Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Change How You See, Not Just How You Act (Unconditional Parenting Principle #5)

Child 1
Child 1 (Photo credit: Tony Trần)

One of the great challenges of parenting unconditionally is that it usually requires a fundamental shift in thinking. In addition to the difficulty of finding parenting tactics outside of rewards and punishment, we are faced with the reality that we must change how we see, not just how we act. This, the fifth Principle ofUnconditional Parenting, may be pivotal in a parent’s ability to successfully use this gentle parenting style.

The decision to give up using rewards and punishment may actually be quite easy, especially after considering all the evidence put forth by Kohn.  However, the practice of unconditional parenting isn’t simply the omission of the carrot and the stick. We must also let go of the idea that children’s inappropriate behaviors are violations that deserve retribution. We have to let go of many expectations and learn to resolve dissatisfaction. It does little good to refrain from assigning a formal punishment but still exhibit contempt or disappointment towards the child, either through overt verbal proclamations ("you messed up") or non-verbal body language (a disapproving grimace). Instead, we are asked to respond with a problem-solving attitude. We are asked to interpret a child’s behavior with empathy and openness. Rather than looking for ways to bend and mold a child’s behavior, we look for “teachable moments” through which we can work together. This interaction is guided by compassion and respect rather than personal will.

As with any other aspect of parenting, changing our viewpoint is much easier said than done.  Cultural messages, comments from well-meaning friends and family, and our own history all play a role in how easily we take on an enlightened view of our child’s actions. Moreover, most of us have automated responses that we are unaware of or find difficult to stop. We may be triggered into undesirable responses to our children – responses that we witnessed ourselves as children, even if consciously we abhor those behaviors. During stressful moments, it can be exceedingly difficult to experience anything other than our own hurt, anger, or fear. It can be hard to see our children differently if we are stuck in our own unresolved feelings. The ability to confront one’s own emotional state, to learn to regulate it, and to separate it from our child’s behavior is an essential component to integrating that compassionate view of children into our being. That, of course, is what makes learning to see our children differently so challenging: we must first come to see ourselves more clearly.
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