The mother turtle game

This is a warm-hearted game, symbolic of healthy growing up, from a secure beginning. Like all games which involve getting down on the carpet or lawn with your child, it brings closeness and fun for everyone.

Help your child to roll into a small ball on the ground. They are now a turtle egg. The mother turtle (you) covers the child’s body with hers and folds her arms around the front of the child’s head, being careful not to ‘break the egg’. She then tells a short story — that she is a big, strong and proud mother turtle, who has laid her special egg in the warm sand. With her hands flattened out, she pretends to scoop warm sand up and over the turtle egg to keep it safe and warm. She says: ‘Nobody can touch my egg’ and slaps the surrounding ground to protect the egg. ‘But wait a minute,’ she says, ‘what is that? A little wriggle?’ Then there are lots of wriggles coming from the egg. ‘It must be ready to hatch. Yes!’ Out comes a beautiful, shiny, new turtle who is off to play in the sand and swim in the sea. When sharks or big fish come, it swims straight back. It can go to sleep in the nest, then head off again.

Benefits: Children really love this sort of activity. They enjoy the sense of protection and enclosure, then they love the feeling of breaking through and being welcomed out of the egg. It seems most useful from the age of about two-and-a-half or three, when many children struggle with the ideas of whether they are a big girl or a little girl, a big boy or a little boy. They may ask to do this activity a lot at a certain age, then lose interest or return to it later. One five-year-old literally grew out of it when he asked to try it again and found his body wouldn’t fit any more!

Psychologists in the 1960s, trained in bringing up rats rather than children, advocated ‘time out’, which meant putting a child in the bathroom or bedroom to cool off. This has some advantages, especially in the area of safety. It is far better to shut a child in another room, and give both of you time to cool off, than risk hitting them while you are angry. Time out has saved many children’s lives and many parents’ sanity.

However, many parents tell us that time out doesn’t work for long and the child soon has to go back there again. They may have a good time in their bedroom, which in most homes resembles a Christmas catalogue of toys, so there is no real advantage. Or they will continue their tantrum in there, destroying everything in sight, which returns the problem to you. Or they will escape through the window. And you can’t take a time-out room with you when you travel.

The problem with time out is that it doesn’t necessarily change anything. A child needs to do some thinking and changing, if the discipline is to work. There is a conversation you need to have with the child (or else the same problem will just happen again the next day). It should go something like this:

What were you doing wrong?

Nothing.

Have a think about it.

Petie took my truck.

Yes. But what did you do wrong? / didn’t hit him hard.

But you did hit him.

Well, yes.

What is the rule about that?

Don’t hit.

So what should you have done? / don’t know.

Were you angry?

Yes.

You should have told him in a loud voice, ‘Don’t take my truck, I want it.’

Oh.

So will you do that next time?

Yes,

Okay, you worked that out really well. I’ll be watching to see you get it right.

Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. There is a lot of repetition in parenting. Next time, though, you will keep them standing there longer. Child- ren are uncomfortable standing still and this is the motivation to get on with fixing the problem. As soon as they act reasonably, they are out of there in a flash.

Here’s an example with little Darrel, who is two-and-a-half and has had a long play period with his blocks.

Darrel, please pick up the blocks and put them in the box. (Darrel ignores this.) Darrel, do it now. Pick up the blocks.

No. (Mother comes over and squats beside Darrel at eye level, gets his attention and speaks firmly.) NOW. (Darrel throws a block across the room and starts crying.) (His mother picks him up and carries him to the corner, where she holds him.) You will be here in the corner until you finish crying and are ready to pick up the blocks. (Five minutes of squirming and crying as his mother holds him firmly and calms her own body by breathing more slowly.) (Finally, he stands and is still.)

Are you ready now? / want to go and see Daddy.

You can go and see Daddy when we’ve finished here. What do you have to do first? Pick up the blocks. Are you ready to do that now? Yes.

Okay, come and do it. (She stands by and points out some he has missed. Once he has finished, she gives him a quick cuddle.) That’s fine, you did that really well. Off you go and see Daddy now.

At this age, children are learning to co-operate, which means letting go of some of their wants, some of the time. This doesn’t come easily. They will try all kinds of lurks as they get older. ‘You don’t love me.’ ‘You don’t understand.’ ‘I want to do a wee.’ ‘I feel sick.’ Or they will say: ‘I’m sorry’ and do it again in five minutes time. Congratulate yourself on having a creative and intelligent child, then be firm all over again and they will soon get the message.

This method of discipline we call Stand and Thmk. It soon becomes a familiar ritual and no big deal. It is good to establish a place where the child has to stand. In spite of the connotations from the old days of schoolrooms and dunce’s caps, we recommend a spot in a corner of the room, facing the wall. ‘Go to the corner’ becomes a tough and unarguable order and most children will do this if they know you mean it. ‘Difficult’ children, who have accidentally been conditioned into bad patterns, may need to be physically restrained until they realise that they have to stand still and think. You simply hold them firmly (without hurting) until they stand there unassisted. When they stand straight and still, tell them that they can be out of there as soon as they co-operate, which means saying or doing what they are supposed to. Preferably, they should tell you first what they will do; even when little, they can manage a few words to indicate they have got the message.

Holding your child in the corner might seem harsh, but what is the alternative? In the past, it was hitting — used by 70 per cent of parents routinely. Hitting is frightening, ineffective and cruel, and generally results in worse behaviour in the long run. If you use ‘time out’, that is fine, but you should still bring the child back to the room and have the conversation that you would in the corner, before resuming play. Otherwise, nothing may have changed.

Discipline is about learning to think things through and changing your behaviour.

Remember that the point is not to embarrass or shame a child, so be judicious about using it where it could have this effect. We have used Stand and Think in front of friends and family members, but only because they have used the same method and our child has seen theirs go to the corner, too. We have used the corner in a restaurant, but it was an unobtrusive one; others have stopped their car, pulled off the road to a safe spot and stood a child facing the open door to allow them to resolve a problem before continuing the journey.

Now back to Donald and his mother in the lounge room: I told you to come back and you kept running away. / didn’t hear you.

I don’t believe that. I’m very angry about that and the cake you squashed on the floor.

I’m sorry.

Well, I’m not sure you really are sorry. Stand there some more until I feel better. (Donald stands and shuffles a bit, and looks over his shoulder. After a minute, his shoulders drop and he looks more settled.)

Now, what are you going to do differently? 77/ do what you tell me first time.

Good. Now come and clean up the cake.