Helping to make life 'calmer, easier and happier' for parents, teachers and children everywhere
Thank you for behaving well
By Cassandra Jardine
Daily Mirror
Cassandra Jardine When she enrolled in parenting classes, Cassandra Jardine was told that, within two weeks, her family life would be calmer and happier, and after three months, it would be completely turned around.

So what happened?

AT the end of a particularly fraught car journey the other day, I turned to the children and said, in my sweetest voice, "Thank you all for behaving well for the past 10 minutes." My husband looked at me as if I was mad. "What are you on about?" he said. "They've been fighting, throwing things and screeching." Then he paused. "Ah ha, this is your parenting classes talking."

Spot on. It is three months since, encouraged by friends whose lives had been transformed, I first went to the New Learning Centre in north London. There, Noel Janis-Norton, a controlled but humorous American grandmother, unveiled for me the mysteries of how to lead a calmer, happier family life with my five children. Two weeks of rigorously applying the methods is, they say, long enough to see a change; after three months, there should have been a total turnaround.

During that time, I've been in regular touch with Gillian Edwards, Janis-Norton's lieutenant. "How's it going?" she asks each time. "Fine," I say rather too quickly, hoping she can't hear the children squabbling in the background. It's not quite such a barefaced lie as the one I deliver to the dentist when he asks whether I am now flossing my teeth twice a day, because I am using the half-dozen skills that I have been describing on these pages fortnightly.

Starting with their advice on getting back in control, I have tried to stand back from the mayhem, to sort out and apply rules that will make everyone's lives easier. And when the children either keep or flout them, I have tried to let rewards and consequences flow logically, rather than according to mood.

"Descriptive praise", which encourages children to build on what they are doing right - as in "I really like the way you have put the tops on some of the paint pots" - does seem to be more productive than either constant criticism or meaningless cries of "Brilliant." Hence the apparently daft effusions over 10 minutes of calm at the end of the car journey.

When a child is lashing out, I have tried to use "reflective listening" to find the reasons, sometimes unearthing tales of friction at school. The "action replay" has also worked when I've been sworn at for not dropping everything to ferry a child to a friend. My sister, who has been watching my efforts, is highly amused. "Have you thought of asking their schools whether they have noticed a change?" she teases.

Of course, they won't have done. But I do know a family whose unruly sons made them pariahs until they read a book on bringing up boys. Following its advice, the parents exercised their sons more, fed them less sugar, set limits and put themselves first. Almost overnight, they ceased to be the family everyone dreaded having to stay.
  "Descriptive praise", which encourages children to build on what they are doing right... does seem to
be more productive
than either constant criticism or meaningless cries
of "Brilliant."

If, in my case, it requires a delicate seismometer to detect the improvements, that doesn't mean that parenting classes are useless. As Luke Scott, a specialist in teenage boys, says: "People assume that being a good parent is as obvious as putting a cover on a duvet." Quite. But as anyone who has battled with an uncontrollable pile of feathers will know, there are tricks for getting the corners into the covers.

Some of the new tricks I've employed in the past three months have nothing to do with either Janis-Norton or Scott. Watching Noel Coward's Private Lives taught me a ruse for preventing situations getting out of hand. In the play, the warring couple make a pact to declare "Solomon Isaacs" whenever their discussions get too heated; two minutes' silence follows while they simmer down. I haven't yet thought of a neat catchphrase, but I do now try to create a pause whenever a spat threatens to spiral into a row.

PuppyAttempts to acquire a puppy have also been thought-provoking. Before the Battersea Dogs Home would even consider me for "rehoming" one of its charges, it gave me a leaflet on dog-handling. On house-training, for example, it advises punishing a puppy immediately for making a mess on the carpet, or waiting until next time, but never confusing the animal by showing it the scene of some now-forgotten crime. "All dog and handler need is a bit of respect and a lot of communication," it says. Viewing myself as a "handler" of my litter, I can see that children, like puppies, are inexperienced, disorganised, enthusiastic, totally unaware of anyone else's feelings and live in the present.
When a dog misbehaves, it is obviously not maliciously trying to wind up its owner, but simply badly trained. The same goes for small children.

And yet, despite all this learning, my home life has not been transformed. That is because I cannot always be, as the parenting mantra says, "positive, firm and consistent". With the possible exception of Janis-Norton (who has a genius for civilising children with autism or attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders - they often begin by biting and kicking her) I don't suppose such paragons exist. So, whenever I am tired, rushed or preoccupied, I am as negative, feeble and erratic as ever. As are my children. "For God's sake," yells my 10-year-old, as she flounces out of the room, protesting about my unfairness, while the younger ones thump each other for the Coco Pops.

Some parenting advice seems simply too dificult to put into practice. All attempts to establish a daily 15-minute family meeting to discuss issues have failed miserably. But maybe my children - who range in age from three to 12 - are just too young for forums.

My husband, who
is more given to
Freudian analyses
of the tensions that
erupt in the family,
is sceptical about my attempts to become an improved child "handler".

My husband, who is more given to Freudian analyses of the tensions that erupt in the family, is sceptical about my attempts to become an improved child "handler". But, truly, there have been changes - at least within my own head. Essentially, I now accept that I am in charge and that, although I cannot change my children's natures, I can control my own responses. Parenthood looks more like a job and less like a judgment on myself or, indeed, an opportunity to wallow in my children's boundless affection.

Nor am I as concerned as I once was about what others think; to some, I shall always appear hopelessly liberal, and there may even be some who think I am too tough. It was certainly salutary to learn (in parenting classes) that the "anything for an easy life" approach would lead, inevitably, to a hard life. I also found it reassuring to hear from others that the problems (and the solutions) are universal.

I am more aware, too, of what can be changed and what cannot. Siblings always grate against each other. Teenagers always hate curfews. Nothing will alter those feelings, but behaviour can be changed. When things go wrong, I tell myself that I never expected them not to. As Janis-Norton says, "There is something to be learnt from every situation, even if it is not the lesson you imagined."

Taking the long-term view, it has become easier to accept that children need time to learn new tricks. Time, indeed, seems the key to everything. It may seem unbelievable that a six-year-old takes an hour to get dressed but, at that age, everything is a big adventure and a test of dexterity. Barking impatiently only makes it slower, whereas breaking the task down into small steps - or "preparing for success" as it is called in parentspeak - is less time-consuming than allowing things to go wrong and picking up the pieces.

One fallacy that has been exploded is that children hate being told off so much that they will do anything to avoid being shouted at again. In fact, they are more likely to repeat the act to get attention, so I've been trying to reward good behaviour and sent them out of the room when they are having a tantrum. I've also stopped making excuses for bad behaviour - assuming that if a child is good at school, she needs to let off steam at home.

Incorporating instructions into a narrative does seem to be more effective than just barking a string of commands, just as finding new (preferably funny) ways to say the same old things is more likely to get results. I've also discovered that action - turning off the television - works better than words.

On the positive side, I've made more effort to do things with one child at a time - so each one feels special - and not to make promises that I cannot keep just to get out of a momentary hole. I have tried to be more imaginative, to think how it might feel to be a seven-year-old, desperate to have the independence and pocket money of her older sister.

However messy it is when my three-year-old wants to make his own drinks and scrambled egg, self-reliance should be encouraged, I've learnt. Equally, it is amazing how much more co-operative children are when you make eye contact. I also hope I am getting better at hearing what is being said underneath the surface of words.

But there are times when all these lessons and good intentions go out of the window, when the noise, the obstreperousness and the squabbling are too much. Then I revert to banshee mode or burst into tears. Sometimes I give a really annoying child a slap and get threatened by the child with referral to Childline.

Depressingly - or, perhaps, predictably - the flashpoints are always the same: early mornings, mealtimes, homework, bedtimes, journeys, holidays. So I've thrown myself back on the wisdom of the parenting experts, Scott and Janis-Norton. Over the next few fortnightly installments, Parental guidance will reflect their advice on those times when it all falls apart.

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