When a Timeout Means 'I Love You … Sometimes'

alfie-kohn-unconditional-parenting-disciplineEarlier this week we talked about some less than desirable outcomes of spanking (aggression, diminished cognitive capabilities). Today, let’s deal with the less than desirable outcomes of more popular and accepted discipline techniques: the vaunted timeout and the oft-uttered “good job.”

Both, it turns out, communicates to the child that they are loved conditionally. Which, you know, messes with a kid’s mind while providing fodder for therapy years down the road.

For the NY Times Mind column, child behavior expert and author Alfie Kohn wrote recently that today’s way of teaching our children often winds up sending the message that our love for them is dependent on their behavior: turn up the affection when they’re good, withhold affection when they’re not.

In other words, to them, it appears that we love them conditionally. The primary message of all types of conditional parenting is that children must earn a parent’s love, he argues. Spanking is a form of control, he says, but so is praise, which teaches kids that they are loved and lovable only when they do things that we parents have deemed “a good job.”

Oh, BS, right? Where’s the proof? How about some studies, which show that, yes, praise does influence a child’s behavior — and in mostly the way the parents hope for it to. However, it comes at a price.

In questioning college students, researchers found that those who said they received conditional acceptance — that is, praise or punishment based on how well the did in school, how hard they practiced in sports, whether they were considerate to others, and whether they suppressed anger and fear — resented and disliked their parents.

Moreover, these students’ behaviors had more to do with “strong internal pressure” and not their true desires. Also, any happiness derived from success was typically short-lived and often made them feel ashamed or guilty.

Ew. All that from having been told “good job”? Yes!

To underscore these results, the same researchers replicated the study, this time with 9th-graders. Instead of looking at differences in positive and negative parenting, they focused on the “good job” type of positive parenting, but teased apart the effects of giving more approval when the kid did what the parent wanted her to but giving less or no approval she she did not.

The praise for good stuff indeed got students to work harder, but gave them feelings of “internal compulsion.” (Not sure what that means but it sounds bad, right?) The withdrawal of praise just made the students feel negative toward their parents.

The takeaway? What these and other studies tell us, if we’re able to hear the news, is that praising children for doing something right isn’t a meaningful alternative to pulling back or punishing when they do something wrong. Both are examples of conditional parenting, and both are counterproductive, Kohn writes.

The thing about Kohn and the researcher’s findings is that, well, that’s how most of us were conditioned so these are deeply ingrained behaviors, based on the best of intentions. And not just of parents, but also teachers and eventually bosses. Spanked or not given raises when we’re “bad.” Patted on the head, awarded a gold star or told “good job” when we’re “good.”

Honestly? It’s hard to come up with alternatives? I’ve read Kohn’s Unconditional Parenting. I even send my kids’ to a school where there are no punishments and no rewards (just lots and lots and loooooots of talking) and I’m completely on board. But at home? Day-to-day? I wind up being pretty inconsistent — sometimes a timeout is the only thing between you and truly regrettable parenting. Surely a little “internal compulsion” is better than that?

What do you think of Kohn? Do you wish you knew more? Or do you wish he’d butt out? Also, one thing I’ve always wondered him is, well, his kids’ mom. Like, is she all “good job” and promising M&M’s when he’s away at a conference?

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Photo: Simon and Shuster

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