1. The hot topic?
I read this article in The New York Times: When a Parent's 'I Love You' Means 'Do as I Say'. Its point seems to be that if you heap praise on a child when they behave or do something really well, you may as well enroll them in therapy now, because they will be fucked up for life, feeling they never got unconditional love. In the author's own words:
praising children for doing something right isn't a meaningful alternative to pulling back or punishing when they do something wrong. Both are examples of conditional parenting, and both are counterproductive.
2. What is my problem with that?
Ehm, if the theory is correct, I would first of all like a refund on all those parenting books I have. Then I would like to ask "What's the alternative?" because while I'm willing to admit I may sometimes be a little on the controlling side, surely part of my job as a mother is to deliver fully functional human beings at the end of this ride. And praise sure does work.
3. How do I parent?
Parenting never came very naturally to me. The only thing I knew was I would do things differently. And in difficult situations, I would not
ignore - say something nasty - shout something nasty - lash out physically - the end.After a lot of soul searching, therapy, and research, I came up with some rules for myself.
- Always be loving.
- Never intend to hurt.
To start with, these rules sufficed. As soon as the children were able to move themselves around, though, another problem arose: how to steer their behaviour? They must be kept away from the oven, be taught not to overturn the box of Krispies (that took a few attempts), not to hit other children, and so on. Simple love wasn't going to cut it.
I worried and read a lot about how to teach Jack (our poor guinea pig, being the first child) to behave without ever withholding love, for precisely the reason that he should never feel our love depends on what he does. So far, I thought I was doing ok. The main part of the plan is to give the children lots of positive attention all the time, and also to praise them when they're not misbehaving. When they do test the boundaries, I will talk to them and tell them not to. If necessary, I will add why. If they persists, there's a warning. After that, there's a time-out or punishment (like no dessert). I try to be matter-of-fact about it - not shout or get really wound-up (this doesn't always work). I also try to listen to their wishes and negotiate if possible.
This plan? Totally works. Of course, that doesn't mean it's the right thing to do.
4. Am I "using my love" to get my children to behave?
I think the author of this article confuses attention/praise with love. If you only say "I love you" when your child has just performed a little trick, I suppose you will make them think you only love them for their tricks. But children do see the difference between disapproval of naughty behaviour and not loving them. The other night, the children were testing me rather a lot while I was putting them to bed. Just before Jack jumped into bed he went too far and I told him he was not getting a treat the next day. Less than a minute later, though, we were cuddling and doing the rest of the night routine. He knows the difference.
I don't think love really comes into it. The children know I love them all the time. In fact, half the time I'm telling them what not to do, I will be using terms of endearment in the middle (equivalent to sweetie or dearest or somesuch). Jack tells me at length how much I love him, no matter what, forever, even if he's naughty or dead, and also when he wasn't born yet. (He likes to cover all his bases.)
I suppose time-outs do, in practice, mean that you withhold love. You put a physical distance between you and your child. All of a sudden, I'm not so sure about that one. On the other hand, a time-out is often for my sake as much as theirs. It allows me some cooling-off time as well as them.
5. What does the article say I should do?
Here's a quote:
In practice, [..] unconditional acceptance by parents as well as teachers should be accompanied by "autonomy support": explaining reasons for requests, maximizing opportunities for the child to participate in making decisions, being encouraging without manipulating, and actively imagining how things look from the child's point of view.Sure, wonderful, yes to all of the above. Only "encouraging"? How do you do that without praise or positive reinforcement? And also, that's all fine and dandy until they start hitting other children. How far do you go then in your "autonomy support"?
6. My conclusion
I think the author confuses approval/praise with love. As long as your children are clear you love them all the time, and just as much when they misbehave, there is nothing wrong with praise for good actions, and even the odd punishment or time-out for a bad one, if needed.
7. How about you?
I'd really LOVE to get some opinions on all this. What do you think? All this does not sit easily with me. I hated being a child because someone else was always calling the shots. Now I'm in charge, and I have two inmates at my mercy. I try to be fair and listen to their wishes, but ultimately I'm the boss. I'm a reluctant dictator, though, and I think that's why I'm so susceptible when some idiot comes by who tells me that I'm fucking up my children by telling them they're great. Sorry about the length of this post. This has really been on my mind. Please tell me what you're thinking. Especially if you disagree with me.