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.