Reading Journal

What I'm reading

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Unconditional Parenting - Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason, by Alfie Kohn

Lately we've been talking about how best to teach our children to become mature adults. Frankly, a lot of the advice out there seems modeled on puppy training, whether that's positive reinforcement ("Good job coming to daddy! Here's your dog biscuit!") or punishment ("I am the alpha dog! You shall learn to fear me!"). It's all behavioralism and I believe people are more than the sum of their behaviors. I also want to raise adults who think for themselves, not dogs who come running when their masters whistle.

Alfie Kohn offered a radical alternative in this book. He disagreed with any method meant to control a child, whether that's praise, criticism, time-outs, or spanking. Instead parents should be respectful and responsive to their children, treating them as they themselves would like to be treated.

He cited several studies showing that the more children are controlled, the less internal motivation they have to adopt their parents' values. External control seems to squelch true moral growth in favor of a simple reflex to avoid punishment or gain praise. Think about the last time you improved some area of your life. Was it because someone nagged, praised, or beat you until you finally gave in? Or was it because you saw someone else living in a way that you admired, and with whom you perhaps had a close relationship? Which method is likely to produce more authentic change and growth?

I liked this paragraph about why controlling your children can be so difficult and ultimately impossible:
... in the final analysis, we really can't control our kids -- at least not in the ways that matter. It's very difficult to make a child eat this food rather than that one, or pee here rather than there, and it's simply impossible to force a child to go to sleep, or stop crying, or listen, or respect us. These are the issues that are most trying to parents precisely because it's here that we run up against the inherent limits of what one human being can compel another human being to do.

Most parents can probably relate to this:
When I say that we should make sure we're not saying no too often or unnecessarily, I don't mean that our convenience, our wants, don't count, too. They do. But they shouldn't count for so much that we're gratuitously restricting our children, prohibiting them from trying things out. When you come right down to it, the whole process of raising a kid is pretty d---ned inconvenient, particularly if you want to do it well. If you're unwilling to give up any of your free time, if you want your house to stay quiet and clean, you might consider raising tropical fish instead.

He underscored how hard it can be to communicate unconditional love when children are doing things that truly are bad.
"We accept you, but not how you act" is particularly unpersuasive if very few of the child's actions find favor with us. "What is this elusive 'me' you claim to love," the child may wonder, "when all I hear from you is disapproval?"

Look deeper than the behavior. Keep a more important goal in mind than peace and quiet.
It may sound obvious, but we sometimes seem to forget that, even when kids do rotten things, our goal should not be to make them feel bad, nor to stamp a particular behavior out of existence. Rather, what we want is to influence the way they think and feel, to help them become the kind of people who wouldn't want to act cruelly. And, of course, our other goal is to avoid injuring our relationship with them in the process.

There was some deep parenting wisdom in this book. I have a feeling I'll be pondering its implications for a long time.