Sunday, June 29, 2008

Unconditional Parenting

About a week before we headed up north, I started teaching Claire the ASL sign for milk. When I was still pregnant, Mark and I took a class on sign language for hearing babies (yep, just like in Meet the Fockers). The theory is that it improves communication, therefore reducing crying and frustration (presumably with both the baby and the parent ;) Seven months is the recommended age to start, and I figured milk would be a good one to start with. So imagine my surprise after just over a week when she started doing the sign on her own! My mom or Holly actually noticed it first, and it was the cutest thing. I don't know why I was so surprised, she had learned how to wave without my even really trying to teach her a few weeks before that. It's so much fun watching her learn new things, and rediscovering the world through her eyes!

I knew I was going to love Claire before she was even born, but I was not prepared for how hard I would fall for her. Just looking at her makes me grin, and I miss her when I'm away for even just an hour; her safety and happiness are more important to me than anything in this world, and I would do anything to guarantee both for her. Becoming a parent has changed me in so many ways, but one of the most profound has been my relationship with my parents. Their "uncool" decisions, and the times I thought they overreacted when I was growing up - it all makes so much sense now. Sure, sometimes they were overreacting, but I can relate now. I understand why they did and said the things they did, and I see it really was out of love. I wish I could have had this clarity 15 years ago.

I've spent a lot of time reading about parenting this past year, and thinking about my childhood and what worked/what didn't for my family. I love Alfie Kohn and his approach, so I'm trying to learn how to parent "unconditionally", when I was raised miles down the other side of the spectrum. I've talked extensively with my parents about this, to get their points of view and their wisdom, and to make sure they don't take it personally that I'm raising my kids in such a radically different way than I was raised. But they tell me they wish they could have done some things differently, and that they're proud of me for being so proactive and for taking the time to learn so much about my options. I'm so thankful for their support.

One of the tenets of Unconditional Parenting is to avoid punishment and rewards/praise. The punishment business hasn't been an issue for me, as I have always believed that babies are exempt. Rewards and praise, on the other hand, are my biggest obstacle right now. It's second nature to see a baby or little kid do something and respond with "good job!" It's like a Pavlovian response, I no longer feel I have any control over it; the words just come flying out. But in "traditional" parenting magazines and books, so-called experts stress the importance of positive reinforcement, and that's how I was raised. But now that I'm aware of this habit, and why it's not the best approach to take, I'm noticing examples everywhere.

In his book Unconditional Parenting, Alfie talks about the "dangers" of praise citing a study that was done with toddlers and their parents. Now let's see how well I can explain this from memory! (I hope I can do it justice.) They split the group down the middle and gave each toddler a toy to play with, telling one group of parents to praise their children while they played with the toy, and the other half to refrain from doing so. Later, they gave the kids another toy and watched them playing independently with it; the children who had recieved praise didn't have as much interest in playing without the praise, and appeared to need the cheerleading section to even want to figure out how to use the toy. The other kids whose parents had been nearby to answer questions but did not offer praise were able to figure out the toy on their own, and had more fun playing independently. The kids who were praised became dependent upon it, and it actually wound up hindering their ability to enjoy playing without it.

Now obviously, there are worse ways to parent. And I'm not saying parents who praise their kids aren't good parents. But this really opened my eyes. It reminded me of an afternoon a few summers ago that Mark and I spent with a family we know. Noah must have been about 6, and all of the adults were sitting outside watching him shoot hoops on the driveway. He's been a super athletic kid for as long as I've known him, able to make baskets and pitch baseballs better than many kids twice his age. So when he kept making baskets in the adult-sized hoop, we all clapped and cheered and yelled "good job!" But that got really old after a while, and one by one we adults became involved in side conversations and the praise died out. Until Noah turned around, hand on his hip, and said something like "hey, guys..." with a motion to resume the cheering. He wasn't done playing, and seemed insulted that we had stopped. When the cheering failed to sound as loud and exciting as it had been in the beginning, he threw the ball to the side and walked away kind of dejectedly. And the same thing has happened the last few times we've seen him: the first thing he asks is "Mark and Alyssa, want to watch me play video games?" If we don't watch him, he won't play. He needs the cheering section to enjoy many of the activities that other kids enjoy because of the activity itself. And I hate to sound harsh, I think he's a great kid and I love him. But what a perfect illustration of praise gone wrong. Kids should enjoy doing things because it makes them feel good, not because it's pleasing somebody else.

Punishment was a normal part of childhood for me. I wasn't a bad kid, and the punishments certainly weren't extreme. But I was grounded my fair share of times, had privileges withheld, and was scolded at times for not behaving a certain way. My parents were raised in the oppressive 50s, when all of the experts advised parents to control their household like a dictatorship or they would lose control altogether. Parents were looked down upon for not disciplining their children enough - even still today, when kids act out the parent is always blamed for not being in control. But this book has shown me that when parents exert control over their children, they are pushing their kids away and losing it in the process. When I was punished as a kid, I never got the message my parents wanted me to get, I just learned how not to get caught the next time. And it made me trust them less and fear them, and future punishments, more. It's been really interesting reading about this and looking back on examples from my childhood - and challenging to come up with ways to do things differently. Here's a good excerpt from Alfie's website:

"Advice for raising children typically comes in two flavors: threats (known euphemistically as "consequences") and bribes ("positive reinforcement"). Either we make kids suffer to teach them a lesson, or we dangle goodies in front of them for doing as they're told. Rewards and punishments are two sides of the same coin, and unfortunately, neither can buy anything more than temporary obedience. Manipulating children's behavior -- by means of time-outs, contrived praise, privileges offered and privileges taken away -- can never help them to reflect on the kind of people they want to be. Instead of encouraging kids to take responsibility for their actions, it makes them dependent on rewards and punishments. Rather than promoting generosity and compassion, it leads them to focus on the consequence to themselves of pleasing the adult."

I have a lot of reading and thinking to do, and I'll probably never really feel like I've got it down. But I'm also really enjoying this learning process and the challenges of finding better ways of doing things when they exist.

My question to you: how were you raised? Do you think it was effective? What would you do differently/the same?