To the parent in the changing rooms this morning

It made me sad to hear you repeatedly criticise your child for minor things, and then conclude “you’ll go straight to bed when we get home”. When I came out the shower to see the child concerned was 12-18 months of age, and having to sit patiently on the counter whilst you did your hair and makeup, I wondered whether I should have said something. But being British, I bit my lip.

Here is what I’d have liked to have said:

Firstly: A child of that age won’t be able to sit still without making a noise for 20 minutes. It isn’t a realistic expectation, so you as a parent should bring along things to do or a snack for times like that. If the issue is that being up on the counter means they need supervision, use the playpen provided, or leave the child in the creche until you have got dressed. If you took the child swimming then make the whole outing fun, and recognise that after an energy-consuming activity a child might be more frazzled than usual, so prepare for this.

Second: A child of any age needs lots of praise and encouragement to learn how to behave, and to feel that they are a worthwhile person. You teach children best by showing them what you want them to do, not telling them what not to do, and praising any approximation of it whilst giving encouraging feedback until they get it right. Can you imagine teaching an adult to drive by saying what not to do? “Don’t hit the pedestrians… no, don’t mount the kerb… don’t hit that other car… don’t go so fast… don’t use that gear”. Would it work? Then why do you think a child can learn much more complex and subtle social and life skills based on what you don’t want them to do? Like a learner driver, they need to be told what to think about and prepare for, then given guidance how to do it, and feedback about how to improve their attempt next time, whilst making them feel okay about the fact that they are still learning and things are pretty hard until they become intuitive.

At this age, you also need to ensure your expectations are realistic – instructions for a child with a limited vocabulary are like trying to follow directions given a foreign language, whilst you are still learning how to use your body and interact with the world. Set simple clear rules and then be consistent in how you react to them. Hurting others or yourself, or breaking things on purpose are not okay, but the way you manage these has to be age appropriate. With a toddler, being told what they have done wrong and/or removed from the situation is the simplest response.

Third: Using sending to bed as a consequence for undesirable behaviour is a really bad choice for several reasons. Most obviously, it isn’t an immediate consequence. The child will not link the behaviour with the punishment if there is a gap of more than a few minutes until they are much older (even at 4-7 children will normally need an immediate consequence like a sticker to help them understand the longer term gain or loss is related to the behaviour). But it is also really silly to link going to bed with being punished. It sets up a negative reaction to being put to bed, which will increase arousal at exactly the time you should be helping a child to feel soothed and start winding down to sleep, and set up expectations of resisting going to bed or staying awake and active/noisy which are likely to lead to more negative feelings. If it is normally nap time just after lunch, make that a pleasant time, not a punishment. If it isn’t a nap time, then don’t use it at all.

Being put in isolation feels like being rejected and neglected and is a very serious consequence, even if only for a minute or two (which is why it works so powerfully in time out with older children). A preschool child being shut in their room for longer than a few minutes is abuse, and with an older child I’d still advocate for the shortest possible length of time. Consequences should last no more than the child’s age worth of minutes and be proportionate. Never deprive a child of food just because they have done something irritating – for most things your displeased facial expression and tone of voice are enough. With little ones you may have to physically intervene to make them safe or to take away something being used inappropriately (eg a crayon that is being drawn onto the table) but make sure to repair the relationship after you’ve given that consequence, and to praise the behaviours you want to see instead. Choose your battles wisely. Ignore the little stuff, it doesn’t matter compared to your child having a positive experience of themselves, others and the world. A positive relationship with their primary caregiver is the biggest gift you can give them and makes them resilient for the rest of their lives.

Finally, if you are stressed or unhappy, or lack parenting skills or support, do something about that. Your child sees you as the centre of their universe, and deserves to experience warmth, safety and love rather than recurrent criticism. If other stuff in your life or your mental health or experiences of being parented are a barrier to providing the kind of care you want to provide for your child, get some help. Ask your GP or speak to your health visitor. Lots of good parenting services exist, and it really is a sign of strength not of weakness to seek them out when it might benefit your child.

I hope I observed an unrepresentative sample of the relationship today, and that there was something the child did that merited the negative feedback, like trying to touch the hot hairdryer or the plug sockets. We all have bad hair days and moments when we aren’t the kind of parent we would like to be. But it made me realise how much of the maltreatment I see in the histories of people through work is the chronic, insidious, low-level kind, and how we all turn a blind eye to that every day. Maybe I should have spoken up to ask whether I could help, rather than being caught up in my own discomfort and feeling it would be difficult/inappropriate to criticise.

Sadly, I am sure there will be another time in another situation with another parent, so hopefully I can give that a try.