Joshua just turned 2 last week. He has pretty much been the centre of gravity in our lives for these past two years, and it’s very hard for us to remember life without him. We love him, we cherish him, and we shower him with love and attention. We also treat him very differently than most parents do.
Both Anne-Marie and I grew up in an era in which punishments, rewards, praise, and a generally authoritarian parenting style were the norm. Hence, this is the style we automatically gravitated towards when Joshua was born. But it felt wrong. What we had learned since our childhood, about the worth of souls and the equal respect everyone deserves, shouted in our ears that there was something fundamentally harmful about this style of parenting.
Over the years we have both developed an inquiring frame of mind. We question things that are generally taken for granted, and we ask ourselves tough questions. For example: when I use my angry voice with Joshua, what am I trying to do? What is he likely to learn from this interaction? What are the likely costs? Are the potential benefits worth taking the potential risks? Am I being honest in answering these questions?
What we have learned from our daily interactions with Joshua, is that he loves learning, and he loves doing it his way. We also learned that he hates being controlled (don’t we all?). This shouldn’t be news to anyone, I’m sure. What surprised us, however, is that he is able to self-regulate to such a degree that would make many adults pale with envy, but that self-regulation requires guidance. What do I mean?
Self-regulation is the ability to decide for oneself to do something unpleasant or unrewarding, or not to do something pleasant. For example, Joshua only eats as much chocolate as he feels like eating, which means he will often leave a half-melted, sloppy chunk of Cadbury Twirl or Milky Way stuck somewhere in the sofa. That amazes me! I usually eat as much chocolate as there is available, or until my body tells me I’ve already eaten too much and I feel quite sick.
Another more striking example is when Joshua wants to do something, but something else needs to be done first. For example, he wants to go to the park, but he first needs to get changed into more suitable clothes. Initially, he used to throw short tantrums about being taken away from what he really wanted to do (feeling controlled), and this only got worse if we use physical force like carrying him or restraining him while he gets changed. Then one day we discovered something astonishing:
You just have to explain.
Here we were, talking to a 1-year-old who mostly could not understand what we said, telling him calmly while looking in his eyes that it was important to wear a long-sleeve shirt so that he could be protected against the mosquitoes. The effect was instantaneous: he calmed down, and agreed. Did he understand the reason we were giving him? I don’t know! But we’ve tried this again and again, and it works every time. I’m not exaggerating here. It works EVERY SINGLE TIME. Joshua has never, ever had a tantrum that lasted more than a couple of minutes, and he hasn’t had one at all for well over 6 months. There are times when he gets very frustrated and throws his hands or smacks his head in desperation, but he calms down when we give him a hug and reassure him that he’ll be alright without watching Bob the Builder right now, and suggest another activity that we know he enjoys (usually reading a book or playing in the sand pit).
Is it easy to give an explanation to a child every time we want him to do something he doesn’t want to do? I can tell you right now, it’s not easy: it requires you to think, and to be honest. You don’t want to start inventing reasons for doing things, not only is it disrespectful towards your child, it also damages the mutual trust between you that is so essential to a caring relationship in years to come. Sometimes you have to agree that, perhaps, Joshua doesn’t really need to brush his teeth tonight, perhaps he won’t grow cavities overnight, and perhaps he won’t conclude that he can “get away with” not brushing his teeth ever again. Physically restraining your child and forcing the toothbrush down his throat will not give him the ability to self-regulate his own tooth-brushing: it will make him hate it even more.
The alternative? “Joshua, you need to brush your teeth a little bit tonight, otherwise bugs will attack your teeth and make them hurt.” I know this may sound ridiculous, but if it does, ask yourself why it sounds ridiculous…
We need to trust children more. They have amazing innate abilities. Contrary to popular notion, most of the time they DO KNOW what is good for them, but we so often prevent them from doing it, just because we think we know better. Each time I decide to stop Joshua from doing something, I ask myself (if I have the time) “what is the worst thing that could happen if I let him do that?”. Sometimes the answer warrants some immediate action, but it rarely does. Most of the time the worst thing that could happen is spilled milk, or some pepper in his mouth, or a little fall and a bump on the head.
Does that mean I give him no warning? No! I explain that there is a risk, then let him choose whether or not to take it. As you can imagine, initially he usually takes the risk. If he spills milk, that makes him upset, I don’t need to tell him it’s a bad thing, or get angry. He doesn’t like spilled milk any more than I do. So he goes and picks up a towel, and wipes it off. Then I ask him to put the towel in the wash, which is something else he likes to do. If he spills pepper in his mouth, he will gag a bit, frantically flap his hands on his tongue, and eventually lick the back of the lounge, while we’re all having a good laugh (and so is he). Will he do it again? Perhaps, but probably not. If he falls, there’s no need to scold him for that, physical pain is a natural deterrent and works wonders at preventing risk-taking behaviour in young children (I can’t speak for adolescents…). Also he will learn to associate a warning from his parents with a possible risk of getting hurt.
And after these experiences, I can refer to them in future explanations of why some action is required or to be avoided, and he seems to understand. “Joshua, last time you jumped up and down on the bed, you fell off and hurt your head. Please be careful this time.” Interestingly, Joshua rarely hurts himself. I’m not sure if he’s more careful than other children, or if it’s a result of our parenting, but he tends to self-regulate his own boisterousness, to our great delight 🙂
No punishment, no praise, no rewards
Now we’re pushing the issue a bit further, going directly against the tide of conventional wisdom. We don’t punish Joshua for anything he does. Ever. We don’t spank him, we don’t scold him, we don’t withdraw privileges from him or any of these methods of behavioural control. We believe that improper actions carry their own costs, and when the costs are not obvious (or are cumulative over time), we explain that to him to dissuade him from doing these things. You’d be amazed how much a 2-year-old (who can’t yet speak) understands, especially if the tone of voice and the facial expression are right.
Punishment dealt by parents prevent children from learning that their own actions carry negative consequences. Instead, it teaches them that parents are the source of negative consequences. Walking towards a busy street becomes undesirable not because of the danger of passing cars, but because of daddy’s slap on the buttocks and insults. It also confuses them regarding their worth: “Does daddy only love me when I do what pleases him?”.
OK, punishment is bad. But what about rewards? Surely it’s important to reward good behaviour? We have used rewards a few times with Joshua, and it works amazingly well at getting the desired results in the short term. However, they’re appalling at helping children develop personal responsibility and self-regulation. Just like punishments, they distract children from the natural rewards that come from certain behaviours. Rewarding a child for reading prevents her from learning that reading is pleasurably in its own right. Children only tend to do what is enjoyable and interesting to them anyway, so why should they get rewarded on top of that, especially with something that usually has nothing to do with the activity? And if we’re not here to give a reward when he does something that we usually reward, will he still do it?
Consequently we don’t reward Joshua for anything, and he thrives in his own discovery of the intrinsic value of reading, dancing, drawing, going to the toilet (no such thing as “toilet training” in our home!), eating, helping mum with the washing, cooking an egg, pouring his own bottle of milk etc.
Finally, we don’t praise Joshua. Although we occasionally let a “good boy” slip out, that is only an automatic phrase that we parrot from our own upbringing, and we are consciously doing it less and less. There is no value in praise. Why should we praise Joshua for sharing a toy? Is it impossible that Joshua may learn by himself that sharing is a good to do, without being rewarded/praised for doing it? I certainly don’t want him to share his toys in order to get praise from us, because that would be missing the point entirely!
We learn best when we understand the principle first, then develop ways to put it into practice. Rewards and praise are based on the opposite idea: that we should do the things first, then we’ll eventually figure out why it’s good to do it. I challenge that. In most cases it’s far better to let children learn by letting them make mistakes and discover what happens.
If Joshua snatches a toy from Ben, instead of scolding him by saying: “That’s not nice, Joshua, you need to share!”, I’m not explaining anything, there is no way he can learn the value of sharing from that. If, instead, I say “Joshua, Ben would like to play with that, could you let him play with it?”, he may or may not choose to do it. If he does, I refrain from saying “thank you Joshua, nice sharing!”, because that’s using praise as the reward for the action. Instead, I could say: “Joshua, look at Ben playing with this toy, he looks really happy!”. If Joshua chooses to keep the toy, instead of saying: “That’s not nice Joshua, you need to learn to share!”, I can just not say anything at all, or point out that Joshua is keeping the toy.
I’m afraid that, as parents, we often interfere in natural learning processes, which interference creates a dependence on further interference in the future, delaying this natural learning. When safety is a concern, a minimum amount of control is required, but that can be done respectfully, without anger and certainly without punishment. In most cases, however, safety is not an issue, and children will learn what they need to learn simply by interacting with each other, and having us around them to answer questions and give explanations when required.
I will have much more to write on these topics in the future, so stick around. I will also explain why we will never be sending Joshua to school.