Honey, I Wrecked the Kids: a guide to democratic parenting

Linda Stone recently handed me a copy of Honey, I Wrecked the Kids: When Yelling, Screaming, Threats, Bribes, Time-outs, Sticker Charts and Removing Privileges All Don't Work, a 2009 book by Adlerian family therapist Alyson Schafer.

Honey, I Wrecked the Kids is a book about parenting without bribes or punishments. Schafer says that training kids to respond to either form of coercion puts them at risk of growing up to be pushovers or bullies, and suggests that the real trick to happy parenting is to find ways of working with your kids that get them to want to "behave" at home and school.

(Incidentally, Linda told me that she mostly hands out copies of this book to managers who are struggling to deal with their employees, as a way to getting people motivated without threatening or bribing them)

I found the book to be genuinely inspiring. Though Schafer's writing style is given to flourishes that I didn't think much of (she has an unfortunate tendency to sprinkle in vernacular flourishes that come across as hokey to my eye), her advice couldn't be better or more clearly stated.

First, she sets out a system for interpreting "misbehavior" and understanding whether your kid is upset because she wants attention, revenge, confidence, or to hide away from things. Interestingly, the method for figuring out what's going on mostly involves examining your reaction, as a parent — the unconscious patterns that you fall into when your kids do things that upset you tells you a lot about what reaction they're hoping to elicit.

Next, she sets out a course of behaviors for defusing bad behaviors and inspiring good ones: allowing your kids to make mistakes and learn from the natural consequences of risky behavior, creating logical consequences for other behaviors (no dinner if you won't sit down at dinner time, but not because we're punishing you — because that's when dinner is), and turning confrontations into negotiations.

Finally, Schafer describes a kind of democratic routine for kids and parents that encourages group decision-making and compromise. Starting from a very early age, she advocates quick weekly family meetings, with formal agendas (at first, the agenda is just, "What was great this week" and "What fun thing should we do this weekend?" but it builds to encompass old business, new business, major projects, chore allocation, etc), chaired by kids and adults. I grew up in free schools and open summer camps where this kind of quick and friendly meeting was a regular touchstone, and I find I miss it. I'm looking forward to trying this at home.

Honey, I Wrecked the Kids: When Yelling, Screaming, Threats, Bribes, Time-outs, Sticker Charts and Removing Privileges All Don't Work