Posing the Choice
So, over the weekend, we had an interesting presentation at church about parenthood. The specific details of the presentation won’t be immediately relevant for Dear Wife and I for some time yet – B.T. having not yet grasped the fundamentals of spoken language nor, for that matter, the fundamentals of self-propulsion – but some of the ideas presented were interesting. So, I thought I’d share a few thoughts.
The basic thesis of the presentation was that we, as parents, have as our primary role and responsibility the raising of children who are well-adapted to dealing with the challenges of their life. Concomitant with that responsibility are the need for love and compassion and for reason and logic – these are the component parts that will help parents and children form the bond that will allow the children to learn what they need from their parents.
The challenge, of course, is that young children are wont to do things that will put themselves in danger, or are socially unacceptable, or are short-sighted, and so on. Children have a very basic world-view: they seek to avoid things that have easily-recognized negative consequences and to engage in things that bring them immediate pleasure.
The point of the presentation was in developing some specific, practical skills as parents that will allow us to show both love and logic to our children. And the centerpiece of this practical skill-set, as presented, is the ability to present choices to our children that accomplish what we want and which will have naturally and easily-recognizable consequences.
One of the more memorable examples given was that of a child who does not want to wear his or her coat on a cold, wintery day. As a parent, you default to thinking: if my child goes without his coat, he will catch his death of cold. I want to protect my child, therefore I must force my child to wear his coat. This sets the parent and child up for a contest of wills. And the parent is likely to threaten punishment if the child does not comply, and will feel justified in doing so. After all, it’s for the child’s own well-being.
The alternative approach suggested is to present the child with a choice, and let nature take its course. “You can either wear your coat, or you can carry it, the choice is yours.” Framing the decision for the child can make the child feel empowered. Meanwhile, you, the parent, have accomplished your objective. If the child acts within the frame you have presented, then whether the child chooses to wear the coat or to merely carry it, when he gets cold outside, he will realize for himself the importance of wearing the coat. (You can further clarify this later if the child complains of being cold.)
As a principle of parenting, the idea of framing our children’s choices seems pretty powerful. Unfortunately, if there’s a concrete way to handle what happens when the child rejects the frame, it wasn’t made clear during this presentation. And, while I suspect that children will not often reject the frame, I also suspect that the time when the child rejects the frame will come. Children are exceptionally good at testing the boundaries and limits of their world, I’m told.
Some of the keys to making this successful are, first, to present a choice to your children that feel like real alternatives – which will make the child feel empowered. Second, pose choices that have consequences that you, as the parent, can “live with”. In other words, don’t suggest an option that will have a consequence that may cause immediate and irreparable harm to the child, nor which may result in the child’s commission of a felony, and those sorts of things. Present choices that will allow the child, instead, to learn both from his successes and his failures.
The other aspect of this presentation was to find the middle-way as a parent. There are, the presenter suggested, three overarching parenting styles: that of the “Authoritarian”, in which the parent is the supreme dictator of the home, the “Best Friend” model in which parents attempt to prevent all harm from coming to their children or strive to get their children to think of them as “the coolest mom/dad on the block”, and so on. And then there is the middle road. In the middle road, parents strive to balance the good aspects of each of the other styles of parenting. They set boundaries and limits, but allow children to operate freely in those limits (the same concept underlies the “framing” model detailed above). They help their children to develop behaviors that have positive consequences, but they don’t shield their children from the learning opportunities inherent in some negative consequences. For instance, a parent can fight the school teacher when a child comes home with a bad grade, and strive to make sure that the child always gets good grades so as not to hurt his or her self-esteem. Or, the parent can let the child learn that when we fail to do our best, sometimes bad outcomes result – a lesson that will serve the child well in a grown-up world where there is no-one to shield you from the consequences of your mistakes. At the same time, the parent on the middle road strives to be empathetic of the child’s situation. Rather than leaving the child “in the cold”, so to speak, to “learn from their mistakes”, the parent on the middle road makes sure the child knows the parent is cognizant of his or her feelings and emotions, and wants to help the child find alternatives that will make them feel better.
Some of these lessons will have to be learned in the field of fire. But equipping myself now with some of these tools will hopefully empower me to be a better parent in the future. Still… I don’t think this is going to be easy.