What Parents Can Learn From Prison Guards

Advice on how to ensure “voluntary compliance” from your kids—no tear gas involved – Published on Mother Jones, by Dave Gilson, June 17, 2011.

Some of the best parenting advice I’ve ever gotten was from a website for prison guards. While researching a story on prison riots, I was browsing CorrectionsOne, a site for corrections professionals whose typical stories have titles like “Mass. man escapes jail wearing only boxer shorts” and “Alternative Uses for Batons” (sorry, that one’s for sworn correctional officers only). There, amid the Taser ads and tales of prison gangs, I came across an article that changed the way I think about being a dad.

The article, “7 things never to say to anyone, and why”, listed common statements used by prison guards and police officers and explained why they make people do the exact opposite of what they’re being told to do. The seven things were: 

  • 1. “Hey you! Come here!”
  • 2. “Calm down!”
  • 3. “I’m not going to tell you again!”
  • 4. “Be more reasonable!”
  • 5. “Because those are the rules!”
  • 6. “What’s your problem?”
  • 7. “What do you want me to do about it?”

If you’ve ever been a child or have your own, you undoubtedly recognize those as the greatest hits of the pissed-off parent. As the father of three kids under five, I’ve probably said some variation of each of these phrases dozens, if not hundreds, of times … //

… Thankfully, as a parent, you don’t have the recourse to violence that prison guards do. But when you screw up, things can devolve into a Stanford Prison Experiment-type situation: a feedback loop where everyone assumes oppositional roles that feed the tension and conflict.

That’s why, whenever my kids and I have a failure to communicate, I try to think of the advice contained in Thompson’s list of seven things not to say to anyone. Its overall lesson is this: No matter how mad or frustrated you are, you can—and should—communicate in a way that conveys respect and empathy. While such courtesy may feel like a concession of authority, it is actually the best way to keep control of the situation. If you stay calm, your kids are more likely to cool down. (Bonus points if you acknowledge their feelings and explain the consequences of their behavior.) If you escalate, your kids are likely to get even more defensive or obstinate. And that will probably prompt you do something futile, like shouting “Be quiet!” or making elaborate threats you either have to follow through with or lose face. “Natural language”—what our gut tells us to say—”is disastrous,” writes Thompson.

Easier said than done, right? Admittedly, doing some Verbal Judo on your kids would probably a lot simpler if you looked and sounded like Doc “Rhino,” a barrel-chested guy with a shaved head and a raspy voice caused by a bout of throat cancer. (Sadly, Thompson died unexpectedly last week at the age of 69.) But in my sporadic application of his strategies, I’ve been pleasantly surprised. My kids don’t always react with “voluntary compliance,” but I feel a lot better about how I’m treating them, even if inwardly I’m not feeling like the equanimous dad I aspire to be.

Is it weird subjecting your kids to communication strategies designed to talk down angry convicts? I don’t think so. In fact, it’s striking how much overlap there is between Thompson’s message and that of Positive Discipline, a parenting philosophy that shuns traditional yell-and-punish techniques for a more touchy-feely approach in which parents try to understand the emotions behind kids’ actions. Both are based on the idea that empathy and steadiness aren’t mutually exclusive. As Jane Nelson, one of the advocates of Positive Discipline, states, “If you’re being too kind without being firm, you’re probably being too permissive. And if you’re being firm without being kind, you’re probably being controlling and disrespectful.” Or as Thompson succinctly puts it, “Polite civility can be a weapon of immense power!” (full text).

Comments are closed.