Thursday, January 27, 2011

Another Parenting Thought: Behaviouralist or Developmentalist?

I was raised by behaviouralist parents.  I'll bet you were raised by behaviouralists, too.  In fact, I'm betting that those of us with children are raising them in a predominantly behaviouralistic (is that even a word?) manner.  It's the dominant view/style of parenting out there, hands down, and has been for - well, I don't know how long.  I know for sure that, until a few years ago, it was like second nature for me to parent Matthew in all ways behaviouralist; it is still my inclination, though I am trying to move away from it.

As behaviouralists, we raise our children by trying to mould, or shape, their behaviours in such a way that they will ultimately fit, for the most part, into the norms of society as an adult.  If I ask Matthew to do something and he chooses not to do it, I might discipline him by providing him with a consequence; if I see him exhibiting behaviour that I would like to see gone, I do the same - deliver a consequence.   Conversely, if I see behaviour that I like, I may want to provide positive reinforcement to bring forth that behaviour again.  Does this sound familiar?  Normal?  Are you thinking something like, yeah so - what's wrong with that?

Well, I don't know that there's anything wrong with it.  The fact that the vast majority of the people reading these words, and the fact that the person writing these words, have all turned out relatively ok as adults testify in favour of this behaviouralist perspective.  But for the past few years, and more acutely since beginning to take these Neufeld Institute parenting courses, I have been questioning the whole behaviouralist approach.  Something else seems to be more intuitive for me, and I'm struggling with how to express and develop what's percolating inside of me.  Every sentence I write here I end up deleting and trying to rewrite - and again.  It's just not that easy for me to put into words, and I'm frustrated with the effort.

But here's one of the key problems I've come to identify with the behaviouralist approach in the last few years:  The underlying assumption of a behaviouralist approach is that I am able to affect, or influence, my child's behaviour in a way that will shape him in the future. And the underlying assumption of that (tricky enough for you?) is that he is clay in my hands, just waiting for the right sculpture (hopefully me as his parent) to press him gently into the right mould.  Which, of course, brings up this question in my brain: what is the 'right' mould, and how to I assume to know what that is?  Is the 'right' mould fitting in with society?  Maybe, but that assumes that society is the mould into which we should aspire our children to fit into - not sure about that.  I certainly don't assume that this is the right fit - who am I as Matthew's parent to assume what he should be like as an adult and to determine which behaviours would lend themselves to that eventual outcome and which would not?  I am not Matthew's creator, despite having birthed him.  Who am I to presuppose how he should turn out?  There are so many inherent dangers within this approach that I am increasingly uncomfortable with it.

Don't get me wrong.  My child exhibits, at times, behaviours that I don't like.  I don't like it when he throws a tantrum, occasionally strikes out at me in his anger about some thing or another, forgets repeatedly that he needs to pick up his clothes instead of leaving them lie where he disrobed, doesn't listen when I ask him to do something, etc etc.  I, too (like any parent) want him to function in society as an adult.  But my perspective on those behaviours that I don't like has been changing considerably in the past year or more, particularly since taking the Neufeld-Institute parenting courses, so that now I'm not thinking so much how do I discipline those behaviours, but what are those behaviours symptomatic of and how can I help him deal with whatever's going on to lead him to those behaviours?  I need insight into what is moving my child to act in the ways that he does, rather than relying on my skill to deliver consequences for the behaviour I see, because the behaviour is just a symptom.  And if I slow down enough in my day to really watch and understand, I can see what I need to see in Matthew, and help him deal with what the real issue is. 

During the last couple of Neufeld-Institute parenting classes, a very simple analogy was presented that, in some ways, crystallizes some of the stuff going on in my parenting brain.  The words "behaviouralist" and "developmentalist" were compared and contrasted.

By way of analogy, the behaviouralist was likened to a sculptor - one who does the shaping and moulding of their children's behaviour in the manner I described above, with the view of teaching the child lessons that they need to learn for adulthood; we deal with issues in the immediate, as they occur, and it tends to be an incident-based approach.   It's all about the form, the shaping of the child, working with their behaviour. This fit perfectly with the way in which I'd been viewing the parenting strategy of the world around me, and many of my own inclinations, and the way in which I (and most of my peers) was raised.  It also described the parenting style that I've become increasingly uncomfortable with in recent years.

By contrast, the developmentalist was described by way of a gardener analogy.  Think about what it means to be a gardener.  A gardener tends to what's already there, tries to cultivate the plant by caring for its roots, thus adding water and compost to the soil.  A gardener doesn't expect a flower to emerge just because s/he orders it to appear, but rather waits for the right season in that plant's existence for the flower to appear, believing that at some point his/her careful cultivation of the roots will produce the flowering that is inherent to the plant.  Careful pruning of a shrub is best done at certain times, and certainly not when a plant is already in crisis.

Similarly, I as a parent gardener need to understand that I can't force maturation upon my child.  To quote Gordon Neufeld for a moment, "maturation is a flower bursting into bloom...we can't command maturation....we're there to free it up."  It means that when I see my child exhibiting behaviours that don't fit with the values of our family, I may not immediately jump in to teach or discipline in that moment (though I do, of course, ensure everyone's safety, etc); instead, I may wait until he's in a head space (an hour, day, week later) to talk about what was going on for him, so that he has a chance to process things, too.  A gardener parent is patient, waiting to understand the problem before addressing it, and ensures that his/her relationship with his/her child remains intact despite any behaviour-related incident.

You can, perhaps, see the difference as clearly as I did when the sculptor and gardener analogies were presented.  It was a bit of an ah-ha moment for me, as I reflected upon my own upbringing, as I look to how I tend parent my own child, and as I observe the society around me raising children in behaviouralist fashion.

I have struggled long and hard, over the years, about having been raised in a behaviour-oriented fashion (though I wouldn't have known to label it that way until the last few years). There were so many expectations for me to act appropriately (how often do we use that word with our own children...or its opposite: inappropriately), to work hard in school, to study various musical instruments, to achieve (and be rewarded for) success academically, not 'talk back' to my parents or grandparents, to use my fork and knife properly, to go to university, to marry someone of the same Mennonite Brethren faith (ok, there I rebelled, I thought, except that we're now attending a church now that has my M.B. roots, so maybe I conformed after all!), and on and on and on.  Why the struggle?  Why did it cause me so much angst in my adult years to look back on my upbringing and question it all?

I think it was because I was raised to fit into societal norms over and above being raised in a way so as to realize my own potential.  This is not a criticism of my parents; in fact, I think they did the best they could by us kids, and I think that they learned how to parent from their parents, and from the society that shaped them.

I also struggle with these issues because, although I referred earlier to it being second nature for me to parent Matthew as a behaviouralist, my first nature, my instinct, is that there is a better way out there than to assume that my hands as the sculptor are the ones to best bring out Matthew's full potential.  Does that make sense?  That last sentence is, perhaps, one of my biggest thoughts on this whole topic.  I think it is arrogant of me to assume that Geoff and I, as Matthew's parents, know enough about his potential and his inner being to be able to shape and influence him in that direction.  And that is the goal for me:  That Matthew be raised in such a way as to enable him to reach his full potential - as a human being, and as an individual.  

So...If I want to be a developmentalist, a gardener, in my parenting of Matthew and (hopefully) our two coming children, rather than a sculptor, what does that mean for me?  How does that implicate my day-to-day parenting?  What do I do when I see those behaviours in my child(ren) that I don't want to see, when they're having a hard time listening?

This is a big transition time for me, as I look at how I parent.  It definitely warrants further thought!  In the meantime, however, I'm so curious to know what you're thinking right now??  Does it make sense?  Where are the gaps?  Is it a little crazy?  Is this too far out of the comfort zone??  


  1. yeesh, now my head hurts, you know all that thinking......

    great post, that I've never really thought of before... Definitely will think of it more when viewing my own parenting styles...which hopefully will be able to be utilized soon :)

  2. Ruth, this is something I've been giving a lot of thought to these last few months. I think I started out with more behavioural tendencies but it's morphing into something else.

    I believe very strongly that behaviour can be code for what's going in a child's heart.

    And I'm finally reading Neufeld and Mate's book. ;)

  3. Thanks for the comments. Sheldon, MY head hurts from all of this thinking...there better be some payoff at some point!

    Christy, so glad you're reading "Hold On To Your Kids." To be honest, that book feels like the tip of the iceberg in this line of thinking, but it's such an important start. I found that the book could have been better organized, etc, but regardless of that, it was a great start. If you ever get a chance to take some of the parenting classes that are offered by members of the Neufeld Institute across the country, they are incredibly well worth it!

    HOpe we can continue the conversation.



  4. Ruth, I would love to continue the conversation as you move through your classes.

    I think I took a bit of a backwards approach to getting to "Hold On To Your Kids". I arrived at it from reading some of the work of attachment-focused clinicians who focus on helping children who have experienced trauma or neglect. An example of this would be the work of Daniel Hughes with his attachment-focused approach to family-based therapy. I believe it's very much along the same lines of parents helping to facilitate the healthy emotional development of their children as the starting point rather than behaviour. After reading so many case studies of children with RAD I realized it might be nice to read something that is a little more practical and applicable. lol And I've heard such great things about the Neufeld book from you.

    Now, if I could only find some Neufeld-focused parenting courses in Toronto. There don't seem to be any right now. :( I'll keep looking though.

  5. liked this..long ago i read a book about this, although in different phrasing..about parenting a child's HEART...essentially what you are talking about, I htink. t is SO much easier to just control the behaviour and takes far more time and effort to look at where that behaviour is coming from and reach their HEART, not just control the behaviour...I can't say I always parent that way, but it's my goal. :)