Thoughts about Alfie Kohn’s “Unconditional Parenting”
Comments by Chuck Adam
about Alfie Kohn’s Unconditional Parenting
I was first introduced to Alfie Kohn when I read one of his earlier books, Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes (1993). The theme of that book was that rewarding people for good behavior is a mistake, because in the long run rewards actually hinder (instead of helping) people do their best. That’s because rewards distract the performer from the intrinsic reward of living and performing responsibly in school and in the workplace. Superficial extrinsic rewards cheapen the work and encourage the performer to do less well by sloughing off once the reward is earned. His ideas struck me as somewhat radical, but they also made sense.
So, when I saw his book Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason (2005), I knew it would be thoughtful and challenging. One of the subtitles on the cover calls it “A Provocative Challenge to the Conventional Wisdom About Discipline.” It is just that, with a great deal of persuasive thinking, lots of examples, quotations from other authors, and tons of citations to research on parent-child interactions as well as behavioral motivations in children and adults over the past thirty years.
The dominant theme of the book is Kohn’s constant insistence that power and control parenting techniques–that is, bribes, rewards, threats, and punishments (including love withdrawal)–do more than just miss the mark when it comes to raising caring and responsible children. They actually damage kids because they teach, encourage, and fuel children’s resentment, resistance, rebellion, and low self-esteem. These qualities are just the opposite of what almost all parents want to encourage in their children by using power and control methods of discipline.
There are many reasons why so many of us tend to parent this way, Kohn says. They include these: that’s how we were raised; that’s what we see most other people do; our beliefs (about kids, people, God, motivation, competition, and other things) tend to support our desire to take the easy (but more primitive) route; and by behaving this way as parents we can feel better about ourselves when we can pressure kids into doing what we want. Ultimately, he says, these reasons all boil down to one overriding reason: fear. The specific things we fear are: parental inadequacy, powerlessness, being judged by others, children getting hurt; babying our children; and being permissive. The end result of parenting from a position of fear is conditional parenting: we love, accept, and nurture our children mainly on the condition that they conform to our desires and thus make us feel good about ourselves. He says the fact that so many parents seem to accept their children only conditionally doesn’t make that practice any less damaging or any more acceptable.
What all children need is just the opposite: unconditional parenting, or love without strings attached. They need to know we love them unconditionally, at all times, no matter what they do–when they fail, goof up, make mistakes, cause us problems, get angry with us, and….always. No matter what. How do we do this? Kohn suggests we start by being mindful of the whole question of unconditionality, asking ourselves often, “If what I just said or did had been done to me, would I feel loved unconditionally?” No matter what is happening we have to not only keep accepting them, but we have to let them know we still accept them. Of course, we’ll fail at times.
But our objective should be to come as close as possible to this ideal: that we accept and love our children for who they are, with no strings attached, and that we communicate that to them.
He suggests that we minimize criticism, giving orders, praise, rewards, punishments, threats, and other forms of withdrawing our love. Instead we should maximize sending messages of unconditional acceptance, which is not only something that all children deserve, but also a powerfully effective way to help them become nicer people. He says that a reliance on punishments (including time-out and other forms of love withdrawal) and rewards (including positive reinforcement) makes it much less likely that children will feel loved unconditionally.
This practice is not achievable through a specific technique, Kohn says, but rather it consists of many things discussed in the latter half of the book, which he summarizes as three specific ways: expressing unconditional love, giving children more chances to make decisions, and imagining how things look from the child’s point of view.
He identifies the following principles of unconditional parenting, each of which has practical implications that are far more challenging than they sound on the surface.
- Be reflective.
- Reconsider your requests.
- Keep your eye on your long-term goals.
- Put the relationship first.
- Change how you are, not just how you act.
- Be authentic.
- Talk less, ask more.
- Keep their ages in mind.
- Attribute to children the best possible motive consistent with the facts.
- Don’t stick your no’s in unnecessarily.
- Don’t be rigid.
- Don’t be in a hurry.
A thoughtful, reflective reading of this book will provide the reader with a goldmine of insights and a very well-reasoned game plan for improving one’s parenting attitudes and skills. It goes far beyond the typical power and control tactics that many parenting experts advise. I rank this one right up there with the “cream of the crop”: the masterpieces by Haim Ginnott (Between Parent and Child), Thomas Gordon (Parent Effectiveness Training and Discipline That Works), John Gottman (Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child), and Jane Nelsen (her Positive Discipline series).
3 Steps to Parent-Child Harmony is my book that describes in detail the differences between the Old School Parenting model and the New School Parenting model. Please see these links if you are interested in more information or wish to purchase.