Not the life

Being a mother is hard but there may be help at hand
August 19, 1997

Earlier this year I went through a rocky patch with my five-year-old son. After the birth of his twin brothers, he reacted badly. He was gentle with the babies, furious with me. I tried everything: I was calm, angry, concerned, breezy-floundering. It was like being in a bad marriage. Not all the time, but enough of the time to make me feel that we both needed help. I did not want my son's behaviour analysed. I felt I understood it well enough. Trying to cope with it was another matter. One evening, we were having an infernal tussle before bed. I was trying to insert my son's legs into his pyjamas; he was resisting wildly-flailing and shouting-and managing to create the impression of having eight legs rather than two. After we had achieved the pyjama bottoms, he looked at me and observed lightly: "This is not the life." I laughed, so did he. But it was true. This was not the life, not for either of us.

On my bookshelf stood half a dozen child care books, like surrogate parents. Before I even had a baby, I had a book: Dr Gordon Bourne, a conservative consultant, ushered me through nine months like a man respectfully opening a door to a pregnant woman (Pregnancy); Penelope Leach instructed me like a policeman, while being at times insufferably dewy-eyed about babies (Baby & Child); Dr Christopher Green, a bluff Australian, went the other way, suggesting that children were cartoon reprobates (Toddler Taming). These books had their uses. But it seemed that there was no book to bale us out now.

A parent at the primary school my son attends had just signed up for a parenting course. She suggested I join her. Every Monday morning, for ten weeks, we went to a bashed-up little room just off Old Street in London. The course was run by a tense, pale Greek called Tina Grammaticas who, I gathered, taught at something called the New Learning Centre. I was immediately put off by Tina's "think positive" approach and a smile that did not always seem attached to a reason for smiling. I could not guess that by the end of the ten weeks I would have reasons to smile back at her.

There were about a dozen of us-variously demoralised mothers-with children aged between two and 22. We ranged from a dramatic blonde with two sons who lived in the council flats nearby and who would mimic herself and her children shouting at each other so entertainingly that it was hard to imagine that she was not finding life a party. Another mother, from Kensington, was tormented by her children's inability to wash up and make beds to her own high standards. She seemed haunted by imperfection-her children's and her own. There was a wan single mother with six children whose life made Old Mother Hubbard's sound a piece of cake. There was an articulate mother with all-too-articulate teenage daughters. Then there was a group of stressed older mothers with grown up children who did not have the gumption to leave home. It was hard to imagine how this course could be of use to all of us.

Tina handed out a book entitled What Can a Parent Do? by Michael and Terri Quinn. However much one might sympathise with the question, it did not look inspiring. It was magazine length, simply written, with homework at the end of each chapter; and it gently included God. I wondered if its message might be: when all else fails with your child, get down on your knees and pray. The book is published by a charity called the Family Caring Trust, run by Michael Quinn from County Down.

The ideas hang on a simple hinge: children misbehave because they feel bad about themselves. They want attention and will go to negative extremes to get it. If we react to negative behaviour we are rewarding it with attention. Where possible, it should be ignored. When children are actually endangering themselves or someone else, we should prevent and protect them with our actions-not with words. Tina explained: "Descriptive praise is the closest thing we have to a magic wand. It is the key to motivating children. When children feel good about themselves, they are more likely to co-operate. We've trained children to disobey because we've given masses of attention to what they are doing wrong. We must reinforce with praise the behaviour we want."

Descriptive praise is informative. It is not helpful to give a child value judgements. It is more productive to notice, for example, that your son has put on his socks unassisted ("It was a real help that you found your own socks this morning-and they matched.") than to call him a clever boy. The other dominant idea, borrowed from the work of Rudolf Dreikurs, is that parents should not do for children what children can do for themselves. It teaches parents to teach, rather than to nag.

When I started to talk to my son in the prescribed fashion, I felt somewhere between Joyce Grenfell and a robot. But like water on thirsty earth, the praise was absorbed and my son seemed more cheerful and biddable. As his happiness was what I longed for, I hoped that after a while I would be able to sound more like myself while getting the same results.

One evening, as I was running my son's bath and he was refusing to get in, I offered him a choice-as recommended by the course: "Either you have a bath and we read our books as usual afterwards, or we forget the bath tonight and skip the books too. You choose." I did not altogether approve of this threat disguised as choice but watched with a sense of wonder as my son got into the bath immediately but with a poor grace. He knew something was afoot, something about the atmosphere had changed. He said: "You're not in charge of-" and then stopped as if wondering what it was exactly that I was not in charge of. Inspiration hit: "You're not in charge of my teddy," he said, and sat down in the bath.

Because of the dramatic effects Tina Grammaticas's classes had on my life, I thought I would visit the New Learning Centre. This is based in a small terraced house in West Hampstead and is the only school of its kind in Britain. It takes children with problems ranging from the severe (profound autism) to the minor (ambitious parents). It is a private school but there are some bursaries and some parents have been able to persuade local authorities to fund them. It takes children, many of whom have been expelled from ordinary schools (often more than once), and gives them the skills and confidence they need to return to the mainstream.

It is run by an American, Noel Janis-Norton, a woman who looks like a large cat who might purr at any moment. Her aura is disconcertingly serene, as if she has unriddled life and is sitting on the other side of doubt. This is both excellent and unnerving-if you find certainties suspect.

Noel Janis-Norton is in her fifties; she started out as a teacher in the US and realised that she had a way with difficult children. She sums up her technique under the banner "positive, firm, consistent." (Everything most of us are not.) She started the school with one student; she now works with 50 families in any one term.

The school is based on an eclectic set of ideas. It is not "in conflict with therapy" but is practical and skills-based. It believes in teaching children how to be self-reliant, never answering questions for them. Norton thinks parents should "lower their expectations which are always too high and accept children as they are." She believes that parents are more often a problem than their children and must themselves be trained: her school always works with the whole family. She prefers to consider the ways in which all children are the same. "Everyone needs to feel valued and not evaluated."

What of violently disturbed children? She explained that occasionally they would have to step in to prevent violent behaviour but that it was usually not a problem. "From the moment that a parent or child turns up at our front door, I say 'Hello' and the child eventually looks up and puts out a limp hand. Then we shake hands and smile. We give them a sense that this is a place with different rules, like a synagogue or a church. It is as if there were an invisible sign over the door."

I sat in on one of the lessons and was astonished by the atmosphere of studious quiet, you could have heard chalk fall on carpet. It was hard to believe that any of these children could have been expelled from anywhere. There were about 16 children in the room, with one teacher to every three or four pupils. I watched one of the teachers, Peter, giving a maths lesson.

A girl at his table found it hard not to fidget; her eyes rolled like the eyes of a broken doll. She was making excuses for not having done her homework. "I don't have a ruler at home," she said. Peter replied: "But I can see that you want to improve that right now." The girl was not showing signs of wishing to improve but I watched her, slowly as poured treacle, pick up a ruler and without protest get down to work. She smiled at Peter.

There was in the orderly classroom an absence of reprimand, a minimum of spoken orders. I reflected that whatever the stress involved in Peter's job, his life must be less stressful than that of a teacher having to bellow to keep order. And the children did appear to be learning. On the walls of the classroom, there was a list of school rules, many of which seemed trifling: "Drink water during snack time only; don't ask silly questions; follow instructions immediately; don't argue with the teacher; don't lean or slouch when sitting or standing; be patient; don't ask the teacher the time or the date; keep your hands away from your face." I fidgeted my way through this long list of rules, realising that what they actually did was faithfully record the behaviour of an under-motivated and distracted child.

Since visiting the school, I have met a New Learning Centre graduate, a mother whose daughter was suffering from emotional problems and attended the centre for ten weeks. She said that in that brief time her daughter had learnt to read and write and felt much more confident about herself. This mother added that she felt that her family life had been transformed. But she was not entirely starry-eyed, and she worried about how to sustain the effects.

I worry too. The parenting course and the New Learning Centre have startlingly good short-term results. But I cannot shake off an unease about the language used in both, about the grey area between being a mother and a puppeteer, between control and manipulation. The teachers argue that this foreign feeling is because we live in a world where we more commonly criticise and judge than praise. This may be so. My son and I are no longer in crisis, but it is not always possible to sustain the rosy results of the course. I think this is because I slip back so often into my mother tongue.

My son used to cross-examine me on where I went on Monday mornings. I used to tell him I was going to a "class for Mummies." A few days ago, he asked me-ominously-whether I was still attending the Mummies' course. No, I replied. I did not say aloud what I was thinking, that the Mummies' course never ends.