Thursday, February 11, 2010

Parenting Seminar, Week Four

Hoooo-weeee. We had a doozy of a class Tuesday night. After feeling a little defeated and annoyed the week before, I was going in to the night's class with less enthusiasm than I had before. However, the topic was a good one for me-- we talked about moving beyond rewards and punishment with children. I have heard this theory before, and even tried to muddle through Alfie Kohn's book 'Unconditional Parenting' but I never really connected with the information. I got the theory behind it, which is, to empower your child (soon to be adult!) to find intrinsic value in having the power to make the choices they need to be responsible people in the world. By rewarding and punishing you are teaching your child to value consequences and rewards over relationships and it takes away from their power to understand what the real issue is.

The main idea that we focused on were not rewards or consequences, but SOLUTIONS. Solutions that need to be related to the problem, reasonable and respectful of the child. Sometimes solutions can be consequences, in an example like, your child gets upset and throws something, then they need to come and help clean it up. That's a logical, related and reasonable consequence. However, if your child throws something and then you yell at them and send them to their room-- the consequence it designed to "hurt" the child but not to help them understand what they did wrong, how to make it right, and how to do it differently next time.

We discussed that when punishment has the outcome we would like, what you get is a child stops the behavior-- but even in this best-case scenario, that's all you end up with. You don't have a child that has learned anything, or who feels respected, or really (when you think about) has a true desire to not do it again-- other than being fearful of being punished. I think we can all agree that in most cases we don't want our children to operate simply out of fear of punishment. Of course, I would venture to say that likely many of the parents in my generation, and certainly generations before mine, were raised this way. It's extremely difficult to break out of the mold of the way that children have been raised for many, many years. Unconditional parenting is time-consuming and requires a great deal of thought, but the rewards are immeasurable.

The other side of this is rewards. Like many people I know, I have tried sticker charts with my kids. It really didn't work for us, something I have lamented on more than one occasion. Some kids respond extremely well to sticker charts-- that is, they do what they are supposed to do, earn a sticker for doing so, and then, when they accumulate enough stickers, they get a prize! Wee! Sounds great, right? Well, let's turn the table. Let's say your spouse said to you "honey, every night you make dinner this month I'll give you a sticker! THEN when you have enough stickers you'll get any prize you want!" Sit for a moment and think about this. Do you still feel like making dinner? Do you feel valued for your contribution? Probably not. You may really, really love the prize you'll get, but the enjoyment and value of doing that task is completely gone. Rewards, like punishments, are a quick means to an end, but they aren't teaching our children anything but to work for an extrinsic motivation. The goal should be, instead, to help our children become intrinsically motivated. No small task, right?

That last main lesson that I will leave you with (though I have plenty more!) is to stay calm. Our children mirror our actions, not our words. We need to model calmness, to keep our lids from being flipped, so to speak (from my first parenting class that I wrote about HERE). There are different ways to practice this. You can make a plan. If you know that certain behaviors "flip your lid" then make a plan-- write it down and post it on your wall!-- and then you have something to refer to to help you through those hard times without freaking out. If you have your partner in the house at the time, you can ask him/her to step in and help you while you cool down. You can put yourself in a "time out". Say to your child "I'm really upset about this, I need to go sit down for three minutes and breathe before I can come back and deal with it". Even just visualizing the idea that I posted after my first seminar-- imagine keeping your lid closed. Hold up your hand with your fingers curled over your thumb as a reminder! You can teach your child the hand sign for keeping your lid closed and practice it together.

So I have been practicing some of these this week. I am in no way saying that I've become a perfect parent or that I'm under the impression my children have somehow become magically well-behaved overnight. It's just an instance that I used the tools I learned and it worked. Who knows for next time? We have a little problem in our house, I'll try to explain without being too gross. Sometimes when Iris uses the potty she doesn't flush. Then sometimes she doesn't put the lid down. Then, sometimes, when our dog notices this, she, um, steals things out of the toilet. I am sure your imagination how disgusting of a mess this makes. When I discovered that this happened I immediately wanted to start screaming. YUCK!!!! Instead, I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and walked to the living room and let Iris know she needed to help me clean it up. I got us gloves, sponges and a bottle of bleach spray. She sprayed the floor and toilet seat, wiped, and then dried off the floor when it was clean. And then you know what she did? She got a huge smile across her face. She was proud that she helped and I think it made an impression on her. When we were done she was happy, I was happy, the mess was cleaned up by more than just me and life went on. I taught Iris the lesson about this one thing without yelling, without punishing and without getting mad or making Iris mad.

I would love to hear your examples of moving beyond rewards and punishment for your kids. What has worked? What hasn't?


  1. Our big thing with that theory is changing how we react to spills compared to how our parents reacted to spills. When I was a kid and would spill my milk my dad would yell "What's wrong with you?" and backhand me. JP's mom would freak out and scream at him. When EJ spills something we used to say, "Ooops - better clean that up!" Now if she spills something she says, "Oh, sorry!" and immediately jumps up and goes to get a towel to clean it up without us needing to say anything. She also says sometimes, "Don't worry, Dad, I just need to clean it up. It's ok." because she's seen how tense he still gets when he spills something.

    We've been doing the "Oh - you throw that and now it's broken. Well, now you don't have it anymore." or "Now you need to clean it up." thing all along and I had NO idea we were doing the right thing! That's good to hear! Especially when I'm constantly walking around wondering just how badly I am screwing up!

  2. We do a little bit of everything I guess. Redirection, positive reinforcement, modeling, sticker charts. Seems like some approaches work for some situations and some work better in other situations. I think the number one thing to remember is the modeling. I am constantly hearing and seeing my kids mimic me...sometimes it's cute and sometimes I'm somewhat embarrassed. There are times when something we've watched or read will inspire some great discussions too.


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