It could be said that a wise parent is like a gardener who works with what he has in his garden and also decides what he wants to add. He realises he cannot control the characteristics of the flowers, when they bloom, their scent and colour; but he can add those colours that are missing in his garden, and he can shape it to be more beautiful. There are flowers and weeds in every child’s behaviour. Sometimes flowers bloom so beautifully that you don’t even notice the weeds; other times the weeds overtake the flowers. The gardener waters the flowers, stakes the plants to help them grow straight, prunes them for maximum bloom, and keeps the weeds in check.

Children are born with some innate behavioural traits that either flourish or are weeded out, depending on how the children are nurtured. other traits are planted and vigorously encouraged to grow. Taken altogether, these traits make up the child’s eventual personality. Your gardening tools as a parent are techniques we call shapers, time-tested ways to improve your child’s behavior in everyday situations. These shapers help you weed out those behaviors that slow your child down and nurture those qualities that help him mature.

After divorce or separation, it can sometimes be hard for parents to see the child as the individual they are, rather than shoots from the other parent plant! Negative behaviours or attributes can be thought of as coming from the parent they no longer love, and therefore not dealt with effectively, and judged rather harshly. It is important to see our children as themselves, not little parts of us!

Most shaping of a child’s behavior is a ‘when-then’ reaction. This works when parents and children have a strong attachment to one another, and if it is hard to implement this, it is often the attachment relationship that needs work before discipline will really take effect. (When then reactions look like this – When Billy’s room is a mess, and he has been asked simply and appropriately to clear it, Parent says “OK, Billy, I see the room is still messy, so no more playing outside until it’s cleaned up. I think that’s a fair deal”)

Eventually, the child internalizes these shapers, developing his own inner systems of when-then, and in so doing learns to take responsibility for the consequences of his actions. (“When my room is a mess, it’s no fun to play there, so I better clean it up.”) He learns to shape his own behaviour. Inner regulation is such an important skill to learn, but it is that, a skill. It is not a inborn trait.

My children got to the point where I could ask them to consider what ‘shaper’ they should receive for a transgression, and they were brilliant at it. My youngest still does it. They were often harsher and more directly consequential than my own would have been, so we often negotiated a lighter pruning, as it were!

At each stage of development, your shaping tools change, depending on the needs of your little plant! In my work, I give parents ‘gardening tips’ to help them confidently shape their child’s behaviour and make his personality work to his advantage, so he will be a more connected, relaxed, happy and ultimately likeable person who contributes to the garden of life.