Smack In The Middle:
Why My Parenting Has To Change…
And Me With It
Before I had children, I knew parenting would be demanding. I knew (but I didn’t really know) the work would be hard, the hours long, and the financial rewards nonexistent. Before I had children, I knew (but I didn’t really know) that parenting would be rewarding. I knew that laughter would come often, love would flow freely, and that my children would be the best parts of their father and me.
One of my biggest dreams as a parent is to raise my four children to be compassionate, honorable, contributive, creative, and inquisitive (I have a longer list of adjectives, but I’ll stop at five). I think about this quite a bit because the road from bringing home a 2-day-old bundle of joy to sending off a 21-year-old member of society is long.
I recently discovered Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn. I think it will make the list of the top 10 most important books I’ll ever read. Everything I thought I knew about parenting, everything I’ve ever been told or seen has been completely upended.
One of the major themes of Unconditional Parenting is that children do best with unconditional love, respect, and the opportunity to make their own choices. Every parent would say that we love our children unconditionally. We feel it to our very core, but then we turn around and send the message that our love actually is conditional and that our children must earn our approval—for example, by threatening and punishing when children misbehave or by rewarding them when they do what they are told.
Unconditional Parenting is not a guidebook or a book of strategies as much as it is a parenting philosophy, but it is one that is very much in line with what I already believe. I practice a religion that places the highest value on the dignity and preciousness of human life. I say that I respect and value all people, but where it counts most of all—with my children—let’s just say there is room for improvement.
I yell more than I would like to, I punish when I’m angry about missteps, I reward when I’m happy about grades or behavior. I try to control my children’s lives to make things easy and convenient for me. None of my behaviors makes me feel good as a mother. My behavior isn’t going to help me raise compassionate, honorable, contributive, creative, and inquisitive children. Unconditional Parenting is encouraging me to take a look at my parenting practices to make them more cohesive with who I strive to be when I’m not acting in the role of mother.
Kohn advocates a, “working with” approach to raising children rather than a “doing to” approach. The hardest part of implementing this approach is giving up the notion that my children are “wholly-owned subsidiaries” of me that I can control whenever and however I feel like it. As mind-blowing as it is for me to consider “working with” my children, I realize that that’s the approach I take with every other person in the world. Of course, I owe it to my children to give them more than what I give others.
Any parent who is seeking to raise children in a way that runs counter to traditional parenting methods might be interested in this book. It is one that should be read cover-to-cover and with an open mind because it’s really subversive. The tagline on the cover reads: A provocative challenge to the conventional wisdom about discipline. Yet, the book is about far more than discipline. It’s about how we view our children, how we act with them, and how we think about them. These are big things that are worth evaluating.
Most importantly for me, it is encouraging me to see my whole children, not just a snapshot of them or one moment in time. It is helping me take a long-range view of life with them. It is helping me shape truly good people now and in the future.
I’m under no illusions that I will be a gentle and unconditional parent at all times. Just like every other human being, I get angry and frustrated. I can’t promise that from this moment on, my children will never get in the line of my fire. The point isn’t to be a perfect parent raising perfect children. I realize that I will fall short of perfection in a million different ways, but I can be good enough and even a little better. I’ll never stop tapping into my humanity to discover my children’s humanism. I will grapple with the hard questions of parenting. I am willing to make an honest, if sometimes painful, assessment of the actions I take with my children and adjust when necessary.
It’s interesting to me that the work of becoming a better parent is really the work of becoming a better me.
What about you are you using rewards and punishments to control your children’s behavior? Can you practice Alfie Kohn’s theory of unconditional parenting?
Alexis Trass Walker lives in Gary, Indiana, with her husband and four children. She is a writer, a work at home mother, and a new business owner. Read more about Alexis on her blog www.lilliebelle.org, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow her on Twitter @LillieBelle5.