Near the beginning of my childcare career, I read the book How to Behave So Your Children Will, Too by Sal Severe. As a newcomer to childhood development theory, it made comforting sense, seemingly outlining sensible ways to react to children’s misbehavior.
These days I don’t look on this book so highly.
It’s full of behavioral modifications and reactionary prescriptions. Your kid does this and then you do that. The book presents a view of the parent-child relationship that is transactional, overly rigid, and entirely carrot-and-stick. Severe recommends charts and stickers, total parental consistency, punishment escalation until the child complies, and utilizing his detailed lists of reward options for different age groups.
One section of the book stood out to me, and I’ve thought of it many times over the years.
Chapter Six begins with a tale of Severe spending the day with a couple and their 3 kids. The day ends with everyone taking a trip out for ice cream. When the dad later asks Severe for parenting advice, Severe says that they did the ice cream thing all wrong by not connecting the special treat to the kids behavior.
Successful parents connect special events to good behavior: “You have had an excellent day today. Mom and I would like to take you out for some ice cream.” You can be more specific: “I saw you sharing several times today. That’s something that makes Mom and me feel fantastic. When we feel good, we like doing something special.”
The chapter is called, “Never Give Away the Ice Cream”.
That phrase stuck me through the years, even as my childcare philosophy radically veered away from this conditional, controlling mindset. “Never give away the ice cream” became a catchphrase in my mind, representing the kinds of relationships I did not want to have with children.
Now, fast forward. For parenting advice, I’ve come to rely much more heavily on Alfie Kohn’s Unconditional Parenting (UP) and people advocating a consensual parenting approach. I also ran across Taking Children Seriously (TCS), which is a philosophy that seeks to be entirely non-coercive with children. On a TCS email list, one person was asking for suggestions about getting kids to leave a business that is closing when the kids don’t want to leave. Another person suggested offering the kids ice cream on the ride home or some other enticing thing.
Hmm. In the Severe book, he advocates withholding the ice cream until it can be a reward for good behavior. In this email conversation, someone is recommending the ice cream as an enticement for good behavior. Those seem like they could be opposites, yet they veer awfully close to one other with the tactic of using ice cream to gain compliance.
Then another TCS list member asked if ice cream makes the time-after-leaving nicer, why not offer it to make the time-before-leaving nicer, too? Why would you only offer it at this specific time?
This exchange caused a real light bulb moment for me. If ice cream is such a good thing, why are you withholding it all the time? If you aren’t withholding it, if your child can freely choose when to have ice cream or not, then ice cream is removed as an option for coercion. This was a sharp reminder that while parenting philosophies seem to swing along a spectrum, it’s also possible to just get off the spectrum entirely.
In Unconditional Parenting, Alfie Kohn talks similarly about love, punishment, and rewards. People often think that punishing bad behavior and rewarding good behavior are vastly different, but they are really just shades of the same thing, and the name of the thing is control. Kohn talks about the emotional dangers of withholding parental time, attention, and love, even through such widely accepted practices as time-out.
Love is even better and even more important than ice cream and should be ever-present in the parent-child relationship. In a very real sense, love is the food and fuel that grow the child. Or it ought to be anyway. What happens if you take your love off the table as tool for control by making sure love is always, actively given and (more importantly) received?
Coming back around to ice cream, let me just say that ice cream is really, really yummy, and I eat it whenever I want. Should I suddenly start hiding it or not buying it because I have a child? Should I reserve it only for times when I deem that he’s been good? Should I save it up for times when I need to prod him to do something?
How about this instead? What if there was ice cream in the freezer now and then, and Dylan could eat it or not eat it whenever he liked, the same as I can, the same as Joshua does, the same as you do? How might my relationship with Dylan be entirely different if, instead of the ice cream sitting between us as a tool of control, ice cream was just the yummy sweet treat that it is? I’m guessing that our relationship will be a bit sweeter as well.