The RATIONAL Basis® of Parenting

You Can't Force a Mind – Part 1

"The RATIONAL Basis" is a registered trademark of Dr. Ellen Kenner


Were you told you had to obey your parents…or else, or just because they said so? Did you parents try to bypass your mind, your thoughts, and your observations and impose their ideas on you? Did they demand obedience and punish you swiftly and firmly? Did they constantly focus on your flaws? Did your parents have a knack for subtly making you feel guilty, even though you know you didn't earn that guilt? If gone unchallenged, what lasting effects might their methods have had on you?

Perhaps one result is that you're now afraid to speak your mind, anticipating that your boss, your spouse or any perceived authority figure may punish you swiftly and firmly if you disagree.    Or maybe you're afraid to pursue your personal goals – you now focus on your own flaws, continuing the family tradition. Or maybe you're just sick and tired of being told what to do. Now, no one can make you budge… unfortunately, not even yourself; you can't get yourself to exercise or pursue a career path.  Or maybe you now lash out at your children. If  you've experienced the choice in your childhood as bully or be bullied, then maybe you have now chosen the bully role for yourself.

So how do you understand your past and not  repeat the same mistakes with your children?   You need to follow one fundamental principle: you can't force a mind.  If you try to force your child to obey you…well many of you know what happened in your own childhood.

One recent expert violated this principle. He suggested that we drop the approach of developing self-esteem in our children and punish a child  "swiftly and firmly"  - we should listen to "Grandma" and return to the "traditional family values and parenting practices". Grandma knew best.

Now what guidance does this give you, the concerned parent?  What does this expert mean by "listen to grandma"?

Maybe you had a good sensible grandma who encouraged you to think for yourself and who was enthused about your healthy interests. Maybe you would like to emulate her. Maybe you are less lucky. I think of the grandmas of friends of mine who punished swiftly and firmly for disobedience.   They were obeyed but secretly feared or hated.

Other friends had grandmas who were experts at playing the equally damaging role of the pitiful martyr. The "guilt trip" was their means of controlling others. They too were often disliked.

Both types were expert at unfairly inducing guilt in others. They were trying, not to rationally and civilly persuade the minds of their children and grandchildren; rather, they were trying to force their minds, to control them.  Their tools: fear, unearned guilt and force. Nasty weapons.

So  what advice is the expert who is promoting the "listen to grandma" approach offering? The author states that discipline shouldn't be demonized. Grandma knew the book of Genesis – when Adam and Eve disobeyed God, he threw them out of Eden. Disobey? Adam and Eve, the story goes, used their own free will, their minds and ate from the tree of knowledge. Is blind obedience then what we want from our children?   Should they obey grandma…because she says so?

I suggest that this expert read my favorite parenting book: How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. They clearly demonstrate the principle that you can't force a mind and they clearly give you methods to reach your child's mind. They have chapters titled "Instead  of Punishment" and "Engaging Cooperation".

Try to command your kid to obey you: "Okay now you are going to learn a lesson! Next time you will obey me or else! You are now going to your room to think about what you did."

Right! Who's fooling whom? Your  child is sitting in his room dreaming up revenge fantasies, how he will get back at you. And as long as you continue to try to force your child's mind and actions, he will continue to rebel, silently or openly.

Sometimes these rebellions show up as defiant or anti-social behaviors. Sometimes they show up as anxiety or depression. Sometimes rebellions show up as eating disorders  or obsessive compulsive disorders. It is not uncommon to hear people struggling with such disorders say "I couldn't control anything else in my life… but no one could stop me from controlling my handwashing" (or my need to keep my house spotless, or my eating). Trying to control another's mind is unhealthy, even if well intended.

When you use any parenting method aimed,  not at persuading or reaching your child's mind with reason, but aimed at forcing your child's mind, you will experience yourself as the bully or the benevolent dictator. To the extent that you use force, you will not be a success as a parent. This is psychologically unhealthy for you. The psychological toll for both you and your child is too costly.

What is the alternative to  forcing your child's mind? The answer is to help your child understand his misbehavior and then follow through with the natural consequences of your child's actions.

For example, say you're sitting with your child at the movie theater watching A Bug's Life. Your child yells and jumps up and down disturbing those nearby seats. What do you  do?

Do you use Grandma's swift and firm discipline measures? "You shut up and sit still right now or else! You better obey me right now! I don't want to hear another word from you or you'll hear from your father tonight. Do you understand me?"

Take a moment to think about what might be going through the child's mind as you say that: "Mom's mean! I'm  bad!" She's always telling on me."

What can you do instead?

(Part Two)