Friday, July 11, 2014

Gentle Parenting: Part One

There are parenting trends that come in and out of fashion, and "attachment parenting" is a phrase often misunderstood (and is actually copyrighted).  It carries amazing weight, for good or for ill, depending on the perspective.  It's so much greater than ideas about baby wearing or nursing (even though strong response to an infants' needs definitely falls into supporting a person's development as understood by Attachment Theory.)  Sweetness and I were not all that granola in some of these practices, but we are largely informed by our children's great attachment needs as they grow and hopefully turn out whole, resilient and emergent!

Rather than so-called "traditionalists," we consider ourselves more influenced by developmental insights and the aforementioned Attachment Theory.  So if we are in a camp, it's the Gentle Parenting camp.  I thought I might explore a little of how we found a home here.

Like many of our friends and family, we didn't have much reason to stray.  We turned out alright, as the conventional logic goes.  We're both the safe first-borns, the cautious people-pleasers.  Neither one of us enjoys rocking the boat.  But, we have to answer Dr. Phil's question of "How's that working for you?" honestly with a "not so well" when considering behavior modification (aka punishment and rewards).  At least if we're going to be honest.

Alfie Kohn, LR Knost, Kim John Payne, Todd Sarner and Gordon Neufeld are great at pointing out the obvious about the notion of punishment/rewards.  Implicit in the system is a need to escalate the response/punishment to continue to control behavior.  It wounds on both ends. Even more stunning is that it simply doesn't work.

To look at the positive side in terms of carrots/rewards, one need only peruse the research so carefully presented in Dan Pink's work on motivation.  I don't know if I agree with him that our society has changed completely, but it's obvious that intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation is what drives us.  Sticker charts and candy rewards do NOT bring about greater achievement.  With the egregious challenges we face today, the world especially needs curious and passionate problem solvers, not standardized yes-men.

Children don't utilize time outs to think about what they've done.  Punishments don't prepare them for the real world any more than throwing money in the trash would prepare us for paying bills.  Punishments might impact behavior temporarily, but they don't address the underlying needs expressed by the behavior and uncomfortable emotions.  (All behavior is some kind of communication.)  Shame/punishment drives them into hiding, and they reemerge in dangerous ways--more severe rebellions and conditions like addiction and depression.  Typical punishment wounds the relationship/connection in ways that outweigh any good sought in temporary compliance.  It uses their attachment needs (not wants, NEEDS) against them.

Story time.  Little E is melting down this evening.  It's not too hard to see why: it's her bedtime, and she's in an exciting environment (a Church dinner) after an active, social day (at the end of a full week).  She just enjoyed a carb-rich (red or white foods, right?) dinner and an ice cream dessert.  So I could stop there, and we could agree that her behavior isn't just something to shame her for and that there are influences to be sensitive to and to accept.  Limits are still super important for her development and for the preservation of societal norms :), but they also create huge emotional response.

You might envision me as I struggle to pick her up and gently get her buckled into her car seat, and you might observe how hard I'm trying to be gentle even though she is far from it.  You might wonder if I will ever find her flip flops.  And then you look into her eyes with me, alligator-tear stained and weary, as I say, "you are having such a hard time.  Are you okay?"  You might sense that soothing her rather than shaming or threatening her is the order of the day.  And later, you'd see her wrap those little arms so tight around my neck and lay her head down on my shoulder before her bath, knowing that she's safe and will soon be tucked in not just in soft covers but also in grace and understanding.

Trust me: it's worth taking the time to understand the "why" behind behaviors and to be empathetic even when you need to be firm.  No lecture or punishment would really change much behavior here.  No great epiphanies, no turning this beat around.  But a little empathy goes a long way in her long-term security.

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