Last month, OCP hosted a Parents Night to talk about Alfie Kohn’s book, Unconditional Parenting. Heidi Hill of the Curriculum Committee wrote up this summary of the discussion:
Parent ed night #1: A look at Alfie Kohn’s Unconditional Parenting
What do you do when your child has a tantrum in the middle of Target? Or when she hurts someone and doesn’t say, “I’m sorry”? How do you recognize your child’s successes and hard work without praising him?
We explored these questions and many more in our first parent education night of the year, on October 10, when we met to talk about Alfie Kohn’s Unconditional Parenting. The approach Kohn outlines in that book—in which he advocates working with kids rather than doing to them to achieve a desired end—is one we strive to put into practice in the classroom at OCP. Kohn says that when we spank our children or put them in timeouts or even give them praise and tangible rewards, we are trying to control them and get them to do what we want them to do. Instead, he promotes giving children unconditional love, listening to them, trying to see things from their point of view, and giving them choices. For our discussion, we wanted to look at Kohn’s ideas and talk about how they work—or don’t work—in our families, outside of school time.
Our facilitator for the night was Curriculum committee member Cathy Parker. She started off by acknowledging how challenging and provocative Kohn’s book is—and how hard it can be to accept or even talk about.
We talked about reading the book for the first time, and how “against the grain” it seems. Understanding how punishment hurts isn’t such a leap; but praise? The twenty-seven of us who gathered to discuss the book and its approach spent a lot of time exploring what it means to give our children unconditional love without praise. One person noted how saying “Good job” can feel like a way of shutting down the conversation and can come across as dismissive. By giving a judgment (even a positive one), someone else pointed out, we teach kids that you should evaluate or judge everything.
Here are a few other ideas that came out of our conversation:
- Children want to be given autonomy, to believe that their parents are listening to them. When you see your child as a human being who deserves respect, not an opponent, you realize that you can’t assign motivations to them; you have to try to figure out why they are doing what they’re doing.
- It’s important to recognize that kids assign different value to their reasons than we do. We might think they are having a fit over something small, but to them it is of utmost importance.
- It helps to try to cut our kids some slack, to start relating to them as people who deserve to be respected and heard. We also need to cut ourselves some slack and not expect to respond “perfectly” every time, or even most of the time. It’s okay to explain to your child why you did something that you might have wished you didn’t do; it’s okay to apologize to her.
- There are ways to teach empathy and that our actions have impact without forcing certain behaviors (such as saying you’re sorry). As parents, we can model this behavior for our children. If they don’t pick up on cues—“Look at your friend’s face. What do you think would make her feel better?”—you can say to the hurt friend: “I am sorry you got hurt. What can I do to help you feel better?”
- How do you respond thoughtfully to your child in a way that validates them without giving them praise? Focus on their effort, their work, not the product or result. Give kids a chance to express their feelings and observations. Share in their excitement without shutting down the experience (as “Good job” can do). Above all, be yourself—children can detect falseness—and be kind to yourself.
- One person offered some tips for responding to a child who has just accomplished a hard-won task: “You worked so hard at that.” (Notice the effort.) “How did that make you feel?” (Give them a chance to express their feelings.) “Tell me about it.” (Open a dialogue.)
- Giving verbal praise can be a way to move the child along; it’s better (though harder) to be honest: “I don’t have time to look at that right now.” You can respond in the moment and then revisit the experience later if you have more to say.
- When your child is having a tantrum, you can say, “When you calm down, we’ll talk about this.” Don’t over-talk; the priority is to keep the child safe, not get them to “come around” to your point of view. It’s important to acknowledge that you see the child is hurting and having trouble and that you will talk with them when they’re ready. Not doing this makes them feel abandoned to the pain; this is why timeouts are so hurtful.
- What do you do when your child has that tantrum in Target? First you have to separate yourself from your fears of what other people may think. Know that the only thing you can control is yourself. You can model a calm demeanor to your child. You can go for the short-term fix (feel “good” now, i.e., control the behavior with a negative response) or the long-term solution (feel better on the drive home and after).
- If you have to run errands with your kids, try to make it fun for them. Ask for their input. Give them a plan and let them know what to expect. Don’t be in a rush. Understand that they can’t always express what’s really going on. Appeal to their sense of fairness, of mutual respect. And be open to a change in plans.
- It helps to look at how much your child controls and try to make that realm as big as you can. Remember that your child will feel more respected if you talk to her and listen to her. Try to be patient enough to hear her reasons for what she’s done.
There was much to say on these topics, and we filled up two hours with stories and advice and suggestions. We’ll have another informal gathering in the coming months to talk more about the book and its approach, for those who want to explore it further or couldn’t come to the first discussion.