Thursday, February 14, 2013

Book Discussion: Chapter 3 of Unconditional Parenting

The quotes in this post are all from the third chapter of Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason by Alfie Kohn: Too Much Control.

This is in italics in the original text:
The dominant problem with parenting in our society isn't permissiveness, but the fear of permissiveness. We're so worried about spoiling kids that we often end up overcontrolling them.
I don't know if I'd say this is the dominant problem with parenting in our society. It is, however, one of my largest blocks to using something like unconditional parenting in our family. I am afraid the kids would run wild and destroy the tiny bit of calm we attain every now and then.

According to Mr. Kohn:
On balance, the kids who do what they're told are likely to be those whose parents don't rely on power and instead have developed a warm and secure relationship with them. They have parents who treat them with respect, minimize the use of control, and make a point of offering reasons and explanations for what they ask.
I'm not sure this has always been my experience. I know some awesome parents who seem to have the whole respect, reasons, and explanations things nailed down, but their children do not necessarily do everything they're asked as soon as they're asked. I know other parents who seem much more controlling (at least to me) and their children seem to be wonderfully behaved, respectful, and helpful.

On the other hand, this thought makes sense to me. If a child has grown up hearing reasons for requests and understands, truly believes, that a parent would not request something unless it were for the good of the child and the family, then wouldn't he or she be more likely to respond favorably to requests?
In a second study, the two-year-olds who were most likely to comply with a specific request turned out to be those whose parents "were very clear about what they wanted, but in addition to listening to their children's objections, they also accommodated them in ways that conveyed respect for the children's autonomy and individuality."
I looked this study up in the endnotes and references. I was really tempted to read it, but it seems a copy of the paper would cost $12. My two-year-old's compliance seems based more on his mood than anything I do or say. Frankly, my four-year-old's compliance seems even more unpredictable.
One reason that a heavy-handed, do-what-I-say approach tends not to work very well is that, in the final analysis, we really can't control our kids--at least, not in the ways that's simply impossible to force a child to go to sleep, or stop crying, or listen, or respect us...Particularly with infants, and then again with adolescents, the goal of control ultimately proves to be an illusion.
We cannot control our children. I have very wise friends who taught their children that they can only control their own bodies, not those of their brothers. I have shared this insight with my own children often. I also admit that I cannot make them do something. In particular, I have honestly told First Daughter I cannot make First Son learn something. I can present material, give him the opportunity to make it his own, insist that he talk with me about it in a conversation or narration, but he must learn for himself. (On the worst days, I repeat this to myself.)
Of course, terms like excessive and too much raise the question of whether there's an ideal amount of control. My response is that the attempt to figure out what's good for kids is a qualitative inquiry more than a quantitative one. Depending on how we define control, it may make more sense to look for alternatives to it than just to offer less of it. Children need structure in their lives, for example--and some need more than others--but that's not the same as saying they just need a moderate amount of control. How can we tell the difference? There are certainly some gray areas here, but as a rule, reasonable structures are imposed only when necessary, in a flexible manner, without undue restrictiveness, and, when possible, with the participation of the child. (my emphasis)
I'm not sure I'm convinced no control is better than a little control. He seems to make the argument that a lot of control is bad, even a bit more than some control is bad, so it's probably best not to enforce any control at all.

The more I think about it, though, and the more I consider this book as I live our daily life, the more I see how we can alter our daily schedule and plans to avoid the need for me, as the parent, to be as controlling as I used to think a parent should be. When I find a situation unacceptable, instead of thinking it through myself and imposing a solution for the problem I see, I've started asking the children what they think we should do. We begin with the premise that what is happening can't continue and go from there. In some things we haven't been as successful as I might like, but overall I can see how this kind of parenting can create an atmosphere of working together as a family to create the life we want.

Does that mean First Son doesn't have to do his lessons? Absolutely not, but perhaps he has greater flexibility in what lessons we do and when we do them. This attitude is not all that different from what I've done in the past. After all, if a book caused great distress, it probably wasn't a living book and I would find a replacement, but there is a slight difference in that I'm attempting to involve First Son more, even though he's still young. As much as possible, perhaps, he should begin to shape his own education.

I've also started allowing the daily conversation of why we do lessons at all, and even why we're doing particular lessons. First Son already knows why, but talking about it whenever he brings it up helps me to focus on the long-term and short-term goals, helping him to think about discovering God's will for him rather than focusing only on what he wants to do all day. Battling our desires (whether it be playing video games, checking our friends on Facebook, or sneaking into the bathroom to finish the last three chapters of a book) is a lifelong process. I'm starting to wonder if the daily conversation is actually valuable, rather than viewing it as an attempt to avoid lessons.
The goal is empowerment rather than conformity, and the methods are respectful rather than coercive.
By talking about the reasons for a request, we can reveal a path to virtue in a way that's more flexible than merely focusing on obedience for its own sake. Obedience can be a virtue, of course, in the right circumstances, but there are other virtues as well: perseverance, fortitude, honesty, wisdom, just to name a few.
There may be times when some control, in the usual sense, is unavoidable, and here the trick is indeed to avoid overdoing it. But we need to think in terms of an approach to parenting that's fundamentally different from control, rather than just trying to find a happy medium between "too controlling" and "not controlling enough."
I think Mr. Kohn might address it in a later chapter, but one of the metaphors that has really stuck with me after finishing the book is the idea that parenting should not be a battle: us against them, and if they don't do what we say we are failing as parents. Rather, we should be working together, side by side with our children, to guide them into becoming the people God created them to be. We don't know exactly who that is. Only they can discover it. We can offer plenty of guidance, advice, knowledge, hope, and support, all of which is more powerful if our children perceive us beside them rather than against them.

Previous posts on Unconditional Parenting

Thoughts on the Introduction
Discussion of quotes from chapter 1
Discussion of quotes from chapter 2


  1. I've enjoyed reading your reviews on this book...there are some interesting points to ponder. After reading this latest post, I am curious. Have you ever read Parenting with Love & Logic? Some of what you describe as your parenting style fits perfectly within their theories of parenting and raising kids.

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  3. The thing I keep coming back to after reading (I'm almost finished) this book, is the whole 'putting my kids in situations that causes them (and consequently me) to act nuts' thing. Our days are best when they have my full attention (as much as possible), we follow our routine, and we don't do things that put them in incredibly stressful situations (lots of time outside the house whether it's errands, activities, even time with a bunch of other kids. That is such an ideal though that it rarely happens, but the more we tend towards that the better things go. The balance, though, is what's hard. And then how to react when we have a million (or even just a few) things to do/obligations and things do go south.

  4. Julie, I read an old version of Love and Logic and didn't think it would work for me. Mainly, I figured I could never employ it in the dispassionate way they described. The "natural consequences" then become quite obviously a punishment. As I think more on my notes on chapter four of Unconditional Parenting (post probably on the way), the more I think natural consequences are a flawed way to teach children. But I'm still thinking about it.

    Monica, I totally agree that we can set ourselves up for success or failure in the way we structure our days. That's also something I keep remembering from the book. It fits in well with the Simplicity Parenting book I read recently as well - decreasing our other obligations gives us the time to focus on parenting in a much fuller way rather than just getting through the day. Of course, everyone has some days like that, but our goal should be to make them the exception rather than the rule.


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