Friday, June 14, 2013

Book Discussion: Chapter 8 of Unconditional Parenting

The quotes in this post are all from the eighth chapter of Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason by Alfie Kohn: Love without Strings Attached.

It's important to remember what unconditional parenting is not:
[W]e're not talking about spoiling kids or taking a hands-off approach to raising them. Unconditional parents play an active role in the lives of their children, protecting them and helping them learn right from wrong.
This is a difficult distinction for me, at least. Unconditional parenting seems so different from what I expect parenting to be (though not from what I'd like it to be) that I have to remind myself that incorporating ideals of unconditional parenting does not mean we are letting the kids run wild.
[T]he recommendation to make that distinction [between who a person is and what that person does] is sometimes tossed around a little too casually. The fact is that it's often hard even for an adult, much less a child, to make sense of it. "We accept you, but not how you act" is particularly unpersuasive if very few of the child's actions find favor with us. "What is this elusive 'me' you claim to love," the child may wonder, "when all I hear from you is disapproval?"
When I read the quote above, I thought about the familiar saying: "Love the sinner. Hate the sin." It seems to me this is a difficult concept for adults to understanding and implement. How much more difficult must it be for a child to make that distinction when listening to the words of a parent, especially if the child is feeling upset or anxious or unloved.

An important way to incorporate unconditional parenting is to create an attitude of love. For me, the most obvious place to start is the way I first respond in a crisis, the kind of crisis that happens a hundred times a day with young children: someone won't put on her shoes, someone spills his water, someone has neglected to put forks on the table for dinner. Focusing on the ideals of unconditional parenting helps me to calm down and refrain from yelling over and over again to get my children to do something I think they should already have done. Getting shoes on feet is really not a crisis; it's just something that has to be done. At the end of the day, the shoes will be less important than how I spoke to my child.

Giving myself more time is imperative if I want to incorporate unconditional parenting. There will always be times when we are rushing out the door, but the more I can minimize them, the less I will feel stressed and find myself yelling about shoes. (Finding shoes when we're in a real crisis, like a run to the storm shelter under threat of tornado, never seems be to a problem for anyone.)
It may sound obvious, but we sometimes seem to forget that, even when kids do rotten things, our goal should not be to make them feel bad, nor to stamp a particular behavior out of existence. Rather, what we want is to influence the way they think and feel, to help them become the kind of people who wouldn't want to act cruelly. And, of course, our other goal is to avoid injuring our relationship with them in the process.
I'll be honest - the next quote is one of the reasons this book struck me so strongly.
The first question here is so obvious that many of us never stop to think about it: What is my mood usually like when I'm with my kids?
Do I act as though I love my children and love being with them? It seems obvious to me: I have cut back my work hours; when I do work, I do so from home; I rarely leave them with other people; and, perhaps most conclusively, we homeschool. But children don't think in logical ways like that. They don't have a wide range of experience and knowledge about mothers who work outside the home or even families where the children go to school every day. What they know is what they see and hear from me all day every day. Do I seem like I enjoy being with them? Do I seem eager to bake with them, paint with them, play with them outside? (Oh, I'm so terrible at that last one!)

Why should they believe I love them if I don't seem to want to spend time with them?

That doesn't mean I have to neglect everything just to snuggle on the couch every day (though I suppose that may be necessary on some days). It just means creating an environment and atmosphere in our house where as often as possible I respond with respect and patience and love to my children.

It seems so obvious when written like that, but I think we all know how incredibly difficult that can be on a daily basis with children, even ones we do love.

He talked a bit in this chapter about how to respond to our children when they show us pictures or sing us a song or show off a new skill.
Again, the most effective (and least destructive) way to help a child succeed--whether she's writing or skiing, playing a trumpet or a computer game--is to do everything possible to help her fall in love with what she's doing, to pay less attention to how successful she was (or is likely to be) and show more interest in the task. That's just another way of saying that we need to encourage more, judge less, and love always.
I think these sorts of things are especially important in homeschooling families. After all, the children need to know from me, their teacher, if they are making progress, but it's also important to me that they continue to make progress for just about any reasons except my praise. I personally try to focus a lot on pointing out to First Son how he has improved over the course of time because he has been practicing every day. I hope that way to both encourage him to be proud of his accomplishments for their own sake and to notice the slow growth over time that can be difficult to perceive.

Mr. Kohn talked a bit about teachers and parents and the traditional classroom. I believe his children attend a prestigious (and probably expensive) school that eschews grades.
School environments are often distinguished by an array of punishments and rewards, with elaborate behavior-management systems, "recognition" for those who are obedient, and sanctions for those who aren't. Children aren't helped to become caring members of a community, or ethical decision-makers, or critical thinkers, so much as they're simply trained to follow directions. In the worst-case scenario, the encouragement of learning takes a back seat to the enforcement of order.
There are a handful of pages on how to deal with a situation in which rewards and punishments are used in the school - talking to the teacher, working with the teacher, presenting evidence, and so on. It's hard to imagine how a single parent talking to a single teacher in a public school could make a difference in how rewards and punishments are used. Many of the schools around here have school-wide systems.

He doesn't even mention homeschooling, perhaps because it's not very prominent. It's hard for me to remember that homeschooling can still be unusual in some areas. Homeschoolers around here are certainly a minority, but we are a substantial one with many supports. Mr. Kohn's books are among those that have provided encouragement to me (and Kansas Dad, too, I think) in our commitment to homeschooling our children. I think you can implement unconditional parenting and still send your children to public or parochial school, but homeschooling gives us the opportunity to provide this environment of unconditional love for an even greater amount of time in our young children's lives.

Previous posts on Unconditional Parenting

Thoughts on the Introduction
Discussion of quotes from chapter 1
Discussion of quotes from chapter 2
Discussion of quotes from chapter 3
Discussion of quotes from chapter 4
Discussion of quotes from chapter 5
Discussion of quotes from chapter 6
Discussion of quotes from chapter 7

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