April 14th, 2012

planet

Alfie Kohn - Unconditional Parenting

Full title is Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason

I think callingthemoon recommended this book, and from the summary I assumed it was for HIPPIES. You know, "don't punish your kids, love them more, all you need is love, etc etc etc." I was skeptical, but ready. I'm game. I can be a hippy.

Oddly enough though the opening chapters strongly reminded me of book I read last year: Switch by Chip & Dan Heath. That book was not about parenting at all, it was about businesses and corporations and convincing people to go your way. The basic idea is that managers feel like they only have carrots and sticks to motivate their employees... do this or else you won't get a paycheck. This is horribly ineffective way to run a company. People aren't very well motivated by guilt, fear, threats... they'll do what you want (until you're not looking) but no more. You won't get their talents on your side. You have to appeal to something deeper.

Well, same thing for parenting! Except it's funny that when it came to reading about this topic for business people don't think of softie hippies, they think of Great Leaders!

The gist of Unconditional Parenting is that too many people make parenting into a super-controlled economic system, where every interaction you have with your kids must be feedback based on their behavior. Some books are even so bad they tell you not to hug your kid unless you feel like he's earned it. Every time you promise a trip to the zoo on Saturday, you get to hang it over her head all week (be good or we're not going to the zoo!), everything you say is directional, either praise or distaste.

Reading Switch and Unconditional Parenting so closely together made me realize that I wouldn't appreciate working in an environment like that, of course I should not treat my child that way!

Alfie Kohn says that the consequences of the constant tit-for-tat parenting is that kids lose their grasp of critical thinking for themselves, and never think of the real consequences for their actions. They think the consequence of not sharing is "mom will be mad because I'm supposed to share", when the real point is "my friend will be upset about losing his toy, I'd be upset too".

He says your child needs to understand that your feelings for her have nothing to do with how she acts. You want her to feel happy, feel loved, and thrive even if she's been crazy all day.

He says to constantly calibrate your expectations to make sure they're age-appropriate. Last week I was playing with the dog in the back yard, and Josie got the back gate open and ran STRAIGHT out into the street. I was screaming so loud some neighbors came out to make sure she hadn't already been run down. I seriously considered BEATING her, but instead we just went in the house and declared playtime over. And now I'm glad I did, because even though running in the street is considered by many to be a "spankable offense", the reality is Josie is one. She's too little to understand the consequences of the street, and it would not be good to lead her to believe that the consequence is punishment from me. What should I do? Get a better latch on that gate!

And by the way, in the book, all punishments are equally bad. Using time out instead of hand-slapping gets you no points. Stars on charts for rewards instead of, well, not being beaten have the same issue. It makes the consequence about you.

I read the No longer quivering blog by people who've escaped extreme fundamentalist Christian communities, and in those circles parents are told to tempt their little ones on purpose... put something on a table where your one-year-old can reach it, and when he does, hit him. Teach him early that you are the one in control. The result? Kids are stunted by their inability to interact with people on their own. The discipline reaches dangerously abusive levels, because when it doesn't work the advocates within the movement just tell parents they aren't hitting hard enough.

From the outside, we look at those parents and just think "well they cross the line", but the real problem is that their whole system of punishment & control doesn't work.

Unconditional Parenting told me a lot of things I already knew, a lot of things I could have guessed, but it made it all a little clearer, and I found it really interesting. I'm not saying I'll NEVER punish my kid. But I will definitely avoid making every little thing into a consequence. And if I am punishing my kid, and it's not working, my plan B will not be "more punishment", because as several books have told me now, that's not how you get through to people. Big people, little people, we have a lot more in common than we give little people credit for.