This is a topic I have been meaning to blog about for a few weeks now, but a discussion on Facebook this morning has nudged me to grab the little window I have while the Bean sleeps. As parents, we all strive to do the best we can for our children, there are a few different theories about exactly what is “best” and parents from differing schools of thought can have quite passionate disagreements on it. What the hubby and I feel is best is unconditional and attachment parenting. Let me preface this with the confession that we are not perfect, we often do not live up to our parenting ideals. We lose tempers and shout, we say things to the Munchkin that we regret and we spend many evenings despairing about things that have happened. But we chalk it up to experience and promise to try harder.
According to Alfie Kohn, there is ample research to show that children develop best into independent, free-thinking, compassionate and hard working adults if they have parents who give them unconditional love, who steer clear of punishments and rewards and practice “working with” rather than “doing to” parenting.
“Working with” parenting includes giving your child control over their own life, with appropriate limits, of course; so for example, allowing your child to choose their own clothes each day and dress themselves, to the best of their ability! Parents aiming to work with their children might also be sure to give explanations for boundaries, rather than expecting them to be adhered to without question. You won’t hear a working with parent saying “Because I said so!” Negotiation and compromise feature heavily in the working with household. Instead of rewards and praise, a working with parent encourages their child with descriptive responses, such as “I see you doing forward rolls, you really controlled your body and landed just where you meant to.” This gives the child the opportunity to evaluate their performance for themselves and decide how they feel about it. The child might respond with “Yeah, but I was a bit wobbly as I stood up, let me have another go,” or perhaps “Actually, it made me dizzy, I think I’ll stop now.” They learn to motivate themselves and take pleasure and pride in their achievements and to recognise their own limits.
“Doing to” parenting consists of using punishments and rewards, forcing children to behave in desirable ways. The foundation of this type of parenting is the belief that behaviour is more important than understanding. So for example, a doing to parent might force their child to apologise for accidentally hurting another child, with no regard for whether their child actually is sorry or not. When a child does not immediately follow the parental rules, a doing to parent might confiscate a favourite toy, force the child to isolate themselves for a period of time (time out) or possibly even use physical force, such as smacking. On the flip side, a doing to parent may use rewards and praise as well as, or instead of punishment. Rewards might be very material, such as food or toys, or they might be in the form of a sticker chart. Praise is the verbal reward system and is also quite damaging. Dishing out “good job”s or “well done”s is Pavlovian, pure and simple, it is behavioural conditioning. It teaches children to do something solely for the treat, like a good little puppy. This means that when the reward is no longer offered the child is not motivated to do the task. Alfie Kohn references many studies that have found this result in his book Unconditional Parenting.
Conditional, or doing to parenting hinges on the belief that children are inherently wayward and bad. How many times have you heard phrases such as “Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile”, “You’re making a rod for your own back” and so on? These comments come from a very dark view of human nature, one that asserts that children must be trained to behave in acceptable ways through systematic use of punishments and rewards. Bad behaviour must be discouraged through punitive measures and good behaviour must be encouraged with rewards; because no normal child could possibly be capable of doing the right thing for its own sake and all will be utterly selfish without punishments to keep them in check.
I don’t subscribe to this view at all. I have seen for myself how kind, well mannered and thoughtful the Munchkin can be and we have never forced him to say sorry, please or thank you. We have never put him on a “naughty step” or told him to do as he is told with no explanation. Today he pushed over the Bean in a scramble to get trains out of the toy box, I swooped in and picked up the Bean as he was very upset. The Munchkin was told, sternly, that he isn’t to push his brother over because he could get hurt just like this. The Munchkin took himself off for a minute and came back to us looking very solemn and said “I want to say sorry to him.” And he did, and gave his baby brother a cuddle.
I’m not going to sugar coat things. Does the Munchkin sometimes (often?!) refuse to eat his nutritious home-cooked dinner because he would rather eat chicken nuggets? Yes! Does he get in a strop over the slightest thing and refuse to help tidy his toys away at the end of the day? Yes! Sometimes it does not matter what we do or say, he will not be cooperative and we find ourselves tearing our hair out in frustration. It is so tempting to yell, to punish him in some way. In truth, that would be the easy option. It is easy and on some level satisfying to yell “Go to your room!” in those situations. Would this be the lazy option? Sometimes, yes. Though I think most parents don’t realise that there is an alternative way, all they know is what they experienced as children and what well meaning friends, family and strangers are telling them to do, as well as what they see on TV or read in baby training manuals. Working with parenting is certainly not the easy option. It is so hard to push aside your own anger and pull your stubborn child into a loving hug instead of yelling. It is utterly exhausting to repeat the explanations for the dozenth time in 48 hours.
But he is three.
This is what I tell myself when I have to remove myself from the room in order to avoid shouting. I take a moment to breathe deeply and compose myself and I say to myself “He is only three”. When I am calm I can go back, give him a big hug and explain to him gently why I would like him to do, or not do something. Even if I just had to explain the same thing five minutes previously. Because he is three and he is still learning. It would be unreasonable of me to expect him to be able to control every impulse, to totally understand and have mastered his anger, jealousy and fatigue.
What about as children get older? Do punishments and rewards become necessary then? How about in schools? Do teachers need to use these tools in order to control their classrooms and get through the curriculum?
Well, I believe that as children get older unconditional love becomes more and more important because they become much more able to comprehend consequences and subtle behaviours. For a fantastic and thorough exploration of communicating with children of all ages, I highly recommend the book How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. I hope that my teenage sons will be able to come to me or their dad if they are being bullied, or have feelings for someone that they need help understanding, or any other problem they may have. Knowing that they are truly accepted by us, no matter what they do or feel will be the foundation for open and honest communication. If they feel that they will only be valued or respected if they behave a certain way they will be less likely to come to us with the difficult problems life can throw at us.
As for schools, well that would be a whole other blog post, I fear. I strongly believe that schools can employ working with principles and some alternative models of education do so very effectively, such as Steiner and Montessori. However, very few, if any, state schools even try to do this. The “better” schools may steer clear of punishments as best they can, but they seem to feel the need to compensate for this with praise and rewards. Alfie Kohn has written books and run seminars for educational professionals, but I haven’t read any of this work. I assume it is of the same high standard as his Unconditional Parenting book and gives teachers and school administrators the knowledge and inspiration to change to a working with model. However, this is difficult within the current state system here in the UK as schools have little autonomy and are inspected by a governing body (OFSTED) that is unsympathetic to alternative models of child care and education.
I feel that sending a child to a “doing to” school can undo a lot, if not all of the good work that “working with” parents are doing at home. I would hope that children would still feel secure in their parents’ unconditional love and that this would be a good enough springboard for them to go into adulthood with all of the things parents wish for their children. However, I fear that detentions and A grades would be the undoing of most children from unconditional homes. My parents raised me in a pretty unconditional manner, but I can’t honestly say that I don’t see in myself the same weaknesses that Alfie Kohn talks about and I attribute this to the schools I attended. I think it is important for schools and parents to work together with children, to have the same foundations and approaches, in order for children to truly thrive. The alternative, and the one we are intending to pursue is to home educate. Though we have applied for a place at a couple of local schools and are crossing our fingers that our local Montessori or Steiner schools get free school status, just to keep our options open. If the Munchkin did end up at the local state school, well, we’ll be buying the principal a few books to read over the summer ;)