Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Thinking Through Unconditional Parenting

I've started reading Alfie Kohn's Unconditional Parenting, which is mandatory reading in the Attachment Parenting circles these days, and something Janet and I find ourselves talking about a lot. The basic thesis is: most parenting books and techniques focus on eliciting desired behaviors from our children (going to the potty, being quiet, doing what they're told) rather than trying to turn them into the kind of people we want them to be (self-directed, self-disciplined, compassionate, considerate, etc.) Kohn is revolting against the reductionist, behaviorist, authoritarian model of parenting that focuses entirely on the child's behavior and assumes that parents' immediate utilitarian goals are always valid. Instead, he asks parents to focus on what's going on inside the child, and to work with the psychological realities of the child's life. Rather than using rewards and punishments to "reinforce" desired behaviors, parents should seek to evoke in their children the internal motivations we want them ultimately to have as adults.

Kohn has about 90% of me convinced. I agree with his basic premise: our goal of raising powerful, capable kids does not necessarily jibe with our immediate desires to get them to do what we want them to do. There are a lot of tactical questions, though, where I'm still fighting him in my head and in our home laboratory.

Kohn is correct when he says that our assumptions about parenting are largely derived from our assumptions about human nature. If we believe children are trying the best that they can, and that they naturally want to do good, then we parent them one way; if we are cynical and assume they will press every advantage to take as much from you as they can and need to be "whipped into line", then a completely different parenting style emerges.

The problem is, as much as I come from an ultimately optimistic spiritual perspective, it is heavily tinged with a mostly pessimistic view of human nature. I know that even the most well-intentioned of people (especially myself) are prone to laziness, selfishness, and rationalization. I have a "trust but verify" attitude on most things -- I will expect the best from my children, but also prepare for the worst. I think they will be mostly honest and good-willed . . . but sometimes they may need to be reminded of their best intentions. Most locks and alarms are not really intended to prevent entry -- they are there to "keep honest people honest." In the same way, I think parenting needs to be mostly based on communication and mutual respect, wholely in line with Kohn's "unconditional" approach . . . but sometimes, there will still be the need for reward and punishment, and arbitrarily enforced or reinforced behavior.

I haven't completely articulated these thoughts in my mind, but I will be revisiting the ideas often as I work my way through the book. I especially invite those who know more about this stuff to prove me wrong.


Blogger dlg0 said...

Hey Georg,
I do have lots to say on this subject - no surprise there!:) But, it's late...I'll give it a go, though...I enjoy a good debate...first a few questions...
Would you say your pessimistic view of human nature is a result of your 'optimistic spiritual perspective'?

Admitting you are prone to selfishness and laziness...these are indeed pessimistic, but they are also judgements - and negative ones - about something you do or do not do. This too can be looked at another way. I'm thinking in terms of NVC/Marshall Rosenberg's way of looking at everything we do or do not do as a means of trying to get our needs met. He suggests we are not very fluent in even understanding what our needs are because we have not been taught to do that. The NVC book is also a 'must read' and readily goes along with the 'Kohn' way of thinking. It might help you figure out that last 10%. I just finished listening and reading Rosenberg's "Speaking Peace". I have the book and the CD's if you'd like to borrow them :)

I would personally caution the idea of 'expecting the best' from your children - or from anyone for that matter. It involves a whole lot of judgement about what is 'best'. Expect the 'worst' - you won't be disappointed! :) Just kidding :)(sort of).

And the reward and punishment issue! Well, one really needs to read "Punished by Rewards" by Kohn, too. This is the thicker version of the reasons behind this way of thinking (anti-reward/punishment).

Well, I must go to bed!

11:31 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home