out with the old

March 1, 2010 at 11:49 pm 8 comments

There have been a flurry of questions about the previous posts. We have always been empathic parents, even when using both praise and punishment, but now we use empathy as our primary tool, and leave praise and punishment out of the equation. Here is what our transition has been like.

Bella, now nine years old, was four when Nathan and I  decided to go cold turkey with praise and punishment. When we told her we would no longer be giving her time-outs, and that we would offer empathy and information instead, her eyes widened and a big grin slid across her face. She was delighted. Her sister Xi was two at the time, but began immediately to reap the rewards of the new parenting style as well since we didn’t have to set her down in order to rush Bella off  for a time-out. Nor did she have to endure the shouting that occurred every time Bella fought against the very idea of a time-out. Instead, Xi remained in arms while we held Bella and sorted through the trouble. Echo, born a couple years later, has been parented with empathy from the get go, and has had the benefit, in addition to her parents, of two sisters handling her baby demands and screams with sincere empathy and problem solving instead of eye rolling and threats.

As we shifted toward empathy as our main response, the main thing we noticed was the tendency for the child to still squirm away from responsibility. Accustomed to a disagreeable consequence, they would still do things to evade punishment, like distorting the facts of the situation to paint themselves in a better light. We had to continuously remind them that there was not going to be a time-out, that they could be completely honest with us and we would still hold them, love them, and work it out with words.

That being said, although both Nathan and I parent this way all the time, the co-parents of Bella and Xi do not. So some of these difficulties with candor still occasionally pop up today. We find that the more time, proportionally speaking, the child spends in another environment, the more often these difficulties arise. The daughter that spends most of the week away from us, might, during a moment of strife, first respond with a lie, (before she realizes this is unnecessary), in an effort to protect herself from the punishment she is accustomed to receiving at her other home. The second daughter, who spends less time away from us, might twist the facts just slightly before remembering that she doesn’t have to. The third daughter, who is with us all day, every day, cops to an offense immediately. “I wanted that toy so I grabbed it from her and then I punched her!

In addition to learning that there was no longer any reason not to be honest with us, the girls also had to learn that we were being honest with them. Our questions about their emotional state were not rhetorical. At first, if we asked “How do you feel about that?“, we often got a reluctant, disgruntled, “Fine“, in return. They did not yet know that we really did want to know how they felt, we really did have every intention of not only discovering their opinions but also factoring them in completely, and using this information to find solutions that met everybody’s needs. It took time to build their trust.

Parenting in this new way also required a little restructuring of our days. It took awhile to get used to allowing for time in the moment to see an empathic discussion through to its end. We are now aware that in comparison, time is actually saved by parenting in this manner. For example, leaving the grocery store in order to carry out that common threat: “If you can’t stop ________, then we will have to leave the store!“, is even more inefficient than taking a moment to actually be with a child while he melts down in the cereal aisle. When using empathy, information, and patience as your primary parenting tools, designing a simple day for you and your children becomes a necessary practicality. If you are unwilling to forcibly strap your toddler into their car seat when they resist buckling up, squeezing several back to back appointments into one day just isn’t smart.

Eliminating praise took some getting used to as well. The very idea that sweet sounding words like “Good job“, and “Well done!” might be harmful is a bit of a brain twister. We certainly slipped on occasion, but by and by, the other, simply observational ways of responding, became second nature and now we hardly think of it at all. But let’s face it, even if we no longer praise our kids, %99.9 of the rest of our culture does. There is no way to avoid it.

When confronted with a stranger that wants to let my kid know she is a “good girl, good traveler, or good helper, ” I might say something like “Oh, we don’t do the whole good/bad thing.” and smile. This is, of course, completely confusing to them (not to mention unheard of) and certainly will not change their future behavior, but I do it to be true to myself and to honor my girl. Though it is tempting to try to convert others to interact without praise, the challenge is too big, and the numbers of praisers too immense. Instead I soothe myself with the idea that there is an oasis here at home, a place where they are loved unconditionally, and that the time they spend in this environment is rich and influential.

We also check in with our girls after they hear a bit of praise from others. The bank teller said you were a good girl. Why do you think she said that? How did you feel when she said that? Or, we offer additional information so that they might hear the intent behind the words.

I think Grandpa said “Good Job!” about your drawing because 1. he loves you so much, 2. he wants you to feel good and thinks that might be a way to communicate that, and 3. he likes the drawing.

We give them information that there are all kinds of opinions about everything, and that if they are feeling good about their work, if they are meeting their own goals, that might be the best way to identify whether or not it’s a job well done.

Praise is a potent thing. After receiving praise, even once, I hear Echo using it around the house. Little whisperings to herself like: Good Job Echo!. Or she will ask: is this a good job mom, the way I am scrambling these eggs? I try to understand what she is looking for by asking her some questions.

Are you wondering if I like what you are doing?  Yes I do.

Are you wondering if what you are doing is helpful to me? Yes it is.

Are you wanting me to notice that you know how to scramble eggs all by yourself? Yes. I see you. You didn’t know how to do that before, but now you do.

It takes a lot of self-confidence to do something in a way that others do not. The odds are that we will be the only parents at the park that do not scream “Good job!” as our child careens down the slide. The odds are that several parents will consider our empathy and negotiations “permissive”. Though we now take this in stride – our self empathy (when we were feeling lonely because we did not fit into the parenting norm) and our finding a supportive community were both crucial to the success of our transition to this empathic style of parenting.

Although this transition started by leaving praise and punishment behind, we continue to transition by:

*looking really closely at each interaction

*unlearning our automatic responses

*being mindful of what is most important in every instance

*and holding the integrity of our relationship with these girls as the highest priority.

And so far, I have no regrets.


Entry filed under: discipline, parenting principles. Tags: , , , .

oh yeah, and… pee, poop, and the strength to wait it out

8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Lindsay R  |  March 2, 2010 at 12:33 am

    oh, MY!!! i am so glad i found your site…can’t remember now how i made it here…

    anyway, i thoroughly enjoy your posts…i have a 5yo, 3yo, and 10 month old, all boys, and am searching, searching for ways to parent that i know, intuitively are just right for us…thanks for the info, the book recommendations, and for just being out there! i’ve linked one of your posts on my blog…hope that’s ok.


    • 2. nataliechristensen  |  March 2, 2010 at 8:34 am

      Great! Thanks Lindsay.

  • 3. Courtney  |  March 2, 2010 at 8:30 am

    I really like all of the ideas that are presented and as the mother of an infant am already trying to retrain my thinking. But the not offering praise is going to be really tough. What do you do when you are bursting at the seams with pride when your child does something THEY think is really great, and YOU do too? Like when they are older, and they have put their own value on playing the Cello. You watch them at their Cello concert and they play just beautifully. When they come off the stage. How do you not praise them? What do older kids think about not being praised?

    • 4. Marirose  |  March 5, 2010 at 1:53 pm

      Reply to Courtney: I think it’s appropriate to describe your own feelings about something like that when you are being GENUINE. Something like, “Wow! You played the cello tonight in a way that really moved me. It sounded so beautiful to me! I know that you have worked hard to get to this point. Were YOU pleased with how you did? ” Maybe your observations about the performance could be used, too: “It looked to me that you were really enjoying yourself while you were playing cello tonight! Were you?” (Perhaps Natalie has an idea, too, about this.) But your excitement is a valid feeling, too, and I think it can be shared without burdening your child/friend/loved one with your expectations of them.

  • 5. Krista  |  March 2, 2010 at 6:37 pm

    @ Courtney, for me what works is simply sharing what is “alive” in me as a result of what someone else did. Did I enjoy the cello playing? That means I’m feeling grateful, moved, amazed. I just tell them that, with a big, sincere smile and a thank you. I guess what I’m saying is perhaps express your appreciation in place of using praise (which is often in the form of judgment – you’re good! wonderful! fantastic! amazing! brilliant!… all judgments). I also ask my kids how it felt for them if I want to connect with them about how they are feeling about their action/performance or whatever.

  • 6. Marina  |  March 2, 2010 at 11:08 pm

    wow, natalie, this is just so so powerful. i love how echo is so completely free to be honest when she knows there is nothing to fear. i was wondering, in one of your future blog entries, could you do a re-enactment of how you would use empathy as a tool when one of your daughters has a meltdown, such as at a store like the one you mentioned in this blog. thanks.

  • 7. Angela  |  March 13, 2010 at 8:37 pm

    thank you so much for the clear examples and ideas for parenting with empathy for older children as well as the little ones. the most difficult part of it all is unlearning the automatic responses, but coming here i am always empowered that it can be done.

  • 8. Without a Net | "A Beautiful Place of the World"  |  August 27, 2010 at 11:18 am

    […] Want more info? Check out two of Natalie’s previous posts about it here and here… This entry was posted in Parenting Ideas and tagged attachment parenting, […]


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