Mindfucking your children instead of punishing them: is that really an improvement?

Much of “expert” advice about parenting, as well as uninformed comments, seem to reduce themselves to this: “either you punish your children in some way, or you just let them do whatever you want.” That’s why, in such a climate, any advice which says you can discipline children without punishment is going to be met with some interest as being “out there” and “groundbreaking” (treating children as human beings, on the other hand, is too whacky to have much credibility, because everyone knows children are not human beings, only future human beings).

This article detailing the parenting ideology of one “expert” called Alan Kazdin is a good example of this. The author is quite surprised at the idea of a parenting ideology that does not promote punishment, even though conditional rewards (which is the old idea that Kazdin is promoting) is a form of punishment. Why? Because praising children when they do what you want, and not praising them when they don’t do what you want, is merely a way to make your love conditional on whether your child is obedient or not. Withdrawing love is a form of punishment as effective as physical violence. It’s just another “formula” meant to keep parents from having to do the hard work of actually being parents.

But first, Kazdin has to dismiss the idea of reasoning with children, because that’s obviously silly:

So you’re really desperate. You shout, you try to reason, you think you’re a wonderful parent. You think that you’re just the greatest parent in the world. You sit down and say, “No, we don’t stab your sister, she’s the only sister you have and if you stab her, she won’t be alive much longer.” It’s always good to do that with your child, to reason, because it changes how they think, it changes how they problem solve. It develops their IQ, but it’s not good for changing behavior.

Ho ho, unconditional parents are so silly because they think they’re so much better than us, but they’re so absurd because they don’t stop their children from stabbing each other! This is such ridiculous reasoning that it’s hard to see it as anything but a bad joke. Reasoning with your children does not mean you try to explain to them why they shouldn’t stab each other. If a child is in such a dangerous situation, then they need to be put out of the situation first, then you discuss with them. This is about as silly as saying that a baby crawling onto the street should be reasoned with. No, you need to remove children from life-threatening situations first. That is your first duty as a parent: to support the child’s well-being.

While the example here is clearly irrational, I think the general message is clear: reasoning with your children is a purely academic exercise which may make more intellectually developed children but does not make them into better children. It is not clear why exactly Kazdin believes that children, no matter the age, are unable to intellectually grasp moral truths, when we all grasped some moral truths as children (while we may not all remember specific moments of this kind, I presume that no one here is moral strictly out of indoctrination or fear). A human being who was moral strictly out of fear of not being loved, which is what Kazdin advocates, would be one miserable human being. Studies have shown that this sort of parenting leads to the future adults not liking themselves and being more likely to be depressed. This is psychological damage done by parents, and yet this is what he’s promoting here.

Also, there is somewhat of a contradiction in what is being said here. How can reasoning with children help them develop problem-solving skills and yet is no good at helping them change their behavior? If by “changing their behavior,” he means “making children do what we want,” then I can see how that would work, since in that case it is the parent that is the problem to be solved. But if by “changing their behavior,” he means “making children more moral beings,” which is what we should want children to be (as we should want anyone, no matter who they are, to be more moral), then it seems to me that problem-solving is a big part of that. Children have to learn how to deal with other people, and they can apply their problem-solving skills to that task.

Parents might start out reasoning, but they’re likely to escalate to something a little bit more, like shouting, touching, firmly dragging their child, even if they’re well-intentioned. The way to get rid of a child’s negative behavior is not to do the punishment. Even a wonderful punishment, gentle punishment like time-out, or reasoning, those don’t work.

He seems to be saying here that reasoning with children does not work, cannot work, and will likely lead to some form of physical force or punishment. Again, there is no evidence of this connection. If you are committed to treating your children like human beings, then you would have no more reason to shout or punish a child any more than you’d have reason to shout or punish anyone else. The way to “get rid” of a child’s negative behavior is to follow some formula, like Kazdin’s, which will condition the child to refrain from doing the behavior. The way to make children be more moral is to support them and help them understand the nature and consequences of their actions. Yes, it’s harder to do this, but only because parenting methods take shortcuts, because violence and manipulation are always shortcuts we use against others to make them do what we want.

So what is the method he advocates?

There are a whole bunch of things that happen before behavior and if you use them strategically, you can get the child to comply…

So what comes before the behavior?

One is gentle instructions, and another one is choice. For example, “Sally, put on your,”— have a nice, gentle tone of voice. Tone of voice dictates whether you’re going to get compliance or not. “Sarah, put on the green coat or the red sweater. We’re going to go out, okay?” Choice among humans increases the likelihood of compliance. And choice isn’t important, it’s the appearance of choice that’s important. Having real choice is not the issue, humans don’t feel too strongly about that, but having the feeling that you have a choice makes a difference.

It’s pretty explicit here that this is about “strategy” and about manipulating the child. Like all other “experts” preaching conditional love or punishment, he wants to teach you these shortcuts, these tricks, which will unlock the child’s good behavior. Basically, the child’s desires, needs, or mood are not relevant to the parent’s attitude: what is important is to push on the right buttons.

We know this sort of attitude in at least one other domain: I am referring to men who see women as nothing more than puzzle games, who seek to press the right buttons, use the magic techniques, in order to unlock a woman’s desire to have a sexual encounter with them. And that is super creepy. But somehow, it’s not creepy when parents do it to their children, because it’s obedience they want instead of sex, and we don’t consider browbeating a child into obedience to be creepy (when it should be).

The two strategies proposed here are nothing new. One is to adopt a gentle tone of voice. Certainly there is nothing wrong with adopting a gentle tone of voice with anyone, although it is generally seen as a sign of condescension (I suppose children probably don’t mind, although I wouldn’t do it myself, as I see no point in talking down to children beyond what’s needed for them to understand you). The other is to offer the appearance of choice where none is present, in short, fooling a child. The only difference between this and outright lies is that a false choice makes the parent feel better about what they’re doing. The fact that you’re fooling a child into doing what you want says more about you than it says about them.

And now the behavior itself. When you get compliance, if that’s the behavior you want, now you go over and praise it … very effusively, and you have to say what you’re praising exactly.

No surprises there. But it’s the example that follows that really got my attention:

I say, “We’re going to play a game and here’s how this goes: I’m going to tell you you can’t do something, but you really can, and you can have a tantrum and you can get mad, but this time you’re not going to hit mommy, and you’re not going to go on the floor. And it’s only game, but if you can do that, I’m going to give you two points on this little chart.”

So the mom leans over and smiles and whispers in this cute way, “Okay, Billy, you cannot watch TV tonight.” And Billy, have your tantrum, and don’t hit mommy or go on the floor.

[After the fake tantrum], the child is probably smiling a little bit and the mom says with great effusiveness, “That was fabulous! I can’t believe you did that!”

Getting the child to practice the behavior changes the brain and locks in the habit. And we’ve only done it once. So now we say to Billy, “Billy, I bet you can’t do it again. I don’t think there’s a child on the planet who can do this twice in the row.” Billy’s smiling and says, “No I can, I can do it,” and I say, “Okay, okay, we’ll do one more.”

Now you do this again and the same thing happens. If the tantrum has many different components, you change your requirement—this time, you don’t do whatever. You practice it, maybe once or twice a day, and you do this for a while.

As you do this every few days, now there’s a real tantrum that occurs outside the game. And that tantrum is either a little or a lot better. Now, you go over there and say, “Billy I can’t believe it, we weren’t even playing the game, and look at what you did, you got mad at your sister, but you didn’t hit anybody! Billy, that was fantastic.”

Now, you may disagree with me on this one, but that horrifies me. If you do this to a child, what you’re going to get is a child who’s totally dissociated from their emotions, because you’re deliberately attacking their ability to tell the difference between a real feeling and acting. If you do this throughout their lives, this is child abuse and can only result in an adult who is utterly unable to deal with any emotions, because they never learned how to do it, only how to play-act. This is mindfuckery on a level I’ve never seen before. Compared to this, punishment seems merciful, because at least a child can be angry about being punished, but cannot defend against mindfucking.

Getting children to play-act and then judge them based on how well they are acting has nothing to do with unconditional love or helping children reason through their problems. Rather, it seems to be engineered to be the exact opposite: it is a trick designed to make children act out of reflex, unthinkingly, and it apportions love based on how closely the child sticks to their acting job. It has nothing to do with making children more moral, more able to express themselves, or more connected to their emotions.

Imagine a man is married to a woman with a mental disability and plays the same trick on her: he gets her to have “fake arguments,” compliments her acting, and then the next time they have an actual argument, instead of addressing her concerns or her feelings, he gives or withdraws love based on how well she “acted.” What would you think about such a man?

You may reply that a child’s tantrums are not reasoned, unlike an argument, and therefore it is all right to steamroll over them. But what if the argument had been an emotional outbreak? Little children have difficulty dealing with their emotions, desires, and impulses. They are not “bad children” who are “out to get you.” There’s no reason to suppress tantrums, apart from the fact that they inconvenience the parents and (if done in public) make them look bad. But parents should sacrifice some of their pride in order to deal with their children appropriately. Children have to learn how to deal with life, and playing tricks on them to get them to shut up is not the way to do that.

The teen may be at the dinner table and just being quiet and not saying negative things. Well, when you’re starting out, one of the positive-opposites can sometimes be reinforcing the non-occurrence of the behavior. And you just say, “Marion, it’s nice having dinner with you, it’s nice that you’re here.” What that does is reinforce the likelihood that Marion will be at the dinner table and not say negative things. Marion might also say, “Can you pass the avocado and garbanzo stew?” And you just say, “Of course.”

This is just a return to the conditional praise technique, so there’s not much else to say here. One thing is that the parent could simply be lying. If they are the kind of parent who constantly tries to trick their child instead of being honest and having open conversations with them, then it’s unlikely that they really find it nice to be with the child (also, an avocado and garbanzo stew sounds terrible).

I didn’t analyze the numerous points at which the interviewer and Kazdin talk about how novel and revolutionary his techniques are. There is nothing novel or revolutionary about these techniques: conditional love has been used for centuries by parents in order to cajole their children into obedience. The idea of conditional love being promoted without any prescription when it fails may be a new thing, but we know there’s really only two possibilities: either withdrawal of love or punishment. And since he explicitly excludes the latter possibility, then only the former remains.

Treating your child like a human being instead of an enemy you should trick, fool, or browbeat into compliance, is harder than using tricks and techniques. In the same way, it is harder to deal with other people as human beings instead of treating them as puzzle boxes from which you can extract time, attention or resources by saying specific lines or doing specific things, and giving the silent treatment to those who do not comply (actually, it is much easier to manipulate children, since children do not have the option of never talking to you again).

“Experts” like Kazdin sell easy ways to deal with children which do not involve taking the time to support their emotional and intellectual needs. In the past, parenting quackery existed mostly because of the hatred against children; nowadays, I believe that this hatred is now only one factor, another important factor being the lack of time. We live in harsh economic times, most couples have two or more jobs, and, generally speaking, people simply do not have that much time to deal with their children. So despite the great strides that have been accomplished so far about children’s rights (the marginalization of child labor, the outlawing of physical punishment in many countries, the stigmatization of severe sexual assault), we have not yet achieved any sort of breakthrough in terms of parenting, with a majority of parents still promoting physical violence, and few people really advocating treating children like human beings.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: