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STEP - A Modest Approach to Childrearing

STEP - A Modest Approach to Childrearing
by Elizabeth Neville
This blog post originally appeared on Reprinted with permission.

In the past hundred years, people interested in childrearing have seen the pendulum swing from "seen-and-not-heard" to generous amounts of child-pampering and adult angst. A few years ago I discovered a wonderfully sensible approach called STEP-Systematic Training for Effective Parenting.

STEP is truly modest in the dictionary sense of the word-meaning moderate, not extreme. Like other modest approaches, though, the effect is revolutionary. The idea is to set limits that are reasonable, that are in conjunction with the natural and logical world (e.g. if you don't clean up, the mess stays there) while keeping such a loving demeanor that the child cannot become angry with you but instead is forced to assess and answer the situation at hand. You become neither a "dictator nor a doormat", and build a loving relationship with your child while he or she gets practice dealing with life.

It's odd that no matter how lousy or angry we feel, we can always dissemble for strangers-when we answer the phone during an argument, for instance, or at work when dealing with a client or customer. But on our kids, we just let loose.

When my son and daughter were born only 19 months apart, I was a businesswoman with no experience with kids. I knew I loved them, but they were creatures unfathomable-not only couldn't they talk, I must've lost the instructions on the way home from the hospital. When they started to assume their own identities and desires (which I am certain come packed in there at birth, with all the other as-yet unused equipment) they began to bump up against MY identity and desires, and therein lay the rub. I started to take things they did as intended to annoy or thwart me, when in truth they were just learning about their world.

From their perspective: when you decorate a fresh piece of paper with deep Crayola colors and Mommy smiles, well I guess she likes the picture. When you decorate a freshly-painted wall with permanent markers and Mommy goes up like a V2 rocket, wow-she must REALLY like it! It's hard for us, as adults, to remember all the way back to when we had no stored knowledge of the world, no catalogue of reactions to sort through-no IDEA what would happen when we climbed up to get that bottle of red paint-but that's where they are, and they are learning. This is not to say that they don't have any clue about how to set you off. They do figure that one out very quickly. But when you react in anger, they begin to doubt your love for them, even if it is just a tiny bit.

Each time you get angry, it adds to the store of doubt. Oh, they may get angry at you, too, and that's OK-they know they love you. But won't they wonder how you feel about them? It's odd that no matter how lousy or angry we feel, we can always dissemble for strangers-when we answer the phone during an argument, for instance, or at work when dealing with a client or customer. But on our kids, we just let loose. This is silly. These are the people that are closest to us, the ones with whom we ostensibly want a long and wonderful relationship, the ones who might choose our nursing home one day.

There's a better way to handle things, and it's STEP. Early on, I got into a bad habit of losing my temper with the kids, only to collapse in guilt and grief when I saw the effect written on their faces. When my son was starting Kindergarten, I began to notice articles and flyers regarding the STEP program and the refreshingly sensible approach it took. A friend of mine took the 9-week course and thought so highly of it that she signed up again, to reinforce what she'd learned, and I did as well. I met a wonderful woman named Aviva Schwab, who had been teaching and using the approach since her two boys, now adults, were toddlers.

What I learned was that we don't have to react in anger if we know that result of the behaviour will not be our burden. In fact, it becomes the very teaching tool our kids need to become responsible adults. For instance, if they make a mess, whether by accident or not, the reaction is the same-find a mop or towel, and show them how to clean it up. No screaming, no berating, no insults. Just the training they need in dealing with spilt milk. And while they are learning that, they also see that you love them and trust them to be able to do the job properly-well, to the best of their ability anyway. And ultimately, with the practice they are sure to get, they usually meet your standards.

There are specific skills that you learn to implement the program, for example:

  1. The "I-Messages"
    Let your child know something's wrong without accusing or berating them ("When the truck gets run into the curtains, I worry that they'll get torn").
  2. "Reflective listening"
    Instead of taking over and solving their problems, be an empathic sounding board and allow them to brainstorm solutions.
  3. Encouragement vs. Rewards
    This lets your child know you are pleased and happy for them without training them, like Pavlov, to expect certain responses to certain actions.
  4. Consequences vs. Punishment
    This becomes a strictly neutral approach where rules bent or broken have their own logical consequences rather than arbitrarily-imposed punishments.

The best thing about STEP (if you needed something in addition to building strong, loyal and loving relationships) is its usefulness in all areas of life, from your co-workers to your in-laws to the clerk at the DMV. It is moderate, measured, modest, and it works.

There is so much to the program that I have not been able to cover here-comments and questions would be welcome at

P.S. As I write this, a fun game of hide-and-seek is dissolving into acrimony. No one said it would be easy.

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