By Joseph Sacks, LCSW
Raising a child is a team effort, and the child is part of the team. Therefore it is absolutely indispensable that we have the child's cooperation. If a child decides that he wants to work against us, that he doesn’t wish to cooperate, our goals will undoubtedly be frustrated. It is therefore vital that we find a way to induce our child to work with us.
Let’s say an 11 year old decides he doesn't want to go to school anymore. I've had such clients in my office. Will you drag him to school? He'll run away. For many such children, no amount of pressure or punishment will convince them. The only choice such parents have is to try and earn their child's cooperation, so that he himself can understand that it's in his own best interest to go to school. This can only be accomplished in a very gentle and collaborative manner, specifically by making the child truly believe that you as a parent are always acting in his best interest. The principle way of doing this is to show the child that you will always be a source of pleasure to him. That means no tough love, but sweetness instead. Then he or she will think, “My parents always make me happy, so if I do what they suggest and go to school, that will make me happy, too.”
Working with not doing to
Renowned parenting expert Alfie Kohn has called this a “Working with” approach to parenting. It means that we allow the child to be a co leader in our efforts to raise him, giving him some element of choice and self-determination implied by the term “Working with.” He advises against a “Doing to” approach to parenting which involves controlling the child from the outside, without availing yourself of his cooperation.
Let's say the same 11 year old boy has been running into problems with inappropriate things on the internet. He is messaging and friending the wrong people and has even dabbled in pornography. A “Doing to” response would be to make a decree coming from above, that is, a decree by the parenting authority. So the parent severely curtails his access to technology, puts blocks and filters on the internet, forbids any inappropriate activity and threatens consequences if disobeyed. This approach may result in less inappropriate activity in the short run but in the end it will not work because the child will probably find a way! If the child is determined to see inappropriate things he will figure out a way to do it sooner or later, and no amount of force can prevent it. In addition such an approach creates a terrible strain on the parent child relationship because it completely takes away the child's sense of self-determination, agency, and his feeling of control over his own life. It humiliates the child and teaches him that we don't trust him. Even if it earned compliance, which it won't ultimately, it still comes at a terrible emotional cost. Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t have parental controls on the internet, because we should! I’m just saying controls have to be combined with the enlistment of the child's help in a different approach, by having him become an active participant and collaborator in trying to avoid the inappropriate material. We absolutely need to get his cooperation. That is, we can teach the child the wisdom of not clicking on the wrong things, and not seeking them out, or clicking away when they come up. We help the child understand that avoiding these bad things is actually the path to happiness. This sounds difficult but it can be done.
The relationship is everything!
The trick is to establish a warm and supportive parent child relationship, to have the child see that everything you do for him is truly for his own good. This is done by always striving to be a source of pleasure to your child and never source of stress. Awake with the mantra of “How can I make my child happy today?” You'd be amazed how cultivating this sort of relationship leads a child to accept and cooperate with the limits you may set on dangerous things. Then we very gently and clearly explain the whole process, that just as there certain things that are dangerous for your body and are to be avoided, there are some things that are very dangerous for your mind and your emotional health, and we must avoid them. Not only that, but mommy and daddy also avoid them because they're bad for us. We need to explain to him, “I know that they seem like fun but they actually hurt you on the inside and I'm sure you don't want that to happen.” We need to get the child to say, “They always take care of my needs and desires and make me happy, I trust them when they say that these limits will keep me happy too.” At the same time we provide generous alternatives and more appropriate sources of pleasure for the child to show him you don't need to go to the bad stuff to have fun. There’s plenty of good safe fun you can have, and you can rely on me to provide it for you. Ultimately this latter approach provides a lifelong framework for staying away from bad things. It gives the child the tools to decide for himself to choose to stay away from the wrong path. It empowers him and creates tremendous self-determination. Establishing this kind of relationship with the child is a tremendous relief for a parent. You don't have to worry about being a police officer all the time and you can rest assured that your child is working with you to keep himself safe and to accomplish appropriate goals.
Please be advised that the above represents a parenting ideal, and no one should expect to fulfill it perfectly. So have patience with yourself and try to implement new ideas gradually.
Feel free to peruse the rest of my interesting blog, the specialties on my website, or download one of my informative free reports. If you would like guidance or treatment from a child psychotherapist in lower Manhattan, you may call me at 646-681-1707 for a free 15-minute consultation. I look forward to speaking with you!