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!


  1. When I've talked to parents about Kohn, this is one of the biggest sticking points. It can be so hard for parents to release control (even when that control comes at a price), especially when it can seem like the kids are "getting their way." But I appreciate that you've paired Kohn with NVC - that way it's not just "letting kids get their way," but the focus is on meeting everyone's needs.

  2. Dionna, I know what you mean. Many people tend to think of parent requests as an either-or, me-or-them negotiation. Obviously, it sometimes is (I can't breastfeed while driving), but most of the time it's not. Understandably, it can be hard to relinquish control. It's scary and most of our cultural messages tell us we SHOULD control our kids. I've found more freedom by trying to see things otherwise. And NVC is useful for interacting with adults, too!

  3. What a great post and a timely reminder! Thank you!!

  4. "Genuine respect goes a lot further than fear." This really resonated with me and is in line with my thinking that children are also people with preferences and feelings. I often noticed in my own relationship with my son that he resists requests that are not sensitive to his needs at the moment. I would not expect my husband to drop everything when I suddenly make a request if I did not respect what he was already engaged in at the moment, so how does it make it right to treat my son differently? I think that the underlying problem is exactly what you pointed to: need for control. Being a parent gives you some authority and many take advantage of that and use it to manipulate their kids into complying to their every whim not realising how insensitive they might be. It is difficult learning to become aware of whether we are justified in our requests or if we are simply looking to control the situation unnecessarily.

    1. Great insights about control! Many parents seem unaware that some conflicts stem from a power struggle that they could easily solve by giving up some control. Like you said, that can be hard to do, especially if you've been conditioned otherwise. We get so many societal messages to "control" our kids that some of those messages get internalized! It's when I take a step back that I realize I don't agree with those messages. I'd rather have a good relationship with my kid.

  5. My husband and I are trying to follow the Unconditional Parenting principles at home (not always easy, I must admit), but we are running into issues at preschool. The teachers are pressuring us to take steps that we don't support to curb certain behaviors - acting out over and again to try to make the other children laugh and this is causing disruptions. I don't think it is that big of a deal, normal 3-4 year old behavior, but the teachers do and they are pressuring us to let them offer progress charts with rewards at the end. I don't think that is appropriate, but haven't come up with a more appropriate suggestion other than, 'If he goofs off at snack time, then he doesn't get to have snack at that time. Simple as that.' They don't care for my suggestion.

    Any suggestions on how to get an almost 4 year old to save his joking for the playground? I need some good options that will serve the needs of my son, but also bring peace to the classroom. What suggestions have you given your child's teachers that the teachers will accept? Thanks for the guidance!

  6. You raise such an important issue: how do we reconcile differences between our own parenting style and how the rest of the world treats our children? So far, I haven't had to deal directly with that issue myself, but I know it will arise. I think I would first offer the other caregiver or teacher some suggestions of how we deal with that particular issue at home. Hopefully, they will be open to it.

    Maybe in your case the reason they didn't go for it and instead suggested the progress chart is because they are trying to focus on positive reinforcement - very common in preschools. Simply cutting off snack time sounds like a punishment to me. However, with the right words and tone of voice, it's possible to set a firm, yet compassionate limit. Something like "I don't want you to disturb the other children because it's not fair to them. I want everyone to be quiet during this time. Please settle down. We can laugh and be silly when we go outside." If the caregivers have your son's respect and trust, he may be more willing to appease them because he will genuinely care about them and the other kids. If he trusts that he will get his silly time it may also be easier. Rewards & punishments won't teach him those lessons!

    Another issue here may be impulse control. Kids get better at controlling their impulses ( even to makes jokes!) as they mature. Four is still pretty young to expect complete control but you might look into how you could help him develop it -- unconditionally, of course! Talk to the preschool about it and see what they have to say. If you can work together, you have a better shot.

    Finally, one thing I remind myself is that I am the mother and I love my son unconditionally. The rest of the world doesn't and I can't expect them to treat him as such. If someone else uses rewards to motivate him, it will only highlight to him how pure and true MY love is for him. He doesn't have to jump through hoops to receive my attention or love. I'm not saying I'm happy with the way most educators and caregivers use rewards and punishment, I'm just saying it won't ruin my son or our relationship. If I thought it would, I'd move him to another environment.

    Good luck!

  7. But what if they still say "no" and it's something they have to do? My daughter throws a fit everytime I ask her to brush her teeth. I have tried many different gentle parenting techniques and I still don't know whether to punish her, bribe her, force her, or just let it go? She will have rotting teeth in no time! All the websites I refer to say the same things about positive parenting which I try to do, but what if she still says no?

    1. Excellent question! For me, I find that HOW I make my request is a huge part of it, but not the whole of it. If I'm calm, clear, and use a tone of voice and words that honor and respect my son's personhood, the outcome is much better. With something like tooth-brushing, I focus on how much I care about his health. I let that sentiment guide me and create the mood around brushing teeth. Then it's not a matter of "do this or get punished," it's a matter of my son trusting my knowledge and realizing that I care deeply about him and his health. Yes, even toddlers get that idea! Of course, they also like to play games and test our commitments. It helps if you can be a bit silly and creative about brushing teeth. We've had countless games over it and just when I think we've finally got a good one forever, we have to invent a new one! This gives me some good ideas for further posts ;)

      However, nothing I say or do is going to work if my relationship with my son is out of balance, if we are not well connected to begin with. For instance, if I lose my temper with him in the morning, he might put up greater resistance about something later in the day. If I find a few moments to reconnect with him first, including an apology, he will usually come around. Then he is more likely to LISTEN to how much I care about his teeth and BELIEVE that my caring is genuine. I plan to write more on this topic as well!

      I hope this helps!