Peaceful Parenting

Navigating the push-pull relationship between parents and their children.

Calling All Parents: Stop Bullying, Start Teaching

Too many people believe children need to be controlled.

The media storm around Tiger Mom Amy Chua continues. Jessica Beagley of Alaska and the Dr. Phil show has been added to the mix. Beagley, now convicted of the misdemeanor crime of child abuse, used such child-controlling techniques as dosing her seven-year old son with hot sauce and dousing this same child in cold showers. Now the ultimate, Julie Schenecker of Tampa Florida is accused of murdering her teenage son and daughter because they talked back and were mouthy, the media reports. In less than a month these extreme examples of parenting practices have been splashed across our news.

Most parents are not going to such extremes in an attempt to control or discipline their children. But what is a parent to do? Using conventional wisdom, many discipline approaches invoke the use of some kind of carrot to entice a child to cooperate and behave well or alternately use various kinds of sticks or threats to scare children into listening, or straightening up and flying right. Many parents who are following these well accepted strategies feel worse and worse about imposing external rewards or punishments. Some have discovered that these methods don't work, forcing parents to continue to up the prize or punishment. Could increasing the carrot or stick lead to the extreme abuse imposed by the mothers who have recently made news headlines?

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Too many people believe that children need to be controlled. This mistaken and commonly held belief comes from two predominate and erroneous misconceptions of the psychology of Freud and of behaviorism. When Freud described the id, the animal instincts of people driven to seek pleasure and avoid pain, society embraced this belief to describe children. Along came behaviorism, the science that proved one person can control another person's behavior using positive and negative reinforcement. Society now had a perfect combination; children, little animals, needing to be controlled and the strategy of using carrots and sticks to do the controlling.

Except most parents can recite more than a few stories where their attempts to control their child failed. These failures often start with a parent who tried to get their baby to sleep when the child didn't want to. Who won? How about bribing your seven-year old to clean his room? Or taking away privileges from your nine-year old who comes home with a poor grade on her report card? Or threatening to ground your eleven-year old for coming home later than the agreed upon curfew?

You cannot control your children's behavior unless your child colludes with you. This truth too often becomes a sudden awareness for parents who are attempting to carrot or stick their teenagers into following the parental rules. Their once darling child, now a screaming adolescent yells, "I'm not going to and you can't make me." Horrified, parents want to understand what has changed? The only thing that has changed is that your child is no longer willing to cooperate and collude with you trying to control her anymore.

Are you a parent who knows that what you are doing is not working? Are you dissatisfied with continuing to use disconnecting, bullying approaches in an attempt to control your child? Let's change the conversation, the questions asked which can lead to different, better and more effective answers.

Does a parent need to control their children? Most people will answer a resounding yes to this question. But what if we change the question? As a parent, would you rather try and control your child or teach your child how to control himself?

We need to change our understanding of children and their behavior. Children are born with genetic instructions that they experience as an urge to behave. Children are genetically driven for survival, safety, love, power, fun and freedom. When a child behaves, he is attempting to meet his need for survival, safety, love, power, fun or freedom.

Children are not born knowing how to follow these genetic instructions responsibly. Thus, children will misbehave. But their behavior is not malicious, evil, sinful, or greedy. A child's behavior is simply her best attempt to follow one or more of the genetic instructions.

The job for parents is to help their children learn to meet these needs responsibly. A parent is not responsible for controlling his child. A parent is responsible for teaching her child how to control her own behavior. Let's stop trying to control and change children's behavior. Let's stop bullying and abusing our children. (See teaching examples in Why Do Kids Act That Way? The Instruction Manual Parents Need to Understand Children at Every Age.)

Let's change our understanding, change the conversation, and begin peacefully and lovingly teach our children how to behave responsibly to meet their needs for survival, safety, love, power, fun and freedom.

Nancy S. Buck, Ph.D. tackles the tough topics facing families today. She is a developmental and author of Peaceful Parenting and Why Do Kids Act That Way?

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