Last week a father of three wrote to me after reading a blog advocating the avoidance of reward- and punishment-based communication with children. He said:
“I think that it is impossible to avoid rewarding and punishing. I think that is a fundamental part of human experience, intentional or not. I think that done compassionately, correction and teaching is healthy and need not demolish autonomy and self-esteem. I can’t imagine not correcting, teaching, etc, my children at some points during our relationship. I think that some degree of teaching and doing for are necessary given that children are not fully formed, innately capable, autonomous people.”
His letter touched on so many of the points that parents struggle with. When I carefully consider his statement, what really stands out to me is a parental fear of not providing a child with every possible opportunity to learn. Parents, rightfully so, feel that it is their duty to teach their children about the world, about relationships, about life and that this teaching must be tangible, concrete and direct. There is no doubt that children learn from their parents. There is no doubt that how a parent responds to a child teaches them about the world. But what our collective thinking seems to be opening up to more and more is the idea that what a parent teaches through reward and punishment is a small and much less poignant part of a child’s learning experience. What parents, educators, psychologists, researchers and writers are figuring out is that children are innate learners, who learn by experience and that our old ideas of shaping children’s behavior through externally driven rewards and punishments (while moderately successful in cajoling a child into shaping their behavior in that moment) did little for helping them develop the life skills we really want for them: empathy, self-awareness, decision making, morality, cognitive flexibility….
These gifts to our children don’t come out of lectures or sticker programs or time-outs. They don’t come from telling our children how to do something or why they should do it or when it should happen. These are not discrete units of information that we can explain and have them commit to long-term memory. Rather they are higher-level brain functions that require repeated and practiced complex interactions between our children and their world. When children are allowed to really interact with their world, magic happens. We can’t simply “teach” it. We can however, support our children in experiencing it. As I think about this distinction, I notice each point the parent highlighted in his email:
“I think that it is impossible to avoid rewarding and punishing. I think that is a fundamental part of human experience, intentional or not.”
Absolutely true! For every action there is a reaction. Some are positive, some are negative. We learn to interact with the world through a series of these experiences. Essentially, these are Natural Consequences. When I hit another child, a negative thing happens. The other child cries and hits me back. Natural consequence. When I don’t wear a jacket on a snowy day, I get cold. Natural consequence. If I don’t eat a meal, I notice I get very hungry and can’t focus on my homework. Natural consequence. When I offer a toy to my friend, he smiles and offers me one back. Natural consequence. Rewards and punishments. Life is full of them. And when a child is given the opportunity to experience them, an amazing thing happens. They learn how to negotiate the world, they learn that their behavior has an impact and that impact affects themselves and others. The basis for empathy, cooperation, problem solving, morality….
But, somewhere along the way, we lost sight of the meaning of “natural consequence.” Somehow, natural consequence became, “If you hit another child, you will have to go to time-out.” Not natural. The message the child actually receives becomes, “If I hit another child, an adult will remove me from the situation.” The essence of the interaction between the children, the actual impact of the behavior on the environment, is lost and the focus is redirected to the parent/child relationship. In this way, the parent-driven punishment actually interferes with the opportunity for learning that is in fact the fundamental part of human experience. Rather than striving towards “teaching them,” we can instead strive towards supporting them in fully experiencing the learning opportunity that the world is offering them in that moment.
“I think that done compassionately, correction and teaching is healthy and need not demolish autonomy and self-esteem.”
Absolutely true! But I would take it one step further. This statement seems to imply that autonomy and self-esteem will be able to exist despite compassionate teaching. Rather, if we are compassionately supporting our children in fully experiencing the teaching moments that occur naturally in their lives, autonomy and self-esteem will be the outcome! Take the following example of a child that hits another child:
The “teaching” parent steps in, removes the child from the situation, gives the child a time-out and then coaches the child to apologize before returning to play. The learning that occurs is centered between the child and parent. The child learns that someone else will help them control their behavior and someone else will tell them how to make it better. While this type of interaction will probably not “demolish autonomy and self-esteem,” it certainly doesn’t add to it.
The “supportive” parents steps in, gently moves a hand to keep the child from hurting another child and says, “I won’t let you hurt Joey. He looks really sad and worried! I wonder what you’re trying to say?” The child is encouraged to explore how his actions are impacting the environment and practice doing things differently. The parent can support him in learning from the moment by asking things like: “I wonder what you are feeling?” “I wonder what he is feeling?” “I wonder if there is another way?” The parent can encourage the child to find autonomy in problem solving. He may feel good about himself and the situation when he finds a way to communicate his feelings and get his needs met. He may feel connected with his friend and rewarded by the friend’s response to him. The child has the opportunity to actually practice using higher-level processing skills and engaging the world around him in a way that directly results in autonomy and self esteem. What a different experience!
“I can’t imagine not correcting, teaching, etc, my children at some points during our relationship.”
All parents will absolutely correct and teach their children at some point. Our children are learning from us, even when we aren’t trying. Perhaps the bigger questions are, What are we really teaching? And, how are we teaching it? Are we willing to start viewing ourselves as supports and guides rather than directors? Are we willing to allow our children to learn from their own experiences rather than feeling a need to dictate and force lessons on them? If most of us think about our favorite teachers, they weren’t those who sat us down and had us memorize the periodic table or lists of verbs. They were those who set up opportunities for us to learn, provided the tools and then stood by our side while we struggled through. Good teachers make learning possible, but the learning itself has to happen within the student. The same is true for parenting.
“I think that some degree of teaching and doing for are necessary given that children are not fully formed, innately capable, autonomous people.”
There is no denying that children are not fully formed. Their bodies are growing, their brains are growing and they are in the process of acquiring the information and the skills that they need to engage with the world. They need adults to provide them with love and support, food and shelter, and in that way they are not autonomous. But I disagree with the thought that they are not innately capable. They are innately capable of learning. It’s what they are born to do. And the environment is innately capable of providing them with the feedback they need to learn to negotiate it. We just need to trust them to do their job. To play and explore and learn and grow. Good parenting means providing them with a safe, loving place in which they can do just that. Good parenting means taking the time to sit by their side while they struggle though some of the tough lessons and celebrating with them when they take full pride and ownership in the outcomes.
Learning isn’t a neat and orderly task. It’s messy and complicated and sometimes painful, and it’s what life is all about. Rather than trying to tidy things up by forcing our “parental wisdom” on them, good parenting is about making sure they have the tools, the support, the safe arms, the love and the encouragement to experience life fully and to thrive. In short, to learn.