Interview: Raising Strong, Confident, Courageous Children with Dr Laura Markham

Dr. Laura Markham is a Clinical Psychologist and parenting expert whose relationship based parenting model has helped thousands of families find compassionate, common sense solutions. Translating proven science into practical solutions for healthy family life, Dr. Laura helps parents raise ethical, emotionally intelligent children who are happy, considerate, self disciplined, responsible and likable, without ever having to punish.

What inspired you to start working in the field of parenting?

I have always loved children and I have always been very interested in what makes people tick. Around the time I was finishing my PhD, I became pregnant with my first child and I realised that there is a lot of focus on the birth, you spend your pregnancy reading about the birth and the birth is over in a couple of days and then you have a baby and meanwhile most parents haven’t read much at all about child development or what babies need.

I found myself wanting to give parents as much support and information as possible to make their job just a little bit easier.

Parents might have read one book and I realised as I was becoming a mother for the first time that parents are doing the hardest job in the world and they have really very little support from our society. I think it is the most important work anyone can do really because the people we are raising in our homes today become the people who will be making the world work tomorrow. The studies that I had spent time reading because I was training to be a clinical psychologist don’t necessarily make it into the mainstream, so parents are not necessarily being given information that I had read in research studies that I thought was really important information.

How do parents discipline without punishment?

Relationships are not a set of strategies and they are certainly not about manipulation, reward and punishment. If you have a relationship with a significant other you are not going to think that that relationship will grow and be healthy and strong by using rewards and punishment with your partner. What you want is real connection, you want to listen to your partner, understand them, see what they need and also express your needs to them in a way that is not an attack, not blame, simply a request. You want to find ways to enjoy each other and share life together with a warm connection; that’s what makes a good relationship, that intimate connection where you know you’ll be there with each other.

A version of that is also true for children, that’s what makes our relationship with our child sturdy, reliable and something the child can trust. When they know that you will be there to meet their needs, to understand them, even when they’re “wrong”, even when they are unreasonable and have big emotions, you may not give them what they are asking for but you will understand why they would feel that way even when you need to set a limit. As a parent you do set limits all day every day.

Discipline means guidance so if we are guiding our child, what is the best way to do that?

Our children are humans being. I don’t know about you but for me, if somebody yells at me, it does not make me want to do what they are asking. If somebody shames me, if somebody bosses me around or I feel bossed around, I don’t feel positively toward them, it’s harder for them to influence me, I am less likely to agree with them if I feel forced to do what they are asking.

If we want to guide our children, if we want influence with them, not just when they are three and we can intimidate them with our size but when they are 13 when it becomes much more important that they listen to our influence and even when they are 23, you need to start when they are very young with building the relationship not just with rewards and punishment that, ultimately don’t shape the relationship. There is a better way to do discipline, a better way to guide and it doesn’t mean that you don’t set limits but it does mean that you understand the child and offer them emotional support as you set those limits.

What advice do you have for those who want to parent differently to the way they were parented?

We all repeat unconsciously from our past because so much of every relationship happens outside of our conscious awareness so the question is with your child, how can you be more aware? I would call it conscious parenting and I would say that it’s a process, you don’t do it all at once but the first thing is your intention to respect and to connect. If you see your baby as a human being, maybe a human being who can’t yet communicate in the ways we are used to but will communicate with their own set of communication skills like crying, that changes everything.

It depends on the age of the child but I would say, start by noticing the quality of the connection with your child and enhancing that. Your child deserves an emotionally generous parent. We all do, it’s what we want, someone who can forgive our failings and who can be warm to us even when we are not perfect and can help guide us toward being our best selves. If we can do that with our children then we don’t have to be repeating the lessons of the past.

Bring conscious awareness to interactions with your child and when you do notice something, when you are off track a little bit, that will happen, you will notice the words your mother or father said to you come out of your mouth, you will see yourself snap at your child because you’re just impatient because you’ve been trying to get them into their car seat and they are being resistant or you know the preschooler isn’t putting his shoes on to get to school or your slightly older child is not doing what you’ve asked and clearing the table, all the things that children do that annoy us, it is natural to get annoyed at, you can use a tool I call, Stop, Drop and Breathe.

Deep breaths allow us to bring some consciousness into the moment so that we have a choice about how to act.

You just stop the interaction, you drop your agenda – getting the table cleared, getting the shoes on, getting into the car seat – just for this moment, you can go back to it in a minute and you take a deep breath. This resets your system so that you can actually have a choice about how you act, you are not just getting hijacked by the past or the future. It brings you more consciously into the present moment where you have power, you are not getting taken into your fears: ‘Oh my goodness, he never does what I say’, or ‘He’ll never be able to hold a job the way he dillies and dallies in the morning’ or ‘We’ll be late to the doctor.’ Our worries take us into the future or our past gets triggered. ‘My mother would never have put up with this kind of insolence’, you might think to yourself or it might be a more automatic thing and not even a conscious thought.

You take the deep breath and then you reconnect with the child. The first thing is to regulate ourselves so we are not running on automatic pilot. Take the deep breath and then reconnect and the reconnection might be very simple: ‘You really don’t want to get in your car seat, you wish you could get in the front seat and pretend to drive, right? Sometimes we do that but right now we have to get to the doctor’s appointment.’ So you have just acknowledged what your child wants and why they are acting this way and then you give them a choice so they don’t feel as pushed around: ‘Would you like to get in your car seat yourself or do you want me to fly you into it?’ Those are two good choices. Do you want me to put you in is almost like a threat but do you want me to fly you in, that sounds sort of fun and it doesn’t take you anymore time to fly them in than to struggle with them to get them in.

Children cannot turn down an invitation to play.

Once you have calmed yourself you are not in a situation where some part of you feels like it’s an emergency because when you are in that mood your child picks it up from you and they feel like it’s an emergency too, like now we are in a power struggle. But when you can relax about it, your child is more willing to relax about it also. And also at that point when you reconnect you might be able to see what they need. So with the child who won’t put his shoes on to leave to go to preschool, you take your deep breath and then you say: ‘We need to leave. I see you don’t have your shoes on. We need to get your shoes on to get into the car to get you to school on time.’ And at that point, he looks at you and either he is surprised because he hasn’t really heard you nagging at him before this or he looks at you with sadness in his face and he says, ‘I don’t want to go back to preschool, the boys were so mean to me yesterday’ and now you’ve got something really important, you see why he’s been resisting. Or he says to you, ‘I can’t put my shoes on, I can’t find my toy car to bring with me for Show and Tell’.

So you identify what problem is making him resist putting his shoes on and then you can help him solve his problem. So often we just see the child as being a problem to us but actually the child is resisting what we are asking because they are having a problem themselves and they often need our help to solve that problem, so once you connect, you can move to what I call step three which is coaching.

There are three parts to the kind of parenting I advocate. First, you regulate your own emotions, that’s the deep breath or it might be more involved than that but in this moment, it’s the deep breath. Secondly, you reconnect with the child which you do at that moment but hopefully you do all the time that you are with the child, looking for ways to connect with them so that you stay in relationship with each other and they want to follow your lead. Children are a lot more cooperative then and it’s a better relationship so it makes you enjoy parenting about 100% more when you are in a strong relationship. And then the third thing is coaching them so that you help them solve their problem or you help them with the emotions that are upsetting them which is called emotion coaching and there are some skills that help you do that. But it’s not that complicated, those are the three things: regulate yourself, connect and then coach your child instead of threatening them with punishment or giving them rewards which don’t really solve the underlying issue.

What advice do you have for people who worry that they have given in or are spoiling their child if they make discipline fun because they view situations as a power struggle?

That’s part of our unconscious heritage that we got from the past. If you look at past generations they have come through a lot, human beings have come through a lot even if you just look at the wars in the last century and most of us were raised to think life was serious business and we were told that being giddy, giddily happy, running around being crazy happy, was inappropriate and even being joyful, there’s not a lot of time or that, we have to buckle down and get the work done. What if we had learned instead that the work that comes out the best is the work we do with joy? That the work we love doing and do joyfully is the work that will have the greatest impact on others and what we do because the product is better? Wouldn’t that have been an amazing lesson to have been given? Because in fact the research shows that that’s the inspired work and that people who love their work are more productive and do better work.

It’s interesting that we assume that there is no room for joy in our lives. Actually, what are we doing as parents? We are raising human beings, we are giving them a philosophy of life in a sense, so why wouldn’t we want to give children the idea that relationships are warm and fulfilling and delightful and we can take joy in each other? Why wouldn’t we give children the idea that sometimes you have to buckle down and do an unpleasant task, absolutely right and you do it because you have a higher reason for doing it. That is what self discipline is.

Self discipline is giving up what you want for something you want more.

There are all kinds of reasons that we give up what we want to go for something more. Every time we do that, whether we are children or adults we are gaining self discipline. It doesn’t have to be an onerous process, the point is that we do it for something we want more. When we help children feel positively about life, they are more likely to develop self discipline and to be able to apply themselves with total seriousness to getting done what they want to get done and that will really help them in the future. When we make them feel negatively about things it just makes them feel like life is onerous and they want to hide from it.

First of all, I wouldn’t just say, we are going to stop punishing because they won’t help at all, your child has no other reason except fear and intimidation to do what you say so instead work on your own self regulation, that is the hardest part and then connection, connection, connection with your child and you’ll find that your child will behave so much better that you will rarely even think you need bribes or threats. You can also pay attention so that when you reach for a bribe or threat you can notice, something’s not working right here, I don’t know how to make my child cooperate with me at this moment, what could I do instead of a bribe or a threat. At that moment I would say go back to the basics. Take your deep breath, connect with the child and see what is getting in their way and do the coaching.

So, when the parent feels they have to be serious and can’t do the playful, joyful thing, that is part of the answer. The other part of the answer is that when people feel they are losing the power struggle and are giving in, you are only giving in if you don’t get your child’s shoes on so they can go to school. You are only giving in if they don’t end up clearing the table and you do it yourself. You are only giving in if your child never gets in his car seat to pick up his sister at school. So, giving in is about the behaviour, it’s not about how the person feels about it.

You don’t need to break your child’s will, in fact all the research shows that that’s a terrible thing to do.

It does not help the child at all to break their will and in fact it gives them mental health challenges, depression, for instance, for the rest of their lives. The very strong willed children will become defiant very quickly but the more compliant children, if you break their will then they just become depressed and insecure. There is no reason to break a child’s will and there is no need to have a power struggle because that means that somebody has to win. It takes two people to have a power struggle and the person who is wrong is the person who should know better, the adult. You can side step a power struggle and no child can resist an invitation to play so playfulness is really an important tool.

We don’t always see children as other human beings, what are the implications of this in our relationship with them?

That is the fundamental insight here. We often don’t see children as actual human beings, we see them as our charges who we have to move through the schedule and we don’t know how to do that except by bribing or threatening. But in fact if we just saw them as human beings we would develop a warm relationship with them. It is a special relationship, it’s not quite the same as a partner or a colleague but it is a relationship and they are primed by biology to follow our lead – not just anyone’s lead, that would be dangerous for them, they could go off with strangers – the lead of a person they have learned to trust and learned is looking after their best interests.

So even though they might resist a certain thing like putting their shoes on, they are willing to go along with us and what we want because they have learned to trust us. They have learned that we care deeply about what matters to them and that we are on their side, in their corner, no matter what, even when we have to say no to them. They are primed to follow our lead but when we insist on treating them without the respect that we would offer to any human being what happens is they begin to feel not as warmly connected or as if we are not on their side and that’s when the relationship erodes some.

How can parents forgive themselves for the mistakes they feel they made before coming to a more conscious approach to parenting?

It doesn’t help to beat yourself up. When you feel bad about yourself you can’t do good. You can’t do well when you feel bad so it doesn’t help to beat yourself. I would go so far as to say that we do the best that we can with the information that we have at the moment and no one is going to be perfect ever. Children don’t need perfection from us, what they need is a parent who models how to be a good, decent human being and that means when we realise we’ve been wrong, we try to do better. When we realise we could have done better and have hurt someone, we apologise to them.

We can only give our children what we have inside.

At some point along the way, you can say to them: ‘I didn’t know a better way to be your parent when you were born and so I did the best I could, I raised you the way I was raised but then I learned that it’s better to listen and to try to help you solve your problems. That doesn’t mean you can behave badly. When you do act as less than your best self then you need to make things better, we all need to make things better when we haven’t been our best selves.’ So your child isn’t just going through life with no repercussions, they are making repairs but it’s a whole different attitude then punishment. And that’s the way we can treat ourselves too. You are not beating yourself up, you’re making repairs now that you know more and it is never too late to make those repairs and make things better with your child.

How can those who are consciously parenting deal with criticism about their approach?

That is always the hardest thing. I would say it depends on what your relationship with them is. If your relationship is an intimate one, say it’s your parent, you can explain your reasons but start with a commonality. Remember it is just like talking to your child. You start by taking the deep breath yourself and then you connect with who you are talking to and you say, ‘I hear you. I know you think I am being indulgent. I know we both want the same thing here, we want your grandchild to grow up to be a healthy, happy, unspoiled child.’

There are two things that people usually get upset about. One is that you let the child display emotions, you might have told the child no and they are crying and the older generation feels there is no room for those tears, the child should snap out of it. The other is when we don’t punish, so the child runs into your parents house with their shoes on and starts jumping up and down on the couch and that’s not allowed but they have forgotten because they are so excited and you scoop them off the couch with one arm and take the shoes off with the other and say, ‘First of all no shoes on the couch, that gets the couch dirty and in this house we don’t jump on couch’. At this point your parent is looking at you horrified that you’re not being stern but light hearted. Once you have the child busy with something else that can get their energy out as they are so excited, you might say to your parent, ‘I saw you were looking like you thought I should be scolding them, I think it works better to connect and explain my reasons because I find they listen better that way.’

You can just explain it and if they tell you it’s better to be stern and threaten so the child doesn’t forget next time, you say, ‘I think that undermines our relationship and I want influence with not a relationship based on threats.’ Now, if your parents refer to having raised you in a different way and that you came out fine, you can express gratitude for them and the energy they put into raising you but assure them that it’s your turn now and that you have been reading the latest research and just like in any other field there have been advances. We don’t build aeroplanes the same way as we did then or do operations the same way or make cars the same way and it turns out there are better ways to build human beings. You can tell them you are not criticising what they did which was great with the information they had at a very difficult time and you came out fine and that you are hoping that your child will come out even more healthy and even more able to contribute to the world in positive ways because we are learning how to help human beings grow up even healthier, physically and emotionally.

So the best way to raise healthy, happy humans is to treat children in a healthy and happy way and not to make them feel bad about themselves and then expect them to go out into the world and be brave and strong and confident?

Yes, exactly right. Bravery and strength and confidence come from feeling loved and valued and accepted for who you are. We have all met people who seem brave and strong and confident at first but then we realise that is a facade because underneath there is a feeling that they are an imposter, they don’t really feel good enough. It is a very common feeling. So if we want our children to have real strength, real confidence, real courage, to be themselves in a difficult world and to stand up for what’s right, that comes from being accepted and valued. Children don’t have to get everything they want. We are giving them something better with this kind of parenting, we are giving them a parent who understands them and accepts them and loves them, even when they have to say no, even when the child is not perfect.