Friday, August 9, 2013

Book Discussion: Chapter 9 of Unconditional Parenting

The quotes in this post are all from the ninth chapter of Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason by Alfie Kohn: Choices for Children.

In this chapter, Alfie Kohn discusses why and how children can participate in making decisions, real decisions that have an actual impact on their lives (not just whether they use a blue cup or a red one, though for the three-year-old this is an important and essential decision).

Mr. Kohn insists there are benefits to allowing choice for children (beyond avoiding the tantrum instigating by placing the wrong color cup in front of the three-year-old mentioned above). According to the author, when children feel they have helped shape the environment or the subject in their education, they tend to be more interested and delve more deeply into the topic.
The way kids learn to make good decisions is by making decisions, not by following directions.
He recommends leaving final decisions in child's hands as much as possible. So begin with a discussion and help the child reason through the consequences of a decision, but allow the child to make the final choice. I'm glad he admits this is more complicated in sibling conflicts.
In short, with each of the thousand-and-one problems that present themselves in family life, our choice is between controlling and teaching, between creating an atmosphere of distrust and one of trust, between setting an example of power and helping children to learn responsibility, between quick-fix parenting and the kind that's focused on long-term goals.
Importantly, Mr. Kohn is not arguing for a particular solution in any problem:
The process matters more than the product, and it should be a process that encourages children to reason and plan and participate in figuring something out. What counts is that kids know their needs matter to us and that we're willing to take their ideas seriously.
It makes sense to me that children who are given the opportunity to practice decision making in the home will be better prepared to make decisions as they grow older. This is definitely an area in which I need to provide more practice for my kids. I think I need to really seek out instances where they can make choices, especially in our school planning. It's very fun for me to just plan everything out (as I've already done for the upcoming year) without involving them. Perhaps I need to plan opportunities for them to make decisions. (That sounds kind of funny.)

In this chapter, Mr. Kohn talks about pseudo-choice, especially the idea that children "choose" to break a rule and therefore "choose" the consequences.
Adults who blithely insist that children choose to misbehave are rather like politicians who declare that people have only themselves to blame for being poor. In both cases, potentially relevant factors other than personal responsibility are ignored. A young child in particular may not have the fully developed capacity for rational decision-making or impulse control that is implicit in suggesting he made a choice.
This is an important part of the chapter, I think. There are so many parenting techniques that recommend "allowing" children to "suffer consequences" so that a parent does not feel like they are punishing a child. This is actually a deception, and it's important for parents to realize that children quickly recognize it as such.

Of course, there are times when a parent's requests are not negotiable. Mr. Kohn offers some guidelines and suggestions for those situations. First of all, we should be as kind and gentle as possible, which may require asking multiple times. We should also always explain the rationale. With young children, we can turn the demand into a game. We should continue to offer as many choices as possible.

Sometimes, more drastic measures are required. A child, for example, cannot be allowed to wander down the middle of the street. We may need to physically carry a struggling child out of danger.
When it is absolutely necessary, we should do everything possible to soften the blow and minimize the punitive impact of such a move. Our tone should be warm and regretful and also confident that we can eventually solve the problem together.
He talked a little bit, too, about how to handle a temper tantrum. Most importantly, I think, is that he says we should ignore everyone else:
This is not about what people think of you; it's about what your child needs.
It seems obvious, but every parent knows the first thought when there's a tantrum out in public is of the people watching, when it should be on the child and the relationship between the child and the parent. Secondly, always consider the child's point of view. (We've been listening to the Ramona Quimby books over the past few weeks and I've been amazed at how the books have reminded me of how a child thinks.) Finally, let the tantrum work itself out and address the underlying cause later, when everyone is calmer.

I think we'll all be happy after the next post, because it will be on the last chapter of this book.

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
Discussion of quotes from chapter 8

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