Skip to main content

A Chorus of Approval: How To Help Your Child Build A Whole Tribe of Positive Inner Voices

In the Babemba tribe of South Africa, when a person acts irresponsibly or unjustly, he is placed in the center of the village, alone and unfettered. All work ceases, and every man, woman, and child in the village gathers in a large circle around the accused individual. Then each person in the tribe speaks to the accused, one at a time, each recalling the good things the person in the center of the circle has done in his lifetime. Every incident, every experience that can be recalled with any detail and accuracy, is recounted. All his positive attributes, good deeds, strengths, and kindnesses are recited carefully and at length.

This tribal ceremony often lasts for several days. At the end, the tribal circle is broken, a joyous celebration takes place, and the person is symbolically and literally welcomed back into the tribe... as the Buddha said: 'Hatred will never cease by hatred. By love alone is it healed.' 

From 'Sent by Earth: A Message from the Grandmother Spirit' by Alice Walker
Like all good stories, this one is greater than the sum of its parts. It's about a real tribe in South Africa, but like the best fiction it surprises us by playing with our expectations and giving us a tale of love when we thought we were getting brutality. And, like every fairy tale, myth and literary classic, it's also a story about the inner human world, the dimensions of the psyche, and the processes that take place inside all of us as we go about our daily activities, from the sacred to the profane. Let me explain.

Within every human mind there dwells a whole cast of characters, a tribe of people, each with a voice. Some loom large and loud, whilst others play smaller parts or even lurk in the wings. They comment on the decisions we make and the course of our actions, and often debate amongst themselves about the wisdom of our choices, our qualities or even our worth. If, for example, we do wrong, like the tribe in the story they too gather in a circle around us and have their say. There may be among them some positive voices. 'She meant well', says our Inner Defender. 'Yes, you can see she is sorry', adds our Inner Protector, whilst our Inner Champion might chime in, 'Look at all the things she has got RIGHT today!'. But for many of us, these voices are often competing with darker, more negative characters, who can be especially strong at the times when we have made mistakes. 'Typical!', our Inner Detractor will sigh, joined by our Inner Critic who will roll their eyes and often recall, at length, all of the bad things the person in the centre of the circle has done in their lifetime.

Who created this cast of characters, this tribe of voices that all of us have within? Where do they originate, who gave them their energy, who decided which would be loud and which soft, which would dominate and which would struggle to be heard? Of course, they are always in development, but the original script-writing and casting was done by...our parents. Looking after small children and babies often gets a bad press - surely it is just boring? drudgery and bum wiping? - but in fact the task is immensely creative and powerful. The mother or parent or carer is not just directing the external action, and choosing park or painting, fish fingers or sausages (although this can be creative in itself if they choose to make it so.) They are also responsible for the development of their child's inner world, and the characters with which it is populated - an influence that, good or bad, will last a lifetime.

Right now my personal challenge is that my youngest daughter, nearly two, can be aggressive, hitting or even biting when she is upset, tired or just carried away. I never experienced this with my eldest daughter, who, now 4, is and has always been consistently gentle with every other living creature she meets. I'm shocked when the youngest hits out, and it triggers a whole chorus of inner voices for me. 'You see, I told you this Attachment Parenting was a load of baloney', says my Inner Scoffer. 'It's not the AP that's the problem', argues the Inner Put Downer, 'I blame the mother. She got bored of parenting by the time the second one came along. She just couldn't be bothered to do as good a job with her'...and so they continue. Sometimes I tune in, and the anger rises, and I direct it out, towards my fighty little girl. 'NO!', I yell, 'DON"T be so UNKIND!'

This doesn't work. She fights more. The reason? Because I am not looking beneath her behaviour to see the underlying simple need - to be loved as much as her beautiful, perfect sister, the apple of mummy's eye. She hits out, I shout, she feels rejected, she hits again. We get stuck in a loop. What works? What works is to see her need to be loved, and to fulfil it. To scoop her up, even in the midst of her rage, and soothe her with kind words, loving looks, and soft kisses. To pour positivity and unconditional gentleness on the hot fire of her jealousy and anger. To be a chorus of voices, each one telling her that she is good, kind, and of value. To notice her - really notice her - to surround her and ritually chant her praises.

Consider - what sort of voices dwell within you? How do they respond when you transgress, when you fail? How would you like them to respond? How were these voices created, given form, given strength, in your childhood? Remember (even if, as a child, this was not remembered for you): the person behaving badly is the person who needs us the most. When we punish, shame or criticise, we do not help our children, now or in the future. We simply begin to create for them the inner critics and demons with which so many of us adults are all too familiar. But by giving our children love in their hardest moments, by pouring on unconditional kindness and reminding them, even as they are being extremely difficult, of their extreme brilliance, we can help to create for them a whole tribe of inner voices of positivity. These voices will encircle them and speak words of reassurance in every hour of darkness, their whole life, even long after we are gone. 'Hatred will never cease by hatred. By love alone is it healed.' 


  1. Another helpful concept to float around my mind waiting (hopefully) to pop up and help me each time i encounter the same. Thanks. x

  2. Lovely post. It strikes a chord. So much harder to deal with acting up when you're tired. And of course that's when it happens as they're not getting our attention. Will try to remember this and break the cycle in our house too.

    1. Thanks for your comment Mel, I hope we all can break some cycles! x

  3. This is wonderful, I really love it x

  4. A great post....has helped me with my whiney toddler today!

  5. really needed to read this today as had a very difficult day with aggression issues in our house. I always feel shocked when these episodes happen as I am a very gentle person and take it very personally. It is hard to respond with love in these situations and hard to step back and look at the underlying reasons! Thanks Mule! x

  6. Loved this post, especially as I am struggling with an agressive 3 yr old son. There have been times when I have had to leave parks and soft play as he has hit someone. Not fair to my 5 yr old who has done nothing wrong, but it is humiliating being shouted at by another mum. Mum and HV say he is seeking attention, so would this tactic not just be feeding this and make him do it more? Hlfangelhlftart

    1. Hi - sorry you are struggling. It is really hard when you have to meet more than one child's needs, AND effectively handle a difficult situation!
      My personal view would be that you need to explore, with him, what the underlying needs are that are feeding the behaviour. If two other adults feel that he is 'attention seeking', then perhaps that is your answer, but might be worth looking at other possibilities too. Attention seeking is often framed as a negative thing in our world, but often therapists refer to it instead as 'attention needing'. If he gets what he needs, rather than feeding negative behaviour, the behaviour should change. Behaviour only exists in relationship to others.
      In the story of the Bahemba, the tribe take the person who has done wrong, isolate them in the centre of the circle, and begin their elaborate ritual. It is made extremely clear that the behaviour was unacceptable - but this is done is a way that shows deep love and respect.
      I hope you find a way to navigate this - so difficult! Good luck! You are clearly a very loving and thoughtful mummy, he is very lucky! x

    2. If a person that small is seeking attention, then he needs that attention. If you can't act out and demand, and realise that you are worth that demand being met when you are three, then there's never going to be a better time. I don't see attention seeking as a problem, just a phase best met, explored and grown out of before adulthood. We all know an attention seeking adult - usually hypochondriac and only ever properly indulged when they were ill as a small child. Met needs make stable adults.

  7. After a day of screaming at the kids at tethers end and feeling dreadful about it, I needed this... Thank you x

    1. Thanks Jane, and thanks for your comment above too, you are right, it is simple, 'met needs make stable adults', we all need to remember that x


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Baby eczema took over our life: have we found the answer?

"How come you have stopped blogging?", someone asked me recently. Short answer: I had a baby. Slightly longer answer: I had my third baby, my life is chaos, I got a job as a columnist and it's all I can do to get that done every week, I'm a perfectionist and it takes me ages to write anything, oh, and my baby got eczema and it's pretty much taken over our life.

Eczema? Isn't that just like, a rash? A bit of dry skin, the odd bit of redness behind the knees. That's what I thought, and almost laughed when the community nurse suggested I apply for disability allowance shortly after the eczema started. Four months on, it has nearly broken me.

I can't describe to you how awful it is just to see your baby not looking right. This might sound awfully superficial, but I'm sure it's much deeper than that. There must be something hard-wired into the deeper, older parts of a mother's brain, to feel ill-at-ease if her baby looks sick.

The skin of a bab…

Everybody Hurts: Ten Ways to Help Children Grow Into Adults Who Cope

Life is tough: for everyone there are trials and sorrows, disappointments and heartbreaks. From a mental health perspective, the world loosely divides itself into two camps - those who cope, and those who don't. And as scary as it might be to contemplate, this coping ability or inability is pretty much entirely shaped by nurture - by our actions as parents.

It's simple: the way that we respond to our child when they are in a state of distress will become the way that they respond to their own distress as they grow into young people and adults. If we distance ourselves from their difficult emotions, they will learn to distance themselves too. If we respond with anger or tension, they will feel anger and tension too in life's harder moments. If we placate or 'medicate' our upset children with sugar or TV, they will learn to do the same for themselves as adults. And if we cannot tolerate their distress, we will teach them that distress itself is intolerable and must b…

The Visual Birth Plan from the Positive Birth Book

If you've already seen the beautiful positions for labour artwork by the amazing Kate Evans that feature in the Positive Birth Book, you'll be pleased to know that our collaboration goes much further!

I've been in love with Kate's art and imaginative flair ever since I read her amazing book Bump, so I nearly passed out with excitement when publishers Pinter and Martin agreed to commission her not just to do these amazing illustrations, but to collaborate with me on a much bigger part of the book - the Visual Birth Plan, or VBP.

I've loved the idea of a Visual Birth Plan ever since I saw birth plans made from little icons floating around on social media a couple of years ago. These little icons are pretty simple and basic, wouldn't it be better if the icons were more suited to every birth choice, and more beautiful, I thought?!

I know there are arguments to be made about birth plans 'per se', and I'm not going to go into those here - suffice to say, I t…