Thursday, January 31, 2013

Book Discussion: Chapter 2 of Unconditional Parenting

Here I am, thinking about Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason by Alfie Kohn again. In this post, I have some quotes from the second chapter, "Giving and Withholding Love.

I think Mr. Kohn tackles time-outs right at the beginning of the chapter. In recent years, the time-out has come to be the accepted form of punishment, replacing spanking or other forms of physical punishment. According to Mr. Kohn, though, we've merely switched to a more insidious form of control.

According to him, "time-out" is an abbreviation for "time out from positive reinforcement" coined initially to describe an experimental technique used to change behavior in animals (experimental animals like rats). As he says, "We are talking about a technique, then, that began as a way of controlling animal behavior."
Even if its history and theoretical basis don't trouble you, look again at the original label time-out from positive reinforcement...what, exactly, is the positive reinforcement that's being suspended when a child is given a time-out?...When you send a child away, what's really being switched off or withdrawn is your presence, your attention, your love.
In my experience, time-outs have not been very effective in changing behavior so it's not difficult for me to decide to avoid them. I do think it's interesting to think about time-outs as love withdrawal. In a way, it is saying to a child, "I don't want to be around you right now. Go away until I say you can come back." (I can't remember if it was in this chapter or another one when Mr. Kohn clarified that it is not love withdrawal if you accompany your child somewhere while he or she cools off or if you allow the child to decide when to leave, where to go, and when to come back. It is also perfectly acceptable to say, "I need to go cool down for a few minutes. I'll be back when I am in control of myself.")

Taking punishments and rewards in general, I am convinced they don't work in education, parenting, or the workplace. (Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes by the same author covers this topic extensively.)
What I want to emphasize is that extrinsic motivation is likely to erode intrinsic motivation. As extrinsic goes up, intrinsic tends to come down. The more that people are rewarded for doing something, the more likely they are to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward. Of course, there are always qualifications and exceptions to any one-sentence summary of a psychological finding, but that basic proposition has been proven by literally scores of studies with people of different ages, genders, and cultural backgrounds--and with a variety of different tasks and rewards.
Unfortunately, it seems praise such as "Good job!" is just as destructive in this sense as offering a tangible reward. In these cases, the child is working for the reward of a parent's praise or affirmation rather than the intrinsic joy of sounding out a word or finding the answer to a math problem.

If I accept this premise, what am I supposed to say to my daughter when she successfully sounds out a difficult word? In trying to put this belief into practice, I find myself saying, "That's correct." or "That's right." all the time. It's hard to remember to direct the child to the accomplishment rather than to my reaction to it.

Actually, if we truly accept the tenets of unconditional parenting to its extreme, praise is even worse than you might think:
What's the mirror image of love withdrawal--that is, withholding affection when kids do things we don't like? It would have to be giving them affection when they do things we do like: providing it selectively, contingently, often in the explicit hope of reinforcing that behavior. Praise isn't just different from unconditional love; it's the polar opposite. Its' a way of saying to children: "You have to jump through my hoops in order for me to express support and delight."
I thought this quote was particularly interesting because so many parenting magazines and books recommend exactly this: when you see your child doing something you like (perhaps giving the larger piece of the pear to a sister or brother), you should give them a kiss or hug. Mr. Kohn would argue such a response would undermine the naturally good feeling that results from generous behavior (for example). Children would then think, "I feel good because Mom gave me a kiss, not because I did this good thing." In the future, they would be less likely to engage in positive social behavior unless they thought someone was watching them.

Kansas Dad and I decided long ago not to praise our kids all the time. But according to Mr. Kohn, avoiding most praise is not enough, and might even be worse.
Someone who announces that it's pointless to give kids a pat on the head for every little thing they do will typically add that we ought to be more selective, more discriminating about praising--which means that kids should have to do more to earn our approval. And of course that means that our parenting would become even more conditional that it already is. These critics are probably correct to observe that when kids are praised constantly, it turns into background noise and they barely even hear it anymore. To which we might reply: Good! It's when praise is timed and phrased for maximum impact that we really need to worry. That's when (at least from the child's point of view) the unconditionality of our love is most in doubt.
I think, though, that Mr. Kohn would agree that we can say something like, "It looks like you and your sister are having a great time playing together." or "Look at how happy your sister is since you decided to play a game with her." Children still need someone to tell them how they should behave and pointing out examples of the kind of behavior is appropriate. It seems like the key is to help think about how their behavior makes them and those around them feel, how their relationships are improving or being damaged. We don't want First Son to be nice to his sisters because we told him to be nice to them; we want him to be nice to them because it's the right thing to do, because it develops a relationship of trust and friendship between them, because they are smaller than he is and he has a responsibility to protect those that are less able to protect themselves...and for lots of other reasons. We can share all these reasons with him and point out to him when he is not following through, the kind of constructive criticism that helps people grow and improve. (But it so much easier to say, "Stop!" And it is so very difficult when you've talked and you've talked and their behavior just isn't changing!)

I have been thinking more and more about how God loves us. (Apparently, this statement is debated in the Christian communities, but I think "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son..." sums it up well enough for me.) I've always thought one of my jobs as a parent is to show my children the love of an earthly parent as a small glimpse of the greatness of the love of the Father for each of them. If that is true, then I should do all I can to not only love my children unconditionally but to show them that love. When I look at the Parable of the Prodigal Son, it seems like I should love them as abundantly - and show that love - even when they seem their most disobedient.
But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. (Luke 15:17-24 NRSV)
Note that the father runs to his son and embraces him before he son has confessed or asked forgiveness. All he did was come to him. It's hard to tell from the text, but it almost seems as if the father is planning his feast before the son even apologizes.

Previous posts on Unconditional Parenting

Thoughts on the Introduction
Discussion of quotes from chapter 1

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