We’re a social species. We’re almost totally dependent on others during infancy, but during childhood and adolescence we gradually move towards the autonomous but interdependent adulthood that a democratic society requires.
Human brain development reflects our extended maturation. Our basic birth brain weighs about a pound. It doubles in size during the first year, and much of this increase drives the developing competence of the sensorimotor systems that process environmental awareness and interaction. Our brain’s third pound, which develops over the next 20 or so years, drives the development of cultural competence—our ability to interact successfully with other humans, perhaps the most important biological subset of our environment.
What we have to master during our maturation is the ability to successfully identify and appropriately respond to the novel and familiar dangers and opportunities that constantly confront us. A previous column indicated that separate but highly interconnected brain systems process these sets of cognitive challenges. For example, the sensory lobes at the back of our brain identify the nature and dynamics of a challenge and the frontal lobes develop an appropriate response to it. The right hemisphere (in most people) identifies and responds to novel challenges and the left hemisphere to familiar challenges.
Parenting issues arise because our problem-finding sensory lobes mature during childhood and our problem-solving frontal lobes mature during adolescence. Parents and other adults must thus assume many of the frontal lobe functions of children with immature frontal lobes—shielding them from harm, and nurturing them through their dependent years. Children make few major decisions, and adults typically monitor the decisions they do make. When no adults are present and children have to make a decision, they’ll typically do what they think an adult would do in that situation.
How do they know what an adult would do? We spend a lot of time in school and home telling and showing them—how to cross the street and use a phone, how to share with others and do arithmetic division problems.
The only way a child can learn to walk is to practice walking, and the only way children and adolescents can master appropriate social behavior is to explore and practice the range of what’s possible and what’s appropriate. Parents and educators have historically used a variety of rewards and punishments to guide young people in such explorations. Make the right decision and get rewarded with praise or tokens. Make the wrong decision and get emotionally or physically punished. It seems so logical, so tuned into the way the world of consequences works.
Alfie Kohn has been an articulate critic of this approach to teaching and parenting, and his latest book Unconditional Parenting: Moving From Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason (2005) is a thoughtprovoking exploration of what Kohn believes is wrong with parental rewards and punishments, and what’s right about his proposal for an instructional alternative that respects children and nurtures their developmental needs.
Kohn’s principal point (and that of similarly-minded theorists) is that children have a birthright to a safe, healthy environment, and to unconditional parental love—to be loved for who they are rather than for what they do. Rewards and punishments send a negative message in that they create conditions, a kind of economic exchange. Parental love emerges as a reward when the child does what the parent requests. Children thus learn to satisfy the desires of others, rather than to develop their own personal interests and the collaborative skills that a democratic society requires.
Folks may consider this inefficient pie-in-the-sky thinking, but it’s difficult to read Kohn’s discussion of the issue and not be struck by the inconsistencies and psychological dangers inherent in many common parenting behaviors, and by the solid research he presents to back up his beliefs.
A central tenet of a democratic society is that those who are affected by a decision should directly or indirectly help to make it, whether they’re right or wrong in their beliefs. The ballot box and legislative bodies determine the majority decision, and the courts adjudicate the rights of the minority and the aggrieved. A democracy is thus a messy system because of its constant disagreements and negotiations—but would any of us freely choose to live where a monarch efficiently made all the decisions? Many children live (and misbehave) in such an authoritarian setting.
In effect, Kohn argues that children and adolescents will never develop the skills required of citizens in a democratic society if parents and educators don’t continually provide them with opportunities to learn how to make decisions, and to evaluate the results of their decisions. Much of parenting should be about teaching, and many unilateral decisions that parents make have excellent potential for teaching their children how to negotiate and collaborate.
But how does one reason with a three-year-old without functioning frontal lobes who is throwing a supermarket fit over “a big colorful box of candy disguised as breakfast cereal”? Kohn suggests how parents could view such specific problems within the context of a general strategy—to be in control rather than to be controlling; to teach children how to make, accept, and evaluate decisions, rather than to rely on rewards and punishments to ensure compliance.
Parents don’t abrogate their responsibility by providing many opportunities for participatory decision-making, just as democracies don’t restrict freedom when they establish laws—if the citizens understand and accept the logic behind the laws and participated in the decision. But even then, folks who agree in principle with traffic laws may exceed the speed limit—just as a child who agrees in principle with a parental request may still throw a temper tantrum.
Pain helps to identify the nature and location of a body problem, and misbehavior helps to identify the nature and location of an interpersonal problem. Pain and misbehavior are thus diagnostic, and not necessarily negative.
Kohn argues eloquently against the fake coercive logic of statements (such as “because I said so”) that do nothing to help children mature into responsible citizens and parents. Moving from yelling to telling to explaining to discussing may take longer and may not always bring an immediate positive resolution, but it’s better in the long run—and especially during the decades when we’ll interact with our children as pleasant adults who will then be thankful that we didn’t simply dispense rewards and punishments, but rather made the effort to teach them how to dispense unconditional love.