The First Problem with “Positive Parenting”

First of all, I want to say I commend the work of people like Elizabeth Gershoff, Joan Durrant, etc., that have been producing this sort of information for parents and say that these ideas are a huge step forward in child-rearing information and methodology. These people are doing great work, and we all owe them a debt of gratitude. Theirs is work I would never attempt to invalidate; I only wish to further it, if I can. They are the professionals; I am a tradesman and a parent of only a few children, and not to be sexist about it, but my kids are girls. I’m told I have had it pretty easy.

Having said that, I have substantial objections.

First of all, Ms. Gershoff, I apologize for making your article my example. The previously cited metastudy on physical punishment was excellent. I am hoping that this is sort of fair, to cite the same people for my case and against, as opposed to choosing one authority to praise and another to criticize. It is only an example, an example of a large volume of information that can be found everywhere. The type of information Ms Gershoff et al., have provided has had huge circulation and can be found in many forms and many places. It is, as near as I can see the current standard, and I can’t say it enough, a huge improvement over the previous standard. I don’t consider that I am critiquing anyone in particular, and I am attempting to address concepts only, and not personalities. Having said that, we had one parenting manual in the house when my children were young: “kids are worth it!” by Barbara Coloroso. Although just this year, in preparation for this book, I’ve been internet researching and reading much ‘positive parenting’ literature from a variety of sources, it may be that it was that book that has been on my mind during the intervening years, while I’ve been raising my kids and developing my idea.

Firstly, and this is almost correct, really: the above advice says nothing about what a parent is to do if none of it “works,” if the child is intractable.

I think this may be where I differ, even though I also offer nothing that “works” for that. As I stated at the outset, this is not a parenting manual. All I’m offering here is what not to do, and why. I fear that this is where the entire system of positive parenting breaks down, that when none of the positive, “first, do no harm” methods bring about the result the parent wants or needs, that there may be some tacit approval there to do what is necessary. One still has the impression from this sort of literature that it remains the case that the parent is always in charge, that it is the parent’s plan that should always be followed, and that the whole plan is offered as an alternate way for the parent to always get the results he, she, or both are after. Thus, it is a change of preferred method only, and not really anything qualitative, not really a change of principle, and therefore always vulnerable of interpretation to the old ways.

The literature very often, as this article does, endorses the “time out.” This is not offered as a punishment, the time out is only a way to diffuse a situation, or stop some rough interaction, allow one or more participants to cool down, maybe get distracted. (There is far more to say and far more that has been said about time outs, most notably that the use of time out is basically the same as solitary confinement for adult convicts, as well as the actual penalty for children being, from the child’s point of view, an enforced parental abandonment. This is not the point I wish to discuss, I don’t wish to be discussing the various methods of punishing and their relative merits. I am critiquing the principle, the merits or not of any sort of punishing. Having said that, upon editing this section, it seemed an omission not to mention the punitive aspect of the time out.) However, this, or any sort of punishment, will a great deal of the time cause the non-physical method to break down very quickly indeed, if the child doesn’t want to do it. Any plan the parent has, anything the parent thinks MUST happen can and often will, start a fight. When the parent must win the fights, there will be threats, intimidation, or force, maybe even violence. In this way, non-physical punishments are oxymoronic: how physical do you have to be, sometimes, to get an angry, misbehaving child to take his or her non-physical penalty?

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