Wednesday, February 22, 2012

An Eye On Long-Term Parenting Goals (Unconditional Parenting Principle #3)

In this series of posts, I summarize the 13 basic principles of unconditional parenting as described in Kohn's book, Unconditional Parenting. I include insights and interpretations gleaned from other resources. The information-based posts run in parallel with a series of personal accounts of how I attempt to apply these principles in my own mothering. Want to start from the beginning? Click here for the Introduction to Unconditional Parenting and for links to all posts in the series.

When it comes to raising children, we're most often concerned with short-term parenting issues. to get out the door on time, maintain a household, and have our kids eat their veggies and do well in school.

In Unconditional Parenting, Kohn warns us about placing too much emphasis on short-term parenting issues. In fact, the book centers around a simple question posed to parents: what are your long-term goals for your children? He didn't mean whether you want your kid to go to Harvard or be a trash collector. He meant, what kind of person do you hope to raise? When you think about your child all grown up, what do you hope for her? Affluence? Education? Manners? Obedience? Conformity? Independence? Happiness? Inner peace? Decency? Compassion? Responsibility? Creativity?

This question of long-term parenting goals is central to unconditional parenting because the answers help inform our short-term parenting choices. We have to consider what the possible long-term effects are of our most commonly used parenting strategies.

Kohn also warns us that the most commonly used parenting strategies may not be in line with most parents' long-term goals for their kids. Typically, those strategies involve a system of rewards and punishment that are hallmarks of conditional parenting. This system is easily adopted by parents because it's so common (we learn to parent by example) and because it seems to work in the short-term. Bribes and rewards get the kids to bed faster and make getting out the door easier. And withdrawing privileges - or threatening to do so- often works to stop unwanted behaviors.

However, reliance on the system of rewards and punishment in the short-term may actually interfere with the long-term goals we have for our kids. What numerous studies have shown is that the habitual use of rewards and punishments leads a child to think about immediate consequences to themselves, rather than the overall effects of their actions. I can do it as long as I don't get caught. I want that cookie, so I'll just do whatever my mom asks. So if empathy and self-regulation are part of the long-term goals for your child, it's worth considering whether you're actually instilling those qualities or just modifying your child's outward behavior.

Think about it. If you want your child to be intrinsically motivated, does it make sense to use the carrot and stick? If you want your child to feel unconditionally loved by her caregivers, does it makes sense to ignore her when she's sad or angry (i.e. put her in a time out or punish acting out behaviors)?  If you want your child to feel confident in taking on new endeavors, does it makes sense to label her as smart rather than highlighting her efforts? If you want your child to be considerate, does it makes sense to enforce good manners instead of talking to her about empathy? Again, taking time to consider questions like these can provide the most powerful guidance for navigating short-term parenting issues.

Fortunately, thinking about our long-term parenting goals doesn't have to be methodical or painstaking. Nor do we have to get hung-up on every short-term decision. The point is to keep an eye on the big picture and not get lost in the details of today.  Whether or not your child cleans her room this week isn't as important as how you show her to be a respectful, contributing member of a household. Deciding whether or not to allow your child to eat Goldfish for dinner isn't as important as the attitude you teach towards healthy eating. Whether or not your toddler says "I'm sorry" after hitting her sister doesn't matter as much as helping her learn that others have feelings and that she can learn to manage her own, too. Even using the occasional reward or punishment isn't going to create an insecure miscreant if you're also making efforts to connect with your child and honor her feelings. With unconditional parenting, the challenge is to provide unconditional support and guidance, even through those short-term struggles.

With long-term goals in mind, we still need tools for dealing with the short-term goals. Next time, I'll share some of my own short-term strategies that don't include rewards or punishment.

For further reading:
Common long-term goals of effective parents A no-frills piece from Break the Cycle.
Tools for creating your parenting philosophy An informative and insightful post from Code Name: Mama, with useful exercises for defining your goals.
My starter kit for unconditional parenting A list of parenting practices (from yours truly) I use that are in line with my long-term goals for raising a compassionate and autonomous boy.
Long term, not short term goals A great article about how short-term solutions to discipline can interfere with long-term goals for our children.

photo credit: mlhradio via photopin cc

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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Respectful Parenting As a Way of Life

Welcome to the February 2012 Carnival of Natural Parenting: Respectful Interactions With Other Parents
This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama. This month our participants have focused on how we can communicate with other parents compassionately.
NOTE: I'm taking a short detour from my Unconditional Parenting series to take part in this blog carnival. Finding respectful ways of interacting with other parents is such an important topic, particularly for anyone interested in unconventional parenting styles.I invite my readers to explore the other posts listed at the bottom. 

I live in one of the most progressive and multicultural metropolitan areas in the United States. Oddly enough, unconditional parenting (or attachment, natural, or conscious parenting) isn't very common, at least in my particular suburb. Almost every day I interact with other parents who do not share my parenting choices. I've made some mistakes during some of these interactions, but I've also learned some valuable lessons.

First of all, I've come to realize that respect for self, others, and planet is central to my parenting philosophy. That means I have to model respect if I ever hope my son to exhibit it. While I may disagree with other parent's choices, I still have to respect their right to make choices...even if I find them distasteful, offensive or hurtful.  I'm sure some of them feel the same about some of my choices.

Furthermore, it takes much more than a comment here or there to fully inform others about my parenting choices. Most of what I do runs so counter to mainstream parenting culture that it warrants thorough discussion and explanation (think: no rewards or punishment, no TV, breastfeeding a 2 year-old, doing EC, and I'm even thinking about homeschooling; check out my latest blog series for "thorough explanations"). My choices are often misunderstood but I will only engage in discussions about them if the other party is genuinely interested. Parenting raises so many personal issues that people can become defensive unless they are open to hearing information that runs counter to their world view. So, I keep my ideas to myself. And my blog.

Secondly, I can inform and reach many more people if I do so with compassion. I don't want to argue, I want to share and learn. Although I do have very strong opinions, I avoid sharing them with parents I don't know well. Strong opinions have a way of turning people off and people stop listening if they don't immediately agree. Instead, I focus on sharing the information that has led me to form the opinions I do have. Some people will become inspired and make the same choices I do. Others simply won't get it and will go on doing what everyone else does. Either way, it's their choice and I respect their right to make those choices.

I've also started looking at parents as individuals with their own struggles to overcome. I think every parent wishes better for their child than they had it. Whether that's more stuff, more love, more freedom, or whatever, we're all just trying to make the next generation a little better. Maybe that family comes from a culture where cloth diapering is considered low-class, so using disposables feels like financial freedom.  Maybe the helicopter mom is showing all the love she never received from absent, neglectful parents. Maybe the parents trying to get their kid away from the playground with promises of sweets and threats of no ice-cream have never even heard of unconditional parenting. Maybe the father dragging his kid by the arm out of the park is exercising considerable restraint compared to the beatings he once received.

I'm not saying I think all parenting choices are justifiable, I'm just saying those parents don't need my contempt or unsolicited advice. They need my support, my empathy, and access to the same information I have. The most respectful thing I can do is model the choices I'm making and be willing to peacefully share the reasons why.

Finally, I've come to learn that parents with different approaches have valuable information to offer. That means I also have to be willing to listen to what other parents have to say. They might know a trick or coping strategy I wouldn't have thought of. They may have a way of navigating parenthood that can bring new insights to my own. They can also teach me to be more compassionate when I realize how much we share in common. Because parenting is hard work, no matter what approach you take.

So while I have dreams of changing the world through peaceful parenting, I've come to accept that the only way we can get better as parents is by supporting each other and exchanging information, with open minds and open hearts.  If we begin with a little respect, we might just change the world, together.

Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!
Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:
(This list will be live and updated by afternoon February 14 with all the carnival links.)
  • How to Respond Respectfully to Unwanted Parenting Advice and Judgment — At Natural Parents Network, Amy (of Peace 4 Parents) offers some ways to deal with parenting advice and criticism, whether it's from your mom or the grocery store clerk.
  • Judgement is Natural - Just Don't Condemn — Jennifer at Hybrid Rasta Mama shared her views on why judgment is unavoidable and why the bigger issue is condemnation.
  • Four Ways To Share Your Parenting Philosophy Gently — Valerie at Momma in Progress shares tips for communicating with fellow parents in a positive, peaceful manner.
  • When Other Parents Disagree With You — Being an attachment parent is hard enough, but when you are Lily, aka Witch Mom, someone who does not enforce gender roles on her kid, who devalues capitalism and materialism, and instead prefers homeschooling and homesteading — you are bound to disagree with someone, somewhere!
  • Mama Bashing — Lucy at Dreaming Aloud reflects on the hurt caused on the blogosphere by mama bashing and pleads for a more mindful way of dealing with differences.
  • Accentuate the Positive — Joella at Fine and Fair shares how she manages interactions with the parents she encounters in her work as a Parent Coach and Substance Abuse Counselor by building trusting relationships and affirming strengths.
  • The politics of mothers – keys to respectful interactions with other parents — Tara from MUMmedia offers great tips for handling the inevitable conflict of ideas and personalities in parenting/mother's groups, etc.
  • Trying to build our village — Sheila at A Gift Universe tells how she went from knowing no other moms in her new town to building a real community of mothers.
  • Internet Etiquette in the Mommy Wars — Shannon at The Artful Mama discusses how she handles heated topics in the "Mommy-space" online.
  • Parenting with Convictions — Sarah at Parenting God's Children encourages love and support for fellow parents and their convictions.
  • How To Be Respectful Despite Disagreeing On Parenting Styles... — Jenny at I'm a Full-Time Mummy shares her two cents' worth on how to have respectful interactions with other parents despite disagreeing on parenting styles.
  • Public RelationsMomma Jorje touches on keeping the peace when discussing parenting styles.
  • Navigating Parenting Politics — Since choosing an alternative parenting style means rejecting the mainstream, Miriam at The Other Baby Book shares a few simple tips that can help avoid hurt feelings.
  • Hiding in my grace cave — Lauren at Hobo Mama wants to forget that not all parents are as respectful and tolerant as the people with whom she now surrounds herself.
  • Carnival of Natural Parenting - Respectful Interactions with Other Parents — Wolfmother at Fabulous Mama Chronicles explores how her attitude has changed regarding sharing information and opinions with others and how she now chooses to keep the peace during social outings.
  • Empathy and respect — Helen at zen mummy tries to find her zen in the midst of the Mummy Wars.
  • Not Holier Than Thou — Amyables at Toddler in Tow muses about how she's learned to love all parents, despite differences, disagreements, and awkward conversations.
  • Nonviolent Communication and Unconditional Love — Wendylori at High Needs Attachment reflects on the choice to not take offense as the key to honest and open communication.
  • Respectful Parenting As a Way of Life — Sylvia at MaMammalia writes about using her parenting philosophy as a guide to dealing with other parents who make very different choices from her.
  • Homeschooling: Why Not? — Kerry at City Kids Homeschooling shares how parents can often make homeschooling work for their family even if, at first glance, it may seem daunting.
  • If You Can’t Say Something Nice… — Deb Chitwood at Living Montessori Now tells her philosophy for online and offline interactions … a philosophy based primarily on a children’s movie.
  • Different Rules for Different Families — Mandy at Living Peacefully with Children discusses how differences between families affect our children, and how that can be a good thing.
  • Respectful Interaction With Other Parents — Luschka at Diary of a First Child shares the ways she surrounds herself with a like-minded support network, so that she can gently advocate in her dealings with those whose opinions on parenting differ vastly from her own.
  • Parenting as a mirror — Rather than discrediting others' parenting styles, Kate Wicker discusses why she tries to focus on doing right rather than being right — and why she’s also not afraid to show others that she’s a heartfelt but imperfect mama just trying to be the best mom for her family.
  • The One Thing {Most} Parents Have In Common: They Try Their Best — Christine at African Babies Don't Cry finds interacting with other parents easier once she accepts that they are all just trying their best, just like her.
  • Finding your mama-groove: 5 ways to eliminate judge/be judged metalityMudpieMama reveals 5 ways of thinking that have helped her find her mama-groove and better navigate tricky parenting discussions.
  • Speaking Up For Those Who Can't — We've all had those moments when someone said something hurtful or insensitive, or downright rude that just shocks you to your core, and you're stunned into silence. Afterwards, you go home and think "Gosh, I wish I said…" This post by Arpita at Up Down, And Natural is for all the breastfeeding mamas who have thought "Gosh, I wish I said…"
  • Thank you for your opinion — Gaby at Tmuffin shares her go-to comment when she feels like others are judging her parenting style.
  • Mending — A playground conversation about jeans veers off course until a little mending by Kenna at Million Tiny Things is needed.
  • The Thing You Don't Know — Kelly at Becoming Crunchy talks about what she believes is one of the most important things you can consider when it comes to compassionate communication with other parents.
  • 3 Tips for Interacting with Other Parents Respectfully When You Disagree with Them — Charise at I Thought I Knew Mama shares what she has learned about respectful interactions on her parenting journey.
  • Peacefully Keeping My Cool: Quotes from Ana — How do you keep your cool? Ana from Pandamoly shares some of her favorite retorts and conversation starters when her Parenting Ethos comes into question.
  • Kind Matters — Carrie at Love Notes Mama discusses how she strives to be the type of person she'd want to meet.
  • Doing it my way but respecting your highway. — Terri from Child of the Nature Isle is determined to walk with her family on the road less travelled whether you like it or not!
  • Saying "I'm Right and You're Wrong" Seldom Does Much To Improve Your Cause... — Kat at Loving {Almost} Every Moment writes about how living by example motivates her actions and interactions with others.
  • Have another kid and you won't care — Cassie of There's a Pickle in My Life, after having her second child, knows exactly how to respond to opposing advice.
  • Ten Tips to Communicate Respectfully, Even When You Disagree — What if disagreements with our partners, our children or even complete strangers ultimately led to more harmony and deeper connections? They can! Dionna at Code Name: Mama shares ten tips to strengthen our relationships in the midst of conflict.
  • A Little Light Conversation — Zoie at TouchstoneZ explains why respect needs to be given to every parent unconditionally.
  • Why I used to hide the formula box — Laura at Pug in the Kitchen finally talks about how judgement between parents changed her views on how she handles differences in parenting.
  • Assumptions — Nada at minimomist discusses how not everyone is able to nurse, physically, mentally, or emotionally.
  • Shushing Your Inner Judgey McJudgerson — Jenn at Monkey Butt Junction knows that judging others is easy to do, but recognizing that we all parent from different perspectives takes work.
  • Respectfully Interacting with Others Online — Lani at Boobie Time Blog discusses the importance of remaining respectful behind the disguise of the internet.
  • Presumption of Good Will — Why — and how — Crunchy Con Mommy is going to try to assume the best of people she disagrees with on important issues.
  • Being Gracious with Parenting Advice — Tips for giving and receiving parenting advice with grace from Lisa at My World Edenwild.
  • Explain, Smile, Escape — Don't know what to do when you're confronted by another parent who disagrees with you? Amy at Anktangle shares a story from her life along with a helpful method for navigating these types of tricky situations (complete with a handy flow chart!).
  • Balancing Cultures and ChoicesDulce de leche discusses the challenges of walking the tightrope between generations while balancing cultural and family ties.
  • Linky - Parenting Peacefully with Social MediaHannabert's Mom discusses parenting in a social media world.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Say What You Mean and Ask For What You Want

In this series of posts, I explore my personal challenges with each of the principles of unconditional parenting. These personal accounts run in parallel with a series of information-based posts where I explain each of the 13 basic principles of unconditional parenting as described in Kohn's book, Unconditional Parenting. Want to start from the beginning? Click here for the Introduction to Unconditional Parenting and for links to all posts in the series.

When my son and I do laundry together, he likes to help push the laundry cart. He also likes to climb up on the rack under the laundry bags, a rack made of rather flimsy metal.  The cart isn't strong enough to support a bouncing two-year old so his climbing feat isn't all that cool. I've asked him not to stand on the cart many times, but the temptation still arises, especially if I'm busy folding clothes.

I could forcefully order him No, don't do that. I could weakly imply that "We" don't climb on that. But neither of those requesting tactics work because neither is rooted in respect. Using forceful words is controlling and creates a power struggle (do you like to be talked to that way?). On the other hand, being indirect muddles the message so the child doesn't know what you really want. The popular "we don't" isn't a request, it's an untrue statement (note that he's already climbing).

I could also take the middle ground by being both compassionate and assertive: Please don't climb on that. Usually, that's the general approach I take, along with a number of other gentle strategies I've written about (check them out: Toddler Compliance, Toddler Defiance, and Speaking Respectfully to a Toddler).

Recently, and with some inspiration from nonviolent communication, I've started phrasing my requests in terms of what I want and need. It's a subtle change in words, but the results are rather dramatic. I feel empowered when I ask my son to do or not do something because I express my desires honestly. And I think he feels empowered because the approach is so honest. Instead of making a demand from dominant figure to submissive figure, I respectfully state my request, from human to human:

"Munchkin, I don't want you to climb on the laundry cart. Do you see the how the metal bends when you climb up there? I'm afraid the cart will break and I would be very sad if it broke. Will you please get down from there?"

He did, in fact, get down without a fuss. Did I mention he's two years old? Yeah, wow.

The same strategy works for getting him to do something he doesn't want to, like put on his diaper before bedtime:

"I don't like it when you say 'no' and run away," I said this with genuine sadness in my voice while looking him in the eye. "I want you to come over here and put on your diaper. I like it when you help me put on your diaper. I like it when you cooperate and we do it together. I like to be close to you because then we can play together, too."    

He responded by coming over to me. He sat down on top of the diaper and we played one of our little games while I fastened the diaper.

I think part of the trick is in the "I statement:"

I want you to...
I don't want you to....
I don't like it when....
I like it when...
*I feel scared when....
*I feel angry when...
*I feel happy when....

Switching requests from pronoun-free directives to "I statements" is a liberating shift. I feel calmer and freer, regardless of outcome. I'm not going to argue that it works every time, but it certainly does most of the time. It also works a whole lot better if the parent-child relationship is in good condition because it underscores the mutual respect in the relationship. If I get into power struggle mode or am too afraid to be forthright with my requests, I lose my son's trust and respect. Then he's not likely to do anything I ask, no matter how I request it.

I'll talk more about the importance of the parent-child relationship later in this series. Next time, we'll begin to explore the topic by considering  long-term goals. For now, I'll just keep practicing this new way of asking for what I really want.

*Use of feeling words can be tricky. Check out the comment below from Issa and my response to it for a discussion of the concerns in using feelings when making requests.

How do you ask for what you want from your kids? Have you noticed when it's more or less likely to work?

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Reconsider Your Requests (Unconditional Parenting Principle #2)

In this series of posts, I summarize the 13 basic principles of unconditional parenting as described in Kohn's book, Unconditional Parenting. I include insights and interpretations gleaned from other resources. The information-based posts run in parallel with a series of personal accounts of how I attempt to apply these principles in my own mothering. Want to start from the beginning? Click here for the Introduction to Unconditional Parenting and links to all posts in the series.
"...any time it’s our objective to get another person to behave in a certain way, people are likely to resist no matter what it is we’re asking for. This seems to be true whether the other person is 2 or 92 years of age." - Marshall Rosenberg, in Raising Children Compassionately

A basic precept in unconditional parenting is to give up trying to control children and instead focus on working with them to meet mutual goals. Alfie Kohn calls this a "working with" as opposed to a "doing to" style of parenting.  A prime example of how we can begin to work with our children comes from the second principle of unconditional parenting: reconsider your requests. 

Unfortunately, the "working with" idea isn't a very common approach to making requests of children. Advice about how to get your kid to do this or that includes strategies that vary from forceful to gentle, but most rest on the untested assumption that the parents' request is inherently valid. The underlying message is that parental authority justifies whatever it is we are asking. From this perspective, solutions to parent-child problems must lie in finding ways to change (read: control and manipulate) children's behavior. Not surprisingly, this parenting mindset leads to a battle of wills, a battle in which parents continually try new and different tactics to get their kids to pick that up, do chores, and not do drugs.

In contrast, the unconditional parenting approach asks us to change ourselves. When conflicts arise, we need to consider if the real problem might actually be that we're making unreasonable requests. Is the request an honest reflection of a need? Or is it just our preference or a way to fulfill the need for control? Why should the child comply? Is the request age appropriate? Are we asking for something that we want for our children without checking to see if it's what they want? Is it really that important? What's the worst that could happen if we let it slide, honestly?

Certainly, there are plenty of things we ask of our kids that are reasonable and necessary. What those are will differ from family to family. Still, if we are to gain the respect and compliance of our kids, we will have a lot better luck if we start by being reflective about our requests.

It also helps to be flexible. Traditional parenting advice will tell us to "be consistent" and not "give in" when our child won't fulfill our demands (for an example of some really atrocious, anti-unconditional parenting advice, see this article). However, if you have a "working with" attitude, an adamant refusal from your child might be a clue that there's a problem with your request. If so, it's OK to change your mind once you're reconsidered (more on this topic later when we visit the unconditional parenting principle on not being rigid). This won't thwart authority. Rather, it will show your child that you're human, fallible, compassionate and fair enough to make the right decision after you've made a mistake. Genuine respect goes a lot further than fear.

Another critical aspect of making requests to our children comes from the way in which we ask.  If we are stuck in the mindset that only the parents' needs or desires matter ("because I'm the mom and I said so!"), we are bound to encounter conflict with children. Then we are back to controlling rather than working with.

Fortunately, Nonviolent Communication (NVC) offers a powerful, effective, and incredibly compassionate way to ask for what we need, from children or anyone else. With NVC, the focus in on how to satisfy the needs of both parties. Requests are met because of trust, compassion, and respect that flows between parent and child. Consider the difference between "Your room is such a mess! I told you to clean it. Do it now or I'll..." versus  "I see that you haven't cleaned your room and I feel very frustrated. I really need some help in keeping the house tidy. Will you please pick up your room?"

The flip side is that occasionally the child will not be able to fulfill that request because she has her own needs. But just think, does your spouse or friend always do what you ask? Would you punish them if they didn't, especially if the reason was valid? If we truly respect our children as human beings, we should extend them the same courtesy. We should be willing to live with them not always doing what we ask. We can let go of the power struggle and instead think in terms of mutual respect. The upshot is that refusals will happen less often because a person who feels respected instead of controlled is a lot more willing to comply in the first place.

So imagine... your child cleaning up her room, brushing her teeth, or doing her chores because she trusts your decisions and respects your need for cleanliness -- not because she doesn't want to get grounded. Imagine asking only for things that really matter. Imagine rethinking your request if you don't get what you ask for. Then imagine that you can sometimes accept her not doing what you ask because she has her own needs and you care about them. Imagine the conversation that takes place each time, without struggle, blame, criticism, or threats. That's unconditional parenting.

For further reading
Nonviolent Communication:
Examples of using NVC with children, based on an excerpt from Rosenberg's Raising Children Compassionately

Making requests to children under five (from yours truly):

Listening and Asking:
Teaching Children to Listen, from Simplicity Parenting
Any other thoughts about making requests to kids? Please share your ideas or ask anything!