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Rethinking Parenting Is Hard!

Posted on Mar 26, 2014 by

Rethinking Parenting

Our many approaches to parenting are based on something deep down.  Words come to us from the times and places and people that molded us.  As we often lament, “There is no instruction book for parents.”  True, but even if we took one home to read, most of us would still parent the way we were parented without even realizing it.  It takes great strength and almost super human desire to change our instinctual and almost sacred parenting styles.

There are Parenting Myths out there that are rarely, if ever questioned.  Even if science says, “It isn’t so!” we will not change our core belief unless…we can really hear this sentence:  There are things that the best intentioned adults have been doing to children for generations that not only don’t work very well, they can be harmful.  

While there is no formula for how to handle every situation, there is a mindset.  A general idea about parenting that puts your relationship with your child before their obedience.  It sees misbehavior as a message that needs to be understood, not punished.  Before jumping in to figure out how to get children to do what we want, take time to think if our requests are really necessary.  Is it our need or theirs?

This brings us to…

Myth 1:  “Time Out” improves behavior.

Time out is a technique that many parents and other adults use in one form or another to teach children what behavior is not acceptable.  Removing a child from an activity or space to be alone to “think about it” for a set period of time is intended to be a logical consequence for unwanted behavior.

When the threat or warning of Time Out is put in play,  it prevents a child from learning the lesson they desperately need.  For instance, if your child continues to take toys away from a playmate and you tell them they will have to have a Time Out if they do it again, any hope of developing kind or empathetic feelings for their friend disappears.  Their thoughts turn to Time Out.

Of course, once sitting on a lonely chair or in their room, a child is rarely thinking about their poor choice and how they will do better next time.  Instead they are thinking about how mad they are that they are being forced to sit in Time Out, and sometimes it creates a whole new struggle called, “You can’t make me!”  That’s why Time Out sometimes can work to create a temporary improvement, but long term gains are unlikely. Time Out is about power and control, not teaching.

If  however, you can make Time Out less about controlling your child and more about using it as a personal tool for rebooting and calming, it can be more useful.  It is  better to allow the child to decide when they are ready to rejoin the activity rather than set a timer or have you arbitrarily decide to end it when you are calm again.  Keep your child with you rather than banish them to a set “spot.”  Help them understand the problem from other points of view.  It takes more time and thought.  Sorry about that.

What’s the harm though?  A child reads the message of Time Out as a message that they are not loved when they don’t behave.  I know, that’s not what we are trying to say, but that’s what they feel.  What they think we are saying is what matters.

Myth 2:  Rewards build self-esteem.

This one takes some deep thought.   When you first hear from research that people who do something to get a reward tend to do it less well and typically lose interest in the task itself, it is probably hard to believe.  It was hard for me too, until I started to think back to a few times when I was young.  Not my finest moments, but they were human.

One time the neighborhood Baptist Church had a Summer Vacation Bible Camp.  All were welcome to join the fun week of activities, meet new friends, and learn about God.  It was fun, and I met new friends and I think I learned about God.  What I mainly remember was that they had a contest to win ribbons for memorizing Bible verses.  All of the ribbons were nice, but the biggest ribbon of all said “Superior” on it and it was rainbow colored.  I had to have it.  The blue ribbon would not do.

My mother was a little perplexed with my obsession to memorize 100 verses by a certain date.  She sat and helped me anyway, checked off the form, and I was the only camper who received that rainbow ribbon.  I sure remember the ribbon, but not one of the verses (let alone the meaning behind any of them).  It was similar with Girl Scout badges.  I did what it took to get the cool looking badges, and I remember looking for the “easiest” ones to complete.

A child’s motivation to learn anything meaningfully or difficult can be squashed by rewards.  Rewards can be anything from stickers, ribbons, money, grades, or even a “Good Job!”  Every time parents or other adults praise or reward children, they are telling them how they should feel about what they did, and that they receive more love and approval for different behaviors. Rewards are actually another way to control children.

When a child gets a lot of attention for good grades, winning the game, or even for an act of kindness, their goal becomes pleasing and acknowledgement rather than the behavior.  It is less likely that child will choose any hard elective classes in the future that would jeopardize their GPA.  Studies also show that children who are offered a reward for generosity usually become less generous.  Why?  It no longer comes from within.  Now it’s an expectation that is viewed as unpleasant.

What’s the harm though?  Research has shown that rewarding children can have the opposite result that parents hope for when they shower their children with affection and approval for performance.  Children grow to be teens and adults who are afraid of letting parents down, are unsure of their worth, and are fearful of failing.  They deliberately stop trying in order to save face.  Rewards can backfire in a long lasting and destructive way.

Myth 3:  Consistency is the key to good parenting.

Consistency is critical for enforcing rules and maintaining control.  Some think that’s the definition of parenting, and there is definitely a thread of truth to the fact that children appreciate it and relax when they know (and hopefully agree with) family rules and routines.  Parenting is more than managing behavior through punishments and rewards, though.  It’s more than getting children to jump through the daily hoops of homework, fights with their sister, and pajamas.

The bigger questions are: 

  • What are the long term goals for your children?  Think of those goals daily.  Before you open your mouth with a word of praise or choose a shortcut to obedience.  Raise deep thinkers and collaborators by showing them how it’s done.
  • Why do you have  so many rules?  Try to say “Yes!” as many times a day as you can to your child.  Save your “No!” for when it’s in their best interest, not yours.
  • Do you allow your children input?  Listen, compromise, bend.  Your children will learn to do the same.

Parenting is a Higher Calling

No parent has it easy. There is no approach that saves us from frustration, running out of patience, or self doubt.  There is always a fear of doing too much or too little.  The middle isn’t even good if we are just trying to make bad ideas a little less bad.  Time Out without a timer.  Control in the form of sugar-coated praise.  Too many rules without good reasons.

Parents who decline to punish or reward their children are not hands off or neglectful.  They actually commit to deeper more respectful involvement.  We can all find ways to move toward a more active and supportive role in the lives of children in order to help them learn right from wrong.  Some say it’s idealistic and won’t help them navigate the real world full of rules and consequences, but…

Imagine stepping out into the world and knowing there was a difference…




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