I spoke to a mother last night. I'll call her M. She's been going through a rough patch with her only son, whom I'll call A. A is all of ten years old, but has gotten into some rather inappropriate sexual content and related behavior recently. A social worker got involved. M and A met with a therapist. A said he'd love to talk with the therapist every day.
Anyway, my experience with M is that she comes from a behaviorist model (think Carrot and Stick, or B. F. Skinner if you are a little more familiar) when trying to raise A. There are a lot of shoulds, a lot of conditions, and a lot of consequences. It all comes from a good place. A child should read, I agree, but it takes the joy out when reading is a pre-condition to playing on his Wii. The thing is M doesn't often pick up a book herself. So reading is probably seen by A as a chore that must be done before he can enjoy himself.
Let's put it in perspective. I was in honors English most of my high school career. There were a lot of books that we were supposed to read. Often, I didn't (Monarch and Cliff provided an alternative), and I certainly didn't see sinking into a couch with an assigned book as any sort of pleasure. Now, I read a lot. In fact, I've picked up a lot of the books that I was supposed to read since then, and actually like them. Many are brilliant. They evoke emotions now they didn't then. I have a bookshelf in my bathroom with all manner of books. They all give me something to think about and often a perspective I didn't have before. They might have done that in high school as well, but I don't recall that being my experience. And it might be that that experience primed me to be able to enjoy the books as I do today.
But I think it's more likely the hours I spent in my mother’s lap with books like "The Diggingest Dog" and "Das Auto Hier Heisst Ferdinand" and the model of the constant reading of my father, and later my wife, that rekindled in me the notion that reading could itself be the source of pleasure.
But I digress. I don't think a consequences world is a lot of fun. It's not like we don't have resort to them. Our whole criminal code is based on this model. But I don't think it's really what keeps people from committing crimes, or at least I hope not. What does is the good value system of most of the folks we share our society with. And a lot of us learn the message underneath the carrot and stick approach in spite of it, but This is the Hard Way. At least it's the harder way in the end. And unfortunately, some of us learn from the carrot and stick approach that power and fear are the basis of human relations. Devoid of a loving context, this is probably a good primer for sociopathic behavior.
I think in M and A's case, the love is present, but I think the approach gives a mixed message. I'm convinced that the main thing a child needs to experience is that his parent always has his back, but that's food for another discussion.
So, M saw pajamas she thought A would like. She bought them for him. He's been excited for days about them. M said it was nice, but this isn't what she expected. And I saw it from a different place. Here's a kid who is in a bit of a spot because of inappropriate behavior. His mother talks about it in his presence. Living a Carrot and Stick life, he might expect some negative consequence. That didn't happen. Instead, his mom bought him a gift just because.
It might even be that part of his behavior was a test. I think kids in this kind of place are often testing if their parents are really there for them.
The pajamas might have been an accident, but it sent exactly the right message at the right time. She passed the test without even knowing it. I suggested this to M. And I hope I can work with her some more to make sure this is the message A continues to get. M said things are different now, and for the better. The thing is that mindful parents can continue to send this message and have this experience with just a little bit of work.
And it might be a bit harder up front, but I think it makes the rest of raising a child a much easier experience.
And if you need some help creating this context with your child, reach out and we'll see what we can do to create your Pajamas moment, or a life full of them.
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