Alfie Kohn’s session, “Unconditional Parenting,” at our early childhood conference really gave me something to think about. I enjoyed the session, and the points he made sounded valid. When you give a child a reward or sticker for a certain behavior, you have to realize that they may be repeating that behavior to please you, to obtain the prize, or avoid being punished. The thought even ran through my mind, “Wow, we really have it all backward and have been doing it wrong all these years!”
Many of the things Alfie wants for children I want for children, too. I want my children to think for themselves, problem solve and care for others. I want to create in them a sense of purpose and the capacity to love and value others. I love the idea of building a “working with” environment rather than a “doing to” one with my children, but something kept nagging at me. Where was the personal responsibility and respect for authority in this message?
I have to take a look at my own values. When Alfie first asked the audience to verbalize what we wanted for our children, the words “accountable” and “truthful” came to mind. I want my children to grow up knowing that although they can think and speak their mind freely, they cannot do it to hurt or undermine other people. I want them to understand that they will have to own up to their words and actions and endure any consequences that are created by them. They need to have a sense of compassion and respect those who are in positions of authority, whether that is a teacher, an employer, or me and their dad!
Alfie’s discussion of encouraging competition among children gave me some pause, as well. At one point he said that even the most harmless of scenarios, such as encouraging your kids to see who can get ready for bedtime the fastest, can be counter-productive. I do not see any harm in having your kids race upstairs to see who gets in their jammies first. It’s silly and fun! For me it’s the ways in which these activities are undertaken that’s important, not whether or not they’re a competition. Competition draws attention to the strengths of each child, what makes them unique. Children are going to be competing for bigger things throughout their lives, and competition teaches us that life isn’t always fair. We should teach our children that it’s not whether you are the winner or loser, but how you react that builds your character and your strengths.