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