I’m currently attending a parenting class on Thursday evenings, given by Brian Joseph from the Echo Center. It’s somewhat of a refresher class for me since I’ve taken a similar class a few times before, but it never hurts to have a refresher.
I wanted to blog a little about this class and about this philosophy of parenting in general. The Echo Center was formerly known as the Center for Non-Violent Education and Parenting. So that’s what the class is about – non-violent parenting.
“But wait,” I hear you say – “parenting isn’t violent in the first place!” This bears some explanation. This philosophy has a couple of key ideas:
- Violence is anything that hurts a kid’s mind, body or spirit. That means not just corporal punishment. In a physical sense, it means also things like bodily moving kids without their consent (something we all do) or just giving them that extra squeeze when you’re angry, just to make sure they get the message. Things like that. In a non-physical sense, it also means verbal put-downs, shaming (“I’m so disappointed in you…”), threats (“Wait till your father gets home..”), and general unkindness in language and action.
- All behaviours stem from needs being met or unmet. Everyone has needs, ranging from the basic (food, warmth, sleep) to higher-level needs like belonging, accomplishment, respect, love. Needs give rise to feelings, which in turn give rise to behaviours. When needs are met, we experience feelings of one sort; when needs are unmet, we feel differently.
So, the first class started with a simple question: what do we want our kids to be like when they are our age? And a short brainstorming session evokes a long list, of which some are:
The list goes on. So the next question is: how will they learn that? The answer is very simple – and you already know it. Kids won’t learn the tools for such a life by being lectured to, by reading, by watching on TV, or by thinking about it logically. Overwhelmingly, kids learn by imitating what they experience in their families. So to bring up happy, healthy kids with all the qualities we want them to have for a good life, we had better start by modelling those qualities in our homes.
Here is how the non-violent paradigm differs crucially from the dominant paradigm of parenting: the dominant paradigm is behaviourist in nature. It seeks to control kids’ behaviour. The non-violent paradigm looks beyond the behaviour to uncover the feelings underneath and the unmet needs behind those feelings. It seeks to connect parents with their kids.
The tools of the dominant paradigm are fear, threats, punishments, rewards. And make no mistake, these tools work. Spanking. Go to your room. No more Game Boy unless you eat your dinner. Clean up your room and you can have a cookie. These things are all effective, after a fashion. They do elicit desired behaviour and prevent undesired behaviour. But they don’t foster a better connection between kids and parents, and they don’t work in the long term. Eventually, the kids are too big to spank. Their room has plenty of diversions. They aren’t particularly fussed about a cookie.
Just take a step back and consider treating an adult like this. It’s laughable. Imagine saying to your spouse something like, “If you don’t do the washing up, you can’t drive the car for a week.” Ludicrous. Threatening violence against your co-worker because you don’t like their behaviour? It’s ridiculous, not to mention that it would get you fired. Society and our legal system simply don’t tolerate such things. And yet, many (perhaps most) people in the US and the UK still support the right of parents to spank their children, and it seems that almost everyone thinks that the dominant tools of discipline like timeouts, the naughty step, withdrawing privileges, etc, are good things.
A central tenet of non-violent parenting is that these things don’t help – in fact, they harm the child’s relationship with the parent. And they do nothing to further our goal of raising kids with all those qualities we want. The dominant paradigm tools model sanctions, disconnection and conditional love. What we want to model is unconditional love and connection, which has been shown to result in the kind of qualities we want our kids to exhibit as adults.
So non-violent parenting is a radical idea, in the sense that it flies in the face of such entrenched dogma. And when you first hear about it, it immediately raises a couple of issues.
The first is doubt about effectiveness. If kids don’t have limits, if they don’t learn “consequences”, then they are going to grow up wild.
Let me be clear: this style of parenting is not about permissiveness. There are still limits and one can still be firm about enforcing them. I don’t give my son a cookie right before bedtime, no matter how much he wheedles, cajoles, threatens, and cries. What I do is try to connect with him and figure out what need is not being met. If he’s still hungry because he left half his dinner, this frustrates me, of course, but ultimately what can I do to solve the problem and remain connected with him? Maybe the need is something completely different, like him needing some time with me because he hasn’t seen me all day.
The second oft-raised concern is: the world is not like that. “I’m only preparing my child for what (s)he’ll encounter in life.” But is this really true?
First, do you think the world should be violent? Wouldn’t it be nicer if it weren’t? And how will it change? The only way it will change is for us to be the change we wish to see in the world.
Second, I don’t think the world really is that way. People are not, in general, motivated by punishments and rewards. Extrinsic motivations like these are a distant second to intrinsic motivations. People in the working world will often take a pay cut in exchange for a job they feel is interesting, meaningful, and that fills the need for autonomy. Similarly, the reason most of us don’t commit crimes is not the fear of legal punishment. It’s that normal, well-adjusted members of society have an intrinsic sense of morality. Our morality comes from an evolutionary history of the value of living in a harmonious society.
The lack of rewards in this philosophy is a particular challenge for many people, in a world which emphasizes the value of “good job!” But rewards, like punishments, are a poor long-term motivator, and do not put a child on the trajectory that we want for success and happiness in life.
Non-violent parenting is not easy. Most of us were raised in the dominant paradigm (not to mention being surrounded by it in the media) and have learned the tools and language that go with that. Non-violent parenting requires us to step back, and frequently, to ask ourselves: does it really matter? If I’m a little flexible and allow a little more time to deal with this, we can all reach a happy outcome. It’s about really recognising the rights of kids as members of our families.
I’ll keep you posted as I attend future classes.