Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Alfie Kohn's Brilliance

mosaic with red leaf, Holland Park Surrey BC, by waferboard

I’ve been thinking and talking about Alfie Kohn’s latest book Unconditional Parenting recently. The subject keeps coming up on email lists and in conversations. Mr. Kohn’s premise is essentially that children are born ‘good’ and it is in supporting them and loving them unconditionally that they can remain that way.

Mr. Kohn points out that a parent’s whims are no more valid than the child’s whims, therefore it is not reasonable or mature to expect or want children to be obedient.

These are, for many, deeply challenging ideas. Many people ascribe to the popular thought that children are born evil (or they become evil very rapidly once here), and it is a parent’s right and proper aim to control them in order to eliminate or ameliorate the evil within.

Yin and Yang, Tao Rock Garden by Kyle Pearce

This whole premise reminds me of Taoist thought: That right-thinking leaders will always 
lead from behind, avoid being noticed and let people be the goodness that they rightly are, naturally allowing the peaceful population to state ‘we are naturally this way.’ Challenged, provoked, led, controlled and manipulated, people become challenging, provocative, manipulative followers who resist control and rebel, quite naturally. It is human to resist control. Control naturally causes resistance.

Resistance is the basis of all disobedience, disconnection and defiance

Children who are not taught how to participate in power struggles do not learn to struggle for power, but are naturally aware of their own power; they are not easily led, even when very young. 

Children who are not manipulated never learn to manipulate others, nor the value of doing so, and are difficult to manipulate. 

Children who are not controlled never learn to fight that control, they never resist it and never rebel against it, and they live easily within their ethics and morals.

Does this mean that children who are not punished never cause problems or misbehave? Of course not... however, the inverted argument is seriously flawed: children who are controlled, punished, threatened, held hostage to the withholding of love from their parents, manipulated, expected to obey and follow uncomplainingly are damaged by this. Even if in the short term their behaviour appears to be better
There is something larger at stake than just whether the child is going to behave in an exemplary fashion today at the mall.
That larger thing is what educators, parenting ‘experts’ and the general public call ‘success as an adult.’

If the benefit to the child (and society) is very short-term obedience to the whims of the local authority figure, then the costs of doing this are required to be part of the equation. 
What does it cost a child to learn that the only way he can be loved is by ‘performing’ the right way at the right time?
What does it cost those little children to be placed on stage, to strut and dance, so they can win meaningless trophies as the Cutest or Most Talented in a pool of 12 or 15 other kids their age... wearing wigs, false teeth, makeup, false eyelashes...? 

The same it costs kids who are compelled to pretend who they are, what they want, and how they behave in the world to be considered lovable, acceptable, sometimes to even be considered human.

I hear some hesitation... ‘but children, unpunished and uncontrolled, will be monsters,’ is the popular and pervasive thought...

But, no. 
The monsters are those who learned control, power, manipulation and rebellion early, early on. 
It is not the Buddhists who are staging violent protests in the name of some long-dead human who said something very much like ‘don’t take my picture seriously.’ It isn’t the Shintoists who are burning embassies or bombing cars to ‘prove’ that their way is the one right way. These are but two of the philosophies of the world that teach that the innate nature of things is good, and that children need love, support and guidance, not violence, control and forced obedience.

In my manuscript "The Way and The Power of Mothering, a translation of the Tao Te Ching through the lens of motherhood," I wrote:


yin yang by Tom F
In mothering lies great power. It is easy for her to think the child and

his destiny are hers to control; that the child is to be moulded to her ideal;

that the flaws are hers to correct.

Right mothering recognizes the false belief in this. A wise mother knows only her own imperfections are hers to correct--her child comes whole and needs to mould himself to meet his destiny. The power of motherhood is in the strength of supporting, loving and being present, which are hard enough.

yinyang-b by Elisabeth Augusta Borchgrevink

The hardest thing parents can do is let go of the need to control, especially within a society that says, ‘it is a parent’s most important task to control the child.’ Alfie Kohn’s brilliantly argued thesis is that in spite of the popularity of the idea, there is no empirical evidence (and many people have set out to prove it, and failed) that control is even moderately effective, even in the short term.
Control simply does not work
There is no qualification to that statement
Controlling children simply does not create obedience, even when it creates the appearance of obedience in the short term.

Besides, what is the benefit to humanity to have a population of obedient people? Who will they obey? What atrocities will they participate in because they are told to?

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