Good parents are life coaches, not bosses

There’s an excellent article on parenting in yesterday’s New York Times.

The author correctly criticizes the frequent advice to parents to “turn up the affection when they’re good, withhold affection when they’re not”:

Some people who wouldn’t dream of spanking choose instead to discipline their young children by forcibly isolating them, a tactic we prefer to call “time out.” Conversely, “positive reinforcement” teaches children that they are loved, and lovable, only when they do whatever we decide is a “good job.”

This raises the intriguing possibility that the problem with praise isn’t that it is done the wrong way — or handed out too easily, as social conservatives insist. Rather, it might be just another method of control, analogous to punishment. The primary message of all types of conditional parenting is that children must earn a parent’s love. A steady diet of that, Rogers warned, and children might eventually need a therapist to provide the unconditional acceptance they didn’t get when it counted.

Evidence now suggests Rogers is right:

[C]hildren who received conditional approval were indeed somewhat more likely to act as the parent wanted. But compliance came at a steep price. First, these children tended to resent and dislike their parents. Second, they were apt to say that the way they acted was often due more to a “strong internal pressure” than to “a real sense of choice.” Moreover, their happiness after succeeding at something was usually short-lived, and they often felt guilty or ashamed.

Many, if not most, parents think of themselves as shaping and controlling their child’s development. But you’re not your child’s boss. And you can’t force your child to behave a certain way without simultaneously teaching her/him to resent you for imposing your will on her/him.

Instead, I like to think of myself as a coach — a life coach, perhaps — for my children. When they do something that jeopardizes their safety or threatens others, of course I impose my will. But on everything else, I attempt to help them make smart decisions by reasoning with them, explaining why I prefer one course of action over another, etc. But, in the end, it’s their decision, and they’ll learn — perhaps the hard way — that bad decisions often have bad consequences. I would never insist that they act exactly as I would because I’m not them. I’m only their coach. They have to go on the field of life and play the game for themselves. To the extent I offer advice they judge useful, they’ll listen and consider my views.

Here’s my reply to my mom, who (lovingly) pointed me to this article:

I completely agree with this. Excellent advice, esp. “unconditional acceptance by parents as well as teachers should be accompanied by “autonomy support”: explaining reasons for requests, maximizing opportunities for the child to participate in making decisions, being encouraging without manipulating, and actively imagining how things look from the child’s point of view.”

It’s very important to distinguish between your unconditional love for your child and your momentary disapproval of a specific action. And the proper response to being disappointed by your child’s action is to express your disapproval and your reasons for disapproval and the consequences if such an action recurs.

I’ve read several very helpful parenting books that have explained the dangers of being too strict or too lenient. We try to set few rules and be very flexible about most matters but to be inflexible about the rules we’ve set (like, “You can’t grab a toy your sister is playing with”). By following that advice, discipline has been a very occasional issue in our family (for now at least). We respect and talk with Daryl about his feelings, whether he’s happy or sad/mad. He’s fully entitled to feel however he feels. But he must behave responsibly. The few times we have had to discipline him is when he has lost control of himself in a screaming fit. We’ve told him consistently that he’s welcome to scream and be angry… in his room with his door closed. And that we’d love to be with him again after he calms down. But while he’s screaming, he needs to be in his room so he doesn’t disturb other people.

I’ve started reading a book on disciplining (“Setting Limits with Your Strong-Willed Child : Eliminating Conflict by Establishing Clear, Firm, and Respectful Boundaries”; http://www.amazon.com/Setting-Limits-Your-Strong-Willed-Child/dp/0761521364/). I read reviews of quite a few lousy books on this topic before hitting on this one that I think gets it right. It says, basically, parents must set (reasonable) limits and enforce them consistently. If you give in to pleading and cajoling, you encourage long, drawn-out battles of will. If one parent is “soft” and the other is “hard,” your children will exploit that. But if you set clear rules and enforce them quickly and consistently, discipline becomes very simple. If it’s bed time, for example, then it’s bed time. And nothing Daryl says will enable him to watch another half hour of TV. It’s not a matter of whether or not we love him. It’s a matter of us having set a reasonable rule that we insist he follows. And it’s a rule about which we can’t be flexible because if he stays up beyond his bed time, he’ll become cranky and whiny.

I’m sure things will get more complicated as Daryl and Lia get older. But I believe the basic principles still hold.

—James

Posted by James on Wednesday, September 16, 2009