Saturday, November 5, 2011

NaBloPoMo: Do What I Say vs. Be an Autonomous, Functional Human Being

This week I attended a PSO lecture at St. Catherine's Montessori by Kathleen Duvall, a Human Development Specialist and Montessorian.  I was nervous to attend the talk having read part of Alfie Kohn's Unconditional Parenting, and feeling down on myself for being a "bad parent" (using far too many rewards and punishments in my day-to-day with the kids).  Kathleen asserts that the three basic needs of humans are 1. autonomy, 2. relationship, and 3. competence.  Considering these three human needs, she makes an argument against rewards and punishments because they do not adequately meet the needs of the child in becoming an autonomous and functional human being.  Rewards and punishments (according to Kohn and Duvall) put the child in a relationship of being controlled by the parent, and this is a popular outlook on the parent-child relationship in our culture, that children should do what adults say when adults say it, even if that outlook does not seem to produce the type or quality of children we intend to produce as parents!

There is a large body of research on the efficacy of rewards and punishments short-term and long-term, and based on my reading on the topic, rewards and punishments are only minimally effective short-term.  Long-term, the effects can be completely opposite of the initial intention in altering a child's behavior - if obedience is the goal, rebellion often follows; if the goal is "making good choices," children often lose their sensitivity to choosing anything because the "good" choice is always made by the parent, and so on.  Kohn asserts in his writing on the topic, that we might spank a child to alter a behavior in the moment (to go to bed, to sit quietly in a restaurant, etc), and when the "consequence" does not work (short or long term) we determine that what we need is... are you ready for this... more of exactly the same ineffective consequence.  It is also worthwhile to mention that Kohn considers rewards and praise to be equally ineffective (and even as damaging) as punishments, so when he says spanking, he would just as well say the same about a sticker or lollypop.

After some reflection and feeling very obstinate to even consider the possibility that I would think in such a pattern, I've started to think he might be on to something.  When Dominic does not respond well to a gentle direction at bed time, I increase the intensity of the demand direction by raising my voice; when he doesn't respond again, I make an angry face when I raise my voice; when he doesn't respond to the angry face and louder voice, I close him in his room crying (and continue using the angry face/loud voice combo each time he comes out of the room); when he comes out of his room crying and squirming that last time I might increase the intensity by spanking him, at which point he lays in his bed crying and crying until he finally falls asleep or until I come into his room to make amends (or make a peace offering of one more song or one more book, etc).  One punishment doesn't work, so I increase the punishment, and keep doing so until my son is helpless but to comply.  I almost feel like one of the Milgram Experiment subjects - administering shocks out of blind obedience to my culturally conditioned ideas of how to "deal with" children who are "defiant."

So, how do you "handle" these "defiant" little beasts you carried in your womb for 9 months?! (the world may never know... just kidding) Kathleen's suggestions (consistent with Kohn's, and consistent with what has been working at our house lately) are as follows:

  1. Establish a consistent routine that works for your family (these are the things that will happen within xyz timeframe).  
  2. Make sure the child has plenty of information - it is dark outside, it is 8:00 now and bedtime is at 8:30 in 30 minutes, you need enough sleep tonight so you can feel healthy and ready for school in the morning, sleep helps your body to grow strong, etc.  
  3. Ask the child what needs to happen within the scope of the routine - shirt or pants first, book or tooth brushing next, one book and two songs or two books and one song, what prayer will we do tonight, etc.  Ask LOTS of questions, and try to avoid making demands (do this, do that).  "Oh, do you have a different idea (of what is next, of what to read, of which pjs to wear)?" is possibly my favorite concrete suggestion from the lecture!  
  4. Give children the space and time they need to do the next thing - they are still taking in and learning the way their world works, and because of this they need more time to process things that seem simple to an adult who has been on the planet 8 (or more) times longer than they have!
  5. If you feel it necessary to "praise" what they have accomplished DON'T PRAISE (rewards are just as damaging as punishments), offer a concrete observation to affirm the work your child is doing:  "You worked hard to get your arms into your pjs," "it took a lot of work to get all the blocks into the bucket," "you put your clothes in the hamper," "you made a lot of choices to get dressed for bed."  By giving feedback with clear and precise observations, children can reflect on what it is they have ACTUALLY done and they can focus on the accomplishment, itself.  When we bombard children with "good job" or "yay yay yay," we place the focus on our parental judgement of xyz action, and truly, how serious can we be when we say "good job," if we say it about everything from urinating to solving long division problems?  (GUILTY... I am looking at myself and NOT pointing a finger here, be not alarmed)  We want our children to do these things because they can/ they need to, not because they make mommy happy enough to dole out a "great job, kiddo!"

By involving children in the process with open questions rather than closed demands (what book will you get, will you put on the blue or red shirt, vs. put the shirt on now, go get the book now, brush your teeth, etc), they get a sense of that AUTONOMY that is one of their major needs.  They experience a RELATIONSHIP of respect and support that is modeled by the parents.  The child has a greater chance of feeling COMPETENT because he is working within a framework that gives many opportunities for success in tasks he knows how to do and tasks he is learning how to do - the child is an effective member of the family community and an active participant in the routine instead of being a passive subject to the routine and a mere passenger in the life of the family.

Children (up to age 6) take in everything they experience in the family wholly, and modeling respect, support, and love is the best way to ensure our children will grow to value and emanate those qualities in their own relationships down the road.  I've noticed myself at times shouting saying things like, "NO!  You do NOT say NO to Mommy! NO NO NITTY NO NO NO!" as I desperately grasp at the air to take back those words!  I want to have a child who THINKS independently, who CHOOSES to do the right thing, who is CONFIDENT to STAND UP to someone who is pushing him (or someone else) around!  Kathleen said something that rocked my world, "the first time your child says 'no,' is the birth of his will, and it is a moment to be celebrated."  The only way to think and choose and stand up for yourself is to have the WILL to do so, and the only way to develop that WILL is to have opportunities to MAKE CHOICES, to THINK, to STAND UP, and what a blessing that our children get to grow their autonomy and will in the security of our homes and with simple and (relatively) inconsequential decisions like which pjs to wear or what book to read.  In this context, the bedtime battle seems to be so minor in relation to the BIGGER issues I want my child to be ready to address as he grows up.  This parenting stuff is BIG WORK and SERIOUS WORK, and I am practicing every day to become a better parent to my children to prepare them for the world beyond the nest.

*I have to say that blogging every day for 30 days is SUPER ambitious for a long-winded thinker like myself.  I'm going to say that it is more likely for me to post every other day... but I will also attempt to be less long-winded, and more frequent in my posts...  Thanks for being such a cool reader... "good job?"


  1. i notice that you put a lot of thought into your post today.

    among other things.

    will you post again soon?

  2. btw, sorry i didn't let you wear your santa sweatshirt in september (among many other things)! mea culpa.

  3. Awesome post! I love it.

    I am assisting in an after school program at a Montessori school, and I have some questions to ask you, dear. 1) I would love to work out how to use these methods in the classroom of 27 children, but it takes a lot of time and one-on-one interaction. I have to put out fires, solve problems, make decisions sometimes simultaneously. I would LOVE to let them make these choices, but how can it work with that many children or when directing a class is necessary? I feel terrible when I make everyone wait while I try to convince one unwilling child in circle, and it holds up the rest of the afternoon.

    It is so much easier for me to make the choices, and I am so guilty of overpraising that I am afraid it is losing its effect. Thanks for writing this. I love it!

  4. Oh man, I definitely have some thoughts on that! Perhaps I need to post an "at school" version of this post! I am assuming 3-6 year olds, but could you share more details? What time of day is the after school program? Are you the only adult? Is the program all-day Montessori or is it just an after care program? Are you the lead or are you the assistant? I think a big part of adapting this to a classroom environment is that we DO allow the children choices and that we respect their choices (not everyone forced to sit at the same time, and that both adults are on the same page).

  5. Love the post, Renee! #3 especially caught my attention. My mother would always give me options "you can wear this or this...which book would you like to read tonight?", rather than just tell me what to do (maybe that's why I'm so spoiled now? hahaha). I think you hit the nail on the head with this post. Engaging our children in every activity, whether it be getting ready for bed or walking to the park, promotes them to think instead of just follow!

    With every parenting decision I make (or think about making in the future), I reflect back on my own childhood. My mom did a good job (I think hehehe), but there are some things I would change, as I think every parent would. I received alot of praise, too much I think. Everything I did was great, which gave me an overinflated sense of self. I'm trying to overcome that, truly I am!

    There is a running joke between my mom and I about how when I win an academy award, I would have to thank her by saying "I'd like to thank my mom for always telling me 'you can do anything'". I felt overwhelmed and underwhelmed all at the same time. Overwhelmed by the infinate number of possibilities set before me, and underwhelmed because I had no clear path.

    Your post has brought up some real issues, and I thank you for that. I wish I could say that I will improve upon my mother's parenting, but I will certainly make my own, though different, mistakes.