Friday, June 29, 2007

theory vs. reality

Since I'm such a discipline expert now, I've decided to review a book on discipline called Unconditional Parenting.
I have to be honest--I didn't really like it. Also, I didn't exactly read it; I mostly skimmed it. Mostly because I had a sense that if I read it too closely I'd start obsessing.
Certain books have this effect on me.

The thing is, a lot of the ideas in the book I find compelling. Since I'm such a hippie, I like the touchy-feely, positive-discipline theories (we'll see what I like when Lucy actually gets old enough to need discipline). So Unconditional Parenting really stands with a lot of books I found very interesting and encouraging, like Positive Discipline and How to Talk So Your Kids Will Listen. And my favorite, Kid Cooperation.
So, you all ask, what was wrong with this one?
Well, here's the deal. I just found it too theoretical. I think I'm kind of opposed to theory in parenting books. Not that theory doesn't have it's place. I mean, I want to understand the values that cause me to make the parenting choices I'm making. I want to be grounded in what really matters, so that, at least, parenting decisions are grounded in some sort of coherence. Not for coherence's sake, but because I want my whole life to have that coherence: work, money management, eating decisions, friendships, how I spend my time.
But being just slightly prone to idealism and to idealized (and impossible-to-live-up-to) ideas, a little theory for me goes a long way. Like from here to Pakistan and back.
Unconditional Parenting is about 95% theory and 5% practical applications. When you're a first-time parent, all you really need is practical applications. Because you don't know what the hell you're doing.
Take sleep. I read some books on sleep, but really, all the reading in the world left me woefully unprepared to actually help Lucy learn how to sleep. What really would have helped was watching someone put their child to bed each nap and nighttime, but unfortunately I didn't have any friends that wanted me in their bedroom that much.
Instead, all the books did was give me a bunch of ideals to live up to ("no cry" and "co-sleep" and "nighttime parenting" and "insanity"---okay, not that last one) that mostly just made me feel bad when I was at my wit's end and was willing to let Lucy sleep at our neighbor's house if it would help things.
Once I got some practical experience, the books proved more helpful. Then I actually recognized some of their ideas and thought, Oh, THAT's what they're talking about.

I think U.P. would send me down that guilt trip road even more quickly. I couldn't get through even two chapters without feeling inadequate. The author backs up his parenting ideas with a lot of research saying how parents who didn't use U.P. ended up, in clinical studies, with unhappy, hateful children (I exaggerate--he didn't make such grand claims--but did tend to show how more traditional discipline methods fared in studies). I appreciated some actual science (many parenting books have no rigorous proof for their ideas) but the general drift was to make me feel claustrophobic. And the lack of practical tips (I would have wanted the balance of practical/theory to be more like 50/50) left me feeling not just inadequate but incompetent.

One more thing: Kohn just seemed kind of extreme to me. He's all about the kids, all about involvement and respect and compassion. Which is fine--and probably he's extreme to counter more authoritarian ideas in vogue. But still, I don't think there's anything wrong for kids to be subject to the authority of parents. I don't think there is any way to explain every decision, even to older kids. I don't think it's wrong for kids to learn to obey. Sometimes simply to obey, without understanding all the reasons. Believing in the God I do, I think that's a perfectly healthy idea.

I'm really glad that I read U.P. after reading Kid Cooperation, a book that was refreshingly practical, compassionate in it's methods, but also emphasized the authority of parents. That we're in charge! That's it's okay to say, "Because I said so" every so often! Touchy-feely is fine, and compassion and mutual respect and kids that aren't just blindly obedient is great, but life isn't always fair, and parents can't always be Ghandi.
Plus, I think a relentlessly practical book is just more realistic for parents. It causes less feelings of inadequacy when the author shares how they struggled with a situation, and then tried a new angle that worked. I need to hear the struggle to keep in mind that we're all just doing the best we can. And that books are just books--they can't get up with you in the middle of the night, or calm down your kid in the middle of the grocery store.
In the middle. Ain't that the truth of parenting: you're always smack dab in the middle of it.


writermeeg said...

Hi Heather, Wow, I need to think about this one. I think maybe I recommended this book to you (??) but not sure.

I've heard someone else say they felt judged (self-judged, author-judged?) when reading Kohn, and I suppose I can see that, but I did not have that experience with it (I think, but now I'm going to look back at it and try to recall whether I did!). My takeaway from it now, months later, is that I like his theories as a back-drop, as an opportunity to assess what is behind all the practical how-to stuff, to take things to a different place/level. I see it as a wholly different mission than a how-to parenting book.

I really like how Kohn turns conventions on their head and makes us think and squirm a bit (in his other books, he does this about education, too). I took it less as a standard to hold myself to, but more as a challenge to really think about my own priorities, not to just do as "everybody does" -- to really think about what we mean when we say something in parenting "works" (which I think was his main intention). I have a pastor friend who always said it is much more important what questions we ask than what answers we get. This is why I like Kohn.

But, then again, this is a kind of cultural studies mind-screwing stuff that I went to grad school for and also loved, so maybe it's just a matter of taste, personality?

I agree, this book doesn't tell us how to do things, and it makes sense that this would please some and frustrate others (or both!). I agree that if you're looking for discipline solutions, this isn't your go-to manual. I suppose, for me, though, it has a different place, and one that I found refreshing and important.

I do see and appreciate your points, and will go back and do some more thinking on it myself. (We're sleep deprived over here, too, so I hope this makes sense and isn't endlessly redundant!)

In any case, thanks for sharing your thoughts, and making me go over my own! :)

Heather said...

Ahh, thanks for the thoughtful comment on this. I heard you talking about the book to Abi.
I think I liked his theories a lot too, but I'd already variations on the theme that were a bit more practical, so it wasn't as convention-turning for me.
I liked too how he challenges us to think about how our parenting choices "work" or whether our children are "good".
I think a lot of it is my personality: I tend to take things to an extreme and get into "let's do it perfectly!" mind games. Perhaps having the how-to is thus less frustrating? So that i have a roadmap to frustration, rather than feeling like I have to figure out perfection on my own?
Perhaps I need to stop reading parenting books. This is definitely possible.

writermeeg said...

Teehee. I've had the same thought about my own reading of parenting books! And, funny enough, on your recommendation I had ordered Kid Cooperation, which came yesterday! So far, looks good! Talk soon, and great blogging... :)

(BTW, did I tell you I've been working on a new blog idea about how we define success -- somehow I think it may appeal to you...) ;)