I recently reread a book called Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn. While I don’t agree with everything Mr. Kohn says, I do respect him for taking a radical stand on parenting practices and for making the reader really think about parental motivation, what’s really important, and how to have a respectful relationship with your child. Kohn asks parents to consider the ill effects of rewards and punishments on a child’s moral development and the development of self-esteem. My husband and I are now engaging in some important conversations about our parenting styles and how we can be more aligned. We should constantly be reevaluating our parenting so we don’t fall into bad, potentially easier, habits. Unfortunately, parenting should not feel easy!
The tenets of unconditional parenting also carry over into the classroom. It frightens me to hear about young elementary school children obsessed with their classroom behavior charts and lacking excitement about the learning environment at school. Kohn says that rewards and punishments both encourage children to be more self absorbed and less interested in actual learning activities. They begin to exhibit behaviors based on whether or not they will GET something or LOSE something…tragic motivation! As a teacher, I work very hard to help my children learn to love learning and to appreciate the process. However, when they go to elementary school, they will most likely be faced with a behavior modification system that undermines the whole idea of intrinsic motivation and instead, conditions them to behave in certain ways through control. How can we change this as parents or teachers?
One way I think parents and teachers can help children feel some control, have choices, and learn intrinsic motivation is to create an environment of “yes”. A question that I had to ask myself after reading this book was “Is it necessary for me to say ‘no’ to that request”? Sometimes saying ‘no’ is required as a parent and as a teacher, but I know at least personally, I was saying it too much. Especially at home, it is easy to fall into a trap of saying “no” to something just because I want a quiet moment or think the effort involved on my part is too great. Even if I have a legitimate reason to say “no,” it doesn’t mean I have to say “no”. I have decided that if a request isn’t dangerous or destructive, I really need to rethink why I want to say “no”. I may not really have a GOOD reason to prevent my child from doing something that may bring him joy or help him learn something. As parents we probably don’t need to be as controlling as we think we do. Research suggests that letting your child have a little bit of control and some choices, helps him or her to be more trustworthy and responsible later in life. Kohn challenges parents to develop long term goals for our children by thinking about who we want our children to become and then use those goals as a framework for how we parent. That is a tall order, but it is really practical. Too often we are just trying to get through the day and we don’t really focus on how our decisions affect the children in our lives.
How do we create a “yes” environment? Here are my ideas…
1. Think before saying “no”. If you can say “yes,” then do!
2. Remove items or change the physical environment if you find that you are constantly having to say “no” to something your child wants to do because there is something very tempting in the space where you spend time with children.
3. Reevaluate your expectations often, keeping in mind the ages of your children.
4. Slow down and make time for you and your child to spend together. Feeling rushed just increases the likelihood that you will feel the need to say “no” to your child.
5. Say “yes” to yourself as well. If you aren’t taking care of yourself and your needs, then it is much harder to have a positive perspective on a child’s needs and desires.
So, how can you say “yes” to your child today?
I agree with a lot of what you’ve said here. Lately I have been practicing saying, “Yes, as soon as you’ve washed your hands” rather than “No, you haven’t done such-and-such yet”. Regarding making a room more “yes friendly”, I remember Dr. James Dobson writing this in a newspaper column, too, saying that kids should have free roam to explore, so just move objects that are dangerous or tempting.