How many parents have ever heard their young children issuing ultimatums? Playmates may hear If you won't play Barbies, I am leaving. Toys and dolls are ordered to Stop crying or go to your room. Even parents are not exempt: Mommy, I'll only eat these green beans if you give me two cookies for dessert.
Where does this stuff come from? I have a theory. (Of course ... don't I always have a theory?) The Top Down model of parenting teaches our children that big people are in charge of little people, and can therefore unilaterally impose their will on them. Remember that story where the boss yells at the father, who comes home and yells at his wife, who then yells at their children, who in turn kick the dog? It's a big long chain of pain.
At least the techniques for domination have been updated for modern times. These days, we rarely hear mothers threatening, Just wait til your father gets home. He'll take his belt to you! Instead we hear, Okay, Junior, if you don't get your shoes on right now, you are choosing 10 minutes in time out.
I don't believe we've come as far from our belt-wielding days as we'd like to think. In my opinion, issuing consequences is still a coercion-based technique. Many popular parenting models still tell us that we must decide unilaterally what our children should do, and then impose unpleasant consequences for non-compliance.
If little Sarah speaks to us in an angry tone of voice, we are supposed to tell her to go to her room until she can be sweet. If Timmy bops Joey over the head with a truck, he is told to take a time out. If Jenny isn't hungry at dinnertime, we are supposed to tell her there will be no more food until breakfast.
Sometimes consequences do appear to work. Sanctions may create enough pain or discomfort that the other party temporarily does what we want. Even so, if we stop and ask ourselves why they did what we want, what the cost is to the goodwill between us, and what it will take to sustain their compliance, we realize that Top Down is a lot of work. That's because it is still very much about wielding power and control.
To verify the presence of a power and control dynamic, ask yourself if issuing consequences would fly between two equals, such as a husband and wife, or two neighbors. If you don't clean out the garage by the end of the day today, I'm taking your car keys.
How about between two countries? If you don't do what we want, we will bomb you. (Well, yes, that is actually what happens sometimes, and it often triggers a major chain reaction that leaves both sides hurting.)
I think we usually squirm a little when we hear kids issuing our ultimatums back to us because we hear the disrespect inherent in the Top Down model; it's not relational, it's dictatorial.
When we take a closer look, imposed consequences may not be teaching the lessons we want our kids to learn. High level relational skills, the kind that prevent wars and lead to loving and respectful coexistence, involve acknowledging the other party's perspective as valid even if it differs from our own, and working together to generate productive solutions that feel acceptable to each side.
Children learn what they live. Top Down parenting does not teach them to listen; it demands obedience. It does not teach our kids to understand and accept different perspectives, or to consider the needs of other. It teaches them that Might = Right.
So what's the alternative? Collaboration. We communicate our concerns, invite the child to do the same, and then work together on finding a solution that satisfies both of us.
I (parent) want to stay and talk to my friend a while longer, and you (child) are ready to leave now. What can we do? (possible collaborative solutions you may decide on together: child waits in the car, child has a snack while adult finishes talking, child runs around the whole playground one time and then we go, we leave now and adult calls her friend on her cell phone to finish talking during the walk back home)
You want to play Barbies, and Amy wants to paint. What can we do? (possible collaborative solutions you may help them decide on together: Let Barbie paint, too -- maybe she can foot paint instead of finger paint. Maybe Amy can paint something for Barbie, like a beach scene. Maybe you can take Barbie outside and Amy can water paint with the hose while you give Barbie a bath. Or maybe a complete change of scene is in order: Hey, let's all head over to the park!)
If the child is too young to verbalize his or her perspective and needs, we tune in to their non-verbal messages and take a guess at what might be going on for them. I see you are dropping your banana chunks off the highchair tray. I bet it's fun to see them fall!
Then we verbalize our own perspective and needs. Bananas make the floor slippery, and I don't want to clean the floor to make it safe again right now.
Finally, we speak out loud the process by which we come to a solution that may work for both of us.
Let's put your high chair out in the yard and you can drop the bananas where the birds can clean them up later.
Here are some blocks that you can drop off your tray instead. They aren't slippery, so they won't make the floor unsafe.
Let's get you down and drop some soft toys over the back of the couch together.
You get the idea, right? A whole world of creative possibilities open up when we get the perspective and needs of each party on the table. When we work together to find win-win solutions, rather than simply imposing our will, we teach our children how to acknowledge other perspectives, and hold them accountable for cooperating rather than either becoming dominant or submissive.
I realize this is a somewhat radical idea, and it's very different from how most of us were raised, and therefore doesn't always come naturally at first. If you read this and think, Okay, but what about .... please feel free to send me your yeah-buts, questions or concerns, and I'll answer them here.
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