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Blog // Thoughts
May 15, 2009

Parenting: Guidance Or Control?

This week I had the chance to heard Dr Louise Porter speak on “Guiding Children’s Behaviour.” Porter is an educationalist and child psychologist who has written a number of influential books on early education, child behaviour and educational needs (special and gifted). The talk was hosted by the parent’s association of C’s school and whilst […]

This week I had the chance to heard Dr Louise Porter speak on “Guiding Children’s Behaviour.” Porter is an educationalist and child psychologist who has written a number of influential books on early education, child behaviour and educational needs (special and gifted). The talk was hosted by the parent’s association of C’s school and whilst it was a peak hour schlep to get there, Porter’s warm, challenging and inspiring presentation more than made up for the inconvenience.

The big idea of the night was a contrast between two possible parenting styles – control and guidance. Control is, in many ways, the dominant paradigm in parenting – regulate children’s behaviour. It flows from some assumptions about children, that they are always prone to disruption and moral decay, that they are manipulative, that they shouldn’t make mistakes, that they “need” to be, well, controlled. Perhaps most controversially, Porter sees control as being based in a system of reward and punishment, which inevitably focusses on evaluation of “goodness” for every action and keeps that focus external to a person’s motivations.

Guidance is focussed on the internal reality of the child, their own hierarchies and by extension, their own emerging rationality. Guidance seeks to foster four qualities; an internal sense of right and wrong not sustained by punishment but by consideration, the ability to regulate emotions and the resilience that flows from that, the ability to co-operate and work in groups, the sense that they can make a difference in the world. As Porter says in her book, “Children Are People Too,”

“It is crucial for Children to learn that they can control their own actions and feelings by staying in command of their thinking.”

I’m probably doing a bad job of explaining a very rich and dense set of issues. So let me throw out some clarifying questions,

What really governs kid’s behaviour? External rules and regulations, or their own set of perceived needs?
What causes disruptive behaviour? Faulty systems of reward and punishment, or a combination of the child’s needs and reactions against controlling discipline?
What is the aim of parental discipline? Compliance and obedience, or considerate behaviour even if the parent is absent?
Do you trust children? Yes, or no?
What is the best response to mistakes? Punishment, or teaching?
What is the adult’s role in discipline? To exercise power and authority, or to exercise influence and wisdom.

All the first answers come from the control approach, while the latter represent the guidance approach. Porter laid out a challenging line of thought by asking what the potential consequences are of “teaching” children to passively accept adult control. Do we really want our children to see the world as nothing but rewards and punishments? Do we really long for them to grow into adults who prize conformity and obedience above all else? Do we really want them to be attuned to responding and looking for leaders who primarily act out of power?

The great weakness of the control approach is that by regulating children so they will be easier to manage in the short term, we are fostering in them world-views and behaviours that may make them needier and more dependent as adults, not to mention leaving them potentially defenceless to manipulation (from sexual predators, to leadership cults of personality, to the general craze to celebrity). Time and again during Porter’s presentation I found pondering the “old school” ideal of liberal education – preparing children to face a complex, changing diverse world with a strong set of skills in communication, interpretation, problem-solving and reasoning, supported by a keen sense of social responsibility and personal morality. Sounds a lot more like guidance than control to me.

There was lots of time for questions and one good one was on how this relates to religious world-views. Porter was quick to point out that even within a given religious system, people may have differing views of the nature of God and that those differing visions will flow into contrary views on the question of guidance or control. I agree with Porter and it’s a point that would be worth coming back to in the future.

Some parents like to say that their kids just “forget” the right rules or behaviours. Porter had a great test for the possibility of forgetfulness. If your child needs to be reminded more than twice, where you keep the chocolate in your house, then maybe they have an issue with forgetfulness. If not, they it’s not that they can’t remember what you ask them to do, it’s that your request is either poorly communicated or simply not registering as important to the child. In particular, communication that is solely focussed on controlling behaviour, without addressing the interior needs of the child will often be rejected. In fact, Porter strongly argues that most disruptive behaviour arises in direct conflict with attempts at control by parents and carers.

As I walked into the warm Hong Kong night in search of a taxi I pondered the choices we face as a parent, either to seek power in the family, or to foster influence. My parents have often said to me that as your children age you have to learn to relate to them as other adults, or at least potential adults. When I’ve said that to other parents, I often get knods of agreement, but maybe we agree to easily.

How often do we, or people around us struggle to overcome people’s initial perceptions of us. It’s the bane of workplaces, schools and even families. Someone makes a bad first impression, or struggles initially to fit and them years later they are still judged by that, regardless of how well they have done subsequently. Well, consider that a child is constantly evolving, growing and blossoming. If we are, typically, so bad at adjusting to people around us and overcoming established ideas about them, then how hard is it to overcome that with a child that is, literally, changing from week to week.

Responses
Toni 14 years ago

That’s an interesting set of thoughts, and ones that come from a quite specific standpoint.

I don’t really have time or energy to properly discus it all, but I’d say it’s a beautiful theory spoilt by the ugliness of human diversity. It also fails to disinguish between a childs needs and wants though that might be dealt with if one digs deeper. As with so many things people touch, the answer is not ‘follow this technique’ or ‘use that style’ and it will ‘be alright’. Instead we need to deal with children as individuals, and as their own various issues arise.

The questions asked at the beginning were presumably designed to polarise too, and I found myself not able to answer yes or no, but instead both were applicable. If all children could be reached with explanations and guidance then what a happy place the world would be. But this approach also fundamentally denies the work of sin in peoples lives (both children and parents) and the actions of a personal devil and his forces of evil at work to spoil and corrupt.

So I believe it is important not to divorce understanding and guidance from punishment and encouragement, just as we shouldn’t separate them from love and compassion. Instead we should use all the tools at our disposal to build up our children, shaping them as their characters require.

Mike Mahoney 14 years ago

Interesting thoughts. I agree with Toni in that the best approach is 1) Somewhere in the middle and 2)Best adjusted to the individual parent/child.

One statement I have to completely disagree with:

“The great weakness of the control approach is that by regulating children so they will be easier to manage in the short term, we are fostering in them world-views and behaviours that may make them needier and more dependent as adults, not to mention leaving them potentially defenceless to manipulation ”

In my experience, as a parent, an uncle to many, and as a children’s minister, is that I’ve seen to many children raised with too little control who are completely unable to operate under any sort of guidelines as young adults. They become poor students and poor employees, and in the end, poor parents. They also have a very hard time dealing with disappointment, because they are used to getting their own way.

I agree completely that a child needs to be given some room to grow, to make mistakes and to discover. But to paraphrase one of my favorite movies: How we handle “no” is at least as important as how we handle “yes.”

Fernando Gros 14 years ago

Toni – I agree completely that the core of good parenting has to be treating the children as individuals. Part of what I’m trying to grapple with is how we “interpret” the mistakes and errors that kids make.

I agree with you that sin needs to be factored in and it’s something I haven’t really addressed in my comments. I’m not sure, however, that the guidance approach can’t accommodate that – in fact I think it can take it very seriously indeed.

The issue where we may have more ground to discuss is the question of punishment. I’m increasing coming to a position that punishment, in the strict sense of the word, has very little to do with good parenting.

Fernando Gros 14 years ago

Mike – The guidance idea doesn’t imply an absence of “rules” or standards or even that parents won’t directly intervene in disruptions. Perhaps, I need to follow this up with something about what discipline looks like in the guidance model.

What you describe sounds to me as a lack of self-control and self-motivation. I’ve certainly seem people who grew up in strongly “control” environments who lacked that sense of potency in adolescence and even into adulthood. Part of that manifested itself in the need to have authority figures to help them be motivated or morally attuned and/or an inability to be morally centred when not under observation by family or authority figures.

That said, I agree with you that being able to say “no” plays a huge role in parenting.

Toni 14 years ago

Use of the word ‘punishment’ carries certain overtones to do with making someone suffer retribution for their mistakes. It is important that a child understands this concept, because it reflects the world they will one day have to handle. But if we substitute the word ‘discipline’ which carries with it the concept of shaping and guiding the child through direction and stimulus then we might see the occasional application of unpleasant sensations in a different way.

As I said, as presented the article has a single quite polarised standpoint, and uses carefully chosen and emotive words to emphasise the ‘wrongness’ in other views.

Fernando Gros 14 years ago

Without doubt children need to learn that their thoughts and actions can carry consequences in the world and that, at times, those consequences can be very unpleasant. Along with that, it is important for them to learn to understand why those consequences develop in the ways they do (which, to be blunt, is something many adults still struggle with).

But, if by “unpleasant sensations,” we mean physical violence, then I’m not on board.

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