In my recent blog post “Why Every Parent Should Ditch the Sticker Chart” I talked about how switching from a behavioral focus to a relational focus as parents helps foster healthy brain development in our kids. There are two other important reasons for making this shift: intrinsic motivation and the creation of an egalitarian society.
A major problem with the behavioral focus, according to parent educator Jane Nelsen, is that it creates kids who operate from an external locus of control – who need consequences in order to follow rules or just do the right thing. How do kids learn to be responsible, she argues, when parents are doing all the work rewarding and punishing (Nelsen, 2006)?
Nelsen, who is the founder of the program Positive Discipline, says the way to foster intrinsic motivation is to involve kids in rule setting and decision-making. In order to do this, she argues, we need to focus on communication rather than coercion.
Take an issue like homework. Often, we decide when kids should complete their homework and then expend ridiculous amounts of energy trying to get them to do it with lectures, rewards, and other forms of control that lead to power struggles and fights.
Kids end up either doing (or not doing) their homework in order to please us, avoid a punishment, get a reward, or rebel– not because they intrinsically understand why doing homework is important (Nelsen, 2006).
They behave (or don’t) in response to an external locus of control – us! (Or the sticker chart hanging on the refrigerator.) This extrinsic motivational style tends to stick around as we get older, and can hinder our ability to engage in meaningful work and activities. Research shows that intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is linked to increased self-esteem, creativity and overall well-being.
- What’s your plan for getting homework done this quarter/semester/year?
- How much time do you think you need each night?
- Do you need breaks?
- Why do you think it’s important to do homework?
Be genuinely curious and open to what your kids suggest. The key to this approach is to avoid lecturing or punishing when a rule is broken. Instead, ask questions like:
- Why do you think this happened?
- What can you do differently next time?
- What ideas do you have about how to solve the problem?
In the short-term, they may end up with some late assignments or a few poor grades.
The long-term results of this relational approach, however, are kids who will do the right thing even when no one is looking. It doesn’t happen overnight and it requires us to let go of our need to control, but connecting with our kids now will help them learn to think for themselves in the future.
An egalitarian society
There is another faction of parents out there who would agree that we should get rid of sticker charts and other behavioral incentives. But their argument goes something like this – I remember when kids did what they were told without getting a reward. When an adult said to do something, kids would obey.
I’m going to come back to Jane Nelsen here, because she makes a compelling argument that changes in society have, indeed, led to changes in the way our children behave. But these changes have NOT been caused by the usual suspects – broken homes, single parents, or too much TV or video games (Nelsen, 2006).
Here’s what she says:
The first major change is that adults no longer give children an example or model of submissiveness and obedience. Adults forget that they no longer act the way they used to in the good old days…In those days there were many models of submission. Dad obeyed the boss (who was not interested in his opinions) so he wouldn’t lose his job. Minority groups accepted submissive roles at great loss to their personal dignity. Today all minority groups are actively claiming their rights to full equality and dignity. It is difficult to find anyone who is willing to accept an inferior, submissive role in life. Children are simply following the examples all around them. They also want to be treated with dignity and respect.” (Nelsen, 2006, p.4, emphasis added)
The authoritarian style of parenting that used to work is no longer effective because it often relied on shame and blame to get children to obey. Children, like everyone else in society, want to be treated with dignity and respect.
Think back to rural communities when kids were critical to the success of the family farm or business. While we certainly don’t want our children to feel overburdened the way they may have in the past, many of us go too far in the other direction. By not asking kids to help out more with household chores or meal preparation, for example, we are eliminating opportunities for them to make a meaningful contribution to the family – to feel significant and needed.
A relational style of parenting gives us an opportunity to both treat kids with mutual respect and dignity and also help them feel genuinely needed.
When we involve our kids in problem-solving and decision-making we are fostering a society in which everyone is treated with dignity and respect, and we are providing our children with the feeling that they belong and have something valuable to contribute to this world.
Cop an attitude, ditch the sticker chart
I want to end by saying I know this is not an easy shift to make. We all arrive at parenthood with a set of ingrained beliefs and knee-jerk reactions to certain behaviors. What pushes our buttons as adults often has deep roots in our families of origin and the way our parents raised us. Couple that with messages from the media and pressure from society about how children should act, and you have a powerful force to reckon with.
Choosing to focus on how we relate to our children, rather than on these messages, requires courage and even a little attitude. Attitude to parent from our values and a long-term vision for our children rather than from social pressure or family expectations. So, I encourage you to cop an attitude, ditch the sticker chart, and take some time to just be with your kids.
Hughes, D.A. & Baylin, J. (2012). Brain-based parenting: the neuroscience of caregiving for healthy attachment. W.W.Norton & Company, Inc.: New York, NY.
Nelsen, J. (2006). Positive Discipline. Ballantine Books: New York, NY.