I used to be a big fan of Super Nanny. When I got a job as a nanny myself, I believed I was ready. I was armed with her arsenal of behavioural techniques. This made me quick to tell children off. I used the naughty step or ignored them if they weren’t doing what I wanted. And I rained down praise on behaviour I liked.

Reward and punishment were my go-to methods for behaviour management. Because I thought that was my job – to manage children’s behaviour. My understanding was that children should do what I say and if they didn’t that meant that I was doing it ‘wrong’. I was terrified of looking ‘bad’. So, when conflict came up, I overruled and exerted my power as the adult in the relationship.

Fortunately, I also had lots of fun with the children I looked after. I spent time building and nurturing our relationships and I very much feel part of their family over a decade later.

Nevertheless, as I continued studying Psychology, I came to wonder whether there was something amiss in my understanding of what made a ‘good’ caregiver.

When I started working with families, I saw more and more families who had ‘tried everything’. They had taken every toy off their child and still their child would ‘not behave’. That doubt that maybe ‘behaviour management’ was not the be all and end all started to grow, and I quickly found myself recommending parents give all the toys back because what was the point?

Punishment was not working.

Praise, also, was not working.

I work with so many families who say ‘no matter how many times I tell my child they are brilliant at X, they just don’t believe me or their self-esteem is still rock bottom’.

“But this is exactly what behaviourism tells us!” I thought. “Focus on the good behaviour and ignore the bad. Praise at least 3 times more than you admonish and you should have a healthy, happy, obedient child.”

But where does behaviourism come from? Dogs, rats and pigeons. Who are complex beings, but not quite as complex as humans (as far as we know).

So maybe there’s something else that we need as humans, besides praise and punishments, to help us grow and develop.

I started to think about myself and the behaviours that I show that could be seen as ‘bad habits’. For example, procrastination. If I just get on and write this blog post, I know it will be so much better than putting it off. I can try to ‘reward’ myself by saying ‘when you’ve done it you can have a biscuit (or 6) or you can see a friend’. I can ‘punish’ myself by telling myself off for not doing it sooner or banning myself from TV until I get it done. But do you know what? None of that works very well.

So maybe ‘problem’ behaviour is not about incentive. Maybe there’s something else.

And, indeed, that is my experience. When I stopped recommending rewards and punishments as strategies and started helping parents to listen to, understand and communicate with their children (which sounds so much easier than it is!), I found that we didn’t actually have to concentrate on the ‘problem’ behaviours at all, they just fell away.

When I stopped rewarding and punishing myself, and started listening to and being kind to myself, I got much better at doing my work on time.

Years of experience have taught me that when children or adults are behaving in ways we’d rather they didn’t, there is always a reason. If we want to really help our children flourish, we have to start understanding that reason.

The aim stops being about behavioural outcomes and starts being about understanding and connection. And yet somehow, behaviour starts changing anyway.

That is my job now and it is a joy. I work with parents to:

  • Develop an understanding of what’s developmentally appropriate for each child we are thinking about.
  • Learn to observe their behaviour and think about its meaning.
  • Practise responding to the meaning underlying the behaviour, as opposed to the behaviour itself.
  • Develop appropriate responses to aid learning about consequences to behaviour.
  • Understand their own histories and how this can interact with their experiences of their children and of parenting.

Indeed, I find that the more parents can understand themselves and their experiences, the easier they find it to understand their children. As a result, even when I work with adults without a focus on their children, things shift and their relationships with their children blossom.

As a result, parents can enjoy a different relationship with their children, that does not involve shouting, punishing or bargaining.

I so enjoy getting to know everyone I work with and it is a privilege to be invited to explore their experiences and to co-develop a different way of being as a family. I learn so much, every time.