“I don’t mind if you get a detention, darling.”

It was a stunning autumn afternoon and my little four year old, Alistair, and I were dawdling around in the park, waiting for the older two children to flood out of the school gates with the sea of other uniformed kids. I commented to him that, “In just a few weeks, you’ll be one of those big school kids in uniform too and I’ll be picking up three kids at 3pm!”

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I sat down at a picnic table and sighed happily while two tui were doing a crazy display flight. I’d never seen this before and was quite distracted while Alistair was waxing on about starting school and getting ‘an attention’. I murmured, “Mmm,” but wasn’t quite following the gist. “Yes, you’ll get some attention but you just have to put your hand up at school,” I explained, “And then the teacher will come and help you.”

He was frustrated with me. “No, you know! When you forget your hat and you then have to sit down all lunchtime and not play!” I realised that for the umpteenth time we were talking about the likelihood of him getting a ‘detention’ when he goes to school. Thanks to the over-zealous instructions and preparations of his older brother and sister, my little four year old was quite paranoid about the whole thing, except he calls it ‘an attention’.

I grabbed him on my lap and squeezed him. By default, I started to reassure him. “Of course you won’t get a detention, darling! They don’t even start giving detentions till you’re Year 4, at least.” But then I stopped and thought to myself – we’re not getting through to this little chap with this dismissive approach.

It’s typical of Alistair to worry way too much about making a mistake. He gets extremely upset if he has made an error – to an unhealthy extent. He actually needs a different approach than a kid who doesn’t take responsibility for remembering his hat. He has already been anxious about forgetting his hat his entire kindergarten career, and now he’s worrying in advance about hat-related lapses when he goes to school!

Maybe, rather than telling him he’ll never get a detention, I need to help him realise he can cope with a detention. It seems to be totally innate to his personality to be so anxious about not making mistakes. His older two siblings never worried to the same extent about doing things perfectly and it’s taken us a while to cotton onto the fact that he is a different kettle of fish. I recognise now that he needs to hear the message (often!) that he can make a mistake and the world is not going to end.

So I added, “Anyway, does it really matter if you get a detention? I guess it means you’d have to sit down one lunchtime instead of play and that will be sad. But it’s only for one lunchtime. Dad and I don’t mind if you get a detention, darling!” He looked a bit thoughtful and relaxed and jumped off my lap to go and hunt for a really good acorn.

I felt like a weird parent. Did I just basically encourage our child to go ahead and get a detention? However, I am realising that telling a child that a bad thing won’t happen, doesn’t necessarily calm them. (Especially because our little boy knows that our neighbour’s (Year 6) son did actually get a detention for forgetting his hat)!

Facing the worry head-on and not dismissing it as something that won’t happen seemed to calm his mind and be a better strategy for him. I told him what having a detention is actually like, and demystified it for him a little. Also I ‘went there’ with him about the possibility of this terrible thing called a detention actually happening, and what the consequences of getting a detention were (not that bad!).

What would happen if rather than outright dismissing my kids’ worries, I try to get into the pattern of responding with information, so that the kid knows what the plan would be if something tricky happened?

Written by Kristin Ward

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