I’m not a fan of strategies and techniques of behaviour-management and discipline, I never have been, partly because it all sounds too much like hard work to me and I’m basically lazy. I’m also uncomfortable with the words themselves, they remind me of boardrooms, or war, they don’t seem applicable to normal messy life. So whenever I’m asked the question ‘What are your strategies and techniques for getting children to..?’ (fill in the blank: go to bed, eat their greens, show respect…) I’m always flummoxed because I don’t think in terms of strategies and techniques, I think in terms of relationships and communication. So I say something like ‘Well it’s not really a strategy, it’s more like just how you talk to them…’
I don’t think we apply strategies and techniques to any other personal relationships do we? Having just written that, the phrase ‘How to get your man and keep him’ has just sprung unbidden into my head. So OK then, the advice is there in some self-help books, but we recognise it as manipulation don’t we?
I don’t think we can split life into strategy and non-strategy areas when it comes to human relationships. We can’t be going along happily interacting and building relationships based on mutual trust and respect and then suddenly ’employ a strategy’ can we?
I’m thinking about this because I was doing a talk in London the other week and when it got to the Q&A bit I was asked how we teach our teenage girls respect for themselves, and protect them from the dangers of ‘selfie’ culture. I blathered on about our general relationships with our daughters, how we react to the pressures of the culture ourselves, how we talk about related issues during normal life when they come up naturally…in fact everything except directly addressing the issue. Because what I normally hear in answer to this question is a list of facts we need to tell our daughters about the danger of sharing selfies on social media, plus a bit of teaching about the importance of self-respect, but what I think really matters is not that one talk, but everything else that surrounds it. Normal life.
Coincidentally, that London talk I did was part of a relevant story involving my just-turned eighteen year-old son, which I will now relate, just for you. He had come home from college the evening before and told me that he’d decided he wasn’t going to go in the next day to take his Law Mock A-Level because it wasn’t worth it, he was just going to fail miserably.
‘But that’s the whole POINT of Mocks!’ I said, ‘you’re SUPPOSED to fail miserably! Everyone does! That’s why they’re there!’
‘Nah, it’s not worth it, I’m not doing it.’
‘Well’ I said ‘the thing is you never know what you’ll learn from it unless you do it, it’ll be something completely unexpected. That’ll probably be useful in ways you can’t even imagine.’
He shrugged and wandered off.
The next morning I was nervously collating my notes ready for my talk, when he came downstairs and started making breakfast.
‘I really don’t want to do this!’ I wailed, ‘I didn’t realise it was so scary when I signed up for it! Tell me I don’t have to go! I don’t have to do it do I?’
He chuckled. My children are quite used to this: since they were very little I have done scary things out in the world, and shared that information with them. They have also seen me get back every time beaming and saying ‘I’m sooooo glad I did that, it was brilliant!’ I think they have imbibed ‘feeling scared of doing things but doing them anyway’ as a natural way of being.
‘Tell you what’ I said to my son, half-jokingly, ‘I’ll do this if you’ll do your Mock!’ and I got back to my notes.
That evening we compared stories.
‘I had such a good time’ I said, ‘I’m so glad I did it. It wasn’t really that scary once I was there. Did you do your Mock?’
‘Yeah’ he said, ‘and it wasn’t as bad as I’d thought. I don’t think I did very well, but better than I’d expected.’
‘Wow’ I thought, ‘that was easy.’
If I was asked about my strategies and techniques for getting my son to do something he really didn’t want to do, I’d be stumped. If I had any influence at all, it was little to do with the actual words I used at the time, but more about generally trusting him, having a good relationship and just living normal life.
‘Well’ I would probably say, ‘It’s not really a strategy…’ – and in the words my son would probably use himself – ‘it’s just the way we roll.’