Thoughts About Alfie Kohn:
Excerpts from Unconditional Parenting
I (Chuck) really like Alfie Kohn and his ideas on parenting. I present here some extended excerpts from the Introduction of Unconditional Parenting on short-term and long-term parenting goals. This material is relevant to and meaningful for parents of any age. A few of my own comments follow in the Conclusion to this post.
Obedience: The Temptation to Control Children
We may be tempted to focus our energies on overcoming children’s resistance to our requests and getting them to do what we tell them. If we’re not careful, this can become our primary goal. We may find ourselves joining all those people around us who prize docility in children and value short-term obedience above all. I realized that this is what many people in our society seem to want most from children: not that they are caring or creative or curious, but simply that they are well behaved. A “good” child–from infancy to adolescence–is one who isn’t too much trouble to us grown-ups.
Over the last couple of generations, the strategies for trying to produce that result may well have changed. Where kids were once routinely subjected to harsh corporal punishment, they may now be sentenced to time-outs or, perhaps, offered rewards when they obey us. But don’t mistake new means for new ends. The goal continues to be control, even if we secure it with more modern methods.
Long-term Objectives of Parenting
In my parent workshops I like to start off asking, “What are your long-term goals for your children? What word or phrase describes how you’d like them to turn out, what you want them to be like once they’ve grown?”
Take a moment to think about how you would answer that question. When I invite groups of parents to come up with the most important long-term goals they have for their kids, I hear remarkably similar responses across the country. The list produced by one audience was typical: These parents said they wanted their children to be happy, balanced, independent, fulfilled, productive, self-reliant, responsible, functioning, kind, thoughtful, loving, inquisitive, and confident.
Is what we’re doing consistent with what we really want? Are my everyday practices likely to help my children grow into the kind of people I’d like them to be? Will the things I just said to my child at the supermarket contribute in a small way to her becoming happy and balanced and independent and fulfilled and so on–or is it possible (gulp) that the way I tend to handle such situations makes those outcomes less likely? If so, what should I be doing instead?
Today’s Parenting Books Aim at Control
More than a hundred parenting books are published in the United States every year, along with countless articles in parenting magazines, and most of them are filled with advice about how to get children to comply with our expectations, how to make them behave, how to train them as though they were pets. Many such guides also offer a pep talk about the need to stand up to kids and assert our power. This slant is reflected even in the titles of recently published books: Don’t Be Afraid to Discipline; Parents in Charge; Parent in Control; Taking Charge; Back in Control; Disciplining Your Preschooler–and Feeling Good About it; ‘Cause I’m the Mommy, That’s Why; Laying Down the Law; Guilt-Free Parenting; The Answer Is No; and on and on.
Some of these books defensively stand up for old-fashioned values and methods (“Your rear end is going to be mighty sore when your father gets home”), while others make the case for newfangled techniques (“Good job! You peed in the pot, honey! Now you can have your sticker!”). But in neither case do they press us to be sure that what we’re asking of children is reasonable–or in their best interests.
It’s also true, as you may have noticed, that many of these books offer suggestions that turn out to be ineffective, it’s much more dangerous when books never even bother to ask, “What do we mean by effective parenting techniques?” When we fail to examine our objectives, we’re left by default with practices that are intended solely to get kids to do what they’re told. That means we’re focusing only on what’s most convenient for us, not on what they need. Many experts define a successful strategy as anything that gets kids to follow directions.
The focus, in other words, is limited to how children behave, regardless of how they feel about complying with a given request, or for that matter, how they come to regard the person who succeeded in getting them to do so. The evidence suggests that even disciplinary techniques that seem to “work” often turn out be much less successful when judged by more meaningful criteria. The child’s commitment to a given behavior is often shallow and the behavior is therefore short-lived.
We might say that discipline doesn’t always help kids to become self-disciplined. But even that second objective isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It’s not necessarily better to get children to internalize our wishes and values so they’ll do what we want even when we’re not around. Trying to foster internalization–or self-discipline–may amount to an attempt to direct children’s behavior by remote control. It’s just a more powerful version of obedience. There’s a big difference, after all, between a child who does something because he or she believes it’s the right thing to do and one who does it out of a sense of compulsion.
Raising Kids to Think for Themselves
Most of us, I’m convinced, do indeed want our children to think for themselves, to be assertive and morally courageous…when they’re with their friends. We hope they’ll stand up to bullies and resist peer pressure, particularly when sex and drugs are involved. But if it’s important to us that kids not be “victims of others’ ideas,” we have to educate them “to think for themselves about all ideas, including those of adults.” Or, to put it the other way around, if we place a premium on obedience at home, we may end up producing kids who go along with what they’re told to do by people outside the home, too. Author Barbara Coloroso remarks that she’s often heard parents of teenagers complain, “He was such a good kid, so well behaved, so well mannered, so well dressed. Now look at him!” To this, she replies:
From the time he was young, he dressed the way you told him to dress; he acted the way you told him to act; he said the things you told him to say. He’s been listening to somebody else tell him what to do…He hasn’t changed. He is still listening to somebody else tell him what to do. The problem is, it isn’t you anymore; it’s his peers.
Indeed, there are pragmatic as well as moral reasons to focus on long-term goals rather than on immediate compliance, to consider what our children need rather than just what we’re demanding, and to see the whole child rather than just the behavior.
What This Book (Unconditional Parenting) Aims to Do
In this book we’ll be talking about why it makes good sense to shift away from the usual strategies for doing things to kids, and toward ways of working with them. It’s true that plenty of people, adults as well as children, are subjected to “doing to” tactics. But it won’t do to respond, “Well, that’s just the way the world is” when presented with a case against, say, using punishments and rewards to get people to fall into line. The critical question is what kind of people we want our children to be.
This is subversive stuff–literally. It subverts the conventional advice we receive about raising kids, and it challenges a shortsighted quest to get them to jump through our hoops. For some of us, it may call into question much of what we’ve been doing–and perhaps what was done to us when we were young.
The subject of this book is not merely discipline, but, more broadly, the ways we act with our children, as well as how we think about them and feel about them. Its purpose is to help reconnect you with your own best instincts and to reaffirm what really matters. It asks you to reconsider your basic assumptions about parent-child relationships, and offers practical alternatives to the tactics we’re sometimes tempted to use to make our kids behave, or to push them to succeed.
I (Chuck) hope you agree with me that these ideas are nothing less than stellar. Mr. Kohn refers to them as subversive. And indeed they are. They subvert about 75% of what is written by parenting authors. Very few authors come out as boldly and clearly as Alfie Kohn in presenting what I call a “New Schoo
l” approach to how to be a parent.
Kohn is literally asking parents to reconsider their basic assumptions about parent-child relationships. This means questioning what we learned about parenting from our own parents, and being willing to adopt new ideas, new techniques, and new values that may be radically different from what mom and dad taught us when we were in “parenting school” till age 18 or so.
Finally, while I hope you decide to purchase my own 3 Steps to Parent-Child Harmony, I certainly recommend getting Alfie Kohn’s Unconditional Parenting as well. Putting some time and energy into reading and reflecting upon these two books will point any parent who has a stressed relationship with a child in an entirely new direction–a direction that has the possibility of truly transforming stress into harmony.
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.
Learn more. Buy Now. Table of Contents & Intro