Category Archives: Deep Thought

Talking with children about religion – an atheist parent’s experience

For some considerable time now I've been thinking, as one does, that I should really get back to blogging, and even planning different possible re-entry posts. Then, by pure chance, I stumbled across a blog carnival on one of the subjects I'd been thinking of writing about – the Carnival for Atheist Parenting – and decided it would be the perfect opportunity to restart. This is my submission for November's Carnival of Atheist Parenting.

I was interested to see that a lot of people feel daunted at the thought of discussing religion with their children, because that's never been the case for me; on the contrary, I think it's an interesting topic that I've looked forward to discussing with them as they get older and finding out their views on. Maybe that's because I don't have any particular endpoint in mind in terms of their eventual belief. My goal has always been not to teach them to be atheists, but to teach them to think for themselves about what they believe and why.

I don't raise the subject, but when it comes up – when the children have Nativity plays or tell me some snippet of religious education they had in school – I take the opportunity to mention that different people believe in different things. Some people believe in lots of gods, some in just one god, and some in none, and they'll probably decide for themselves what they believe as they get older. Last year, Katie's first Nativity play was set in Fairytale Land and was introduced and concluded with a song containing the line "Will you please remember, we are just pretend/But the story of Jesus rea-lly happ-ened" (yes, the scansion was that bad). I burst out laughing when she first sang that at home, and explained that, in fact, a lot of people do think that the story of Jesus is made up as much as any fairy tale (while, of course, a lot of others believe in it).

For several years, of course, neither of them was that interested in the topic. (I still remember being asked to discuss Jamie's thoughts on the Christmas story for a school assignment when he was five; he came out with 'Mary was very great. Joseph was brown and Mary was blue.') Lately, however, they've had more thoughts about it.

Katie has decided she, also, doesn't believe in God. "You and Daddy don't," she told me when I inquired as to what had led her to this conclusion.

"That's not really a good reason, Boo. I mean, I think we're right, but you shouldn't believe something just because Daddy and I do. You should think about whether or not you believe it."

Katie gave it a moment's further thought and stated "Well, I see real things on the news and I've never seen God on the news." Which struck me as an interesting point. Of course, it's still open to logical challenge, but I let it go for a bit – she's starting to give some thought to what she thinks and why, and that means she's on the right track.

Jamie, some weeks after that, announced "I'm secretly a Christian."

"Why secretly?" I inquired, with fleeting visions of undercover Bible-reading and cloak-and-dagger church attendance.

"Because I believe in God."

"Oh. Well, that doesn't mean you have to be a Christian. You could be one of the other religions or be Christian or just believe in God without being any religion. Do you think you believe in one god or lots?" (This last always strikes me as a great point for getting some perspective on the whole do-you-believe-in-God-or-not question; the fact that those aren't the only options. To paraphrase Stephen Roberts slightly, we're all atheists one way or another; it's just that some of us are atheistic about more gods.)

"One, I think,"

"Yes, that's probably simpler. What made you decide that?"

"Well," Jamie said thoughtfully, "I think something has to happen to us after we die."

So, so far I'm raising one atheist and one unspecified theist. I'm  awaiting further developments on the topic with interest.



Filed under Deep Thought, Here Be Offspring

Anti-prostitution laws: the trouble with the Swedish Model

It's Friday the Thirteenth, so I'm blogging for decriminalisation of prostitution.  For the backstory to that apparent non sequitur plus my general views on the matter, read this post.

This time around, I thought I'd write about a commonly-discussed prostitution law that's usually known as the Swedish Model (as that was the country that thought it up) and sometimes as the Nordic Model (as other Nordic countries have since adopted it) and is often put forward as The Answer To The Problem Of Prostitution.  I picked this one because it's a prime example of a law that's supposed to be for the benefit of prostitutes, but in practice causes them major problems that could be avoided by decriminalisation.

The Swedish Model, simply put, is to make it technically legal to work as a prostitute, but illegal to visit a prostitute.  Well, not literally 'visit', of course – if your best friend happens to be a prostitute, you're still quite free to pop round to her house for coffee any time she happens to invite you.  'Visit' in the sense of 'be a client of a prostitute'.

Let's look at what this means.  Supposing I were to experience some cash flow problems and to decide, after some consideration of the options, that my best bet for making the necessary money was to charge for sexual services (1).  Accordingly I find an interested man, we agree on a price, we do the deed, and he pays me (and I presumably then go and pay my latest mortgage payment or gas bill or whatever I needed the money for).  If this were to take place in a country that's adopted the Swedish Model of prostitution law, then that man would now be a criminal.  For engaging in a mutually consensual and mutually acceptable act,he could find himself subject to a fine, a criminal record, and possibly a prison sentence.

It would make not a blind bit of difference how carefully I'd considered my decision beforehand, how certain I felt of it, how polite and pleasant he was while hiring my services, or how happy I was with the whole transaction after it had taken place.  It wouldn't matter that, according to the law in my country, I have been considered fully capable of making my own sexual decisions for the past twenty-five years.  It wouldn't matter that, had we chosen to do the identical things for free, the law of the land wouldn't have had the slightest interest in us.  In short, under the Swedish Model the question of whether I had consented to what had just gone on would not matter, because I would not be considered capable of giving consent to it. 

So what, exactly, is the idea behind criminalising consensual and harmless activity?

The Swedish Model seems to be based on the beliefs that

a) having sex for money is the one job so unpleasant it's impossible that nobody in their right mind would ever willingly choose it.  Therefore, all women in the job must either have been forced into it by violent pimps or traffickers, or they must not be in their right mind and therefore their opinions on the matter can be disregarded.

b) prostitution is inherently a Bad Thing anyway, and thus ought to be stopped, but doing this via a model that frames women as helpless victims with no say in the matter is more politically correct than doing it via a model that frames them as evil fallen women.

Now, the fundamental problem with this is of course that the first of those beliefs isn't true and the second is an extremely questionable opinion. And, while people are entitled to their questionable opinions, if they want to enshrine them into law to be imposed upon others then they ought to be held to a rather higher standard of evidence. 

Even in the one area where the reasoning behind the law does hold up as ethically solid – the desire to help those women who actually have been forced into prostitution – it's very debatable whether it's doing a blind bit of good.  Dodillet and Ostergren's paper The Swedish Sex Purchase Act: Claimed Success And Documented Effects, and Jordan's newly-published essay The Swedish Law to Criminalize Clients: A failed experiment in social engineering, both examine the effects of the law in practice, and both point out that there is simply no conclusive evidence as to whether the law has helped reduce forced trafficking in the sex trade in the countries where it's been implemented.  (One particular concern that neither paper mentioned on this subject, by the way, is that some women in this situation have actually managed to escape their plight thanks to the help of a client who found out what was going on.  A law that puts clients at risk of being arrested themselves if they approach the police with concerns therefore has the potential to backfire tragically as far as protection for trafficking victims is concerned.)

In addition, the above two papers raise a number of concerns about the impact that this law is having on prostitutes themselves.  I'd strongly recommend that anyone interested read one or both of the full papers (available online at the links I gave above) as there's no chance of me doing the full arguments justice.  However, probably the most worrying are the reported accounts of the effects that it's had on streetwalkers. 

Streetwalkers – prostitutes who pick up their clientele on the streets, rather than in brothels or via escort agencies or personally advertising – account for a minority of all prostitutes, but are the group that best fit the stereotype of prostitutes as vulnerable women living a desperate existence.  The huge spectrum of working conditions that a prostitute might experience, starting at the top end with high-class escort workers who spend much of their time in expensive hotels and command huge hourly fees, hits bottom here.  Much of the streetwalker trade takes place in their clients' cars, which is an extremely dangerous place to be if your client turns nasty.  Their rates are a lot lower.  They're much more likely to be arrested than off-street prostitutes.  Rates of drug addiction are much higher.  They're a lot more likely to be in desperate straits emotionally and/or financially.  So, if the Swedish Model actually was – as its supporters often claim – helpful to all those poor vulnerable prostitutes who need rescuing from the misery of their lives, this is exactly the subsection of the world's oldest profession that you'd expect to see benefiting from it.

According to reports, it is in fact causing them significant and severe problems.

The problem is, of course, that if someone is working in such an unsavoury job it's generally because she's very, very short of other options in her life.  Using the force of the law to drive away a large proportion of their customers doesn't change whatever life circumstances have led them to this point.  All it does is to limit their already limited options even further.  They still need to earn the money, but they have fewer clients to pick and choose from.  That means they may be more likely to feel their only option is to accept unpleasant clients or to agree to acts at which they normally would have drawn the line (potentially including sex without condoms).  On top of that, because of the need to avoid the police, they have to ply their trade on the less well populated, more dimly lit streets.  They have to rush through the initial negotiations for fear of being caught, and that means less chance to assess their potential clients and pick up any worrying or off-putting vibes from them.  All of which can put them in a lot more danger.

So, overall, the Swedish Model looks like pretty bad news for prostitutes.  It's bad news in practice because of the extra difficulties it causes for them and the significant extra danger it inflicts on the most vulnerable women in this job.  And it's bad news in principle, because it's fundamentally based on the idea that prostitutes are not considered capable of making their own decisions about something as important as what work they choose.  That last, of course, could be bad news for other women as well.  Speaking for myself, I really don't want a law on the books that boils down to 'If a woman makes sexual choices outside of what society sanctions as appropriate, she can thereby be considered incompetent to make her own decisions.'  That could be a very scary road to go down.


(1) I do wish to point out that this is a hypothetical example.  In the first place, I wouldn't break my marriage vows for love nor money; in the second place, I already have a way of making money from activities that involve seeing people in states of undress and doing a lot of the sort of things that make many people wince "Ick! I could never do that".  Of course, working as a doctor doesn't command nearly as high an hourly rate as Maggie used to earn in her career, but it's still the job I love and I'm sticking with it.  And I defend the right of a prostitute who wants to keep her job to do the same.


Filed under Deep Thought, Sacred hamburger

Life with my son

Welcome to the March 2012 Carnival of Natural Parenting: Parenting With Special Needs

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama. This month our participants have shared how we parent despite and because of challenges thrown our way. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.


For the second time, I’m taking part in the Carnival of Natural Parenting despite not considering myself a Natural Parent, in response to a topic that happened to be relevant to my unnatural self as well.  The topic this month is ‘Parenting With Special Needs’.

My son Jamie, now aged seven, is autistic.  He’s not what you might think of when you think of an autistic child; he doesn’t spend his days sitting in corners rocking unresponsively, locked into his own little world.  He’s fully verbal, attends a mainstream school, and loves to tell you about his computer games, cooking, and the things he’s learning about space and planets at school this term.  But, if you met him, you’d pretty soon notice some unusual things about the way he acts. 

When I say that he loves to tell you about his computer games, that doesn’t really cover it; he will talk incessantly about his computer games, and, while I appreciate that this is within the bounds of normal behaviour for a seven-year-old, the way that he does it isn’t.  He’ll describe the game in obsessive detail without ever giving you any sort of general explanation of what it’s about, unable to see the wood for his focus on every tree.  If you try to stop his monologue to do something else it will freak him out.  So will any attempt to stop him when he’s fixated on an idea or way of doing something (including an idea that someone else in his life should do something in a particular way).  It’s often not obvious in advance when that is – he’s not one of those children who need every little detail of the routine always to be the same, but, when he has got it into his head that things should go a particular way, any expectation that he change his plans without warning will cause all hell to break loose.  He doesn’t really understand how the way he acts can affect the feelings of others.  He doesn’t really get the normal social conventions that other people pick up easily enough to take for granted.  He manages at school only with full-time one-to-one assistance from a teaching assistant and a lot of flexibility on the school’s part about how much of the curriculum he actually does. 

Communication can be a problem because, while Jamie superficially seems to have very good verbal skills, but it really isn’t the way that he most easily takes things in, and I’ve had huge problems with getting his attention to ask him or tell him things.  This can be extremely frustrating, all the more so because he seems able to understand perfectly well when he wants to and it’s so easy to fall into the trap of thinking he’s just being naughty and ignoring me.  But he isn’t; he genuinely has a problem processing what he hears, and the fact that he often does manage to deal well with that problem doesn’t change the fact that it is a problem.  He’s a lot better at it than he used to be, but it will never be the easiest way for him to take things in.

The key, with this, has been to write things down.  Whether it’s something as simple as the choices available for lunch (for a good while, I had a standard menu saved on my computer to print out a list of choices from which he could pick) or a more complicated issue that needs a social story to help him understand what he should be doing, writing rather than talking has been a huge help.  It seems appropriate; my husband and I met on a social group on the Internet, and now, twelve years later, here we are communicating with our first-born child in writing.

I’ve written before about my attempts at trying positive discipline with my children.  Jamie’s difficulty in communicating his wishes definitely made this harder at first.  Before I’d ever heard the term ‘positive discipline’, I’d devoured Faber and Mazlish’s ‘How To Talk So Kids Will Listen And Listen So Kids Will Talk‘, with their description of solving discipline problems by presenting the dilemma to the children in an empathetic way (“Oh, no!  You and your sister both want to have the yellow cup!  Looks like you both really want it!  What can we do?”) thus inspiring the child to come up with his or her own answers.  I loved the idea and looked forward eagerly to trying it out with my own children as soon as they were old enough (I read it when Jamie was a toddler).  But, for a long time, it was an absolute non-starter for Jamie – he would carry on screaming with no concept whatsoever of the possibility of trying to solve the problem, leaving me wondering unhappily what I was doing wrong.

(I eventually found Ross Greene’s books ‘The Explosive Child‘ and ‘Lost At School‘ to be useful reading here, although they aren’t about autistic children; they’re about working with children who don’t have the normal social skills and do need a lot more prompting through the whole problem-resolving process than the children in the ‘How To Talk…’ examples.  They didn’t teach me anything very new about the process, but the books did help me to realise that it was OK for my son to need quite a bit more guidance through the procedure, and that doing so was helping rather than stifling his development in this area.)

But, as the years have gone by and Jamie has matured further, I’ve found that problem-solving is starting to work.  It’s working more often in the short term, and, little by tiny, tiny bit, he’s picking up more of the skills of self-control and conflict resolution that I want him to learn in the long term.  And, as I’ve learned more about the principles of positive discipline, I’ve realised that they are, if anything, even more important with my son.  Instead of seeing unwanted behaviour as ‘naughty’ and something to punish him out of, I’ve learned to see it as his lack of ability to behave appropriately, and his need for more teaching and guidance.  Or as his response to the stresses that freak him out and that I need to learn to understand.  Often when Jamie acts in a way that seems ‘naughty’ or inappropriate, it’s because some seemingly ordinary part of life is freaking him out in a way it wouldn’t freak out another person, or because, for all his verbal ability, he’s just not very good at explaining his feelings to us. 

I remember one occasion, a couple of years back, when, in the middle of a screaming fit, he made up a rule that Katie and I weren’t allowed in the living room.  I don’t remember the exact rule – I think he defined a narrow age range that was permitted in and that would have excluded both me and Katie while including him – but I do remember him screaming it at us, screaming over and over “You are not allowed in the living room!  Get out!”  I was outraged – how dare he try to make up rules about who was or wasn’t allowed in a room of the house that we all shared?  And then I suddenly thought about what it must be like to be a little boy with autism who really needed a few minutes on his own, just a bit of space, but who wasn’t good at explaining his feelings in words and was feeling too overwhelmed by life right now to phrase his reasonable request in a socially acceptable way.

“Jamie,” I asked him, “do you mean that you want to be on your own in the living room for a bit?”

“Yes,” he said a bit more calmly.

“Then the way you say it is ‘Could you please leave?'”

He repeated the phrase, and I scooped up Katie and left.  Because, after all, once I’d got past the way he was asking to what he was asking, it was a perfectly reasonable request; heaven knows I’ve needed a few minutes (or hours) on my own for down time in the past.  He simply hadn’t known how to ask for it without having a meltdown.  By understanding where he was coming from, I’d been able to help him with the skill he needed.  (And, after that and other similar occasions, he’s since then been able to echo the phrase back when it’s needed at least some of the time.)

Life with Jamie feels normal to us because it is what’s normal to us.  It’s just the way our parenting experience has been.  Maybe it would have felt different if we’d had Katie first and were always comparing Jamie to a memory of a neurotypical (the autistic word for ‘non-autistic’) child of the same age, but, as it is, we pretty much take his differences in our stride and figure out ways to work with them or work round them.  Parenting is about accepting, respecting, and working with your child’s strengths and weaknesses.  Parenting Jamie, with his particular and less common strengths and weaknesses, is just the variation of that principle that we have in our lives.

People so often hear ‘disability’ or ‘autism’ as dark scary words warning of dire fates, but to me, those words have always been positive.  They’re words that open up new worlds of interest to be explored, worlds that hold some of the keys to understanding my son and to understanding more about people anyway.  And they’re words of comfort and reassurance; the words that told me – and still tell me, in times of doubt – that Jamie’s differences and difficulties aren’t due to any failing on my part as his mother, that they’re not evidence of anything I should be doing differently or more of or less of.  They’re words that have freed me to understand him as he really is.

Being Jamie’s mother is often difficult, usually interesting (apart from the whole listening-to-monologues-about-computer-games bit, which is mind-numbingly boring), often challenging, frequently fun, and nearly always exciting and intriguing.  And writing all of that kind of feels like a ‘Duh’, because, well, isn’t that what being anyone’s mother is like?  Obviously, if the genetic shuffle had dealt me a neurotypical child for my first as well as my second then my overall parenting experience would have been rather fundamentally different, but I’m glad that wasn’t how things ended up; I like having one child of each variety, one with whom I can have a fairly normal parenting experience and one who’s stretched my experience and my ways of seeing the world into new and interesting shapes.  Our story isn’t a story of tragic struggle or heroically overcoming the odds or finding new meaning in life – none of the traditional themes for Disability Stories.  It’s just about my two children – one disabled, one not – and about how grateful I am to have such a funny, interesting, challenging, lovable, wonderful little boy and girl in my life.


Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!

Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:

(This list will be live and updated by afternoon March 13 with all the carnival links.)


Filed under Deep Thought, Here Be Offspring

Their bodies, their choice

Last year, clicking through links from different blogs, I came across one called The Honest Courtesan, written under the nom de plume of Maggie McNeill.  I've been reading it ever since; it makes a pleasantly interesting change from all the heated debate over parenting-related issues that is my more usual fare.  Maggie is a former escort worker who blogs in favour of decriminalisation of prostitution.

I've never had a problem with the concept that prostitution should be legal; I've always found it far harder to see why it shouldn't be.  I have never seen a voluntary exchange of sex for money as being something that should be the law's business (except insofar as any profession should be assured of good working conditions), and I'd like the portion of my taxes that's spent on law and order to be spent on clearing up things that actually do harm other people rather than wasted on arrests of/sanctions against people who weren't doing anyone any harm in the first place.  So the idea of decriminalising prostitution (1) wasn't a new or startling one to me.

However, reading Maggie's blog, and some of the sites she links to, has been an education on the complexities of the subject.  And an eclectic one.  Maggie writes a lengthy post every day, nearly all of them on the topic of prostitution, and she approaches it from every angle imaginable.  Current events, legalities, ethics, philosophy, personal experience (never written to be racy or titillating, but do be warned that she does get pretty frank and open about some of the details), history, and even the odd bit of prostitution-related fiction (and, no, it's never pornographic fiction).  As you can imagine, I've learned a lot about the subject, and a lot about anti-prostitution arguments and some of their flaws.

So, a couple of years back, Maggie made a suggestion.  For reasons explained here, she suggested making Friday the Thirteenth a day for speaking out in favour of decriminalisation of prostitution. I wasn't reading her blog then, and so I didn't see this until her follow-up post on May 13th of last year; as it happens, this is the first Friday the Thirteenth since then, and thus the first opportunity I've had to use this day to speak out on the subject.

While most happy to oblige, I wasn't sure where to start on dealing with the complexities of this subject and the many myths around it. As it happens, however, the perfect cue came up a couple of weeks ago; the subject of prostitution somehow came up in the middle of a blog debate about something utterly different, and one commenter summed the different positions up rather nicely:

What a certain sector of feminist thought argues is that sex work can be *chosen* and is a legitimate and potentially empowering choice for women. Those that disagree will often retort that no one would choose prostitution if other options were reasonably available and though they may not be “forced” at gun point they are “forced” by lack of access to education, poor support for addictive illnesses, shredded social safety nets, etc.

And so, for this Friday the Thirteenth, I want to reply to the position described in her second sentence.

First of all, there is an important factual error to note here: the claim that no-one would choose prostitution if other reasonable options were available. In fact, many women do precisely this. Last year, in Wales, researchers surveyed women in the non-streetwalker forms of prostitution (brothel work and escort work) to find out about their reasons for entering the world's oldest profession, and were surprised to find that – far from being forced into it by desperate circumstances – the majority of the women they spoke to had willingly left good careers in other areas to go into sex work.  Similar findings were emerging from research done in the USA.

While many people will have a hard time believing those findings, the fact is that a career in the higher-end forms of prostitution has many benefits – it's very well paid, women can set their own hours, working conditions are often excellent (they may see their clients at luxury hotels, and at least one post on Maggie's blog is a review of the quality restaurants to which her clients took her before, or sometimes even instead of, getting down to the part of the evening more usually associated with the job), and there is no doubt that they're going to have a lot of satisfied clients. So, in fact, it isn't so surprising to find that there are women such as Maggie who genuinely enjoy their work in prostitution and who choose to stay in the job in spite of having other perfectly good options available to them. In fact, the biggest problems that many women face with the job are simply those thrown in their way by the restrictive laws around the profession that have been put into place in misguided attempts to help these women.

However, it is also, of course, quite true that many other prostitutes are only in the profession due to being forced into it by straitened circumstances – they don't like the idea of having sex with multiple strangers, but they need the money and either they have no other way of getting it or the other jobs available to them are worse. (2) And this fact is often used as an argument for trying to stamp out prostitution – that anti-prostitution laws are needed to help and protect those women forced into the profession.  What this argument ignores, however, is that if someone has picked Option X as being the best available to them out of a limited selection of disliked options, all that removing Option X does is to leave them with the options that they've already concluded are even worse.

If a woman has decided that prostitution is the least unattractive option available to her at this time in her life, making it illegal is not going to change whatever life circumstances have led her to that decision.  It may leave her with one of the choices that she has already decided to be more unsavoury to her (destitution, or working at a worse job); or it may leave her working as a prostitute anyway, with her lot made worse by the added burden of anti-prostitution laws.  Either way, it is not going to help her.  She does not need anti-prostitution laws set up in a misguided attempt to 'protect' her – she needs help and support coupled with an acknowledgement of the fact that, if she is an adult of sound mind, she is the person best placed to make decisions about her own life and that she should have the right to do so.

So, for the above reasons and many others: yes, I do agree that sex work can be freely chosen.  I do agree that it is a legitimate choice.  I do agree that it can be potentially empowering for women.  And, while I recognise that there are large numbers involved in the industry who do not find it empowering and would not want to be in that job if they had a better option, I also recognise that making it illegal is not the answer to that problem.  Today is my first Friday the Thirteenth of blogging for the rights of sex workers: I hope it won't be the last.



(1) There is, apparently, a technical issue of wording to be considered here: apparently legalisation is not the same as decriminalisation.  Legalisation requires prostitution to be subject to whatever laws and licencing procedures the government may deem relevant, and governments, apparently, have an appalling track record on that score; their attempts to set up legal frameworks to control and regulate prostitutes have invariably led to laws that have done far more harm than good.  Decriminalisation apparently means that you stop making it illegal without the requirement to throw in a bunch of totally unnecessary and problematic new laws.  I am not a lawyer and don't play one on TV, so I do hope I got that distinction right.  In any case, this is why decriminalisation is the term that Maggie uses and the one that I have used here, other than in the footnoted sentence describing my views prior to encountering her blog.

(2) I'm not, in this post, discussing the far more uncommon but far more tragic cases in which women are forced into prostitution in the more literal sense of being under threat of violence to themselves or their families if they don't comply, such as trafficked women.  I think that people from all sides of the prostitution debate can agree that trafficking is a hideous crime that needs to remain illegal, regardless of what happens with prostitution laws.  However, although making prostitution illegal is often advocated as a way of fighting sex trafficking, there is little evidence that it is of any help; meanwhile, anti-prostitution laws harm the women who are involved in the profession by choice.


Filed under Deep Thought, Grr, argh, Sacred hamburger

More thoughts on discipline: enforcing limits

After I wrote my thumbnail sketch of positive discipline (which I'm going to abbreviate to PD, for ease – that's how it's generally referred to on the list I'm on), my sister followed up with a comment on the next post that raised a couple of excellent points – namely, that there is a place in discipline both for teaching specific behaviours (such as saying please and thank you) and for setting firm limits.  I completely agree with both of those, so I'm glad she raised the points.  (Do please keep any other queries coming, folks – I was trying to write a summary of how the PD approach differs from other approaches, not a complete explanation of everything in the theory, so there are inevitably some big gaps and some yes-but-what-abouts.)

PD is often mistaken for a philosophy of letting kids do just what they want, but, in fact, normally PD advocates absolutely do agree with setting firm limits where appropriate.  (They may well set fewer limits simply because of a don't-sweat-the-small-stuff approach – sometimes we get worked up about a particular behaviour because society expects us to/we feel we should rather than because it's actually causing any harm, and PD encourages parents to think more flexibly about these sorts of issues – but the basic principle of settling limits where it is appropriate remains the same.)  There's even a name for this – GOYB parenting, which stands for 'Get Off Your Butt' (and go and actually move the child away from whatever they're not supposed to be doing).  The difference between PD and other forms of parenting lies in how you approach the situation after that.

So, for example, let's say one of your children launches into a fists-flying attack on another.  I think everyone other than utterly neglectful or ineffectual parents can agree on what the immediate response needs to be to that: grab that child, pull him or her off the other one, and physically restrain him/her if necessary to stop the hitting.  The question is – what do you do after that?  (If you're the kind of exhausted drained wiped-out just-getting-through-the-day-please-god parent I was in my children's early years, the answer is admittedly "Tell them to stop doing that and then let it drop", but I'm talking parenting philosophies here.)

Traditional advice would be to smack the offender, to give them the message that they need to avoid that behaviour in future.  More modern parenting experts point out the illogicality of hitting a child to teach them not to hit, and advise time-out instead – if this is a recurring problem, one of today's experts might also advise a reward scheme with some sort of goody given out for periods of time spent 'playing nicely' together (this is, indeed, the first example given in the chapter on rewards in the Webster-Stratton book.)  But the PD approach would be to take this as an opportunity to guide the child through developing the skills needed to handle this situation better.

For example, you could start by acknowledging the child's feelings at the same time as clarifying the limit – "Oh, my goodness, you're so angry with Jimmy, aren't you?  We don't hit people, even when we're angry – we need to find another way to sort this out."  You could help the child to calm down, if needed.  And then you could find out what set this off, and talk through better ways of handling the situation when it next comes up.

(Another prominent feature of PD, though not unique to it, is to look at what else may have been going on to predispose to that particular behaviour.  Is the real underlying problem here that your child is hungry/tired/bored/stressed out over life changes?  If so, that gives you things to work on to either improve the situation now or reduce the chances of the same thing happening in the future.)

You may well be wondering whether PD-practicing parents have to do this every single time we run into a discipline problem with our children, and of course we don't – life's too short, and you don't always have time to sit down and have this sort of conversation.  That's OK.  If the problem comes up again you can deal with it then, and if it doesn't then you don't have a problem anyway.  But, in general, you look to use these times as a chance to teach your child something about how to handle life, rather than as a challenge to your authority or as a surface behaviour to be squelched.

And, yes, I also agree that sometimes the skill you need to teach the child in a particular situation is a simple behaviour ("Say please") rather than a detailed consideration of complex moral issues/social mores.

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Discipline and rewards: Addendum

I meant to clarify in the last post that I'm not flat-out against ever using rewards (although I know of some purists in the positive discipline camp who feel that way).  The big advantage rewards have, of course, is that they are useful in the short term when it comes to changing a particular behaviour; and, while in general parenting should be about taking the long view, the reality of life is that sometimes it's important to sort out a short-term problem.  Toilet training is the obvious example – it doesn't require our children to make complex moral choices and I think we'd all prefer it if they didn't develop a passionate interest in the subject, so, if sticker charts or the like give a child the motivation to get interested in developing this new habit, I say go for it.  So, rewards have their place as far as I'm concerned.  I just try to keep that place to a very minor one.


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Thoughts on discipline: the problems with reward programmes

For a while now I've been thinking I really ought to write a post about my thoughts on discipline, but shying away from it because it's the kind of thing that can so easily turn into the kind of preachy this-is-how-you-should-do-it post that I hate.  However… the latest session of the Webster-Stratton course was on the topic of rewards, which is one on which I differ quite a bit from what they teach.  The one before that was on praise, on which I don't differ so much from what they say but do have some yes-buts coming largely from the whole rewards controversy.  I've been trying to write posts about those sessions that explain how and why I disagree with them, but, in the end, decided to start off by writing a separate post on the topic of how I see discipline and how I came to think about it in that way, in order to give the background on where I'm coming from on this.

Several years ago, I came across an author by the name of Alfie Kohn.  I came across bits and pieces of his on-line stuff here and there, and eventually ended up getting hold of a copy of his book Unconditional Parenting, analysing the way that society sees discipline and looking at problems with it.  It was fascinating – eye-opening, thought-provoking, paradigm-shifting.  This is not an attempt to give a detailed review or an endorsement of every single point he makes, but a quick summary of the points that most struck me about it.

Discipline systems, Kohn points out, are traditionally constructed around getting children to act in the way we think they should act by means of punishments for acting differently and/or rewards for acting in ways considered acceptable.  Newer systems pride themselves on being less harsh with the punishments (none of that nasty old spanking – time out, that's the way to go!) or more weighted towards the rewards (praise and stickers for good behaviour – so much better than just punishing bad behaviour!), but these changes are just tweaking of the basic concept of using incentives to get children to act in a particular way.  And, if you look at short-term behaviour as your outcome, these are indeed effective ways of doing things – punishments do work well in persuading people to avoid a particular behaviour (or at least to avoid getting caught doing it), and rewards work even better in terms of getting the behaviour we want.

But how does this fit in with what we want for our children long-term?  Surely what we actually want is to raise our children to have moral values and an internal moral compass and to think for themselves about the information and the problems that life presents to them?  How does that fit with the mechanistic, short-term, what's-in-it-for-me focus of punishment and reward systems?  Is this teaching our children the skills they should have to best get through life?

Kohn (in that book and another of his that I've read, Punished By Rewards) cites a stack of studies that raise concerns over the longer-term effects not just of punishment-based systems, but over reward-based systems.  There is, apparently, considerable evidence that rewarding people for doing something is likely to decrease their overall intrinsic interest in doing that thing – rewards, it seems, just give people the message that the task in question is something that's unrewarding enough in itself to need an external incentive for anyone to want to do it.  So that has worrying implications for all those 'stickers for books read' type of programmes that schools love – while they certainly get children to read more books, they do so by giving children the message that books aren't really that enjoyable for their own sake.  There is also evidence that rewarding people for performance can actually harm performance – it can make people less creative, less willing to take risks, as they learn to focus on what will be most likely to earn them the reward rather than on the satisfaction of completing the task as well as possible for its own sake.  And, most worryingly, there are apparently a number of studies showing that rewarding moral behaviour may make people less likely to make moral choices in the future.  Rewards give the message that doing nice things is something you do for a reward, not for the satisfaction of knowing you've made someone else happy.

How good the research on that last is, I don't know; most of it I haven't read myself, and quantity of studies isn't necessarily an indicator of quality.  Long-term moral development is far harder to measure than short-term interest in a task, so there are no doubt plenty of weaknesses that studies in that area might have.  However, Kohn's description of the research, plus the basic question "Do I really want to teach my children that the main reason to act a particular way is because there's something in it for them?" was still enough to be a turning point for me in the whole way I thought about discipline.

Kohn is great on the explanations of why our usual approach is wrong, but less good on the practical nitty-gritty of how, in that case, we should go about managing day-to-day parenting issues.  Some of that gap was filled, for me, by Faber and Mazlish's unutterably superb if-you're-going-to-buy-just-one-parenting-book-make-it-this-one How To Talk So Kids Can Listen And Listen So Kids Can Talk and their other books.  I also came across posts on the Internet from parents trying a new style of discipline that's referred to as either 'positive discipline' or 'gentle discipline', although I don't think either of those names really sums up how that approach is different from the reward/punishment based approach – still, if you're looking for more on that style of discipline, those are the names you'll find it under. 

Finally, searching Yahoo Groups to find a group of parents I could join after the newsgroups I'd been part of for the early years of my parenting crumbled under the weight of the spambots, I stumbled on the Positive Parenting Discipline group, and have been there ever since, soaking up their tips and advice.  Not only is this a big help in practical terms, but it's helped me formulate the philosophy behind this new type of discipline in terms of what it's about, not just what it isn't about.  I should say that this isn't any sort of Official Statement On Behalf Of The Positive Discipline Movement, or anything – I don't claim to speak for everyone who tries to follow this style of discipline, but this is how I see it and how I would put it.

Positive discipline, gentle discipline, non-punitive discipline, or whatever you want to call this concept, is – for me – about teaching children the skills they will eventually need to manage their own discipline and their own lives as moral, independent-minded, compassionate adults.  There are a lot of ways in which we can do this (which, of course, is precisely why it took a long time and a lot of reading for me to be able to articulate this philosophy – this way of doing things just doesn't lend itself to easy parenting-programme-style soundbites like 'Praise everything they do right, ignore them when they don't, one minute of time-out for every year of the child's life as a back-up') and it's beyond the scope of this post to go into them, but that principle is what underlies them.

The other key principle that runs through this form of discipline is something that isn't unique to it – it often gets overlooked in discussions of conventional discipline, but plenty of the parenting experts who work from a reward-and-punishment paradigm still recognise the importance of this one (hence, for example, the Webster-Stratton course starting with three whole sessions on play and communicating with your child).  This principle is connection – maintaining and strengthening the powerful connection to your child that means that, ultimately, parenting isn't just the battle of wills that it could often be mistaken for on reading some of the parenting books on the market, but is also a loving relationship between two people who are (however easy it may be to lose sight of this in the middle of heated battles about bedtime) actually very well motivated to help and support and co-operate with each other.

For an example of how all this works in practice, see this post that I wrote a few months back, on sorting out a sibling clash.  Now, imagine that I'd instead reacted to that same incident by telling the two of them they could have a sticker/treat/sweet if they stopped fighting.  In the case of my two I don't think that would even have worked – neither would have had enough self-control, in the heat of the moment, to calm down for the promise of a goody.  But, even if it did, what would it have done about helping them with the skills of negotiation and compromise that were actually what they needed there?  When I helped them with those skills, we got somewhere.

So, that's a quick outline of how I approach discipline and why.  Feel free to come back twenty years later and see how well it worked out for us all.

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Philosophy Of An Unnatural Parent

Welcome to the July Carnival of Natural Parenting: Parenting Philosophy

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama. This month our participants have shared their parenting practices and how they fit in with their parenting purpose. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.

(OK, that one needs a moment of explanation both for regular readers of mine who are wondering if they’re on the wrong blog and for Carnival readers who might find other parts of this blog not exactly what they were expecting.  I don’t consider myself to be a Natural Parent – I share their core philosophies, but there are others on which I disagree with them, and the whole thing just doesn’t speak to me personally.  But, as the Carnival topic this month is one that’s also important to us non-natural parents, I figured I’d jump in and give it a shot.)


The thought-provoking topic for this Carnival is parenting philosophy and how our parenting practices can help further our goals.  I’d never thought before in terms of figuring out how to summarise my Philosophy of Parenting – while I certainly have one, so far I’ve articulated it more in terms of ‘Do what works for you, don’t assume it’s what’ll work for anyone else, and be very suspicious of anyone who tries to claim they have the OneTrueWay to follow, because they’re probably very blinkered’.  Which is great for a philosophy of parenting generally, but this carnival is clearly meant to be more about what philosophy guides me, myself, in my individual parenting decisions.  So, I had to do some thinking about what my underlying philosophy really was, and how I could best put it into words.  And these are the words I came up with:

My job as a parent is to work together with my children to help them grow into the best people they can be.

What do I mean by ‘the best people they can be’?  It means I want to encourage them to think about what they want in life and to reach out and work towards that; and, at the same time, I want to encourage the qualities in them that will help them make their lives both fulfilling for themselves and beneficial to others.  Compassion.  Reason.  Articulacy.  Common sense.  Humour.  The ability to think for themselves and to know when to be sceptical.  The strength and the skills to stand up for what they believe to be right.

What do I mean by working together with my children?  It means that I don’t expect them to pick all these skills and qualities up simply by some sort of process of osmosis in which I spend their childhood telling them what I think they should do and focusing on how best to get them to go along with my plans or my advice, then expect them to have magically figured out how to do it all by themselves by the time they hit eighteen.  Instead, I try to work with them on problem-solving skills, to use day-to-day clashes and problems and dilemmas as teaching opportunities, wherever I can – to guide my children bit by bit to the point where they can make more of these decisions for themselves, and give them the tools they need to do so.

This weekend, the children wanted to build our marble run, and we ran into problems straight away – Jamie automatically took on the job of passing me the blocks that were needed (‘from the shop’, as he puts it), but Katie wanted that job too.  I could have just lectured them on the obvious solution (“Now, children, you need to take turns.  You can go first, and you can wait and go next…”) but instead, I said “OK, wait, wait, wait a minute!  Jamie, you want to mind the shop and give the blocks to me, but Katie, you want that job as well.  Can anyone think of what we could do?”

“I have an idea!” Katie exclaimed.  “We could both do it!”

“Wait, wait!” Jamie waved us into silence, overwhelmed by his inspiration.  “I know!  I could do the odd-numbered instructions, and Katie could do the even-numbered instructions!!”

Katie agreed to this, and a peace was thus agreed that lasted through an entire six instructions, although it was crumbling by the end of instruction 7 and finally crashed, along with the marble run (kicked over by Jamie) in a fight over who got to put the marbles in in which order.  But it was really good while it lasted.  And, while I realise that that probably isn’t sounding like too dramatic a success story to anyone who hasn’t had to take care of two small and strong-willed children, one of them autistic… believe you me, some of history’s international treaties have involved less miraculous feats of interpersonal diplomacy.  For a short but glorious while, it actually worked. 

And simply telling them they had to take turns would not have worked, or not nearly as well.  But, because I framed the problem for them and then gave them the space to think about the solution for themselves, not only did they come up with a solution that they were happy to work with in a way that they wouldn’t have been with an externally-imposed one, they have also had a chance to see how problems are solved and practice some of the skills for themselves, in a way small enough for them to manage at the stage they’re at. 

Next time they want to get the marble run out, I’ll try to avoid another heat-of-the-moment fight by encouraging them to plan at the start how they’re going to arrange the order in which they put the marbles in; and thus, by having the chance to think that problem through before things become too heated, they’ll (hopefully) learn just a tiny sliver more.  Multiply that by thousands and thousands of events throughout their childhood, thousands of increasingly complex problems and dilemmas that I can guide them through solving themselves, backing off just a bit more and a bit more as time goes by, taking one hand and then both hands off the bike and letting them ride free of me.  We’ll work on figuring these things out together, because that’s how I can help them to practice the skills that they’ll need for the day when they have to face life’s problems and figure them out alone.


Visit Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!

Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:

(THIS LIST IS NOW UPDATED. Sorry for the delay and do check out any links that you couldn’t get to work before!)

  • Between Love and Fear: On Raising our Children Sensibly — Mamma Earthly at Give an Earthly discusses the fear factor in parenting and how she overcame it, despite societal pressures.
  • really, when do i get my cape? — Sarah at small bird on fire is a working city mama trying to learn how to set aside her expectations of perfection and embrace the reality of modern parenting.
  • Baby, Infant, and Toddler Wearing — Child wearing is part of Sarah at Nourished and Nurtured‘s parenting philosophy. In this post, Sarah describes benefits of child-wearing and gives tips for wearing babies, infants, and toddlers (even while pregnant).
  • First Year Reflections — As her daughter’s first birthday approaches, Holly at First Year Reflections reflects on how she and her husband settled into attachment parenting after initially doing what they thought everyone else did.
  • Making an allowance — Lauren at Hobo Mama welcomes a guest post from Sam about the unexpected lessons giving a four-year-old an allowance teaches the child — and the parent.
  • How to be a Lazy Parent and Still Raise Great Kids — Lisa at Granola Catholic talks about how being a Lazy Parent has helped her to raise Great Kids.
  • Philosophy in Practice — Laura at A Pug in the Kitchen shares how her heart shaped the parenting philosophy in her home.
  • What is Attachment Parenting Anyway? — Gaby at Tmuffin describes the challenges of putting a label on her parenting philosophy.
  • Of Parenting Styles — Jenny at Chronicles of a Nursing Mom talks about how she and her husband tailored various parenting styles to fit their own preferred parenting philosophy.
  • Moment by Moment Parenting — Amy at Peace 4 Parents encourages those who care for children (including herself) to explore and appreciate parenting moment-by-moment with clarity, intention, trust, and action.
  • Maintaining Spirituality in the Midst of Everyday Parenting, Marriage, and Life — Sarah at Nourished and Nurtured shares her perspective on finding opportunities for spiritual growth in every day life.
  • Parenting Philosophy — Lily, aka Witch Mom’s parenting philosophy is to raise child(ren) to be compassionate, loving, inquisitive, and questioning adults who can be trusted to make decisions for themselves in a way that avoids harming others.
  • Long Term — Rosemary at Rosmarinus Officinalis thinks about who she would like to see her daughter become — and what she can do now to lay a strong foundation for those hopes.
  • Connection, Communication, Compassion — She’s come a long way, baby! After dropping her career in favour of motherhood, Patti at Jazzy Mama discovered that building solid relationships was going to be her only parenting priority.
  • My Parenting Inspirations – Part 4 — Jennifer at Hybrid Rasta Mama looks at her biggest parenting inspiration and how that translates into her long-term parenting philosophy.
  • A Parenting Philosophy in One Word: Respect — Jenn at Monkey Butt Junction summarizes her parenting and relationship philosophy in one word: respect.
  • Knowledge and Instinct — Kat at Loving {Almost} Every Moment believes that knowledge and instinct are super important … as are love, encouragement and respect. It’s the ideal combo needed to raise happy and healthy children and in turn create meaningful relationships with them.
  • THRIVE!The Sparkle Mama wants to set a tone of confidence, abundance, and happiness in her home that will be the foundation for the rest of her daughter’s life.
  • On Children — “Your children are not your children,” say Kahlil Gibran and Hannah at Wild Parenting.
  • This One Life Together — Ariadne aka Mudpiemama shares her philosophy of parenting: living fully in the here and now and building the foundation for a happy and healthy life.
  • Enjoying life and planning for a bright future — Olivia at Write About Birth shares her most important parenting dilemmas and pours out her heart about past trauma and how healing made her a better parent.
  • My Parenting Philosophy: Unconditional and Natural Love — Charise at I Thought I Knew Mama shares what she has learned about her parenting philosophy from a year of following her instincts as a mama.
  • An open letter to my children — Isil at Smiling Like Sunshine writes an open letter to her children.
  • My Starter Kit for Unconditional Parenting — Sylvia at MaMammalia discusses her wish to raise a good person and summarizes some of the nontraditional practices she’s using with her toddler son in order to fulfill that wish.
  • Responsiveness — Sheila at A Gift Universe has many philosophies and goals, but what it all boils down to is responsiveness: listening to what her son wants and providing what he needs.
  • Tools for Creating Your Parenting Philosophy — Have you ever really thought about your parenting purpose? Knowing your long-term goals can help you parent with more intent in your daily interactions. Dionna at Code Name: Mama offers exercises and ideas to help you create your own parenting philosophy.
  • Be a Daisy — Becky at Old New Legacy philosophizes about individuality and how she thinks it’s important for her daughter’s growth.
  • What’s a Mama to Do? — Amyables at Toddler in Tow hopes that her dedication to compassionate parenting will keep her children from becoming too self-critical as adults.
  • grown-up anxieties. — Laura at Our Messy Messy Life explains her lone worry concerning her babies growing up.
  • Why I Used Montessori Principles in My Parenting Philosophy — Deb Chitwood at Living Montessori Now tells why she chose Montessori principles to help her now-adult children develop qualities she wanted to see in them as children and adults.
  • Parenting Philosophies & Planning for the FutureMomma Jorje considers that the future is maybe just a fringe benefit of doing what feels right now.
  • Not Just Getting Through — Rachael at The Variegated Life asks what truths she hopes to express even in the most commonplace interactions with her son.
  • Parenting Philosophy? Eh… — Ana at Pandamoly shares the philosophy (or lack thereof) being employed to (hopefully) raise a respectful, loving, and responsible child.
  • Parenting Philosophy: Being Present — Shannon at The Artful Mama discusses the changes her family has made to accommodate their parenting philosophy and to reflect their ideals as working parents.
  • Who They Will Be — Amanda at Let’s Take the Metro shares a short list of some qualities she hopes she is instilling in her children at this very moment.
  • Short Term vs. Long Term — Sheryl at Little Snowflakes recounts how long term parenting goals often get lost in the details of everyday life with two kids.
  • Parenting Philosophy: Practicing and Nurturing Peace — Terri at Child of the Nature Isle sets personal goals for developing greater peace.
  • Yama Niyama & the Red Pajama Mama — Part 1: The Yamas — In part 1 of a set of posts by Zoie at TouchstoneZ, Zoie guest posts at Natural Parents Network about how the Yoga Sutras provide a framework for her parenting philosophy.
  • Yama Niyama & the Red Pajama Mama — Part 2: The Niyamas — In part 2 of a set of posts by Zoie at TouchstoneZ, Zoie explores how the Niyamas (one of the eight limbs in traditional Yoga) help her maintain her parenting and life focus.
  • Our Sample Parenting Plan — Chante at My Natural Motherhood Journey shares hopes of who her children will become and parenting strategies she employs to get them there.
  • Philosophical Parenting: Letting Go — Jona at Life, Intertwined ponders the notion that there’s no right answer when it comes to parenting.
  • Unphilosophizing? — jessica at instead of institutions wonders about the usefulness of navel gazing.
  • Parenting Sensitively — Amy at Anktangle uses her sensitivity to mother her child in ways that both nurture and affirm.
  • how to nurture your relationships — Mrs Green at Little Green Blog believes that sometimes all kids need is a jolly good listening to …
  • Philosophy Of An Unnatural Parent — Dr. Sarah at Good Enough Mum sees parenting as a process of guiding her children to develop the skills they’ll need.
  • Life with a Challenging Kid: Hidden Blessings — Wendy at High Needs Attachment shares the challenges and joys of raising a high needs child.
  • Flying by the Seat of My Pants — Heather at Very Nearly Hippy has realized that she has no idea what she’s doing.


Filed under Deep Thought, Here Be Offspring

Controversunday: Saviour Siblings

 # badges #

Interesting topic for today's Controversunday post: our opinion on the practice of deliberately conceiving a child selected via IVF to be a genetic match for an older sibling with a serious illness requiring some kind of transplant or stem cell therapy.  What are the rights and wrongs of conceiving a child for the specific purpose of saving an existing child's life?

Since My Sister's Keeper is the obvious example, I'll start by giving my reactions to the dilemmas posed in that book, as I read it.  (This will include some details of the story, but nothing that I feel would count as a spoiler for anyone who hasn't read it.)

Before I read the book, I was against the idea of conceiving a sibling for that purpose, simply because I don't feel it right to create a person solely as a means to an end.  As I read it, with the inevitable what-would-I-do-ifs running through my mind, I realised that there was an aspect I hadn't thought of; at the time, I only had one child, but I knew we would try for another when Jamie was a bit older.  What would I do if my son was diagnosed wtih such a disease before the sibling we already planned was conceived?  Would I think it right to opt for genetic selection to ensure that that baby was a match for him?

You bet I would.  How could I not desperately hope, in such a situation, that the baby born would be the right genetic match?  Apart from wanting to save my son's life, how would the crushing disappointment of having a second child who wasn't a match affect my relationship with that child?  This wasn't the situation faced by the parents in My Sister's Keeper, who – the book makes clear – had decided their family was complete before their daughter was diagnosed with leukaemia, and changed their minds to conceive their third child solely because they needed a saviour sibling; but it was a new twist on the problem.  If I were already planning another child and discovered my child needed a saviour sibling, then, yes, I do believe it would be right to do whatever I could to ensure that the child whose conception I was already planning was the right genetic match to donate.  (The one reservation I would have about this would a practical one – how awful would it be to have to face the hassle of IVF just at the time when things were already going so badly for the family, with all the practical problems, as well as emotional stress, that a child's serious illness and the resultant hospital trips bring?  How I'd deal with that, I honestly don't know.)

The article that amoment2think linked to mentioned concerns about 'designer babies', but that aspect of things does not bother me (I hadn't, in fact, even thought about it until reading that quote in the article).  I think the term 'designer babies' is one calculated to bring up a frightening equation in our mind: wanting to ensure your child has particular genetic traits = wanting a perfect child = being a rigid, unforgiving person who doesn't accept imperfection.  I think it's obvious that wanting a saviour sibling has nothing to do with wanting a perfect child, with any sort of wanting your child to be 'better' in any kind of objective, general way than a non-genetically-manipulated child.  The father in My Sister's Keeper, as it happens, addresses this point when the parents are asked about it on a television show: "We didn't ask for a baby with blue eyes, or one that would grow to be six feet tall, or one that would have an IQ of two hundred.  Sure, we asked for specific characteristics – but they're not anything anyone would ever consider to be model human traits.  They're just Kate's traits.  We don't want a superbaby; we just want to save our daughter's life."  I don't have any problem with doing what I can to maximise the chances that one of my children can, if needed, save my other child's life.

The book raised another dilemma that I hadn't thought of – the rights and wrongs of making one child donate to another, regardless of whether their genetic suitability for so doing is through IVF or a random lucky roll of the genetic dice.  Anna is required to donate to her sister multiple times in different ways during the book – blood samples for a donor lymphocyte infusion when she's five, a bone marrow donation when she's six, and a request for a kidney transplantation when she's thirteen, this being the request that leads to her putting her foot down and bringing the lawsuit that is the subject of the book.  Each of those are difficult and painful for her, and bone marrow and kidney donation do both carry some risks.  What would I do as the parent, in such a situation?  How would I balance the needs of my two children if they clashed in that way?

To some extent, I can predict what I might do.  Blood sample from a five-year-old?  Yes, I'd make her – I don't believe a five-year-old is capable of understanding that the distress of a needle, although much more immediate and concrete than the distress of the loss of a sibling, is nevertheless much more trivial and short-lived.  Kidney from a thirteen-year-old?  No – by that age, a child will still need guidance and support, but I believe they should have the final say about a decision that big.  But how do you make the decisions that fall in between those in terms of both age and what's involved?  I don't know: I'd have to figure each situation out on its merits at the time.

None of this, of course, is answering the big question: Is it right to have a child you would not otherwise have had, as the parents in the book did, purely for the purpose of saving your existing child's life?

I don't believe it is right to create a human being for the purpose of using them as a tool rather than because you want that new person in your life.  A line from the mother's thoughts in the book sums up her mistake: "I have not really considered the specifics of this child.  I have thought of this daughter only in terms of what she will be able to do for the daughter I already have."  It's immediately before her daughter's birth, when a stranger making conversation at the hair salon asks her what names she has picked out and she realises she hasn't thought of any, has not really thought of this baby as an individual in her own right.  Later in the chapter, the moments and days after she gives birth are absent any mention of the new baby, whose early days are wordlessly erased from the story, forgotten in the description of the umbilical cord she brings with her and the procedure of transplanting its stem cells into Kate.

But I've learned that wanting a child or not wanting one isn't a simple binary decision.  I know what it's like to feel comfortable with a decision to have no more children, yet still know that if things were different, if circumstances led you to having another child, you'd still be able to love that child just as wholeheartedly as the ones you already have.  I've moved from assuming that a family taking this route must be simply using the saviour sibling, to understanding more fully how a family who would not otherwise have conceived that child might nevertheless feel joyful to get a whole new little person in their lives that they wouldn't otherwise have had, a wonderful silver lining to the cloud of their tragedy. 

So I guess my question for any family considering this dilemma would be: Do you believe – honestly – that you have it in you to love this child you're considering as an individual first and as a saviour second?  Will you be able to remember, always, to do that, to keep that priority firmly in your mind?  That should be the key question.  And, thinking about it, it's not one that applies just to saviour siblings.  It's a lesson for every parent – see who your children really are and connect with that person, not with your dream of what you want them to be.


Edited to add: Read the posts by the other participants!



Our Lady of Perpetual Breadcrumbs


Filed under Deep Thought

Things I Believe About Parenting, And Things I Do Not

The Writing Workshop theme for this week is 'Belief', with various open-ended questions thereof, including an invitation to talk about our beliefs on a non-religious subject if we so wish; such as, for example, parenting. I'm going for that one.  This is not so much an essay as a kind of laundry list of my opinions.  If you find any of them interesting and/or ridiculous enough to request further clarification, please do so; I shall, in theory at least though admittedly possibly not in actuality, be happy to write a further post on why I hold that particular belief/lack thereof.

Things I believe

I believe that the most important part of parenting is building a strong relationship of mutual respect and enjoyment with your children.  That's the best possible foundation both for teaching them the things you'll need to teach them, and for the rest of their lives.

I believe that discipline should, as much as possible (and it is not always possible), center around teaching conflict resolutions skills and the benefit of co-operation, within the kind of relationship described above, rather than centering around figuring out how to get your child to do what you tell them.  (This approach to discipline is generally referred to as either 'gentle discipline' or 'positive discipline', although I don't feel either sums it up very well for me – I generally think of it as 'collaborative discipline'.)

I believe that my job as a parent includes being sensitive to my children's feelings, and letting them know that experiencing those feelings is all right, including the negative ones.  It does not include a requirement to shield my children from anything that might cause them to experience such feelings.

I believe that most babies will thrive perfectly well on any non-abusive and non-neglectful method of baby-raising, as long as it's practiced with affection and enjoyment.  Some babies do do better on one method rather than another, but there is no consistency in which method such babies do better with.  So, regardless of whether the particular method that happens to float your boat is Gina Ford, William Sears, Tracy Hogg, Jean Liedloff, or Wing It As We Go, as long as it suits you, your baby and the rest of the family feel free to get on with it and to ignore anyone who tells you you'd be better off with a different method.  Just don't assume that your success with it gives you the right to assume that your child will turn out superior in some ways to children raised via a different method or to tell other random parents that they should use the same method if they're clearly equally happy with what they're doing.

I believe that breastfeeding has several health and convenience advantages, so is worth trying fairly hard to do if possible.  However, in a list of priorities including breastfeeding, your physical and mental health, and your enjoyment of your baby's babyhood, breastfeeding is at the bottom, so don't sacrifice any of the others for it. 

I believe that there are some risks with taking young babies (in the early months of life) into your bed.  If all safety precautions are carefully followed then they're exceedingly low and it's highly debatable whether it's worth worrying about them if the alternative is living through a nightmare of sleep deprivation (especially given that this carries its own risks for the baby), but they do appear to exist.  (And they're MUCH higher if safety precautions are not followed – so, if you're unable to do so for whatever reason, then it really is much better to try to find another way to manage the situation.)


Things I Do Not Believe

I don't believe that one bottle of formula, or even the occasional bottle of formula repeated over time, is likely to have anything particularly important in the way of adverse consequences for the vast majority of babies.   (Exceptions, in case you're interested, are babies with a strong family history of Type I diabetes or of severe – as in, life-threatening – food allergies.)

I don't believe that it matters more than minimally whether you introduce solids at four months or six (though six is definitely easier in practical terms).

I don't believe it makes any great difference whether you nurse your child for a year or five years.  I don't believe that nursing past infancy has either adverse or beneficial consequences, and think it should be considered entirely a matter of personal choice.

I don't believe that carrying your baby in a sling during as many as possible of your waking minutes needs to be on any parent's list of goals, or that it makes a difference to most babies over and above the many other ways of satisfying their needs for touch, affection, and general inclusion in your life.

I don't believe that sleep training causes mental or psychological damage or is a form of neglect.

I don't believe that sleep training is the only way of ever getting children to be good sleepers.

I don't believe that wanting sleep at night automatically makes you a selfish or neglectful parent.

I don't believe that there's either long-term problem or benefit with co-sleeping with an older baby or child if your family is happy that way.  I don't believe that it will make children over-dependent or that they'll never want to leave your bed, but nor do I believe that it's some sort of magic route to making your children extra confident and well-adjusted.  (I believe that the studies that have shown this to be the case have been confounded by the other differences likely to exist in parenting styles between families happy to bedshare and families who aren't.)

I don't believe that bedsharing protects babies against SIDS or that this should be put forward as a reason for advocating bedsharing.  (Since, as stated above, I believe bedsharing can increase the risk of SIDS in some cases, I'm very much against this particular claim.)

I don't believe that sensibly-applied time-outs indicate to a child that you are withdrawing your love from him or her.  (And, yes, in case you were wondering, there are actually people who do believe this.)


Things On Which The Jury Is Still Out

(PLEASE NOTE: All of these are issues on which I've seen some research/commentary that has made me form an initial opinion on the subject, but on which I am aware that I have not made a comprehensive enough study of the available research to be sure that I'm not missing some crucial evidence that would change my view.  Do be aware of this when deciding whether or not to take this as advice.)

I'm not sure how much evidence there actually is for continuing breastfeeding past six months (in the Western world, that is – there's no doubt it's beneficial if you're in a country where you can't count on proper food or uncontaminated water).  It seems from one study to reduce risks of gastroenteritis for older babies living in crowded/poor conditions, and there may be some fractional benefits for mental development, but there also seem to be several studies showing no benefit.  Of course, it's still likely to be a hell of a lot more convenient than formula, but if you're living in affluent conditions and absolutely hating the experience of breastfeeding your six-plus-month-old baby then I'm not sure that there's actually compelling evidence in favour of you continuing.

I think (based on a couple of studies I have seen indicating this) that breastfeeding during the night may present a risk of tooth decay as a child grows older.  Obviously this should not be applied to babies, who need to feed during the night if they aren't to risk going short of nutrition/fluid, but, if you are nursing an older child, it's worth night-weaning them.  And, yes, I am well aware that lactivists will hotly deny a possible risk to teeth from nursing and cite studies supporting their position.  Their studies relate to age of weaning (which I agree does not, in itself, appear to present a risk) and NOT to whether or not a child is breastfed at night during this age.  It's the night-time breastfeeding that may present a risk.

I doubt that smacking a child (smacking, not using the word as a euphemism for beating with objects and not taking the opportunity to add in a heavy helping of emotional manipulation) is mentally or psychologically harmful.  I don't do it, because I think it's not the most constructive way of going about approaching discipline (see second point under 'Things I Believe' above; but I remain unconvinced by a lot of what I've read about it, which doesn't appear to take all sorts of potential confounders into consideration.


So there you have it.  A mish-mash of the philosophical, the practical, and the sticking out of my neck on subjects on which I don't actually have sufficient knowledge to be making definitive pronouncements.  Pretty apt for a guiding creed of parenthood, when you think about it.


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