Poppy a poem for her birthday, which is now in her ‘Bump to Birthday’ book. I hope it is something that she will treasure when she grows up as it came straight from the heart and is rather special to me. I think this is a lovely keep sake for a 1st birthday, that doesn’t cost a penny!

More no-clutter gift ideas for all ages:

  • Personalised book – I am definitely making one of these for Poppy’s 2nd birthday! A hand made book all about her. You can also use these to help explain different events, such as the arrival of a new baby, or moving house.
  • Craft activities – always a winner!A day out – I would rather spend money on enjoying the birthday and making memories than lots of presents
  • Tickets – to a show, concert, event
  • Promises – write vouchers to your child for a night in PJ’s with a movie and popcorn or an afternoon baking with Mummy
  • Cookies in a jar – layer up all of the dry ingredients in a jar, decorate it and attach a label with instructions
  • Magazine subscription – if you child has a particular interest this is a great idea
  • Membership – national trust, local farm, zoo, soft play centre, swimming pool…
  • Lessons – swimming lessons or music lessons
  • Home made bath things – you can find loads of recipes online for bath melts or bath bombs
  • Home made play dough – so easy, and also makes a great party bag filler
  • Home made tasty treats – wrap them in a nice bag or a pretty chocolate box for the perfect gift
  • Experiences – an afternoon at a ceramic workshop, cooking class or dance academy. The possibilities are endless!
  • Seeds, pots and a pair of gardening gloves – another brilliant way to help your child get in touch with nature
  • A child’s cookery book – you might be grateful when it comes to Mother’s day!
  • An atlas or globe
  • A magnifying glass and insect book
  • Audiotape – I can’t wait until we can use these on long journeys!

There are loads of ideas on the following website too: http://lulastic.co.uk/parenting/sixty-great-gift-alternatives-to-toys/#

I hope you have been inspired!

(Less Than) Perfect Parenting

When I was pregnant I started reading about attachment parenting and it resembled what we would have done naturally anyway. It opened up a new community to me and got me thinking about other things, such as elimination communication and home ed, which I may not have considered without the Facebook groups, blogs and small collection of AP books on my bookshelf. It made me think about more general aspects of parenting, such as the way in which you speak to your children, and how you choose to deal with specific situations, and I believe the new perspectives I have gained will benefit Poppy for her entire life. For that I am grateful for the books and the groups, but there is an element of this community that needs addressing.

Mother’s who choose to parent this way are often mother’s who have very high expectations of themselves. From socialising with many like-minded Mum’s I have noticed a few things. We over think everything, believing that all of our choices will have a life long impact on our children. We are labelled as ‘alternative’ (or other more amusing names like ‘crunchy’) and so begin to label ourselves. By doing this we inadvertently label others, which is something I never wanted to do. At first I felt like mainstream parents were judgemental of my choices, but I am starting to feel that the alternative community do most of the judging. By believing so strongly in doing everything for the best of the child, it is too easy to believe that any other way is wrong, or worse still, damaging for the child. To make sure you don’t get it wrong you seek information about every aspect of parenting from those very books that made it all sound so blissful and simple (despite the fact that at the very core of natural parenting is trust in your instinct). I have lost count of the amount of times I have read that a baby cry’s because they have an unmet need. So what if your baby just cries and you have done everything you possibly can?

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When Poppy was a newborn and suffering from her dairy intolerance, I did not know at first why she was crying. Yes she had an unmet need of sorts because she needed me to adjust my diet, but it was not something that could be solved instantly. She was fed, changed, warm, well rested, secure and in my arms, but she could not always be soothed. I had to relax and just make it easier for her by holding her, but in that moment I couldn’t make it stop. Similarly when Poppy became over tired she could not shut down, she seemed to fight her sleep to the point that she was so over tired she would scream for 4 hours until she finally gave in and fell asleep from exhaustion. There was nothing else I could have done, that was part of who she is; she was fascinated by the world and didn’t want to miss a thing, and at times even half an hour of being awake was too stimulating for her. In those early days everything that I had read rushed around my head; I didn’t think babies would cry if they had everything they needed? They don’t cry in Africa! What was I doing wrong? I tried everything to stop her from becoming over tired in the first place, abandoning my social life completely, but we still had episodes. All I could do was be there with her through the tears, letting her know she wasn’t on her own and that she was loved. There was nothing in the books that made me feel I was still doing a good job. The way I read it was that AP parenting should mean the baby has no reason to cry at all after you have responded to their needs. Maybe I over exaggerated that expectation, but being the stereotypical alternative mama I am sure I’m not the first.

Poppy settled soon enough, and now at 8 months old she is pretty easy going. She can still be distracted, but the majority of the time getting her to sleep has become easy, and we never have prolonged crying fits anymore for any reason. I am happy with all of our choices; I have completely and utterly devoted myself to her. It has worked very well for us, it has actually made life really easy, and I believe we have a very securely attached, happy little girl. But about two weeks ago I suddenly felt a page was turned. Poppy is no longer a newborn whose wants are the same as her needs, I believe they are starting to blur and she is gaining more and more understanding. There are certain things that she could probably learn not to need anymore, even if she does still want them. With our busy lives my constant devotion to her was starting to feel less natural and more forced. With Tim working longer hours I had no time left for me, and as a result I wasn’t being as good a parent as I can be. I never want to resent my child, so it was time to make some changes.

I need a bit of the old me back, and for those of you who know me well you will know that I need to really let my hair down from time to time. Rather difficult when your baby feeds to sleep, wakes up 3-4 times before you even make it to bed and then feeds throughout the night. And will not, ever, be comforted by Daddy in the night. So am I suddenly a bad mum for considering forcing my baby to change these expectations that we created just so that I can have a night out? I scanned a few forums and was guilt ridden to read that no one else would consider leaving their cosleeping, breastfeeding 8 month old baby for one night and their comments reminded me that her needs had to come before mine. But what if by compromising your own needs your child’s need for a happy and healthy mother is not being met? That was a more important long-term need in my mind.

In my confused state of mind I even typed the following into google: “Sleep training with attachment parenting.” I found blogs written by people in my position. I also found more hating from the AP extremists. I felt like there was no middle ground; you either leave your child to cry it out, which I never wanted to do, or give up your whole life for them. And then I came across something called RIE parenting which encourages listening to the type of crying and not immediately trying to fix it when it could simply be an expression of emotions. You can read more about this here and here. Suddenly something clicked. I have always known it and told Tim numerous times; there is a big difference between leaving a baby to cry on their own and letting them cry in your arms. Just like when Poppy was a newborn and I had no choice. This changed my whole perception of so called sleep training or simply teaching your baby to fall asleep alone, and I became more open minded to the gentle approaches. I will write another post about exactly what we have done and why I am happy with it soon.

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It has been just over a week since Poppy moved into her own room. I would have happily carried on cosleeping but wanted to drop the constant feeding, and I didn’t think that was easily achievable if she was in our bed. I miss the cuddles with her but am thrilled that she is now self-soothing and accepting Tim as a comfort during the night at times. She is still feeding to sleep in the evening, having a feed before I go to bed and one during the early morning, but that is massive progress. And she I not being traumatised, she has never been left on her own to cry, not even for a minute, and if she had protested too much I wouldn’t have continued.

We are still very much following a natural parenting style, but it is what is natural to us right now, not necessarily to every other AP advocate I will meet. Nor have I been converted to RIE or (heaven forbid) to baby training methods! We are simply finding what works and evolving as Poppy grows up. And I am doing my best, whilst realising I can’t be perfect. If you are a confused mama who has a tendency to put yourself under so much pressure to do the right thing, remember that there are no rules. You can, and should, allow yourself to compromise on your beliefs at times for the sake of your own sanity (even if some AP devotee on some forum somewhere has raised 6 kids back to back and tells you otherwise.)

I admit that right now I am more exhausted than I was before because this is requiring some effort! But I know that we are heading in the right direction, and I have booked a celebratory night out later in June, guilt free, knowing that Poppy will be happy in her Daddy’s arms.

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Treasure Baskets for Babies

ImageThe Montessori assignment I am currently working on is all about play, and part of it focuses on play in young babies. I always knew the importance of sensory play, but this reminded me of how to get the most out of a treasure basket and inspired me to make a new one for Poppy. Before now she has had the same few sensory items in a small basket, which no doubt she was getting bored of.

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When babies reach the stage where they can sit up unaided but not yet crawl about, you may notice that they begin to show signs of boredom, although sometimes these are mistaken for teething or being clingy as they sit and fuss. In fact even very young babies show an instinctive need to play; it is a vital factor in their healthy development. A treasure basket offers a rich variety of stimulus, that the baby explores with all five of their senses. They grasp, shake, kick, lick, chew, watch, feel, listen, bang, laugh, squeal and are learning every second. It does not contain toys, the purposes of which are of little interest to babies of this age who usually just put everything in their mouth! You may find yourself showing your baby the ‘correct’ way to hold a rattle, or stack blocks on top of one another, but really this is for the satisfaction of the adult as the baby has not yet reached the ‘What can I do with this?’ stage and is much more interested in ‘What is this?’

ImageYou might be pleased to hear that the items in the treasure basket, which will provide your baby with a lot more learning opportunities than conventional toys, are usually very cheap, if not free, as they can be found around the house! It is important to use natural materials such as wood, metal and fabrics, which provide more interesting sensory experiences than the cold hard plastic that many modern day toys are made from. Of course you need to consider the size of the items; make sure that they do not present a choking hazard but are small enough for your baby to grip and manipulate themselves. Another important consideration is the quality of the items, for example I have found the cheaper wooden items may be more likely to splinter, and anything that is made up of small parts should be sturdy (such as screws on a nutcracker or beads on string). I have listed a few ideas below to get you started, but the possibilities are endless!

The amazing thing about treasure baskets is the way in which they develop a deep concentration in the baby, fundamental to later cognitive development. It is not uncommon for babies to sit and play happily for an hour or longer (the nutcracker alone kept Poppy busy for ages!) However, you must not think that your baby will be happy to sit alone and explore the basket whilst you see to the dinner or catch up on your favourite soap. Like any new experience at this age, your baby will feel comfort in the fact that you are close by, reassuring them that it is safe to continue in their new discoveries. To give them this confidence you do not need to do much more than just be there, within their sight, their safe base. By not interfering with what your baby is doing (although obviously if they interact with you then you should not ignore them!) you are allowing them to take control of their own learning, developing the ability to make decisions as they pick and choose the objects rather than being offered objects by an adult.

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Lastly, and probably the most important thing to remember, is that your baby will become bored if they never find anything new in the basket. Have a look for interesting new items on a regular basis and make sure that the treasure basket is constantly evolving. I have already started to collect a few bits ready to have a change around in a few days, and it is actually a really fun project to do! Grannie Sally has even put one together for Poppy when she visits, and she said she loved putting it all together!

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As your baby gets more mobile their play needs change, and they enjoy transferring objects from one place to another. Providing them with plenty of receptacles for doing this will help them to continue their development of deep concentration and satisfy their natural inclinations.

Idea’s for Treasure Basket:

(The basket should be strong, shallow (roughly 4-5 inch in height) and large. It can be round, square or rectangle but should be at least 14 inches in diameter and width.)

  • Wooden spoonImage
  • Wooden egg timer
  • Wooden lemon squeezer
  • Nutcracker
  • Avocado pip
  • Large feather (peacock)
  • Large pine cone
  • Natural sponge
  • Make up brush made with natural materials
  • Loofah
  • Flannel
  • Whistle
  • Pebble
  • Pumice stone
  • Tea strainerImage
  • Bells
  • Bottle brush
  • Leather ball
  • Metal eggcup
  • Wooden nail brush
  • Silk scarf
  • Cotton scarf
  • Ribbon
  • Beads on a string or leather shoelace
  • Small tin
  • Metal teaspoon
  • Mini metal whisk
  • Pastry brush
  • Paint brush
  • Hair brushP1020346
  • Velvet
  • Shells
  • Ball of string
  • Beanbag
  • Small containers filled with rice
  • Keys
  • Small muslin bags
  • Corks
  • Fruit (Apple, orange, lemon)
  • Pegs
  • Curtain rings
  • Chain
  • Large buttons
  • Wooden napkin rings
  • Drawer fragrance cushion

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If you have some great ideas Poppy would love to know about them!