Is the Art of Parenting Lost?

I have regular conversations with people who are seeking my advice on parenting, something I have grown accustomed to over the last 14 years (hard to believe I was teaching parenting before I had children of my own, but alas, I was…).  That doesn't surprise me anymore, but what does continue to surprise me is that the definition of parenting (not to mention the execution of it) seriously seems to be lost.

The misconception I see the most is that parenting is just a mixture of supervision and discipline – perhaps sprinkled with a healthy dose of ‘eat your vegetables’ and ‘take your medicine’.  But that’s not parenting.

Parenting is not supervision alone.  Parenting is not discipline alone.  Parenting is not simply giving rules and enforcing them.  Parenting is what happens in between rules and discipline.

Let me explain.

Most people parent the way their parents parented them (for better or worse) which is usually a Behavioral based model of parenting.  It works, loosely, like this:

If you like your child’s behavior – reward it.
If you don’t like your child’s behavior – punish it.
Up the ante on both rewards and punishments until you have achieved the behavior you want.

Does this sound familiar?  Here’s an example in case you are unsure if you fit into this group:

Nick isn’t doing his homework after school.  He would rather play with his friends, or be on the computer, or just listen to his iPod.  So, his homework isn’t getting done, and he is behind in school. 

You walk in his room, “Nick, you need to do your homework.  Put your iPod away.”
You leave. 
You return in 30 minutes, “Nick, I said it is time to do your homework.  Put away your iPod and get your books out NOW.”
You leave.
You return in 30 minutes, “NICK!  I told you to do your homework NOW!”

Parents that fit into the Behavioral based parenting model usually start down one of two paths now:

“Nick, if you don’t do your homework right now, I’m taking your iPod.”  You can substitute the iPod consequence with anything – you won’t get dessert, you won’t get to play with Luke, you will have to go to bed early, you will have to stay in your room until it is done, you won’t get to go to the football game on Friday, etc.


“Nick, if you do your homework before dinner, I will give you 5 bucks.”  You can substitute the 5 dollar reward with anything too – you can watch your favorite show tonight, I’ll take you out to dinner, you don’t have to clean your room, you can play extra video games, etc.

Both the punishment and reward offers are an attempt to alter the child’s behavior – in this case make him do his homework.  Even if you accomplish motivating your child with a threat or a bribe, the reality is that this isn’t an effective way to CHANGE anyone’s behavior, and definitively not long term. 

Let’s assume you agree that there is no need to punish or bribe your child if it isn’t changing the root cause of the behavior, yes?  Because that solution doesn’t teach your child the skills necessary to be self-motivated, organized, and independent – all things needed to complete homework without daily intervention – which is the goal.  Well, unless you want to spend evenings checking on your son every 30 minutes and coming up with new creative ways to punish him.  What?  You don’t want to do that?  I didn’t think so.

The above scenario, one that plays out in households all across the nation and is probably happening as we speak,  is the most common misconception in parenting that I come across – moms and dads using the Behavioral style of parenting in a misguided attempt to force their children into compliance without a single moment of teaching. 

And let’s note that constantly punishing your child for expectations of yours that he/she doesn’t meet, while not doing a single thing to teach your child how to, simply ruins their self-esteem – making them feel dumb, or stupid, or like they are constantly letting you down – enter bad behavior such as meltdowns, defiance, and worse (especially if we are talking about kids in the teenage years. *sigh*).

Ok, remember when I said parenting isn’t supervising and disciplining, parenting actually occurs in between those two things?  If you are just telling your child what to do, then following up with consequences, you aren’t parenting. 

Now you can use the Behavioral model of parenting, especially if you have a typically developing child, and it can work.  Sometimes.  But if you have a child like mine, who has some skill deficits, or is wired differently, or has a gifted IQ (*cough* argumentative), then this style of parenting is much like banging your head against a brick wall every day and then complaining of a headache every night. 

Now you’re asking, What is Parenting?  Good, glad we are on the same page!

Parenting is the process by which we teach our children the skills necessary to succeed – not just academically or socially, but everything they will need to become independent, productive adults (that move out, live on their own, and forge their own way).  So let’s talk about THAT.

I follow the Collaborative Problem Solving approach to parenting, something that many people rely on for solving problems, but I have truly adapted this approach to the way I talk to, work with, support, and parent, all three of my children. 

The basis of this approach, that I’m sure you’ve read from me before, is Dr. Greene’s saying, “Children do well when they CAN, not when they WANT to.”

So let’s start there, and go back to the above scenario with Nick and his homework, so I can illustrate where the parenting comes into play.

Setting the expectation with Nick that his homework is to be done, daily, is the first step.  The next step starts with asking him about how we can make that happen, because getting his homework done is required, but how, when, and where, are all things I am less concerned about – but I assure you Nick is.  Listening to Nick’s ideas, thoughts, and concerns about homework, is a way for me to support our communication (Because if you don’t listen to the little things your kids have to say, they won’t ever tell you about the big things, guaranteed).

I hear from Nick, through empathetic listening and reflection that he needs some down time when he gets home to regroup before starting on his homework.  I also hear him say he is hungry when he gets home (needs snack immediately), has a hard time concentrating downstairs with his brothers jibber-jabbering and the TV on, but also doesn’t like being alone upstairs in his room where it is too quiet and he feels punished, and lastly that he really wants to play football with his friends in the culdesac when he gets off the bus (more important during football season and when the sun is out).

We can work with all of those things. 

I begin by setting a routine, one that Nick and I can both agree too, that allows for exceptions like playing football, by approved request, and looks something like this:

*Get off the bus
*Hang up backpack, take off shoes, wash hands
*Eat snack
*30-45 mins of down time (no TV)
*Homework begins at 4:30 and is to be done by dinner at 6:00
*Any time after homework is done is free time for Nick

By doing this I am teaching him to be organized, that homework is a priority (our motto:  do what you have to do so you can do what you want to do), but that his needs and feelings are important too.  I want to work within what works for him, not attempt to simply push my will onto him the moment he walks in the door – that just creates a power struggle (and you don’t need more power over your child than what is necessary to keep him/her safe; they must learn to make their own choices).

Now a routine and a plan aren’t going to magically make Nick want to do his homework.  But, it does give us a schedule to follow, which is part of being self-motivated and independent.  We manage the challenges with distraction by allowing him to work in his room, with music if he wants, and allow for a large window of time to accomplish his homework – meaning he can get up, move around, grab another snack, or simply have room to breathe.  Often times the pressure of doing homework with no end in sight is overwhelming in and of itself. 

The point here is that I have to work with my child, acknowledge his needs, understand his challenges, and finding solutions that set him up for success and teach him the skills he needs to perform without me present (*cough* giving him bribes and threats).  That’s parenting.

I think we have forgotten our children don’t come pre-programmed, already having mastered the skills they need to succeed.  That's our job.  We are here to teach them, guide them, and yes make rules and enforce them, but not without giving them the tools to do so.

I hope parenting isn’t a lost art, but in case it is, remember this:

Raising kids is hard work.
Sitting back and supervising their mistakes then dolling out punishments is easy. 

So, if that’s what you’re doing, maybe it’s a sign you’re missing something….  :-)


Stacey said...

Great post! Thank you. I may have to borrow your motto: do what you have to do so you can do what you want to do. Love it!

Addie K said...

This is great Hartley! I am all for minimizing and rerouteing the reward/punishment cycle I see with many (struggling) parents as well. Have you read Alfie Kohn's "Punished by Rewards" and other articles/books, great stuff.

Coopersmommy said...

Do you know of any groups that meet in the seattle or north Seattle area. I live in Skagit county and my son was just diagnosed with SPD. Would love to know if there are any groups and when any seminars come to our area.

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