When Positive Parenting Doesn’t “Work”

When Positive Parenting Doesn’t “Work” July 28, 2015

Last week I wrote a post about struggling to convince my three-year-old son, Bobby, to take a nap while on a camping trip. I thought about how my parents would have handled they situation—by spanking the child refusing to lay down or stay still—and then about the problems with punishing children for age-approripate behavior that they will grow out of in time. I ultimately solved the situation by suggesting that Bobby and I pretend we were hiding from dinosaurs, a game that he engaged in happily and one that allowed him to relax enough to sleep. I presented this as an example of what I call “positive parenting” at work.

In the comment section of that post, reader Petticoat Philosopher left this comment:

[I]t’s important to be honest about the fact that positive parenting doesn’t always offer some alternative to spanking or punitive parenting that will get you the same result in the short term eg. willingly taking a nap, cleaning up messes, doing homework etc. and I think it’s sometimes sold that way—if you do this, your kids will do that, no spanking required! No, sometimes it’s just going to be a rough road for a while. I just don’t like the idea that there is always something you can do to get the result you want—have a quiet talk, redirect them towards a different activity etc.—and if you can just figure it out you’ll get it. (And, by extension, if you can’t figure it out, it’s your fault.) Some kids respond to those kinds of things more than others. That’s okay. Foregoing spanking and fear-based methods for positive methods is still worth it because it’s the right thing to do and it’s better for the kids in the long run. A little more chaos in the short term is worth it. I just think people need to be real about the fact that a little more chaos is sometimes the case. There’s not always an answer, sometimes there’s just toughing it out.

So, I have another story to tell.

After I wrote the post about using a game of hiding from dinosaurs to help Bobby relax enough to fall asleep, we went on vacation for another weekend, this time to see relatives. We spent a long morning walking around downtown, visiting shops and eating chocolates at an adorable little chocolate shop. After a light lunch back at home, I very much wanted a nap, and so did Sean and the other adults there. Six-year-old Sally, for her part, was content to play quietly in the main living area.

Sean laid down in one room, and I laid down in another room with Bobby (Sean doesn’t sleep well in bed with other people, for whatever reason). Bobby had shown signs of being tired, and I knew he should be exhausted. Sean fell asleep, but Bobby didn’t, and by extension, neither did I. I tried—so hard—to get Bobby to relax enough to fall asleep. I snuggled with him just as he likes, I rubbed his back, we hid from dinosaurs. Nothing worked. I was absolutely exhausted and was determined to get a nap, so I kept trying, and still nothing worked.

Finally, I rolled over and tried to go to sleep myself, leaving Bobby to play quietly. This didn’t work very well because he kept moving around and then waking me to show me things. Did I mention that I was so tired? I really wanted that nap. I was frustrated and annoyed. To my credit, I didn’t take any of this out on Bobby. I knew this wasn’t this fault. He just wasn’t tired! (Don’t ask me why. Three-year-olds are confusing.)

An hour after laying down with Bobby, I got up and woke Sean. I told him Bobby hadn’t slept and neither had I and I really wanted a turn napping. Sean had been sleeping for an hour by this time, so he willingly obliged, and I got my nap. Bobby, as it happens, never slept. He wasn’t fussy or extra tired later in the day, either—I must have misread his signs when I’d thought, earlier, that he was tired. He clearly wasn’t.

What is the point of this long digression, you ask? Simply put, here is a situation where I very badly wanted Bobby to sleep, and not a one of my positive parenting techniques was able to achieve that. And I thought about this, too, as I laid there trying to sleep while Bobby refused to. The reality is that parenting positively sometimes means you don’t get your desired end result.

I grew up with parents who emphasized obedience and relied heavily on corporal punishment. Were I following this same pattern, I would have told Bobby to lie still in the bed, and I would have hit him on the upper leg with my hand or with a paddle if he didn’t obey. He might have tested the boundaries once or twice, but ultimately he would have laid still and fallen asleep. I saw this happen plenty of times with my younger siblings as a kid. This is a case, then, where punitive parenting would have obtained my desired result but positive parenting did not.

And so as I laid there trying to sleep and prevented from doing so by Bobby’s happy playfulness, I asked myself just what was the goal, really. Because while my immediate goal was to get Bobby to sleep so that I could sleep to, my ultimate goal is (I think) twofold: First, to raise a child who is independent, fulfilled, and kind; and Second, to be kind, compassionate, and fair while doing so. In other words, integral to my parenting is an effort to model the virtues that (a) I hope my children will emulate and (b) I believe are ethically required.

If I have treated my child with compassion and caring and modeled kindness and understanding, I have succeeded. Period. Success is not measured by whether my child takes a nap when I want him to, or by whether he obeys my commands. It is measured by whether I am holding myself to my ethical standards in interacting with my children and teaching my children those ethical standards in turn (with an understanding, of course, of the various constraints and challenges of child development).

If all you’re after is obedience, corporal punishment is probably your best bet. But if your goal centers more on acting with compassion, kindness, and understanding, and on teaching those traits to your children, obedience becomes less important. Don’t get me wrong, this can make parenting frustrating—sometimes very frustrating. I really wanted that nap the other weekend. But when it comes down to it, I would rather treat my child with kindness and miss a much-desired nap than use force to bend my child to my will and get that sleep.

I may have failed to get Bobby to go to sleep that afternoon, but I also kept my cool and didn’t snap at him even though I was very frustrated and thoroughly exhausted. And so I consider that frustrated afternoon, like the more immediately gratifying afternoon in the tent a few weeks before, a success.

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