Part 2: Throw Away the Carrots and Sticks
One of Kohn’s foundational points of his book Unconditional Parenting, is that the way we use rewards and punishments in our parenting communicates to our children that we love and accept them only when they’re obedient. Kohn spends several chapters defending his stance, explaining that the carrot and stick approach is simply behavioral conditioning and doesn’t get at the heart of the person, and in reality, it just doesn’t really work.
One reason that a heavy-handed, do-what-I-say approach tends not to work very well is that, in the final analysis, we really can’t control our kids- at least, not in the ways that matter. It’s very difficult to make a child eat this food rather than that one, or pee here rather than there, and it’s simply impossible to force a child to go to sleep, or stop crying, or listen, or respect us. These are the issues that are most trying to parents precisely because it’s here that we run up against the inherent limits of what one human being can compel another human being to do.
Isn’t this so true? No matter what I do, I can’t get my kids to eat, sleep or respect me if they don’t want to. I don’t think I really understood this until having my second child. My first child is a “by the book” kind of kid. My second child has been such a challenge because of her strong-will. Up until recently, there has been nothing that she loves so much that she would stop or start doing something because I tried to use it as motivation. Carrots and sticks just don’t work for her.
So, instead of using rewards and punishments with children, he recommends the following:
1. Be reflective. Be honest with yourself about your motivations for dealing with your kids how you do.
2. Reconsider your requests. What if your child doesn’t want to do what you want them to do? Is it something that they really ought to do because it’s important? Or is it just something that you would prefer them doing? From our family recently, I asked Asante to stop banging his colored pencils on the kid table. He said okay, but why? I realized that I just didn’t want to hear it, but everyone was awake and there was no reason he shouldn’t. So I said, “Thank you for obeying, but you bring up a good question. There’s no good reason. You can go back to it”, and then i went to a different room where it wasn’t so loud.
3. Keep your eye on your long-term goals.
4. Put the relationship first. Make sure that whatever we do, it is worth the strain that it will put on the relationship between us and our child. Sometimes it will be, but sometimes it won’t.
5. Change how you see, not just how you act. Instead of seeing inappropriate behavior as blatant disobedience (sometimes it will be, but with younger kids in particular, it’s much harder to decipher real motivations), look at the behavior as a problem to solve, and work with the child, instead of doing something to the child.
6. R-E-S-P-E-C-T. We want to be respected. So do our kids, even our young ones. Remember that kids aren’t just sheep to be herded, they are real humans with desires, feelings, preferences, etc.
7. Be authentic. Admit when you were wrong, apologize to your kids, speak from our hearts. This is a big one for us. We apologize to our kids on a regular basis- when we lose our tempers, when we say potentially hurtful things, and when we say they can do something and then things end up not going the way we planned.
8. Talk less, ask more. Ask questions instead of assuming the answers. Why did you push your sister? Why did you throw that tantrum? How are you feeling right now?
9. Keep their ages in mind. Let kids be kids. Don’t expect a 4 year old to be a 10 year old. Don’t expect a 2 year old to behave like a 4 year old. I have to remind myself of this nearly every day.
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. Predictability- yes. Rigidity- no. Allow the rules to be eased up sometimes.
13. Don’t be in a hurry. Anyone with a small child will know why this is on his list of suggestions.
He suggests that the goal of parenting is “empowerment rather than conformity, and the methods are respectful rather than coercive” (62).