Friday, September 27, 2013

Book Discussion: Chapter 10 of Unconditional Parenting

The quotes in this post are all from the tenth (and last!!) chapter of Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason by Alfie Kohn: The Child's Perspective.
It's important...that we don't spend more energy trying to get kids to be polite and well behaved than on trying to help them become genuinely compassionate and committed to doing the right thing. We need to focus on our children's moral development.
As I've mentioned before, my goal is not to have children who are quiet and respectful at Mass or when they are interacting with others. My goal is to raise children who understand how to love and serve others as Christ wills for them, which should then naturally lead to the former. According to Mr. Kohn, if I spend all my time telling them to be quiet at Mass (for example), they may learn to be quiet at Mass, but not why they should be quiet, or that they should be focusing on the love of God or the great gift of the Eucharist, or the lesson in the Gospel reading, or the joy in worshiping as the Body of Christ with others in our community, or all the other blessings and benefits of Mass.
But 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?

Mr. Kohn gives four main recommendations for promoting moral growth, which he says follows closely the unconditional parenting principals outlined in chapter 7. (These are the recommendations as I understood them, not actual quotes.)
  1. Care about your children and make sure they know it. Show your unconditional love, no matter their actions.
  2. Act in a moral way in your own life and be courageous is speaking through difficult ethical decisions with your children, especially as they mature.
  3. Let them practice. Give your children opportunities to behave in moral ways, which of course means giving them the real opportunity to make mistakes and help them in addressing those mistakes.
  4. Talk with them. Take advantage of opportunities in daily life to explain why behavior is acceptable or unacceptable.
Mr. Kohn says:
For parents, there are two basic alternatives to the use of power: love and reason. The ideal is to provide some blend of the two, one drawing from the heart and the other from the head.
He dwells on this point.
To support moral development, our message can't be simply that hitting is bad--or that sharing is good. What counts is helping kids to understand why these things are true. When you don't explain why, the default reason not to hit is that you'll be punished if you do.
By patiently laying out reasons, we accomplish two things at once. First, we let kids know what's important to us and why. Second, we engage their mind, helping them to reflect on--indeed, to wrestle with--moral questions.
You don't have to be a theologian or ethicist to have these discussions with your children. I should know. We have a theologian in the house (who also teaches masters-level ethics courses), but our conversations are not full of complicated arguments, philosophy, or college-level vocabulary. They are conversations about their lives and those of the children in the books we read. (I was reminded of this post by Brandy.) One of the really nice things about having young children, those who will still be in our home for years to come, is that I can leave a conversation incomplete. I can ask, "What do you think about that?" and it's alright if my child is not sure what they think. I don't have to tell them the answer. We can leave it at wondering, because I know the same or a similar situation will come up again. (This lingering does not usually apply to an incident in which said child has done something in appropriate which needs to be immediately addressed.)
If we want them to become moral people, as opposed to people who merely do what they're told, then they have to be given the chance to construct such concepts as fairness or courage for themselves. They have to be able to reinvent them in light of their own experiences and questions, to figure out (with our help) what kind of person one ought to be.
I include the quote above because I think this is a dangerous line. I want my children to discover who they ought to be, but it's a matter of discovering who God wants them to be, not just inventing themselves. It's not clear to me if Mr. Kohn believes one person's idea of "fairness" might be different than another's, but I have a definite idea of "fairness" that I want my children to understand. In our case, therefore, I want them to develop an understanding of "fairness," but to do so toward a virtue as understood by the Church. God has blessed us with a Church that allows great flexibility in how we live virtuous lives, but there are heresies and immorality that cannot be included in a "reinvented" virtue.

Overall, I think this is the book's weakest chapter. When Mr. Kohn tries to place actions in context, he seems to be saying that we judge whether an action is wrong based on how it makes others feel rather than on natural law or the teachings of the Church (of course, because he's not Catholic, or even, I think, Christian). There are some things that are difficult to understand that we are taught by the Church are wrong. There are things God teaches we should not do because he knows what will cause harm to our souls in ways we may not understand. Not to say we should not reason through these kinds of teachings; I'm simply trying to establish that there are actions that are immoral because God, the Bible, or the Church teaches us that they are so even if we don't understand why and even if they don't seem to hurt anyone.

To look only for injury we can perceive when determining the morality of an action, we risk accommodating immoral acts simply because we cannot perceive harm. Thinking only of feelings might lead us astray in our moral development as we seek to ease discomfort or anger by acquiescing in morally inappropriate ways. A friend may be really sad that she doesn't have a doll, but the answer isn't to steal one for her.

I think that's all I want to say about Unconditional Parenting right now. I'm sure it's far more than most people cared to read!

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
Discussion of quotes from chapter 9

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed your posts on this book. I also thought that if God and religion (Catholicism or even basic Christian principles) had been brought into this book it would have made some things immensely clearer.

    This book probably gave me more to reflect on than just about anything I've read (when it comes to parenting), and I think I appreciate that aspect of it the most.


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