Unconditionally

I have read a lot of parenting books. Well actually I have started reading a lot, most of them I struggle to get past the first chapter, and most of them wind me right up before I get past the first paragraph. Anyone who thinks there is A right way to parent is just deluded in my opinion. There are only two parenting books that o have truly loved. Firstly ‘What Mother’s Do, Especially When it Looks Like Nothing’ by Naomi Stadlen, because it didn’t tell me how to do anything, it just told me that whatever I was doing, it was ok. I was doing ok. That book got me through some pretty rough times as a new mum.

The other book, is ‘Unconditional Parenting’ by Alfie Kohn. Now this book really resonated with me. My parents had been extremely motivated by academic success, this was supremely important to them, and both me and my brother felt under huge pressure to achieve. My brother, who is hugely intelligent, seemed to respond to this by deliberately sabotaging himself so that he couldn’t be blamed for not meeting their unreasonable expectations. I went the opposite direction and worked myself into the ground, desperate for the tiniest bit of approval. Leaving me as an extremely insecure adult who is always trying to people please above meeting my own needs. Neither of those feel like hugely healthy outcomes.

Alfie Kohn puts forward the idea of Unconditional Parenting, where there are no punishments for bad behaviour, and no rewards for good behaviour either. I have talked about my dislike of discipline before, and we try to avoid all punishments. That is absolutely not the same as letting them do whatever they want. We have clear expectations and boundaries, structures of activities built into our days. These are all discussed and explained to our children regularly, and when they do something that we don’t approve of, we stop them. We just don’t punish them.

It all sounds rather idealistic and it totally doesn’t work out that way all the time. Yes, I totally lose my shit and scream at them sometimes. Yes, our daughter had her TV privileges taken away this weekend after a run of horrendous bedtimes. Yes, her behaviour at bedtime has been loads better since then. I guess it’s just we try to stop that pattern from being our default parenting style.

Anyway, lots of people I think can understand the idea of not overly focusing on and punishing bad behaviour. I’ve heard lots of people recommend ignoring bad behaviour and really rewarding good behaviour instead. There is an entire industry behind the concept of sticker charts, giving children stickers every time they wee on the potty or brush their teeth or say thank you. Then, when they have enough stickers they get some treat. There are parents everywhere saying “Good Job” enthusiastically every time their child does anything that they want them to do. I totally understand this, and I do still find myself congratulating and cheering my kids on on a regular basis.

Alfie Kohn says that we should stop with all the praise. He thinks it makes children become extrinsically motivated, only happy to perform a task when they get praise or rewards afterwards. They lose the desire to do something just for the pleasure of doing it, and actually become less likely to perform that positive action that you want them to do, than if you’d just left them to get on with it in the first place. Just as with punishments, they need to become increasingly severe to keep the bad behaviour to stop, eventually getting to the point where there is no punishment seen as bad enough to prevent it, so the rewards and praise need to increase also.

Yesterday, on a walk, my daughter was climbing up a tree and then jumping down to the ground. The first time, you could tell she really wanted to do it, but was scared. To try and encourage her I made a big fuss of how she could do it, and when she jumped I cheered her on. The next time she was braver and jumped with little hesitation, saying as she landed “I knew I could do it.” The third time, after she landed she asked me why I hadn’t said “Yay” when she jumped. After that with each jump, our celebrations became more effusive with whoops and cheers and claps. It became clear that she was jumping for the cheers and not the initial excitement of the jump itself, the motivation of challenging herself and achieving.

So, whilst it obviously came as a big mind shift, and as I’ve just shown I really don’t always manage it, but I try not to reward and praise my children for their achievements or their good behaviour. Instead I spend lots of time telling them how amazing they are and how much I love them, but I try to praise their intrinsic personality and characteristics, rather than their outward actions. I tell them that I love them whatever they do, and I really try to live by that, however many times I get it wrong.

My daughter is rapidly approaching the end of her first year at school. I won’t lie, I was pretty terrified about her starting. She seemed such a delicate, scared little thing, she did not seem ready at all. She had very much been protected by us, and her amazingly nurturing preschool who had very much let her by herself. A bit of an oddball, totally in her own world, not really ready to engage with anybody else, even us a lot of the time it felt. We had hoped to delay school and keep her at her magical preschool for an extra year, but after talks with her school that just became too hard a course of action, and we decided, against our better judgement, to just go for it, very much with the proviso we would pull her out if we were unhappy with it at all.

It really has been the most incredible success, and she has blossomed in ways I could never have imagined. She loves school and has grown in confidence to a point I can’t really believe. She is an introvert, and is very happy in her own company, but she is now enthusiastic to invite loved people into that world of hers, keen to share it with th people she chooses. She has gone from the point where she had to sit facing the opposite direction whilst her grandmother read her a story, to sitting outside the house, desperate for her car to arrive around the corner, so she can immediately take her by the hand and tell her all about the exciting things in her world. It has been the greatest joy seeing this happen.

Her school, one that had an appalling reputation, have been amazing with her. She has had a number of lovely teachers and assistants and dinner ladies, who seem to have all taken the time to really get to know her and value her for herself. They don’t seem to have tried to make her anything other than the best version of exactly who she is.

She got her first ever school report this week. She went from having been behind in every single aspect of the preschool curriculum, to now being on target for almost everything, and even exceeding in around half the categories. That wasn’t what really struck me about her report though, and certainly wasn’t what I was most proud of. It was the comments. That she liked receiving praise, but would never actively seek it. That she was intrinsically motivated. That the end result didn’t seem to matter to her much, but that she learnt from and enjoyed the process. That she was really interested in learning new things. It was lovely to see that all those things that I have really been hoping for her, that they really start to be happening now. And it’s so amazing that her school seem to be allowing her to be exactly who she is, and appreciating her for that.

I still struggle with how my own upbringing has influenced my internal reward and motivation system. Each week there is an outstanding worker of the week, a certificate given out in assembly. My daughter has never won it. I think pretty much every other child in her class has won it at some point. Every week it’s the first thing I check in the newsletter, who won outstanding worker. And every week I find myself feeling sad and sometimes a little bitter. I think, can’t they see what huge progress our amazing little girl has made??? Surely she deserves some recognition. And I have to remind myself, that she couldn’t care less. She has never been at all interested, or shown any desire to win it or any sadness that she hasn’t. Part of me suspects that’s part of why she hasn’t won, that her teachers know it wouldn’t make the tiniest impact on her. She doesn’t need it, and I suppose, that should make me prouder than any certificate ever could.

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