New Mama Musings

Thursday, February 04, 2010

A Little Push

I grew up in a very authoritarian household. There was absolutely no question that my parents were in charge and that the opinions of the children were neither desired nor valued. We were "good" kids not because we were all naturally easygoing but because we lived in fear of our mom and dad.

When Henry was born I could not imagine parenting that way. I read Unconditional Parenting when he was a baby and much of what Alfie Kohn wrote resonated with me. I had known that my childhood had adversely affected me, but suddenly I realized where my intense desire for approval and acceptance, my insecurity about my own abilities despite praise, and my inability to make even the smallest decision without agonizing had come from.

Parenting Henry unconditionally was fairly easy at first. My husband and I cut "Good job!" out of our vocabulary; instead, we strove to let Henry validate his own accomplishments or to make neutral comments like, "Wow, that's a really tall tower. Can you show me how you did it?" Shaming him by giving him time-outs away from us just didn't feel right so instead we did "time-ins," holding him close and talking to him.

We also discovered that playing to Henry's interest in pretending often quickly worked to turn a bad situation around. When we sat down to dinner and Henry complained that he wanted a spoon, not a fork, and wanted us to get it for him, suggesting that we'd like to see how fast the “spoon train” could zoom to the kitchen worked like magic.

But now he's four and the gap between philosophy and reality seems, at times, to be a giant yawning chasm. He’s stuck between baby and big kid, and sometimes it seems as though he acts badly just to see what he’s capable of.

Last fall Henry decided he was no longer going to take baths. He’d never been in love with the water, like some kids, but he had started to have fun playing in the tub. And then one day, he refused. It felt wrong to force him to bathe, so we let it go for a while. I really, truly thought that eventually he would decide that he was ready to take a bath. I tried talking to him to get to the root of the issue – was there some fear we needed to overcome? – but he said he just didn’t want to.

I found myself sponge-bathing a four-year old. For MONTHS. And then one day I snapped. I didn’t know if this would be Alfie Kohn-approved, but one morning I told Henry that he would be taking a bath that afternoon. I was calm and matter-of-fact about it. He cried and said he wouldn’t take the bath, and I just told him that I knew he was upset but it was important, and it would be happening later that day.

When the time came, my husband got the bath ready and Henry – still crying – followed us willingly into the bathroom and allowed us to get him in the tub. And when it was over he wanted to take another bath immediately.

A similar thing happened with potty-learning. At almost four-and-a-half, Henry is still in diapers. He’s been dry all night for years now, so I know that he has the control. He has just been refusing to go in the toilet. But flush (no pun intended) with the success of the bath ultimatum, I told Henry one night that he would be using the toilet the next morning. I wasn’t expecting him to start using the toilet all the time, but I thought that if we could get him using it first thing in the morning we would be off to a good start.

Again, he cried and insisted he would not be doing it, and again I calmly said he would but that Mommy and Daddy would be right there with him.

When morning came he sat on the toilet, we read books to him, and he peed, and he’s been doing that ever since. Now he tells us when he has to pee and goes in the toilet most of the time. He’s only had one BM but I’m hopeful that this will come in time.

I’m still a fan of Unconditional Parenting, but I’m learning that Henry might need a push here and there and that being firm about things that are important is not the same as my parents’ “us against them” style of parenting. I never felt as though my mom and dad were on my side and I never wanted Henry to feel that way. But maybe being firm when Henry’s unsure -- as long as it’s done with compassion and understanding – is actually another way of showing him my support.

Maybe. This parenting stuff is getting harder.


  • I'm playing catch up on your blog...
    Oh mama, how this resonates with me! I, too, really am keen on Unconditional Parenting. But I am also finding that 4.5 years old has its challenges. Kaia is also not completely there with potty-learning, occasionally going poop in her pants. I will admit, tho, I've tried it all. Things like bribing, which I never thought I would. Now, I realize she'll do it when she's ready. But I really like your advice.
    Give them advance notice, tell them you are going to support them, and guide them through the process.
    Way to go!

    By Anonymous MereMortal, at 10:33 PM  

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