Parenting with soft power

Let’s assume that you’re a parent, and that you want your child to behave. (Or eat their vegetables. Or clean their room. Etc.) How do you do it?

One standard answer is to create a system of reward and punishment. Lay out some rules, then give rewards and punishments so that your kids will follow the rules. You can do this because you have the ability to give them the things they want, or to take them away. You have “hard power” over their life, and you can use that power to enforce good behavior.

The most dramatic kind of hard power is corporal punishment (please don’t do that), but the more common kinds include really standard and familiar strategies: get good grades and you’ll get an allowance, if you skip school you’re grounded, no iPad time if you don’t clean your room, etc. The pattern is the same — do the right thing and I’ll reward you, do the wrong thing and I’ll punish you.

This approach to parenting has its merits, but I would like to argue for a different approach, one that relies on communication and a kind of emotional intimacy with your children in the place of rewards and punishments. They way it works is this: you talk to your child about what you want, and how you and other people feel about their actions. So when they misbehave, you talk openly with them about how it makes you feel sad, or angry, or disappointed. The idea is that if you do this a lot and build a relationship with your child, that relationship will make them want to respond to your feelings in a positive way, and will guide them toward better behavior. It’s a kind of “soft power.”

Now, I know this makes me sound like a touchy-feely hippie, but hear me out. I’m not advocating for removing the rules and rewards entirely, just de-emphasizing them. When your kid does something bad, the primary reaction could be “What are they feeling? What am I feeling? Let’s talk about it.” and the secondary reaction could be “We might need to make more rules.” Instead of laying down more rules first, and saving the earnest conversation about feelings until they’re in their 20s and going to therapy.

I want to clarify that “soft power” doesn’t mean using your love as a reward, and withholding your affection as punishment. Children need love no matter how they behave. What I mean is that when they behave well, you love them and are happy, and when they behave badly, you love them and are sad, frustrated, or angry. It’s not a contradiction to be angry at someone you love, you just have to express that anger in a constructive way.

You might think that “soft power” would only work for kids who are far along in their emotional development, but I would differ on that. Even with toddlers and small children, you can always talk to them about how you feel, even though they don’t totally understand. In math education, we have this idea that early exposure to an advanced concept makes it way easier to learn that concept later. If you start talking about algebra in 2nd grade, it becomes much easier to learn in 7th grade. It doesn’t matter that they won’t understand it in 2nd grade — just putting it into the air makes it easier to learn in the future. I think that idea applies here too. If you set a pattern early that misbehavior leads to honest conversations about feelings (that’s the real punishment, har har har), you’ll build a foundation for good communication and healthy relationships later in their life.

Finally, soft-power parenting is a long-term approach to good behavior, not a short-term one. It requires building a relationship and building trust, and that takes time. It might seem like a big investment, just to make your kid behave. But we should remember this good behavior is the short-term goal. In the long term we want to see our kids grow into healthy, independent, well-adjusted adults. And soft-power parenting supports this by showing children how to feel and understand the difference between right and wrong, not to just take all of their cues from authority figures.

In other words, will we raise people who will only do the right thing when the powers that be are paying attention and doling out punishments? Or will we raise people who know how to listen, reflect, and respond to collective needs in society? Which of these people will make the world a better place?

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