“Say thank you. Good boy!” – Alfie Kohn and Unconditional Parenting

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.”

“Say bye-bye!”

“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.


4 thoughts on ““Say thank you. Good boy!” – Alfie Kohn and Unconditional Parenting

  1. “Adults are more concerned with how children behave… than how they feel.” I couldn’t agree more. I haven’t read Kohn’s book, but am with him (and you) on the problem, which your anecdote illustrates nicely. Indeed I made similar points in a blog post a couple of months ago.
    My hunch is that these adult attitudes stem as much from unhelpful cultural norms about what ‘good parenting’ looks like as from play deprivation. Though I am worried about a generation of parents growing up who, as children, had little or no experience of being beyond the anxious gaze of adults.
    I agree that ‘play advocates’ need to work with parents (and have blogged on this too). But I do not agree that ‘child-only’ provision is what is needed. It is quite possible for adults to be physically present without messing things up too much.

  2. I completely agree with your point about unhelpful cultural norms – and I think that’s an expression of widespread public misunderstanding of play, what it looks like and why it’s important. I think it’s all connected to a lingering suspicion of children’s natures (why else would we need a carrot and a stick?) and the belief that children are little more than reflections of their parents.

    And I do think that there’s something really remarkable about classic Adventure Playground style provision, where parents and carers maintain a bit of a distance. I wish that it weren’t necessary, but I’ve known some children use that distance to create other ‘selves’ that their families at home might not recognize. I think that playworker-staffed provision is the closest that many children today will come to an adult-free afternoon of play.

  3. Hi Morgan, the following phrase put me on guard: “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).”
    It somehow makes feelings prior to behavior, as if to say “thank you” people had first to feel thankful, which is very ethnocentric because it gives primacy to the individual (her feelings) over the social. Children’s duties have been a neglected aspect of western discourse on children and their rights but are at the core, for example, of the African system of children’s rights. That is precisely what makes children in some parts of Africa a part of their society, full members, voices to be listened to: that some things can be expected from them.
    Besides, there is also a causal issue to deal with. Feelings don’t pop up from nowhere, nor are they intrinsic (non-cultural). Inevitably, they are modelled by behaviour, which, inevitably as well, is modelled by or environment (parents being a part of it). That our individuality, including our feelings, is socially modelled, was was one of Vygotsky’s best insights (and I am not a Vygotskyan) and is a key question mark on the rationalistic hegemonic trend inside child psychology.
    Of course, I’m not calling to disregard children’s feelings, but to put them in context; I’m calling for inter-dependence, of the individual and the social, of children and adults, and, as you know, of work and play.

    1. Hmmm – I don’t necessarily think that feelings are prior to behaviour, and I wouldn’t want to neglect the importance of things like “saying thank you” as part of social exchange.

      There are suggestions from research though that a strong emphasis from parents or teachers on performance can undermine the intrinsic qualities – that being told to say thank you, or sorry, can work against the development or recognition of feeling grateful, or seeing that you’ve hurt someone else.

      In short, I totally see where you’re coming from and I think we perhaps overlap more than this may indicate.

      My problem here is not that things (such as engagement with social norms) are expected of children, but that they’re ALL that is expected of children. Sit still, be polite, do as you’re told. That’s not a recognition of children’s agency, either – in fact, I think it’s a way of disregarding them as individuals AND as social actors.

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