Dialogue: The Heart of New School Parenting
Parent-child dialogue is the heart and soul of my New School approach to how to be a parent. The love a parent has for a child is expressed and embodied in how the parent communicates with the child, even when the child is a newborn. Obviously, dialogue entails listening as well as talking, and it includes all non-verbal communication as well. There are many skills involved in having a good dialogue, and as parents we are illustrating and teaching them to our children in everything we say and do.
In the New School approach to parenting, we recognize and accept the fact that control of children’s behavior is a delusion. We cannot control our children’s behavior. (See my “Volcano Theory.”) They have free will. We do not have a remote control to their brain. They are not robots or slaves. They talk to us when they want to talk, not necessarily when we want them to talk.
Consequently we are convinced that we are better off not even trying to control their behavior through the Old School use of power and control tactics, like our parents used (yelling, ordering, bossing, threatening, punishing, spanking, hitting, grounding, etc). We recognize these as invitations to trouble. We acknowledge that the best we can get from our children, and what we really want from them, is their cooperation, based on dialogue and agreements, rather than their obedience to rules that we impose. If they don’t want to talk, we realize we cannot force them to.
Influence Does Not Equal Control
In the New School approach to parenting, we acknowledge that while we have absolutely no control over our children’s behavior, but only over our own, we also acknowledge that we have tremendous influence on our children’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior. We acknowledge that influence does not equal control. So, in our efforts to influence their behavior, and get them to talk to us, we recognize that the most respectful (and also realistic) thing to do is to back off (this is not backing down). We let them know that we really do want to hear how they think and feel about things, and we are willing to listen when they are ready to talk. In fact, we prefer to do this before we want to slap some kind of punishment on them because dialogue can be a much more effective way of teaching — which is what the real meaning of “discipline” is.
The Old School approach to parenting consists of this model: 1) Parents speak, 2) make the Rules, 3) expect Obedience, and 4) Punish disobedience. The New School approach to parenting consists of an entirely different model: 1) Parents and children Dialogue, 2) reach Agreements, 3) expect Cooperation, and 4) hold each other Accountable when the agreements are broken.
In the New School approach to how to be a parent, we genuinely want to understand and empathize with our children’s point of view, their feelings, their wishes and desires, their fears and frustrations. In this way we enhance our emotional bond with them. This bond consists of love, caring, respect, and acknowledgment of their ideas and emotions. This kind of support is what families are all about–after all, we’re not running a boot camp or a military platoon.
The importance of dialogue cannot be overstated. It takes time and effort, and requires both talking and listening. In the New School approach to family rules, we operate on the conviction that listening to our kids is the single most powerful thing we can do with them and for them. Listening is the most basic and important skill in any relationship because it creates understanding, empathy, and trust like nothing else can. I say it constitutes fully 90% of the communication process–in any relationship. It is the parent’s “magic wand.” Our rule of thumb is, listen first, talk second. We will always have our say, and we do not diminish our parental power and authority in the least bit by listening first. We are simply using that power and authority in a different way. So when they’re not ready to talk, we back off and wait until they are ready.
Not only do we enhance the bond with our child by listening, but by so doing we teach them how to listen to us. When we listen first, we model self-restraint, acceptance, cooperation, and love. And when we listen first, we see that our children are almost always willing to listen to us when it is our turn to speak. Both parent and child want to be listened to. As parents, we do it first, trusting that they will treat us the way we treat them. We’re teaching them the Golden Rule. It works!
Two Kinds of Dialogue
In other words, our primary goal in communicating with our children is a genuine conversation, a dialogue.
In the “behavior dialogue” we develop, with the child, expectations, limits, standards, or “rules” for the child’s behavior. These “rules” are not so much rules, but more properly agreements about what is acceptable behavior, and what is not. Through the behavior dialogue we not only engage our child in setting the limits for their behavior, but we also establish with them the consequences for their misbehavior. For example, we might reach an agreement that Johnny will not hit his little sister the next time he gets angry at her, but will instead come and tell Mom why he’s angry at her, and then together he and Mom will figure out what he can do about it. In the behavior dialogue we will do best if we also negotiate what a positive consequence (reward) will be for following through on the agreement for good behavior. Many years of extensive research verify that positive consequences (rewards) work much better than negative rewards (punishments).
Then, when he breaks his agreement by hitting his sister in spite of the agreement not to, we use the “accountability dialogue” set aside the misbehavior itself (hitting) and address instead the fact of the broken agreement. Instead of “You hit your sister,” our approach is, “You broke your agreement that you made with me.” In the “accountability dialogue we engage our child in a conversation about the reasons the child broke his agreement, how he feels if the parents breaks an agreement, and what he thinks the parent should do because of the child breaking an agreement. We use questions like the following. “Do you like it when I break an agreement with you? How do you feel if I break an agreement I made with you? How do you think I feel when you break an agreement with me? What do you think should be the consequence of breaking agreements? What should happen now? How do you think I should handle this? What can we agree on about what happens next?”
These questions get at the child’s understanding of the Golden Rule, and the fact that you can’t just make agreements with people then go and break them. The parent takes that action more personally than the original offense (hitting his sister). In the course of the accountability dialogue the issue of breaking agreements is stressed.
Then the parent can go back to the original offense (hitting), and re-establish another agreement about that. This will probably be the same agreement that was reached the first time, but it is now reinforced by the child’s commitment to follow through on his agreement to come to Mom.
Further punishment for that offense is unnecessary because the accountability dialogue is uncomfortable enough. And he is learning the hard way about breaking agreements. Most kids will squirm during this conversation, because they know they have been caught “dead to rights.” No one can argue against the Golden Rule, which is the basis of the accountability dialogue. And even a two-year-old understands it.
What to Do When the Child Refuses to Dialogue
When our child does not wish to “play ball” with us by entering into a meaningful conversation about something important, or when s/he is not interested in working out an agreement with us, are we stumped? Temporarily, yes, because we can’t make them do anything. But we are not helpless. We don’t just walk away. Instead we issue an invitation.
There are three things we might consider saying–not angrily, but in a sincere and respectful way, when the child refuses to dialogue with us about “rules” (agreements), consequences, or something that needs a decision. Each of the three suggestions indicates that we are willing to hear what the child has to say, and with each one we control ourselves from getting angry, defensive, or “bent out of shape” simply because this young person we love so much is afraid, or angry, or just plain whiney, and is not willing to play ball with us right now.
1. When they argue, we clearly state, “I will not argue with you. But, I do want to hear what you have to say rather than push you around by imposing my will on you or trying to force you to do things.”
2. When they yell and swear at us and use foul language, we don’t lose our cool, but calmly say, “I am willing to listen to you when you can talk in a normal tone of voice. I want to agree with you on something that we can both live with.”
3. When we, the parents, start getting angry, then WE take the time-out. First, we say something like, “I need a time-out because I’m getting angry. I’ll be back in few minutes, and we can talk more about this then.” We then walk out of the room, think it over, and come back to pick up the conversation if the child is willing.
If a decision is necessary about something, and the child refuses to play ball with us by giving his/her input even when we invite it, we acknowledge that they don’t want to participate in the decision-making process, but we give them a choice to do so or have us make the decision. If they don’t play ball, we will be willing to make the decision ourselves. However, we also let them know that we are willing to revisit the decision and have a dialogue about it when they are ready.
So a fourth thing we can do before making the decision is say something like:
4. “Okay then, if you choose not to, I’m going to make the decision myself. If at some point you want to share with me some of your ideas about it, I’ll be willing to hear what you have to say and see if we can come to some kind of agreement about it.” The rationale for working for agreements is not hard to understand, and we should be willing to share our reasons for it with our children.
In the New School approach to parenting we try to listen first, talk second, and use as much of our child’s input as possible. We use the “behavior dialogue” as a way of setting norms or limits for acceptable behavior. Then we use the “accountability dialogue” as a substitute for punishment when they break the original agreement from the “behavior dialogue.” When they won’t play ball with us (i.e., refuse to talk), and withdraw in silence, or whine, argue, and fight us, we accept that because we know we can’t control them. We can’t pull the words out of them. We let them know we still want to hear what they have to say, and we’re willing to listen when they are willing to talk. Then we have to follow through on that pledge and, when they’re ready to play ball, we work at making agreements with them.
3 Steps to Parent-Child Harmony is my book that describes in detail the differences between the Old School Parenting model and the New School Parenting model. Please see these links if you are interested in more information or wish to purchase.