Saturday, 25 July 2015

Respecting your child's rights

I have read a few articles and posts recently about the importance of treating babies as people in their own rights, rather than helpless 'blobs' or extensions of ourselves to be moulded and shaped as we see fit. "Respectful" parenting advocates that children have rights too, and be treated with the same courtesy we would extend to other adults. It is most commonly associated with the ideas of Emmi Pikler and her protégée Magda Gerber, though elements of their philosophies have been integrated into many other practitioners' theories too.  I am a firm believer of living life by a code of "do unto others" (the bible does have some snappy one liners, I'll give it that), with children no exception. However, Geber and Pikler's ideas do have some areas of divergence from other scientifically-based concepts such as attachment theory, which make me a little uncomfortable (e.g. leaving children to cry or spend large amounts of time on the floor on their own).

Nevertheless, I think the overarching theme of respect remains valid, and after reading a particularly thought provoking article by Lulastic last night entitled "10 habits that infringe the rights of your child...", I thought it might be interesting to spend 24 hours being more mindful of how I interact with Duckling and explore the 'bad habits' she mentions*. Here follows a summary of how I got on (not in quite the same order):

1) Taking things off children. I always try to ask Duckling for whatever forbidden item he has in his hand before I remove it from him, as it seems a) like a common courtesy to do so and b) he will sometimes relinquish things without a fuss if I ask, but will almost always kick off if I don't. Plus I want him to learn not to snatch off others. However, sometimes, in the name of safety especially (or because I'm in a hurry or plain forget), I am guilty of taking and not asking. When Duckling decided to pop a bottle top in his mouth this afternoon, I didn't immediately fish it out therefore, but politely asked for it back. "No," was the response (or rather, due to a full mouth, "Nog" followed by a shake of the head). "Please Duckling, I don't want you to swallow it." "Nog. Nog" He then ran off to hide under a garden chair. After a few more attempts, I gave up and dislodged it myself.  I knew he probably would have spat it out himself eventually, but I decided, on the off chance that he didn't, removal without consent was probably better than having to perform the Heimlich manoeuvre or explain to A&E staff that he swallowed a bottle top because I was trying not to infringe his rights.

2) Talking about children in front of them. Avoiding discussions about children in the third person when they're present seems fair enough when you think about it - I would hate for anyone to discuss my toilet habits, flyaway hair and general grumpiness as though I wasn't in the room. Today was the ultimate test - I popped round for a chat with my neighbour, who has a little girl, Bella, who's a few months younger than Duckling. Here follows a transcript of our conversation (more or less):

Initial pleasantries are exchanged, drinks are organised and seats are taken.
Me: How long have you been walking now Bella?
Bella smiles shyly at me, and promptly falls on her bum.
Neighbour: Oooh, about two weeks now, haven't you Bella? She's really getting steady now. It's amazing how quick they learn.
Me: Yes, I remember Duckling had a few wobbly weeks before he really found his feet. Didn't you Duckling? (Duckling looks up briefly from investigating my handbag, then returns to the job in hand.) It's both wonderful and hard work once they're up and away! Errm, isn't it Duckling?
Duckling ignores me. Neighbour gives me a slightly odd look.
Neighbour: Oh, I bet - I'm exhausted now - goodness knows what it'll be like when she can run off in a supermarket!
Me: I'm sure you'd never do that, would you Bella? (Bella gives me a blank stare and pulls off her sock. Neighbour smiles politely. I sip my squash and soldier on.) Hey Duckling, we had fun at the farm yesterday, didn't we? Do you want to tell Bella what we saw?
Duckling produces a fluff covered raisin from my bag.
Duckling: More!
Me: We saw sheep, and pigs, and cows, and horses - you had a great time, didn't you, though I think some of them scared you a bit.
Duckling shakes his head.
Duckling: No. Mummy. Moooore!
Duckling holds raisin aloft, points at bag, points at mouth. 
Me: I don't think I have any more raisins darling, but you can have a bit of banana bar if you want some? (Duckling nods head vigorously. Banana bar is doled out to both Duckling and Bella.) You and Gosling had lots of fun on the swings, didn't you?"
Banana bar is being voraciously consumed, ergo no reaction.
Me: "Duckling?"
Neighbour is now doubting she is actually included in this conversation, and is trying to put Bella's sock back on. I give up, and revert to talking more naturally, leaving Duckling to play with Bella without any further insistence that he participate in our conversation. 

Maybe I was doing it wrong, but it felt bizarre to try to include a child with only ten real words in an adult conversation, let alone a one year old with zero vocabulary. Yes, he understands a lot, but only up to a point. Plus I felt that by asking him questions he couldn't answer, I was ultimately putting words in his mouth by having to reply for him. The alternative - not talking about him at all - is also, realistically, not an option when you're with a friend who has a child of a similar age, as we all know that we have nothing to discuss beyond our kids (ahem). All in all, a tricky habit to escape.

3) Picking babies up without asking. I have to be honest, I don't always ask Duckling if he wants to be picked up, but each time that I did today, he reacted with great enthusiasm. This tells me a lot about why I often don't ask - Duckling loves cuddles and to be held up high so he can see the world; he has from the word go. It also poses an interesting question about parental intuition, particularly in pre-verbal children: if a parent silently picks up a child because they know their child usually likes it (e.g. it stops them crying, or makes them smile), does this count as an unwarranted invasion of that child's space, or are they simply responding appropriately to their child's apparent preferences? Drake never asks before hugging me (or, on the odd occasion when he's had his Weetabix / too much beer, picking me up) and it doesn't worry me a bit - it would be very weird and formal if he did ask. So is it really that bad to pick my son up for a hug without seeking his assent? Not sure I have the answer on this one, but I am fairly sure that nine times out of ten, Duckling is very happy to be scooped up when I do so (with the one in ten being those "I'm off for a stroll in the road Mummy!" occasions).

4) Wiping children's noses. No cold today, so no opportunity to try out a respectful nose wiping approach (i.e. ask, or let them do it themselves), but I have done in the past, and know that Duckling is actually surprisingly good at wiping his own nose. What he's less good at is avoiding spreading the snot all over his teddy as he wipes teddy's nose with the same tissue. Both sweet and disgusting all at the same time.

5) Deciding things without their input. This rule applies to pretty much everything. Time to change their nappy? Ask them if that's OK. Post-run knee ache so want to share their bath? Seek approval. Think it's time to go home? Give them some warning. I asked about all of these things today, and received a definitive "No" and a shake of the head each time (although the bath thing was subsequently approved of once I explained there would be free access to the beloved boobies). This presented me with a dilemma - is it worse to ask, receive a rebuttal and then totally ignore your child's wishes and do said thing anyway, or to just plough on in there and do what you have to do without asking? I concluded that neither is really fair, and that it's far better to pre-warn Duckling about what I'm doing when there's no choice (as in "Righty, we're going to change your nappy now as you've done a poo."), and only offer a choice when there's a genuine alternative. To my surprise, this actually worked quite well at the end of the day when I went to put on his sleepsuit ("Sleepsuit time Duckling! Would you like to lie down, or shall we put it on you standing?") I actually got him to lie quietly for a minute while I did the poppers up. I shall be exploring this one further tomorrow. Which brings me to:

6) Telling them what to wear. Not really age appropriate this one, as Duckling is only sixteen months, but I thought I'd give 'pick your own outfit' a bash anyway. He ended up choosing dungarees, a footed sleepsuit, woolly hat and a pair of swimming trunks. Enough said. Which also neatly brings me to:

7) Laughing at children. This one is very hard as Duckling is regularly inadvertently hilarious. However, I actually managed it - even when pointed to a spider and declared it to be a doggy. I did giggle when he started doing impressions of an (apparently) farty aeroplane - though he was laughing too, so I think that counts as laughing with rather than at. I saved up all my 'at' laughter for a conversation with Drake in the evening once Duckling was in bed, which was actually rather nice.

8) Telling them to stop crying. I would never bluntly say "stop crying" to Duckling, as I know there's always a reason for his tears, and that reason, for him, is valid and very real. I am guilty of occasionally saying "It's OK, you don't need to cry" though because I can't help myself - I'm his Mum and I'm biologically programmed not to want him to cry. Plus I always have the nagging knowledge that leaving a baby to cry really whacks up their stress levels (and doesn't do the parent's nerves much good either) so I want him to stop asap. Duckling didn't cry much today thankfully, but on the couple of occasions he did, I tried hard to offer empathy and validation instead of trying to shut him up. He seemed to appreciate this, but to be honest, when I said "it really hurt when that stone scratched you, didn't it?" he just nodded pitifully and cried harder. I am sold on the idea of empathy and understanding therefore, but maybe need to work on the delivery so I don't, in my attempt to make things better, draw further attention to the terrible injury that has just befallen him.

9) Photographing (and sharing) them without permission. Duckling's a bit too young to understand sharing, but he does just about get the photograph thing. He was largely indifferent when asked if he minded me taking one today though, so I took it anyway. I only ever share with Drake, and with close friends and family on Facebook anyway (no Instagram account, me. Weird, I know), and never on my blog as it's strictly anonymous.

10) Putting children in time out. I can't comment on this one as I've never done it with Duckling - he's much too little. I will reread when he reaches an age where I might be tempted though!

All in all, the past 24 hours have been interesting. Addressing some bad habits was easy, but avoiding others felt a bit forced and awkward. This may be because Duckling is still too young for some of the 'respectful' approaches to be appropriate - at sixteen months, his understanding of the world and its dangers is still limited, as is his vocabulary. So while I know that it is very important for him to see us being respectful, I feel I need to teach him that he has a responsibility to reciprocate and respect others' rights too. I'm not 100% convinced that this can be done by mirroring positive behaviour alone - sensible, clear boundaries probably do need to be set and adhered to. Furthermore, I found myself feeling acutely guilty at several points today when I failed to avoid a 'bad habit', even when I was acting in Duckling's best interests, which, OK, may make me do it better in future, but also adds to my existing "things to beat myself up about" collection. Unavoidable perhaps given my penchant for guilt, but still wearisome as I know nobody can get it right all the time (and I've had sixteen months to get a grip on things - trying all this when he was newborn might have pushed me over the edge).

All this said, respecting your child is a no-brainer, and I do think this list is a very useful launch point for trying to be a more respectful parent - it has definitely made me more aware of what I say and do with Duckling, and the messages that I'm subconsciously transmitting. It just needs to be moulded and shaped to individual parenting styles, and to the age and personality of the child in question. But then, doesn't everything?

* worth mentioning here that I work in international development, so Lulastic's use of The UN's Convention on the Rights of the Child to frame her argument really piqued my interest - a very interesting extrapolation I thought.

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