How Best to Raise a Human

Raising kids is hard work. For all the smiles, laughs, and happy times, there are quite a few tantrums, tears, and confrontations. As a parent, I want my kids to succeed and be happy and healthy independent adults someday. It is often hard to picture the happy and independent adult scenario when a little one is starring daggers at you threatening to smash her own favorite toy if she must suffer the injustice of coming to the table to eat dinner.

  • Raising Human Beings
  • By Ross W. Greene
  • 269 pp., $10.39 from Amazon

At the same time, I have thought that many of the common methods of getting kids to behave do not accomplish much. Timeouts just make kids angry and I never had much luck with them. Rewards seem great for a couple days and then the kid stops caring. Counting to three just seems to result in more counting to three.

And society has greater expectations of what kids should be able to accomplish. When I started researching my own genealogy, I found it interesting that it only required going back a few generations for my ancestor’s professions to become largely uniform: farmer and homemaker. If you were born on a farm, as most kids in the past were, there were basically two career options. In today’s world, I have no idea what my kids will do when they grow up. But you get the sense that in modern meritocratic culture how your kid is succeeding, even from the youngest age, is going to set their life trajectory from abject failure to glorious riches.

With that kind of pressure, it is no wonder that parents go to extremes to mold their kid into the version that they want. If anything is an example of this, it is the continued fame of Amy Chua. In her 2011 book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Chua laid out her method of strict parenting and high standards. According to Chua, her children were not allowed to do the following:

  • attend a sleepover
  • have a playdate
  • be in a school play
  • complain about not being in a school play
  • watch TV or play computer games
  • choose their own extracurricular activities
  • get any grade less than an A
  • not be the #1 student in every subject except gym and drama
  • play any instrument other than the piano or violin
  • not play the piano or violin.

In all fairness, I have not read Battle Hymn as I find the premise off-putting. However, it does not take much imagination to see a connection between this type of parenting and other parental neuroses such as the college admissions scandal. For some parents, the desire for elite credentials in academics and sports has warped parental thinking to prize societally valued achievement above all else.

But parental control is not just for Tiger Moms and Sports Dads. Often, with the best intentions, otherwise normal and reasonable parents turn into authoritarians when it come to their children’s behaviors, activities, and choices.

The problem with controlling parenting is that if a parent’s goal is to raise happy and self-sufficient kids, ultra-strict parenting often backfires in the form of rebellion, overdependence, apathy, or people-pleasing inauthenticity. Additionally, unless your child is genetically inclined to have the traits it takes to succeed at a parental vision of success, parental control is almost guaranteed to fail at teaching the child to excel at something she is not inclined to succeed at.

Enter Ross Greene, who advocates a parenting style in many ways the opposite of Chua.

A few years ago, I read Greene’s book The Explosive Child at the recommendation of a doctor (one of my kids is what could best be described as a habitual line stepper). In that book, Greene described how to use what he called Cooperative & Proactive Solutions (“CPS”) to work with kids who tend to blow up when things do not go their way. I appreciated the concept but found it hard to implement as my kids were young and CPS method, as I understood it, depends upon being able to communicate with you child about the child’s concerns. While I had a few good takeaways from the book, I was not able to implement very much of the CPS method.

I saw that Greene had published another book on the CPS method and wanted to see if, now that my kids are a bit older, if it was something that I could use more effectively now. In Raising Human Beings: Creating a Collaborative Partnership with Your Child, Greene takes the CPS model and explains its function along with big-picture observations about why it is not advisable to micromanage your children’s lives.

The CPS model starts with the assumption that kids do well if they can. If a child is misbehaving it is because of unsolved problems that create an incompatibility between what is expected of the child and what the child can do. Thus, the best way to reduce angry outbursts and defiance is to teach the kid how to address the unsolved incompatibilities. To resolve incompatibilities there are three options:

  • Plan A is solving the problem unilaterally and forcing the child to do what you want.
  • Plan B is working collaboratively with the child to find a solution to the incompatibility.
  • Plan C is putting aside your parental preferences and letting the child do what he wants.

As a parent, it is easy to over rely on Plans A and C, while neglecting Plan B. While Greene acknowledges that there are times when parents must use Plans A and C, he recommends using the cooperative Plan B as the go-to solution for most situations.

Executing Plan B is a three-step process. The first step, the Empathy step, requires you to show concern for your child’s problem and to gather details about what is going on. This is just active listening for parents. The second step, the Define-Adult-Concerns step, has the parent express his concerns and explain the problem to the child. The third step, the Invitation step, concludes the process by having the parent discuss possible solutions and decide on an option that is both realistic and addresses both the parent and the child’s concerns.

I have had some success with applying this method. For example, in working from home, I found that one of my kids started asking a million questions, like clockwork, when I got on a call for work and got angry when I did not respond. Repeatedly telling her to wait until I was done did not previously work so I tried Option B cooperative problem solving.

For Empathy Step, she told me that she did not like that I ignored her when I was on call and she had important things that she had to say that could not wait. For the Define-Adult-Concerns step, I told her that I had to do my calls for work because I was working from home and that I did not want to ignore her, but that I could not always answer questions immediately. For the Invitation step, I asked her if she could think of any solutions that would help me answer her questions without interrupting phone calls. She said that she could raise her hand like at school. That was actually a great idea and we agreed that she would raise her hand when she had a question when I was on a call and I would answer her question when I could mute the call. Of course, at first, she was raising her hand constantly. But after about a week she only raised her hand when it was important and waited for me to mute. Problem solved.

Beyond solving everyday problems, Raising Human Beings also has powerful observations about the actual value for children of having some incompatibility between their characteristics and the worlds demands. While this incompatibility can set the stage for stressful and outbursts, it can also be what spurs children to grow and to become the person that they are meant to be. If a child does not learn how to constructively address the inevitable instances where they are incompatible with the world around them, the child could fall into the extremes of being either having adopted an identity that is not their own and was thrust upon them (as it the risk with the Tiger Mom or Sports Dad), giving up on finding a meaningful identity and living a life of apathy and inaction, or adopting a negative identity, such as crime or drugs, as “it is sometimes easier to slip into a negative identity than to have none at all.” As Greene notes, there is even some value to children in failure:

In a competitive world, can you really afford to let her stumble? In a competitive world she’d better know how to get back on her feet when she stumbles, because you won’t always be there to lend a hand.

Ross Greene, Raising Human Beings: Creating a Collaborative Partnership with Your Child

My main critique of the book is Greene’s reluctance to present situations when Plan A, requiring the child to obey the parent, is a good approach. For example, there is a scenario involving a daughter who wants to go to a sleepover at her friends out, but the friend’s mom will not be home. In addition, two other girls will be there who are “wild” and “their parents let them drink and do drugs.” As an example of what not to do, Greene has the mom tell her daughter that she cannot go to the sleepover and the daughter explodes. To demonstrate the CPS method, Greene has the mom and daughter do the Empathy and Define-Adult-Concerns step and then the mom says, “Um . . . I think I’d feel better if you didn’t sleep over when Caitlin’s mom isn’t there. But if you really want to, I think I have to trust your judgement.” Of course, the daughter goes to the sleepover.

To me, a teenage wanting to go to a sleepover where there might be drugs and alcohol is not a Plan B cooperative problem solving situation and, while it is good to discuss concerns with your child, parents have an obligation to draw the line somewhere. Often this line is going to depend on the risks faced by the culture that you are living in. When it comes to drugs in a part of the country experiencing the opioid epidemic, I think parents are justified in being strict regarding drugs. Another example, as noted by Breanna Holt, is that her parents had to be stricter at times than others because of the unique threat faced by black children in a racist society that viewed them as threats.

At the same time, if a parent is extremely strict and had been using Plan A for most decisions, I could see the decision to keep kids away from other kids who use drugs being viewed as just another instance of the parent imposing her will. I think the balanced solution is to rely on Plan B as much as possible and that will make it easier for a child to accept Plan A situation when parents set appropriate limits in the interest to safety.

A while back, I heard about an NFL quarterback named Todd Marinovich who was raised, literally from birth, to be the best possible football player. His parents attempted to give him the perfect environment of good food, exercise, and athletic training to be one of the best in the world. And it almost worked. He became a quarterback in the NFL and was called the “Robo QB” and the “Test Tube QB.” However, along the way, personal problems and drugs caught up with him and ended his career. According to Marinovich, “[t]he only time, perceived or real, that I felt loved, is when I was performing, which is super sick.” What is sad about the situation is that I suspect Marinovich’s father, a professional athletic trainer, thought that he was doing something amazing for his child by raising him to be an elite athlete and did not realize the impact that this level of control had on his son’s life skills.

The value that Greene provides with his CPS model and Raising Human Beings is that he gives parents a tool that allows them to take a step back, let their children learn to take control of their destiny, and still know that they are doing what is necessary to help their children succeed.

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