I can’t think of a better way for me to have spent Martin Luther King Day than to have worked on this post.
I’m a sucker for brilliant, funny performers.
My husband John Lehr is one.
But sometimes at night when we’re in bed eating frozen grapes and watching The Daily Show I’ll say “Honey, if I’d never met you—or if God forbid something happens to you—I’d want to marry Jon Stewart.” But then all I need is a quick commercial of Chris Rock doing stand up and it becomes “Wait, I mean Chris Rock. He’s a genius.”
Lately, however, it’s becoming Dr. Gabor Maté. Not only is he totally brilliant but he looks like he just walked out of an Almodavar film. (Sadly, John, for as far as he’s come style-wise, would never be able to pull off that rumpled-sports-jacket–with-a-t-shirt look that Maté does so effortlessly. With a European accent, no less. I mean just watch this.)
But now I’m thinking Alfie Kohn. Like Maté, he’s not a comedian either, but he’s got good comic timing. And John wore pleated pants when I met him too. And honestly, I think Kohn’s pleated pants may even be calculated. I mean Kohn needs to look as conservative and non-threatening as possible when he’s passionately disseminating information that makes people question everything they’d never even dreamed of having to question. And then he goes ahead and asks them to radically change the way they do what they do all day, every day—be it as a parent or teacher or just a human being who talks to kids. Anyway, that’s all just to say that me and my crazy mind were doing some “If my husband dies…” jockeying last Wednesday when I went to not one, but two Alfie Kohn talks in one evening. (And yes, my husband was right there next to me saying “That’s nice honey. He’s a good man. Jewish, too.”)
GRADES, TESTS, HOMEWORK AND COMPETITION: ROBBING OUR KIDS OF THE JOY OF LEARNING
Kohn’s first talk about Unconditional Parenting was at my daughter’s school The Oaks in Hollywood at 4pm. Afterwards I wanted to stay and decompress with everyone but instead I grabbed one cookie at the reception and rushed off to sit in cross-town traffic in order to get a good seat at The Willows in Culver City to hear his second talk Pushed Too Hard: Parenting in an Achievement Crazy Culture. Like many who had never seen Kohn in person, Gina Osher over at the Twin Coach had her mind blown by it and was inspired to blog about it. I hope you’ll take a few moments to read her post that summarizes it beautifully.
While this post will be about the first talk, I’ll quickly say that at Willows, Kohn essentially exposed modern education for the thief that it is (and backed it up with his exhaustive research)….showing us how everything from reward-and-punishment classroom management styles, direct instruction, homework, grades, tests and competition literally rob children of their innate joy of learning. Bottom line: Why go to school if it will make your kids less interested in knowing things? His message to parents and educators: Take a big gulp, swallow your pride and think again. Your kids are worth it. Stand up! Say something! Do something. Don’t let this continue.
“DOING TO” vs “WORKING WITH” PARENTING
So back to The Oaks.
Kohn kicked off PARENTING MATTERS, a new series co-presented by Echo Parenting & Education and The Oaks. (I am proud to have played matchmaker here and have high hopes that the relationship between Echo and Oaks will grow and thrive. As Rabbi Schulweiss said at our wedding, “The reason this union is of importance to more than just you and your families is because of Tikkun olum…it’s potentional to help repair the world.”)
I don’t know what Kohn’s talk was officially titled but I’m calling it “Doing to” vs. “Working with” Parenting. While the former is rampant in our culture and is “effective” in the short term, ultimately it creates less generous, less empathetic, less self-disciplined, less genuinely interested people while damaging the parent-child relationship that we all not only hold so dear but ultimately creates the foundation of a healthy life. His message wasn’t what many wanted or were remotely expecting to hear. And for many I think it was a hard, horse pill that smells like yucky vitamins to swallow.
So without further ado…
Grant Hall holds about 150 people and I had third row seats. After having been one in a sea of thousands last time I saw Kohn at Occidental College, it was really exciting to see him in such an intimate setting. He can get so worked up! Even though he’s likely given the same talk many many times, he delivers it like the greatest of Broadway performers who during each one of their eight performances a week make the audience feel like it’s opening night. Kohn was as sharp and nimble as he was passionate. (See how much I love him?)
Ted Harmory, the Oaks’ Head of School, welcomed everyone by explaining that having Alfie Kohn on campus was particularly significant for him because it was one of Kohn’s books (Unconditional Parening? or Punished by Rewards?) that he read over a decade ago that transformed him as a father and an educator. Ted then introduced Brian Joseph, the Director of Programming at Echo Parenting & Education who essentially said the same thing. It was actually quite moving to witness two grown men publicly thank the man who so deeply influenced their thinking, parenting and careers and by extension, the lives of countless others.
“The more you rely on your power with your kids the less influence you’ll have on their lives.”
The first part of Kohn’s talk was particularly intense. Like a masterful trial lawyer, he used logic, research and heart-breaking scenes from life to lay bear for us his argument that rewarding children with praise and punishing them with everything from spanking, yelling at, forced isolation, threats, humiliation or shaming are actually two sides of the same coin. You might think you’re helping your kid by Good jobbing them, but in essence, just like punishment, it is just another form of trying to control their behavior. Kohn classifies everything on that spectrum as Doing To parenting. Yes, when they are young, you’ll get temporary compliance but only at a significant cost.
Kohn explained that what history teaches us about power, psychology teaches us about intimacy. People who feel powerless, seek power. People who feel like victims become victimizers. I took this to mean, that if you don’t want your kid to be a bully, don’t bully them.
The buck has to stop somewhere. It would be best if it could stop with you.
“Punishments erode relationships.”
Kohn is anti consequences. He explains that they get in the way of true moral growth and ultimately create kids who are more self-centered. Not less. For instance, if a kid gets caught doing something and there is a consequence, he’ll just start thinking to himself, “How can I do that without getting caught?” It’s about him, not why he shouldn’t do what he did. On the other hand, what we want is for people to choose not to do something because of how it makes others and ourselves feel. Consequences can’t accomplish that.
Then what do you do? many wondered. How can one you possibly get their child to do something without a consequence, without a “If you don’t….then….” or without praising them into it?
“The way kids learn to make good decisions is by making decisions, not following directions.”
Well, Kohn was there to advocate for what he calls a WORK WITH style of parenting. You don’t need to be the all-knowing, infallible adult that you aren’t anyways. You can work with your children. You can learn from them. You can engage them in the process of decision-making. You can listen to them. You can try to see the world from their point of view. You can be empathetic and compassionate. And you can think the best of them, not the worst. When they do “good” things, you don’t have to think it’s a fluke and praise them for it hoping it will reinforce their behavior as if they are a rat in one of Skinner’s experiments. Working with your children, instead of doing to them, is not only more respectful, compassionate and humane but it is more effective if your goals are to raise children who are generous, thoughtful, empathetic and intrinsically motivated.
During the second part of the talk he laid out eight guidelines of Work With Parenting.
Before listing and describing them, Kohn explained that he wasn’t there to tell us what to do or say to your kids. He doesn’t know us and he doesn’t know our kids. It would be as presumptuous as it would be preposterous. Parenting is all about knowing your child. Observing them. And your relationship with them. How can you tell someone you don’t know what to say to someone you’ve never met? So, instead, he offered guidelines of how to work with your kids.
The guidelines are his. The commentary is my own.
ALFIE KOHN’S 8 GUIDELINES FOR “WORK WITH” PARENTING
1) RECONSIDER YOUR REQUEST
If your kid doesn’t just up and do what you want him to do, or is putting up a fight (as in trying to stick up for themselves), did you really ask something reasonable?
2) PUT RELATIONSHIP FIRST
Is it really worth eroding your relationship with your kids (or their own relationship with their hypothalamus) to get them to not have a second cupcake?
3) TRY TO TAKE YOUR KID’S POV
I think this quote from to Kill a Mocking Bird captures some of what he meant:
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
You may not feel hot and sweaty in a jacket, but can you imagine that your child who isn’t putting it on when you asked, might? Perhaps he’s been playing for an hour while you’ve been sitting in the shade.
Can you imagine how it might feel to be three years old and to show up at a birthday party at a big gymnasium and be told to go jump on the trampoline with your hands in the air and follow the leader on obstacle course over balance bars and swinging ropes? And then when you cling to your mother and shake your head no and find that she’s not the warm refuge you were looking for but is instead is pushing your out there? After all, all the other kids are doing it. Ask: What is your kid seeing and feeling? Personally, I want my kids cautious when it comes to potentially new, scary overwhelming and dangerous situations. Honor it. (For example!)
4) THE MESSAGE THEY NEED IS THAT WE LOVE THEM UNCONDITIONALLY
How do we communicate this? It’s not enough to feel like we love the unconditionally. They need to feel it too.
You don’t want your kid feeling that they’re more loved when then get an A or win a game or share a toy or do as they are told or kiss grandma. Conversely you don’t want them feeling like they are unworthy of your love if they’ve messed up. They are always loveable.
5) BE REAL
Be authentic. Let them know you are vulnerable. That you make mistakes. If you made a mistake, apologize. If you are frustrated, tell them. You don’t’ have to scream about it! If you’re disappointed or sad, be disappointed or sad. All emotions are valid, why wouldn’t we want our children to see us vulnerable and human? It will make your closer.
6) TALK LESS, ASK MORE
Listen to them. Elicit information. Great parenting is a function of being a great listener.
7) ATTRIBUTE KID’S BEHAVIOR TO THE BEST POSSIBLE MOTIVE
You don’t need to think they did something nice because they were trying to manipulate you or to get something. Think the best of your kid.
8) GIVE KIDS MORE SAY, LET THEM MAKE MORE CHOICES.
And he means real choices. Not: “Do you want a red cup or a blue one?”
OKAY MY WORLD IS ROCKED. I’M OVERWHELMED, NOW WHAT?
A mother who had clearly been deeply affected by Kohn’s talk said, “My child is older. I’ve made mistakes! Where do I start?”
Kohn answered by saying that he’s just be honest.
“Honey, I went to hear a parenting expert talk last night and I realized that so many of the things that I’ve been doing that I thought were helping you, actually aren’t. I have new perspective. Over time, I’d like to talk to you about these things. I’d like to hear your point of view. I want to work with you.”
Starting an authentic dialogue is important. And apologizing for mistreating your child is too.
There are so many ways I can imagine to help oneself become a Work With parent. Certainly it is a challenge. But I’ve found that with practice it does get easier (though I wouldn’t say easy!). Here’s some ideas.
- Go directly to alfiekohn.com.
- Take a parenting class from Echo Parenting & Education
- Bring the film Race to Nowhere to your community.
- Print Kohn’s 8 guidelines and put them on your refrigerator. Read daily.
- Create your own support group of like-mindedish parents and bring in material to discuss weekly. Places to start gathering material: