There should be a word that means “reading a book and then seeing the point it’s making acted out in front of you constantly.”
The book in question is Alfie Kohn’s Unconditional Parenting: Moving From Rewards and Punishment to Love and Reason. Its essential point is that much of what is generally referred to as “discipline” or “positive reinforcement” is an attempt to control children’s actions through behaviour modification methods first developed for training animals. These methods are so mainstream because of adult anxieties – a desperation not to be judged “bad parents” (or overly permissive, which may be the same thing). What they demonstrate or communicate is that adults are more concerned with how children behave (whether or not they say thank you) than how they feel (whether or not they feel thankful).
When I was at Williamsburg Pop-Up PLAY Day last summer, I noticed one mother reading a book while her daughter – who was about 8, and already running with a group of new friends – played a short distance away. Beside me, a group of Mums shared their moral horror at this, agreeing they would never do the same.
“I haven’t finished a book since my eldest was born!” one crowed. The name of their competition seemed to be Constant Vigilance, as if they were superheroes guarding a small and troubled city. But from the outsider, they can sometimes appear quite different and, as Kohn addresses, the stick and carrot of punishment and reward can impede children in developing their own moral compass, in experiencing and directing their own journey through the world.
In the shop the other day I saw this in practice. Bucking the popular image of these tactics being the province of wealthy urban parents, the two families visiting were more socioeconomically mixed than that. They’d each been in before, and clearly adored their children. Both children there were very young, and not speaking yet.
One had come with two parents and a grandmother, the other with a Mum and two aunts. All the adults were circled around the two babies, watching fondly as they met one another for the first time. What began as lovely abruptly changed, as the adults began calling out stage directions to the two small actors in this theatre in the round. All of the words below were spoken by the adults, talking over one another in a constant and rising chorus.
“Oh, look at that truck! Brrrm brrrm, go trucks. Oh, you’ve dropped it! Silly!”
“You’ve got to share the truck. Can you let him have a turn? Good boy!”
“Take it nicely. Say thank you.”
“Oh, you’ve dropped it again. Who’s a silly billy? YOU’RE a silly billy! Pick it up then!”
“Don’t snatch, dear.”
“You’re sharing that truck very nicely now – don’t throw it!”
“Oh, she threw it. Time to leave! Give it to the little boy now, you’ve had your turn.”
“Bye-bye to the little boy. Say buh-bye, and thank you to the workers! Wave!”
I was exhausted by the end of it, and could only imagine how the children felt. The voices above had overlapped in a constant stream of commentary, direction and response. And the thing is, if the parents could have heard themselves I think they’d have been horrified. Kohn offers a set of prompts for parents seeking to reflect on their approaches, and ways to help themselves re-calibrate amidst the chaos and intense pressure of their responsibility.
Now, the question of parents in a playworker-staffed setting is complex and fascinating, and it’s something I’m still working out approaches to myself. I think it’s crucial to realize that the kind of behaviour noted above also stems from play deprivation, and that if we really want to embed the principles and approaches of playwork throughout children’s lives, we need to be working with adults too.
By no means is this a substitute for child-only provision. I think most of us can remember how different the world felt when our parents weren’t around. However, it might be a way to reach those children who wouldn’t be able to come on their own. The more play offers we make children and adults and whole communities, the better our world will become.