Everyone wants success for their children as adults. Wouldn’t formulas that tell us how to get that for them or how to set them up for it be helpful? I ran across a commentary about parenting that reminds us that there are no formulas or recipes, only principles. To parent all you need to do is learn guiding principles, apply them wisely, let someone help you stay true to the principles and you might just get what you want. Of course those principles are going to depend on your cultural experience, the opportunities and resources available to you, and values that you hold true.

David Brooks wrote a commentary in reaction to on Amy Chua’s her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. At the end of the commentary, the entire blogging world entered the debate. Dr. Chua has it all figured out. She has it all wrong. She is abusive. She is preparing her daughters for a success filled life. She is denying them the opportunity to learn to be successful. I guess depending on which side one stands of the metaphorical “barn” that represents all of her ideas of parenting everybody is right and everybody is wrong. The commentators point that out well.

I have given a lot of thought to motivation and child development. I am going to get behind the data to say that if a parent is successful their child will leave them and find a path that brings that child a level of personal, financial, and social success. Of course, some kids have a whole lot more advantages than other kids. Some kids can count on being launched from a platform of privileged education and training opportunities but that is a whole different issue.

I just want to talk about child development and adult motivation for success. A couple of years ago I ran into another commentary in the New York Times that had me scrambling for more information. Below I have pasted my response to that commentary. It is long and only addresses some of my reaction to all the comments I read in Mr. Brooks page. Still, I think that main points are important.

What’s a parent to do?
Parents love their children and they want to be heard about the challenges that they face in raising children. The last thing parents need is an article that oversimplifies research on development or one that make blanket statements about parenting behaviors that are bad or good without speaking to the challenges. A recent column in The New York Times, (Science Health, Alfie Kohn, 9/15/09), reported on a research study published in Developmental Psychology by a team of researchers (Guy Roth, Avi Assor, Christopher P. Niemiec, Richard M. Ryan, and Edward L. Deci). The study Mr. Kohn reported on was by Dr. Roth and his colleagues and it examined parenting behavior and child outcomes. Mr. Kuhn’s article claimed that using rewards and withdrawing attention from children had no place in helping children develop the motivation to manage strong emotions or pursue academic success. Mr. Kohn’s summary of the study, however, was grossly inaccurate by an act of omission.

Kohn correctly summarized some of the findings of Roth and colleagues’ study. Namely, college-age students, who recalled their parents to use praise and positive attention to reward them for coping with strong emotions and not having outbursts and for performing well in school, were more likely to feel their parents loved or appreciated them more if they hid their fear or performed better in school. The use of rewards, thus, might risk making children feel alienated and rejected by parents. These results lend support to Kohn’s thesis that unconditional love is the only way to keep your child out of therapy.

There is more: As a clinician, a researcher in violence prevention, and a parent, the article gave me pause. All parents want to help their child to be safe and succeed, which means ensuring that their child behaves in a manner that will lead to academic and career success and socially acceptable behavior – including managing anger. To do this, parents must find ways to convince children to do things that children often do not want to do, such as, going to school, brushing their teeth, eating balanced meals in chairs at tables, going without the latest gadget marketed to them, putting up with a younger sibling who cries or hits, and so on.

Are we to believe that ignoring a four-year child in the midst of meltdown over her favorite fork being in the dirty dishwasher and not on the table is significantly harmful? It is a clear withdrawal of attention for an undesirable behavior and therefore conditional. Should parents all avoid setting up a reward chart by which a school-age child can earn a much desired toy or book because the practice is coercive and will punish them into acts of deception that they will nurture into resentments against their parent? If parents give up all techniques of reward or mild punishment (e.g. short withdrawal of attention), how will parents effectively shape children into independent adults?

The answer to that question was addressed in the same article by Dr. Roth and his colleagues in a different study that was not presented by Mr. Kohn. The second study showed that children who believe their parents will validate and negotiate the child’s expectations and reason with their child were more likely to have emotional and academic success in college. Moreover, parents who modeled – that is acted in ways that were consistent with academic achievement and attention to emotional needs – were also more likely to have success. A more accurate summary of Dr. Roth and colleagues body of research beyond this one article is that parental use of reinforcement to support consistent rules when parents also give children a voice to question, clarify, and sometimes modify rules while the parents model the behavior they are reinforcing predicts the most successful outcome. Thus, college students in the recent study who reported that while they were growing up they observed their parents to study information and keep their cool when frustrated had better friendships and more school success.

Contrary to Mr. Kohn’s editorial, there is a large body of research, as well as generations of collective wisdom of parents, that demonstrates successful child development depends on parents’ ability to effectively enforce limits and reinforce positive behavior. Parents can get compliance from kids using rewards, but if parents fail to demonstrate consistent attention to the experiences of the child in a manner that the child appreciates, the child will more likely experience resentment and a sense of compulsion. Such parenting practices predict better child adjustment when these practices are based on individually-appropriate requests, backed up with reasons because this gives a child the perception of choice and validates her emotional experience. This is an important demonstration of loving and responding children while maintaining a clear set of boundaries and expectations. Unconditional love, affection, and respect in coordination with conditionally rewarded behavior supports children and families to live successfully.

Many many parents work diligently and creatively to find a way to support their child in making effective choices. Parent devise and manipulate the world so that their child practices behaviors that allow her to share living space, time, and treasures effectively long before she is ready to understand that being timely is essential when you are all grown up and need a job, a spouse, or a friend. One would be hard pressed to find young child who thinks that is a good enough reason to “behave.”