Listen to me!

Listen to me!

To have to turn around and ask for the child’s perspective, and listen, and take it into account … well, some parents might worry they could lose that power! It would be a foreign experience for lots of mums and dads – especially those who like to feel in control.

The latest low-down on discipline


by Paul Freedman

Walk into a bookshop these days … any bookshop … and find the section on ‘Parenting’. There before you will be multiple shelves loaded with paperbacks and hardbacks. Wisdom for the ages, on every mum-&-dad subject under the sun: from smacking to tough love … from taming tyrannical tots to time-out for troubled teens. Some of the advice, when you look inside, is great. Some of it’s not so great. And lots of it has been heard before. 

So, when we came across an author whose ideas on discipline we hadn’t heard – at least, not arranged quite this way – we were intrigued!

Kiwi author Dr Anna Martin PhD has come out with a new book on disciplining kids entitled LISTEN TO ME! (Taking the Conflict out of Child Discipline). She’s a clinical therapist who helps children, adolescents and adults struggling with discipline difficulties. 

We visited Anna at her Remuera clinic, and asked what made her approach different.

GRAPEVINE: When I first picked up your book with its title, LISTEN TO ME and discovered it was about discipline, I immediately envisaged an angry parent saying to a naughty child, “Now you listen to me, you little brat!” – ready to get grumpy and growly and impose some punishment. But having sat down and read the book, I now suspect you want us to imagine that the “Listen to me!” plea is actually the child’s voice? Is that right? 

DR ANNA MARTIN: Yes, you’re absolutely spot-on! All the old ways of doing discipline were about the parent being the authoritarian figure – the one in charge, the one with all the power. But I’m asking readers to consider a different discipline style that may make them feel uncomfortable.

Parents In Control:

To have to turn around and ask for the child’s perspective, and listen, and take it into account … well, some parents might worry they could lose that power! It would be a foreign experience for lots of mums and dads – especially those who like to feel in control.

GV: Do some parents still think that the word ‘discipline’ means more or less the same as ‘punishment’?

DR ANNA: I’m afraid a lot do, yes. When parents are telling their children off, they often come with the attitude, “You need to be taught a lesson!” And they stay focused on that ‘lesson’. The child here can’t really say anything about what happened or how or why. Which means it’s not a helpful process.

GV: You suggest that parents like this tend to feel that their kids were somehow born ‘naughty’ – a state that’s always in need of correction. Is this view still very common?

DR ANNA: In some circles, yes. There’s still the belief with some parents that their kids are generically naughty. And when they’re interacting with their children, they often have the assumption that “I’m inflicting this punishment so you can become a productive adult.” 

But, in my opinion, we should recognise – and even affirm – our children in the state they’re in now, and not wish they were something else. After all, they are ‘beings’ – not ‘becomings’. Sure, they’ll grow and mature … but, even as they are now, we can work through discipline issues helpfully, and do it together. 

I’ve noticed that you only need to start up a debate on social media, discussing if children are or aren’t ‘naughty’ … and you’ll always get a good proportion saying, “Yes, of course they’re naughty – and they need to be disciplined!”

But parents with this view are missing something important. WHY are the kids naughty? They may have misbehaved intentionally, but we need to look into the causes. Without that, it’s all too easy for parents to fall automatically into a punishing mode – which isn’t at all helpful.

GV: Where did this ‘listen to me’ emphasis come from? And what made you adopt it as a therapist?

DR ANNA: I remember a specific experience I had when I was about seven. Mum wanted me to have an afternoon nap because we were going out that night. I remember I was scared of being separated from Mum. (A bit of separation-anxiety?) So I pretended to go to bed. But then I snuck after her around the house – without her knowing. Unfortunately, she caught me and punished me – because she interpreted my behaviour as ‘being naughty’ … 

That probably sowed the seed for me. Because if my mum had taken just a couple of minutes to ask, “Okay, what’s going on for you?” that might’ve resulted in a completely different outcome for me.

Wait – I’m Not Being Naughty!

I’ve become very aware that children often get ‘shut down’ when they’re being disciplined. The parents are saying, “Naughty, naughty, naughty – stop that bad behaviour!” and the child is saying, “But Mummy, please listen – I’m not being naughty! I’m scared, I’m upset!”

I’m not suggesting you should give the child everything they want, but the way you deal with it needs to be a shared experience. So it became important for me to take all the research available – others’ and my own – and define some approaches that are more likely to be helpful for parents today. And this book is basically the result.

GV: Often, in bookshops, the latest trends in parenting seem to be tailored to a particular cultural group – usually white, middleclass families, to be honest! Is your approach suitable for people of more varied cultures and backgrounds?

DR ANNA: I’ve tried to make them flexible, so it was very exciting to get someone like Stacey Morrison’s endorsement. Stacey’s Māori, and a high-profile media person. She encourages Māori culture, beliefs and protocols, and she’s adopted my discipline methods into her family and uses them according to her cultural values. My approaches are based on the needs of all the family members, but how you put them into practice is flexible and up to you. 

GV: And how about the age-range? Do your methods suit children of all ages?

DR ANNA: Absolutely … from birth through to when they leave home! Russ Harris, a highly respected trainer and internationally recognised author (of the top-selling Happiness Trap and many others) says this is the best parenting book he’s ever read! And he agrees that it’s well suited to children of all ages.

GV: Even teenagers?

DR ANNA: Especially teenagers! Because for them, it’s even more important that they feel heard. My own son is 16, and the last thing he wants from me is to be given directives and judgement. But if he can understand the process and feels respected, then he’s far more likely to listen and respond in helpful ways. 

It was really important for us to assure him, “Look, we love you and want to work with you, and at times you’re not going to be happy with us. But we want to hear what you’ve got to say about things.” 

GV: I gather you feel that the practice of time-out can be unhelpful – which I find surprising! So, what’s wrong with using a form of discipline that succeeds in getting kids to do what we need them to?

DR ANNA: It’s how you do it. Ultimately you want your children to learn from you, and they tend to do this more readily in a more positive environment. When you’re using something like time-out, it’s usually fear-based: “Oh no! If I don’t do this, I’m going to be shut in my room! I won’t be able to play with Lego …” (or watch TV … go to the party … whatever).

Go To Your Room!

Children may follow your instruction – not because they understand it or because it makes sense to them, but to avoid punishment. You need your kids to know why what they’re doing is disruptive – so they can take that learning onboard. Then, hopefully, you won’t have to keep repeating the lesson.

When parents use fear-based discipline, it can internalise anger for the children. So, eventually, they end up slamming doors, storming off, shouting “I hate you!” … that sort of thing. And, ultimately, too much of this fear-based message has them saying to themselves, “I hate myself because I’m a bad, horrible, naughty child!” Which is something parents need to avoid …

GV: So … how’s it going? Are you getting good feedback from the parents you’re working with?

DR ANNA: Getting incredibly good feedback! What tends to happen at first is parents say, “Oh gosh! This feels different – a bit weird – not what I’m used to.” But once they’ve started, and once they understand the logic behind it – why they’re doing what they’re doing – they actually say, “This is incredible! I’d never go back to disciplining the old way.”

GV: Okay, let’s take a look at the three methods you describe. The first one you talk about is the Awareness Discipline Method. So what exactly do we need to be aware of?

DR ANNA: Well, the Awareness Method is simply knowing and being aware that children have a valid perspective – and you, as a parent, need to be open to it. It’s also being aware that most parents, from the first moment they’re aware of trouble, have already made a judgment about how everything’s going to unfold. And often they don’t even realise this!

So the Awareness Method asks you to slow down … calm down, if you’re angry … keep your voice level … and then ask the child for his or her take on what’s happened. You need to try and ‘be in the moment’ and really listen to what the child is saying. And you need to be aware – consciously – that you’re bringing a whole lot of other stuff with you into the situation. 

GV: That sounds okay, but let me play the devil’s advocate for a moment: Let’s say you’re visiting friends and your kids get into a big fight. They’re crying and screaming: “Jimmy hit me!” “No, he hit me first!” “Well, you took the blocks I needed!” … and so it goes on. 

That’s the kind of situation where, as a parent (or grandparent now), I would try and say something like, “Now until we can sort this out, you need to stay in your place here, and Jimmy needs to stay in his place over there, and we all need a little time-out, apart, until we’re all ready to come back and speak quietly and nicely to one another!”

Now tell me what you think: has the parent here pre-judged that situation? Should he or she have asked a lot of questions before we got to any ‘time-out’ separation?

DR ANNA: Well, to be honest, I quite like what you’ve done and what you’ve said! As parents, we don’t like seeing our kids fight without any resolution – and you’re not going in with the pre-judged
conviction that one kid’s at fault and another’s not.

Hey Kids – What Do You Think?

It’s perfectly okay to say, “Hey look, everyone, this isn’t working, so let’s have some downtime here.” And, by all means, separate them a bit. What would also help, once you’ve heard the children’s perspectives on what had gone wrong, is to ask them, “How would you like to fix this?”

GV: I’m glad to hear you say that because I’d got the idea you were against time-out under all circumstances.

DR ANNA: Well, what you’re exemplifying here isn’t your traditional time-out where they’re sent to their rooms as a punishment. It’s more, “Hey, let’s have some quiet time separately.”

The Awareness Method is designed to remind you, as the disciplining parent, that you may have already made a decision – even without being aware of it. You’ve probably already decided whose fault it is and what the punishment will be – unconsciously and without even realising it! So, ideally, you stop and acknowledge this and make sure you ask the child for his or her take.

You need to ask: what’s actually happened here? Then go through the negotiation with the child or children: “Do we all agree that this is what went on? And how would we like to fix it?” And if that doesn’t happen – if you can’t get an agreement –then ask the child/children, well, what happens next? How are we going to sort this out together? You may then need to impose a consequence: “Sorry – I hate doing this, but as we haven’t been able to solve the disagreement, there’ll be no more screen-time today …” (or whatever outcome is appropriate).

But the children will know that they’ve been respected and heard. They’re not passive receivers of a parent’s power.

GV: The second of your three methods you call the Reflective Discipline Method. In this one, you ask the parents to look inside themselves, and back into their past – to explore why they have this idea that their child is impossibly naughty, or why they’re so predisposed to dishing out strict punishment. 

But I imagine lots of parents don’t find that reflection process easy, do they?

DR ANNA: It’s a lot harder to do because it requires insight and honesty. The Reflective Method takes the Awareness Method a little further down the track. It’s going to a deeper level – becoming aware of what’s motivating you. You’re almost being your own therapist, learning how to join up the dots better. And it makes it much easier to connect with your children. 

At the end, let’s face it, we all hope for less stress, more harmony. 

GV: Clarify it for me, please. What exactly are we being ‘reflective’ about?

DR ANNA: When children do something that needs discipline, it will have triggered a reaction in the parent. It’s a normal thing, really – we all have our trigger-points. And when we’re triggered, we usually feel anger. So with
the Reflective Method, when trouble erupts, parents need to say to themselves, “Whoa, I’m feeling angry …” Then, before showing any outward reaction, they need to step back and consider, “Why? Where did that come from?”

Parental Trigger-Points

Maybe you’re tired – you don’t need this extra pressure. Maybe you’re annoyed – at the very least, he’s disturbed your busy day. Maybe it’s because you feel hurt – he’s let you down again! Or perhaps you’re worried he’s going to turn out bad, and that may cause you embarrassment or shame!

So, it’s looking beyond who has done what or how to correct them/punish them – and taking a good long look at yourself.

GV: I’m guessing that many parents would avoid the Reflective Method because, frankly, they’ve got enough on their plates, and it’s too time-consuming – right? 

DR ANNA: Yes, for sure. But it comes back to how we view our children. Do we see them as second-class citizens? I mean, you wouldn’t say to your colleagues at work, “Stop bothering me! I haven’t got time for you right now!” Yes, we are busy as parents. And sometimes we need to say, “Look, this is important, but I have to do such-and-such right now. We’ll get back to this today/tonight/soon, okay?”

It’s really important that our kids believe they can bring up issues, and we’ll have time – or make time – to listen to them. Yes, I might be very busy, but I’m going to treat my children with respect because they deserve it.

GV: So, for parents who find reflection challenging, I suppose your advice would be: persist. Right?

DR ANNA: Yes, persist. And get to know yourself! 

It’s actually a really cool journey. We’re looking at ways of disciplining that are helpful for parents and children – and the evidence says these methods definitely help. The important question to ask is: Why do you feel challenged? What are you so frightened of?

GV: So that brings us to the A.N.D Method … and those letters, I believe, stand for being Aware and Ask – Negotiate – Do. This sounds to me like a sort of trimmed-down version of the other two methods. What would make this approach something a parent might choose?

DR ANNA: Well, the AND Method is part of a new addition to the book (it wasn’t in the earlier edition). And it was really added to counteract the current traditional discipline models which are, basically, Ask – Tell – Act. Firstly, ask a child to do something … then tell the child to do it … and finally, act (apply consequences/punishment if the child doesn’t obey).

I wanted to make sure that busy parents had an alternative – a shortened approach to disciplining kids that retains these really important aspects we’ve been discussing. Then, at least, if parents can’t do the Awareness Method or the Reflective Method, they can still respect the underlying ideas:
• listening to the child
• involving the child in finding a solution, and
• avoiding pre-judging the outcome.

So my plea to parents is that if they feel they just don’t have time for the awareness and reflective methods, then at least use the AND Method as it can help keep everybody calmer and safer, with the parent still in a position of authority. (Authority in a good sense, not unbridled power!) So it’s for parents who are under pressure, but still concerned to keep those really important elements in place:
• being aware and willing to listen, then ask your child for their perspective …
• being prepared to negotiate outcomes and solutions …
• then doing whatever you’ve arrived at as being a fair solution. 

GV: You added a bit in the book that says, “And there’s always an ‘and’ …” Did you mean that there’s always something else, something more that a parent can learn by keeping the discussion going?

DR ANNA: Yes, exactly. When looking at any situation, it’s hardly ever about what you initially see or perceive. There’s usually more to that situation than meets the eye, and we just need to listen and pay attention to everyone’s point of view.

Just Wait Until Your Father Gets Home!

Parents will often step into a scene with an unconscious decision already made – knowing in advance what they’re going to say and what the punishment is going to be. But my view here is that there’s always an ‘and’ – there is always more to tell … always more to draw out …

GV: I can understand your various methods working well with common, fairly minor problems in your average family: your child doesn’t want to stop playing Lego and start doing homework … or one of those constantly recurring arguments about bedtime. Not that these aren’t important! 

But how useful are your methods when a family’s dealing with a bigger and more menacing situation? Say a child has been caught shoplifting, and the police might even be involved. Is there a tendency here for the alarmed parents to slip back into the ‘good old’ discipline methods … ask, tell, punish?

DR ANNA: Absolutely! It seems we’re programmed to fall back on traditional punitive approaches – which, more often than not, prove unhelpful. The child is acting out for a reason, and wise parents need to support their child and find out what’s going on. It’s far more productive when the parents are listening – when, even though they may have done something serious, the child feels that Mum and Dad still love them and hears them saying “… together we can sort this out.” 

Of course, in a serious case like shoplifting, you’d need to impose stricter boundaries … but without ignoring the other responses. Still listening to the child and involving them in how to resolve the problem is important. You might say something like, “We want to keep you safe. We want to make sure you’re not heading down a track that will be unhelpful for you. So, for the time being, we’re going to have to keep you close. You won’t be going out at nights (or whatever solution seems best to all involved, including the child) until we’ve worked through this …”

I honestly think we need to change the way New Zealanders instinctively think about discipline issues. And we need to show parents how these other methods can make a big difference in family dynamics. 

This is so very important! Kids are really struggling out there – with issues like anxiety, self-harm, depression, suicide, bullying, and lots more.

Kids Deserve A Break, Too!

We don’t have to look far to see how much their world has changed: terrorism, social media pressures, competitive school environments, and so on. No wonder kids are growing up without a clear idea of who they are, and what they’re worth, and where they fit in the system. 

They need a safe place at home. They need boundaries implemented with love, transparency and fairness. And they need to stay connected with their parents. 

Methods like these help give the parent/child relationship the best chance. They help ensure that kids can develop and retain a positive self-image while still accepting boundaries and discipline when it’s arrived at fairly and with parental reflection. Few things are more important when we’re bringing up our kids.

GV: If you had to sum it all up in a few quick bullet-points, what would that be?

DR ANNA: Listen to your children. Keep listening and keep loving. Involve them in solutions. And reflect on your own behaviour as a parent.