“The dominant problem with parenting in our society isn’t permissiveness, but fear of permissiveness.”
This idea put forward by Alfie Kohn in his book “Unconditional Parenting” is as valid now as it was when he wrote it in the early 2000’s. He warns against the dangers of over-controlling and punishment. Fear or permissiveness holds us back from passing on skills and values to our children and fails to teach children self-discipline.
Parents say “I am worried it’s not real discipline unless I give a consequence or punishment when my child misbehaves.” There are lots of reasons why parents fear being seen as permissive. Parents want to avoid looking weak and giving out a strong punishment is appealing to those who want to look like they are in charge. It’s easy to see why parents feel the need to do this. Parents are constantly being judged at the school gates and in the media. The trap of controlling our children too much is easy to fall into when we are concerned about the opinions of others – who wouldn’t want to avoid this sort of judgment? It takes a thoughtful and brave person to resist this pressure and to take the opportunity to focus on how to to help children reflect and make good choices instead.
Two common examples when we become more controlling are when time is scarce and when we are in public. Studies show that parents are stricter in these situations.
Morning time pressure drives us to react in ways that seek to control.We are tested by the smallest of slip-ups. Slowness which would normally go unnoticed on a Sunday at 11am, is perceived as a deliberate lack of cooperation. We sit waiting with the car running, already late by five minutes. We hear that someone has forgotten their maths sheets and we can say things we bitterly regret. Our reactions not only fail to teach our children how to manage in that moment when they have made a mistake, we also fail to help them improve and find ways to avoid it next time.
Another problem with a reactive approach is that it weakens the relationship with our children. Next time they may not even tell us about their problem. This is an unhelpful result when we want to encourage communication lines to stay open with our children, especially when they are moving into adolescence.
Fear of being a permissive parent makes us worry that if we don’t impose a consequence or punishment that we will have the same problem the next time or it will grow into an even bigger one. Instead of dealing with what is happening in the “now” our fear of what will happen in the future also causes us to react.
Fear tells us that our children will not learn how to work within deadlines and that our “soft” approach will set them up to fail. When our child misbehaves we surely have to impose a punishment to “teach them a lesson”. The only thing we are teaching with this cycle of punishment is that we aren’t the person to help guide our children to solve their own problems. The lesson kids are more likely to be learning is that they feel incompetent and that we have abandoned them when they feel bad about themselves and need of our help for ways to improve. Controlling parents become trapped in a cycle of punishment and misbehaviour which doesn’t help the child move forward.
Being a calm parent in the moment when our child has made a mistake is not permissive parenting. Even when we are running late we can choose to respond in a measured way. That’s the mark of a parent who is really in charge. It’s not easy to do this when things have not turned out the way we would like. We can choose to show empathy as well as being firm about how to set up ways to remember the maths sheets. By focusing our energy on keeping the relationship going and getting our child to think of how things could go better next time we can avoid the reactive trap. If the goal is to teach our child how to avoid this happening next time then we stand more chance of achieving that by asking them to think of solutions to problems:
“What could we do to make things easier for you with the maths sheets.”
“What could your strategy be?”
The big challenge for all of us is to follow up. When the dust has settled and we have a quiet moment at a later point in the day we can write a reminder. This is another chance to show we are the parent who is truly in charge, quietly and calmly, showing up. We also need to prioritise a conversation about how things could have gone better. This step is worth umpteen recriminations in the moment. We can influence the most forgetful child to take responsibility and make sure that they are on track by setting themselves a reminder to make sure the maths sheets are packed. Like us, they are human and you can be sure they will forget the reminder a few times before they are really in the habit of remembering. We’re going to keep on showing up making sure they are moving towards being more self-reliant. We’ve got their back. All day, every day…