[This is an article originally blogged by Keenan.]
Twin Oaks is a great place to raise children. At Twin Oaks almost every parent likes their kid(s) and likes being a parent. Almost every parent is raising their children deliberately and consciously. Although not all of us parents agree with each other, we all concur that there are many bad mainstream child-rearing theories and practices that we want to avoid/overcome.
Kristen and I just celebrated the milestone of our youngest having his 18th birthday. We have been reflecting recently on our journey as parents, and we are very pleased with how the kids have turned out—pleased and relieved. Why relieved? Our parenting practices were at odds with almost every mainstream child-rearing theory we read. We weren’t so confident that we could know for sure that the kids would turn out great. According to those other theories, our bizarre parenting practices should have resulted in kids who are emotionally crippled sociopaths. But they aren’t—in fact, the kids are, by all accounts, altogether fine human beings. I don’t want to gloat or embarrass the kids by describing how great they are—but take my word for it.
Kristen and I both had lots of experience with kids prior to having our own, so we were already quite skilled, or, at least, opinionated by the time we were holding a newborn. As the kids grew, we talked fairly constantly about how the kids were doing. We wanted to do things right; we would immediately work on any behavior problem that started to crop up, or, even better, recognize an interest early so we could kindle it. Through our experience as parents, our belief in the fundamental wrongness of how children are treated in the mainstream culture solidified. If you want to try to give your child a utopian childhood the hardest part is letting go of lots of misguided mainstream beliefs about children. Honestly, doing things right is a lot of work, but if you want to know what we did and why, without further ado, here is the “Dakota theory” of how to give children a utopian childhood:
[Kristen and I have the last name “Dakota.” This has nothing to do with any Native American people]
Current belief: Children are lesser beings who should not expect or receive the same polite and considerate treatment that adults give each other.
Dakota theory: Children have the same intrinsic value that all humans have and should be listened to and treated with respect. Specifically, parents should like their children.
Conclusion: Children behave well when they are treated as though they are deserving of respect.
Current belief: Children should obey authority figures.
Dakota theory: Children should be taught that they are responsible human beings and they should learn to negotiate for what they want.
Conclusion: Children who are taught to obey, learn to distrust their own judgment. They also demonstrate less personal motivation. Children who are taught to negotiate show more task persistence and have a strong sense of self-esteem. Unfortunately, raising a child who negotiates requires more time and effort from parents.
Current belief: Children need peers to develop normal social skills.
Dakota theory: Children develop better social skills without same-age peers.
Conclusion: Children learn social skills from the people they are around. Children in groups and in institutional settings are sometimes inconsiderate or cruel to each other. Children who are around other children for much of the time, often develop dysfunctional behaviors from being with other, partially socialized, children. Children who are around adults for most of their formative years develop better social skills than children who are in group childcare for most of their formative years.
Current belief: Children need to go to school to 1) develop social skills and 2) to absorb a body of knowledge.
Dakota theory: School exposes children to bad social behaviors. The body of knowledge in school is often outdated, inadequate, and inaccurate. Additionally, it doesn’t take much time to learn that body of knowledge at home.
Conclusion: Many children are exposed to unhealthy social behaviors from the bad behavior that inevitably results from large-scale institutionalization. The body of knowledge that schools pass along is easily gained at home. Typically, parents have other interests and values that schools don’t teach.
Current belief: Children need to be punished, they need to be disciplined and they need consequences for their bad behavior.
Dakota theory: Never punish or discipline children. Normal life provides enough consequences, no additional consequences are needed.
Conclusion: Punishment has been proven to be ineffective at teaching children a new behavior. Children feel punished merely from a parent’s disapproval—nothing more is necessary. An effective “punishment” is making a child stop playing in order to explain why it’s not OK to hit or take another kid’s toy. Frequently, merely calmly pointing out what the problem is to the child can make a child feel bad enough to stop the bad behavior and/or make restitution. Encouraging a distraught child to take a time-out is good advice for anyone having emotional trouble and isn’t really a punishment.
Current belief: Misbehavior is due to a poorly disciplined child.
Dakota theory: Misbehavior is due to a poorly designed environment.
Conclusion: A toddler, set down in front of a coffee table with a lot of breakable glassware on the table will, inevitably, drop and break something. This is not bad behavior. Don’t punish the child; move the glassware. It is more likely that children will hang up their clothes on pegs than on hangers. A yard with two swings and three kids creates ongoing strife. Often a child’s “bad” behavior is due to normal child-like behavior in an environment that is designed for normal adult behavior. The easiest way to have a well-behaved child is to change the environment to suit the child’s behavior. For instance, if there is only healthy food in the house, then “food wars” become much less likely.
Current belief: Children demand an adult’s attention—and that’s bad
Dakota theory: Children demand an adult’s attention—and that’s OK.
Conclusion: “He’s just doing that to get attention!” is a statement some adults make to indict a child’s motives and to grant the adult permission to punish the child for bothering the adult. But, attention from an adult is essential sustenance for a child’s emotional well-being. Once a child receives an adequate amount of attention, they are full and will go off and play, only to return later for another helping of attention. If we say with scorn of a child who’s crying, “he’s just crying because he’s hungry, I’m going to spank him” it sounds cruel. “He’s just doing it to get attention,” should sound equally heartless.
Current belief: A child’s chronic behavior problems can best be dealt with through psychoactive medication.
Dakota theory: A child’s chronic behavior problems can best be dealt with through counseling and behaviorist reinforcement/extinguishing techniques.
Conclusion: Psychoactive drugs have immediate side-effects and long-term physiological consequences. Changing a child’s chronic behavior problem without drugs is vastly more time consuming, but results in a more emotionally healthy child.
Current belief: A child might become emotionally crippled from spending too much time with a parent (or parents).
Dakota theory: strong family connections help create an emotionally healthy child.
Conclusion: Studies of poverty, mental illness and crime consistently show that parents who physically or emotionally abandon their children create the pathology that leads to dysfunctional adults. On the other hand, outstanding and high-performing athletes typically have at least one engaged and supportive parent. There is not a bell curve here; it’s linear; the stronger the family connections, the more emotionally stable the children are as adults.
Current belief: Children should be kept protected and secluded from real-world experiences. They should live in a separate world called “childhood” until they are completed with their schooling and are able to enter the adult world.
Dakota theory: Children are part of the world. It is healthier for children and the world for children to be included in almost all aspects of the adult world.
Conclusion: Children in their early teens want to distinguish themselves from younger children; they want to act like grown-ups. Mainstream culture allows few opportunities to show their maturity, so these young teens turn to bed behavior, smoking, drinking, doing drugs, swearing and having sex as ways to show their “maturity.” However, teens who have the ability to take on real responsibility, like, for instance having a part-time paying job demonstrate their adult-ness through taking on these healthier parts of being a grown up. Throughout their teen years, teenagers should have the opportunity to do part-time, intern, and volunteer work to explore their interests. This serves several useful functions; it keeps teens busy, it allows teens to develop maturity and responsibility, and it gives teens a wide range of real-life experiences which should help prevent the all-too-frequent situation where a young adult goes into debt to pursue a degree only to discover after graduation that they hate the work that they have spent years training for.
Give your child a utopian childhood in just 10 easy steps:
1) Enjoy the company of your children. (That’s really the main one, since so many parents don’t really enjoy the company of their children, and the children know that, so they misbehave. No child-rearing theory can overcome parents who don’t like their kids.)
2) Accept every request as legitimate. (default to yes, rather than default to no).
3) Don’t punish. Don’t discipline. But, rather, explain.
4) No sarcasm. Don’t laugh at kids.
5) Learn what your kids like.
6) Laugh at kids’ jokes, listen to their stories.
7) Try to understand their emotions. Have empathy.
9) Talk to the kids about the adult world. Encourage discussion. Explain values through storytelling using real examples. Let them know fairly often what you think is right and wrong.
10) Share whatever you are passionate about with your children. Expect them to be interested in your life.
Posted 28th April 2014 by Keenan