They say to write about what you know, but instead I’m writing about what I’m spending much of my time thinking about these days; parenting, and specifically, values-led parenting.
Last week I heard someone say, for the hundredth time: “good boy” and clap one of my children for eating vegetables/climbing the stairs/not throwing their food on the floor (no small feat I tell you). It was when my child repeated the triumph and then clapped himself, whilst looking around for approval that it really hit me how children are being primed for values in almost every interaction and, subsequently, the huge responsibility I have as a parent in balancing out a world where the mainstream is dominated by an emphasis on extrinsic values, such as power, wealth and social status.
I joined Common Cause whilst I was pregnant, and so I became a parent to twins at the same time as becoming deeply immersed in the world of social psychology and human values and I have come to think a lot about what intrinsic values-led parenting might look like. As with all parts of life, values are an inherent part of parenting; aside from your circumstances they will influence your decision on whether to have children or not; they will impact the way you see and interact with children, your own and/or others; and influence these children’s own values as they navigate their path through life. The way we are parented is a very important influence in shaping our own values in adulthood; for example, research suggests that cold, uncaring parents tend to raise extrinsically-oriented children (p. 502); and cognitive linguist George Lakoff uses the deep frames of ‘strict father’ (holds discipline and morality to be inseparable) and ‘nurturant parent’ (teaches empathy and social responsibility) as metaphors in his political analysis.
A term that gained popularity in the 70s, and even more so in recent years, is ‘gentle parenting’, which parenting expert Sarah Ockwell-Smith describes, in essence as “parenting with understanding, empathy and respect for children”. There is a lot to like about the concept, and other complementary philosophies such as Montessori education, which sees children as a whole and respects their autonomy; or self-determination theory (SDT) which is the main focus of this post. SDT is a distinct body of research, which I conflate with (and I would argue is compatible with) Shalom Schwartz’s theory of human values, but it might be importantly separated here. SDT supports the idea that children play an active role in their own development and is where the intrinsic/extrinsic motivation language comes from – a lot has been written on SDT and parenting; see here and here.
I grew up in a time when ‘authoritarian parenting’ was mainstream; where, despite coming on leaps and bounds from the harsher parenting of earlier eras, it still felt like children were to be dominated and disciplined to be obedient and well behaved above all else. I will never forget being told that my grandma had sat my grandad down when their first child was born (my mum!) and told him that their children deserve, and were to be treated with, respect. It seems so obvious to me now, but I distinctly remember feeling that this was unusual back then – I often witnessed parents who acted as though they owned their children or that they were an extension of themselves.
I always think that when it comes to repeating or breaking patterns from previous generations, our own parents or otherwise, we either learn it, or learn from it, and it has been a truly eye opening experience to reflect deeply on all I have subconsciously picked up about parenting. It has been a practice to make my thoughts, feelings and behaviours, and the values that underpin them, conscious and to try to actively choose (when I can – I’m no saint!) how to be and to respond.
Bursting with love, feeling full of awe of what it is to be and change as a human, and wanting to encourage my children – on many levels it makes so much sense to me to be full of enthusiasm and praise for all that they are going through and learning and doing. At the same time, I can see that offering praise when the boys do something that pleases me, or that focuses on outcome rather than effort, could feel manipulative, or pressuring or shallow – something that is recognised in gentle parenting approaches. The same applies to rewarding what might be described as ‘good’ behaviour. In his book ‘Unconditional Parenting’, author Alfie Kohn writes about an experience he had on a plane where he witnessed the parents of a child being congratulated on his being “good during the flight”. Kohn writes: ““Good” is an adjective often laden with moral significance. It can be a synonym for ethical or honourable or compassionate. However, where children are concerned, the word is just as likely to mean nothing more than quiet– or, perhaps, not a pain in the butt to me. […] I realised that this is what many people in our society want most from children: not that they are caring or creative or curious, but simply that they are well behaved.” Despite recognising the pressures of parenting, Kohn advocates for thinking longer-term about how we might like our children to be when they’re grown; perhaps happy, balanced, kind, responsible, loving, inquisitive, confident, thoughtful… and whether our everyday practices are likely to help our children grow into the kind of people we’d like them to be. He suggests that even overhearing someone speak of our child today, we’re unlikely to want to hear them say “Boy, that child does everything they’re told and you never hear a peep out of them.”
I also began to wonder if, in fact, by encouraging children to do something for external reward and recognition, I was inadvertently priming them to be extrinsically motivated, rather than doing something for their own internal satisfaction, or sense of autonomy. I want my children to sleep and brush their teeth for their own benefit and because they are essential to their good health, rather than ‘for me’ and my benefit (although I can’t deny that would be lovely); I want them to pick up litter and share with each other because these are fundamental parts of being a steward of the Earth and what it means to live in community with other humans, not because they will be rewarded for doing so.
I know some people will argue that motivators like praise and rewards are a means to an end; that children will stop needing to be clapped every time they go to the toilet for the rest of their lives (we hope!). But I know that words and actions are powerful and that children are always watching and listening to how we act and what we say, regardless of the facade we might wear for their benefit. I also know that they are learning more about values in these early years than they might ever do in their lives. They are full humans now who have nowhere to get to before they are worthy of the same intentional communication and action that I hope to bring to every relationship and interaction I have in the world.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not cold or unfeeling; I can’t help wanting to celebrate everything I see these fantastic humans being and doing – their moments of kindness and wisdom brings me to tears, and I know in my own life that it’s lovely to be seen and appreciated by others; so there are many claps and cheers and celebrations that slip through. I have all of the feelings, but I try to express my appreciation, love and support for my children with intentional communication that doesn’t patronise and that honours them for who they are rather than what they are able to do.
Respect, understanding and empathy for all living beings are some of my core values and I can see that parenting with these intrinsic values as my foundation in every interaction with my children will, I hope, develop in them an internally-manifested sense of wellbeing and encourage them to be, by and large, intrinsically motivated humans themselves.
It feels important to note and caveat here that there are as many approaches to parenting as there are parents and that my reflections and experiences are narrow. I’ve also grown up in the UK in a white, middle class, non-disabled family, which has hugely influenced my experience, opportunities and privileges as a child and now as a parent. As with many things, it’s also true to say that modern, mainstream parenting education and culture is still dominated by global north-based, white, middle-class, able-bodied, straight, cis people and that this also has a huge impact on the values and parenting styles that are elevated as conventional wisdom.
I’d love to hear your own thoughts and experiences of interactions with children in line with your values; whether that is with children in your family or with others in your lives and communities. Perhaps there are cultural influences that make your values when it comes to parenting different to mine; or perhaps you know of resources or people speaking on values-led parenting that you’d like to share.
Thanks, as always, for reading. Sending appreciation to all of you and gentleness as we all navigate the complexities of parenting – whether that’s our relationship with our own parents, or with our children.