Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Positive Discipline And Rational Self-Interest

In my earlier post on Positive Discipline (PD), I mentioned that I would attempt to write more about how I think PD techniques help me to parent according to my values--specifically with Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand.

As a good Objectivist parent, I want my kids to grow up knowing for certain that it is morally right for them to pursue their goals. I do not want them to learn that self-sacrifice is desirable, nor do I want them to feel guilty about pursuing their own selfish ends. I think that children have as much right to be selfish as adults--while recognizing that they will need guidance from loving adults. (If you are curious about why Objectivists think selfishness is moral, I refer you to ARI and, of course, the many works of Ayn Rand. I use "rational self-interest" in this post because it helps me demonstrate my point better, but many Objectivists use both terms interchangeably. By the way, any philosophical errors in this post--or any of my posts--are mine and mine alone.)

Kids have absolutely no trouble being selfish, self-interested! It takes a while for the brain to mature to the point where the kid can even begin to understand that others have feelings and ideas. They start out very selfish. So what's the issue? The parenting issue for an Objectivist parent is not driving the selfishness out of the child, but rather, helping the child develop rational self-interest.

There are two main issues we've encountered here at our house. The first one is getting the child to understand and respect that other people (and that includes Mom) also get to have self-interests. The second is helping the child develop that faculty of reason--in other words, putting the rational into rational self-interest.

The techniques suggested by PD authors are excellent ways to guide a child toward appropriate behavior while respecting their right to their own rational self-interest. One of the recommendations many PD proponents make to parents is "Assume Positive Intent." This means that the parent should err on the side of thinking that the child is trying to fulfill some positive need or desire of his own, rather than intentionally trying to do something undesirable to Mom (like drive her insane).

I like this advice because it makes me focus on the question: "What self-interest is he trying to fulfill?" Then I try to help the child find ways to satisfy that need in an appropriate way, which shows him that I'm respectful of his self-interest, and also models to him what the appropriate behavior is and why.

Example time!

In the previous post, I wrote about Ryan's need to sometimes spontaneously scream at the dinner table. Actually, he needs to do that all the time. Obviously, shouting loudly in the presence of others is inappropriate. An Old School (OS) discipline method might work, in that it gets the kid to hush. But a PD approach acknowledges that this shouting might be an actual need or desire for the kid. AND the other people in the family get to have the peace they desire.

So instead of saying, "Stop that shouting or you're going to be punished!" and then following through on the punishment, I might say "That shouting needs to stop. It hurts my ears and makes it hard for me to talk to everyone else. If you need to shout, then go do it outside or up in your room." With PD, I acknowledge the child's need to shout (his self-interest) and I also can talk to the child about what I want (my self-interest). I present him with a way that both of our needs can be fulfilled--he can do his shouting away from me. Many times, I will engage the kids in brainstorming plans in which everyone's needs are met (more on that in another post).

As an aside--I don't need to agree that the kid's self-interest is rational or even makes sense. I personally don't feel the need to shout randomly in large groups of people. However, I recognize that Ryan often needs to do that. It may not be rational--but here it's important that I remind myself that he is a child and not fully rational yet. And yes, I often need to remind myself of this fact! I also refrain from judging his desire, so I wouldn't say "It's ridiculous that you feel like shouting right now. What's wrong with you?" That would be damaging in many ways and have negative long-term consequences (again, a topic for another post). I do use the sentence, "I'm confused about why you want to do XYZ." I use that sentence a lot. Because sometimes these people do not make sense to me.

More Examples

  • Child throws trucks or other inappropriate toys. Mom says: "You seem like you're in the mood for throwing things. Trucks aren't for throwing--something might get broken. Can you help me find a toy that is good for throwing?" And guides the child to the basket of soft balls.
  • Child is writing her name on her grandmother's the wall. Mom says: "Crayons are for paper. Nonnie wants her walls to stay white. After you help me clean this up, you can use this paper to write on."
  • Child is pulling the cat's tail. Mom says: "Stop! Pulling the cat's tail is ouchy for kitty! Let me show you how to give the kitty a gentle pat. If you pull her tail, she might bite and I don't want you OR the kitty to have an ouch."

In all of those examples, Mom acknowledges the kid's need/want and helps the kid identify someone else's need/want as a way to show why the action is undesirable. Then Mom offers another outlet for the kid's need/want. Rational. Self-Interest.

I can't even think of a counter-example. If I'm in PD-mode, then there's no way I can discipline without acknowledging someone's self-interest! There are better or different ways I can phrase what I'm trying to say, but somebody's self-interest is always part of what I say.

The examples above handle issues in which the child is being exposed to the self-interests of others, while having their right to their own interests acknowledged. But what about the other issue? Putting the rational in rational self-interest?

Part of using PD means that I let the child make his/her own decisions, and then stand aside and let the kid experience the consequences without my interference. This is also known in our house as "Mr. Reality Never Takes A Day Off."

Mostly, what this requires is that I do nothing. Or at most, offer a suggestion or opinion about what the consequence might be. Because my goal here is to not interfere with Mr. Reality. I've learned that if I do, then I'm more likely to be blamed for any adverse outcomes! What I do is try to decide whether it's terribly likely that any permanent or deep damage to life, limb, property or self-esteem is going to happen. If the answer is "no," then I'll let them go ahead. (Obviously, if the answer is "yes"--playing in traffic on roller skates with razor blades--then I'll put a stop to it--I reserve the right to substitute my better judgment in many situations. It's an obligation, actually!)

  • Child builds a LEGO city and decides to walk on it. What I might do: I might say "It's likely that your city will get broken if you walk on it." Or I might not--depends . Next step--soothe sad child.
  • Child wants to slide down carpeted stairs head first on her back. What I do: Assume semi-non-chalant facial expression, note location of phone in case 911 call is necessary, take deep breath.
  • Child wants to pull up the flowers she's just planted. (The flowers belong to her.) What I do: Nothing.

Eventually, they will figure out not to do something if they experience something bad as a result. Or, maybe they didn't experience something negative. When Morgan is pulling up her flowers, she imagines she's checking on them, touches the roots, and replants them. There is something she is learning then, something she needs to know, and because I didn't interfere, she got to experience it.

That's all I have to say about PD and rational self-interest for now. I really like the PD technique, because when I'm parenting this way, I am very aware and reinforcing aspects of Objectivism, too.

Hmmm....I thought this post would be much shorter than the other one! If you've made it this far, I'd like to know what you think!

Also: Edited for typos and because I accidentally published this before I was ready. Hopefully your feed-reader picked up my alterations.


Stephanie Ozenne said...

Hi Jenn,

I'm loving these posts. What's most interesting to me is that I've come at this sort of parenting through the influence of people who I'd never describe as Ayn Rand types (though I'm much more that way).

I don't run into time-outs often with the parents I hang with. But today we were at a dino museum that has a sand pit, so I saw it in full force. Most of the kids are young - 18mo-3 or 4 years tops.

The big problem, of course, is throwing sand. Not once did I hear a parent (other than me) point out that thrown sand can get in eyes and hurt people. I heard "If you throw sand you'll get a time out!" The only time a parent (other than me) went into the sand area was to drag out a misbehaving child.

I was feeling pretty smug until my 2 year old started chasing my 6 year old around and throwing sand at him. :) I went into the pit, picked him up, and calmly told him the ways he's allowed to play with sand, and that we wouldn't be able to stay if he was going to throw sand. He settled down, though, and that was that as far as throwing is concerned.

This is not the first time we've talked about the way to play in the sand pits. Obviously, it's a mesesage that needs to be repeated until they get it. In the past, I've sat and played with him to remind him and keep him from potentially hurting others while he figured it out.

Anyway, it's a little more work, but I think it's well worth it.

On another note - I'm totally with you in thinking *of course* they're not rational - they're kids! But if it's important to them, it's worth trying to find a way for them to get what they need, too. Even if I think they're crazy. :)

Amy said...

Thanks again, Jenn, for another excellent post. We've decided to give PD a try even for hitting. I explained to my daughter that we were no longer going to give her time outs for hitting, but that hitting hurts other people and I might have to stop her if she does it. I think the only way I'm going to figure this out is to try different methods.

Kevin said...

Jenn, this idea "Mr. Reality Never Takes A Day Off." is excellent.

My mom had a saying too, "The devil is never sleeping." Which conveyed much of the same idea, but was entirely negative, and potentially allowed a loophole of shifting blame. Also, "The consequences of your actions!" was the other one she would use always. But I like this one much better.

I very often have to remind myself that they are not completely rational, that is my biggest hurdle.

John Drake said...

Excellent post, Jenn. You've convinced me to take a closer look at the PD approach. From what you describe, it is consistent with Objectivism and developing rational self-interest in children. I think you listed a couple books in your previous post. I'll have to order them soon. Thanks.

LB said...

I am particularly impressed by the PD idea that a parent should "Assume Positive Intent". My not doing this with my kids from an early age accounts for all ugly discipline (my own irrational shouting) in my home.

Thanks for another great parenting post.

Anonymous said...

I posted this on the earlier thread, but I thought I'd ask here in case you missed it.

Are you familiar with Mac Bledsoe (Drew's father) and his "Parenting with Dignity" work?

It sounds very similar. I'd be interested in getting your thoughts if you have any experience with it.

Rational Jenn said...

Thanks, everyone, for taking the time to leave a comment! I do appreciate it.

Stephanie--I agree that PD is a little more work in many ways, but that the payoff is worth it. I think your example demonstrated something I hadn't mentioned and that is that sometimes very little kids really need Mom or Dad to sit very close to them to help them enforce the rule. I have also sat in the sandbox with People, stopping the sand before it flies. I used to sit right behind my oldest son when he was a toddler, to catch his hand before he hit so that nobody would get hurt. Are you familiar with the term "Get Off Your Butt Parenting?" GOYBP requires that you back up your words with actions. Something that I get into a bad habit of doing--just saying and saying but not (gently) reinforcing.

Amy--Good luck! I understand about needing to experiment with different methods. It wouldn't surprise me if she tested your new strategy quite a bit at first, but with consistent reinforcement, she will get it. If it helps to know this, take encouragement knowing that both of my older kids outgrew the hitting phase without punishments.

Kevin--Yes, Mr. Reality is a consistent bugger. His good friend, Mr. Gravity, is also always on the job. :o) Uh, I trust that my readers will realize that we would never use our little catchphrase to "I told you so" someone who got hurt or something.....just felt like I ought to mention it!

And I know! Why aren't these people rational yet? Especially when they can do a really good imitation of rationality much of the time? That's when I tend to forget, after long stretches of reasonableness.

Hi John--I'm glad you're planning to read more about PD. I'd love to know what you think about it after you've done your research. And thanks for the linkage on your blog!

LB--Ugly discipline techniques are something I'm trying to un-learn. And yes, it's so easy to think "Why is he doing this TO ME?" I've really gotten burned by that attitude before. Usually it was something relatively easy to figure out, if I had only given it a try. But I'm getting better at it!

Anon--No, I haven't read these books, but from a quick perusal of the website, the philosophy appears to be in line with PD. I'll have to explore it some more. Thanks for the recommendation!

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Hi Jenn,

I had never seen "assume positive intent" put that succinctly, although most of the disciplinary training I have received (and learned in the proverbial School of Hard Knocks) assumes exactly that.

But as I read, I realized that the long-suffering Engineering Geek, who came to parenting in mid-stride, does not do this. Although I have tried to talk about getting inside the kid's head, my long-winded explanations of why this is important have not nailed it for him. I will send him the link to your entry for the overview, so that we have the common understanding, but I think that if I use the term "assume positive intent" he will get it!


Kelly Elmore said...


Is the Engineering Geek a step dad? I ask because I live with my boyfriend, who, though he doesn't really parent my daughter, does do a good bit of uncle-style positive discipline. Wondered if you were in a similar boat?


Richard said...

"The flowers belong to her."

How do you differentiate between what belongs to you, the parents, and what belongs to your child? Do you explicitly tell them what you're giving to them is now their property to care for? Just curious.