“Honey, PLEASE sit down and finish your food! No, you can’t have any more bread until you finish your broccoli!”
I’m in the middle of dinner with a distant cousin and his 7 year old daughter, and things are not going well. It’s the oldest “traditional parenting” scene known to man: the daily dinner time fight over staying seated, saying please, and finishing your vegetables. The kid wants to move around; she’s interested in what’s happening in the living room and she keeps popping out of her chair to check. Her dad is tired and exasperated; watching their interaction is like observing chinese handcuffs being pulled tighter and tighter- the more he demands, the more his daughter resists.
I chew quietly, cataloging the unspoken parenting axioms at play in this situation. I can think of three: first is the idea that as long as you’re articulating your message clearly, the manner in which you choose to communicate your message doesn’t matter. Second, that parents must meet resistance from their child with their own resistance: that power is the only language children understand. Finally, that a parent’s own behavior isn’t important: that it’s possible to successfully inspire the behavior that they want from their child simply by demanding it from them. (We could think of this last one as the “Do as I say, not as I do” school of parenting.)
This is a difficult scene for me. I grew up in an unschooling family, so the parenting axioms playing out in front of me are pretty much diametrically opposed to all of my own experiences of successful parenting. Because of this, I have to resist the strong urge to offer “The Unschooling Perspective,” (aka Be Nicer To Your Kid) which, (I’ve learned through trial and error) no one ever appreciates in a moment like this, especially not from someone who doesn’t have kids herself.
In my silence, I start thinking about how these automatic axioms about how to relate to your kid so often extend beyond parenting into the realm of how we think we should relate to our partners, or to people in general. (For example, I’ve witnessed my cousin experience the same kinds of power struggles with his partner that he’s currently having with his seven year old, though the subject might be finances instead of broccoli.) Most of these relationship patterns are so ingrained that we never question them, but many of them are counterproductive at best and actively destructive at worst.
I’d like to offer three unschooling axioms to replace the axioms I outlined above. Implement them with your kid or your partner, and I think you’ll find that your relationship will improve.
Axiom #1: The Medium is the Message
Parents who spank their children typically do so in an attempt to communicate a message, be it “don’t run out into the road” or “don’t hit your sister” or “stop crying.” But often, the intended message gets mixed up in the way it’s being delivered: you might want to teach your kid to stop running into the road, but in fact, your child is actually learning that it’s okay for bigger people to hit smaller people and that might makes right.
In the same vein, when you refuse to engage emotionally during a conflict with your partner, opting instead to explain yourself in a hyper rational fashion, you’re communicating a message- just maybe not the one you’re trying to communicate. You might be trying to explain that you feel frustrated with the amount of relationship effort your partner is requesting from you, but you’ve made the mistake of assuming that your medium of communication isn’t important, and you end up communicating in a way that your partner can’t absorb. The message they do absorb? That you can’t be relied upon to be emotionally present during difficult moments.
You can escape this trap by realizing that the way you communicate (the tone and volume of voice you use, the physical contact you make, the expression on your face) is often more important than the things that you say, and that most people can only absorb the intended content of your message when your method of communicating is gentle and kind.
Axiom #2: Avoid Ineffective Power Struggles
Popular unschooling advocate Sandra Dodd once said, “if your child is more important than your vision of your child, life becomes easier.”
In the situation I described above, my cousin engaged in a power struggle with his daughter and in the end, everyone at the dinner table lost. The behavior that he wanted from her in the moment became more important than the person sitting in front of him at the table, but the more he demanded it, the more his daughter resisted. Eventually the situation spiraled into a yelling and crying match.
In much the same way, our visions of how we want our partners to be can overshadow who our partners actually are. We’ve all witnessed (or participated in) similarly petty relationship power struggles over the toilet seat lid or the proper loading of the dishwasher. But engaging in a power struggle and demanding the behavior that we want almost never produces the desired results. Regardless of our positive intentions, it’s simply not an effective strategy.
Instead of continuing to pull on the metaphorical chinese handcuffs of your relationship, try accepting your partner as they are in the moment. By doing so, it’s possible to reduce the tension in the relationship and create space for understanding, and maybe, eventually, change.
Axiom #3: Model the Behavior You Want to See
I once spent an afternoon visiting a summer camp; I joined the some of the campers and the director for lunch. The director was very focused on “manners:” passing to the left, saying please and thank you, finishing all of your food. (This last one was supposedly an “anti-waste” measure, but the fact that all the food was served on styrofoam made me think it actually stemmed from nothing more than a desire to be controlling.) Some of the kids, new to the camp, didn’t quite have all of the rules down yet; the director attempted to “correct” their lapses by yelling at them and demanding the behavior he wanted from them. While he was trying to teach “politeness,” he was easily the rudest person at the table; while he might have temporarily intimidated his charges into demonstrating the behavior he sought, he certainly didn’t do anything to foster genuine, well-intentioned politeness in them.
The best unschooling parents I know, on the other hand, don’t ever demand that their children say please and thank you. They might occasionally offer a gentle prompt, as in “can you say thanks for the ice cream, Sofia?” but mostly they just say please and thank you at appropriate moments in front of their kids, and the kids eventually pick it up as a matter of course, in the same way they pick up parental accents or idioms. (For more on modeling politeness, check out this article)
The same principle can be applied to partner relationships: if you’re in conflict with your partner and you want them to speak more kindly to you, instead of demanding what you want and ramping up the negativity of the situation, try asking nicely for it and then modeling the behavior you want by speaking more kindly to them. Because of a psychological phenomenon called “complementarity,” (in which kind behavior begets more kind behavior and vice versa) your warmth is more likely to produce warmth in return than a threat or demand would. (The podcast Invisibilia recently produced a great episode called “Flip the Script” about using non-complementary behavior, such as meeting nastiness with kindness, to change the dynamic of an interaction.) By modeling kinder behavior in the long term, you can work to positively alter your relationship culture.
One caveat: Modeling alone probably won’t work to change long-ingrained patterns of behavior like messiness or bad driving habits in adults. If your partner doesn’t do their share of the housework or drives like a maniac, a frank (but kind) conversation coupled with intentional modeling is probably your best bet. I would hate to see someone spend months or years “modeling” promptly cleaning up the dinner dishes while their oblivious partner totally missed what was happening.