A Glance at Where We’ve Come From

In the days of Louis XIV, the Sun-King of France, aristocratic ladies and gentlemen of the Court at Versailles would amuse themselves by making a large circle and tossing a ball from one aristocratic person to another. The “ball” was an infant wrapped tightly in a blanket. The worthy members of the French Academy of Medicine were sufficiently worried about this practice to issue a formal memorandum to the King recommending that the practice be stopped.

In those days it was common practice for high-born ladies to farm out infants born to them to farmers’ wives, who became their wet-nurses and their de facto mothers, often up to the age of twelve years.  A male child who survived that long would be entitled to inherit his father’s wealth and status.

Rights of children?  Responsibilities of parents? Those were fanciful ideas. Rousseau’s autobiographical novel, Emile, made a big splash but had little effect.
Another hundred years were to pass before Sigmund Freud presented convincing evidence that early childhood experiences can be as crippling as physical injury. Following Freud’s advice, enlightened parents strove to avoid “traumatizing” their children, but had little other than their own childhood experiences to turn to for guidance on what exactly to do or not to do.

Since the time of Freud, books on how to do “parenting” have multiplied until they now number in the thousands. Parents can be overwhelmed at the sheer volume of advice available to them. But therein lies the problem. Those books just give good advice. They don’t tell parents exactly how to do the daily interactions of real life with real children. Good advice, common sense, and benevolent intentions will only get you so far.

Specific Advice, not General Principles

My first title for this program was: Pragmatic Parenting: The Recipe Book. In a sense, that is what this program is about. This is the "recipe book" for solving everyday problems with your kids. You see hundreds of big fat food recipe books on the market, but very little in the way of specific behavioral recipes for child-rearing. What you get is mostly Good Advice in the form of vague directives, such as “Be Consistent,” “Be Kind and Loving,” etc. It’s hard to convert such advice into specific words and actions. 

As one young mother in my practice put it, “People go to school for professions and job training, but for parenting you get no schooling at all.”

Then there is the Simplistic approach. It’s simply a matter of—and you fill in the blank you prefer, such as “exerting your authority,” “discipline,” “tough love,” or even “loving them unconditionally.” It’s not simple! It’s not a simple matter! Parents who try this approach soon learn that no slogan or catchword can make up for lack of the extensive repertoire of tactics needed for real-world parenting.

Real-time Parenting

Good Advice, in the form of General Principles, Strategies, and Higher Goals, is fine in its place, but it can’t take the place of specific words and actions. To emphasize the difference, I call those specific words and actions by the name of Tactics.

A Tactic is something that you can go and do now. It’s part of what I call real-time parenting.

 A Strategy is a general principle to guide you in thinking up a Tactic. And Higher Goals are motives or wishes on the part of the parent. They are the kind of higher-level results you would like to see happen as the result of your Tactics.

The Question of Values

    It's important to understand that Higher Goals (or noble motives, or Values) are simply intentions or wishes, that is, states of mind on the part of the parents, and in themselves have no impact at all—none whatsoever—on the behavior of the child. Higher Goals don’t just leap from the mind of the parents to the mind of the child. They have to be mediated by actual behavior on the part of the parents. You cannot wish your child into behaving well, growing up normal, fulfilling his destiny, cultivating his gifts—or anything else. In order to transmit Values or Higher Goals you, the parent, must exhibit actual behavior, that is to say, spoken words and nonverbal actions.

The Values Behind These Tactics

Reverence for life, respect for others, respect for and even celebration of differences, commitment to nonviolence in interaction with others, dedication to variety and flexibility in our own behavior—these are some of the fundamental Values that underly the strategic, feedback-based approach. In using the tactics presented here, a parent will be transmitting these values in the most effective manner known—by Modeling.

The Feedback-based Approach

We all want our children to become mature, responsible, self-actuating adults, capable of succeeding in the world and of feeling the satisfaction that success brings. But it's not enough to just want these desirable outcomes. Any given strategy or tactic may in your own mind be motivated by such high and noble desires, but that won't happen if the tactic is the wrong one. Your own motive has no effect on the actual outcome of your tactic. You have to look at the actual response, in real time, of your child to the tactic in order to know what its effect is. Then you have to have the courage to change your tactic if it isn't getting the desired response. Looking at the response you get, and being willing to change your tactic if necessary, constitute the essence of the Feedback-based Approach.

The Old Approach

The Old Approach—the one we were all raised on—is Prescriptive. Your child should do X. If he does Y instead, then you should again request X. You should Be Consistent, you should continue to request X. This approach is a one-size-fits-all approach. It takes no account of the infinite variety of behaviors that a child can produce in response to any given request. Just under the surface of the Old Approach lurks the ancient attitude of Command-and-Control. “I give request X, and the child ought to (should, must) do X.” If that doesn’t happen, the child has done something wrong, has “misbehaved,” and therefore must be subjected to any number of subsequent commands, requests, bribes, threats, punishments, until finally nothing is left but the police, reform school, the penitentiary or the insane asylum. 

Why Use Command-and-Control?

Command-and-control has a legitimate place in the repertoire of human communications. It has a modest success rate, at least in the short term, with adults and children over the age of seven or eight. Part of being human involves learning to discipline oneself so that one obeys simple, reasonable requests. We all use Command-and-Control every day of our lives. There is even a place in the scheme of things for primitive, crude forms of Command-and-Control, such as Yelling, Haranguing, and Nagging.

But Command-and-Control doesn’t work at all with infants and toddlers. It just doesn’t work! You can’t give commands to a tiny human who doesn’t understand spoken language.

The pitfall comes in the unquestioned assumption that Command-and-Control is the only way, or the only legitimate way, or the only moral way, to relate to others. It ignores the existence of literally scores, or hundreds, or thousands, of other strategies that are based, not on Command-and-Control, but on using the other person’s real-time responses as the cue for your next interaction with them. Worst of all, when one uses Command-and-control, one is Modeling, in a powerful, subliminal way, a hurtful Value System—a Value System that implies that some humans are to be commanded by others, that some humans have the right to tell or even force others to do as they, the commanders, wish.

I have found that this is a hard concept to get across to people by just talking about it. But (as the scores of examples in this program will make clear) a high percentage of parents “get it” very quickly when they see it applied in connection with their own child. They then go home and try it out and usually report back to me that their relationship to their child has reached a new and higher level of success and satisfaction—not always, but often enough to make the whole enterprise worth while. That’s why I call it “Parenting at the Next Higher Level.”

Who are You?

This program makes certain assumptions about you, the readers. I assume that your own lives are somewhat organized, that you live according to some basic structure or discipline (that word!) that you try to adhere to, and that you are not desperately seeking psychiatric-style help for a serious problem with yourselves or your kids.

I am frankly aiming at those parents who already feel that they are doing decent parenting, but who want that extra skill and finesse that come with knowledge of the art. Think of the difference between a “natural” musician who can play the piano by ear, but whose music after a while seems strangely all the same, and the trained artist who has a complete set of basic skills and can use any of them on demand to produce any desired effect.

No doubt there are critics who will point out that programs like this one don’t really change the big picture, which is that millions of children go hungry to bed every night, millions are exposed to extreme violence, millions more are chronically abused because their parents are busy trying to stay alive and don’t have the time, energy, or the education to learn how to treat their children better. Of course this is true; but those are problems this program simply can’t address. If we who are not living under extreme conditions are to do a better job of raising our children, we must start somewhere. There must be some who learn the better skills, and those must necessarily be parents who have the education, opportunity, and resources to learn from written sources. There must be some who realize that present methods of child-rearing, even amongst the well-to-do, are simply inadequate. What this program tries to do is to present the actual skills that need to be learned in order to do a decent job of parenting.

How to Raise a Winner: Parenting for Empowerment

I’m not talking about manipulating your kid into the Ivy League. I’m talking about equipping him or her to be a real winner—that is to say, a real person, not a celebrity or a test-taking wonder. And I can give you the secret in one sentence: you give them the experience of winning, over and over, from earliest infancy, in the tens of thousands of moment-to-moment interactions that make up their experience of life. This program is the "recipe book" for exactly how to do that.

Limitations of the Method

As parents, we may hope and wish that our children will turn out well, and we strive to do our best to make that happen. However, most of us understand that we do not have total control. We cannot mandate that our children will always make the best decisions for themselves, that they will be lucky in life, or even that they will turn out to be something like what we had hoped. Often, we do not know what decisions are best in the long run. This program does not and cannot supply that kind of control. We cannot compel fate, but we can sometimes avoid obviously unconstructive experiences. The aim of this program is limited and modest: to help parents learn certain constructive ways of interacting with their children in the thousands of little encounters that make up the fabric of their experience (and our own).

What is a Problem?

Although this program is organized around “problems,” there is a sense in which this is not really the right way to look at the challenges of parenting. A baby’s smile is as much or as little a “problem” as crying. What do you do in response to a baby’s smile? That is just as important as what to do in response to a cry.

The challenge is to provide an appropriate, nurturing, and, if need be, a corrective response to every behavioral signal that your child gives.

A parent needs to have a repertoire of adequate responses to meet those signals on an ongoing, minute-by-minute basis. So the number of “problems” is as large as the number of behavioral signals that babies can give.

The word “problem” simply means that our child has given a behavioral signal that we don’t know how best to respond to.

The examples given in this program are excerpts from actual interviews with real children and their parents. The advice given in each particular case has been tailored to the specifics of the family involved. The tactics and strategies presented are not necessarily the only or even the best that could be used in that particular situation. By their very nature, strategies and tactics are to be tried out and if the results are not satisfactory, something else should be tried. So readers should not assume that these are all-purpose prescriptions useful for anyone under any circumstances.

 It’s also worth noticing how often the “solutions” come from the parents themselves! The doctor’s job is then just to be amazed at their ingenuity or intuition and to tell them how well they are dealing with things. As you view the videotapes you will come to see how the most competent parents relate to their children and you will be able to try out their own skills for yourself.

The Crucial First Five Years

For the most part these are real-world problems, the kind that parents encounter every day—not the big-time, heavy-duty problems that represent the end result of a long train of failed interactions and that require formal counseling or even more drastic interventions. The aim of this program is to help parents to avoid getting started on that long train of failed interactions by showing them how to increase their percentage of successful interactions in the early months and years, when it really counts. The emphasis is on how to do it right the first time. An ever-growing avalanche of research demonstrates clearly that the groundwork for the child’s future success as an adult is laid down in those crucial first years, and that the parents—and their skills—are the key.

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