BY ALFIE KOHN http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/09/24/punishing-children-with-love/
We all know what punishments (making kids suffer to teach them a lesson) and rewards (“do this, and you’ll get that”) look like. But for some people, the idea of working WITH kids to solve problems — rather than doing things TO kids to make them obey us — is an entirely unfamiliar concept. And since we equate “doing to” techniques with discipline, and discipline with hands-on parenting, the idea of “working with” is immediately, and incorrectly, associated with permissiveness. The good news is that we don’t have to choose between old-fashioned bribe-and-threat control and hands-off, let-’em-do-whatever-they-want parenting.
I don’t have a “working with” script to offer — a three-step recipe for what to do when your kid misbehaves. I think that sort of thing is disrespectful to kids as well as parents, and it’s also foolish because too much depends on who you are, who your child is, what kind of relationship you have and what exactly is happening at the time. “Doing to” parenting is seductive in part because it does purport to offer one-size-fits-all solutions — and also because it seems to keep us comfortably in control and lets us feel we’ve done something decisive.
Underlying any kind of “working with” model is the importance of not just loving our kids unconditionally but doing everything in our power to make sure that our kids FEEL loved unconditionally. My article in the Times, drawing from solid research, suggested that common discipline techniques, even if imposed with the best intentions, may communicate conditional acceptance: “You’re worthy, and you matter to us, only when you’re well-behaved or impressive.”
Somehow we have to communicate that we love them even when we’re not thrilled with what they’re doing. However, the recommendation to make that distinction is sometimes tossed around a little too casually. The fact is that it’s often hard even for an adult, much less a child, to make sense of it. “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? As Thomas Gordon pointed out, “Parents who find unacceptable a great many things that their children do or say will inevitably foster in these children a deep feeling that they are unacceptable as persons.” That doesn’t change just because the parents remember to say soothingly, “We love you, honey, we just hate almost everything you do.”
What I’m calling “working with” goes well beyond the absence of “doing to,” but it’s hard to pin down. Here, though, are 10 basic guidelines that may be helpful, which I’ve distilled from my book “Unconditional Parenting”:
1. Reconsider your requests.
Sometimes when kids don’t do what we tell them, the problem isn’t with the kids but with what we’re telling them to do.
2. Put the relationship first.
What matters more than any of the day-to-day details is the connection that we have — or don’t have — with our children over the long haul, whether they trust us and know that we trust them.
3. Imagine how things look from your child’s perspective.
Parents who regularly switch to the child’s point of view are better informed, gentler and more likely to set an example of perspective-taking for their children (which is the cornerstone of moral development).
4. Be authentic.
Your child needs a human — flawed, caring and vulnerable — more than he or she needs someone pretending to be a crisply competent Perfect Parent.
5. Talk less, ask more.
Telling is better than yelling, and explaining is better than just telling, but sometimes eliciting (the child’s feelings, ideas, and preferences) is even better than explaining.
6. “Attribute to children the best possible motive consistent with the facts.”
Nel Noddings reminds us that kids will live up to, or down to, our expectations, so it’s better to assume the best when we don’t know for sure why they did what they did.
7. Try to say yes.
Don’t function on autoparent and unnecessarily deny children the chance to do unusual things. People don’t get better at coping with frustration as a result of having been deliberately frustrated when they’re young.
8. Don’t be rigid.
Predictability can be overdone; the apparent need for inflexible rules may vanish when we stop seeing a troubling behavior as an infraction that must be punished and start seeing it as a problem to be solved (together).
9. Give kids more say about their lives.
Children learn to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions. Our default response should be to let them choose — unless there’s a compelling reason to deny them that opportunity.
10. Love them unconditionally.
Kids should know that we care for them just because of who they are, not because of what they do. Punishments (like time outs) and rewards (like praise) may communicate that they have to earn our love — which is exactly the opposite of what children need, psychologically speaking.