Friday, November 18, 2011

Unconditional Parenting

"(As parents), we may be tempted to focus our energies on overcoming children's resistance to our requests and getting them to do what we tell them.  If we are not careful, this can become our primary goal.  We may find ourselves joining all those people around us who prize docility in children and value short-term obedience above all."

So, I finished the latest parenting book on my list: Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn, and it was very interesting!  In the first few pages of the book, he said some things that I have used in arguments myself, so immediately I was interested.   He began by talking about what traits in children our society seems to value.  What does it usually mean when you say someone is "good?"  Well, if one is talking about an adult, it might mean kind-hearted, ethical, or honorable.  However, when talking about a child, he observes, all too often it means well-behaved, or sometimes nothing more than "quiet, or, perhaps, not a pain in the butt to me."  It seems that traits that many parents say they want to foster in their children, such as curiosity, creativity, independence, and compassion are not actually valued in children by our society, at least not as much as being quiet and having "manners."

 However, as I read on, he began to explain his main argument, which is one that I had never even heard before: that a system of punishments and rewards (including spanking, time-outs, money, verbal praise, etc.) is simply not an effective way of parenting.  It kind of blew my mind.

We know from the work of B.F. Skinner that rewards foster favorable behaviors and punishments discourage unfavorable behaviors.  However, Skinner's work only took behavior into account, not things like desires, fears, or feelings.  Kohn's argument is that behavior is not what parents should be focusing on.  We should be focusing on our long-term goals for our children: what kind of adults do we want them to become?

Some things in this book may be difficult to read, much less accept, for many parents, myself included.  Okay, so you are saying that not only is spanking bad (which most people already know), but time-outs are bad, too? Wait - even praising your child for good behavior is bad??!! This is too much! However, he really does make a compelling argument.

I guess he really has two main points to make in arguing against rewards and punishments:

The first is that when we give rewards for good behavior and punishments for bad behavior, we are basically telling our kids that we only love them when they exhibit good behavior   He called this conditional love.  Now, he is not arguing that we actually do love our kids any less when they misbehave, nor that we want them to think this.  He is arguing that this is how the mind of a child may perceive it, and that the child's perception is all that really matters.  

The second is that punishments and rewards move the focus of the consequences of one's actions from other people to the child himself, so the child becomes more self-centered and less able to empathize with others.  For example, if a child receives a time-out every time he hits someone, he very well may stop hitting people, but it will likely be that he stops the behavior only to avoid a time-out - he only cares about what is going to happen to him.  Kohn argues that if, instead, the child is engaged in dialogue about his actions and asked to try and see the situation from his victim's point of view, that he will learn to not hit people because it hurts them, and he will develop a desire not to hurt others.

While I am not completely convinced of these two arguments, they seem to make sense and are certainly are worth investigating further.  There is one chapter of the book which offers alternatives to a system of punishments and rewards, and it was my favorite chapter - I agreed with almost all of the advice he gave, so I will talk about that in my next post.  If anyone out there is raising their children without punishments and rewards, I would love to hear your input!