She was supposed to be sitting still and paying attention.  But she wasn’t.  My six year old sprawled across her seat, and the woman next to her, a woman of a different generation, hissed, “sit still!”

Later, my daughter buried her face in my cardigan in embarrassment and unhappiness.  “Why was she so rude to me mummy?” she asked.  “She could have at least said ‘please’!”  Indeed she could have.  I mulled it over as I made Sunday lunch and when we sat down to eat I said to my daughters, “Did you know that there are some people who think that children are basically naughty and need adults to teach them how to behave properly?”

I didn’t expect the stunned silence that followed.  To say they were shocked, nay horrified, at the idea is an understatement.  Poised forks hovered in mid-air, ready mouths gaping.  Iona threw her fork down onto her plate in a dramatic display of disgust, “What?!”

I asked them, “If you were a person who thought that children are naughty and need adults to teach them how to behave, how would you act?”  My six year old glowered that those adults would just be mean, because they enjoyed being mean and didn’t like children (she was still cross at having been chastised).  My nine year old, on the other hand, had a very perceptive answer: “No, mummy, they wouldn’t think they were being mean.  They’d think they were doing their duty because the child needs to be told.”

This conversation came back to me as I read Carlos Gonzalez’s book Kiss Me: How to raise your children with love, which I bought this weekend.  In the first chapter Gonzalez explains:

Some of us see children as gentle, delicate, helpless, loving and innocent; they need our care and attention in order to grow into wonderful people.  Others see children as selfish, wicked, hostile, cruel, and calculating, and only by bending them to our will from the beginning, only by means of strict discipline can we lead them away from evil and make worthwhile beings of them.

It struck me that so many conflicts in parenting (among parents and between parents and extended family or outsiders) arise from this single, fundamental difference in values.  One side believes parents to be a child’s loving, supportive hand-holder through life, helping him to blossom and find his own path.  The other side believes that children need firmer guidance, even punishment, to learn lessons and be moulded into an adult.  One side is about love, the other is about discipline.  Both think they are doing the ‘right thing.’

The woman who barked, “sit still” thought she was doing her duty.  But she was rude. She didn’t say please.  She didn’t consider that she was talking to another human being.  She assumed the worst of my child.  Later, the same woman approached me: “I didn’t mean to upset her. I just wanted her to sit still.”  My indignation with this woman turned to sadness.  What must it be like to see life through her eyes?  How hard it must be to approach every interaction with a child in an adversarial way.

One of my most inspiring professors at University used to talk about starting people off with a ‘plus sign.’  Even before he knows someone, he thinks of them positively.  They’re in credit with him.  He likes them before he has a chance to get to know them.  He doesn’t approach them with a wait-and-see attitude of neutrality.  He doesn’t assume the worst and wait to be convinced otherwise.  Not only does he give each person the benefit of the doubt, he takes an active stance: I don’t know you, but I like you already.

I have tried it and I can attest that this approach to life brings unaccountable joy.  When you like someone already, you tend to see their mistakes as foibles, the annoying things about their personality as quirks.  When you like someone already you’re willing to see things through their eyes, to make excuses for them.  When you like someone already, you’re aware of how good it feels to like them, and you want to preserve that.

So today I ask, regardless of where you fall on the love vs discipline continuum, please, let’s just start them out with a plus sign.

Photo credit: By Julio Nohara ( [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


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A fundamental belief about children
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16 thoughts on “A fundamental belief about children

  • 10/10/2012 at 12:59 pm

    What great advice, Lisa. That’s always my starting position with children, but I’m not always as generous with adults! I’m going to give it a go!

    • 10/10/2012 at 9:03 pm

      Hi Kirsten,

      Your comment reminds me of something we’ve talked about in my Yoga classes before– the idea that we all have something unique, special about us… a wellspring of goodness and compassion beneath the layers of hurt and pain… even difficult people!

      It’s a special practise in itself to start everyone out on a plus sign: adults and children alike. Let me know how you get on.

  • 10/10/2012 at 1:43 pm

    What a wonderful article. I like the way you took time to explain the interaction from the point of view of the other person–instead of just focussing on her words and manner. You are building that elusive “emotional intelligence” and empathy. Well done for spreading the word.

    • 10/10/2012 at 9:05 pm

      Hi Anna,
      Thank you for taking the time to read and comment, and especially for picking up on that oh-so-important quality that I am trying to teach my children: empathy with all. I’m glad it came through in what I wrote.


  • 10/10/2012 at 2:45 pm

    reggio talks about having an image of the child as strong and capable. when you work from this perspective, you begin to notice how often parents and teachers and other adults approach children as helpless and/or up to no good.

    i’ve had so many experiences where teachers had a problem with their students that ended up being about the adult’s negative view of the children and their motives. the only thing required to fix the situation was changing the teacher’s point of view — once she stopped interpreting the children’s actions in a negative way, she could easily solve the issue. her focus switched from punishing to problem-solving.

    • 10/10/2012 at 9:07 pm

      Hi Lori,
      Thanks for stopping by. I am very interested in what you say about changing the teacher’s point of view. I’m curious to know how people change deeply entrenched beliefs. Can you say more please?


      • 10/10/2012 at 10:19 pm

        i think it can be *very* challenging to change those entrenched beliefs. i’m thinking of a teacher who was upset at some students crowding into the block area in her classroom — in her mind they were breaking rules, causing problems, arguing. i recommended she open up the area, make it larger and allow everyone in; she was flabbergasted. (it was actually two co-teachers, but one was more easygoing, as i recall.) she felt doing that would be “giving in” — she had a really adversarial relationship with her students, but only in her own mind!

        because she was seeing their behavior in a negative light, she was focused on punishing. when she opened up the area, she realized the problems had been caused by the children being crushed into a small space. they were all attempting to work cooperatively on one shared vision. it was actually *exactly* what she wanted to see in her classroom, but it had been right in front of her and she hadn’t seen it, simply because her default view was that the children were misbehaving. that one small change really flipped her classroom experience and she started doing wonderful work. she was much more open to looking more deeply at what the children were trying to accomplish.

        • 11/10/2012 at 4:34 pm

          What a marvellous thing for this teacher that she had the opportunity to change her entrenched ideas through taking a risk. It sounds like having someone else invite her to try something new, something perhaps a little scary to her, helped her to move beyond her own ideas and see things differently. In effect, you were educating more than just children that day.

          Perhaps this is a lesson for those of us who wish others would see the love/discipline dichotomy our way: a gentle invitation to ‘try it and see’ may be more worthwhile than a dogmatic argument. What do you (and others) think?


          • 11/10/2012 at 8:08 pm

            when i used to lead large workshops, i would always exhort my audience to “try just one thing.” sometimes change looks overwhelming to someone who has always done things a certain way. they don’t want to think about complete change. but most people are willing to consider trying just one thing. and if that one thing works…

          • 11/10/2012 at 8:36 pm

            Yes many people resist change, not realising that hanging on to one thing prevents us from receiving something else. This is a favourite topic for me and I have blogged about it many times, most recently here: And also ages ago here:

            Another of my favourite topics is that in our society many people parent from a place of fear, rather than freedom. and are two good examples of posts I’ve written about fear. I get especially cross when parenting ‘experts’ trade on this fear, making out that there will be catastrophic results (on your head be it!) if you don’t follow their advice.

  • 10/10/2012 at 4:57 pm

    I’ve had a similar conversation with Kai, who is 4 and equally horrified by the idea that there are adults who thinks kids inherently need to be changed or that they’re “born naughty”.

    Unfortunately, there’s a lot of adults who don’t want to hear your message, but at least it helps the kids take it a little less personally because of how you explained it.

    • 10/10/2012 at 9:16 pm

      Yes Misa, I suppose I’m trying to give them empathy to try to understand the ‘why’ behind peoples’ behaviour, so they can say, “it’s more about them than it is about me.” Building resilience, if you will.

      Thanks for reading and commenting, and re-tweeting!

  • 10/10/2012 at 7:32 pm

    Very interesting and true! I was watching “The Paradise” on TV last night (it is a historical drama set in late victorian age – I amn a sucker for anything in period costume!) and there was a lovely example of how a baby won a woman round! She was scolding a young woman for holding the baby and taking it to the window because she thought it liked it! The older woman said “Babies are like wax” – they need to shaped/moulded – shown the way!” She then took the child into a room to “talk to it”! And she looked into it’s eyes and melted! When I read your blog it reminded me of this and how more and more I watch period dramas or documentaries, you can see how some of our attitudes are still heavily influenced by the Victorians! I am still yet to ctach up on Ian Hislop “HIstory of our Stiff upper Lip” on I-player, but look forward to that too!

    Great to read and thought provoking as always and happy anniversary coming up!!

    • 10/10/2012 at 9:14 pm

      Hi Charlotte,
      Yes, the Victorians have a lot to answer for… but without them the BBC would be very short of topics for its costume dramas!

      At the last LLL meeting I went to we discussed loving guidance, and it was amazing to hear how mothers’ ideas changed from pregnancy to actually having their babies in their arms.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment and read.


  • 12/10/2012 at 8:59 am

    I’ve just come back to read these comments, which are as fascinating as your post itself Lisa. I love the way you always reply to comments and enter into interesting discussions with your readers – unusual to see in blogland! Keep up the wonderful work you do, and happy blogiversary x

    • 12/10/2012 at 12:35 pm

      It’s interesting that you mention replies to comments Abbe, because of late I haven’t been replying. But now that I have started replying again I can see that it can promote deeper discussion on a topic, and I plan to reply more frequently.

      Thanks for coming back to read the comments. 🙂

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