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I’m Sierra. I live in the Boston area with my family.

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Love those kids unconditionally

by Sierra on September 25, 2009 · 11 comments

in parenting,Uncategorized

Alfie Kohn has a great article in the NYT about unconditional love for one’s children. He covers a lot of current scientific research that backs up his main point: kids need to be loved. Withholding love and affection from a child to compel obedience is, he feels, a cruel but sadly not unusual punishment.

This article reminded me of a story from Everyday Blessings about a boy who, with two friends, destroyed a sheetrock wall in a hotel lobby out of boredom. Their mothers and the hotel staff waited for the fathers to return from their fishing trip. The first father returned, saw what his son had done, and beat him on the spot with his belt. The second father came back and beat his child even more severely. The third father came back, said nothing at all, and left. He returned an hour later with a load of sheetrock and repaired the damage the boys had done, all without ever speaking to his child.

There’s a powerful lesson about unconditional love there.

I have to confess, I’ve struggled with this as a mom. It sounds great on paper, but in practice…well. Let’s face it: kids push buttons. At least mine do. Sometimes they piss me off and I just don’t want to cuddle and validate their feelings. Sometimes I really need to put myself in time-out.

As anecdote to back up Mr. Kohn’s data, I can say I’ve never seen my daughter more scared and upset than when I’ve refused to talk to her until she calms down (something I do occasionally when she’s throwing a tantrum in the car and I feel staying engaged is dangerously distracting).

Ultimately, I doubt whether putting kids in time-out is the deciding factor of a good parent-child relationship. I suspect there are thousands of right paths to follow toward the goals most parents share: a happy, healthy, successful life for their grown-up kids.

Here’s what I try to do when I stumble.

  1. I’ve made amends. When I’m the one who throws a tantrum, when I raise my voice or make an unfair threat or refuse to play nice and just storm off to my room, I apologize. I talk it over with the kids when we’re all calm, and try to help us all learn from the situation.
  2. I keep getting better. I’m a big parenting geek. I read books and go to workshops and observe other parents and call my mom for advice. I pay attention to what happens between me and my kids and try to make it more like my fantasy life where we snuggle and read books and play in the dirt all day, and less like my real life where we spend half the morning looking for somebody’s lost shoes and discover in the process that our library books have playdough folded into the pages.

Which path are you on? Do you use time-outs? How do you manage your kids’ inevitable unpleasant behavior?

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  • Rich Wilson

    When I was 13 my English teacher filled several blackboards with notes during the lunch hour, so when our class started right after lunch, we were supposed to start writing them down. He was a bit late to class, and one dare lead to another, and I ended up erasing the entire board. The Principle heard all the noise and caught me in the act, and ordered me to meet with the teacher after school to decide punishment. I was mortified.

    At the end of the day, the teacher took one look at me, looked down, and said “just go”. The guilt was overwhelming. I would have much preferred some kind of penance. But then I probably would have forgotten all about it by now.

    [Reply]

  • Rich Wilson

    When I was 13 my English teacher filled several blackboards with notes during the lunch hour, so when our class started right after lunch, we were supposed to start writing them down. He was a bit late to class, and one dare lead to another, and I ended up erasing the entire board. The Principle heard all the noise and caught me in the act, and ordered me to meet with the teacher after school to decide punishment. I was mortified.

    At the end of the day, the teacher took one look at me, looked down, and said “just go”. The guilt was overwhelming. I would have much preferred some kind of penance. But then I probably would have forgotten all about it by now.

    [Reply]

  • Sarah T

    I have to confess something: I am a fan of the time out, which I grew up with, and I am confused by why a time out has to mean “I don’t love you” and can’t mean “I love you no matter what, but it’s not okay to throw crayons at me.” To me, loving and approving of a person can be meaningfully separated from approving of their behavior (anyone ever loved an addict?), and learning to separate those two is a really important skill.

    [Reply]

    Sierra Reply:

    I think the point is that a time-out is still a punishment. I think Alfie Kohn tends to exaggerate the damage time outs can cause, but it is easy to misuse them to hurt kids. I’ve certainly given out my share of time-outs, but the better strategy is to get yourself and the kids on the same page before you’re using your “power over” a kid to force compliance through punishment.

    [Reply]

  • Sarah T

    I have to confess something: I am a fan of the time out, which I grew up with, and I am confused by why a time out has to mean “I don’t love you” and can’t mean “I love you no matter what, but it’s not okay to throw crayons at me.” To me, loving and approving of a person can be meaningfully separated from approving of their behavior (anyone ever loved an addict?), and learning to separate those two is a really important skill.

    [Reply]

    Sierra Reply:

    I think the point is that a time-out is still a punishment. I think Alfie Kohn tends to exaggerate the damage time outs can cause, but it is easy to misuse them to hurt kids. I’ve certainly given out my share of time-outs, but the better strategy is to get yourself and the kids on the same page before you’re using your “power over” a kid to force compliance through punishment.

    [Reply]

  • Ellen

    I am absolutely with Sarah: I read that article and was mystified about why the author thinks timeouts had anything at all to do with “withdrawal of our love and affection”.

    Yes, we use timeouts (which also have nothing to do with “forcibly isolating children” — sheesh!). We have them sit down for five or ten minutes, almost always in the same room with us. It gives the kids time to think about what they’re doing, and everyone a chance to calm down. Sounds terrifyingly cruel, doesn’t it?

    [Reply]

  • Ellen

    I am absolutely with Sarah: I read that article and was mystified about why the author thinks timeouts had anything at all to do with “withdrawal of our love and affection”.

    Yes, we use timeouts (which also have nothing to do with “forcibly isolating children” — sheesh!). We have them sit down for five or ten minutes, almost always in the same room with us. It gives the kids time to think about what they’re doing, and everyone a chance to calm down. Sounds terrifyingly cruel, doesn’t it?

    [Reply]

  • Valerie

    Even better would have been if the father had “helped” the child repair the wall. We clean up our own messes and we make amends.

    [Reply]

  • Valerie

    Even better would have been if the father had “helped” the child repair the wall. We clean up our own messes and we make amends.

    [Reply]

  • Valerie

    Even better would have been if the father had “helped” the child repair the wall. We clean up our own messes and we make amends.

    [Reply]

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