November 22, 2009

Mind over punishment

"Meditation is not to escape from society, but to come back to ourselves and see what is going on. Once there is seeing, there must be acting. With mindfulness, we know what to do and what not to do to help."
~ Thich Nhat Hanh

Over the last year or so, I've noticed that everything I've learned and put into practice, in terms of EI parenting at home, goes immediately out the window when we are in public. It's like my brain just switches off and I default back to bribes (rewards) and punishments to get my kids to behave. Even if I tell myself beforehand to be more conscious of this tendency, I do it anyway. It's frustrating and sets back all of the work I've done earlier that day. Why would I do that?

Here's a possible explanation from an article in October on Science Daily.

“We don’t just punish in response to a bad behavior,” Horne says. “We punish because we care what people think of us.”

That sentence amazed me. It was like a light bulb going off in my head, "Yes, that's why I do it!"

Why did the Chinese enforce the cultural norm of foot binding for centuries, even though it produced no tangible benefits and much pain and anguish? Why did Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet sign the 1988 International Convention Against Torture, the very agreement that allowed him to be arrested and prosecuted a decade later? Even more dramatic, why would the Norse in Greenland in the 1400s perish as a civilization rather than break a cultural norm against eating certain kinds of seafood?According to her theory, people will act in ways that damage their personal interests if it means their ties to a particular social group will be strengthened. And, she suggests, one of the best ways to strengthen your ties to a particular group is to help enforce the norms of that group by punishing outliers.

Would it change anything if I knew that my social groups understood and supported my decision to be an outlier? I don't think so. I have explained to my friends and family that we are choosing a different path. Everyone has been supportive. I still find myself falling into old habits and feeling "judged". And what about with strangers? I can't sit down with everyone and explain my parenting choices. Perhaps I just need more self-confidence? I don't think that's it either. I know this is how people should be treated, even the youngest ones. Maybe just knowing that there is a tendency to feel judged in any given situation can be a reminder; being mindful of my long-term goals. This is the subject of the book I am currently reading, Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting. It sounds a little woo-woo, I know, but it hasn't been so far. They describe meditation as:

"not, as is commonly thought, an inward manipulation -- like throwing a switch or merely relaxing -- into some "special state" in which everything feels different or better, or in which your mind goes "blank," or you suppress your thoughts. It is a systematic and sustained observing of the whole field of our experience, or of some specific element of it."

It dovetails nicely with Thomas Gordon's ideas. Part one specifically mentions that parents have needs as well as children, an important revelation that I picked up from P.E.T., and that I hadn't noticed in the other books on EI parenting. It seems a little daunting to be adding something else to my plate right now, and yet it seems like I can't continue without learning how to be present in the moment.


  1. I never thought of that, but it really is true now that I think about it. I'm constantly worried about what complete strangers will think. Why? I won't see them again. I should be more concerned with how my friends view me and my kids so we get invited over again. It's odd, but I also feel judged by my vegetarian friends even though I KNOW they don't judge me. I suppose this is just an evolutionary thing about needing to fit in with the tribe so you can have the benefit of not being cast out and starving to death. Good post.

  2. I don't think I'm generally all that worried about what strangers think (unless my child's behaviour is impacting them directly - e.g. my child is throwing sand in her child's face).

    However, I do worry about the parents and teachers at my son's school. I don't want us to be shunned as the "strange" family or him to be shunned as the "poorly behaved" child.

  3. I think it's great that you are exploring meditation and mindfulness. It's not woo, it is consistently proven to make a real positive change in people's brains and bodies.

    As for the judgment of others, I think it can be fruitful to inquire - are you feeling judged and pressured just because you are doing something unconventional, or is there really a negative consequence that your approach is failing to deal with? I'm not accusing you, I just can't help but think of a local LLL Leader (who is NOT representative of LLL) who purports to tell people about "loving guidance" for children per LLL philosophies, but whose own parenting style is quite neglectful, leading to her children being out of control monsters and/or getting into dangerous situations. If only this woman had a bit of sensitivity to the judgment of people around her!

  4. Lisa- Thanks for stopping by! Well I don't judge non-vegetarians :) I remember quite well the days when I thought I'd never be able to give up meat. It happened to work out for us, but I don't mind what others do.

    Annie-I know I would worry about that as well if my kids were in school. I think I struggle the most with family judgement. At least that's what causes my blood pressure to rise the most, but being in public is a very close second.

    Cogito-I'm sure there have been times when I've dropped the good parenting ball, but I think my problem would be over-parenting and not neglect. I find myself all "up in their business" a lot. That being said, I also think I have a different idea of what is out of control or dangerous. I don't let my kids run rampant, but I understand and (generally) allow strong emotions. They also aren't attached to my hip, I allow them a little freedom.

    I try really hard to be honest here about what I am learning and how I am actually doing IRL. Sometimes I am on the right track, others I think I am, but find out later I wasn't, and sometimes I totally mess up. :)

  5. I can absolutely relate to this. I feel very self-conscious about my parenting style in public. I worry about being seen as the outcast , or worse my kids being outcast from friends and neighborhoods families.

  6. I think it is common knowledge that most parents eventually adapt the style of their own parents or caregivers.

    From this point of view, you may want to consider if you were raised as an "outlier" or if this is how you feel today as you raise your child(ren). If you grew up conforming to the norms around you at that time, it is natural to feel like you need to conform your parenting style to today's norms.

    Having said that, it is certainly not necessary to conform to these norms. You can change your style to how you want your children to grow up. But then, don't feel bad if you somehow feel compelled to behave in a "normal" way when in public.

  7. S-
    I support your parenting choices and try to understand the purpose even when I don't right away. I hope that helps :) Love you!

  8. Summer-Maybe half the battle is just knowing that we can improve and then working toward it. We'll never be perfect, but at least we try.

    TwinToddlersDad- I hope I don't go the way of my parents. I love them, but I do not want to parent that way. When I find myself falling into that, I cringe. I definitely grew up conforming. I think that's why being an outlier now is so uncomfortable to me. I try not to be too hard on myself, but that is also difficult for me.

    Vicky-I adore you!