Sometimes I think that parenting needs a 12-step program.
I’m a believer in the theory of unconditional parenting as proposed by Alfie Kohn in his book Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason.
However, belief by itself doesn’t always translate into action.
I’m in the midst of re-reading the book because I’ve begun to notice after some time that my language has become more and more conditional since reading this book when Annika was a toddler.
If you’re not familiar with the theory, let me try to give a brief explanation. (Or you can read more here.)
It’s a complex theory, so really it’s best to read the book.
But basically it says that the use of punishments and rewards conditions children, therefore putting a condition on the parental love, leaving them with insecurities.
The judgments, even positive ones, that we use with our children affect how they think we love them.
Unconditional parenting says that a parent’s unconditional love should be evident in our language and actions. Kohn says in the book, “…the relevant question isn’t just whether — or even how much– we love our kids. It also matters how we love them.”
How we love our children matters.
The ideas in his book really spoke to me when I first read it and I began putting into practice removing judgments and empty praise from my language. I took the words, “good job” and tossed them out of my parenting language. I don’t say anything when she does something new like open a heavy door, or help me carry groceries, or clean up her toys without prodding.
There’s meaning in the unspoken.
I began using constructive words to describe her creative efforts, her attempts at sports, and other toddler/preschool learning activities. Things like, “You used contrasting colors in that picture.” Or, “You kicked the ball really straight and hard.”
The idea behind that is to point out what was good or useful instead of offering empty praise.
Adding to that stuff, I made a habit of telling Annika that I love her and give her a hug and/or kiss, immediately after she’s thrown a tantrum, (or when I’ve lost it yelled at her).
Kohn says that using conditional parenting, mainstream advice would tell us to punish “bad” behavior. But using unconditional parenting, the parent realizes that a tantrum is a sign that something is wrong, and that’s the time when our children need our unconditional love the most.
It’s something I continue to struggle with. There are times when I just want to squash the tantrum. Or I lose my temper and my patience.
These ideas that we should allow anger and annoying behavior are not things we’ve been taught. They go against all the typical parenting patterns in our society.
But I think they are worthy habit changes and I am looking for some new ones to add to the mix as she ages.
So, I’m working on it. But it doesn’t come naturally. And I fall back into using mainstream language when I’m not paying attention. I nitpick. I roll my eyes behind her back. I yell sometimes. It’s hard to change even when you know better. And part of that is because of conditioning.
It’s something I have to continue to watch.
I noticed that my language had started to reflect more mainstream mantras a few months ago when I was teaching Annika to play “tennis” (really it was a plastic ball with badminton rackets from the dollar store).
So, she’s only 3, right. It had never even occurred to me that she would actually be able to hit the ball with a racket. But she wanted to try. Hey, I am all for that. If my kid wants to learn something new, we do it.
So, after a few lessons on stance and modeling the serve, she got it! (Sort of.) I was so excited I jumped up and down shouting, “WOW! GOOD JOB! GOOD JOB!” Then I quickly added, “YOU DID IT ALL BY YOURSELF!” And then I added more constructive feedback as we continued to play while I mentally kicked myself.
Although, I don’t think the random “good job” is going to do any long-term damage to her psyche, I wonder just how much other conditioning I’ve done without realizing it.
Everywhere you turn, you hear parents congratulating their kids on things that they don’t need to be congratulated for.
Children get rewards for the most ridiculous things in our society. Peeing in the toilet. Eating vegetables. Helping pick up toys when they are happy to do it. Reading. (Really? As a childhood reader, that one really annoys me.)
In my mind, these are just facts of life. Things that you need to learn. Giving rewards for them seems hollow at best, detrimental at the worst.
But parents are in a rush for their kids to learn or keep up these habits. It’s a systemic problem from an immature society with a selfish need for everything to happen on a timetable instead of allowing things to progress naturally. We are a convenience society and it has extended to our parenting in the form of conditioning.
Nobody seems to think about how we teach, just that they do it. Is that really the kind of society we want to raise? People who are conditioned into doing things for a reward instead of doing it out of joy?
It’s one of those sick and twisted lies that our culture keeps propagating. It’s not even an elephant in the room because everyone sees this elephant and keeps patting it on the back and telling it “good job.”