Sunday, 25 January 2015

Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word (or, why I don't force apologies)

It's a situation many parents are familiar with. You're at a playgroup, a party, a friend's house, whatever, and one child does something that hurts or upsets another child. Sometimes this is intentional - a push or a snatched toy. Other times it's an accident - two children colliding as they run around, no malice, just one of those things.

As one parent comforts the injured party, the other parent brings their child over and tells them, "Say sorry."

They don't.

The parent repeats the request. "Say sorry."

They look away, fidget, do anything but speak.

And again. "Say sorry."

And so it goes on, often until long after the original hurt has been forgotten. I've had instances where I've held Eleanor back from going off and playing simply because another parent is trying to elicit an apology from their child.

This is not something I do with Eleanor.

Why? Lots of reasons, but mainly because I think sorry means nothing if it's forced. Saying sorry should mean that you realise what you've done is wrong, you feel bad about it, you regret it. If you're just saying sorry to get out of a situation or to get someone off your back, what does that achieve?

We've all heard false apologies. Sorry is often used passive-aggressively - "well I'm sorry if you feel that way." I admit that I do this too. I've often 'apologised' for something in a tone that really says, "OK, just stop going on about it!" Nobody likes that kind of sorry. When people in the public eye issue apologies, we're often quick to pull them apart and find a telltale weakness in their statement. Because we know that a genuine sorry matters. Do we really want to teach children that only the word matters, not the sentiment?

Also, lines of right and wrong are so blurred with children. When two children are running around and bump into each other, there's nobody to blame other than nature for giving small children boundless energy and a rubbish sense of direction. And we don't see everything. What we see as our child snatching a toy could actually be them reclaiming something that was snatched from them when we had our backs turned. A few days ago Eleanor was playing with a tractor when a boy took it from her. Talking to the boy's mother, it turned out she thought Eleanor had snatched it from him in the first place. (I know she hadn't as I'd just used it as a trade-off to get her to give a snatched toy back to another boy!) Is it right to make a child say sorry when we don't know all the facts?

And then there's the fact that it can actually prevent both children from moving on. As adults, we often look for someone to blame when something goes wrong; from what I've seen, children mostly don't care. Yes, there will be times when a meltdown ensues, but most of the time they just get up and keep playing. But when you're having to hold your child still while waiting for a reluctant apology, they can't move on. I do wonder what this teaches them - could it make them less resilient? There are plenty of times in life when you have to pick yourself up from knocks. As an adult it can be hard, but kids are experts at it. If we teach them that they should drop everything and wait for an apology, is that going to help them in future?

So what do I do instead? Do I let Eleanor run riot, snatching and pushing without consequence?

Of course not. I talk to her about how her actions affect others. I point out if she's made someone sad. She still struggles with sharing so I talk about taking turns and help her to find something else to play with if someone else got to a coveted toy first. I try my best to model. If I shout at her I say sorry afterwards. I say sorry on her behalf if I feel it's needed in a situation. Sometimes if I think she's receptive to the idea I'll say, "do you want to say sorry to that child?" Generally she'll say sorry to me but clam up when we get to the child. That's fine by me - I just relay the message, at least she said a genuine sorry at some point. I'm hopeful that this way I'll raise a thoughtful child who is concerned for other people's feelings and says sorry because she really means it.

I'll admit this sometimes feels awkward, but to be honest it's rare that another parent seems affronted that I haven't forced an apology. More importantly, the child never seems affronted. I find it more awkward when I'm making Eleanor wait for an apology. I still do it, because I respect other parents' rights to choose how to raise their child, but it does make for an uncomfortable few minutes.

I'm also aware that, now Eleanor has started preschool and in a blink of an eye will be off to school, she may be told to apologise when I'm not around. I don't like this thought, but it's just another hazard of choosing a less common way of raising your child, and I'm used to that! Hopefully, the groundwork I'm putting in now will help her to understand it's not a get-out clause.

What do you think? Do you tell your child to say sorry, or do you leave them to say it spontaneously? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Landing the helicopter

I write this while sitting in an empty house. For the first time, I have left Eleanor at preschool.

I keep thinking about the phrase 'landing the helicopter'. It's a phrase I've had flitting around my mind since Eleanor was around 18 months and I first plucked up the courage to take her to soft play and actually force myself to sit and let her work things out for herself. I meant to blog about it at the time, but kept putting it off - just as I have put off letting her go and explore without me.

I have tried to gradually put myself in the background, but it's hard. I am an anxious person, so I tend to worry about Eleanor getting injured, or having a fall out with another child. As she learns social skills I'm very conscious that she will need a guide in this, and I want her not only to be kind to others but also to be able to stand up for herself. When we first started going to play groups she would occasionally be 'pushed about' by other children, both mentally and physically, and I wanted her to know that she didn't need to accept that treatment and that she could always turn to me. But now, of course,she's so much bigger and more than capable of holding her own, I need to let her fight her own battles.

She started her settling in sessions at preschool at the beginning of December, and has had 5 or 6 sessions already, but I've never felt able to leave her before. I kept making excuses - she was upset about getting too cold when playing outside, it was the last session before Christmas and I wanted to watch them singing their songs, it was the first session back and she seemed a bit unsure. But really, I knew she wasn't that unsure. I knew I was the one having trouble letting go.

On Friday I took her to her usual music group and watched her standing right at the front, copying the actions of the leader, practically oblivious to me. Even then I talked to other mums about how I wasn't sure about leaving her yet, how separation-sensitive she is. But I knew deep down that I was kidding myself.

In my defence, there was a time when she was very separation-sensitive. As a baby, she wanted to be held almost constantly. As a toddler, she would keep checking in on me whilst playing, wanting me to be involved in her games, getting upset when I had to go out to work. And I responded to that as well as I could. I left my old job and, after a few efforts to find a new one, decided she needed me at home more than we needed the extra money. I cuddled her when she cried, only occasionally resorting to leaving her if I absolutely needed to, either practically or mentally. I allowed her to be firmly attached to me.

And now it's payback time. She's a preschooler now, and I can let her go off and find out about the world without me. This weekend I decided to try leaving her in the creche at church to see how she'd cope. (After blogging about our church problems a while ago, we decided the best course of action was to find a more family-orientated church, so have been gradually settling in there over the past few months.) I sat listening to a sermon for the first time in about two and a half years, while also listening out for the sound of the door in case the creche supervisor needed me to come back. But of course she didn't. Eleanor was absolutely fine without me.

It's taken me a while to change my thinking about Eleanor, to tell myself that she's not as separation-sensitive as she used to be. The changes the last year has brought have been so subtle that I still think of her as if she were still just turned two. But she's now a headstrong, confident, articulate girl who has learnt that she can trust other adults. She is always so excited to go to preschool and talks about her 'friends' (although I'm not sure she's exchanged more than a few words with any of the children, but hey, I don't remember the rules of preschooler friendships) very affectionately. And I'm so heart-burstingly proud of who she is. I just need to learn to share her.

I'm now completing this post while Eleanor naps upstairs. Having left her for an hour, I went back to find that she'd been absolutely fine, at first she didn't even notice I was back. As I watched her playing outside I felt like I didn't even need to be there - she was having a whale of a time and has clearly formed a bond with her key worker. The other workers all commented on her confidence and it made me so proud once again. She no longer needs me hovering, not even in the background.

It's time to land the helicopter.