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Is It Possible to Parent Without Threats or Coercion?

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We were all parented, by someone, in some way, so it stands to reason that we all know something about parenting, even if that something is how not to do it. Indeed, no one really feels well equipped for the task, at least not when the reality of parenting really sets in.

We all just eventually figure it out best we can, bird by bird. Some of us mess it up so badly and so frequently that our children have their own "what not to do" stories. All of us fall short of our own expectations, sometimes daily. But what if our vague notions of how we want to parent -- in a way that relies on compassion and connection instead of threats, coercion, and demands for obedience -- are unchartered territory, not only to our extended family but even to our friends and neighbors? What then?

How do we figure out this incredibly important (and seemingly impossible) task without having role models to emulate? How do we develop not just the consciousness and intentions but the specific strategies for supporting the growth of children into independent, empathic, creative young people without resorting to threats and coercion? How do we learn to trust those strategies when no one around us is using them? Is it even possible to raise kids without blaming, punishing, guilt-tripping, screaming, and threatening them to do the right thing? These are the questions Filmmaker Ana Joanes sets out to answer in her new documentary Taking Our Places.

Having embarked, along with my partner, on a similar exploration, I was curious to learn more about the project and what Ana learned while making the film. What follows is our brief Q and A, conducted with the shared understanding that it would be posted to this blog:

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ML: Your previous film project was about the sustainable food movement, how did you decide to do a film about parenting?

Ana Joanes: When my daughter, Maayan, was almost a year and a half, I felt like I hit a brick wall. I was totally and unnervingly powerless in getting my little girl dressed! Yes, something as simple as that. I came to dread trying to get out of the house, no matter how desperate I was to do so, because it was such a struggle to get her to put her clothes on. Most of the time I would end up forcing her, and she would fight me so hard that I would be left feeling beat. Maybe being the boss was not all it was cracked up to be, but what was the alternative? How do I parent this willful little girl? I didn't want my relationship with my daughter to be defined by power-struggles!

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A friend of mine recommended a few books. I started with the thinnest one: "Parenting from Your Heart" by Inbal Kashtan. I read the whole book in one evening and was thrilled. There was a possibility of stepping out of the power struggle and instead, building trust, connection, and cooperation. BUT, the next morning, I still couldn't get my child dressed! In order to learn how to apply these principles to my daily life, I sought out [an NVC] counselor and started biweekly counseling sessions.

My counselor's commonsensical advice shook my world. For instance, Kathy pointed out how behind a NO to one thing, there's a YES to something else. What was my daughter saying YES to when she refused to get dressed? Turns out she was saying yes to choice. All I had to do was provide two pieces of clothing to my pre-verbal child, and my struggles were over!

Kathy also taught me the difference between needs and strategies. Maayan would also never agree to put her coat on, no matter how cold it was outside. Kathy helped me understand that my need was for Maayan to be healthy, and that my strategy was to put her coat on before leaving the house. Once I could see that putting the coat was just a strategy, I could imagine new ways to meet my need for Maayan to stay healthy. I could take her outside and wait for her to feel the cold and then put the coat on. Or I could bring a blanket and cover her on the stroller"

What happened next totally took me by surprise. Turns out, the book I read, the advice I was getting, the strategies that were working so well and transforming my life, were not what other people do! On the contrary, it was all pretty counter-cultural and radical, and I started getting a lot of push-back. I was warned that my child would become a bully and spoiled and that she was going to rule over me, because if I'm not in control, she is. I was told that, if I was too soft and too permissive, I would live in chaos.

That's when I decided to make a movie! Because I might not be good at getting my daughter dressed, but I'm pretty damn competent at making movies! And because this new approach to parenting totally rocked my world, it got me wondering if it might have the same effect on everyone else. So, I decided to run a little experiment and see how other families would respond"

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In Taking Our Places, I intimately follow three families as they learn and try to implement new parenting strategies. What I've learned and what I think my movie will show is that parenting is a skill that can be learned and practiced. My message is simple: no, you are not alone, and yes, there are tools out there that can really help!

There is also another reason: When I became a parent, my focus turned to my child. Filmmaking is an intense activity. It's not the kind of job you just leave behind when you leave the office. It's kind of obsessive. So I thought, if I'm going to obsess about a movie, it might as well be about what I'm already obsessing over: parenting! But I also want to say that Taking Our Places is not really about parenting, the same way FRESH was not really, or not only, about sustainable agriculture.

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Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., is a teaching associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches Psychology of Race and Ethnicity, Theories of Psychotherapy, and a graduate-level courses on restorative justice. An autobiographical essay of Mikhail's interests in race relations and basketball is available here.

Since 2009, Mikhail has been studying and working with conflict, particularly via Restorative Circles (a restorative practice developed in Brazil by Dominic Barter and associates) and other restorative responses to conflict. Together with Elaine Shpungin, he now supports schools, organizations, and workplaces in developing restorative strategies for engaging conflict, building conflict facilitation skills and evaluating the (more...)

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