Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Only Parenting Mistake I ever Made - Over and Over and Over Again (or - The Illusion of Control)

At the end of this slideshow from my conference talk, just presented at Life is Good Unschooling Conference I have included my actual (much longer) talking script.




The illusion of control

The title of this talk is “The only mistake I ever made, over and over again” and it’s about the importance of our relationship with our kids, over all else.

But I almost called it “the illusion of control” - because that’s really at the heart of WHY the relationship is so important.

The relationship is important for lots of reasons, of course, the least of which is not the day to day pleasure of being with people with whom we HAVE a good relationship vs an antagonistic one. But if we are looking at our own CHOICES about how to parent, we could of course prioritize other things, above relationship. Lots of people do.

Here’s the problem with that approach:

When choosing different priorities, what would be our goal? Most of you have probably heard the adage “Be their parent, not their friend” - what does that MEAN, to “be a parent”. Well, it generally means, when presented with a choice between putting your foot down, setting limits and boundaries just for the sake of control, and making rules, vs. caring about how your child FEELS about you and the given situation, choose the rule path.

But, in reality, the friendship they receive is what they will learn to give

The other problem with that be their parent not their friend priority, though, is it presumes that we ultimately HAVE control of what our kids do, and that by “being the parent”/the authority, we are somehow being altruistic, because our kids might hate us, but at least they are learning to do the right thing.

But that logic is ALL wrong. And here’s why:

- we don’t have control- control is an illusion - all we have is influence

- if our kids hate us or resent us, we have LESS influence

- rule bound, control based parenting can have the OPPOSITE effect of what’s intended, in the form of reactionary self assertion. Sometimes this effect can be seen right away, sometimes much later.

- when parents don’t prioritize the relationship, neither do kids, and when the relationship doesn’t matter, the parents often have no idea what their child is actually doing, thinking, feeling, and any chance for control OR influence (if it worked to begin with) is eroded further.

- While arbitrary limits and control might "work" to keep SOME kids from making certain choices/experiencing certain things while young, if it's at the expense of the relationship, when they are older, they will have neither the experience of making choices for themselves and experiencing / overcoming the consequent challenges (with our support), NOR their relationship with us to fall back on when faced with much more difficult and potentially hazardous choices. This can be a recipe for disaster in the teen years and beyond.

So who am I, and how do I know about the importance of relationship?

I am not a lifelong unschooling parent, although I wish I was. I didn't unschool with younger children, in fact my kids were 9.5 and 13 when they started unschoolng.

So it might seem like I haven't a clue about what it's like to unschool young children, having started so late in the game. And in a sense, I don’t - but what I do know is what *doesn’t* work with *parenting*- whether children are in school or unschooling, academically. Unschooling is predicated on the belief that children (people) learn all the time, from everything they do, say, hear, see, feel. Unschoolng isn’t hands off for parents - it’s partnership based - we see what our kids are captivated by, and feed those interests. We discover new things they might be captivated by and “strew” them. In order for unschooling to flourish to its fullest potential, the relationship is paramount.

In addition, RELATIONSHIPS are a huge learning “topic” for people of all ages! and so are MISTAKES!

Our children’s ability to learn what they need to learn from their lives is far more dependant on our approach to *parenting* and relationship than it is on whether they are in school or not.

When my kids were in school, I wasn’t worried about homework, grades, or school “behavior”. I wasn't a traditional schooling parent by most standards - my kids went to alternative schools, I read alfie kohn when my oldest child was 5, and “playful parenting” and "raising your spirited child" and just about every other parenting book that didn't advocate punishments and rewards or a parenting "method", but instead prioritized the relationship between parent and child.

But I struggled. Even though I didn't believe in punishments and rewards, I succumbed to my fears in weak moments, i violated my own principles regularly, out of desperation. Even though I supported unschooling friends in trusting their child, allowing them to develop on their own path, freedom around bedtimes, food, and electronic media - I didn't successfully apply that in my own family, with my own kids.

I said things like "they need to learn not to _____" and "MY kids are different than yours when they don't get enough sleep/eat regularly/the right things/watch too much t.v/play too many video games"

I made them "follow through" on things once they'd started - classes and groups and other activities.

I also blamed others for their struggles - other kids in school, teachers, systems...and even my children themselves.

In moments of frustration I imposed “punishment-lite” aka “consequences.” In fact we now have a family joke about one such event! When my son was about 6 or 7 years old, we bought him a very cool little water squirter that looked like an alien, as a surprise, for a trip to the river the next day. We told him we had it, and a snorkel for both him and his sister, but he hadn’t seen the squirter yet. That night, when he was “supposed” to be going to sleep, he insisted on seeing it, and I (with very little compassion) negotiated that he could see it for ONE minute, but then go to sleep. Of course, the situation ended up in a huge power struggle, and i was infuriated by his refusal to comply with my mandates/ our agreement that had been arrived at under duress. i threatened him that if he didn’t give it back and go to sleep, i would take it away completely, and the snorkel too, and when he still resisted, i felt compelled to “follow through” on my ridiculous threat. the next day, i retracted the “grounding” from the snorkel, saying that since his sister had one too, i wanted to be fair. i didn’t retract the removal of squirter though. to this day, we call that water squirter the “evil mom squirter.” not only did he not learn any valuable lessons from that event, it fractured his trust in me, and rightfully so. unfortunately, i didn’t at that time know how to undo my mistake.

In essence, I didn't look directly AT and see MY individual children, their needs, experiences, strengths, and beauty - and parent from my heart. every mistake I ever made could be summed up as failing to prioritize the relationship over all else.

So - *because* (not in spite of the fact that) I haven't been an unschooler since my kids were born, and I certainly wasn’t a traditional parent in many ways, I am here to confidently tell you that when we don’t prioritize the relationship between ourselves and our kids, even if we aren’t incredibly strict, even if we have “alternative” views on learning and education, even if we aren’t violent, or abusive, and have drastically improved on our own parents’ approach to raising children - without the relationship peice, there is a huge gaping hole in unschooling, and a huge set of potential problems as our children grow up.

Out of respect for my own children’s privacy, I won’t be telling many stories about *their* struggles that resulted from my failures to prioritize relationship. But i do have a few. Here’s a story to tell about a former friend of my daughter’s.

The Story of a VERY BAD PLAN

This story takes place when the girls were about 12.5 or 13. This particular girl had a mother who cared very much about her, and attempted to show her caring through fairly traditional rules and “boundaries” such as grounding her when she violated curfew, or when she forgot to call her mom to check in. This mom truly believed that her daughter was being kept safe by being grounded, and was learning lessons about following instructions and respecting one’s parental mandates.

But this was so far from the truth it was almost comical, and could have been tragic. One night, this girl was having an Instant Message conversation with my daughter and here’s what she proposed (oh by the way she was grounded at this point, for a previous violation):

She suggested that she and my daughter meet up at midnight. But first they should steal LIQUOR from their parents, meet at Fred Meyer, STEAL an inflatable boat, HITCHHIKE to a river in the woods, and float down the river at 2am, drinking liquor.

If my daughter hadn’t told her that that was a *terrible* idea, and instead had leaped to the opportunity, you can only imagine what might have resulted.

To this day, her mother has no idea that the girl plans (and sometimes executes) things like this. Although I don’t know if she ever did anything quite that dramatic, I do know that at that time, she was regularly (while grounded) sneaking out of her house at 2 am, taking public transit to a park, smoking there in the middle ofthe night, etc. - and calling my daughter to tell her how scared she was of sketchy people on the bus. And her mom never had any idea. Because the relationship was not the priority, the rules were, so had she known, the girl knew that it would have resulted in more grounding and “punishment” and none of the supported exploration and deep learning that she undoubtedly craved.

This sounds like an extreme example, but it’s really not. It’s all too common, and when you are a parent to a teen who tells you a lot of what goes on in their lives, you have the privilege of hearing what is going on in the lives of other teens - most of whom are parented very differently, few of whom have parents who prioritize the relationship over the rules. I would never violate my children’s trust in me by telling other parents what their kids are doing behind their back, but I wish i could convey to so many that it’s NOT what they think. So please believe me when I say, and many of the other unschooling parents of older kids say, that control is absolutely an illusion, and the more control you think you have, the less control AND influence you probably do have.

A contrasting story

As a contrasting story, and example of what influence in the absence of attempting to control looks like, I’d like to tell you about my friend’s son, now grown, but at the time of this story he was about 15 years old. He called up his mom, from a party near his house, and said that he was “thinking of having a beer” - his first - and what did she think of that?

She could have encouraged him not to, and he probably would have listened, because of their trusting relationship, but instead, she listened to his thought process, considered the facts that he was near home, there’d be no driving, and he was a trustworthy and not a reckless guy, and she said “i think if you want to do it, you will be fine, and if you don’t, that’s of course fine too!”

He had ONE beer, he came home a short while later, he was elated at his experience, and he had learned several valuable things from it. He had been reminded that he could trust his mom to respond to HIM and not some societal mandate of what teens “should” do or not do, he had learned he could decide for himself what he was curious about and ready to handle, and he had another example under his belt of how his mom trusted *him* - which only serves to reinforce good decision making in the future, because kids *rise* or *stoop* to the level of trust/distrust we place in them.

In further contrast to the story about my daughter’s friend, I have had the privilege of being the trusted adult for my daughter as well as for a number of her friends - called up at odd hours, in potentially uncomfortable circumstances, to give rides, advice, support, or safe harbor. If she or her friends had thought that they’d “get in trouble” or be lectured, or embarrassed, or otherwise diminished, they never would have placed their trust in me in those situations, and the results could have been very serious.

When does the experiment end?

I have heard it said (usually derisively) that unschooling is an experiment. If it IS an experiment, how big of a sample size do we need to have the outcome be statistically valid? we already have plenty of data showing that totalitarian parenting does not "work" to make happy, well adjusted adults. that's fairly widely accepted, especially among this crowd. i'd say the kind of parent i was, flexible and positive *in principle*, but with "limits, boundaries, and discipline" the likes of which are usually said to be "essential" tools for raising "good" kids - this kind of parenting is much more common, even amongst people who consider themselves unschoolers, than is the kind of relationship based parenting i am proposing.

There are many, many parents who read "good" parenting books, take classes in how to parent differently than their (authoritarian or neglectful) parents, find "good" schools or home school/unschool (academically), and generally advocate for their kids. in my experience, there's wayyyyy too high a percentage of those kids who go on to struggle mightily as they get older. if that set, that i once belonged to, was the control group in a study about the outcomes of different kinds of parenting, and unschoolers who prioritize relationship were the experimental group, i have no doubt that the kids from the control group would be struggling in vastly higher, statistically significant numbers than would the relationship-parented unschooling kids (or kids in school by choice, whose parents prioritize relationship!) i have seen this to be true, over and over again.

I am here to tell you, from experience, that societal-stamp-of-approval "good" parenting doesn't result in the outcomes most people state as their goals.. not only this, but the gap between ideals / goals and resultant reality is so huge, that i believe hugeness of it has blinded it's practitioners to it's ineffectiveness. you can’t tell you’re in a valley if you can’t see the mountains on either side.

The results of such parenting have become the new normal. parents whose teens are running away, or caught (and punished for) doing things that are dangerous and illegal, whose teens tell them nothing, and are disconnected and adrift - these parents are reassured, are told that raising teens is "so hard", they are told that they "did their best" and that "it's not their fault." they are acknowledged and supported in their parenting paradigm, and nobody sees the way it could have been. I know. I was one of those parents.

I was there. and now I am here - here to say:

It didn't have to be so hard. It was my fault. I could have done better.

But it's not necessarily too late. Relationships can be repaired.

Life can be rocky, not simple and smooth.

Doesn’t mean the other way is a better choice.

Just the opposite - the other way doesn’t “work.”

What do I mean by “work”?

Do I mean by some bizarre standard to which few others aspire? No. I mean it doesn’t “work” by very common standards and principles.

It doesn’t help kids:
- make “good” choices
- keep themselves safe, - challenge themselves in ways that help them grow
- accomplish things that help them in practical ways.

Parenting that “works” does all those things, but those things can’t be *forced* or *taught* – this is a basic premise of unschooling!

The environment within which they flourish needs to exist and then they evolve naturally.

So what works?

RELATIONSHIP. that's *all* that matters - it's all that cascades into everything else that eventually matters. It’s the *milieu* in which everything else thrives and develops effortlessly.

The lack of relationship is underpinning everything that goes wrong with what matters, at least in terms of what parents DO have control and influence over.

There are things that we will never be able to change - but we can make them worse or better. There are temperament traits, conditions, experiences that compose large parts of who our kids are - we can't change that. But we can certainly choose to make it worse or make it better. We make it better by prioritizing our relationship with our kids over all other goals.

How to foster / prioritize relationship

In any given situation, especially when something is difficult, consider the alternatives - what are the alternatives ? Instead of thinking "this is hard, this isn't working" - try thinking "what other option is there? what other kind of response? is that option likely to help with the relationship/connection, or harm?

Often it's not a matter of things being easy - some things ARE hard for some people - it's a matter of making the best choice as a parent with regard to OUR responses - the choice that prioritizes connection rather than prioritizing teaching a lesson, setting a "limit", doing what’s easiest or most convenient for us, or convincing a child to see and experience the world differently.

Remind yourself that while limits and control might "work" to keep kids from making certain choices/experiencing certain things while young, it's at the expense of the relationship, and erodes real, lasting parental *influence* when they are older.

Doormats don't have relationships

Contrary to what many people think, prioritizing relationship doesn’t equate to being overly indulgent, a “doormat”, or a “permissive” parent - those aren’t really even useful terms, within the paradigm of relationship based parenting.

To quote Joyce Fetteroll “for those with boundary issues who often misread 'pushing out of our comfort zone' as 'pushing beyond our limits': Be reasonable about what can be accomplished in a day. Build meeting your own needs into the day"

In order to prioritize relationship, it’s important to regularly stretch our comfort zone - but we don’t have to allow our personal limits to be trampled. It’s deciphering the difference between the two that takes practice.

What relationship based parenting requires is that we as parents question ourselves, our knee jerk reactions, our impulse to limit and control, each and every time. And each and every time, we think of an alternative option that preserves the relationship between us and our child, tailored to *that* situation, that child, that moment. But first we need to truly believe that we don’t have control, that ultimately, control is an illusion.

So, some principles for prioritizing relationship:

- choose relationship - each time we are presented with a choice of how to respond is an opportunity to choose connection let the relationship guide your choices rather than letting external messages do so

- remember that teens (and all people) need relationships - if it’s not with you, will likely be w/others who are ill equipped to support their development

- own your choices and acknowledge your child's individuality - don't make "we" decisions - they aren't based on relationship

- Oversight isn't the same as relationship - honor your child's personhood - again, you don't have control, you only have relationship

- don’t put your relationship expectations onto your child - relationships develop naturally, they aren't forced

- shun fear based decisions. You don't have control. you only have relationship, and fear doesn’t enhance relationship

- insight into your own childhood unmet needs, fears and experiences goes a long way toward fostering relationships - but be careful not to project your childhood experiences onto your children - don’t assume they will have the same trauma. “be your kids’ parent not your parents’ kid” (Sandra Dodd)

-treat your child with the same respect and consideration as you would partner or a friend

At some point, your child will be too big, too savvy, too independent to control. You won’t be able to carry them screaming out of a dangerous situation, you won’t be able to stop them from making dangerous or damaging choices by threatening punishment or dangling a reward - but If you prioritize relationship when they are young, you have the influence that comes from that relationship firmly in place when they are older.

Prioritize the relationship - all else clicks into place. If the relationship falters, nothing else can work well. Relationship is the glue of life.

Both slideshow and text Copyright 2012 Lyla Wolfenstein. Do not duplicate or present without express written permission from the author. Feel free to link to this blog post, however, if desired.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Partnership doesn't mean letting kids do whatever the hell they want!

It happened again. Someone writes an article about how it's possible to parent children with respect, and in partnership. Without punishments or rewards. How obedience is not their goal for their children. How children are people too and how the relationship between parent and child is more important than any "lesson" we think they need to learn. And then the comment flurry begins.

How HORRIFYING that we would consider "letting our kids do whatever the hell they want" - including, in this latest comment thread on this article, letting them beat the neighbor child senseless or pour apple juice on mom's computer keyboard.

Don't we realize children's brains aren't fully mature and they don't know how to behave all the time - that they need to be TRAINED?

Well yes, we realize they aren't adults, and that's why they need us as their partners in life. Training though? The logic eludes me - if their brains aren't fully developed and capable of good decision making without our orders, then certainly they aren't ready to absorb our "training" and use it, develop it, into a skill set that they will be able to use, once their brains are fully developed?

Doesn't it make more sense to help them/support them in the areas in which they are not capable yet (such as not leaving them near a busy street, expecting them to STOP when we order it, and instead hold their hand, stay close, or hold them)? Doesn't it make more sense that when brains are *ready* for something, that's when it's best to learn it? If kids/people of any age are constantly inundated with expectations they are not capable of meeting, then the sense of failure and parental anger and disappointment are so much more damaging than any possible "damage" from helping our kids with something they might be capable of doing for themselves. The former is erosive to self esteem and personal power - the latter can be experienced as nurturing and supportive, and when parents and their children have a relationship based on trust, kids are able and willing to SAY when they are capable of something the parent might not have realized they'd grown into. TRUST is the key - trust that our kids naturally will WANT to be responsible, respectful, compassionate, and contributing to the family and the greater world, and to their own safety and happiness.


But how will children ever learn if we don't train them?

If our children trust us to know what they need, to keep them safe, to not expect more out of them than they are capable of offering, and most of all, trust that WE trust that THEY have no innate "evilness" - no desire to beat the pulp out of someone or intentionally harm us, then on the rare occasion when they find themselves in a dangerous situation, and hear us shout STOP! In a different voice than they are used to, in a way that makes it clear that this trusted person who knows them well and never expects or demands anything from them that feels unreasonable, is scared and SERIOUSLY needing something - they WILL stop (not at a one year old though - it's our job to keep them safe as babies!)

But NOT because of training! Nobody likes to be manipulated - training is manipulation. It's not how anyone learns best - and in fact much research reveals that rewards and punishments actually erode learning.

If children learn something, it's because A) they were ready, and B) it was modeled for them in every day life, in natural ways and C) nothing was done to create an oppositional reaction that prevented them from learning it.

They need to trust that we SEE them, and that we know and love them unconditionally - and that if they are lashing out at other children, running in the street, pouring apple juice on our computer, then they are needing something from us that they aren't getting - and WE need to figure out what it is.

But they will need to learn to obey as adults too - for future jobs, college, etc., right?

If we take it as a fact that impulse control is not completely developed yet in the young brain, then we can't exactly expect to "train" children to obey our every order and then be able to translate that into actions and decisions as they age. That'd be like trying to train a 6 month old to talk or walk and expecting that it will help them be more eloquent or athletic when they are 5.

Skills needed for studying and working are quite different than the ability to obey. In fact, the "ability to work independently", decision making skills, team work, and creative thinking are all skills that are highly valued in many work places and required for most work. Rarely does one see “ability to obey” as a job requirement! The ability to perform tasks that are less enjoyable than other tasks we might also be charged to perform comes from experience with big picture decision making and seeing the results of those decisions. I would venture to bet that those who are used to obeying orders might actually come to resent and rebel against those orders in as many ways as possible, when not being “watched” - to a much greater degree than those for whom the less desirable tasks are just a means to a larger end of their own choosing, who have experienced the freedom and enjoyment of creative thinking and personal decision making, with support and guidance, since childhood.

Children are bright. People are bright. If they get to college and have not had their innate curiosity squelched by parents who were sure they needed "training" to be okay in the world, they are likely to understand that in order to achieve their own goals in college, completion of assignments will be necessary. That's not "obedience" it's working toward a goal, and being flexible. However, if it's not that person's goal, but the goal of someone else (the parent?) then feeling flexible about doing things that are less than desirable becomes less likely.


But kids don't have self control - someone's got to make sure they don't get into trouble until they learn better, right?

Training to obey does nothing more than erode a person's sense of trust in (and experience with) their ability to make good decisions for themselves. Do we think that someone will actually be following them around, "ordering them" to not pour apple juice on the computer, to not ride their bike without a helmet, to not get in the car with a drunk driver...? If obedience is what we think we've "trained" them to do then where and when do they get experience developing the necessary skills for sound decision making?

Control is an illusion. There is very little, if anything that parents can actually control, at least without great trauma. What we can do is impart to our children the ability to trust themselves, first and foremost, and to trust us as well, and therefore to refer back to what they know about our wisdom and perspective, our family "culture", when they are faced with a decision that is theirs, and theirs alone to make.

That is maturity. And that does not come from training or obedience, it comes from partnership, trust, and connection.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Real Costs Of Parental Pressure: dabbling, digging deep and quitting

First, a Few Anecdotes...
by Kristi, a mother in Portland, Oregon

When I was about six I started taking piano lessons,
tried ballet lessons, and started playing community soccer.
My overextended parents let me try all three but
then made me choose between soccer and ballet – the
piano lessons were mandatory.
I agonized over my choice – I would have preferred
to take soccer and ballet and not piano. I was forced to
take piano lessons for eight years. Initially, I begged to
take lessons. That was because I wanted to get the
stickers the instructor handed out at the practice sessions!
Once the lure of the stickers wore off I quickly lost
interest.
Any remaining interest I may have had was
squashed by the dread of having to practice and go to
weekly lessons, and the damage to my self esteem as I
floundered with seemingly no natural ability. I felt
guilty while watching my parents write checks for the
lesson fees each week when I did not want to go. My
parents thought that learning to read (and play) music
was a “good thing.” Unfortunately, once I was allowed
to quit I never looked back and thinking about trying to
hammer out a song today on the piano brings up major
feelings of inadequacy. And I still wish I could have
taken both soccer and ballet.”

and by Bonni, another Portland mother
When I was a child, I was forced to take swimming
lessons and piano lessons, and to go to sleep-away
camp. I hated them all, but was never given a choice. At
first, I wanted to take swim lessons and piano lessons.
After a time, I changed my mind...except that I wasn’t
allowed to change my mind. Swimming lessons were
torture. I hated them and cried every weekend when I
was forced to go. I often got myself so worked up I
would get sick. The only way I was allowed to stop was
because in my fourth or fifth year of swimming I got really
sick with scarlet fever. I had missed somany lessons
and fell so far behind in my swimming, catching up was
beyond challenging. Finally, my parents let me stop.
We got a piano when I was young. I wanted to learn
how to play, so my parents hired a piano teacher. I had a
different vision of the songs I would play and hated
practicing scales. But as things were back then, there
was only one way to learn and I hated that way. I
begged to quit (just like swimming) but I wasn’t allowed.
After years, my parents finally gave in.
Sleep-away camp was a whole other story. I never
wanted to go. I was and am very shy and introverted.
The first year I cried everyday and tried to figure out a
way to get home. The second year I only cried on drop off
day and at the end of visiting day. I spent the other
days hiding in the woods and avoiding people as best I
could. I was supposed to love it because my mother had
gone to the same camp when she was a kid and loved it.
I hated every moment I was there. I was grateful that I
wasn’t forced to go a third year. I was heartbroken
when my little sister was forced to go when she was old
enough. She hated it too.
These experiences have had a big impact on me as
an adult.
I hate to swim, I hate the water. The only reason I
go into a pool now is for my daughter and even that is
hard. When she was two, we signed up for parent/child
swim lessons. We made it two weeks before I had a
panic attack and had to stop. I couldn’t go back. I
waited until she was older and able to take lessons
without me in the pool. Lessons were her choice. Swimming
is her choice. She loves the water.
I don’t hate the piano. In fact, I wish I could play...
sort of. The thing is, if it were that important to me I
would learn now. I can still read music, so it wouldn’t be
like starting from scratch, but I guess it just isn’t that
important or exciting to me. Hmmm...maybe I really
don’t like the piano. *shrug* Now the drums...watching
Chloe in her lessons...the drums are something that I
am learning along with her and I love it! I just need my
own drum set because hers is a little too small.”


Mixed Messages
These stories really capture how the ways in which we as
parents choose to support or guide our children can have lifelong
impacts on their motivation, their interests, and their
emotional relationship with exploration. At the heart of life
learning, and really at the heart of growing up, is the process
of determining what it is a person loves to do – where and with
what to spend one’s time. Children come into this world with
no preconceived notions of what is or isn’t valuable, or what is
or isn’t “supposed” to be enjoyable.

And frequently, inadvertently, parents send crystal clear
messages about just those perceptions, messages that run directly
counter to what many of us would say we wanted to convey
if asked. For instance, do we frown upon those who take
pleasure in their work, no matter how menial? No, not for the
most part – we ascribe labels such as “a good work ethic” and
a positive attitude” to people who move through their lives,
getting it done with a smile on their faces.

But then many parents get frustrated with their own children
when they resist helping around the house – because we
believe we need their help with the “less desirable” activities
of life and, in addition,we believe they “need to learn” that life
isn’t a bed of roses, and that to get by they must experience
and survive some suffering. Rarely do we convey that those
chores need not be dreaded, and even more rarely do we
model, ourselves, that positive attitude that we profess to
value so highly in others.

The innate curiosity of children is the fuel – the driving
force – behind their “motor” of learning. Children do not innately
value play dough over mopping, or baseball over writing.
And even beyond the academic and chore paradigm, children
are designed to try many things – to experience deeply
and immersively some interests, and to dabble and sample
others.

When parents ascribe much deeper meaning to “sticking
with” an activity or sampling and abandoning an interest –
when we as parents catastrophize those natural tendencies of
children to follow their bliss – we send many unintended messages.

First we send a message that sticking with something, even
if we’ve lost interest, is more important than following our inner
voice about what feels right. That even if something feels
unfulfilling, we should trudge along, enduring it – even if the
it” was something that was just supposed to be fun and interesting,
not a commitment to other people or a life or death situation.
Even if the person in question is only seven years old.

Secondly, when we refuse to let children “quit” something,
we send the message that they might indeed be better off not
trying new things at all. This can paralyze unschooling, and can
also be problematic in many ways for children who are not unschooling.
When children lose the drive to try new things because
they fear being forced, coerced, or judged into “sticking
with it” even if they don’t end up liking it, their drive and curiosity
in every area of their lives are eroded.

Thirdly, focusing on the money spent or the commitment
made, rather than on the needs and desires of the child, sends
the message that mom and dad care more about what others
think, or about a child’s value as a human as measured by some
external standard, than about how something feels to the
child. It not only sends that message to the child, but it drives a
wedge in the relationship, because relationships are based on
empathy and understanding – and direct focus – rather than
on an image of one’s child filtered through a lens of societal
judgment.

And fourthly, we also send a message that some activities
are more valuable than others, based solely on our own judgment
as parents. In Kristi’s case, piano was elevated in importance
over ballet and soccer. But what if she had a natural ability
in ballet or soccer? What if she’d enjoyed them more and
they had brought a wealth of enjoyment, connection, and skill
building to her life? And what if being allowed to do both ballet
and soccer, and not piano had sent the message that her
self-knowledge was more valid than her parents’ values? Additionally,
she might have even learned some of the very skills of
sticking with something” through soccer or ballet that she
failed to learn with piano – even though she was forced to stick
with it for so long!

It’s Not All or Nothing
Some adults, in support of forcing their children to stick
with an activity, argue that they wish their parents had pushed
them to learn an instrument, for instance, and others will say
that they are grateful that their parents forced them. In my
mind, this perfectly exemplifies the erosion of trust in oneself
that can happen as a result of parental pressure and control.
These folks are placing the locus of control over their own
learning and inspiration in their parents’ hands, retrospectively.
This is misplacement – and a very polarized one at that.
Parents can and do support and guide their children through
navigating the pursuit of a passion without owning the motivation
or inspiration. Parental support is entirely different, with
regard to learning and pursuing interests, than parental control.
One facilitates the pursuit of passions and exploration;
the other is erosive.

Relationships and navigation through life are too complicated
to be parsed into starkly polemic choices. It’s not a
choice between neglecting and not caring about your child and
forcing her to do things for her own good. It’s not a choice
between giving him no feedback or support and telling
him exactly what he “should” do every step of his life. It’s
not even a choice between being ashamed of your child
and being proud of your child. The choice that can encompass
all that’s needed is the choice between
prioritizing the parent-child relationship versus prioritizing
the behavior, activities, accomplishments, and
other externally measurable and observable aspects of
your child’s life. One facilitates the other, but that phenomenon
doesn’t run in reverse. When the relationship
is prioritized, the effects of that positive relationship permeate
all aspects of the child’s life into adulthood. But
prioritizing the externally measurable aspects of your
child over the relationship erodes the very relationship
upon which those lifelong perspectives, actions, and accomplishments
are built.

Another common argument for parental pushing or
even force is that every activity of value has some difficult
phases, and the belief that kids will abandon those
activities without pushing through the challenge, if
parents don’t force them. It is thought that if parents
force their children to push through those boring, frustrating
periods, they will emerge out the other side loving
the activity and with a huge accomplishment under
their belts, and that the very act of forcing and pushing
through this phase is an act of love. This may happen
sometimes, but I believe it’s rare. More common, I
think, will be stories like Kristi’s and Bonni’s. And the
flip side of that argument is that there may be many
more children who would push through anyhow, without
parental force (but with parental support) if they
love the activity.

And those who wouldn’t may be the kids who’d
emerge out the other side of that forced march hating
the activity and quitting as soon as they were free to do
so. It also may be that those who do stick with something
and end up loving it, would have come back
around to that activity on their own, if allowed to quit,
because of their natural proclivity for it, and therefore,
even though forced, their passion for the activity remains,
but at what cost to the relationship, and with
what additional emotional baggage or diminished trust
in their own inner compass?

For simplicity of illustration, imagine we start with
three basic groups of children: those who would love it
and stick with it no matter what (including those who
would quit but revisit if not forced, and end up loving
it), those who would stick with it if forced, and would
end up loving it, and those who would hate it in the end
if forced.

Then consider the impact of each of these scenarios
on the parent-child relationship and the child’s trust in
her own decision making skills , and envision a matrix in
which the relationship and the development of one’s
own inner compass was more important than the activity,
but the activity was important too. It becomes clear
which approach would be a better choice overall, when
a child wants to quit something.


Group
force or
no force
impact on
relationship
and
self
end result
with activity
Group 1 – would love it no matter what, in the end, because innately passionate about it, but might ask to quit for a while, and would revisit on their own, without force
force
poor
loves it
no force
good
loves it
Group 2 – would love it if left alone, does not ask to quit
no force
good
loves it
force
Poor
lukewarm or
abandons
as adult
Group 3 – those who would abandon it in the end, regardless
force
poor
hates it and
abandons as
adult
no force
good
lukewarm and
abandons
as adult
  
You can see from the matrix above that the scenarios where the impact on the relationship and self AND the end result are both positive are only the “no force” scenarios, and the the force scenarios have at least in common a negative impact on relationship and self, and in the case of group 3, where the children would end up abandoning the activity anyhow, the poor impact on relationship served no “purpose” because the activity is still loathed as well. In the first scenario with group 1, the activity is loved in the end, but it would have been loved anyhow, and the force had an unnecessary impact on relationship and self. I realize this is simplistic, but I think it’s a useful way to look at the options, nonetheless.

Different People are Different
It might appear that some children are more prone
to “quitting things” and less able to “commit” to activities
and stick with them – but what if you flip that
around and view those children as dabblers, experimenters
open to the world and curious about everything?
Those are the children who, if their trust is not
eroded by parental control, will try anything once (or
more than once). And yes, they will quit more things
than those children who dive deep and stick around
longer with one activity. But that’s due to the sheer volume
of things they try! If you have a child who decides
she wants to put everything she has into martial arts
and music, and then decides later that she actually prefers
martial arts and is tired of music for now, she has a
fifty percent quit rate. If you have a child who tries
sixteen different things in one year, and ends up liking
four of them a lot, that child might have a seventy-five
percent quit rate, but he now has four activities he
loves, not just one.

And another view of the “deep digger” is that in that
unilateral focus that we see (“oh, he’s obsessed with
Pokemon”), the child himself sees a huge, variable universe
of options. And indeed, a seemingly narrow topic
can open the door to a broad and deep array of interests
and explorations. (See some links at the end of this
article about experiences like this.)

Neither of those scenarios – the dabbler or the deep
digger – is better than the other; they are simply different
styles. And either can be tainted by parental response.
If the two-activity (whittled down to one-activity)
child was forced to try a variety of things because
the focus was deemed too narrow, she might end up
feeling spread too thin, or she might feel as if there is
something wrong with her for caring so much about
one thing – she might hear words hurled at her like “obsessed”
or “single-minded” and start to think of herself
as limited.

If the dabbling in many activities child were forced
to stick with activities the parents deemed valuable but
that the child wished to stop doing, that child might
learn to not try things so readily – to resist exploration,
and close herself off to learning. She might hear labels
about herself like “undisciplined” or “a quitter” and her
openness and sense of ability to learn new thingsmight
be undermined.

Children can heal from either of those versions of
parental pressure too, and they tend to find their own
curve” again, once parents figure out how to be their
child’s partner through life, rather than adversary, drill
sergeant, or conqueror. The longer the relationship has
been adversarial, though, the more healing needs to be
done, and therefore the longer it can take for this partnership
approach to look like it’s “working.” Children
have an innate drive to learn and absorb. We really
need to back off and trust their process, and support it
where we can. So, if you’ve fallen into either of these
common habits – pressuring your child to try more
things, to branch out, to be different somehow, which
often goes hand in hand with not seeing the real depth
of opportunity in what at first appears to be a narrow
focus, or refusing to let your child try many things if he
doesn’t stick with them – give a try to trusting your
child’s inner compass! You might be amazed at the results!

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