Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Quick Update on: A Daring Experiment

Okay. I have not forgotten about this zany idea of abandoning punishments and rewards in parenting. The truth is this pregnancy has wiped me out and the little energy I have left for writing has gone to building my very own freelance commercial writing business. Excuses out of the way, here we go...

p.s. if you haven't read the original blog post entitled " A Daring Experiment" than you've got to go back and read it or this post won't make sense.

I've been thinking a lot about Alfie Kohn's ideas and I've decided his philosophy is sound but not practical. Although the man is educated in some social sciences he is not a psychologist, and this is definitely a psychological theory. Basically I think he's out of his realm of expertise. In spite of this short coming, I think he's definitely on to something here. Something that cannot be ignored, the greatest good.

In a perfect world we would do the right things out of the goodness of our hearts, always. The inherent "rightness" of things like generosity, cooperation and charity would be enough motivation in and of themselves. I believe this ought to be our ultimate goal as parents, to help foster deeply compassionate hearts in our children. But here's the reality check. Sometimes rewards and punishments are the right kinds of signals to help get us on this high road. Kohn would disagree with this logic but the Bible doesn't, and for good reason. Of course God's primary goal is the same as Kohn's but at certain times God uses rewards and punishments in scripture to help promote nobility in the hearts of His children. For those who are not fans of the Bible or God, even natural laws themselves promote traditional morality. For instance, if one is promiscuous that one is very likely to catch a nasty disease. Another clear example; when we over-indulge in just about anything our bodies dysfunction. These natural consequences are excellent motivators for behavior change. They are warning signs begging us to do something differently.

Some of Kohn's solutions to misbehavior in children are less restriction and more teaching. The problem is my four and two year old understand very little about the inherent goodness of charity and cooperation. These abstract ideas do not show them the kind of tangible lessons they need at this stage of their development. Therefore, in my opinion it's better to implement natural consequences, which again, Kohn scoffs at. An example of a natural consequence in our house goes something like this: Josiah has fifteen minutes at the end of the night to put his toys away. If he takes longer it cuts into his story time. Not that he loses stories as a punishment for not cleaning up his toys fast enough but instead, this is the result of lolli-gagging. He has a set bedtime and if his lack of focus cuts into story time that is the natural consequence of his behavior. No power struggles, no nagging. Kohn would say this is not a truly natural consequence but I disagree. This is how the real world works. If you're late for the bus, you miss the bus!

Here comes the pinch... the part where I live up to the "Unfiltered" part of Mother Mouth. We have resorted to too many rewards and punishments to control our kids. I too often give Josiah dessert for eating vegetables. I threaten to (and often do)take away his Lego's for hitting his sister. There is nothing natural about these consequences, it's pure "carrot on a stick" technique which I need to break myself from. I don't want to raise kids that cooperate only to avoid punishment or kids that are kind only for a piece of cake, God forbid.

So, Alfie Kohn, if you dare to read my humble blog, three fourths of me agrees with you. I only disagree that we should completely do away with rewards, punishments, incentives and praise. I think these should be tools used minimally, with discretion. Unfortunately I let these things become too dominant in how I have dealt with my kids. Therefore I will still go forward with "The Daring Experiment" as a kind of detox from over dependence on rewards and punishments. So for thirty days I will parent Kohn's way as a way to reset myself and sharpen some higher level skills of parenting. It's been a while since I read Kohn's book so I'm giving myself a few weeks to brush up on my Alfie-isms so that I do his methods justice. At that time I will launch into my month long parenting detox and blog at the end of each purifying day. Wish me luck. I'll be in touch.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

A Blog Worthy Moment

My neighbor came over this morning and ripped me a new one. She and her middle aged roommate were livid that my children filled the air with laughter on a Saturday morning. As soon as I heard the loud pound on the door I knew who'd be on the other side, Lorraine the angry, pot growing hippy from next door. As she literally trembled with rage she barked "This is ridiculous. I'm so tired of this shit. You have no idea how much we have to put up with your noise". She went on along these lines for another minute or so at which time I asked "Are you done?" She gasped indignantly, I said "good bye" and calmly closed the door. I would have engaged in conversation with her if she wasn't so hostile and aggressive. I knew the wiser move, given her demeanor, involved few words and better timing. I've got to confess though, I was pretty irritated and did the oh-so-common "I shoulda said this or that kind of thing". Let's just say I was ruminating on my next move when low and behold, guess who shows up at my house again!

This time she was much calmer and her bark had regressed to more of a lecture. I listened to her for a few minutes and then unleashed my own best monologue. This is what I said, please keep in mind my tone was very gentle all the way through even though my words were very direct. "Please don't come to my house again if you're going to approach me with the kind of disrespect I saw this morning. You should have come to me a long time ago, before you were livid if my kids laughing and playing was so bothersome to you. I honestly didn't realize children's laughter could be so infuriating. You clearly have a low tolerance for noise. If children laughing makes you so mad, then do you hate puppies and rainbows and kitty cats too? Have you noticed that you have conflicts with all the neighbor's? Everyone else seems to get along fine but I heard you and the other neighbor screaming obscenities from over the fence just the other day. It seems like the common problem is you. But that's not the point. My big question is what do you want from us? I'm happy to keep my kids quieter if that's what you need, but I don't know what you consider loud. I don't know the times to keep them quiet. When?" She says, half laughing at herself "Twenty-four seven". "Ok" I say "We both know that's not realistic. How about you tell me (she works from home as a new age astrologer) when you're going to meditate or do your guided imagery and I'll make sure to have the kids in the house for an hour or two. I only ask that you speak to me with respect and well before you're about to rip someones head off". "Ok" she says, "I'll do that". At one point in the conversation she did acknowledge that she should have approached us about the noise before she was livid and that that was something she is working on. I appreciated her humility on that one point and I think my willingness to work with her schedule disarmed her a bit as well. Overall the conversation ended ok. It was definitely a spicy one though! I'm just glad we're moving.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Josiah's Imaginary World

"Mom, there's a shark at the backdoor! Sharks can't get me right? They're under the table right now!"
"Mom, I have Star Wars on my shirt see?". (Josiah's explanation of the juice stains on his shirt)
Stomping on the carpet, heavy footed and with great authority, "I'm stepping on all the Veggie Tales and crushing their cars".
"Mom, let's jump into the computer, just use some magic!".

My funny little four year old always has a running fairy tale in his mind. Sometimes he's a giant and talks in a low voice about how huge he is, other times he's Iron Man with fierce shooters that launch from his wrist bands. Lately he likes to pretend he's marrying me or his sister and says things like "I'm a good dad", while clutching his sisters baby doll. Other times, his imagination overwhelms him. Yesterday as Josiah played with a friend he was overrun with fear. As his friend pretended she was a snake, chasing him around the trail, Josiah ran to me in a slight panic on the verge of tears saying "She's a snake! Is she really a snake mom?", as if borrowing my perspective on reality because he knew his might not be quite right.

I remember the power of my own toddler imagination. My dear and unfortunate Josiah must have inherited my almost hallucinogenic imagination. In fact my waking dreams are extremely clear from about 2 or 3 years old. I vividly remember chasing tiny egg people all over the carpet and trying to capture them in a jar. I pretended I was Gargamel from the Smurfs and the tiny running egg people were my prey. I took about 7 or 8 of those little suckers hostage in my jar. I wanted to prove to someone that they were real. After, catching them I ran to show them to my mom. As I held up the evidence, to my dismay, the little egg people were gone! BLAST! Foiled again!

But that's not all, I also remember seeing an alien curled up in the top of my closet, in the fetal position... creepy. It may sound weird but I'm so glad I still have those memories. I can totally relate with my son and his lively little world. When he sees a shadow in his room and is scared, I totally get it. I'm not sure I've even outgrown that yet :/

His world is so fun and so scary sometimes. Josiah's reality reminds me of The Lion the Witch and Wardrobe. Things that seem ordinary, like a wardrobe are actually entry ways into new and exciting and dangerous world's where animals talk and great enemies await to be defeated. My hope is to never forget what it's like to be a little kid. To remember the things that confused and frustrated me about the adults around me is becoming more and more important the older my son gets. It's so easy to cuddle a baby and teach a toddler to walk and talk. These things just seem to happen, but I have to really try and remember and deliberately choose to enter my four year old's world. When I do, it is a gift to him and myself, but it's so hard to do sometimes. My own agenda robs me of this too often and I need real empowerment to be able to ditch a little of the adult world, so I decided to consult an expert for advice.

I asked Josiah recently, "what can I do to be a better mom for you?" He thought for a minute and said "Play, ummm and be nice and PLAY!" I get it son. Maybe more play would do us both some good. I think my imagination still works... I can see the egg people now ;)

Monday, January 31, 2011

A Daring Experiment

Allow me to set the stage. In our house if my four year old, Josiah, doesn't finish his dinner, he gets no other snacks for the rest of the night. If my two year old hits her brother she sits in time out. If toys are left out after I've asked for them to be cleaned up, those toys are put on a shelf out of reach until they are earned back. My son is now a master negotiator, even a lawyer of sorts. "Mom, if I eat five more bites can I have a piece of gum? Mom, since I was good at school today can I watch an extra movie? Will you give me ____ if I do ____?". Part of me doesn't mind the negotiations. In fact part me feels that negotiating is an important life skill, still there are some reservations. Do I really want my kid to be good at school because he'll get toys back if he is? Do I want my children wondering "what's in it for me if I help someone else?". Is this really what I want them to learn? These are the thoughts that sparked my willingness to experiment with a very different approach to child rearing.

The whole scheme was conceived while reading a book called "Punished by Rewards" by Alfie Kohn. His premise is that rewards and punishments don't teach children what we really want them to learn. This "carrot on a stick" approach to behavior management only serves to teach our children to do the "right" things so an outside authority will either indulge or not punish them in some way, according to Kohn. He argues that what most parents want is for children to learn the intrinsic value in education, courtesy to others and generosity. He concludes that the use of rewards and punishments undermines our ultimate goal to produce adults that do good for goodness sake, rather than for a tax break or approval seeking. These are very strong points, but is it a realistic endeavor with... let's say, toddlers. And how is it practically done on a day to day basis? I am determined to find out, hence my nutty little experiment.

I'm terrified simply at the thought of what I am about to undertake. Surrender my most powerful mom arsenal? Parent a whole month, using no rewards, incentives, stars or other bribes. Not only that. No timeouts, no loss of privileges for "bad" behavior and no parent imposed "natural" consequences. Most of me is thinking "have I totally lost it? Is this some kind of hell month torture where I toss myself into the battle like a lamb to the slaughter?". But thankfully my darling creatures are not out to slaughter me (I don't think) and this isn't a war, it's child rearing... right? So there shouldn't be any casualties, except maybe my sense of control. So why am I shaking in my boots? Is this really a good idea?

I've got to be honest. I am approaching this with some cynicism. Kohn's book seems very extreme and contradicts some of my personal beliefs about how people change behavior. After all isn't our whole society built around rewards and consequences? And isn't all the money the author made off his book a kind of reward and incentive? I've got to give him credit though, he does address this in his book. He believes employees/professionals should be able to earn a living for the work they accomplish and by his definitions this would not qualify as a reward. He also highlights that the majority of psychological experiments testing the effects of rewards supports his idea that they do not teach children the inherent value of generosity, obedience or work ethics. His arguments were sound enough that I have decided to give him a month of our lives to prove that this way of parenting is even slightly practical. My next feat before my experiment can begin is to get my husband Mike on board. We've officially entered the heated discussion phase of negotiations. Let's just say he's not a huge fan of the experiment at this point, or as he says it he "has some reservations". In typical tomboy fashion I'll just have to arm wrestle him for it.

The major problem I see with Kohn's theory is that he offers little to take the place of rewards and punishments. Each time he goes to answer the dilemma of "what instead" he just rips on all the parenting philosophies that utilize these methods. This is frustrating as a reader because he almost persuades me that he has some good points but never delivers an alternative, so I've been pushed to derive my own alternatives. My plan is to use a a lot of redirection and short but effective explanations for why it's wrong to sit on your sister's head and bite your brother's big toe and the such. We'll see how it goes.

signing off with fear and trembling,
Desi Chase