Tuesday, February 07, 2006

On Bribery and Manipulation

Today I received the latest copy of Family Fun magazine. I get it for the cool craft/food/game/fun ideas, but along with that comes unwanted exposure to some aspects of parenting that just rub me the wrong way. The thing that jumped out at me today was how much of the stuff that is promoted as a good idea is really about controlling kids. There was a tip for getting your kids to eat what you want them to eat, one for getting them to do chores, and both involved basically bribing them. No mention of intrinsic motivation, it was all about what stuff to give them if they do what you want them to do. Or thinly disguised punishments, passed off as consequences or limits. The focus is so much on the end result that the journey is lost. If you constantly bribe your children to do what you want them to do, what happens when the goodies are not there? If you punish them for not doing something, what happens when you are not looking? Do these parents really think their kids are learning how best to nourish their bodies, or to joyfully help out around the house? They may go through the motions of doing what is "right" but what is the drive behind these acts? For me the focus should be on the why of everything, letting them figure out why certain foods are good for them, and why it is good to help others. And letting them find their own answers, not forcing my own answers onto them. If this means they make mistakes along the way, all the better! How better to truly learn what works for you?

Even the idea for special ways to honor your child was all about allowing things you don't normally allow (skipping a chore) or giving more of the "special" stuff (extra whipped cream on dessert). It is all about control, even when they think they are being nice! How about not requiring chores and being truly blessed when your child pitches in unasked? Or not controlling food and finding that your child eats a pretty balanced diet over time anyway? What is the greater sin, a child who eats poorly for a few days and gets sick because of it or a child forced to eat peas who ends up hating them for life and refuses to touch one as an adult? At least the sick child gets a chance to make a connection for themselves between food and health. And what is worse, having a kid who doesn't help out much around the house or forcing one to do the dishes every night so that they grow up to hate doing dishes? Trust me, I was that child and I still don't like to do the dishes!

Ok, rant over. I am so blessed to have found a better way to be with my children. Anyone interested can find much more eloquent commentary on this stuff in these books: Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Cohn and Parenting a Free Child by Rue Kream
Reply to Vanessa, see comments:

You are right. What your parents did was not the best for you. I, however, am not advocating leaving the children to the wolves. Your parents failed to provide a safe, clean and healthy environment for you. They let you have freedom, but failed to model what keeping your environment clean looks like. They forgot that it was their responsibility and left you to figure it out on your own. I think it is a terrible thing to leave your children high and dry like that. How are they going to know how to clean if you don't show them? Notice I said "show" them not "make" them. There is more than one option between "make them clean" and "never make them clean". It is not that simple and there is a whole spectrum of options there. How about clean for them (thereby showing them how it is done) and invite them to help (but never force and accept no as an answer) and allow them to oppourtunity to be generous (and express your genuine gratitude when you get help)? It works wonderfully for me, for us. When my girls rooms get messy I offer to clean up for them and they joyfully pitch in. I still do most of the work, but they are only five and seven. More and more they take the responsibility onto their own shoulders as they mature. That, I think, is the thing you were missing as a child.

Thank you, Vanessa, for the comments and the chance for me to take this blog in the direction of a discussion, which I so enjoy!


Vanessa said...

For most of my childhood, I wasn't required to do chores because my mother believed kids should be free to play. My bedroom was beyond belief -- the entire floor, except for a path to the bed, was covered in at least a foot and a half of paper, clothing, toys, food wrappers, orange peels, and anything else you can imagine. Not only did I not feel liberated by this, I was jealous of friends whose parents made them do chores and clean their rooms! I wanted more structure in my life, but I didn't know how to create it for myself -- I needed my parents to guide me. They never did, and now, in my thirties, I still struggle with feeling out of control and disorganized. *shrug* I guess my point is that while total freedom for kids is a great ideal, and may work in some families, it can backfire just as easily as "manipulation" can. Neither approach is automatically all right or all wrong.

Stephanie said...

But your parents could have occasionally said, "Would you like me to help you clean your room?" What might that have led to? There's a lot of room between, "you're on your own and if you don't do it, oh well" and "do it now, or else!"