Book Reviews: Getting to the Heart of the Matter

When it comes to kids misbehaving, I think we homeschooling parents see more than the average parent.  We spend more time with our children and take responsibility for more of our families’ lives, so it’s inevitable that we get more parenting practice.

Don’t we all want to be a little more like Atticus in "To Kill a Mockingbird" and a little less like the Wicked Witch of the West?  We hope to be the wise parent who understands her child, who really listens and gently guides the child.

We won’t find advice for this type of parenting in most parenting books.  We do find helpful counsel in the scriptures, most pointedly at the end of D&C 121.  But sometimes it’s nice to get even more specific direction to point us toward our general goals.

I’d like to share some books that are helping me to be a better parent.  These three books all focus on one main idea:  it’s not about whether or not you love your kids.  We assume you love your kids.  It’s about whether or not your kids feel loved.

Gary Chapman’s "The Five Love Languages of Children" is the most famous of these three. This book is part of a series that teaches us how to show our love not in the way we think shows love, but to instead consider what makes the child feel loved.  Chapman describes five love languages: words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service, and physical touch.  Then he invites us to thoughtfully determine which language is the main conduit for love for each of our children.  Each language has a chapter that teaches how to use it.  For example, for words of affirmation, he shows us how to increase those words, and also shows why negative words (that we might say while disciplining) are extra-damaging to a child who receives love in that way.

In "Shepherding a Child’s Heart", Tedd Tripp teaches us how each child’s behavior comes from his heart.  Behaviors are just symptoms of what’s going on inside.  The wisest thing I learned from this book is that when a child does something “wrong,” it’s a great teaching opportunity.  So at the ward dinner when Johnny races in front of the elderly ladies to get to the front of the food line, that’s my responsibility to notice that Johnny hasn’t learned yet to consider others’ feelings or what might be expected of him in that public situation.  And that’s my window to gently teach him what to do next time.  I don’t agree with Tripp on everything, but this was a valuable insight:  misbehavior is a teaching opportunity, not a sign that the child is bad.

These first two books are a worthy introduction to the third.  Alfie Kohn’s book "Unconditional Parenting" is not for the faint of heart.  Reading anything by Kohn is intimidating because he questions so many things that are normal in our culture.  And he’s so darn convincing, that if you’re anything like me, you’ll start wishing you had done plenty of things differently.

Kohn takes on not just spanking and punishment, but also common parenting strategies like time-outs, catching your child doing something good, positive reinforcement, and even praise.  And he cites plenty of studies to back all this craziness up.  So beware:  don’t read this book expecting kudos for whatever parenting strategies you’re currently using.  Only read this book if you are interested in questioning the status quo and making positive changes.  Don’t get me wrong.  The changes you make will be positive ones, but it will probably entail letting go of engrained habits.

Kohn begins by showing that what we really mean when we say a child is “good” is that the child doesn’t cause too much trouble for us grownups.  Is that really a valuable goal for us to have for our kids--that they won’t cause trouble for people?  What do we really want for our kids long-term?  Do we want passivity and compliance?  Or would we rather have them become thoughtful people who stand up for what’s right?  If what we want is ethical, compassionate, and honorable behavior from our kids, we have to stop using parenting techniques which lead them in the opposite way.

Kohn teaches us how to show unconditional, non-judgmental love to our children.  When kids (or adults, for that matter) feel emotionally safe, they aren’t afraid to tell us if they do something wrong, and they’re more open to our teaching and advice.

I’ve had experiences with kids who refuse to talk to me, answering every question with “I don’t know.”  And I’ve also had experiences with kids being honest and unafraid to tell me about a problem they’re having.  You can guess which experience I prefer.

If you’re worried that unconditional love might be code for “the kids do whatever they want,” don’t be.  Unconditional love simply means that your love and your comfort are constant—whether the child is pleasing you at that moment or not.  When I ponder the way Heavenly Father and Jesus parent me as their child, this unconditional love is what I feel.  They have encouraged and forgiven and helped me even when—especially when—I least deserved it.  I’m forever thankful for the way they treat me, and I hope to learn how to consistently treat my kids the same way.

The kinds of relationships that we can develop with our kids when we show them the same respect we would like to receive gives us much more influence with them than we will have if we rely on rewards and punishments.  With the latter, we essentially teach them that they should always please us. But if we keep our eyes on our long-term goals for our kids, we can be less judgmental and less discouraging toward them, which will help our kids come to us when they need help and be open to our (hopefully inspired) guidance. And won’t we be better able to bring up our children in light and truth when we can teach and guide them instead of just bossing them around?

Instead of conversations that let them know only that we’re displeased, we can have conversations that help them think about how their actions affect other people, help them see what they could do differently next time, or help them learn how to repent.  This kind of heart-to-heart can happen only when the child feels emotionally safe, and only if we’re looking past the behavior into the child’s true essence.  Kohn repeatedly reminds us that behind the most destructive thing done and the most unkind word said is a vulnerable child.

Gary Chapman’s and Tedd Tripp’s books can easily be called inspiring, while to say that  Alfie Kohn is provocative is an immense understatement.  Still, we homeschoolers are investing so much time in our kids that we have an extra incentive to build good relationships and make that time positive, happy, and Spirit-filled.  And for those goals, all three of these authors have constructive ideas which are helping at least this mom become a better parent.