Parents often come to my office feeling frustrated, exhausted, and overwhelmed. Many of them explain to me that they feel they are at the end of their rope and at a loss for what to do. Having read numerous books and articles on parenting, experimented with all sorts of techniques, talked to friends, school counselors, and teachers, they long for something that works; something that they hope might possibly help them in dealing with their child.
While some parents wish and request that I “fix” their child, many say they would be grateful to settle for anything that may help their child and alleviate their feeling frustrated.
Through years of consulting with parents, working with kids in therapy, and leading parent-skills training groups, I experimented with different approaches to helping parents. In wanting to simplify a large body of information, I arbitrarily categorized the world of parenting into two philosophies: behavioral and humanistic. I strongly advocate and practice the latter, while I grudgingly (and with disappointment) accept that the former continues to be widely adopted. Before elaborating upon my preference for humanistic parenting, I’d like to briefly describe the behavioral model.
The behavioral approach to parenting is based on the premise that children’s behaviors can be shaped through modifying the consequences in their environment. Common terms in the behaviorist’s vocabulary are: reinforcement, reward, punishment, tokens, shaping, and time-out. In certain circumstances and situations, implementing behavioral strategies can effectively and quickly change a child’s behavior over the short-term. I believe this is one of the reasons behavioral techniques maintain their widespread appeal with parents and professionals. Moreover, research has repeatedly demonstrated that one of the best ways to immediately reduce or eliminate an undesirable behavior (e.g., hitting, temper tantrums) is to punish a child as soon as possible following the emitted action. Behavior management programs seem to work best when the parent or teacher holds a position of power over, and maintains a reasonably high degree of control over the child.
When I trained as an intern, I counseled parents on ways to set up these behavioral systems in their home to enable them to reduce or control their child’s “unwanted” behaviors. Our programs seemed reasonable, simple, and commonsensical. Parents and I, however, soon started noticing some reoccurring common patterns and problems. The first two to three weeks was a “honeymoon” period. At this stage of the program, the charts and rewards were often fun for the parents and kids. The ideas were new and fresh. With most honeymoons, though, the novelty and behavior changes did not endure. The reduced effectiveness, or total breakdown, became predictable. Parents told me stories of their kids becoming bitter and resentful, and tearing down the star charts off the refrigerator door. The once-effective rewards (e.g., T.V., video games, money, candy), were no longer sufficient. Parents and I also observed another common problem with this approach: when the parent was not present (i.e., the person in charge was not around), the children usually reverted to their previous actions. For instance, Billy would act “good” when mom and dad were watching, but he would return to hitting his sister when mom and dad weren’t around.
I felt uncomfortable advocating and supporting a system that was based on parents having control and power over their children. This contradicted my belief that children are intelligent human beings who deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. Another troublesome outcome associated with the behavioral techniques was that kids seemed to react with negative feelings, such as feeling angry or feeling scared, toward their parents. This prompted my search for another way to enhance the emotional climate in the home.
What, then, is an alternative? What is humanistic parenting?
Humanistic parenting is an attitude, a philosophy, and a way of relating to your child. It is an approach where the inner goodness of the child is valued.
A core principle of humanistic parenting is respecting children and treating them with dignity. A useful exercise to help in following this fundamental principle is to ask yourself the questions, “would I like to be treated that way?”, and “how would I feel if I was in their shoes?”. If the answers are “no” and “I would feel disrespected”, then your actions as a parents most likely do not follow the humanistic parenting philosophy.
When treating their children with respect and connecting with their children’s fe