What parenting tools do you find yourself relying on?
Many of us will list common parenting tools we think we need. Things like praise, rewards, punishments, consequences, these are the things that we hear all the time and are often part of the way we were parented. The fundamental similarity of these tools is that they all are used to manage behaviour. They are rooted in behaviour modification theory and developed by behaviourists.
The really important thing to note about behaviour-based strategies is that they were developed in a lab and were tested on animals like rats and pigeons. They also only looked at behaviour in isolation and did not apply the variable of emotion in any of the testing, but rather viewed emotion as a nuisance variable. But emotion is really one of our primary drivers as humans. So much of why we do what we do comes from how we feel in any given moment. Examining behaviour without including the effect on emotion really misses the mark when we’re looking at our children.
Today we want to challenge this cultural norm of behaviour modification approaches because we actually don't believe you need ANY of the tools we just listed. No really, not a single one. It is not our job as parents to control the behaviour of our children (although we do need to say no to certain behaviours), but rather be the presence they need to foster and fuel growth and development. We believe that all of this can be done without reinforcing the behaviours you want to see, without ignoring the behaviours you don’t want to see, without applying a consequence or punishment for certain behaviours.
Now don’t get us wrong, our children need limits - in fact they thrive off having limits - but we need to be falling back on our relationship with our children to help hold those limits, not other contrived methods to manipulate their behaviour. Our influence in being able to help them to develop and mature comes from who we are to them, not what we do to them. It's rooted in relationship and it's exactly that relationship that empowers us to parent our little ones.
When we take a moment to examine how all of these behavioural approaches work, we can see that so many of them put conditions on our relationship with our children. They all have a cause and effect approach to how we respond to our child. If our child does something “good” these approaches would recommend praising or rewarding the actions and if our child does something “bad” they teach to apply a consequence or punishment. What this is really doing is often placing a contingency on our relationship with our child. We appear to only like them if they behave as we want them to and when they don’t they are punished or sent away from us. We think this is such an important thing to draw our attention to because truthfully we never thought about it this way until we read “Unconditional Parenting” by Alfie Kohn.
Now if you’re anything like us, you might be thinking, “well then what am I supposed to do?” “How do I teach and parent my child without falling back on the strategies I’ve been exposed to my entire life?” Well, that’s the great part about all of this. You actually don’t need fancy strategies or techniques to fall back on, you just need to focus on your relationship with your child and respond to behaviours with the same level of love and caring whether it’s “good” or “bad” behaviour. When they do something that you love and you’re excited about, share in their excitement because you truly feel that way, not because you want to reinforce the behaviour. When they do something they probably shouldn’t, set the limits around the behaviour with kindness and compassion and come alongside them so they feel there’s NOTHING they can do to make you love them any less.
Children are innately good and have a desire to be good for the adults they are attached to (and resist those to whom they are they are not attached). This means our focus NEEDS to be on relationship and not on behaviour. We need to be patient with our little ones and understand that with immaturity comes impulsive and not always well thought through behaviour. We need to be empathetic to the fact that our little ones are naturally faced with lots of futility throughout their day and will have a lot of emotion to work through those futilities of life.
We need to focus on connection and relationship as the primary goal and driver to fuel and facilitate a strong attachment with our children. When a child knows that their standing with us is independent of how they behave, that allows them to truly rest in our care. It allows them to trust us to take care of them. It empowers us to guide, lead, and influence them as their parents.