Thursday, September 23, 2010

Parenting Principles

(Originally posted at Rational Jenn)

A recent thread on OGrownups about getting a toddler to take a nap or rest time in the afternoon got me thinking. And evidently, writing. I did not start out to write a huge post at all. I wanted to write down a few thoughts and the next thing I knew . . . !

Anyway, there were lots of suggestions on the thread for handling this particular issue, and some very interesting insightful comments, too.

Insightful Comment #1 from the parent who had been having the nap time troubles (my emphasis):

This transition will take time.  My son isn't going to go from being a napper to a quiet-time-taker overnight.  Just because we have changed the name and relieved him of the pressure to sleep doesn't mean his new routine will flow just as easily as the name change.  As long as we are consistent with the routine he will get the hang of it.  In the meantime, we will have to deal with some tears and resistance regarding the quiet time, but it will pass!  I am starting to think that transition periods are actually what is most exhausting about parenting. 

Insightful Comment #2 from the other parent (again, my emphasis):

In all seriousness, there are many issues packed into this scenario and I think K [another poster on the thread] and Jenn have hit the nail on the head: the "fix it" solutions will always remain impossible.  N and I have talked about this before, and that is that establishing for yourself certain concrete and specific *expectations* is the extent to which you will be frustrated -- especially in the not-so-neat-and-tidy task of childrearing.

As a passing thought, I think a particular challenge is applying the clear-cut, black and white, principles of anything -- whether it's as broad as philosophy or as specific as parenting, diet, or personal productivity -- to the untidy and unpredictable nature of everyday life.

I absolutely agree, and I think they both have hit on something key, something I have worked very hard to establish in my parenting--the need for principles.

Ayn Rand wrote in "The Anatomy of Compromise" in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal:

It is only by means of principles that one can set one’s long-range goals and evaluate the concrete alternatives of any given moment. It is only principles that enable a man to plan his future and to achieve it.

And in "Credibility and Polarization" in The Ayn Rand Letter:

Concrete problems cannot even be grasped, let alone judged or solved, without reference to abstract principles.

(both quotations found via the online Lexicon)

Parenting is no exception.

When you are in a stressful, unhappy transition period--outgrowing naps or new baby or tough time at school or (I can imagine) a teen trying to separate and establish more independence--that's when your principles are most needed. They are the foundation you can use for current and future decisions.

I have worked hard to explicitly ground my parenting principles in Objectivism, beginning with the end in mind. The end of parenting, the goal, is to have the kid grow up and be happy. How can he be happy? He needs to be virtuous. How can he learn about the virtues? I think he learns through first-hand experience as he grows up, and he learns with the guidance of Mom and Dad and other adults in his life, too. Another equally important goal of parenting is to be virtuous myself along the way.

Because of this, I have rejected some of the parenting principles by which I was raised. Most notably, I was expected to obey my parents and obey the Catholic god. My happiness was irrelevant. I was to be honest and have integrity, for example, not because they would lead to my own personal happiness, but because I had been commanded by God so I could be happy in another universe. It was the job of my parents to ensure that I learned how to be virtuous according to their standard, and that meant I must obey them.

Another principle I have rejected is punishment and reward-based parenting. I won't go into too many details here, but I will say that it took me years to overcome self-esteem issues and bad premises that were a direct result of fearing punishment or desiring a reward. My attention was on the punishment or reward, and I modified my behavior accordingly. I did not learn to modify my behavior (or internal monologue) to do right because it was the right thing to do, because I wanted to be moral, because I wanted to be happy, until adulthood. It wasn't until my late 20s/early 30s that I got myself corrected for the most part and was able to head my own life in the right direction.

A quick example, a concrete--the punishment for lying in my house was spanking. Because I did not want to be spanked, this is what I learned to do: I learned to lie with a straight face. I learned to be sneaky. I learned that it's best to admit a mistake right away to give my parents the appearance of being an honest kid, to manipulate their trust in me. I learned to lie judiciously and rarely, because if I got caught, I wanted it to be a rare occurrence.

I did NOT learn to be honest.

I was a "good kid" by any one's standards, and didn't get into too much trouble.  It took me YEARS to learn how to be honest with myself, to admit truth for what it is, to break myself of the habit of lying and the fear of punishment. I had no real idea that being honest would be beneficial to me.

(And also I would like to state for the record that I believe my parents both love me very much, and were doing the best they could according to their principles. Their principles are very, very different from mine; but I had a fairly typical upbringing. They were not abusive or over-the-top.)

Okay, so those are principles I've rejected. What have I adopted instead? I've written about them elsewhere, but I'll summarize:

  • I set as few limits as possible, and when I do set a limit, I use the "Life, Limb, and Property" principle. By setting limits according to individual rights, the kids are learning about individual rights.
  • I set limits for rational reasons, and if I can't think of a good reason to say 'no' then I Err on the Side of Freedom, and let the consequences (good or bad) fall where they may. By doing this, my kids (and I!) have explored the limits of what they're capable of accomplishing (often to my delight and surprise) and they learn that sometimes, Mom's got good information about reality that might be useful, and they learn to make rational decisions for themselves in the future.
  • I generally only set limits after the child has demonstrated through his behavior that the limit is necessary. Limits vary individually (see this example of a limit that applies only to Ryan in our house). Sometimes I anticipate limits (such as holding my toddler's hand in a parking lot), but it's rare that I set them with my older children ahead of time.
  • I enforce necessary limits in the most respectful way I can. I empathize with their feelings, and help them learn coping skills. I respect the fact that they are young human beings with developing rational faculties, and so I cannot expect obedience or "because I said so" to be good enough for them, even when they can't truly understand my reasons fully.
  • I have confidence in them, in their ability to one day grasp my reasons for limit-setting. Because I know they will "get it" one day, I explain my reasons every single time--because I cannot know just  when the message will finally sink in, and because I want them to realize that when I must make them do something that it's not because arbitrary consequences rain down from the sky or an authority--it's because I'm trying to protect other people's rights.
  • I problem-solve with them, so that they learn skills for use now and in the future. I expect them to problem-solve with me and not make unreasonable demands. When they make unreasonable demands (and they do, all the time), I insist on proper problem-solving. They learn how to deal with other people rationally through this first-hand experience. They learn that reason--not force--is the way to deal with others, and that mutually agreed-upon decisions often lead to happiness.

Each of these principles (and the above only pertain to discipline issues; there are more) is grounded in Objectivist principles as well as my understanding of child development.  Also, they are grounded in some underlying premises which include:

  • Kids will understand things better if they can experience them first-handedly. Which method would help someone understand addition more effectively? Me providing a list of addition problems and solutions, or me explaining the idea, demonstrating it by using blocks or some other concrete, showing them the notation and how to work it, and then leaving the kid to try some problems on his own? (I do not subscribe to the Dolores Umbridge philosophy of education.) I think the same goes for the virtues. If I tell one of the kids "productive work is fun" it's less effective in getting them to understand that than if I demonstrate my own enjoyment of productive work, talk about my feelings about it and let them pursue productive work independently, which they love.
  • I reject the idea that if left to their own devices, kids will more often than not make bad choices. My kids make bad choices and good choices (so do I). But the percentage is certainly not skewed toward the bad. I think many parents set limits prematurely (I've done this, too) because they think that if they don't set the limit, then little Johnny will probably do the wrong thing. (I think this is a left over idea from the doctrine of Original Sin.) That's often not the case, and if nobody is going to be irreparably harmed or have rights violated, then letting little Johnny experience what happens when he makes a wrong choice is an effective teaching tool (see premise above). Also, if we never give them the chance to make good choices, how will they learn what that feels like?
  • I believe that The Limit's the Thing. I think kids will figure out what they are supposed to learn by experiencing the natural consequences or by having a limit enforced. I do not think they will learn not to lie or hit people or throw toys any more efficiently or effectively if a punishment is added to the limit-setting or natural consequence. I do not think they will want to work harder on their studies or learn new skills quicker if I entice them rewards. 
  • I also believe that children generally want to learn grownup things and do grownup activities and, well, become grownups. No typically developing 18 year old is going to want to play with baby toys. They are watching and learning all the time, because they want to be like us.
  • I take their current stage of development and temperament traits as metaphysically given. That might change later, but if my kid being really sensitive to loud noises right now, then I will work with that, help him cope with that stimulation, and problem-solve. I will not try to stop him from being unusually sensitive to loud noises (I've tried that and it's futile, causes stress, and I think perhaps makes the child feel rejected). If my child is a toddler, I will not expect him to have the patience, self-control, or understanding of an 8 year old.
  • My children do not owe me anything simply because I brought them into existence. They do not owe me respect (Honor Thy Mother and Thy Father) or obedience or elder care. While we are living together, we will work to solve problems together, in a rational, respectful way, so that we can all make this time together as pleasant as possible. But they do not owe me love or anything. When they are legally free of my guardianship, I certainly hope that we continue a happy and fun relationship. I parent the way I do now partly because I think it helps establish that future relationship (as Kelly wrote on OG recently), but our future relationship--which will be mutual--is a secondary parenting goal, not the primary (which is to help them learn the virtues and be virtuous myself while doing it). In fact, if I've been virtuous myself and stuck to my principles, then I will be happy with my part in the process, even if they choose not to maintain a relationship with me in the future. Like I said, I really don't want that to happen, as I think each of my kids interesting and fun and smart and neat to know, but it's a possibility I've faced, a risk I've accepted.

I'm not sure I've identified all of my premises yet, so there might be more later.

When I encounter a particularly perplexing discipline challenge or stage of development, I can and have used those discipline principles above over and over again to help me decide what to do. I choose to use Positive Discipline because those principles align with my parenting principles.

While I cannot say just exactly how I will handle an issue with a tween or teen or even an issue with an adult child--because I haven't yet reached those stages in my parenting career--I can say that I will continue to use my principles to handle issues. If I can't think of a good reason to say 'no' to my teenager wanting to do something I don't particularly like (but which doesn't violate rights or is likely to cause the kid irreparable harm), then I will say 'yes.' I will still continue to insist on problem-solving and respectful communication as the way we can solve problems. Will they always do it? No--they don't do it now (but then again, neither do I). But we will work through those times pretty much the same way we do now.

That's the beauty of having good solid principles--I don't need to know the answer to every single problem ahead of time. I can face issues as they come and use my principles (based on the philosophy I'm trying to live and I hope my children will choose) as a framework for dealing with them. If I continually bump up against my principles, if evidence comes out that contradicts something, then I will need to re-evaluate them. I don't anticipate making any major changes to my parenting principles (whether discipline or non-discipline-related), but I will do so if necessary.

The PD tools I write about and teach classes about are tools that help me stick to my parenting principles. (PD or "gentle discipline" advocates sometimes refer to this type of parenting as a philosophy, but they don't mean 'philosophy' in quite the same way I do when I think about Objectivism as a philosophy. I'm not sure exactly what I'd call it. It's a specific set of principles based on certain premises, certainly, but not an all-encompassing Metaphysics-Epistemology-Ethics-Politics philosophy of life. Probably I am tired and have been working on this post for too long.)

I use and teach PD because it is the best set of parenting ideas (both concrete and abstract) that is out there that fits my own philosophy and principles. I sometimes wonder if I'm misunderstood. I am not a Positive Discipline parent--I am an Objectivist parent who uses Positive Discipline ideas and tools. (And there are lots of parents out there who are not Objectivists who use Positive Discipline presumably because it fits well with their own principles.) And of course I'd love it if everyone used PD, but I'd also love it if everyone became an Objectivist. :o)

So that was way long, and I apologize, but what I wanted to drive at is this question: What are your parenting principles and premises? Do you have them spelled out, and if so, would you like to share? If you disagree with the principles and premises, then I'd love to know why (because I'd really like to know if I'm horribly off-base, for my own selfish reasons). If you are confused, I'd love to know that, too. I didn't really set out to write this post--it started, as I said as a response to a couple of posts on OGrownups. I didn't set out to write it, but obviously I had a lot to say!

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