What do you do when a child throws a tantrum? If a child has a strop before bedtime and once things calm down, should you proceed with the normal evening routine of snuggling with her and reading a story together? The conditional approach to parenting says no: We would be rewarding her unacceptable behaviour if we follow it with the usual pleasant activities. Those activities should be suspended, and she should be informed, gently but firmly, why that “consequence” is being imposed.
This course of action feels reassuringly familiar to most of us and consistent with what a lot of parenting books advise. What’s more, it would have been satisfying on some level for us to lay down the law, for the parent to put our foot down, letting her know she wasn’t allowed to act like that.
The unconditional approach to parenting, however, says this is a temptation to be resisted, and that we should indeed snuggle and read a story as usual. But that doesn’t mean we ought to just ignore what happened. Unconditional parenting isn’t a fancy term for letting kids do whatever they want. It’s very important (once the storm has passed) to teach, to reflect together. Whatever lesson we hope to impart is far more likely to be learned if the child knows that your love for her is undimmed by how she had acted.
Whether we’ve thought about them or not, each of these two styles of parenting rests on a distinctive set of beliefs about psychology, about children, even about human nature.
To begin with, the conditional approach is closely related to a school of thought known as behaviourism, which is commonly associated with the late B. F. Skinner. Its most striking characteristic, as the name suggests, is its exclusive focus on behaviours. All that matters about people, in this view, is what you can see and measure. You can’t see a desire or a fear, so you might as well just concentrate on what people do. Furthermore, all behaviours are believed to start and stop, wax and wane, solely on the basis of whether they are “reinforced.”
Behaviourists assume that everything we do can be explained in terms of whether it produces some kind of reward, either one that’s deliberately offered or one that occurs naturally. If a child is affectionate with his parent, or shares his dessert with a friend, it’s said to be purely because this has led to pleasurable responses in the past.
In short: External forces, such as what someone has previously been rewarded (or punished) for doing, account for how we act—and how we act is the sum total of who we are. Even people who have never read any of Skinner’s books seem to have accepted his assumptions. When parents and teachers constantly talk about a child’s “behaviour,”they’re acting as though nothing matters except the stuff on the surface. It’s not a question of who kids are, what they think or feel or need. Forget motives and values: The idea is just to change what they do. This, of course, is an invitation to rely on discipline techniques whose only purpose is to make kids act—or stop acting—in a particular way.
A more specific example of everyday behaviourism: Perhaps you’ve met parents who force their children to apologize after doing something hurtful or mean. (“Can you say you’re sorry?”) Now, what’s going on here? Do the parents assume that making children speak this sentence will magically produce in them the feeling of being sorry, despite all evidence to the contrary? Or, worse, do they not even care whether the child really is sorry, because sincerity is irrelevant and all that matters is the act of uttering the appropriate words?
Compulsory apologies mostly train children to say things they don’t mean—that is, to lie. But this is not just an isolated parental practice that ought to be reconsidered. It’s one of many possible examples of how Skinnerian thinking — caring only about behaviours — has narrowed our understanding of children and warped the way we deal with them. We see it also in programs that are intended to train little kids to go to sleep on their own or to start using the potty.
From the perspective of these programs, why a child may be sobbing in the dark is irrelevant. It could be terror or boredom or loneliness or hunger or something else. Similarly, it doesn’t matter what reason a toddler may have for not wanting to pee in the toilet when his parent asks him to do so.
Experts who offer step-by-step recipes for “teaching” children to sleep in a room by themselves, or who urge us to offer gold stars, M&Ms, or praise for tinkling in the toilet, are concerned not with the thoughts and feelings and intentions that give rise to a behaviour, only with the behaviour itself.
(While I haven’t done the actual counting that would be necessary to test this, I would tentatively propose the following rule of thumb: The value of a parenting book is inversely proportional to the number of times it contains the word behaviour.)
Let’s come back to the hypothetical example. Conditional parenting assumes that reading her a book and otherwise expressing our continued love for her will only encourage her to throw another fit. She will have learned that it’s okay to wake the baby and refuse to get in the bath because she will interpret our affection as reinforcement for whatever she had just been doing.
Unconditional parenting looks at this situation—and, indeed, at human beings—very differently. For starters, it asks us to consider that the reasons for what a child has done may be more “inside”than “outside.” Her actions can’t necessarily be explained, in mechanical fashion, by looking at external forces like positive responses to her previous behaviour. Perhaps she is overwhelmed by fears that she can’t name, or by frustrations that she doesn’t know how to express. Unconditional parenting assumes that behaviours are just the outward expression of feelings and thoughts, needs and intentions. In a nutshell, it’s the child who engages in a behaviour, not just the behaviour itself, that matters.
Children are not pets to be trained, nor are they computers, programmed to respond predictably to an input. They act this way rather than that way for many different reasons, some of which may be hard to tease apart. But we can’t just ignore those reasons and respond only to the effects (that is, the behaviours). Indeed, each of those reasons probably calls for a completely different course of action. If, for example, it turned out that a child is really being defiant there may be an underlying cause to deal with at that time instead of the carrot-stick approach.