If you have children, or work with children, what are some words and phrases you would use to describe the adults you hope they become?
Independent? Happy? Trusting? Self-actualized? Fulfilled?
What about obedient? Submissive?
What about their ability to think for themselves? To solve their own problems, and know the difference between right and wrong when you aren’t there to tell them the answer?
If it’s so clear that we as parents and teachers want our children to become independent adults, then why do we raise them to be mindlessly obedient?
That is a damn good question, I thought to myself as I watched the mind blowing video lecture by author and public speaker, Alfie Kohn. After such great luck with The Happiest Baby on the Block, Greg and I were seeking out more parenting videos. I find this lecture to be the single most fascinating 2 hours of information I have ever sat through. I’ve watched it 5 times. To be clear, ALL of the information I am going to present is from Alfie Kohn’s lecture, and not from my own independent thought. His thought provoking questions, suggestions and practices affected me deeply, and made me look at parenting in a completely different light. I am excited to try and adapt my way of interacting with Chloe as she get older to be more consistent with the kind of adult she’d like to be. After all, what are parents? Punitive enforcers? Or caring allies?
I’m going to take a guess at what you’re thinking: “Well as a parent, sometimes you’re an enforcer, and sometimes you’re an ally.” Or maybe you’ve even worked out a good cop/ bad cop deal with your partner.
Let me kindly ask you to just put down the defensive stance for the sake of this article, and think about how you liked to be treated as a child, and furthermore, how you like to be treated as an adult.
Does the “because we said so” tactic still work with you? How does it feel to you when the government or a boss still tries to pull that with you? I think the Occupy Movement proves this point quite effectively.
Alfie’s lecture is chock full of examples of oppressive parental tactics, ranging from punitive discipline(spanking and yelling) and forcible isolation (time out) to rewards based systems, which are really just sugar coated control. All of these tactics seem to be accepted as “effective” parenting techniques. Why? Are we allowed to ask why? Would looking at the punishment and reward based system make us inferior parents? Or worse yet, would second guessing the system you were raised in suggest that your parents were wrong? or that your grandparents were wrong?
How does it feel to you when you use power and control to force your child to do something? I honestly believe that a great number of parents can feel that something isn’t right. It’s like that old saying “this hurts me more than it hurts you.” I do believe that’s true. Then, why do we do it? Is there a better way?
Alfie presents himself as merely an interpreter of the facts gained from study after study performed on children of parents who use different parenting techniques. He cites about 10 of these studies in his lecture, all of which have startling results, but the main point of all of them is: The main predictor in disruptive child behavior is whether punitive discipline was used in the household.
What does that mean?
Well it goes back to the well known theory that people who are oppressed, will most likely become oppressors. Not familiar with that theory? This was the #1 most influential book of my college experience.
So if this theory has proven time and time again to be true of slaves, employees (other slaves), and prisoners, why wouldn’t it be true of children?
Think of your least favorite boss. What made them your least favorite? Now, recall your most favorite. What was the difference? I bet I know the answer..
Alfie puts it more eloquently than I ever could: “Traditional parenting displays the tendency to treat children fundamentally disrespectfully to get them to do whatever we want.”
Alfie goes on to point out a deliciously descriptive example.
A child is about to walk out the door one rainy morning, and right before they leave, their parent exclaims in a stern, annoyed voice “how many times do I have to remind you to take your umbrella? I swear, you’d forget your head if it wasn’t attached to your body!” But that same parent parent politely, even sweetly reminds a forgetful friend “Don’t forget your umbrella!” after having them over for dinner.
Why would we treat a friend, or stranger even, with more respect than our own children? Does being small constitute demeaning treatment?
Let’s forget about all this talk about being oppressive, punitive, demeaning parents for a minute, because lots of us decide to go the other route, and reward instead of punish. That would be the opposite of mean and scary, right? Giving dinosaur stickers and pats on the back when children do exactly what we ask would be a suitable alternative, wouldn’t it?
According to Mr. Kohn, nope. “Because both are still control with the goal of compliance.”
Just because you don’t spank your children, doesn’t mean you’re practicing healthy parenting.
But why wouldn’t you want your children to be compliant? Forget for a moment about attaining the dreamworld in which your children chime out “yes, mommy” and “right away, daddy” every time you bark out a command. Now picture them in a situation where another adult, or person who is older than them, is directing them to do something that you would not want them to do. Would the will of standing up for themselves be present? Or will they continue to do as they’re told, because that’s what you’ve conditioned them to do? You can conjure up some pretty scary situations here. All of them happen, everyday.
Even if your child never finds himself in a “stranger danger” situation, that doesn’t mean their inability to stand up for themselves will not be detrimental. Kohn further points out the “children who cannot take a stand and state their views, at least once in a while, will often sacrifice themselves in being compliant in a desperate effort to win their parent’s love.” The old label in business of “yes men”could be applied, referring to these kids as “yes children”. Is that what you’d like your child to become? A yes man?
In contrast, other kids will have a quite different reaction to the imposition of compliance. Kohn points out “Some children will fight with you, or other children, in an effort to prove that they still have power.” Guess where they learned that lesson about power. From us. Because after all, what does spanking and yelling really say? It says that “the way to get your way with people who have less power than you have is by hurting them”, says Kohn.
In the end, if that’s the lesson I’m teaching my child, I’m determined to find another way, regardless of how annoying or inconvenient it is.
So how can we be better?
Kohn’s suggestion is pretty simple: do what feels right, and work with your child for input.
Kohn presents a novel idea of becoming a “working with” parent, instead of a “doing to” parent. I, as a parent, am going to work with my child by talking to them about making good decisions, and thinking about how my actions might affect other people, instead of warning my child what I am going to do to them if they don’t behave in the store today.
I realize this seems idealistic. For others who grew up in a particularly strict household, this may also seem like a “softie” way of parenting. Kohn explicitly states in the beginning of his lecture that he’s not a fan of permissiveness any more than he is punitiveness. Kohn also points out that this is a false dichotomy. A parent doesn’t “either have to be a dictator, or allow everything.” Some will often say that, in order to rationalize being one way or the other.
Becoming a “working with” parent takes courage, talent, creativity and patience. It’s consulting your child for input on situations that arise, and actually using this input for decisions regarding them. It’s speaking to them in a low, calm voice when they are freaking out and you just want to scream. It’s explaining why it’s wrong to hurt someone, rather than just telling them that it is. It’s sometimes changing your mind, particularly if your child presents valid and reasonable information or opinions to the situation in question. It even requires occasionally admitting that you were wrong.
I understand that my baby is only 3 months old, and I have no idea what it’s like to have a child that can think for themselves, talk back, embarrass me in public, or drive me to the brink. I am fully aware of that. However, I have hope that if I try my best everyday, I might be able to plant the seed with Chloe that there’s another way to look at parenting, so that she might be able to continue the new cycle for generations to follow.