Thus far, I think I’ve only mentioned this in passing — (drum roll, please) — Natalie and I do not use any praise with our girls, nor any punishment. Recent themes of the parenting blogosphere remind me that this is considered ludicrous. So I don’t fool myself with romantic notions of leading a parenting revolution (just yet). I do, however, think that I will stay “ludicrous” on this one.
I don’t know “everything there is to know”, but I know enough about punishment and praise to know that neither are of real service to my children or to the relationship I share with them. I have lots of reasons for that, but the short list is basic:
- Praise and punishment don’t really work for what I want for my kids
- Using either of them means that I am not modeling what I want my kids to actually do.
- Both are completely unnecessary for what I hope to accomplish in parenting my kids, and likely even damaging.
If I wanted different things for my three daughters, then maybe I would consider using punishment or praise with them. It just so happens that the list of things I want for them as they grow into adults — things like: honesty, integrity, self-assurance, compassion, emotional intelligence, courage, creativity, passion for life, interest in exploration, and belief in their capabilities — aren’t nurtured by praise or punishment. There is also solid evidence that both can actually impede the healthy development of all the items on the list above, as well as impeding self-motivation, trust in the parent(s), willingness to try new things, general enjoyment of activities, happiness, success, intelligence, proper motor skill development, potty training, and even “proper behavior”. As it turns out, whether you are praising them for everything from burping to writing their college thesis, and/or punishing them for everything from burping to smoking crack, both tend to be minimally effective at manifesting a reproduction of the preferred behavior at first, and both are less so with time (thereby necessitating perpetual escalation on the part of the praiser/punisher). Not to mention that the clearest message our kids get from our actions when we use praise or punishment, is that getting what one wants in life means using manipulation.
So if neither is in line with what I want for my children, and both may actually impede what I want for them (and the development of other equally important traits, life experiences, etc.), and both send the wrong message about how to proceed in life, and they don’t even control the behavior they were set up to control, then why in the heck would I use praise or punishment? I’ll let you in on a little secret as well, although I am a rather precise man, and although I really do prefer that my children do what I would prefer to have done a lot of the time, I don’t care enough about making my children do just exactly whatever I say to even approach parenting them from that angle. What interests me more in my interactions with them is relating with them.
Don’t mistake me. I’m not out to be my kids’ “buddy” — though I do have a metric ton of fun with them, I am still clearly the parent. But I don’t have to be “the parent” by virtue of making my kids afraid of me, or by saying “Good girl” or “good job” every time they move. Parenting my children is much more about being with them as they embark on the journey of their own lives; helping them to find the right maps, collect the right tools, build a solid vessel; and more about showing them how things work, and what options there are; giving them ample opportunities to explore it all and make their own assessments; and making absolutely certain that they have at least one place and time in their lives wherein someone takes them absolutely seriously, supports them without question, loves them without condition, and isn’t trying to control them with every single interaction. I want more than anything for them to know how that feels.
So… “don’t praise, don’t punish — what do you do?” (Isn’t that an Adam Ant song?)
Well, it so happens that we actually do a whole lot instead. And again that is in part because controlling behavior is not our focus and because loving and enjoying relating with our children and helping them to grow into healthy adults is.
- To start off with, we do more than your average amount of just watching and celebrating what our girls are doing, what they’re into, making, being, pretending, and/or performing. Just watching (without slathering on some buttery praise to encourage the behaviour) is usually enough to let them know we care about what they’re doing.
- When they do something they enjoy, we focus our comments (if we make any) around their feelings and enjoyment — not praising them but noticing them. We may use phrases like, “I see you… (running, or writing your name, etc.),” and “Is that so much fun for you?” But we won’t call any of them “good girl” for doing any particular action.
- When they do something we like, we let them know we appreciate it, and why, instead of praising them or giving them rewards. Again, we don’t want their “goodness” to be linked with what they do so much as with who they are, so we keep actions and goodness separate in this context.
- When we want our girls to do something, we first consider our own request(s) — whether or not it makes since to even ask for it in the first place — then we ask them politely: “Will you please…”; then if necessary we answer their questions about the request; reiterate: negotiate; and/or wait.
- We also give our girls oceans of information. I’ve said this before, but we give them information about everything that happens to them in their lives — whether it be what we are planning to do in five minutes, or what life would be like on Mars, or why humans like to be thanked. So, for instance, before we ask them to put on the shoes and coats they use, they will have heard at least a few references to our impending exodus from the house, including probably a ten and two minute notice about our departure.
- When they don’t do what we want, we ask questions, listen, and discuss. We may re-negotiate and/or re-reiterate. We will do this as long as it takes to come to a mutual understanding.
- When they do what we don’t want (which is different from the above), we ask questions, listen and discuss. We may let them know we didn’t like it, negotiate, and/or make a request. What we won’t do is punish them, or threaten them, or any other action that we don’t want to model for them — i.e. anything we don’t want them to do when dealing with others. So for example, when Echo runs off with something with which Bella was playing, we don’t run over and yank it right back from her (thus proving the soundness of her method) — that would be counterproductive (not to mention dumb), right?
- If they knew we didn’t want them to do it, but did it anyway, we will still ask questions, listen, and discuss. (You may want to do the last one most, but you really don’t want to skip the first two, as they are more important to your relationship with your children.) If there are potential/impending consequences from their action(s), we may let those play out (as long as everyone is safe). If there is more information they need, and/or another request we want to make, we will follow up.
- When they don’t want us to do what we are doing (and often by proxy “making them” do) we give them lots of very genuine empathy. We acknowledge that they wanted something else, or that they had an uncomfortable feeling about what happened, or that they didn’t like it. We may not change what we are doing (like leaving the park) but we at least make time and space for them to have whatever feeling they have about it.
Big proponents of the two P’s may want to say we are being permissive, or that we must have lawless kids, but I can guarantee you, our kids are more closely monitored than the majority of children you know, and more likely to be considered “good” than most of their peers. That’s because the actions we all attribute to being “good” don’t need to be instilled with praise or punishment, and abstaining from the two P’s neither prescribes permissiveness, nor ensures lawlessness. “Good” or “morally right” or “compassionate” actions all come from seeing them done, experiencing them fully, learning about why they are considered such, and having a properly developed emotional intelligence. Period.
So we don’t use these two mainstays of modern parenting. In fact, we avoid them like the plague. And we don’t see any need to reconsider. We may not have the world’s most obedient kids, but we don’t want them to be simply “obedient” when they are adults — we want them to think for themselves and go with what feels right for them — so we have to prepare for that now. If we wanted sheep, we’d raise sheep. But we want strong, tender, compassionate, self-realized, powerful, courageous, empathic humans, so that’s what we’re raising.
How about you?