“You can’t teach children to behave better by making them feel worse. When children feel better, they behave better.” – Pam Leo
Nearly eight years ago, I found the above words by Pam Leo to be absolutely true, and this truth led me down the path of connection-based parenting for which I am so grateful to have followed. When I used punishments such as time-out and tricks like behavior charts, my son’s behavior became increasingly difficult and we were locked in what I perceived to be constant power struggles. I felt like my son was always struggling to gain the upper hand when really he was only struggling to regain our connection. When I provided his attachment needs, he felt better. He was able to rest in our relationship, and his behavior improved.
Much of today’s parenting advice is based on behavioral theory. Time-out, for example, is a result of B.F. Skinner’s work on operant conditioning. We tend to think in terms of positive and negative reinforcement because Skinner showed us that a hungry rat will quickly learn to push a lever for food (positive reinforcement) or push the lever to avoid being shocked (negative reinforcement). As a result, we spend our days handing out food pellets or shocking children (metaphors for punishments and rewards, of course) to condition them to behave how we want them to behave, but, as Alfie Kohn, author of Unconditional Parenting, explains, “Behaviors are just the outward expression of feelings and thoughts, needs and intentions. In a nutshell, it's the child who engages in a behavior, not just the behavior itself, that matters."
Here are 3 ways we help our child feel better, thereby helping them behave better:
- Be the light reflector. While punishment may temporarily stop a certain behavior, it makes children feel bad about themselves, and when children feel bad about who they are, their behavior will reflect that. Rather than being behavior managers, we can become light reflectors (click the link to read more about becoming a light reflector). In this nurturing role, we simply reflect back the light that our children already possess. When they get off track, as humans do, we remind them of their goodness, their kindness, their willingness to help. We hold faith that their intentions are good, even when behavior is bad, and we guide them back to their true (good) selves.
- Use positive discipline. Positive discipline looks beyond behavior to the heart of the child. It seeks to determine why a child is behaving in a certain way so that the root cause can be fixed. Punishing or rewarding behavior is like slapping a Band-Aid on an open and bleeding wound. It might cover up the problem, but it doesn’t heal it. Positive discipline has 3 simple steps: Assess the need (find out what is driving the behavior), calm yourself and your child (because until you are both calm, your brains aren’t ready to engage with one another with empathy and the ability to solve the problem), and teach/problem-solve (look for a solution to the problem).
- Make unconditional love your top priority. Dr. Gordon Neufeld of The Neufeld Institute says this: “Unconditional parental love is the indespensible nutrient for the child's healthy emotional growth. The first task is to create space in the child's heart for the certainty that she is precisely the person the parents want and love. She does not have to do anything or be any different to earn that love - in fact, she cannot do anything, since that love cannot be won or lost...The child can be ornery, unpleasant, whiny, uncooperative, and plain rude, and the parent still lets her feel loved. Ways have to be found to convey the unacceptability of certain behaviors without making the child herself feel unaccepted. She has to be able to bring her unrest, her least likable characteristics to the parent and still receive the parent's absolutely satisfying, security-inducing unconditional love.” By offering our children our guidance along with unconditional love, we treat them not as rats in a box but as valuable human beings who have so much to contribute to our world.
This post was originally published at Creative Child Magazine.