Unfortunately, admirable intentions don’t guarantee a positive outcome. Bad things done for good reasons aren’t nearly as helpful as good things done for good reasons.
Kirby Deater-Deckard, Kenneth Dodge, and two other researchers have attracted considerable attention in their field by contending that, because disciplining children with physical force is more widely accepted by African Americans, black kids may not experience being hit by their parents in the same way that white kids do, and therefore it won’t have the same negative effects. Their study of 466 white children and 100 black children found that higher levels of physical punishment resulted in aggression and similar problems only among the white children. These researchers—all of whom are white, incidentally—speculated that African American children may not “view their parents’ physical discipline as an indication of parental lack of warmth and concern”—provided that the punishment doesn’t reach levels usually classified as abusive.
Melvin Kohn famously showed that working-class parents are more likely to raise their children to conform to rules and respect authority—and to use punishment to achieve those goals—whereas middle-class, notably white-collar, parents are more likely to want their children to be self-directed and autonomous decision-makers. Kohn hypothesized that this, in turn, is related to the expectations the parents themselves face at work, which often vary by class.
Toddlers, too, are treated very differently from one culture to the next. As a result, some new research demonstrates that “the ‘terrible twos’ transition is not universal”; its existence seems to depend on how much “parents attempt to assert their authority” and, perhaps, on what their ultimate goals are for their children. This is but one illustration of the larger point that culturally specific assumptions and practices produce different behaviors. Over and over, what we take to be simple facts about child development turn out not to be true everywhere.
It’s easier to take one’s cue from a child, whether someone else’s or our own, if we can see the world as that child sees it. On an everyday basis, perspective taking makes for better parenting. Even when we can’t honor children’s preferences, it’s terribly important that we do our best to understand and acknowledge their perspective (“I guess to you it seems as though . . .”). That helps them feel heard, cared about, and unconditionally loved.
The absence of parental perspective taking assumes many forms. At its most disturbing, it can resemble—or lead to—an utter dismissal of what children are feeling or an attempt to impose our experience on theirs (as in the classic “I’m cold. Go put on a sweater.”). More commonly, we simply fail to appreciate how different their worlds, and their worries, are from ours. One day when my daughter was five, she described to me at some length how concerned she was about the possibility that, if she wore a hooded costume for Halloween (which was still months away), she might not be able to see through the eyeholes well enough to make sure she didn’t mistakenly eat a kind of candy she doesn’t really like.
The last thing a child needs is to be informed that her anxieties are silly. This is especially true when a child is sobbing. To our way of thinking, little kids often cry over nothing, but to them, it’s not nothing at all: What prompted the outburst matters a great deal. We feel exasperated—and, if we’re in public, embarrassed—by a child’s outburst, but we seem to forget that the experience may be agonizing rather than merely annoying for the child.
Sure, it’s hard to be a parent. But it can be a lot harder to be a kid.
There are different levels of perspective taking, of course, and more sophisticated versions may elude very young children. The best we may be able to hope for in the case of a four-year-old is the rather primitive ethics of the Golden Rule. We might say (in a tone that sounds like an invitation to reflect, rather than a reprimand), “I notice you finished all the juice and didn’t leave any for Amy. How do you think you would feel if Amy had done that?” The premise of this question, probably correct, is that both kids like juice and would be disappointed to find none available.
But George Bernard Shaw reminded us that this sort of assumption doesn’t always make sense. “Do not do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” he advised. “Their tastes may not be the same”—or, we might add, their needs or values or backgrounds. Older children and adults can realize that it’s not enough to imagine ourselves in someone else’s situation: We have to imagine that person in that situation. We have to see with her eyes rather than just with our own. We have to—if I may switch metaphors—ask not just what it’s like to be in her shoes, but what it’s like to have her feet.
Kafka once described war as a “monstrous failure of imagination.” In order to kill, one must cease to see individual human beings and instead reduce them to abstractions such as “the enemy.” One must fail to realize that each person underneath our bombs is the center of his universe just as you are the center of yours: He gets the flu, worries about his aged mother, likes sweets, falls in love—even though he lives half a world away and speaks a different language. To see things from his point of view is to recognize all the particulars that make him human, and ultimately it is to understand that his life is no less valuable than yours. Even in popular entertainments, we’re not shown the bad guys at home with their children. One can cheer the death only of a caricature, not of a three-dimensional person.
At home, it’s easy enough for me to minimize these pleasantries in favor of more important values. But I had to face facts: Even if I don’t care about such things, other people do. There’s a cost to flouting social convention, and refusing on principle to be polite is not where I want to make my stand. More to the point, I don’t want to make this stand at my children’s expense. The reality is that they’ll be judged and found wanting if they fail to sprinkle their conversations with the obligatory social niceties.
The solution for me came from thinking about please and thank you as ways to make people feel good rather than as politeness for its own sake. I remind my kids that saying these words is a nice thing to do because people like to hear them. Sure, there are more meaningful ways to help and please others, but why not do everything we can, big and small, toward that goal?
“Use your words!” is a common instruction given to small children, sometimes even when they don’t really have the right words. But the best way for us to use our words is to help kids see that the reason to help—and not to hurt—isn’t what they’ll get out of it, but the effects their actions have on others. To put it differently, I’m all in favor of teaching by “consequences,” as long as the consequences we’re stressing are those experienced by the people our children are interacting with rather than just those that they themselves experience.
Some parents use explanations rather than heavy-handed threats, but the reasons they offer turn out to invoke the same basic motive. “If you’re nasty with your classmates, no one’s going to want to be your friend.” “If you push other people, one of these days someone is going to push you back—or worse.” Similarly, such parents may explain that the reason to help others is that the child will ultimately benefit: “If you give Marsha a turn on your scooter, maybe she’ll let you play with her Legos later.” In other words, people will treat you the way you treated them.
Can you see the problem here? This strategy doesn’t promote genuine concern for others at all. It promotes self-regarding shrewdness. Some kids may be tempted to do hurtful things if they can figure out a way to avoid suffering any repercussions themselves—and they may wonder why they should bother helping others if they get nothing in return.
Remember—your ultimate goal isn’t to get your way. Rather, you want to let your child know that she doesn’t have to argue as well as you do in order to be taken seriously, and you want to help her learn how to frame her arguments more convincingly. We want kids to “talk back” to us, as long as they do so respectfully—and we want them to get better at it.
Marilyn Watson, an expert on child development, also suggests that we refrain from “responding with the full force of our argument to justify our own positions, thereby overwhelming children with our logic.” In fact, we should “help children develop reasons to support their own views, even if we don’t agree with those views.”
Learning anything (say, math) is not mostly a matter of receiving information. People aren’t passive receptacles into which knowledge is poured. We understand ideas by actively making sense of them from the inside out. What is true of math is true of values. To explain their importance, however eloquently, is unlikely to leave children with a commitment to any ideal. Kids have no reason to continue doing what’s right if they haven’t integrated what we’re telling them into the way they think about the world.
Better than yelling is telling. Better than telling is explaining. Now let’s add: Better than explaining—or better than only explaining—is discussing.
Once they’ve grown up, children whose parents offered explanations rather than just demanding obedience turn out to be more inclined to act altruistically when it really counts (according to one study) and are more likely to become politically active and involved in social service activities (according to another).
Even before they’re steady on their feet, children are soaking up your values. They’re learning from you how to be a human being. If they see you nonchalantly walk by someone in trouble, they learn that other people’s pain is no business of theirs. But if they see you showing concern, even for strangers, that teaches a powerful moral lesson. Studies have shown that children are more likely to donate to charity if they’ve watched someone else do so, even if it was a long time ago. The effect on children’s behavior and beliefs is particularly pronounced if the example is set by people whom the child regards as warm and nurturing. Similarly, parents who want to teach the importance of honesty make it a practice never to lie to their children, even when it would be easier just to claim that there are no cookies left rather than to explain why they can’t have another one.
The cornerstone of moral development is the connection between parent and child. All instruction and intervention must be nested in a relationship that feels warm, safe, and unconditionally loving to the child. The same words keep coming up in guidelines for raising a moral child that are offered by different experts: secure attachment, nurturance, respect, responsiveness, and empathy. These are basic needs that all human beings have. When these needs are met, a child is freed from having to be preoccupied with them and can be open to helping others. But if these needs are not met, they may continue to reverberate in the child’s ears, with the result that he or she is deaf to other people’s cries of distress.
How do we raise our children to be happy? That’s an important question, but here’s another one: How do we raise our children to be concerned about whether other people are happy?
It’s important that we don’t allow the first issue to upstage the second—or, for that matter, that we don’t spend more energy trying to get kids to be polite and well behaved than on trying to help them become genuinely compassionate and committed to doing the right thing. We need to focus on our children’s moral development.
The passive-aggressive response of a sit-down strike, of course, doesn’t test us as intensely as does the active-aggressive response of a full-blown tantrum. Some thoughtful authors see tantrums as important for healthy development, while others regard them as a sign that children are frustrated with their parents’ behavior—very likely for good reason—and don’t know how else to express that frustration. Perhaps each of these views captures part of the truth; perhaps tantrums aren’t inevitable or especially desirable, on the one hand, but aren’t necessarily an indication of bad parenting, on the other. In any case, what matters is that if and when they do occur, we respond as constructively as possible.
Rule number one: If you’re in public, ignore everyone around you. The more worried you are about how other people will judge your parenting skills, the greater the chance that you’ll respond with too much control and too little love and patience. This is not about what people think of you; it’s about what your child needs.
Rule number two: Imagine how this looks from her point of view. Someone having a tantrum is very likely afraid of her own rage, terrified of being out of control. Consequently, you do her no favors by ignoring her or by responding harshly. Use only the minimum control necessary to make sure that people (and, less importantly, property) aren’t in danger. Focus on providing comfort and calm reassurance. Let the tantrum play itself out. Later, you can try to address the underlying causes together.
When I was doing an errand one day with my three-year-old daughter, she refused to walk back to the car and held a sit-down strike right there on the sidewalk. Luckily, I wasn’t in a hurry, so I remained pleasant and just waited her out. Eventually she stood up and stomped her way back, refusing to speak to me. I had avoided doing anything overtly coercive, but the reality was that I got my way, she didn’t get hers, and she wasn’t happy about it. When we pulled into the garage, she announced that she wanted to stay in the car and listen to music. Not only did I let her do so for longer than I ordinarily would have, but I visited her periodically to ask if she was ready to come in yet. My intent was to make sure she knew—and that she knew I knew—that it was her decision. Again, the idea is simple: When you must act in a way that diminishes a kid’s sense of self-determination over here, make an effort to strengthen it over there.
Adults don’t have to follow all the same rules that children do, but most rules ought to apply to us, too. If we’re asking them to clean up after themselves or turn off the light when they leave the room, if we’re telling them not to interrupt or swear or use an insulting tone, then we should do likewise. Apart from simple fairness, it’s easier to get kids to do something that we ourselves are willing to do.
“Because I said so” is not a reason at all; it’s an appeal to brute force and a way of teaching children to rely on it themselves. It’s better not only to avoid that phrase but to make a point of offering reasons. Most of our requests can be explained even to two-year-olds in words they can at least partly grasp. (“Your brother’s waiting for us to pick him up at school; if we don’t go get him now, he won’t know where we are and he’ll be sad.”)
Offering explanations doesn’t guarantee that a child will cheerfully accept our demands—just as it wouldn’t always work if someone were telling us we had to do this, or couldn’t do that—but it makes acceptance a lot more likely. In any case, people of any age are entitled to a reason when someone is limiting their options.
If what you’re asking your child to do isn’t much fun, acknowledge that fact. If you want him to be quiet just because you’ve had enough ruckus for one day, say so. Don’t invent more-impressive-sounding justifications for your request, or pretend that something you’re telling him to do will be enjoyable when that’s unlikely to be true. Try to see things from his point of view (more about that in the following chapter), and capture that perspective in your words: “I know it’s frustrating when you can’t [name of desired activity], sweetie, and you probably wish I’d just leave you alone, huh? But . . .”
There are three common forms of “pseudochoice,” all of which, sadly, can be found in discipline books as examples of what we’re supposed to do.
In the first version, the parent asks a loaded question such as “Do you want to do the dishes now or would you rather do them while your favorite TV program is on?” The problem here isn’t just that the options have been reduced to two. It’s that no real choice is being offered at all. Obviously, the child doesn’t want to miss her program. The parent is really saying “Wash the dishes now or else I’m not going to let you watch TV”—or, in generic terms, “Do what I tell you or you’ll be punished.” The language of choice is used to disguise what is basically just a threat.
The second kind of pseudochoice is different only in that the deception occurs after a child does something regarded as inappropriate. The parent announces that a punishment will be imposed, but describes it as something the child asked for—as in, “You’ve chosen a time-out.” This phrase appeals to some parents because it seems to relieve them of any responsibility for what they’re about to do, but it’s fundamentally dishonest and manipulative. To the injury of punishment is added the insult of a kind of mind game whereby reality is redefined and children are told, in effect, that they wanted to be made to suffer. “You’ve chosen a time-out” is a lie; a truthful parent would have to say, “I’ve chosen to isolate you.”
A slightly different version of this ploy consists of saying something like “Don’t make me spank you!” (or “. . . send you to your room,” or “. . . take away your allowance,” or whatever)—in effect, pretending that the child is responsible for “making” the parent resort to punishment. It’s interesting to observe how many people who piously declare that children must take responsibility for their own behavior—sometimes even before they’re really old enough to do so—end up twisting reality so as to escape responsibility for their behavior. (“Don’t look at me! My kid forced me to do bad things to her!”)
The last version of pseudochoice occurs when parents go through the motions of letting the child choose but make it clear how the results must come out. Some options are acceptable and others are not, and the child is expected to figure out what the parent wants him to do—that is, if he ever wants to have the chance to “choose” again. (“I guess you’re not mature enough to be allowed to decide these things for yourself” means “You didn’t pick what I wanted you to.”) Better just to tell a child “I’m going to pick for you,” which at least is honest, than to go through this charade.
[...] children are much less likely to resist decisions that they helped to make. The top-down, “while you’re living in my house, you’ll do as I say” approach ends up taking a lot more time and energy than we realize because of the defiance it so often provokes. Even apart from the stress experienced by parents and children alike—and the damage to their relationship—the apparent efficiency of bypassing discussions by deciding things unilaterally turns out to be an illusion when you take the long view.
I’m not suggesting that everything has to be negotiated, only that kids should know many issues can be negotiated. Paradoxically, they’ll feel less need to challenge every decision when they’re confident that it’s possible for them to object (or suggest an alternative) on those occasions when they feel it’s important to do so.
Anyone who wants to raise a clear-thinking, self-confident child—someone who doesn’t grow into a troubled teen—should imagine the likely effect of years filled with examples of mutual problem-solving, then compare that to years of having the parent make all the important decisions. In fact, we don’t have to speculate about the results. We have good data to show that children are more likely to control themselves if their parents are willing to negotiate and are open to changing their minds in response to children’s arguments.
Kids really respond when they’re treated with respect, involved in problem solving, and assumed to be well intentioned. By contrast, it’s the children who are raised with more traditional disciplinary practices (and the corresponding assumptions) who tend to take advantage. “Give ’em an inch, they’ll take a mile” turns out to be true primarily of children who have only been given inches in their lives.
In short, with each of the thousand-and-one problems that present themselves in family life, our choice is between controlling and teaching, between creating an atmosphere of distrust and one of trust, between setting an example of power and helping children to learn responsibility, between quick-fix parenting and the kind that’s focused on long-term goals.
Here’s another example: It’s one thing to lock your car’s rear door so that a young child can’t accidentally open it while you’re speeding down the highway. It’s something else to lock the electric windows so that only you, the driver, can control them. That’s another doing-to solution, a way of trying to make the problem go away by stripping children of power. Instead, we might just allow the kids to play with the windows, knowing that eventually the game will lose its novelty. If there really is a problem with what they’re doing, however, we should take the time to explain why it’s a problem and ask them to refrain from fooling with the buttons too much.
Consider a child who is spending what we believe is too much time in front of the TV or the computer. Recently I had separate conversations with two different parents about this issue. One was unhappy about excessive television watching in her household, but she shrugged and asked rhetorically, “What are you going to do? It’s the times we live in.” The other mother, by contrast, felt she had to take action—so she hid the remote control from her daughter.
Together, these responses define a classic false dichotomy. If we let kids do whatever they want, even when we disapprove, we risk sending the message that we really don’t care, that we’re washing our hands of responsibility. (In the case of TV, the do-nothing option may actually be more appealing to some parents because, despite their misgivings, they find it convenient to have their children occupied and quiet.) On the other hand, the second response is a doing-to solution. Never mind that hiding the remote is unlikely to work (at least for very long) and merely invites the child to find a way to work around it. What’s more important is that this teaches children to use power—or sneakiness—to get their way.
[...] helping children to feel empowered makes sense at all ages, at home and at school, and with regard to both immediate outcomes and long-term goals. When you think about it, life provides us with an endless series of choices about issues that range from minuscule to monumental, and we want our kids to be able to deal with them in a thoughtful way. If I were to summarize the relevant research and real-life experience on this question in a single sentence, it would be this: The way kids learn to make good decisions is by making decisions, not by following directions.
When teachers give their students more choice about what they’re doing, the results are equally impressive. According to one summary of the research, the advantages include “greater perceived competence, higher intrinsic motivation, more positive emotionality, enhanced creativity, a preference for optimal challenge over easy success, greater persistence in school (i.e., lower drop-out rates), greater conceptual understanding, and better academic performance.”
The research doesn’t merely show that people fail to flourish when they feel powerless. It also clearly demonstrates the benefits of having the chance to choose. For example, when parents not only avoid the temptation to rely on control but also go out of their way to help children experience a sense of autonomy,2 these children are more likely to do what they’re asked and less likely to misbehave. Teenagers who are able to participate in family decision-making are more apt to rely on their parents and to share many of their beliefs. They also end up feeling better about themselves, liking school more, and preferring more challenging assignments—and, if all that’s not enough, they’re also more likely to stay out of trouble. Finally, college students whose parents had encouraged them to be independent as children are more likely than their peers to feel confident about themselves and to persist in the face of difficulty or failure.
All people ought to have some control over their own lives. In the case of children, of course, there are limits to how much control and what kind; plenty of things have to be decided for them, particularly when they’re young. But that doesn’t negate the basic principle. I believe our default position ought to be to let kids make decisions about matters that concern them except when there is a compelling reason for us to override that right. We should be prepared to justify why, in each case, kids shouldn’t be allowed to choose.
Remember that kids also learn from watching how we respond to challenges: whether we’ve taken their concerns seriously (as opposed to automatically siding with the teacher) and whether we involve the child in coming up with solutions (as opposed to trying to deal with the problem unilaterally). Also, children will notice the extent to which we convey respect for the teacher even while expressing disagreement with some of her actions, and how willing we are to understand and acknowledge the teacher’s or principal’s perspective on these issues.
If you don’t like what you see and hear, you’ll need all the skills of diplomacy you can muster to invite your child’s teacher to rethink some of his or her practices. This might be accomplished by raising the question of long-term goals. After all, educators typically endorse the same sorts of goals that parents do; they want their students to be responsible, caring, moral, curious, lifelong learners, and so on. You might focus on the objectives for children that you share with the teacher, and then gently raise the possibility that there may be better ways of achieving those objectives than traditional discipline practices, which rarely help kids to become responsible decision-makers.
[...] the most effective (and least destructive) way to help a child succeed—whether she’s writing or skiing, playing a trumpet or a computer game—is to do everything possible to help her fall in love with what she’s doing, to pay less attention to how successful she was (or is likely to be) and show more interest in the task. That’s just another way of saying that we need to encourage more, judge less, and love always.
In place of pressure, therefore, we should offer support: gentle guidance, encouragement, trust in children’s growing competence, and help when it seems necessary. In place of competitive activities, we should offer opportunities to have fun and learn in ways that don’t require having to defeat someone else.
In place of an excessive focus on school achievement, we should take a lively interest in what the child is learning. “So, what’s your opinion about how dinosaurs became extinct?” is a question that supports intellectual growth. “How come only a B-minus on that paper?” is not. If a child has written an essay, it makes sense to focus not on whether it’s good enough but on its content (and on the process of crafting it). A parent might ask: “How did you come to choose what to write about? What did you learn from your research? Why did you save that important point for the end? Did your opinion about the topic change at all after you started to write?”
[...] credential-happy people aren’t always happy. Our obligation is to warn our children about the implications of becoming addicted to A’s and dollars and trophies, not to serve as enablers of those addictions. We need to keep them—and ourselves—focused on the things that really matter. That means strengthening our relationship with them, making it clear that our love is absolutely unrelated to how well they perform.
In short, I’m not suggesting that we stop saying positive things to our children. But I am saying that we should look at the underlying significance of what we say, and how it’s heard, rather than just trying to use or avoid specific words. If children perceive that we’re simply joining with them to celebrate their accomplishments, that’s fine. But if they perceive that we’re imposing our evaluations on them, this can easily crowd out their own instincts about when and why to feel proud of themselves.
[...] even better than descriptions are questions. Why tell him what you thought of what he did when you can ask him what he thinks? That’s likely to promote useful reflection about why it may be better to act one way than another. Questions you ask about something he wrote or drew or made, meanwhile, invite him to consider what he succeeded in doing and how he did it. This can spur further improvement and nourish his interest in the task itself. The research, remember, suggests that praise may have exactly the opposite effect, directing his attention away from the task and toward your reaction.
A simple, evaluation-free statement lets a child know that you noticed. It also lets her take pride in what she did. When, in her second year, my daughter finally made it up the stairs under her own steam, I was thrilled, of course, but I didn’t feel the need to subject her to my judgment. I just said, “You did it” so she would know that I saw and I cared, but also so she could feel proud of herself.
[...] it’s not necessary to evaluate kids in order to encourage them. The popularity of praise rests partly on the failure to distinguish between those two ideas. Just paying attention to what kids are doing and showing interest in their activities is a form of encouragement.
I’m not saying you can’t be proud of a particular accomplishment. Strangely, though, unconditional parents are just as proud even when their child doesn’t succeed. This is a paradox I had trouble understanding before I had children of my own, and which I still find difficult to explain. You can take special delight when your child does something remarkable, but, again, not in a way that suggests your love hinges on such events. If you strike that balance correctly, children are less likely to grow up feeling they’re worthwhile only when they succeed. They’ll be able to fail without concluding that they themselves are failures.
While it may be possible to spoil kids with too many things, it isn’t possible to spoil them with too much (unconditional) love.
The late psychologist Herbert Lovett once observed that if we ignore children when they misbehave, what we’re saying to them is: “We don’t know why you do this and we don’t care.” To justify such a response by insisting that children who act out are just doing it “for the attention,” Lovett added, seems to imply that “wanting to be noticed [is] a mysterious or stupid need.” It’s as though someone ridiculed you for going out to dinner with your friends, explaining that you do this just because of your “need for companionship.”
Now and then I still find myself wondering whether my children will view expressions of unconditional love as a reward for their misbehavior.
I know better, of course. As I’ve already indicated, my own experience has confirmed what I’d learned from watching exemplary parents: Punishments and rewards are never advisable and never necessary.
Notice, by the way, that a reminder to emphasize the unconditionality of our affection is very different from the more conventional advice to alternate criticism with praise. Positive judgments don’t cancel out negative judgments, because the problem is with judgment itself.
We must reassure them: “No matter what you do, no matter how frustrated I get, I will never, never, never stop loving you.” It doesn’t hurt to say that in so many words, but we have to say it through our actions, too. Unconditional parents offer reassurances on a regular basis, and particularly during periods of conflict, about how much their children matter to them. When a child acts in ways that are less than desirable, such parents may point out that this behavior is temporary and out of character; it doesn’t really reflect the child they know and love.
I remember one day when my two-year-old son got tired of waiting for his six-year-old sister to finish with a toy so he could play with it. He attempted to wrest it away from her, leading her to protest angrily. After she had fended him off and reestablished possession, she announced, “Now I don’t want to give it to him at all because he tried to grab it.” She was going to teach him a lesson, and let him know that because he did something wrong he should be punished by having to forfeit his turn. The question is: Do we want to act with our children as though we, too, were six years old? An awful lot of what passes for discipline consists of tit-for-tat responses that merely give us the satisfaction of getting even.
It may make sense not only to turn down the volume, so to speak, but to switch to a different station. When kids are careless or hurtful or obnoxious, try to see this as an opportunity to teach. Instead of “What’s the matter with you? Didn’t I just tell you not to do that?!”—or, for that matter, instead of “I’m disappointed in you when you do that”—try helping the child to see the effects of his action, how it might hurt other people’s feelings or make their lives more difficult.
As soon as a child is born, it’s time to think about our parenting style, and specifically about the way we react when things don’t go smoothly. Do we make sure that an infant feels loved and accepted even when she won’t stop crying, even when she promptly messes the diaper we just finished putting on, even when she’s not a “good sleeper”? Some people very quickly become fair-weather parents, supportive and attentive only when their children are easy to be with. But unconditional love matters most when they’re not.
I can’t resist pointing out that the phrase “don’t be in a hurry” has another meaning. It might be thought of as a reminder to slow down and savor your time with your kids.
Rather than trying to change your child’s behavior, it usually makes more sense to alter the environment. What’s true of time is true of space. A locked gate that keeps a toddler in your yard is a lot more sensible than an attempt to rely on fear or even persuasion to keep her from wandering into the street. In general, do what you can to head off problems. If you anticipate that your child will have trouble sitting still (say, at a restaurant), then take along books, toys, or other diversions rather than placing the burden on her to behave herself.
Even on those occasions when we are in a bit of a hurry, it’s important not to be minute-wise and hour-foolish. Trying to rush a small child is a fool’s errand. Therefore, it often makes sense to spend a little time now to save more time later. My two-year-old son fell asleep on the way to the supermarket one afternoon. If I had plopped him in the cart and rushed through the aisles, he would have been miserable (and children’s misery really does love company). Instead, I roused him gently, and then, even though I didn’t have much time to spare, I sat quietly with him inside the store for a few minutes, pointing out things I knew he’d be interested in, the idea being to help him wake up gradually. We managed to get through the shopping fairly quickly and without any fuss.
Some parents argue that deprivation is desirable for its own sake: “Children have to get used to frustration; they might as well learn that they’re not going to be able to do everything they want to in life.” Sometimes this seems to be a way for these parents to rationalize saying no, which is their preference for other reasons. But anyone who takes this claim seriously need only observe how often children end up experiencing frustration even in a family where the parents try to say yes as often as they can. There are more than enough opportunities for learning to deal with limits, for confronting the fact that it’s impossible to get everything one wants. Kids don’t need parents to add to those occasions by saying no when they could have said yes.
When you come right down to it, the whole process of raising a kid is pretty damned inconvenient, particularly if you want to do it well. If you’re unwilling to give up any of your free time, if you want your house to stay quiet and clean, you might consider raising tropical fish instead.
Your ten-year-old asks you to bring him a snack while he’s watching TV. Is that a reasonable request, one that allows you to set an example of how we do nice things for one another, or should you insist that he come get it himself? And while we’re at it, is it okay for your child to choose to sleep on the floor? To sit backward on her chair during dinner?
These aren’t cases of meeting kids’ needs. They’re wants, and therefore it’s impossible to stipulate the correct parental response in advance. Still, my recommendation is to say yes whenever possible. That should be the default response, such that you need a good reason not to go along with what’s being proposed, or to step in and forbid something.
Even when children are young, it’s often debatable whether what they wanted to do really was dangerous. Sometimes we invoke the idea of safety to justify saying no for other reasons. We may tell kids to stop doing things that are actually pretty harmless, or we may say no automatically when they propose something out of the ordinary. We sometimes refuse to allow a child to do something just because it’s inconvenient for us.
Lewis acknowledges that “if the boy were an alienated 12-year-old who indeed intended to hurt a classmate, and the teacher returned the rock to him, he might simply figure the adult was a fool.”9 Similarly, it would be silly or disingenuous to suggest to a child who has viciously kicked someone that he probably didn’t mean any harm.10 That’s why Noddings’s motto is to attribute to children the best possible motive consistent with the facts. But there are plenty of times when the facts are unknown to us, and our inclination should be to give the child the benefit of the doubt.
Again, this advice is especially important with young children, whose apparent misbehavior really is likely to be due mostly to their age (in which case our positive assumptions are probably accurate) and whose sense of themselves is still in formation (so our assumptions, positive or negative, affect them more). However, even with older children, our first reaction shouldn’t be to blame: “Well, you must have done something to make him mad.” Rather, we need to sympathize and try to understand why our children acted as they did.
Consider a five-year-old boy who picked up a large rock and appeared ready to throw it. “A teacher standing nearby said casually, ‘Lend me the rock,’ and demonstrated, by touching the rock to the child’s head, how the rock could hit a classmate’s head. The teacher then returned the rock to the child, saying, ‘Carry it carefully.’ ” After relating this anecdote, which took place in a Japanese school, Catherine Lewis, a specialist in early-childhood education, remarks that she was surprised by the fact that the teacher “neither asked the child to put down the rock nor implied that the child intended to throw it.” Instead, the teacher
implied that the problem was one of information—that the boy hadn’t thought carefully about how the rock might hurt others. The teacher’s action also implied that the boy was capable of self-control; after all, the teacher gave the rock back to the boy. In contrast, if the teacher had taken away the rock or imposed punishment, the boy might have inferred that he was untrustworthy or incapable of self-control; and he might well have focused on punishment as the reason not to throw rocks, rather than on the danger of injuring others.
[...] even though you may grow tired of picking the spoon off the floor for the umpteenth time, it’s important to realize that a one-year-old keeps pushing it off the high chair just because kids of that age get a kick out of dropping things—not because she’s “testing limits,” and certainly not because she’s trying to make Mommy miserable. Just because a child’s action may have a negative effect on you doesn’t mean that was the child’s intention.
Even when parents don’t say out loud that the child must have acted as he did because he’s stupid or destructive or bad, it matters if they believe this is true. It’s not just the attributions we utter that matter, but the ones we make in our heads. Though we may never speak an unkind word about our children, assumptions about their motives invariably affect the way we treat them. The more negative those assumptions, the more inclined we’ll be to control them unnecessarily.
The good news is that we can create an “auspicious circle” in place of the vicious one. If we don’t have any concrete evidence to the contrary, why not assume there may be an innocuous explanation for what just happened? Maybe what looked like a deliberate act of aggression was actually accidental. Maybe what appeared to be an act of thievery wasn’t that at all. We can help kids to develop good values by treating them as though they were already motivated by those values. They thereby come to believe what’s best about themselves and live up to our trust in them.
Controlling parents, as I’ve mentioned, are likely to hold children to unrealistically high expectations, partly because they don’t understand just how unrealistic those expectations are. They might, for example, punish a toddler for failing to do what he said he would do, or demand that a preschooler sit quietly through a long family dinner. The reality is that very young children simply can’t grasp the obligation entailed by making a promise; to hold them responsible for doing so is, to use the phrase preferred by early-childhood experts, “developmentally inappropriate.” It’s similarly unrealistic to expect children to stay still for long periods of time. It’s normal for them to fidget, to be loud, to forget to turn off a battery-operated toy, and to become unnerved by what seem to us to be tiny changes in their environment. We have to keep our expectations keyed to what they’re capable of doing.
As a rule, our first priority is to figure out the source of the problem, to recognize what children need.
A father in Ontario wrote to tell me about the day his four-year-old daughter brought home a bag of snacks from school.
She dumped them on the living room floor and made a big mess, and I asked her to put them back in the bag and set them on the table. She refused. My initial reaction was that this was a challenge to my authority. She had “disobeyed” me, and therefore punishment was in order. Otherwise, she wouldn’t listen to me in the future. [Instead, though,] I asked her, “Why don’t you want to put them away?” She replied, “Because I want to eat them.” The problem solved itself after this. All I had to say was, “You can still eat them after you put them in the bag—all I want is the living room clean.” She immediately put them in the bag and set them on the table.
[...] the more real we are with them, the more likely it is that they’ll feel real respect for us.
There are two reasons to apologize. First, it sets a powerful example. I noted earlier that it makes no sense to force children to say they’re sorry when they’re not. A far more effective way to introduce them to the idea of apologizing is to show them how it’s done. Second, apologizing takes you off your perfect parent pedestal and reminds them that you’re fallible. In fact, it shows them that it’s possible to acknowledge (to ourselves and to others) that we make mistakes, and that things are sometimes our fault, without losing face or feeling hopelessly inadequate.
Real people have needs of their own, things they enjoy doing, things they hate. Kids should know that. Real people sometimes become flustered or distracted or tired. They’re not always sure what to do. Sometimes they say things without thinking and later regret them. We shouldn’t pretend to be more competent than we are. And when we screw up, we should admit it: “You know, sweetie, I’ve been thinking about what I said last night, and I think I might have been wrong.” My advice is to make a point of apologizing to your child about something at least twice a month. Why twice a month? I don’t know. It sounds about right to me. (Almost all the specific advice in parenting books is similarly arbitrary. At least I admit it.)
To treat children respectfully means making an effort to avoid doing these things, but it also means realizing that children are more knowledgeable about some matters than we are—and I don’t just mean that they know which dinosaurs were meat-eaters. Thomas Gordon said it well: “Children sometimes know better than parents when they are sleepy or hungry; know better the qualities of their friends, their own aspirations and goals, how their various teachers treat them; know better the urges and needs within their bodies, whom they love and whom they don’t, what they value and what they don’t.” In any case, we can’t always assume that because we’re more mature we necessarily have more insight into our children than they have into themselves.
Part of what I mean by taking children seriously is treating them with respect. My value judgment is that all people deserve this. My hypothesis is that kids are more likely to respect others (including you) if they themselves feel respected.
Speaking of paramount goals, there’s no overstating the importance of the relationship we create with our children. My friend Danny recently summarized what he’s learned from years of fatherhood: “Being right isn’t necessarily what matters.” In fact, it matters very little if your children stiffen when you walk into the room.
The good news is that when parents do manage to keep their broader objectives in view—indeed, when they focus on anything more ambitious than just getting their kids to obey right this instant—they tend to use better parenting skills and they get better results. At the very least, we need to keep a sense of perspective. Whether your child spills the chocolate milk today, or loses her temper, or forgets to do her homework doesn’t matter nearly as much as the things you do that either help or don’t help her to become a decent, responsible, compassionate person.
[...] expressing unconditional love, giving children more chances to make decisions, and imagining how things look from the child’s point of view. First, though, I want to propose a baker’s dozen guiding principles. Each of these has practical implications that may be more surprising and challenging than its capsule description would imply.
Here they are all together:
1. Be reflective.
2. Reconsider your requests.
3. Keep your eye on your long-term goals.
4. Put the relationship first.
5. Change how you see, not just how you act.
7. Be authentic.
8. Talk less, ask more.
9. Keep their ages in mind.
10. Attribute to children the best possible motive consistent with the facts.
11. Don’t stick your no’s in unnecessarily.
12. Don’t be rigid.
13. Don’t be in a hurry.
The shift away from older methods, however, has to be accompanied by a shift in goal. Specifically, our main question shouldn’t be “How do I get my child to do what I say?” but “What does my child need—and how can I meet those needs?”
The recommendations I’ll be offering are, frankly, more challenging than those proposed in a lot of other books. It’s harder to make sure children feel loved unconditionally than it is just to love them. It’s harder to respond to them in all their complexity than it is to focus just on their behaviors. It’s harder to try to solve problems with them, to give them reasons for doing the right thing (let alone to help them formulate their own reasons), than it is to control them with carrots and sticks. “Working with” asks more of us than does “doing to.”
We’re unlikely to meet our long-term goals for our kids unless we’re ready to ask the following question: Is it possible that what I just did with them had more to do with my needs, my fears, and my own upbringing than with what’s really in their best interests? The answer may well be a reassuring no—and, one hopes, there will be more no’s than yeses to that question as we go along.
In my experience, what distinguishes truly great parents is their willingness to confront troubling questions about what they’ve been doing and what was done to them. When a suggestion is made that there may be a better way to handle a conflict with their children, they resist the temptation to respond defensively, “Well, that’s what my parents did with me, and obviously I turned out okay.” To get better at the craft of raising children, we need to be open to seeing what’s unpleasant in order to evaluate what our parents did right and where we might be able to improve on their approach.
19 October 2019
These days, my nine-year-old daughter gets a kick out of watching TV shows intended for much younger children. At first this made me uneasy. Eventually I realized several things. First, she gets more than enough intellectual stimulation during the day and deserves to enjoy some unchallenging entertainment. (If adults can relax with stupid sitcoms or paperback thrillers, why can’t a fourth-grader slum with preschool programs?) Second, when I watched some of these shows with her, I realized that she was actually using her sophisticated skills to predict plot developments, criticize inconsistencies, consider alternative courses of action for the characters, and figure out the technical tricks that create various illusions.24 Third, and most important, watching a TV program (or reading a book) that’s “below her level” doesn’t make her dumber. The real peril consists of pushing her to grow up faster.
It’s more than being sick of changing diapers that leads some parents to try to speed up toilet training, just as it’s more than a desire to introduce children to the wonders of the written word that leads them to drill preschoolers on learning their letters. I’ve watched people push toddlers to start toddling, criticize them for crawling, insist that they can walk up the stairs by themselves now. I’ve seen forks placed in very young hands, accompanied by the command to “eat like a big boy.”
The assumption that sooner is always better may come from a fear of later. That fear, in turn, can reflect the belief that children shouldn’t be “babied.” It’s time to wean them, time to potty-train them, time to get them walking and talking and doing more things on their own. Parents worry when their children act in ways that they think are too young. But why? A friend of mine likes to take the long view, asking rhetorically, “Do you really think she’ll still be crawling (or wearing pull-ups) in junior high school? What’s the rush?” (And speaking of junior high school, when was the last time you heard the parent of a young adolescent pushing that child to grow up faster—to use more makeup, attend more unsupervised parties, become more sexually active, or hurry up and get a driver’s license already?)
Some people’s lives are organized around a need to look or act powerful in order to stave off the terror of being at someone else’s mercy. Their interest in controlling others isn’t limited to children; they feel obligated to demonstrate that they’re superior to other adults, too. But it’s easier, and more socially acceptable, to do it with kids. Norman Kunc, who conducts workshops on inclusive education and non-coercive practices, points out that “what we call ‘behavior problems’ are often situations of legitimate conflict; we just get to call them behavior problems because we have more power” than children do. (You’re not allowed to say that your spouse has a behavior problem.)
No one sets out to be a bad parent. We all love our children and want more than anything to keep them safe and happy. But sometimes we also feel helpless and confused, frustrated when things don’t go as planned, and secretly (or not so secretly) doubtful about being able to do what we should. The fear of being clueless can lead in several possible directions, all of them problematic. Such a parent may be a sucker for advice that is reassuring but bad. (“I don’t know what I’m doing, so I’ll just take my cue from my mother-in-law, who seems very sure of herself when she announces that babies should be left alone to ‘cry it out’”; or “I’ll just go along with this expert, who encourages me to give my kid a gold star every time he does what I tell him.”)
The fear of incompetence18 leads some parents to give in to all of their children’s demands, which, of course, is very different from meeting their needs and working with them to solve problems. Other parents, meanwhile, overcompensate for their doubts by pretending to be absolutely certain, completely in charge. After a while, the role of the crisply controlling, always authoritative Parent-with-a-capital-P becomes so comfortable that they forget it’s just a role, much less why they came to adopt it. Such parents may impose rigid rules for children that aren’t open to question or qualification, as though they are trying to convince everyone, including themselves, that they really do know what they’re doing.
As a rule, when your basic emotional needs haven’t been met, those needs don’t just vanish when you’re older. Instead, you may continue to try to satisfy them, often in indirect and even convoluted ways. That effort sometimes requires an exhausting, near-constant focus on yourself in order to prove that you really are smart or attractive or lovable. What’s more, the people who need you to focus on them, notably your children, may find you emotionally unavailable. You’re too busy trying to get what you lack. And, as two Canadian researchers have shown, parents who are thinking mostly about their own needs and goals tend to be less accepting of their children—and more likely to act in punitive and controlling ways with them—than are parents who are concerned with the needs of their kids or of the family as a whole. Those who habitually put their own needs first are also more likely to believe that their children’s misbehaviors are deliberate and rooted in their nature or personality, rather than emerging from a particular situation.
One explanation was offered by Alice Miller: “Many people continue to pass on the cruel deeds and attitudes to which they were subjected as children, so that they can continue to idealize their parents.”16 Her premise is that we have a powerful, unconscious need to believe that everything our parents did to us was really for our own good and was done out of love. It’s too threatening for many of us even to entertain the possibility that they weren’t entirely well-meaning—or competent. So, in order to erase any doubts, we do the same things to our own children that our parents did to us.
It’s pointless to talk about what holds you back from being a better parent without reflecting on how the way you were raised shapes your internal architecture. It affects not only what you do with your kids, but what you don’t do. It has an impact on how you divide responsibilities with your co-parent, and whether you treat boys and girls differently. It helps to determine whether your everyday behavior conveys a basic respect or disrespect for children. It’s related to what makes you angry or sad and how you express those feelings.
The fact that freezing cold temperatures are uncomfortable doesn’t mean we have to put up with boiling heat. And that point also applies, incidentally, to another artificial choice: “Instead of punishing (or criticizing) kids when they’re bad, try rewarding (or praising) them when they’re good.” The problem is that rewards and punishments are really just two sides of the same coin . . . and that coin doesn’t buy very much.
Such parents don’t understand—or else they just ignore—how kids below a certain age simply can’t be expected to eat neatly or keep quiet in a public place. Young children don’t yet possess the skills that would make it sensible to hold them accountable for their behavior in the same way that we hold an adult or even an older child accountable.
Research confirms that parents who “attribute greater competence and responsibility to misbehaving children” are more likely to get upset with them, to condemn and punish them. They become frustrated by what they see as inappropriate behavior, and they respond, in effect, by cracking down on little kids for being little kids. It can be heartbreaking to watch. By contrast, parents who understand children’s developmental limitations tend to prefer “calm explanation and reasoning” in response to the same actions. They know their job is to teach—and, to some extent, just to be patient.
It’s not a coincidence that authoritarian parents, who demand absolute obedience, also tend to attribute unflattering characteristics to children—and sometimes to people in general. A study of more than three hundred parents found that those who held a negative view of human nature were likely to be very controlling with their kids.
New parents frequently report, for example, that the grandparents are likely to warn them—falsely, according to all the available research—that babies will be spoiled if they’re picked up as soon as they cry. And if a child is allowed to participate in making decisions about matters that concern her, parents may be sternly informed that “this kid has you wrapped around her finger.”
We learned how you’re supposed to raise kids from watching how someone raised us. [...] The less aware we are of that learning process, the more likely we are to reproduce parenting patterns without bothering to ask whether they make sense. It takes some effort, some sharp thinking, even some courage to step back and decide which values and rituals ought to find a place in our new families and which ones are pointless or even pernicious.
Being afraid of failing isn’t at all the same thing as embracing success. In fact, the former gets in the way of the latter. We’ve already seen considerable evidence that conditional parenting and conditional self-esteem are unhealthy. Now we have to add that they’re also unproductive. They lead to “emotion-focused coping and repair of the self, rather than problem-focused coping,” as two researchers pointed out. In other words, you’re so busy trying to deal with the implications of failing that you don’t have the time and energy to do what it takes to succeed.
The research overwhelmingly showed that competition holds people back from working or learning at their best. For a variety of reasons, optimal performance at most tasks not only doesn’t require people to try to beat one another—it requires that they be freed from such an arrangement. There is no trade-off. Cooperation makes more sense than competition if we care mostly about bottom-line results, just as it does if our prime concern is how people feel about themselves and those around them.
[...] some children engage in what’s known as “self-handicapping”: They cease to make an effort in order to create an excuse for not succeeding. This lets them preserve the idea that they’re smart. They’re able to tell themselves that if they had studied, they might have done incredibly well. The more vulnerable their sense of self-worth, the more tempting the urge is to protect it by just giving up. To put this another way, by handicapping their performance they increase the chances of failing, but they do so to avoid having to think of themselves as failures—and therefore as being unworthy of love.
Some parents use punitive control, threatening their children with various unpleasant things if the news from school isn’t good. Two different studies have proved that these tactics at best don’t help and at worst exacerbate the problem. Specifically, children who were offered incentives for good grades or given consequences for bad grades tended to become less interested in learning and, as a result, less likely to do well in school later on, apparently as a direct result of these parental interventions. In fact, the more that achievement was the parent’s chief concern, the lower was the child’s achievement.
Grades by themselves are problematic. But when we really push our kids to get better grades—in effect, taking a flawed goal and marrying it to a flawed method—the damage is doubled.
One study found that parents who valued achievement above other goals were more likely to want their children to choose projects “that would involve a minimum of struggle and likely result in success” rather than those “where they’ll learn a lot of new things but also make a lot of mistakes.”8 By contrast, when parents make it clear that learning (and excitement about learning) is more important than the quality of the product, kids are more inclined to stretch themselves, to tackle something interesting and new, even if they’re not sure how well they’ll end up doing.
Grades lead students to pick the easiest possible assignment when they’re given a choice. Impress upon them that what they’re doing “counts” toward a grade, and their response will likely be to avoid taking any unnecessary risks. It doesn’t take kids long to figure out that doing easier tasks is the surest route to better results. They’ll choose a shorter book, or an essay on a more familiar topic, in order to minimize the chance of doing poorly. This doesn’t mean they’re “unmotivated” or that they’re being lazy. It means they’re being rational. They’re responding to adults who, by telling them the goal is to get a good grade, are sending the message that success matters more than learning.
[...] seventh-graders who reported that their parents placed a lot of emphasis on academic achievement were likely to show signs of distress and “maladaptive perfectionism.” Those problems were far less common among their classmates whose parents were more concerned about their children’s well-being than about their achievement. Notice that these two goals not only are different, but sometimes pull in opposite directions. And, as the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm once lamented, “Few parents have the courage and independence to care more for their children’s happiness than for their success.”
Ginott was absolutely right: “Misbehavior and punishment are not opposites that cancel each other; on the contrary, they breed and reinforce each other.”
[...] Punishment Lite is known as “natural consequences,” which invites parents to discipline by inaction—that is, by refusing to help. If a child is late for dinner, we’re supposed to let her go hungry. If she leaves her raincoat at school, we’re supposed to let her get wet the following day. This is said to teach her to be more punctual, or less forgetful, or whatever. But the far more powerful lesson that she’s likely to take away is that we could have helped—but didn’t. As two authors note in their discussion of the practice, “When you stand by and let bad things happen, your child experiences the twin disappointments that something went wrong and you did not seem to care enough about her to lift a finger to help prevent the mishap. The ‘natural consequences’ approach is really a form of punishment.”
By now there is an especially impressive collection of research demonstrating the destructive effects of corporal punishment in particular—that is, the practice of spanking, slapping, or otherwise causing physical pain as a form of discipline. The data overwhelmingly show that corporal punishment makes children more aggressive and leads to a variety of other damaging consequences. (It’s not even clear that it succeeds at getting temporary compliance.) Hitting children clearly “teaches them a lesson”—and the lesson is that you can get your way with people who are weaker than you are by hurting them.
Punishment . . . control . . . authoritarian parenting . . . love withdrawal . . . conditional affection—all of these concepts overlap. It’s the first one, however, that’s most familiar to us and easiest to understand. To punish kids, very simply, is to make something unpleasant happen to them—or prevent them from experiencing something pleasant—usually with the goal of changing their future behavior. The punisher makes them suffer, in other words, to teach them a lesson.
Fundamental questions about the wisdom of this approach may suggest themselves even before we look at the results of scientific investigations. For example, it may occur to us to ask: How likely is it that intentionally making children unhappy will prove beneficial in the long run? And: If punishment is so effective, how come I have to keep doing it to my child over and over?
As parents, we need to be involved in and aware of the details of our children’s lives. Nothing in this book should be interpreted as an argument for sitting back and letting children raise themselves. We might say it’s our job to be “in control,” in the sense of creating a healthy and safe environment, offering guidance, and setting limits—but it’s not our job to be “controlling,” in the sense of demanding absolute obedience or relying on pressure or continuous regulation. In fact, although it may sound paradoxical, we need to be in control of helping them to gain control over their own lives. The goal is empowerment rather than conformity, and the methods are respectful rather than coercive.
In her very useful and concise book The Psychology of Parental Control, Grolnick summarizes a great deal of other research showing that “controlling parenting has been associated with lower levels of intrinsic motivation, less internalization of values and morals, poorer self-regulation,” and poorer feelings about oneself—to say nothing of “unwanted side effects for the parent-child relationship.”
One much-cited review of the research on child development reported that, while children of authoritarian parents don’t stand out, one way or the other, “on contrived measures of resistance to temptation,” more meaningful evidence suggests that “they do show lesser evidence of ‘conscience’ and are more likely to have an external, rather than internal, moral orientation in discussing what is the ‘right’ behavior in situations of moral conflict.
Two nutritionists in Illinois conducted a fascinating experiment a few years ago. They observed 77 children between the ages of two and four, and also learned how much their parents attempted to control their eating habits. They discovered that those parents who insisted their children eat only during mealtimes (rather than when they were hungry), or who encouraged them to clean their plates (even when they obviously weren’t hungry), or who used food (especially desserts) as a reward wound up with children who lost the ability to regulate their caloric intake.
In response to requests from their parents—and, later, from other people—they’ll choose to say yes sometimes and no at other times, without feeling compelled either to comply or to defy. They often do what they’re asked, especially when they’re convinced it’s reasonable or very important to the person who’s asking. These are likely to be the children of parents who have built up a reservoir of trust by treating them with respect, explaining the reasons for their requests, and avoiding unrealistic expectations of obedience. Such parents have made their peace with the fact that their kids will assert themselves by being defiant now and then, and they don’t overreact when that happens.
I don’t mean to say that defiance is always something to worry about. Some amount of nay-saying is quite common and perfectly healthy, especially around age two or three, and then again during the early teen years. Rather, what I’m describing here is an exaggerated, reactive kind of defiance, which lasts longer and runs deeper. Such children are living proof that a style of parenting aimed mostly at eliciting obedience often fails even on its own terms, in addition to creating a raft of other problems.
Not only does authoritarian parenting make them mad; it also teaches them how to direct that anger against another person.
Such children may grow up with a constant need to thumb their noses at authority figures. Sometimes they bring all that hostility with them to school or the playground. (Studies suggest that children raised by controlling parents, even children as young as three years old, are especially likely to be disruptive and aggressive with their peers, the result being that these peers may not want to have anything to do with them.
We make fun of what used to be called “yes-men” in the office, those deferential employees who never disagree with the boss, so what makes us think that “yes-children” would be ideal?
In 1948, the journal Child Development published one of the first research studies on this subject, which found that preschool-age children of controlling parents tended to be “quiet, well-behaved, non-resistant.” However, they also didn’t interact much with their peers and seemed lacking in curiosity and originality. “Authoritarian control . . . obtains conformity but at the expense of personal freedom,” the researcher concluded.
After the play sessions, the mothers, at the request of the experimenters, issued a series of commands to their children having to do with putting away each of the toys. The result: Children who had been subject to less control—that is, those who had been given more say about how to play—were more likely to follow their mothers’ instructions.
[...] the two-year-olds who were most likely to comply with a specific request turned out to be those whose parents “were very clear about what they wanted, but in addition to listening to their children’s objections, they also accommodated them in ways that conveyed respect for the children’s autonomy and individuality.
[...] unconditional self-esteem, the very sort that’s most likely to be ridiculed in some quarters, turns out to be the best goal to shoot for. People who, as a rule, don’t think their value hinges on their performance are more likely to see failure as just a temporary setback, a problem to be solved. They also seem less likely to be anxious or depressed. And one more thing: They’re less likely to be concerned about the whole issue of self-esteem!
[...] positive reinforcement often creates a vicious circle that’s reminiscent of what we find with love withdrawal: The more we praise, the more our children need to be praised.
As a result of praise, children become less able or willing to take pride in their own accomplishments—or to decide what is an accomplishment. In extreme cases, they can turn into “praise junkies” who, even as adults, continue to rely on other people for validation, feeling thrilled or crestfallen depending on whether a spouse, a supervisor, or someone else in whom they have vested power tells them they’ve done a good job.
Back in the 1970s, a researcher in Florida named Mary Budd Rowe was investigating classroom teaching styles when she noticed something interesting. Children who were frequently praised by their teachers seemed more tentative in their responses. They were more likely than other kids to answer in a questioning tone of voice (“Um, photosynthesis?”). They were less likely to share their ideas with other students or to stick with a task once they started it. And they were apt to back off from something they had proposed as soon as the teacher disagreed with them.
In our culture’s workplaces, classrooms, and families, there are two basic strategies by which people with more power try to get people with less power to obey. One way is to punish noncompliance. The other is to reward compliance. The reward might be a payment or a privilege, a gold star or a candy bar, a sticker or a Phi Beta Kappa key. But it may also be praise. Thus, to understand the significance of saying “Good job!” to your child, you have to understand the whole carrot-and-stick philosophy of which it’s a part.
Consider this account from the parent of a young child we’ll call Lee:
I discovered some time ago that when Lee started to act up, I really didn’t have to threaten to take away privileges or even raise my voice. I just quietly announced my intention to leave the room. Sometimes all I had to do was walk across the room, away from him, and say I would wait until he was ready to stop yelling or resisting or whatever. Most of the time this was amazingly effective. He would beg, “No, don’t!” and would immediately quiet down or do what I asked. At first, the moral I drew from this was that a light touch is sufficient. I could get what I wanted without having to punish. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the fear I saw in his eyes. I came to realize that what I was doing was punishment as far as Lee was concerned—a symbolic one, maybe, but a pretty damn scary one.
When our kids grow up, there will be plenty of occasions for them to take their places as economic actors, as consumers and workers, where self-interest rules and the terms of each exchange can be precisely calculated. But unconditional parenting insists that the family ought to be a haven, a refuge, from such transactions. In particular, love from one’s parents does not have to be paid for in any sense. It is purely and simply a gift. It is something to which all children are entitled.
It reflects an awfully sour view of children—and, by extension, of human nature. It assumes that, given half a chance, kids will take advantage of us. Give ’em an inch, they’ll take a mile. They will draw the worst possible lesson from an ambiguous situation (not “I’m loved anyway” but “Yay! It’s okay to make trouble!”). Acceptance without strings attached will just be interpreted as permission to act in a way that’s selfish, demanding, greedy, or inconsiderate. At least in part, then, conditional parenting is based on the deeply cynical belief that accepting kids for who they are just frees them to be bad because, well, that’s who they are.
I want to defend the idea of unconditional parenting on the basis of both a value judgment and a prediction. The value judgment is, very simply, that children shouldn’t have to earn our approval. We ought to love them, as my friend Deborah says, “for no good reason.” Furthermore, what counts is not just that we believe we love them unconditionally, but that they feel loved in that way.
The prediction, meanwhile, is that loving children unconditionally will have a positive effect. It’s not only the right thing to do, morally speaking, but also a smart thing to do. Children need to be loved as they are, and for who they are. When that happens, they can accept themselves as fundamentally good people, even when they screw up or fall short. And with this basic need met, they’re also freer to accept (and help) other people. Unconditional love, in short, is what children require in order to flourish.
There are times when my best strategies fall flat, when my patience runs out, when I just want my kids to do what I tell them. It’s hard to keep the big picture in mind when one of my children is shrieking in a restaurant. For that matter, it’s sometimes hard to remember the kind of people we want to be when we’re in the middle of a hectic day, or when we feel the pull of less noble impulses. It’s hard, but it’s still worthwhile.
[...] obedience itself isn’t always desirable. There is such a thing as being too well behaved. One study, for example, followed toddlers in Washington, D.C., until they were five years old and found that “frequent compliance [was] sometimes associated with maladjustment.” Conversely, “a certain level of resistance to parental authority” can be a “positive sign.”
These parents said they wanted their children to be happy, balanced, independent, fulfilled, productive, self-reliant, responsible, functioning, kind, thoughtful, loving, inquisitive, and confident.
What’s interesting about that collection of adjectives—and what’s useful about the process of reflecting on the question in the first place—is that it challenges us to ask whether what we’re doing is consistent with what we really want. Are my everyday practices likely to help my children grow into the kind of people I’d like them to be?