Why Coercive Parenting Doesn’t Work

**************** This is a guest post written by Roslyn Ross ****************

Being a mom is the best job I have ever had, but I am very careful to never think of it as a job. Because here’s the thing: jobs come with job descriptions, the goal to complete the job and the desire to do a good job. These three things destroy relationships. Here’s why:

Close your eyes and picture Good Parents doing a Good Job. Are they reading to their kids? Doing math? Providing their child with memorable holidays and birthdays? Making sure their child eats healthy meals?

It doesn’t matter what “the job” is. It’s the fact that there is a job that is the problem. You see, when we have a job to accomplish, when we have a list of things to do and we have to get them done (we have to get our kid to sleep, get him to eat, get him to apologize) the psychology of accomplishing a job is all about the person doing the accomplishing. The other person is being accomplished upon. The other person is either the thing that is helping us accomplish our job or the thing that is not helping us accomplish our job.  The other person is objectified.

For example, when my kid doesn’t want to eat his vegetables, it’s upsetting to me because he is not helping me accomplish my job of being a good mom. My psychology becomes—what is the best way to get him to do what I want him to do?

This way of thinking turns parenting into a long, exhausting battle. Most parenting books are battle strategy books in reward and punishment, known among psychologist as “external control psychology”. This psychology rests on the premise that humans can be trained, just like Skinner’s rats: “Punish the people who are doing wrong, so they will do what we say is right; then reward them, so they keep doing what we want them to do.”

It’s often hard to understand why external control psychology doesn’t work because it looks like it does. You can reward and punish your children into losing weight, getting good grades, being good athletes, going to law school, being anything… But you can’t force them to be genuinely happy with their lives. You can’t make them live authentic lives. You can’t make your children genuinely like you.

William Glasser, who wrote a book called Choice Theory on why coercive relationships don’t work, says: “The vast majority of unhappiness [in the parent-child relationship] is the result of well-intentioned parents trying to make children do what they don’t want to do. It is so hard for people, especially parents, to accept how limited they are in what they can do when they are dissatisfied with how their children are behaving. They are limited to controlling their own behavior. Few of us [parents] are prepared to accept that it is our attempts to control that destroys the only thing we have with our children that gives us some control over them, our relationship.”

This is true of any relationship: “It is our attempts to control that destroys the only thing we have with anyone that gives us some control over them… our relationship.”

The other thing about “job thinking” is that whenever I am trying to accomplish a job with my son, I am not present. Which means, I am not genuinely happy. When we turn a relationship into a job, we do what we have been told is required for us to do a “good” job. Which means we start doing all these things we don’t actually want to do–and at first we pat ourselves on the back and think “I am such a good mom!” but after a while we start to feel like being a good mom is a huge obligation, a chore, a long list of things to do. It’s not fun anymore. And we start to resent our children.

The reason being a Good Mom is so unfulfilling is that we are following a pre-written “script.” We’re not present. We’re learning or discovering or growing and without growth there is no life.

Henry David Thoreau published a rather well known book called Walden in 1854. It’s a true story about how he wanted to build a cabin in the woods to discover himself and what life was all about for him. His neighbors thought he was a little weird but that was what he wanted to do, so he did it.

What he learned and wrote about is that the secret of life is following your heart: whatever weird ideas you have, whatever fascinates you, whatever brings you joy or peace, follow it. It will take you on a magical journey.

Many people who read Walden think that what Thoreau was trying to say is that the secret to life is leaving society and living in a cabin in the woods. This is a misunderstanding. “You must advance confidently in the direction of your dreams,” he said.

Whether it’s: this is what a nursery looks like, this is what a good mom looks like, this is what a good childhood looks like—our internal job descriptions that we did not write have tremendous power over us.

So I whenever I notice myself thinking that “I just gotta get my son do x, y or z” I catch myself. Am I present? Do I actually want this or am I trying to be someone else’s version of a good mom? Because the truth is that there is no such thing as “a good mom.” There is just this relationship that I have with my son and I can be present for it or not.


Roslyn has been working with children for twenty years, ten of which were spent working for the extremely wealthy and often famous families of Beverly Hills. She has read over 400 books on parenting, child psychology, relationship psychology, the history of child care and family life, child care around the world, philosophy and physical health. She writes and lectures on parenting and has just opened a highly innovative child care center and school. In her free time she enjoys making short “edutainment” videos for YouTube.

Find more from her here:

YouTube Channel: Roslyn Ross

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Image courtesy of Sura Nualpradid / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

4 thoughts on “Why Coercive Parenting Doesn’t Work”

  1. This is a great article! I often feel under pressure to control my child to do things when I am outside the house because of other people and what they will think of me, but whenever we re at home , I feel much more relaxed and I go with the flow and my toddler and I get on very well. Isn t it crazy that we would battle and risk the our relationship with our children because of that mainstream non sense. Thanks for that article and for reminding me, it will make me feel more confident next time I feel I am not “being a good mum” in public.

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