Many of you have written in wanting me to address the impact of children and parenting on relationships, and as you might expect – the impact is considerable! How do you take some of the ideas we’ve been talking about here on the podcast and apply them to how you interact with kids? How do you get away from fear-based tactics of command and control, rewards and punishment – and instead switch to a form of parenting that’s trust-based?
Since we focus so much on conscious relationships on the show, I wanted to tackle the topic of conscious, growth-oriented parenting with one of the nation’s experts on the topic. Alfie Kohn is the author of fourteen books on education and parenting, including “Unconditional Parenting”, and the newly re-released “Myth of the Spoiled Child”. He has been featured in Time Magazine, and on Oprah, and he challenges much of the conventional wisdom about parenting. You can find out more about Alfie Kohn at his website, http://www.alfiekohn.org . My hope is that you’ll see how this approach to parenting ALSO has something to offer you in your relationships – Are you fostering playfulness? Curiosity? Cooperation? Or compliance and resentment?
Try on your kid’s perspective! Perspective taking is the process of getting out of yourself in order to imagine how the world looks from someone else’s perspective. Sometimes this might be in the literal/spatial sense, but more importantly it is about imagining how another person thinks and feels. This is different than empathy, because you are just trying to understand how they think and feel, rather than feel what they are feeling with them. Doing this with your children both helps to promote this skill in your kids, and is a key characteristic of good parenting! When you can imagine how things look from your kid’s point of view, you are much more likely to be responsive to their needs. Allow your children to explain to you their take on the world so that you can gather important information needed to better understand their behavior.
Working WITH approach instead of a Do TO approach: When it comes to parenting, rewards and punishments are an easy one-size-fits all approach that lets people go into auto-parenting, but unfortunately does more harm than good. While rewards and punishments may get the short term reactions we are looking for, there is a lot of research and evidence suggesting that this parenting style ultimately damages and holds children back. The alternative is not just the absence of bribes and threats, but an entire complex network of guidelines – the most important being that you let your kids know that you accept them no matter what. With this attitude you can begin to work WITH your child, getting to know their perspective and world, and bring them into decision making. Children learn to make good decisions by making decisions (and learning), rather than learning to follow directions (on making good decisions).
In the long run, what do I want for my kids? Ask yourself “what do I actually want for my children in the long run?” This will help you set long term goals that will guide your parenting intentions and decisions. Do you want them to develop into adults who are happy, ethical, caring, compassionate, self-reliant, creative, or have other qualities? Once you have your dreams for your children defined, you can reflect on how you are actually parenting in the present, and how what you are doing is or isn’t bringing about these results. Are your actions supporting your intentions?
You may find when you reflect on this question that some of your present actions are negatively impacting future possibilities. For example, if you want your child to share and you reward your children with a lot of praise when they do, then this could actually lead to a certain level of self-centeredness as your child’s attention will move away from learning to give and take with generosity, and towards doing whatever is needed to get rewarded. Children are highly tuned into ways they can change their behavior in order to get the love they need, and will therefore go to great lengths to meet adult expectations. However, do you want your child to feel like they have to perform in order to receive your love?
What does my kid need? This is a very different question than the one most parents ask, which is “how can I get my kids to do what I want them to do, when I want them to do it?” Universally and fundamentally most children (well, all of us) have a need to not merely be loved, but to be loved for who they are. Conditional love, the kind in which we offer love when an expectation is met, can be quite damaging as it develops a sense of conditionality in the child’s own sense of self. Punishments and rewards do not help a child learn right and wrong, nor does it help them develop their own sense of motivation and volition. In this way, rewards and punishments usually promote opposite skills and qualities from the intended effects. In order to avoid this power dynamic, in which both you and your child may lose their sense of self and connectedness, it is critical that you learn to love your child with openness, acceptance, and curiosity.
Practice unconditional love. How are you showing your children that they are loved unconditionally? That you love them for who they are, not what they do? If our love comes with strings attached, than our children will not be able to develop a secure attachment to us, and ultimately to themselves. This can be translated into our adult relationships as well. Nobody wants to be loved by another adult contingently. It should be noted that there is a degree of conditionality in adult relationships (it is okay to have behavior boundaries) that is different than in our relationships with our children. When it comes to our kids, we have to to be there for them no matter what they do or say.
Turn praise into questions that elicit thinking. Praise is a form of judgement. When we overpraise our children, we further create children who are compliant versus caring. If, for example, your child draws a picture of an animal – instead of saying “I like how you drew that animal”, try just verbalizing what you notice so that they can reflect on what they did. Or, say your child shares a toy with another child, instead of “I love the way you are such a great sharer!”, try asking something along the lines of “Why did you decide to share that toy?” In an effort to build your child’s capacity for independence and confidence, turn your praise into questions, and occasionally reflect on and point out things you notice. This is all a way of working WITH your child, and it models respect, curiosity, and engagement with much more impact than a patronizing pat on the head will do.
Parenting is about when you are at the end of your rope- somehow you have to manufacture more rope! For the most part we have good instincts for what our kids need, but we have trouble responding all of the time, especially when patience is running low. It is helpful to remember that when we ourselves are stressed out we often revert to older patterns of behavior, and this might look like trying to hold on by wielding power. When we do, our children’s nervous systems usually go into collapse or fight or flight mode, further escalating the situation.
Take responsibility for your auto-parenting habits, and work to reframe the immediate frustration within a longer term context. Of course there are situations where compliance does become essential, but when we become dependent on demanding and expecting to be obeyed immediately and mindlessly we are going to illicit pushback from our children. Be selective in your response, and build in extra time for talking with your children. Your child doesn’t want to go somewhere? Instead of immediately focusing on how you can make them change their mind, pause and take their perspective. Is there a good reason for your child to feel that way? When we do more asking than telling our kids tend to be more likely to say “okay” in situations when we really need them to go along with it.
The more you focus on your child’s behavior the more you are missing your child!
What matters are the needs, motives, reasons, and values that are underlying and informing your child’s behavior, more than the behavior itself. Don’t focus only on the observable outcomes (what you can see and measure) but on the whys of the behavior. To understand the deeper levels, it is necessary to enroll your child in a conversation to help give you a sense of their perspective. Asking your child will not only elicit helpful eye opening information that will help you better set guidelines and limits, but it will also help them develop reflection skills.
Talk less, ask more!! This very wise bit of council is as relevant in our relationships with our kids as it is in making us better spouses, lovers, managers, and friends. Our tendency to want to impose our beliefs onto others gets us in trouble, alienates us from the connections we crave, and ultimately undermines our ability to form trusting bonds. The process of asking another to share their feelings and thoughts with you, not only models curiosity and respect, but it brings to life this concept of unconditional love!
Check out Alfie Kohn’s website for more information and his public speaking schedule
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