Nudging in the Right Direction

In a recent article in The New York Times, When a Parent's ‘I Love You’ Means ‘Do as I Say,’ the controversy between discipline and unconditional love was highlighted. Alfie Kohn states, “The primary message of all types of conditional parenting is that children must earn a parent’s love … In practice … unconditional acceptance by parents as well as teachers should be accompanied by ‘autonomy support’: explaining reasons for requests, maximizing opportunities for the child to participate in making decisions, being encouraging without manipulating, and actively imagining how things look from the child’s point of view.

“The last of these features is important with respect to unconditional parenting itself. Most of us would protest that of course we love our children without any strings attached. But what counts is how things look from the perspective of the children — whether they feel just as loved when they mess up or fall short.”

So often, Christians are quick to jump on the discipline trampoline. The importance of being consistent is verbally acknowledged, but oh-so-hard to stick to. The child may be left with the impression of not knowing up from down. And emotionally equally confused as to his parent’s love. This is not a discussion of discipline, but rather an attempt to nudge your thinking in the right direction. I think it important to at least consider the attachment parenting preemptive point, of making sure the child knows he is loved unconditionally. Is this the biblical model? Yes.

The fact of God’s love and character is the essence of what our faith is based upon. A child must be taught and shown this. That she can count on her parents’ love and character to always work for her good. Her experience should equal reality. How many times have you seen a parent in a grocery store act as if he almost hated the child? Now think about how it looked from the child’s perspective. That is one of the most remarkable attributes of God: He actually knows how things appear to us; He doesn’t have to guess as we do. But, we can at least take the time to analyze the child’s perspective.

This brings me to an interesting book I’ve just read: Nudge. The title provoked me, and the image entrapped me. It shows a large elephant giving a little elephant a “nudge.” While the book is primarily written from a political/economical perspective centered on libertarian paternalism and choice architecture (designing choices that help guide in the right direction), I thought the analogies to parenting quite dramatic, biblical, and encouraging.

One of the greatest human errors is to ignore someone else’s free will. One of the greatest gifts God has given man is the ability to choose. To trample on a child’s free will is just as bad as, say, trampling on a spouse’s, but we so often excuse it in the name of “discipline.” I’m not saying that the parent can’t set rules with consequences. Think of the garden of Eden. But God did leave man free to choose a tree and the consequences of that choice.

Here is where an important opportunity to nurture in the right direction is most apparent. So often, choice and consequence are separated in time. If we can nudge children to be reflective thinkers or far-sighted planners (examining future consequences or gains, e.g. brushing one’s teeth to avoid cavities, or not smoking to avoid lung cancer), rather than myopic doers or automatic reactors (I want that cupcake now), there is hope that the habit will follow them to adulthood. Here’s a chart from Nudge:

Automatic System Reflective System
Uncontrolled Controlled
Effortless Effortful
Associative Deductive
Fast Slow
Unconscious Self-Aware
Skilled Rule-Following

Look over these ideas, and decide which you want to control your child’s life both now and later. Why not give your child a head start on this path. If you make all the decisions and choices, how will he learn? You need to be involved in the process, but allow as much lib- erty as possible.

Charlotte Mason employed teaching the child the difference between “I want” and “I will.” Helping the child to become that reflective thinker that is able to discipline himself. The goal of training. At Hewitt as the student enters junior and senior high, we encourage moms to step back and allow the student to assume more and more responsibility for their education. There are consequences for not doing the work: poor grades.

Take time to think about the child you are nurturing. In what ways are you nudging, forcing, or ignoring? Wherever you come down on child discipline and rearing, you can still help nudge your student in the right direction of making good choices of her own free will, and letting her know that as Harrison Ford says in Patriot Games when asked by James Earl Jones, “What are you absolutely sure of?” “My daughter’s love.” Let’s hope your child can say the same —in reverse— when she thinks about how things appear from your perspective.

April Purtell
President of Hewitt Homeschooling


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