Thursday, August 21, 2008

Alfie Kohn

Admittedly, I have a thing for nerds. But I adore Alfie Kohn!

Here's his newly expanded article lambasting the nanny reality shows on TV.

When I've caught a few minutes of these shows, they did indeed seem contrived and silly and terribly "conditional," meaning they enforce the idea that children are only worthy and loved if they do/say what their parents want. I have read about horrible incidents where the nanny encouraged the mom to halt cosleeping all of a sudden, and was okay with the child even vomiting from crying so much over that. She also apparently encouraged immediate weaning of a toddler. Right there I figure I can't trust any dang thing coming out of her mouth. But then again, why would I trust some person when I don't know anything about her credentials except she has nannied (guess what? so have a million other women! I have!) and oh yes has no children of her own.

I will admit, in a country where some parents use explicit shaming, spanking, and complete chaos as parenting strategies, the nanny shows might actually cause some extreme parents to dial it back a bit. Getting down on the child's level and connecting are good things.

But punishment and even praise are not, most of the time!

I have previously read (and reread) Kohn's well-researched parenting book Unconditional Parenting, and it is my favorite parenting book so far. It doesn't offer specific techniques or routines or tricks or anything like that, so it does force you to develop your own and talk to other kindred spirit parents to get tips, but it does this on purpose. It wants to delve into the foundations of how we parents, and look at the big picture, the long term picture. What kind of people do we want our children to be when they are children, when they are older children, when they are teens, when they are adults? And then how do we foster this?

Kohn has done his research, and the research is really clear. Punishments and rewards don't improve things like hard work, caring and empathy, intelligence, or even obedience. And he forces us to question if we really want "obedient" children anyway. I know I want a child that thinks for herself, who critically processes what anyone tells her, be it a teacher, a parent, a doctor, a commercial, an institution.... I would hope that she develop the skills to know when a source may become trusted, but as Buddah said, don't take for granted what anyone tells you, even me! And I want her to want to share and help others not because of what's in it for her (Mommy will praise me; I'll get a sticker; I'll avoid getting yelled at; I'll avoid having my toy taken away) but because she has developed a true understanding of the worth of thinking of others. Avoiding punishment is easy to swallow, but avoiding certain types of praise seems to hit more people as odd. But Kohn goes over all the research showing that when people are offered rewards, they lose interest in the task, and do more poorly, whereas if they are just engaged in a task, they tend to be more interested in continuing it for its own sake, and going further with it.

Personally, I don't like it when I hear parents at the playground saying "good boy!" or "good girl!" because, first of all, it sounds like they are talking to a dog. Just bugs me like that! But also, what is the implication? If the child did NOT do whatever it was, that he is a BAD boy? I don't like how it's a universal, holisitic label. I have slightly less trouble with "good job!" except that I think it's used WAY too much. Most things in life are fun or just life, not jobs. "Good swinging!" I hear on the playground. I don't think a kid needs encouragement to keep HAVING FUN! Also, there is that pesky research that still shows too much praise just withers a child's inherent motivation and interest.

Kohn goes so far as to say that just being more discriminate in praising is not enough; there is always that implication that praise creates: you are only worthy when you act a certain way. And that's conditional parenting. I was really drawn to what he was saying when the idea of what he meant by unconditional parenting clicked in my head with the idea of unconditional love-- the love of family, of parents, and of God. Don't I, in my imperfectness, owe my own child as much unconditional love I can offer, when God gives it to me? Shouldn't THIS, rather than behaviorism and factories (and classrooms inspired by them) and governments and etc be my model for parenting?

Kohn elaborates on his ideology for parenting, expanding on how offering true respect for children's personhood and looking at the big picture for needs being met or not can help with the journey. But I really recommend that everyone read the book. I have done a very poor job touching on a few small parts of it. It's the kind of book I could reread yearly, just to stay in touch with the ideas in it. I think Kohn's writing is intelligent and research-based but still very accessible and dabbled with humor. And, hey! There's also a DVD that's supposed to be wonderful, too, if you/your partner doesn't want to read a whole book! :)

Unconditional Parenting

Alfie Kohn's site

1 comment:

Brynn's Mama said...

That was so well said! I love AK, also, and am so grateful that I found his book when Brynn was an infant so we didn't have any habits to "un-do."

I accidentally caught the first 15 minutes of Supernanny the other night, and I was mortified - not only by the behavior of the children, but by her response. Just give them praise balls to put in a fish bowl, and everything will be OK! I kept thinking, what is *causing* this behavior? These boys feel disconnected from their parents and are desperately seeking attention from their father, in the only way they know how. It was really sad.

I wish every parent would read this book!