Monday, December 5, 2011

The Language of Parenting

It is possible to distinguish parenting styles by the language used. 

Do we talk about rules , limits and boundaries , compliance or the needs of children ,expectations and guidelines, collaborative problem solving or consequences, rewards or intrinsic motivation, understandings, perspectives and concerns or adult – child contracts.

 The differences can be summarized as a ' working with ' approach or a ' doing to ' approach, placing the locus of control on the kid or on the adult. Are we interested in compliance or meeting the needs of our kids ?

Parents of troublesome teens and especially those who are returning from a stay in a residential or therapeutic treatment center are encouraged   to make a behavior contract with their kids . These contracts  state very clearly house rules and the consequences /punishments to be imposed when these rules are broken. The message given to kids is that this is my home and if you want to stay here, you need to keep to the rules. The approach does offer kids a clear picture of parent will and a certain predictability of what will happen, however it is flawed .

Kids concerns are not voiced but ignored and even parents' concerns, their  underlying concerns behind the rules are not shared. Kids just hear a rule and not the concern and value underlying the rule.  Rules are essentially solutions to problems or concerns. If discussion does take place, the family is creating a  contract which is more suitable for an economic relationships  , like one  between a boss and employee. Discussion  usually is in the form of negotiating the rules, rather than each party explaining their concerns   and giving their perspectives.  

If a rule is broken , the inevitable response is a consequence or a punishment. When we talk about expectations not being met , our response is not to impose a consequence or ask how can we motivate the kid but to ask what is getting in the kid's way  and how can I help.

Rewards and consequences give the message that we don't trust the kid to do well and make a contribution without the threat of a consequence or a bribe. Relationships are based on understandings , sharing concerns and perspectives and then collaborative problem solving.  Consequences undermine relationships , and instead of dealing with a problem , create  new problems and issue s– the imposition of the consequences and all that surrounds them.

A  'working with'  relationship as opposed to a 'doing to ' relationship  places the locus of control on the child . The limits and boundaries are intrinsic to the child and are an expression of his values and personality.

'' The question - Thomas Gordon , the author of P.E.T – Parent Effectiveness Training says is not whether limits and boundaries are necessary but the question is who sets them ? Is it parents unilaterally imposing limits on their children or are parents and kids working together to figure out what makes sense?

The question then becomes what kinds of limits and boundaries are we talking about - how specific or behavioral should they be as opposed to broadly conceived guidelines that can inform a lot of our activities - a limit on not hurting other people , addressing the needs of others etc 

Don't we want kids to derive limits and guidelines on how to act from the situation itself and what other people need ? If so, then our coming up with limits, and especially specific behavioral limits and imposing them on kids makes it less likely that kids will become moral people who say that the situation decrees a kind of a boundary for appropriate ways to act and I will be guided by that my whole life , not just internalized but it's about what's between me and the other I come across.

An example would be the different thinking a kid would have when faced with a bowl of cookies and would love to eat all of them because ' I am hungry and I love cookies '. When the parent imposes a limit – ' You can take only one cookie ' = I cannot take more because mom said I can have only one or else , or where the kid thinks ,' I would love to eat all the cookies but there are others kids around too and they are also hungry so I will make sure that everyone has cookies too.' When parents say ' you must share because I said so' and follow up with a patronizing pat on the head ' good sharing ', the wrong message gets internalized. I am sharing because mom says so and because I will get a verbal reward for sharing. ''    Alfie Kohn  interview 


  1. Don't you think that teaching the kid to share because "others are hungry too" will make the kid dependant on their approval?

  2. Kids can share in an altruistic way focusing on meeting needs of others – such as giving attention , caring, friendship , hunger etc. The approval here gives the child the message that their actions were on target in meeting the needs of others. The approval dished out by parents and teachers in the form of ' good jobs ' and other verbal praise are used to reinforce behaviors – control and make the kid feel good because mommy is happy with you. The focus is not on the actions of the kid , but on the kid himself