Some time last month, I went through a really rough day with my almost-six-years-old daughter, Phoebie. I was really mad at her after she repeatedly showed some terrible behaviour at her swimming lessons week after week. On that really rough day, I felt so horribly like a failed parent and I wrote about it.
While I was really mad at my daughter for her lack of willingness to try her best at her swimming lessons, I knew I had to reconcile with her and make sure she knew why I was mad at her. I had a debrief with her and explained my concerns to her. I told Phoebie that I didn’t need her to be a champion swimmer and all I asked of her was that she put in her best, and follow her coach’s instructions and do the exercises as required. I also explained to her that I wanted to her to learn to swim so that she can enjoy playing in swimming pools safely.
During our debrief, I asked Phoebie what I should do to remind her that she should not be throwing tantrums during her swimming lessons. “You should smack my hand if I cry at swimming lessons. It’s fair that you smack me if I don’t listen,” she said. To make sure that she remembered what she had said, I recorded her saying that sentence and reminded her at the start of every swimming lesson after that about what she said.
The crying and tantrums at swimming lessons didn’t stop immediately. For the few weeks that followed, she would cry and refuse to follow certain instructions. Because of that, I delivered the punishment she said she should get, week after week. The number of times I smacked her hands varied, depending on how long she spent crying at the lessons.
I didn’t enjoy smacking Phoebie hands, but I knew I had to do it. I said I would and I had to do it, just so my daughter would remember what to do and what not to do. It was tough watching her stretch out her little hands, cringing and anticipating each hit that laid on them. After every punishment, I would hug her as she cried from the pain on her hands. “Look at your hands, ” I would say, “Do they hurt?”
She would nod as she cried from the pain.
“Do you like the pain?” I would ask.
“Nooo…” She would answer, sobbing away.
“I want you to know that I don’t like smacking your hands, but I want you to remember your hands whenever you want to start crying and refuse to do the exercises your coach asks you to do. Look at your hands and remember how painful it is when Mummy smacks them. I want you to know that I don’t need you to be the best swimmer, but I just want you to try your best to learn,” I would remind her.
The smacking of Phoebie’s hands lessened week after week, as she remembered what I told her, and followed her coach’s instructions more. Each time her tantrums lessened, I would praise her for her improvements and encourage her to keep up the good work.
Then came yesterday. She stopped her tantrums totally and completed her swimming lesson without any crying at all. There was not a single tear. I confirmed what I observed with her coach when her lesson ended. I gave her a big hug and many high-fives, congratulating her on the huge progress.
After we had dinner, I told her that I was going to get a reward for her. We went to a book fair and she was allowed to pick out a new book.
When we got home, I explained to her about her reward.
“Because you have tried your best and you have shown me that you can follow instructions, this book is for you. So when you are reading this book, remember why you got it. You got the book because you did your best and made a big big improvement,” I said.
At the end of the day, I am still a firm believer of having to punish children when the situation calls for it. Punishment should always come with an explanation so that children know why they are being punished and what they did wrong. It is also important to facilitate the journey of reflection and discuss with the child, what she can do to behave better.
Just as there is a time for punishment, we shouldn’t be stingy with praises too. When there is improvement, praise the child and encourage them to keep up the good work. Let the child know that we noticed the little things that she is doing better.
Finally, when the goal has been achieved, reward the child. I do not mean having to do extravagant things but realistic rewards that are within what we as parents can afford. We do not have to buy the moon and the stars for the child but as long as it is something the child will appreciate, it is a reward good enough.
In our case this time, Phoebie was super happy to receive a book about things she really loves. As I rewarded her, I explained the significance of her reward.
Not everyone agrees with how I dealt with my daughter but as far as I am concerned, what I did has worked with her – punish when I have to, praise when I see improvements and reward when the goal is achieved.