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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  1. This is a very important topic to think about, and not many are aware of how to attain those long-term goals. Personally I was raised in the traditional model of parenting using the reward/punishment system and I am very aware of the unhealthy psychological behaviors I have as a result of this. It is important to me that I raise my children differently so that I have a healthy relationship with them as I raise them to be the people I know they already are inside. Nurturing their qualities is difficult though when you are programmed to behave differently yourself. It is an ongoing learning experience.

    1. So true. Not only are we going against the programming from our own childhoods, but we also have to contend with the rest of society that largely relies on rewards and punishment to deal with kids. It's a real shift in thinking that does't come easily.