13 December 2009

unconditional parenting

I always think that everyone parents their kids the same way I do. That is, until I am confronted with a "time out."  Now even my son gives his toys "time outs." What's a mom to do?

A while back I sent an email to our "neighborhood moms" yahoo group asking if anyone else was AP'ing their kids, and if yes, would they want to get together to support each other.  I got one response.  The mom even told me I was brave for asking the group such a question.

That was two years ago, and I have definitely seen a shift in our neighborhood away from the Ferber-Brazelton-Super Nanny schools of parenting. There are women doing EC with their four-month old babes, baby-wearers here and there, and lots of extended breastfeeding. All things to be really happy about. But reading an article in the NYT a few weeks ago, I was reminded that everyone is not as progressive as I'd like to believe.

The article was on unconditional parenting, written by alfie kohn, titled to draw readers in: When a Parent’s ‘I Love You’ Means ‘Do as I Say’, with a follow up on the Times' parenting blog: Punishing Children With Love. These articles are mostly excerpted from his book Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason. I've read Kohn's book twice now, and am working to incorporate his principals into my parenting relationship with Diego. For those of you who haven't read his book, it's out there. Way out there. But, as a Buddhist (or some semblance of one...), I find his approach compassionate, reasoned, and respectful. It is also confronting. It is hard to challenge your long-held assumptions, accept that you might not be right, and then try things differently.

The premise of the book is that parenting based on punishments and/or rewards tells kids that we love them when they conform to our notion of how they should be. It makes perfect sense. It resonates with my own childhood. I certainly felt that my own parents' love was conditional - even though they told me it wasn't. But the old adage is right - actions do speak louder than words.  The book suggests that children should have a say in their lives, that decisions can be shared, and that there doesn't always have to be a winner.

I have worked hard to be a more conscious parent. To speak instead of yell (I've got a pretty long fuse...). To know that when Diego and I both want something - but not the same something - that there is a way for both of us to have our needs met. It is hard. To be this present takes a lot of effort.  Especially when you have a child with special needs. I'll admit, I am not consistent. Sometimes the only thing that will snap my kid out of his world is a "DIEGO!"  But, when I lose my temper and use words that I regret, I apologize to my child. Just as he apologizes to me when he says something that hurts my feelings. It's a give and take. And I hope that I am modeling behavior that he will carry with him through life. Respect others. Apologize when you hurt someone. Make amends.

Reading the comments in response to Kohn's articles in the TImes, it is clear just how confronted people are by the notion of giving up some of their parental power. Responses ranged from authoritarian to downright absurd.  I read many comments, some mocking - some genuine, asking Kohn if you could say "no" when your child was doing something dangerous, like walking out into traffic.  These are the people that probably should not have reproduced.  Even the most laissez-faire of parents (though that is not who Kohn is) know that when your child is is danger, you tell them "stop!" How else will they make it to adulthood? The amount of ridiculous comments Kohn received tells me that 1. we have a lot of folks out there that should not be parents, and 2. there are lots of unfulfilled parents taking out their impotence on their kids.

That aside, I struggle with how to parent in this way when my kid needs more structure. Excessive structure. How do I reconcile the amorphous nature of Kohn's approach with Diego's need for organization, routine, and sometimes strict boundaries. Can I give him that structure in a non-authoritarian way? It's something I've only recently had to start thinking about, but I am determined to find my way. Stay tuned...

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