BOOK REVIEW, LOVE FIRST, PARENTAL ASPIRATIONS

Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn

There is a Better Way

The subtitle explains the book quite clearly: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason.

So many of us have grown up with the stick and the carrot as deterrents against and incentives for behaviour, so this can seem like a rational way to treat our children. Kohn argues that there is a better way.

When my kids were very little, I parented them that way: withholding approval until my kids behaved the way I wanted them to. 90% of my communications with them was to criticize them so that they could improve. However, something about it seemed off, even as I justified my punitive approach to correcting their behaviours. I became more aware that I was raging rather than disciplining.

Choosing to Parent Differently

When I finally realized that my children deeply feared me, I knew I had to change the way I parented. I started by verbally telling my kids all the time that I loved them no matter what. 

When we disagreed, we would often toss out to each other a reminder “I love you [Mommy/Kiddo]” as if the unspoken part was, “despite our disagreement or your poophead move just now”. 

Then I started shifting a higher percentage of our communication into conversations that built our relationship and trust, rather than me just doing parental “duties,” like nagging, reminding, cajoling and ordering, I watched the kiddie shows they liked to watch, we talked about their video games, etc. And slowly they stopped tensing up when I would come into the room, knowing that I wasn’t going to yell at them to do something they SHOULD be doing.

Now they say things like, “Mommy, you’re not going to like this, but…” and proceed to talk to me honestly. This change is a huge win for us because it means they aren’t trying to hide things from me but rather feel safe enough to share something that might have in the past made me very angry.

Why Unconditional Parenting is Important

The most striking long-term effect of love withdrawal is fear. Even as young adults, people who were treated that way by their parents are still likely to be unusually anxious. They may be afraid to show anger. Then tend to display a significant fear of failure. And their adult relationships may be warped by a need to avoid attachment—perhaps because they live in dread of being abandoned all over again.

Fundamentally Alfie Kohn’s argument is that behavioural scientists developed positive reinforcement as a way to control animal behaviour. Using this technique to influence children without taking the time to understand their thoughts, feelings, or intentions ends up being counterproductive for the longer-term goals we have for their success as self-sufficient and confident, resilient adults.

Parenting through fear may seem like it works in the short run, but a child experiences that as love that is conditional upon their behaviour. Because children fear the withdrawal of that love, they will often do whatever they can to stay in the good graces of their parents. They will be obedient regardless of their own feelings, perspectives, and ultimately what is actually right or wrong.

Creating obedient kids controlled by their fear of parents means that they may be easily controlled by others as well, like peers or authority figures and less able to fight for their needs or protect their boundaries.

Do we want to raise our kids to make decisions based on fear? Do we want them to have challenges with their relationships!? Do we want them to be easily manipulated by others? Or do we want them to know how they feel? To trust their own judgment about what is the morally right thing to do?

If I always tell my children that “they are wrong and I am right,” how are they to develop their judgment? If I dictate how they SHOULD feel, how can they learn how they DO feel, and to trust that? 

It’s about the Why

Shouldn’t our goal be for the children to refrain from doing certain things not because we’ve forbidden them, but just because they’re wrong? We want them to ask “How will doing x make that other kid feel?”not “Am I allowed to do x?” or “Will I get in trouble for doing x?” We want our children to understand the impact of their actions and intrinsically make good decisions.

In other words, we want to raise moral human beings, people who make decisions based on logical reasoning and empathy for those around them, not because they were told that something is right or wrong. 

The world is a complex place with many moving parts. The more we help them find their own way to interpret the multiple pieces of information, the more they will be able to live their lives the way they want to—with integrity and confidence.

We cannot just raise our kids based on how we see the world, but how they will need to see the world when they become adults.

Our Own Childhood

By the way, Kohn points out: “It’s pointless to talk about what holds you back from being a better parent without reflecting on how the way you were raised shapes your internal architecture. It affects not only what you do with your kids, but what you don’t do.” 

We must do the work to figure out where our parental playbook came from, how that impacted us, and which parts we want to change as we parent the next generation.

Just a gentle warning: For many of us, doing this work can be triggering. Understanding the past can help us connect the dots to why we behave in ways we don’t want to behave now as parents and lead to positive change. At the same time, it can be incredibly difficult to live through the fears from our childhood.

But we are all doing the best we can and change takes time, not measured in days or months, but years. We start where we start. 

LOVE FIRST, STORYTELLING

Do I WANT to Know?!

Musical Desks

It took us a while to figure this out at the beginning of the pandemic, because A2 was increasingly getting annoyed by A1’s loud (or as we call it, bullhorn) voice as their work desks were side by side in their bedroom. Simultaneously, I was constantly having to move my laptop on and off the breakfast/lunch/dinner table, sitting WAY TOO close to the refrigerator where leftover food often called out my name, and always dealing with the nearby doorbell. A1 was begging for us to extend the wired internet connection to their room upstairs, and I was desperate for a space to call my own.

After much contemplation on my part and consent from everyone else, I moved upstairs into the master bedroom and shifted A1 to a desk downstairs. A1 was extremely happy because it became WAY faster to play Rainbow Six Siege (not to mention he can eat at his desk, which is not allowed upstairs), A2 was relieved because he essentially became the master of their shared bedroom, I was ecstatic because I had my own permanent quiet space for a laptop and Zoom meetings, and my husband, who has his own office, was quite content that he didn’t have to play musical desks, at least this round.

Don’t Ask If You Don’t Want to Know

A1 built his own computer with his Dad’s help one summer and it runs a lot faster than the hand-me-down laptop I inherited. So when he’s not on his computer and I want to be downstairs to (hey, no, not to snack!) make myself a tea or something, I will sometimes use A1’s computer as a terminal.

The last time I asked if I could borrow it, this is how our conversation went:

Our game of Musical Desks has suddenly gotten a little more complicated than I was expecting! 

Would you want a more direct answer from your child to this question?

LOVE FIRST, PARENTAL ASPIRATIONS

Future-Proofing Our Children

Wealth is an Advantage

The rich invest in their legacy for beyond their own death. They believe in it so much, they often sacrifice precious present time with their loved ones to create financial advantage for their descendants because they know that in any competition, an advantage better positions them to succeed.

Wealth is about creating a safety net for the future of our children. It increases opportunities and reduces hardships. Wealth gives a person more choices, allows them to make riskier decisions, and gives them a cushion to land on in times of failure or hard times. In other words, wealth is an advantage, it is future-proofing our children!

What Does That Have To Do with Parenting?

As parents, we want to give our children stability, safety, freedom from suffering, advantage, and wealth. We want to give them tools to control more of their lives so that they can be strategic and intentional, rather than reactive or defensive. However, what if the very act to provide them the best ends up impacting them negatively as well?

Unintended Consequences

Focusing only on financial advantages (money, education, houses, and cars) may backfire. Why? Because too much emphasis on achievement over connection may result in high pressure, relational conflict, self-esteem issues, etc. We want to give our children advantages, but if the way we do that creates intense and ongoing conflict with our children, we may be harming our connection with them instead and negatively impacting their emotional health.

When conflicts with our children put a dent in their confidence about what they like, what they are good at, what they would like to experiment with, what they think they can build, how they see themselves, etc., etc., they stop thinking about how to enjoy themselves, they are no longer curious to learn, and they focus on how to either please or escape us. 

Another Way

Success in life is not just measured by financial wealth. Success is when a person is resilient enough to overcome challenges. A person can only be resilient if they have had the chance to try and fail, learn and practice, and then do and improve. They need the opportunity to develop their own judgment and test their own theories. They need to be okay with not being perfect — they need to know that mistakes are part of the learning process. 

They need to know that they are accepted by their parents no matter what, win or lose, so that they learn to accept themselves regardless of what they achieve. The voices of their parents become the internal voices they hear as adults. So the voices need to help them get through challenges rather than berate them for not being good enough.

Future-proofing our children also includes what voices we leave in their heads — not just the house or money in their bank accounts!

LOVE FIRST

1,000 visits! Fried Rice Anyone?

YAY!

Since I started this project in August, there have been 1,000 visits to Sandwich Parenting as well as 100 listens to the podcasts. Thanks everyone for your support!

Doing this has been very healing. To be honest, I just hope that I don’t do my normal ‘thing’ where I celebrate a milestone and then get stuck on a plateau. It’s a self-sabotaging coping mechanism I think do because I fear success and the challenges that come with expectations. Working on it, working on it.

Random distracting thought (another coping mechanism) to the rescue…

NAME CHANGE?

By the way, should I change this site to “Fried Rice Parenting”?

Sandwiches are so Western, and I am Chinese. You take what you have in the house, chop it up, fry it all up, and you get a unique wok of fried rice each time. What do you think?

(I have a soft spot for fried rice. It’s the one thing my kids will eat, pretty much no matter what I put into it. As long as there is more rice than ‘stuff’, I can hide vegetables and they will eat it up with gusto. Also, my Hong Kong Rice Girl name was Flied Lice. But I digress!)

SANDWICH STORY

Ooh… but I do have a sandwich story from childhood…

One day in grade 2, I opened up my lunch bag and saw a really, really sad sandwich. There were two slices of bread and a slice of cheese and a thin slice of ham. I was really confused, as the sandwiches that my mom made for me were really chock full of stuff. A lot of stuff. Like a lot. But I ate it. It was really dry. I do remember having a moment of confusion before I went along my day, albeit, slightly hungry.

Towards the end of lunch time, while I was chatting away with my friends, the teacher made an announcement:

“Has anyone seen Andrew’s lunch? I think someone might have taken his lunch. There is a still lunch here in this paper bag. Does this seem familiar? I see a lovely sandwich, with tomato, fried egg, ham, lettuce, cheese… I see an apple and an orange in here too and some crackers. If no one claims this, I’ll have to throw this out in the garbage! What a shame, as it looks so tasty and healthy.”

It wasn’t until a few days later when I ate my normal lunch with a sandwich that was suspiciously similar to the one she described that something clicked in my head with a loud ‘DOPE!

I think of the way my mom lovingly made my lunch. An immigrant to America, with limited English, 2 kids and pregnant with a third, unfamiliar with Western food, making me a healthy sandwich for my lunch. She even added sometimes shredded pork in my sandwiches, which, weirdly goes super well with butter. She made me food I liked. She made food with love. And now I wonder about Andrew and his sandwich, which I considered sad compared to mine. But maybe it was the best that his busy parent could do for him.

I think I’ll stick with Sandwich.

LOVE FIRST

Screen Time in COVID Days

In 2020, my boys have probably clocked more time in front of the screen than they have accumulated in the previous decade.

Part of me wants to berate myself for letting it get out of hand. You know, for being a bad mom, because I’ve used the time to do other things that were much more easily accomplished without “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, where’s the…?” or “It’s not fair! Why can he… and I have to…?” or the “I’m hungry, what is there is to eat? Ew, don’t have anything other than fruit?” And yet, as the year of COVID continues to be, I find myself more and more fascinated by what they choose to do.

Initially, they binge watched YouTube and TikTok. Then they started making videos and memes. Of course they were playing online games with friends and randos, which made me feel very uncomfortable. We often had the talk about strangers and not giving out their personal information.

Due to his high pitched laugh and gentle style, A1 often got asked if he was a girl. But during COVID, he’s turned into a nearly 6-foot tall deeper voiced GUY. He still laughs with abandon in his hilarious high pitched giggles, but no one mistakes him for a girl. I love listening to him interact with his friends as they play a wide range of games. There are certainly toxic situations, which I am incredibly proud to see him maneuver of or just leave from. But I can see collaborative and leadership skills develop as he helps newbies or yells commands as they fight the other team. He’s learned to be a good winner, but more importantly, he’s learned to shrug off loss. He does not tie his happiness to winning or losing, he learns from each experience, and he has a lot of fun. He’s also appreciated the importance of typing, which I tried to cultivate when they didn’t see the value of it yet. He is able to get off when it’s time to get off, he has made new friends both on and offline due to these games, and he’s shown more and more interest in the business-end of the video game industry, telling us about how stocks are doing and strategies implemented by the big players.

A2 loves watching YouTube, and, similar to his brother, he every so often shares something to impress me (well, to show me that not everything on YouTube or the Internet is junk). He has been learning how to edit graphics and is very interested in programing to make games. A2 makes memes and streams on TikTok of course. He plays more with his own friends, but finds the interpersonal side of things stressful. This morning, he shared with me about a game he and his friends were making. He created the world, so he has control. But what impressed me most was his understanding of the strengths of each friend, how he manages the relationships, how he makes decisions (he gets final say as he owns the world). He made me feel like he would be a better manager than I have been in my 20 years of managing people!

They both spend WAY more time on their screens than I would think is ideal from the perspective of impact to their eyes or brain, but I observe them developing amazing skills in communications, resilience, computer applications, and more!

So as a scheming mom, I’ve come up with a monthly Detox Day.

At our family meeting today, I introduced the idea and we will try it out. It definitely balances out our monthly Frivolous Day, which is a sort of free for all day where we do what we want. Finger crossed, we can get through Detox Day.

To be honest, I think I’m more worried about me and my iPhone addiction than I am about them!

LOVE FIRST

Chopped Apples Means Love

A while back, I told my mom that like she used to do for us, I wash, peel, and chop up fruit for my kids to eat.  They love it and can inhale quite a bit.  My mom laughed and said, yes, your little sister used to wonder why American apples never tasted as good as Taiwanese apples.  She reminded me that I also stopped eating fruit when I went to study at University in Canada, away from home. 

Food is a way to for parents to show their love to their children.  The taste of a clean, peeled, chilled apple is Mom’s LOVE. My mom sent me her journal entry and I’ve translated it for us to enjoy.

Taiwanese Apples are Better than American Apples!

In the heart of S, there was a question. Since apples are imported from the United States to Taiwan, why then did the apples that were eaten in the States never as delicious as the ones she ate at home in Taipei?  It wasn’t until one night during her senior year at university, did she suddenly realize the answer!

Two of her classmates were hanging out with her in her dorm room that night. She took out an apple from the refrigerator and asked the two whether they would like to have some. Both of them shook their heads no. She then cut up the apple and just before she started to eat and purely out of courtesy, she politely asked them once again if they wanted to have any.  Her friends suddenly changed their minds and now wanted to have some.

The question that S had harboured for so long was finally answered! The apple eaten at home in Taiwan was peeled, washed, and cut into pieces by mom. Of course that tasted so much better than apples in the U.S. that had to be peeled, washed, and cut into pieces by herself!

台灣的蘋果比美國的好吃

老三心中一直以來,有一個疑問,她認為,蘋果很多是從美國進口到台灣的,“那為什麼在美國住校時吃的蘋果,沒有在台北家中的好吃呢?”直到她大四的有一天晚上,才恍然大悟,有了答案。

那晚她的兩位同學在她的宿舍房內,她從冰箱拿出蘋果,問兩位同學要不要吃,兩人看了一眼都搖頭說不。老三削好了蘋果,自己要吃之前,再禮貌地問她們,兩人居然都要吃了。老三擺在心中很久的疑問,終於有了解答:原來,在台灣家中吃的蘋果,都是媽媽洗好、削好的,當然比在美國還得自己洗、自己削的來得好吃。

I published this article in my Kung Fu Mama WordPress blog post a few years ago… and today, my sister (of apple story above), sent me the link to a great article “Love in the Shape of Cut Fruit” by Chinese American Connie Wang. See? So you really CAN taste LOVE!

LOVE FIRST

Maybe, He’s a Spoon…

Growing up, I really valued being smart. My parents are smart, my sisters are smart, my friends are smart, and I was expected to be smart.

Looking back and breaking it down, I’m trying to figure out, well, what exactly does it mean to be smart, really? To my parents I think it meant good judgment, good work and making good decisions… doing the right things. As kids, that translated to getting top grades to get into a good university and then a stable and financially lucrative career. My high school friends were all clever, funny, successful and creative. They became successful businesspeople or high achieving entrepreneurs, maybe journalists, published authors, high level professionals in blue chip companies. They are highly regarded in their fields.

I can see now that we were a bit snobby about intelligence. We felt that being well read, informed about the world, multilingual, logical, progressive and urban were very important indicators of intelligence. And that intelligence somehow made us better human beings. We looked down on those who were not as smart, who did not have common sense and who could not keep up.

As an adult who is today celebrating my nearly half a century as a human being, I can see that the more I know, the more I know how little I know. Now, as I work with super smart people at work, I feel less smart. My arrogance as a young person has been replaced with humility as an older person.

Nothing is simple, everything is interlinked and problems can be very complicated. Plus… people can be smart differently and can contribute in the weirdest of ways.

Also… being smart does not necessarily translate into success or happiness. With mental health issues becoming more mainstream to discuss, I can see how my recent struggles with mental health are quite normal… to be expected even!

It’s about control (or lack there of). It’s about expectations versus reality. It’s about resilience and bouncing back from adversity. It’s about voices in our heads telling us what to believe about ourselves. It’s about finding joy and experiencing love. Being smart doesn’t always translate into being mentally healthy. In fact, thinking we are smart and expecting others to be smart in the same way causes stress and anxiety for them as well as for us.

When we knowingly wink and say ‘well, he’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer’, we are assuming that someone is a knife and that a knife should be sharp. C’mon. We all know that’s not true. There are so many other tools in that drawer and there are knives that are fabulous because they are not sharp.

The next time someone tells me that another person is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, I’m going to respond: Maybe he’s a spoon. If you used him for his spoon properties, I’ll bet he could do a great job.

So let’s help people, including ourselves, figure out who they are and what they are meant to do, rather than all try to be the sharpest knife in that proverbial drawer.

LOVE FIRST

Don’t Grow Up, My Little Tweens!

The parents of teenagers scare the bloody heck out of me with their stories of moody gangly monsters who no longer think their parents have any valuable advice to give, boys who outright ignore or rebel against their wishes, girls who break rules and drive cars without a license…! They share what their kids say, like “Mom, YOU want me to do well in school, so I’m not going to.” They tell me that their 17-year old is feeling depressed and has no motivation. They tell me that their son stopped hanging out with a group of friends who had a good influence over him and they don’t know why. I read about kids who do nothing but play video games and get slightly panicked because both my boys game, with their dad, their friends and sometimes by themselves.

Kids, no… people in general, the world over are suffering from anxiety, depression and overall malaise. It’s an epidemic and it hits teens especially hard.

Mine are still pre-tweens, somewhat naive, very excitable, super loving and under MY influence (aka bribable with chocolate ice cream or screen time). But for how long…?! They are starting to talk back, resist my decisions, disagree with my assessment (but Mommy, you just don’t understand!), and have their own crazy (sometimes super insightful) opinions. They recognize my limitations (Mommy, you don’t know the half of it, you aren’t always around). It’s at once super annoying and yet slightly exhilarating. It’s a milestone in their development into big people, as they figure out how to navigate the world on their own, as they learn that their parents are fallible and don’t know everything… as my husband and I get old, stubborn and crotchety!

They are learning how to get along after heated disagreements, how not to insult people when their opinions are crazy, how to hide what they don’t want me to know and get angry about, how to discern a good friend from a not so great one, how to suck it up when things aren’t going their way, when and how to stand up for themselves even if the person they need to stand up against is me…!

One of these days, what their friends think will trump what I think. May that day take its sweet time to get here. One of these days, they will grow up to be pretty cool members of society. Looking forward to engaging them in intellectually stimulating dialogue then as equals.