Sunday, November 14, 2010

Smart Love

You can click through to Amazon on the book picture on the right.

The subtitle calls Smart Love
"The compassionate alternative to discipline that will make you a better parent and your child a better person"

 The book is written for the ordinary parent and is not difficult to read -- you can get the general idea by going to this short article by Martha Heinaman Pieper, one of the two authors:

Principles of Smart Love 

And there is a website devoted to "Smart Love Parenting"

There are some interesting ideas in the book, which is why I suppose it got past the first cut on my bookshelves.   The authors oppose their ideas to "behavior modification" techniques -- which is the method that a lot of parenting books rely on, of course, and ultimately comes from BF Skinner's rather reductionist views of human nature. 

The Piepers believe that kids are born naturally desiring to model themselves after their parents and in fact, get their first and most lasting view of how things work from how they are treated by their parents.  They note that children who are harshly scolded, for example, grow up harshly scolding themselves.   Their internal voice is a harsh, demanding, conditional one.   

For kids with one type of temperament, this might  make them inhibited and haunted by guilt; for kids with another type of temperament, it might influence them to become resistant and defiant.   Basically, the Piepers say, the child is born wanting happiness but without a clear idea of what happiness is.  A child can actually learn to "desire" unhappiness, thinking it is the happiness his parents meant him to have.  

A child who has learned to expect unhappiness will sometimes, it seems intentionally, try to spoil a happy moment or escalate a bad one.   I have seen this in real life, and you can certainly see it written large on our society's news page. 

The Piepers attribute most of this to parenting.  They think that the capacity for stable inner happiness is mostly set in the early years through the child's relationship to his parents.    From the notes at the back of their books (the first two links will take you to their more scholarly web sites)

"This new view of human nature is comprehensively presented in our academic book, Intrapsychic Humanism...  We chose the name intrapsychic humanism because it embodies the two most fundamental principles that shape this new psychology:

  1. the source of the only sustainable and truly fulfilling human happiness is humanistic in that it is entirely enfolded in human relationships, most especially, the parent-child relationship..
  2. this happiness originates in the child's empirical, demonstrable certainty... that she has the ability to elicit her parents' loving responses to her developmental needs.  "
Intrapsychic humanism should not be confused with the humanistic psychology that has evolved in American academia, because we do not render human nature in terms of an assumed tendency towards self-actualization that does not depend on relationship experience (most important, the parent-child relationship).
Once primary happiness (which reminds me a little of secure attachment in attachment theory)  is established, secondary happiness has a chance to form:

While primary happiness is generated within your child's relationship with you, secondary happiness is the pleasure generated by everyday activities (such as building with blocks, dressing a doll, solving a math problem, playing the violin, hitting a baseball). The process of developing stable secondary happiness begins in your child's second year and is completed only at the end of adolescence.

If a child has not developed stable primary happiness, the Piepers say, he often is overly affected by secondary happiness -- he tries to use it to fill his need..   This is a losing proposition because when he fails, he is overly affected -- the failure goes into the very core of his being.   So you will see a kid throw a Monopoly board across the room when he is losing, or plunge into a depressive spiral when she doesn't qualify for the cheer team, etc.

And even if he succeeds in reaching his supposed goal, it does not give him true happiness, because it is not the right kind of happiness.   This would be the explanation for the big stars and driven achievers who fall apart when the summit is reached.  Often they are voraciously hungry for happiness and when they realize they've gotten all the thought they desired or thought were the conditions for happiness,  but are still not happy, the effect is devastating.

Addictive behavior, the Piepers say, is also often triggered or even caused by trying to fill the need for primary happiness with things that temporarily soothe or distract from, but do not fill, the need for primary happiness. 

The Piepers mention the child's early concept of himself as "all-powerful".  For example, a 6 year old boasts of being able to beat Michael Jordan at free throws.   A 2 year old says "Me do it!" even if he very obviously can't, or tries to make a situation work for him by sheer force of personality.   Many parents notice this in their children and try to dispose of it by discipline or ridicule.  However, the Piepers hold that the "all powerful self" is healthy and normal in the early years because it gives the child optimism and spirit to face huge developmental challenges.   They don't say that you have to permit unpleasant behavior; they think children should be regulated so they don't hurt themselves or others, until they can learn to regulate themselves.  They do maintain, however, that it is nothing to panic about or get furious at the kid about.   The all-powerful self naturally recedes as the "competent self" is allowed to emerge.... the part of you that can accomplish things and affect your environment.

As a toddler battles to tie his shoes he learns something about reality and also learns to work to master his environment.    If a child is harshly treated or his efforts to learn are despised (the parents do too much for him or don't take his work seriously or punish him severely for normal developmental mistakes) his "all-powerful" self will not recede, but become part of his ongoing actions.  The competent self  will have a harder time coming into its own.   This, the Piepers say, would explain the horrible misjudgments made by many sociopathics, like gang-members and increasingly, ordinary kids who do things that seem inexplicable.   Their fantasy life with themselves in center stage is allowed to predominate way past the normal developmental need for it has passed. 

The solution recommended by the Piepers is called "loving regulation".  It steers the balance between permissiveness and severity -- both of which don't lead to the healthy internal controls which allow a child to mature and move towards virtue and competence.

The Piepers don't believe in the longterm effectiveness of:

  • Time-Outs  (except when the parent needs a cooling-down break to prevent rash action)
  • Letting the child cry it out
  • Tough Love (they devote a chapter to this)
  • Behavioristic rewards or consequences 
They certainly don't hold with scoldings, corporal punishment, nagging, or moral bludgeoning.    So their work might be controversial in that it takes out a lot of the normal "toolbox" of the standard American parent and also goes against the standard advice of many parenting experts. 

Basically, they think all those things teach the kid that the parents desire their unhappiness, and this is the wrong message to send.   Rather, by regulating behavior positively and showing love, the parents teach the child that while some behaviors must be changed, the attitude of the parents does not change.

So they rely a lot on logical consequences and on reframing choices positively.  For example, the logical consequence of a child riding his bike on the street would be that the parent would not be able to let him ride his bike unsupervised until he was ready to act safely.  If a child was insisting on having a toy that his sibling was playing with, you would let him know that his sibling had the toy but try to redirect him to a different toy or to a different situation. 

Obviously any parent who has been in the toddler/tween trenches will know that sometimes these types of solutions fail big-time in the short run.  That is, the toddler Won't Be Redirected!!  or you have to spend such Enormous Amounts of Personal Tact steering your 10 year old away from an emotional crisis that you end up melting down when your 5 year old asks for a glass of water which he could, after all, perfectly well get for himself or ask someone else to get for him.

The Piepers say that caregiving lapses aren't fatal and can indeed be part of a healthy learning environment for both children and parents.  The main things I think they are warning against are

  • a punitive, almost triumphant attitude -- "aha, I CAUGHT you doing X, let's see how you like Y then!" which I often see people falling into, as if it were a war to MAKE the child good and if the child IS good, the parent "wins" and the child "loses"
  • an unsympathetic, callous or behavioral-management attitude:  "If you do X then Y will happen" --  or "you have to learn to fight your own battles"
  • an anxious, "stakes are ultimately high" attitude where each behavior has to be confronted and extinguished immediately without even acknowledging its developmental "good side".  
The Piepers seem to hold that these are relationship mistakes that are problematic in ANY relationship and particularly in relationships that involve children, who are vulnerable and inexperienced and dependent on their parents.

What the Piepers want to see, aside from unachievable Practical Parental Perfection, is just an ongoing attempt to keep the relationship loving and constructive and as much as possible give the kids the messages you would want them to keep giving themselves throughout life. ... not humiliating or harsh messages that make them feel they can never measure up, but positive workable messages.

Personally, I don't necessarily think that human happiness is "entirely enfolded in human relationships" though I do think human relationships are key analogues to our ultimate Goal, so they are important for that reason.   I do think the Piepers are correct that "self-actualization" thought of separately from relationship is a false goal.    I do agree that kids tend to internalize the messages they get from their parents and that is the partial explanation for some of the frankly weird and non-productive behavior you see in kids.   I can't believe that pretty much all the standard disciplinary methods are destructive.   If parenting was so tricky, hardly anyone would have any success.   I think kids are pretty good at seeing love and loyalty and commitment within a vast range of different parenting practices and temperaments.   Still, I do think that some of the things done in love give kids the wrong message about what love requires; sometimes things done in the name of moral standards give kids the wrong idea of what morality is. 

I like the distinction between "primary" and "secondary" happiness.   It seems to fit in with the way the infant usually does best with a mother (nurturing and affirming) as primary caretaker in the first year or so and then is increasingly influenced by father and siblings and friends (who are usually more focused on achievement and skills).   The mother's sympathetic influence is still important but other influences acquire more significance as time goes on.

And I also found the difference between the "all powerful self" and the "competent self" worth pondering.  It seems to have explanatory value in what I've observed in my children.     Aquinas says that inexperienced people have a kind of natural hope because they haven't tested their powers against reality adequately.   This would seem to apply in a big way to the early-childhood years. 

Finally, I am skeptical about whether "happiness" is the right word for bottom-line stable attachment.   "Attachment" seems to imply a foundation, a good starting point, while "happiness" implies an end or goal.  Since we are immortal, our ultimate happiness lies outside of natural life; even loving parental relationships can stunt and distort if not ordered towards eternal things, as CS Lewis points out.  Perhaps the terminology is not of great importance but it seems to lead in the book towards a subtle over-emphasis on the role of the parents and a inadvertent mingling of our final outcome with our starting point.    I think what I like about the book is its correlations with Attachment Theory but where the two theories differ, I think Attachment Theory predicts and explains more than Intrapsychic Humanism does and also seems to dovetail more explicitly with orthodox Christian doctrine.

Whew, that was a long one!  I think that is the last extended review I want to do for now.   But having made some attempt to look at these books in more depth and try to get something out of them, I feel OK about letting them go now.

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