The Point of Parenting

Ages ago I read Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn.  While I don’t adhere to or believe in everything that he wrote, and it is definitely on the ‘a little too extreme’ side, I think that it was worth reading.  And that it has fundamentally changed the way that I look at parenting.  The basic premise that I came away with is that we should raise our kids to know and feel that they are unconditionally loved by us.  Also, that we should parent thoughtfully, and not just using knee-jerk reactions.

So, what is parenting thoughtfully?  For me, I think that it involves actually thinking through what I do with the kids, and what the undertones of what I tell them, restrict them from, and permit them to do says about my values, the values I want for them, and how I feel about them.  When I tell my kid ‘no’, but don’t have a good reason, and expect him to listen, am I instilling in him that he has to listen unquestioningly to authority?  Do I really want that to be how he grows up?

Because of this, I really have changed my parenting.  I’m not perfect, by any means.  I still get frustrated and yell at my kids.  I still put them in time-out–although I do it more mindfully, and using a totally different process than before.   I still deal with typical kid behaviors.  But Kullervo and I spend a lot of time talking about how we want to act and respond in certain situations.  When Oliver backtalks, how do we want to respond?  What about his semi-refusal to use the potty?  How do we feel about him sleeping on the floor instead of his bed (he prefers it most days)?

I think that talking about stuff, even the inane, helps us react better when it comes up again.  And discussing together how we reacted in the moment helps us figure out what we could have done better or wish we had said instead, or what magically worked.  And we’re figuring out that things that worked or that we took for granted with Oliver are totally different with Hazel.  And so we also discuss the ways that we wind up parenting our kids differently from each other.

I want my kids to grow up secure that, no matter what, their parents love them.  My love really isn’t conditional on them being or acting or doing something specific.  When they do things that I don’t like, I want to be supportive.  I want them to know that I don’t like what they do, but I love them, because they’re my kid, and they don’t have to do anything to earn that.  It just is.  Even when I’m pissed off.  Even when they hate me. I think that maybe parenting pays it forward, because I don’t feel like love of a parent is necessarily unconditional–but love of a child should be.

I also want them to grow up with values, values that Kullervo and I think are important.  We’ve been tossing around ideas about the values we want to instill in our kids, and I might start a series of blog posts to get any other feedback in ways to help teach our kids these values, or whether anyone else thinks they’re important, or stupid, or whatever.  The process we’ve been going through is, I think, necessary for us as we grow into different avenues, religiously, but still share a life and a family and a relationship.

So, expect more to come in the future.

11 responses to “The Point of Parenting

  1. “When I tell my kid ‘no’, but don’t have a good reason, and expect him to listen, am I instilling in him that he has to listen unquestioningly to authority?”

    As a parent, versus child, it is up to you whether you explain why “no”. By feeling you must have an explanation you are empowering your child on par with your own authority. Doesn’t sound so bad so far right.

    My wife treated her kids as equals, explaining and negotiating everything. They felt entitled and if the reasoning didn’t meet their standards, hell was to pay, especially as they grew into teens.

    Me, I didn’t explain, I didn’t reason. I taught them through example and trusted them to figure out when to question. My wife thought I was an oger at first. But, when they were scared or wanted help with something, later when they wanted advice, they came to me, every time. They would say no offense mom, but he will teach us how to figure it out, you will tell us what we need to do. Mom thought she was reducing anxiety by giving the answer, not so.

    They needed to feel safe before they needed to be heard. They saw my confidence as a good thing and they viewed their explaning mother as a pushover. Before kids can grow intellectually, becoming independent, I think they need to feel safe.

    Again, that does not mean we pick them up every time they are scared. We teach them how to deal with fear on their own. How, through example. You, touched on a passion of mine.

    A woman and her child are walking in the woods. A wolf appears on the trail. They stop and mom grabs her child, picks her up and says, it’s okay honey. The girl has already established that mom is afraid and doesn’t know what to do. Is she comforted by the words and the hug of her mom, no, she cries while trembling in fear.

    Another woman is confronted with the same wolf. She stands up straight and tells her child to stand behind her. She bends over and grabs up a big stick. The little girl, watching as children do, picks up her own stick. The wolf seeing no fear departs. The mother says you did great honey and the child feels pride and confidence at handling tough situations, she smiles at her mom.

  2. As a parent, versus child, it is up to you whether you explain why “no”. By feeling you must have an explanation you are empowering your child on par with your own authority. Doesn’t sound so bad so far right.

    See, here’s the thing. I don’t treat my kids like they’re my best friend. I am their parent, and I do get to make the decisions about what is acceptable and what isn’t.

    However, if they want an explanation for why I have said no, I like to give them one. I am not negotiating, I am not taking a vote. I prefer the first of the following two conversations:

    “Oliver, get out of the bath.”
    “Why, Mommy? I don’t want to.”
    “Because it’s time for bed.” or “Because you are splashing everything in the bathroom and getting out of control.”


    “Oliver, get out of the bath.”
    “Why, Mommy? I don’t want to.”
    “Just do it.”

    And although I don’t and won’t negotiate every decision, there are times when my reasoning might be faulty. Or, if they know the reason why I said no, or to stop, they can change in the future. Oliver isn’t allowed to have sugary cereal in the morning anymore, and if he asks why, I will tell him that it’s because when he has sugary cereal, he gets hyper and turns into Destructo-boy. So, he then gets to learn problem solving skills–if he wants sugary cereal, he can come to me in a few weeks/months/years/whatever and say, “Hey, Mom. I know I used to get crazy with this cereal, but I’d like to try it again to see if it is any better now.” Now, granted, my three year old isn’t going to come up with this on his own, but that’s not the point of this particular thing.

    Those are the kinds of skills you need in business, at least. It’s way better to approach your boss with a problem and a solution than just a dangling problem. So, when I need time off in the workweek, I can say to my manager, “Hey, I would like to take Thursday and Friday off. I have x, y, and z due on those days, and this is how I plan on getting them done before that, or I think that z could be pushed back til Monday.” Or whatever.

    P.S. The wolf analogy doesn’t seem applicable or relevant to the discussion. And as I don’t venture outside except to get into my car or public transportation, I don’t really have to worry about encountering any wildlife other than the strange people who live below us.

  3. I expected the response I got. Of course to fully explain something as complicated as children it would take tremendous space. I had no way of knowing the particulars of your parenting and commented in accordance with some of my experiences.

    I raised six children, the greatest age difference was two years. If I had tried to explain why it was time to do each thing I asked, to each child, nothing would have gotten done. The kids learned why and, how come, through experience. Explanations were done during dinner. . . There I explained why we did things the way we did and that sometimes we wouldn’t have time to explain.

    The wolf analogy is everyday life. My new wife and her kids started sleeping together when their dad was on the road. When he died they continued. They were afraid of the dark, afraid to be alone, afraid to sleep alone and their mother caved in instead of teaching them the skills to cope themselves. What I was saying is that some of the most important lessons are taught by example or allowing the kids to deal with things themselves. A certain level of respect must be demanded. When kids get to teen age years they will be able to argue effectively any position they stand by. If they don’t respect your bottom line they will be impossible.

    I was not endorsing breaking their spirit, but nurturing it step by step.

  4. What happens when your child learns that hyperactive behavior and sugary cereal have no relationship? Studies show that this is myth. What happens when your child is working for a person, who being the boss, decides she will not take time from her day to explain why she gave an order? She has two hundred employees and cannot explain every intricacy, and when your child demands to know why, used to getting an explanation, the boss says you are fired!
    I applaud parenting with thought, but talking is way overrated. Mankinds most basic behaviors are taught by non-verbal cues. Truth, is what they see, what they hear is always tempered by what they see. Don’t smoke honey, I only do it because I was stupid when I was young. But do you look ashamed while smoking? No! The child believes what they see, not what you say or explain. I don’t think I missed your point at all. I think you missed mine. I agree with your premise, but disagree with the practice you endorse. Example should come first and explanations when you decide they are needed.

  5. Pelagian, you still are not understanding me.

    I did not say that every time I say no to my toddlers, I then give them a 10 minute explanation for why. If I can give an explanation, and if it is practical to do so, I do. I am not negotiating with them at every turn, but explaining myself. I think it’s useful because it helps me make sure that I’m not just being arbitrary in all of my parenting decisions, and if I am, that I realize that.

    What happens when your child learns that hyperactive behavior and sugary cereal have no relationship?
    1. If being wired all morning has nothing to do with sugary cereal, then I may have no problem with letting my children eat it.
    2. If I don’t want my kids eating sugary cereal because other cereal is healthier, I can explain that.
    3. Studies can show whatever they want, every parent with little kids knows otherwise.

    What happens when your child is working for a person, who being the boss, decides she will not take time from her day to explain why she gave an order?
    1. If my kid is working for the kind of people who always refuse to give an explanation for any decision, then it’s a crappy job and they should find a better one.
    2. I am not teaching my kids that they always get an explanation and they always get it right when they ask. But I do want to teach them that I try to always have good explanations, and that I don’t want to just arbitrarily say no because no is easier for me. This aspect of parenting is less about my kids, and more about me not being selfish. If I am unwilling to take the time to parent my kids, to be there for them, to answer their questions, how can I possibly expect that anyone else in the world will either?
    3. Kids learn that the world isn’t fair, that everything doesn’t come to you on a golden platter, that sometimes the answer is no. We have to say no often enough; I see no reason to say no arbitrarily just so that they learn that sometimes life ain’t fair.

    talking is way overrated
    Um, seriously? Talking to my children, teaching them that verbal skills, written and oral, matter, is overrated? I am a person who values language. I love talking. I love writing. I love puns.

    Don’t smoke honey
    I bet smoking honey would be gross. I wouldn’t know, because I haven’t ever smoked anything.
    Oh, and see–written skills do matter. As does punctuation.
    Also, I don’t know why you assume that I am acting differently than what I am saying. When I tell my kid, ‘No, don’t run into the road. You could get hit by a car,’ I am not them running into the road myself. When I say, ‘No, we have to buckle our seatbelts in the car; it’s the law,’ I am not then riding unbuckled.

    Finally, I am not endorsing any practice. I am simply stating what I am trying to do in my parenting. Disagree if you want–people will always disagree about something. Want something else to think I’m doing wrong? I breastfeed my 19 month old daughter. I think C-sections are awesome and would never, ever, ever try for a vaginal delivery. I’m a fan of Jesus, but supportive and tolerant of other religions and belief systems. I dye my hair. I sing Britney Spears in the car. I’m a working mother. When my kids say swear words, I think it’s funny. I am proud of all of these facets of me, and I don’t care what anyone by my family and my god thinks about it.

    Seriously, if you’re going to keep commenting and judging my on my blog when you are totally not getting it–keep your comments to yourself.

  6. So what’s your preferred response with the backtalk? We’ve just started that joy of joys.

    Argh! Backtalk! Oliver has gotten quite precocious. The only benefit I see to it is that he knows what the word precocious is, and it’s a big word for a little kid to know.

    We try different stuff to see what works and what doesn’t, and if something works, we stick with it. Time outs for backtalk work sometimes. We just started something new today–Oliver has a ton of Matchbox/Hot Wheels cars. He left them out when I had asked him to put them away, so I took them all and put them in a tupperware. He can get them back when we think he ought to get a special treat (like, not wetting his Pull Up all night, or being especially kind to his sister, or if he tries a new kind of food at dinner, or whatever things he’s generally struggled with). And we’ve told him that he’s going to have to put a car in the Car Jar when he backtalks, when he doesn’t clean up his toys, etc.

    I don’t know if it’s going to work yet. And I’m going to put up a post about how we’re doing time out, because I think it warrants its own post.

  7. Pingback: Time Out for Oliver « Mommy CPA

  8. I’m shocked you ask. I had little trouble with back talk because (maybe) I didn’t engage it. “Pick up your toys”. [he doesn’t and may argue] I do not engage this type of backtalk, I pick up the toys, without a word and put them away, and then return them only when they have met my expectations. Backtalk stops very quick when they see consistent results dictated by their behavior.

    Crying because they hear ‘no’ is ignored. I’ve watched from around a corner (where they couldn’t see me) and when they realized nobody was listening, the hysterical sobbing ceased almost immediately. So were they really devestated or manipulating?

    And please don’t be offended, I don’t know you, so I can merely speak in general terms. For the most part I agree with your philosophy. You may think the following weird but it is often so true. Ceasar Milan, of Dog Whisper fame, establishes dominance before teaching. Yes, they are dogs, but this philosophy works miracles with children too.

    Kids believe what they see and experience. So, even explaining, no matter what it is, teaches them to expect explanation. My cautions are not exclusionary, merely reminders that our wonderful children pick up on way more than we think we tell them. I would not reward no bed wetting, some of that is beyond their control. But earning back toys is sound. However, kids will make a game of this too, by sacrificing things they were bored with anyways.

    They are so smart, kids have exponentially more brain cells than us. They begin to diminish after about age two when those cells used most often dominate. I say this, don’t feel guilty or obligated, parenting is hard enough so rather than worry about appearances, do what is right. John7 13-26

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