In a lot of ways, it goes against almost every form of parenting advice I’ve ever read previously. And I’ll admit that it takes alot to open your mind enough to be able to absorb the information. The first half of the book is all about the theory behind it, and I’ll admit during that time, I was constantly thinking, but if I can’t do that (rewards, time-outs etc) what the hell am I going to do?
While I won’t attempt to do his detailed research justice in this post, I will try to explore what I have learnt from it so far. It’s probably the kind of thing that I would have an even greater understanding if I read it for a second time.
The idea is that conventional forms of discipline tend to be either physical, or based on love withdrawal (time outs); that rewards are manipulative and teach children to focus on what they are getting rather than what you actually want them to learn; and that praise reinforces the idea that you love them more when children do what you want them to do. And all of these things subtly and repetitively teach children that parental love is conditional upon compliance.
When you start thinking about it, it’s amazing how much I do this on a daily basis. I say ‘Good job’ all the time. When Riley does something that I ask, when she eats, when she finishes a puzzle, when she does a drawing. According to Kohn, by doing so I am constantly reinforcing the idea that I most love her, am most impressed with her and most proud of her when she does something that I want her to do, or when she achieves some external grade of success (like finishing the puzzle correctly). He also argues, that by doing so, Riley will focus far more on what she has to do to receive my approval, and less on enjoying what she is actually doing. Take the puzzle for example, if I constantly praise her when she finishes it, apparently she is more likely to not try a harder puzzle, or attempt something that she might not complete, because then she might not get my approval. And another example is sharing, if I praised her for that, she would not actually gain any interest in sharing, but just in what she needed to do to receive encouragement. In fact it was found when children were praised for sharing they were less likely to share than when they weren’t praised for it at all.
Rewards are essentially the same thing as praise, except that the reward is tangible, rather than verbal. The problem with praise is not that children become ‘spoilt’, or that they receive too much affection, it’s that every time you say something is ‘good’ or ‘great’ you are expressing a judgement. You are expressing what you value. And (the argument is made) that children then feel that they are only truly appreciated and accepted when they do what you value. This leads to another problem which is that self-esteem then tends to fluctuate based on external influences. And apparently the risk factor for self-esteem is not whether it’s low or high, but how much it changes based on other people and circumstances.
Some of the interesting aspects of the research conducted were:
- Love withdrawal tecniques leads to lower morality in teenagers
- Children who are given a reward for being nice, are less likely to think of themselves as nice people; and less likely to continue being nice when a reward isn’t offered
- Children praised for generousity, are less likely to be generous on a daily basis (it seems that rewards/praise erode internal motivation and it becomes all about the outcome)
- Children frequently praised by their teachers were more tentative in their response to questions
- Children with parents who adopt a cooperative, less controlled style of parenting are more likely to comply with parental requests
- Controlling parenting has been associated with lower levels of internal motivation, less internalisation of morals and values and poorer self regulatoin
- In the long term, punishment is ineffective at eliminating the desired behaviour
- It doesn’t matter how you respond to misbehaviour the first time, 80% of toddlers will repeat the behaviour they were talked to about or punished for
So where does that leave me? What do I do?
Kohn suggests that I replace judgement-based praise, with more descriptive language and reflective questioning. An example would be, instead of saying ‘good drawing’, I might say ‘that’s a new shape that you’ve drawn’. And that instead of time-outs and rewards, I resort to listening, talking, re-evaluating my requests to see if they are reasonable, trying to understand things from Riley’s perspective, attribute her with the best possible intentions given the facts, only say no what I really need to say no to, and only use controlling interventions when absolutely necessary. The thing I like most out of all of this is attributing the best possible intentions. Riley is at the age where she is into everything and it’s easy to assume that if she has a pen in her hand she’s going to write ont he wall, or if she picks something up she’s going to throw it, but this is far from fair.
I’m utterly and totally overwhelmed by how much I would have to change what I do on a daily basis if I was to take it on board. But I guess being aware of all the things that would have to change is half the battle.