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. 

PARENTAL ASPIRATIONS

A Parent’s Job is to Be a Better Adult!

The other day I saw a meme on Facebook: “Our job as parents is not to train children to act like adults. Our job is to be better adults.”

Something about having (or even being around) children forces us to look at ourselves more closely and critically. Children are at once 1) mirrors, reflecting us back to us, 2) sponges, soaking up and learning everything, and 3) little drunk people, who cannot control their emotions and behaviours.

When we yell in frustration “STOP YELLING, BE QUIET OR ELSE!” they will copy our approach to dealing with things that don’t go their  way. 

When we tell them that their work is just not good enough, their brains internalize our voice and they learn to tell themselves they are not good enough.

When we force them to do things they are not developmentally ready to do, we undermine their growth and maturity.

They hear every negative thing we say about others; they see every reaction we have under stress; they internalize our messages…

We must be our best selves as we help them develop their own navigation system for the world: they need a sense of right and wrong, judgment to know the difference, wisdom to make good decisions, and strength to stick to the right choices. 

Children watch our every word and deed, learning from every breath we take and every move we make. It is imperative for us to strive to be better adults. We must model for them good behaviour.

PARENTAL ASPIRATIONS

I’m Proud of You, Mommy

This morning my 11-year old son comes to me and smiles in a weird (but positive) way.  He says, “You know, I’m really proud of you.  It’s not easy to NOT yell at kids – not a lot of parents can do that. And now we hardly have a day when you yell at us.”

I look back at him and reply, “I’ve worked really hard on that over the past few years.”

He hugs me, then leans back and looks me in the eyes as he maturely and confidently says “I know. I’m really proud of you. It’s not easy and I know I’m a really lucky kid. I love you!”

“I love you too, kiddo.” I kiss him and he goes back upstairs.

You bring tears to my eyes kid.  To be appreciated for something I’ve worked very hard on, that in our society gets no real recognition, means the absolute world to me.

If I were to be perfectly honest with myself, at times, being a yelly mommy felt somehow justifiable.  But… one day, when you about 3 feet tall, the look on your face, the fear in your eyes got me… it got through my anger, my frustrations, my fears, my insecurities, my beliefs about how to end up with a well behaved kid.

You made me question everything about the relationship a mother is supposed to have with her kids. It cut through the lack of sleep, the stress at work, the dissatisfaction I had with life in general… You made me realize in that moment that no one, especially an innocent child, deserves to be yelled at, even when it’s for “bad or naughty behaviour”.  From then on, I was determined to be the kind of mother you deserved to have.

I have good days, I have bad days.  I am human.  You’ve accepted me for who I am, the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Thank you for being proud of me.  Thank you for telling me.  Thank you for seeing my efforts, appreciating me, and celebrating my accomplishments! I love you!

That was a 5-minute exchange, but it was profoundly nourishing.

FOCUS ON YOU, UNDERSTANDING EMOTIONS

Raging at Kids is Signal: Need Self Care!

For the first few years of my kids’ lives, I thought that yelling at them was my way of disciplining and teaching them. But over time, I came to notice that 1) I wasn’t consistent in what I yelled at, 2) I had some specific triggers, and 3) while some things might have made a little sense to yell about, other issues were way too small to be mad at. Lastly, the fear and pain in their eyes were wrong. I hurt and scared them! As their mother, the one person who loves them most in the entire world, the one person who would do anything at all to keep them safe… *I* was causing them pain and they feared me.

It got me thinking.

And it got me digging.

It got me working on this issue.

I’d like to say that I quickly came to the conclusion that I could fix this by never yelling at them ever again, but it’s not quite that easy. There are so many levels of this and it’s very hard work to sort things out. But ultimately, I have come to the conclusion that something wasn’t quite working. And, while I was doing the best that I could, something needed to change.

Uncontrollable rage is never about the children. It’s about us as parents. It’s about our own insecurities and fears. It’s about our lack of control and our past traumas. Rage is what we turn to when we feel like there’s nothing else we can do. It’s our way of throwing temper tantrums. The problem is that rage literally does nothing to solve the problem at hand. If anything, it only makes things worse in the long run. It damages the relationship we have with our kids; they lose trust in and respect for us.

Raging at our kids doesn’t make us terrible people. It just means that we don’t have enough energy, headspace, or wherewithal to skillfully deal with the challenge in front of us. We feel so helpless that we can only rage.

It’s really a signal to stop and breathe. It’s time to remember the bigger picture. It’s a moment to love yourself and your kids. Once you find your equilibrium, then you can reconnect and communicate. It doesn’t mean they didn’t deserve a scolding or discipline. It doesn’t mean they don’t still need your guidance. It’s doesn’t mean you can’t be mad about what they did (or didn’t do). It just means you need to make sure that you are responding appropriately and thoughtfully rather than reacting in a knee-jerk manner.

But… when was the last time you had enough sleep? When did you get lost doing something you loved to do? When did you put yourself first? When did you pamper yourself? When did you have alone time to regenerate and rebuild your resilience?

If your answer is “I don’t remember…” then give yourself a break. You are running on empty and none of us are at our best behaviour when we don’t take care of ourselves. And guess what? The most vulnerable people around us suffer when we run ourselves to the ground!

So, without judging yourself for that rage, will you join me in taking care of ourselves first so that we can be the best version of a parent for our kids?