Parenting Podcast: Parenting as Influence Rather Than Authority

Parenting Podcast by Wendy Grinberg, RJE

Alfie Kohn exposes the faulty thinking behind rewards and punishments in this week’s podcast, saying they “are just two sides of the same coin, and that coin doesn’t buy very much.” He tries to convince us what there search shows with adults and children: incentives don’t work. Our goal is for children to self-motivate, derive their own sense of self-worth, and follow their inner guide. The only way they can learn to do that is by trying. In fact, they don’t benefit from our micromanaging and constant bargaining with stickers or time outs.

“Unconditional parenting,” as Kohn calls it, stems from a belief that people have at their cores the capacity to make good judgments,control their own actions and find their own interests. Our feedback in the form of praise or punishment clouds these issues, making children act for the sake of parental approval. As Martin Buber taught, we should try to elevate our relationships from those where we treat the other person as an object to be used or judged (I-It) to those where we respect others as autonomous individuals (I-Thou). 

The Reform Movement is actually based on the understanding of the power of influence, not authority. We believe that Judaism has something to say about our modern lives and that it can make a difference for the better.But we also acknowledge that we can’t compel anyone to study, pray, or act ethically. We like to say that today all Jews are Jews-By-Choice. Our job thenis to model a rich, Jewish life, one that we hope others will admire and seek out for themselves. This too is our challenge as parents–if you want your children to eat healthily, do so yourself and enjoy it. If you want your child to love Judaism, show them that you find meaning and comfort in the tradition.

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Wendy Grinberg, RJE is a URJ Parenting Specialist.

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4 Responses to “Parenting Podcast: Parenting as Influence Rather Than Authority”

  1. William Berkson
    William Berkson Reply June 6, 2011 at 8:52 pm

    Most of the parenting guides today, such as the STEP program, Hiam Ginott, etc., and many others do not take a simple behaviorist reward-and-punishment approach to parenting, so I think Alfie Kohn’s criticism of programs other than his own is much too broad brushed.
    And he does not in the clip address the issue of setting limits, which is a key part of parenting that many parents have difficulty with. Diana Baumrind’s work on parenting styles, which has stood the test of time, says that parents need to set reasonable limits, and consistently enforce them. In my article in Reform Judaism Magazine some time ago, I explained how Jewish values can help us to carry through Baumrind’s approach, which is neither authoritarian nor permissive.
    Also, on the other side, children beyond bar and bat mitzvah bear some responsibility for the parent-child relationship. The balanced approach I advocate in the article is also the basis of a religious school course for teens on teen-parent relations called “Shalom Bayit,” which we have developed for and is now in use at Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Virginia.

  2. avatar

    At what age is my child able to decide what is good for him? 2, 12 or 22? If we do not “compel” our children to do anything religous or otherwise, they will jump on the band wagon of “Tommy isn’t, why should I? My life as an example only backs up my parenting that there ARE obligations in this world. One must show research and maturity to make some decisions. But this “I can’t compell” is ridiculous. It is only when we are challenged, taught and shown that we can make INFORMED decisions. We can’t legislate feelings, but we can legislate actions. Isn’t that what we tell converts, to do the actions first, and the feelings will follow?

  3. avatar
    Jordan Friedman Reply June 7, 2011 at 5:01 pm

    @ Naomi Ruben
    I can see both sides of this, and feel torn between them. I grew up without being really “compelled” to do anything I didn’t want to do. The only exceptions were matters of safety and academic performance, in which cases my parents exercised compelling authority in order to get me to do what was necessary. Outside of those instances, I truly had no boundaries. This method of child-rearing could easily have resulted in a nightmare child, but it didn’t in my case. I never took advantage of my freedom by doing bad things, and I discovered on my own that I wanted to be involved in Judaism.
    Despite the fact that an extremely permissive, democratic parenting style worked for me, I know that every child is different. Some children turn out great even if they’re given almost no limits or obligations, and others must be almost tyrannically directed in order to turn out okay. Most are somewhere in the middle. I think one thing we can agree on is that it’s important for parents to assess what style is best suited to their child, and be careful to raise them with the least possible amount of restrictions, and force as few things on them as possible. Use authority as opposed to influence only when necessary, even if using it more might solve some short-term issues. If my parents had forced their will on me any more than they did, I don’t know if I would ever have forgiven them, but I’m glad they did when they did because boy, did I need it. Growing up, my friends’ parents had much more authoritarian parenting styles, and even as early as age 3, I remember perceiving this to be a significant injustice, though I now recognize that their experience was actually the norm, and mine the exception. But what does that say about our society?
    There are also demographic norms to be aware of. It seems to me, in my experience, that non-Orthodox Jewish parents and liberal Christian parents tend to be either mildly strict or outright permissive, while both Orthodox Jewish and Conservative Christian parents are much stricter, and tend to employ parenting tactics that I think should land them behind bars. I don’t think most Reform Jews need to hear the anti-corporal punishment shpiel, but it is wonderful that this dialogue on influence vs. authority has been opened.
    I plan to get married and have kids one day (I’m 20), and I plan to apply the least amount of “force” possible to shape them into moral, caring people. I will try very hard to get them interested in Judaism and Jewish living, but will try not to punish them if they just don’t want it. I may make them “try” things, and expose them to things so that they can make informed decisions, but I would not subject them over and over again to something which they don’t like, as long as they are good-natured and well-behaved overall. On the other hand, if I end up as a Rabbi, which is currently the plan, then I may have institutional pressure to form a “model Jewish family”, which would require that my children be active and involved in congregational life. Is it fair to them to push on them something which is unpleasant for them which I would not have pushed were I in a different career? Should my career choice (possibly even God’s choice for me) impact my family in a stressful way? Would it be fair to put extra obligations on my wife and children because of my standing as a clergy person? There’s a good chance I’ll have to wrestle with some of these difficult questions in the next decade, and this discussion is a wonderful resource.

  4. William Berkson
    William Berkson Reply June 8, 2011 at 1:33 pm

    Thinking more about Alfie Kohn’s tape interview, I now clearer about where it is sound and where it is misguided. Kohn is right, of course, that we shouldn’t try to control our children’s every action by reward and punishment. But the dicotomy between *never* using reward and punishment or *always* using them is a false one.
    Approaches involving limit-setting acknowledge a large sphere of free choice and action for the child, and indeed an increasing one as the child matures. But they also recognize that children may because of their immaturity make bad choices that will hurt themselves or others, physically or emotionally, in ways that are difficult or impossible to repair. And these areas of heath, safety and morals are where limit setting is appropriate.
    And limit-setting involves some kind of sanction to be real. Here is where Dreikurs’ “natural and logical consequences,” which Kohn critizes, and which the STEP and other approaches use, are appropriate.
    Overall, it is important to recognize that parents have legal and moral authority over their children, and that with that authority comes the responsibility to set limits. However that responsibility doesn’t imply that we should be authoritarian parents, simply issuing orders, and meting out punishments and rewards. Rather it means nurturing and giving positive guidance in most areas of life, but also setting responsible limits in others, and if need be enforcing those limits.

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