Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Withholding Affection

What's more important: getting our kids to do as we say, or helping them grow into fulfilled adults?

You might argue that it's not an either/or choice, that it's fully possible for a child to obey and grow into a fulfilled adult. And yet the question is one, I think, that cuts to the core of parenting choices.

If you believe that it's most important for kids to do as you say, you're probably more likely to implement a sleep schedule for your baby. If you think it's more important for a child to grow into a fulfilled adult, I think you're more likely to pay attention to your child's individual needs. You're more likely to encourage your son's love of reading than to insist he read a certain number of minutes per day, whether or not he likes it.

This question was an important one for me today as I met resistance after resistance from my boys. I pulled out a reading program for my six-year-old, he said no. I pulled out an educational game for all my boys, they moaned and groaned and acted like I was killing them.

I was frustrated. I told them so. Loudly. Then I gave myself a timeout.

I realized that part of the problem is that I encourage free thinking in my boys. I encourage them to question and to follow their instincts. I want them to be in touch with the quiet little voice that whispers inside. As much as possible, I respect, encourage and accomodate their needs and desires.

The problem comes when I want them to do something they don't want to do. What then?

Many parents punish, insist, shame or issue consequences. But is that the best move? An intriguing article in today's New York Times suggests that maybe it's not. Numerous scientific studies, it says, have shown that withholding parental affection and approval -- or pouring it on when the child behaves as you'd like -- is counterproductive. The child may behave as you'd like in the moment, but generally develops negative feelings and unhealthy internal compulsions.

Instead, the article said, "unconditional acceptance by parents as well as teachers should be accompanied by 'autonomy support': explaining reasons for requests, maximizing opportunities for the child to participate in making decisions, being encouraging without manipulating, and actively imagining how things look from the child's point of view."

Shaping a human being is hard work. But when I think of the task, I think of Michaelangelo, who said, "Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it." My children, I think, are the sculptors of their lives. As a parent, my job is not to chisel away, creating a statue that perfectly coordinates with my living room furniture but to support each child as he discovers the statue within.


  1. I agree, we are here to guide, not to produce non-thinking, obedient little men who do exactly what they are told in order to please me, or other adults. If I am frustrated with the boys, I have to ask myself, "Why is it so important to ME that they be doing this (fill in the blank - reading, educational toy etc.)" I had this feeling with the previous post about the educational toy - who exactly was this for?

    When I decided to homeschool my very independent, curious and happy boys, I decided that they were worthy of being listened to. I had to trust them to lead me down this scary and new path. I have found that frustration has everything to do with me finding validation, and nothing to do with listening to what they need.
    Good luck! A

  2. Very thought provoking Jennifer. These are questions I wrestle with continually. Especially at this time in their lives. My oldest boys are at a socially critical age. They are just a few short months from entering the "tween" years.

    I will read the NYT article as soon as I can.

  3. I want free-thinking children who obey my every command without the need to raise my voice or repeat myself. Is that too much to ask? ;-)

    Seriously, in almost eight years of teaching high school students, I have learned to recognize the connection between adult dominance and a child's inability to think independently. Those who received too little guidance were incapable of following directions.

    It's a shaky high wire dance, this parenting business!

  4. Ron, you hit the nail on the head. Your first sentence is exactly why I get frustrated sometimes. Seeing it written out, it's absolutely clear that it's an impossible expectation. But maybe just for a day? :)

  5. I didn't read the article. I think especially as kids get older and are in tweens and teens the bar can be raised for expectations, goals, and expecting them to do as the parent says. This is especially important if the parent homeschools as to slack on their education due to lazy parenting is not good (not saying YOU are doing that...).

    I was very baby-centered when my kids were babies and slowly getting more limits placed the older they get. I can both love them emotionally and physically, not withhold affection as a punishment but set a bar for showing me respect and doing what I say as I'm their authority figure.

    Then when they get older, like my 12 yr old, now he is getting more independent and I'm starting to let go more but still holding him accountable to do certain things.

    Definately the most important is raising well adjusted kids but also kids who can function in a society (not just within a family unit). But that is another tangent that I could go off on...

    (I hope this makes sense as it is a bit rambling...)

  6. My boys are 23 and 20. They were unschooled. They weren't punished, nor controlled. They were enjoyed and supported and given lots of choices and freedom.

    -=-Those who received too little guidance were incapable of following directions. -=-

    So those who are raising children to do well in high school should "guide" their children in that direction.

    We raised our children to live thoughtfully in the world, and they have surpassed our expectations. I was debilitated by serious nerve pain at the conference, and ended up in the emergency room one day. Both boys were extremely helpful then and afterwards. Kirby was willing to substitute for me in my last workshop. He went with me, in case I couldn't make it through. He had intended to go to the beach with a girl he likes, but let that plan go because I was needy. I went to the emergency room soon after that workshop.

    Those who have never seriously considered unschooling cannot imagine the benefits to the relationship and to the maturity of the young adults.

  7. Great post. The longer I homeschool (and the more unschooly we get), the more I realize that cooperative behavior is connected to and dependent upon the quality of the relationship and the amount of respect between child and parent. If only my authoritarian-leaning husband would understand that...

  8. Wit and Whimsy brings up a good point: how do you handle things when both parents have different parenting styles? Let's see if we can get Sandra to chime in on this one...

  9. I wonder how one would set a bar for showing respect, hold the child accountable for certain things and be the authority figure without witholding affection? There must be something else one can withold, care to elaborate?

    And why would one assume that because I am not witholding affection but instead giving freedom to explore interests and follow their own interests that I am not giving guidance? Is it true that only children who are dominated by adults can follow directions?

  10. Such intriguing and important questions to ponder! When I think of giving "guidance" to my children, ideally that means setting a good example, providing other good examples and discussing the whys, how comes and what fors behind various decisions and actions. To me, guidance doesn't necessarily mean saying, "Do this."

  11. Jenny, I agree! Setting a good example is so important, as is discussing why certain behaviors are acceptable/expected in certain situations. If one of my kids doesn't agree with what I have explained, I try my hardest to not withdraw my love in order to get him to comply. I can want my child to play on the soccer team with all my heart, but if my child does not want to participate in practices or games, what good does it do to shame him into playing and practicing? Should we bribe him to play by promising the big $100 lego toy if he would just complete the season? I have seen this happening just this week, and I really do think that all it teaches is manipulation and distrust.
    A (thanks for a fun discussion)!!

  12. I read "Unconditional Parenting" by Alfie Kohn when my son was a baby, and after ten years of being a nanny and a step-mom, it completely changed how I approached dealing with kids. It was almost like therapy, actually, since it brought up a lot of my childhood for me. I was raised absolutely conditionally and as a result I still have a LOT of difficulty making my own decisions and not being afraid of looking foolish or being judged.

  13. I agree! I'm a big believer in natural consequences rather than the ones I would otherwise impose. So if my little one is rough with the cat, the cat will either run away or scratch her (calm down everyone! I can only do this because my cat is extremely placid and even when she has gotten frisky she's given Riley a fright but nothing else). That way she is actually learning something.

  14. Zoey,
    I'm with you on the cat. The only problem is that my older boys freak out when they see the youngest being even remotely rough with the cat, despite me telling them 1000 times that that is NOT helpful. I would never let my child abuse the cat, but cats are smart creatures, and if my little one is trying to grab its tail, the cat will either run away (lesson learned: if I want to play with the cat, I need to be nice) or turn around and hiss (lesson learned: cat doesn't like that).