I Tried the Buzzy Trend of ‘Collaborative Parenting’ and Had to Fight All My Natural Instincts

what is collaborative parenting
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Like many a modern mom, I obsess over the way we parent—i.e., often alone, usually exhausted (see: no sleep), with infinite love but finite patience (see: shoes off in parking lot, coat off in blizzard, pants off in the diner, etc.). Lately, I am also stuck in an uncomfortable loop of threatening and bribing my way through a typical day’s many transitions (I spent $60 on glitter slime last week. SOS). Thus, I am forever searching for smart skills to add to my kid-raising repertoire.

Enter the concept of “Collaborative Parenting.” As UC Santa Cruz psychologist Barbara Rogoff explains to NPR: “We think of obedience from a control angle. Somebody is in charge and the other one is doing what they are told because they have to. People think either the adult is in control or the child is in control.” But in examining other cultures, Rogoff sees alternative approaches. In some places outside the U.S., “It’s kids and adults together accomplishing a common goal. It's not letting the kids do whatever they want. It's a matter of children—and parents—being willing to be guided.”

Of course, most experts agree kids still need limits, boundaries and routines. As Pulitzer Prize-winning author and mom of three grown kids Anna Quindlen once put it: “When children are small, parents should run their lives and not the other way around. Choices are much too confusing for them: It’s not, ‘What do you want to drink?’ It’s ‘Apple juice or milk?’ You want to have fun with your kids, and no one has fun with someone who runs roughshod. Raising a child is a little like Picasso’s work; in the beginning he did very conventional representational things. Cubism came after he had the rules down pat. Children should have enough freedom to be themselves—once they’ve learned the rules.” But a new school of thought has emerged about what to do when kids inevitably break those rules. Punishment is out. Collaboration is in.

In a story called “Why the Old Way of Parenting No Longer Works,” CNN’s Elisa Strauss clarifies: “The key to getting today's children to behave is forgoing the fear-based methods of yesteryear and helping them learn how to self-regulate instead.” How exactly? “Problem solving instead of punishment is now seen as key to successful discipline,” writes author Katherine Lewis in her viral essay “What If Everything You Knew About Disciplining Kids Was Wrong?” “After all,” adds Lewis, “what good does it do to punish a child who literally hasn’t yet acquired the brain functions required to control his behavior?”

Per Lewis and other experts, here’s what to do instead: Start by taking a deep breath and slowing everything down. Then talk through what’s motivating your child’s behavior. Then, together, come up with solutions—or natural consequences. Did your daughter cover her little brother’s mouth with her hand while he was trying to speak because she is impossibly rude, or because she was afraid she’d forget what she wanted to say? You might brainstorm strategies for how she can hold onto her thoughts the next time (write it down, keep it in an imaginary thought bubble above her head, etc.) instead of interrupting. Is your son refusing to participate in a classroom activity because he is not cut out for academic challenges, or because at that particular time of day, he is distracted by hunger? Solving behavioral problems may be as simple as offering a snack. The goal is to identify and meet a child’s needs as an ally, not control and punish undesirable behavior as an adversary. And repeat.

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To be honest, much of this chafes against a voice in my head (a voice that sounds suspiciously like my husband’s), insisting, We don’t negotiate with terrorists. I also know plenty of great, loving parents who threaten to take toys away, or withhold screen time or dessert in an effort to curb “bad” behavior. Still, one of “Toddler Whisperer” Tovah Klein’s cardinal rules is to “Listen to children instead of always talking at and directing them.” I want to model kindness and patience. I want to be effective and empathetic. I hate punishing. I desperately love my children. So I took this collaborative approach to the streets of my living room. Here’s how the methods held up.

When Collaborating Worked:

My six-year-old was peacefully playing with Legos before bed. But we are fanatical about early bedtimes, and the clock was ticking. I brought out a book and said I was ready to read to him (Bedtime Ritual Step 1). He continued to play happily, ignoring me completely. Normally, when faced with this conundrum, I’d be at a crossroads: In one direction lies exasperation. I get louder and more forceful, and throw in an abstract threat if he doesn’t comply (‘Go to bed now or no dessert tomorrow!’). Down the other road? Bribery. I mentally fumble around for something to entice him into bed (an extra book, two bonus lullabies, a chocolatey breakfast the next morning). Instead, this time, I sought to collaborate. I offered him a choice, à la Quindlen’s ‘apple juice or milk?’ I said, “OK, you can either play for two more minutes and then go straight to bed without a book, or you can stop playing now and come listen to the book before bed.” He responded instantly: “Stop playing now and listen to the book.” Then, just as I was internally celebrating, he added: “Just let me do one last thing. I just need to put on this guy’s helmet and find the right sword.” He continued to play, and I’m quite sure would have done so until dawn. But, we had a deal. So rather than continue to beg or harangue him, I simply started reading. He zoomed right over and sat in my lap. The rest of bedtime was silky smooth.

The next morning, cocky with collaborative confidence, I tried out my new skills out on my daughter. Tiny and so cute that strangers stop her on the street, she is a textbook threenager, who can turn simple tasks like buckling a carseat into 15-minute power struggles. She’d spent the morning with her fingers in our dog’s mouth, so before breakfast, I asked her to please wash her hands. She blew right past me, on a mission to turn the couch cushions into a rocket ship. So I looked her in the eye and asked her which foamy soap she’d prefer to use, presenting one as “Cherry” and the other as “Peppermint.” I simply did not offer her the option to opt out. She chose to mix them together to make “purple.” Collaborating: 1. Bacteria: 0.

When Collaborating Went Out the Window:

Anytime they fought. My son pushed my daughter because she asked “annoying” questions. My daughter lunged, full body, like a mountain lion, onto my son, for daring to share my cuddles at bedtime. When the going got rough (literally), all my intentions to collaborate—to examine, identify, discuss and resolve undesired behavior—got buried under spiking cortisol and waves of emotion. I raged, criticized, forced disingenuous apologies, and later felt gutted with guilt. It seems my own self-regulation is like skin care; it requires constant effort and maintenance, lest I turn into a hideous hag.

Conclusion: Collaborating is good! It works better with older children and requires patient parents. No mom or dad enjoys feeling like a drill sergeant (Sit down at the table! Clothes in the hamper! Get in the car NOW.) Collaborating offers everyone a more nurturing break from all that bossy business. It restores for kids a sense of control over their own lives. Desirable behavior naturally follows. But Collaborative Parenting does not mean a free-for-all. Rather, it’s Quindlen’s version of offering choices within boundaries. It means respecting kids rather than dominating them, while still moving them toward a necessary goal. Trying it (and failing at it) reminded me that in parenting, at least for me, process counts more than product. As Quindlen also wrote, looking back at raising her now-grown kids: “I wish I had not been in such a hurry to get on to the next thing: dinner, bath, book, bed. I wish I had treasured the doing a little more and the getting it done a little less.” Collaborative Parenting is a choice we can make when we manage to remember that how we do it matters more than getting it done.