Reflections on Being a Father and Raising Children

During christmas dinner, I realized I have never really written anything substantial about what it means for me to be a father. What it means for me to give my daughter a meaningful and valuable upbringing. For some people this may be something you ‘just do’, but for me it’s something to think about and reflect on. In The Netherlands, the government monitors children’s physical and cognitive development. At the last check-up the nurse asked my girlfriend if our three year old, who was with her, could already make four word sentences. My girlfriend told her to ask it directly.

Today I was reminded of this when my daughter spoke about a documentary we saw at the cinema. She summarized the movie for other guests and my girlfriend’s mother brought up the nurse’s question again. Whereas I fully understand that there may be an enormous variation in children’s learning curves, also due to biological factors, I live with the impression that the way we approach our daughter makes a difference. For instance, we have always encouraged her to speak about her thoughts and feelings. Moreover, we have always talked to her. When she was a baby, some people thought it odd that we already talked to her all the time. But when our girl was 18 months, those people mentioned her linguistic skills.

Later I was told that science shows that it is beneficial for (very) young children to talk to them. But for us it was just common sense and something we felt good about. It is always this combination that helps us in making decisions about the upbringing of our child. Does it make sense and do we feel good about it? We were not very comfortable with the mainstream approach of praise and punishment. This is often based on a more or less extrinsic and non-natural perspective on raising children: if you do this or that, this or that will happen. But the consequences for behavior are rarely ‘logical’. We weren’t convinced by the value of punishment techniques like the ‘naughty chair’, that we consider obtuse.

Intrinsic motivation and benefit is what we value. We want our child to learn from behavior, even when it’s regarded as bad. We don’t want our child to stand in a corner for an arbitrary period before she can join us again, we want her to effectively and explicitly reflect on (the effects of) her behavior. We want her to grow up to be autonomous, compassionate, and contemplating. What we do happens to partly touch upon the ideas of Alfie Kohn’s Unconditional Parenting,  Kohn starts by asking “What do kids need – and how can we meet those needs?” What follows from that question are ideas for working with children rather than doing things to them.” Like him, I deeply doubt if children need to be ‘controlled’.

It is a common sense belief that today’s children should grow up to become assertive and responsible individuals. That is what society requires them to be. But instead of teaching them how to really become that, most parental guides teach children to become dependent on their parents’ appraisal. They are not asked how they experience or value something, but told by others that they are either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ kids. They are not taught to reflect on behavior and feel what their conduct evokes in themselves and others, but that you have to stand in a corner if you engage in action ‘X’. They don’t learn to responsibly assess a situation, but are trained to do as they are told. And to value extrinsic incentives.

Many people I run into question the effectiveness of the intrinsic approach in general and Kohn’s approach in particular. They often think that it leaves children free to do as they like. But stimulating intrinsic motivation is not about giving the child his or her own way, but to teach a child the value of behavior, and not that of a reward or punishment. It is about showing children why some behavior is considered nice or bad, instead of telling them they are nice or bad. It requires parents to ‘Show, don’t tell‘ and ‘practice what you preach’. As a result, it is also very instructive for parents.

Even though I support this way of rearing, I think there is nothing wrong with being skeptical. Perhaps it is because I am a philosopher, but doubt is my basic disposition. Hence, orthodox doctrines are not necessarily my cup of tea. But I do strongly believe that an intrinsically motivated child is more likely to walk the path of exceptional achievements than someone who merely acts because either punishment or reward is waiting at the end of the road. Reason is always my starting point and understanding my aim. But that does not mean it never happens I have to remind myself of the fact that bringing my daughter up is not something I want to ‘just do’. To stay aware of the mirror that raising a child basically is.

One thought on “Reflections on Being a Father and Raising Children

  1. I agree that reward/punishment is not a wise way to teach children (or any person) how to be a compassionate, introspective person. I think you are absolutely right that it’s an orthodox approach which many people are afraid to stray from. They will argue that if you don’t reward and punish people they will become lazy and uncaring, they draw this conclusion without ever seriously considering or trying another approach.

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