Pam Perkins captains a class in positive parental discipline at the newly renovated Saugerties Public Library. Perkins can personally vouch for the effectiveness of the program: she’s gone from apostle to missionary in her years studying positive parenting. “When my child was four we were having problems and I was having power struggles with him and I thought ‘If this is what it’s like when he’s four, imagine how it’s going to be when he’s sixteen.’ So I went to some parenting classes, which they don’t teach you as a social worker, about positive discipline. I started seeing results in about two weeks. I started to see positive changes in my child’s behavior; nothing perfect, just something to take the edge off, and then I ended taking all the classes, then I ended up teaching the classes, and now I train trainers for the classes and use it in my practice.”
Perkins, whose background is in social work, has years of experience in the field. “I work for Ulster County Department of Services in the NEXIS program, working with families who have experienced trauma and who’s families are disregulated, meaning that they usually have explosive anger issues or withdrawal or other behaviors that make it difficult for them to function.”
Her view on family therapy doesn’t focus on dysfunctions of particular family members. Rather, it focuses on the interaction of family members and creating a more harmonious, welcoming environment. “I would say that my focus is on the relationship in the family and the relationship between family members. I do family therapy and individual child therapy at my job, mostly using play therapy.” Perkins believes it’s not children themselves who are responsible for consternation or tension in their household — it’s a flawed style of parenting that spurs children to act out.“In my private practice, I coach parents in parenting strategies and help them improve their relationships with their children. A lot of times parents don’t have kids who want to come to therapy, and what I’ve found is the most effective, even when I work with families, I find that the thing that makes the biggest change is giving parents the tools to help their child.
“The big thing about positive parenting is that when there’s parent-child conflict, particularly in families where there is severe parent-child conflict, is that it gives the parents tools to help the children begin to listen and cooperate by creating mutual respect and by creating a situation where the parent makes sure that they act with dignity and self respect and treat the child with dignity and self respect,” says Perkins. “While they model dignity and self-respect, they make sure that they don’t accept hostile behavior from the child.”
Make no mistake, though. Despite the group’s focus on dedication to dignity and mutual respect, it’s not a new-agey love fest. The philosophy is drawn from the established concept of Adlerian psychology. “(Adlerian psychology) is based on the work of Adler, who believed, instead of Freud who believed that people had psycho sexual drives, Adler believed that people had psychosocial intentions that drive their behavior. So Freud is interested in motivation, what pulls people from the past, whereas Adler is interested in intentions where people move into the future. So it’s a very hopeful approach, because it’s not about the past –it is about trying in non-blaming, non-shaming ways to help pull children into a more positive future by giving them alternative behaviors and connecting with them while they move into the positive behaviors.
“Because we all seek belonging and significance, Adler believed that we all try to get it in mistaken ways,” she says. “So most of children’s behavior is them trying to achieve a valid goal and trying to get their needs for belonging and significance met, but they just don’t know how to do it.”
If all the jargon is a little too much for you, Pam breaks it down pretty simply with this analogy. “If you’re a person who’s nervous about going to a party, whether you’re a child or an adult, and you’re really seeking belonging and significance, and a sense of it in your life, if you’re going about trying to get these things in a mistaken way, you might to the party and drink a lot and try to be the center of attention, and you might do something that actually turns out to alienate people. You may actually completely not get what you need. If you go to the party and you’ve had the experience of knowing how to get belonging and significance, you might be the person who goes to the store and gets the extra food, you might the person who helps clean up, you might be the person who draws people out who are shy. In those ways, you actually find belonging and significance.”
In other words, Perkins’ positive form of parenting is not a quick fix. The lessons learned from these classes aren’t just parenting lessons, they’re life lessons. Parents will learn not only how to communicate more peacefully with their kids, but how to compose themselves better in difficult social situations; children will learn, from those parents, lessons that will help them compose themselves properly in their adult life.
Perkins’ next Positive Discipline Workshop will be held Friday, March 2 at the Public Library from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m., and is free of charge.