Mimi's Reviews > Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason

Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn
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Apr 08, 2010

it was amazing
bookshelves: adult, parenting

Wow. Well, this book really turned parenting on its head for me. I think my favorite part about this book is that it has forced me to be more aware of how I parent instead of just doing things without thinking of why I am doing them.

I recommend this book for all parents. Whether you end up agreeing with everything or not, I definitely think it is worth the read.

This book has made me consider my long-term goals for my children, to look past trying to force them to clean up the mess of their toys and think about what kind of people I want to help them to be five, ten, twenty, fifty years from now.

Essentially it seems to come down to whether the most important characteristic I want my child to have is instant obedience or independence/the ability to make good decisions independent from me.

The author also encourages parents to focus on the child rather than the child's behavior.

Perhaps the most important thing this book has made me realize is that I have been (up to this point) a pretty controlling parent. I've recognized it through the author's writing and then by watching how Jill tries to control Danny. She's doing the exact same things I do with her.

The author gives good advice on parents who want to have children who do what is right because they understand that it is morally right rather than children who do what is right because they are afraid of getting punished for doing what is wrong and rather than children who do what is right because they want to receive the reward for doing what is right.

The author also fights against the assumption that children are inherently bad or always trying to get away with things or trying to make a parent's life more difficult or if given the opportunity to take an inch would grab a mile.

He also addressed a fear that I hadn't really realized that I had: the fear of being judged as a parent. Well, perhaps I realized I had it but hadn't realized how it affected my parenting.

One of my new goals is to not overreact to what my children do, but to find out why they decided to do it. To find out how they are feeling and why they did it rather than just punish or reward the actions.

I also need to remember that just because a child's actions may annoy me does not mean that the child's intention is to annoy me. It may have nothing to do with me at all. I need to always attribute the best intentions to my children and find out the whys behind their behavior.

The author also challenges us to think of what mood we are usually in when we are with our children. Are we usually happy, smiling, forgiving, and patient? Or are we surly, unforgiving, and rough?

"A more specific example of everyday behaviorism: Perhaps you've met parents who force their children to apologize after doing something hurtful or mean. ('Can you say you're sorry?') Now, what's going on here? Do the parents assume that making children speak this sentence will magically produce in them the feeling of being sorry, despite all evidence to the contrary? Or, worse, do they not even care whether the child really is sorry, because sincerity is irrelevant and all that matters is the act of uttering the appropriate words? Compulsory apologies mostly train children to say things they don't mean—that is, to lie."

"My advice is to make a point of apologizing to your child about something at least twice a month. Why twice a month? I don't know. It sounds about right to me. (Almost all the specific advice in parenting books is similarly arbitrary. At least I admit it.)

"There are two reasons to apologize: First, it sets a powerful example. I noted earlier that it makes no sense to force children to say they're sorry when they're not. A far more effective way to introduce them to the idea of apologizing is to show them how it's done. Second, apologizing takes you off your perfect parenting pedestal and reminds them that you're fallible. In fact, it shows them that it's possible to acknowledge (to ourselves and others) that we make mistakes, and that things are sometimes our fault, without losing face or feeling hopelessly inadequate."

"The dominant problem with parenting in our society isn't permissiveness, but the fear of permissiveness. We're so worried about spoiling our kids that we often end up overcontrolling them. Granted, some kids are spoiled—and some kids are neglected. But the issue that's much less commonly discussed is the epidemic of micromanaging children, acting as though they were wholly owned subsidiaries of us. Thus, one critical question, . . . is how we can offer guidance and set limits (both of which are necessary) without overdoing the control."

"As parents, we need to be involved in and aware of the details of our children's lives. Nothing in this book should be interpreted as an argument for sitting back and letting children raise themselves. We might say it's our job to be 'in control,' in the sense of creating a healthy and safe environment, offering guidance, and setting limits—but it's not our job to be 'controlling,' in the sense of demanding absolute obedience or relying on pressure of continuous regulation. . . . The goal is empowerment rather than conformity, and the methods are respectful rather than coercive. There may be times when some control, in the usual sense, is unavoidable, and here the trick is indeed to avoid overdoing it."

"For the last couple of decades, books by mental health professionals and other authors have been warning us that children are being hurried and pressured and overscheduled. A study published in 2002 found disturbingly high rates of drinking (especially among boys) and depression (especially among girls) among suburban eleven- and twelve-year olds. The researchers pointedly traced those symptoms to the fact that these kids were already being led to concentrate on getting into top-ranked colleges. Furthermore, seventh-graders who reported that their parents placed a lot of emphasis on academic achievement were likely to show signs of distress and 'maladaptive perfectionism.' Those problems were far less common among their classmates whose parents were more concerned about their children's well-being than about their achievement. . . . As the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm once lamented, 'Few parents have the courage and independence to care more for their children's happiness than for their success.'"

This author refutes the idea that "human nature is to do as little as necessary." He maintains that "it's hard to stop happy, satisfied people from trying to learn more about themselves and the world, or from trying to do a job of which they can feel proud. The desire to do as little as possible is an aberration, a sign that something is wrong. . . . Someone who has a core of faith in himself and an underlying conviction that he's a good person doesn't thereby become more likely to sit around and do nothing. . . . People who know they're loved irrespective of their accomplishments often end up accomplishing quite a lot. Being accepted without conditions helps them to develop a healthy confidence in themselves, a sense that it's safe to take risks and try new things. From deep contentment comes the courage to achieve."

We need to be able to ask ourselves this question: "It is possible that what I just did with [my children] had more to do with my needs, my fears, and my own upbringing than with what's really in their best interests?" "Our main question shouldn't be 'How do I get my child to do what I say?' but 'What does my child need—and how can I meet those needs?'"

"Here's a very unsettling possibility: Perhaps when your child doesn't do what you're demanding, the problem isn't with the child but with what it is you're demanding. It's remarkable how few books written for parents even raise this possibility. The vast majority of them take whatever their readers want their kids to do as the point of departure, and then offer techniques for getting compliance. . . . One recent book, for example, stresses the importance of becoming more responsive and more skillful at win-win negotiation. I found the specific ideas useful and the general approach refreshingly humane. But in offering advice to parents who had asked how to get their kids to make their beds or eat their vegetables, the author seems not to have considered the possibility that these objectives might be problematic. If we're giving children reasonable healthy meals, is it ever necessary to force them to eat something? And why does the only place in the world that is truly a child's own have to be maintained according to the parent's standards?"

At times it is common to assume that children are "testing our limits." "This is a very popular phrase in the discipline field and it's often used as justification for parents to impose more, or tighter, limits. Sometimes the assumption that kids are testing us even becomes a rationalization for punishing them. But my suspicion is that, by misbehaving, children may be testing something else entirely—namely, the unconditionality of our love. Perhaps they're acting in unacceptable ways to see if we stop accepting them. Our response has to be a stubborn refusal to take the bait. We must reassure them: 'No matter what you do, no matter how frustrated I get, I will never, never, never stop loving you.'"

"The way kids learn to make good decisions is by making decisions, not by following directions."

"How do we raise our children to be happy? That's an important question, but here's another one: How do we raise our children to be concerned about whether other people are happy? It's important that we don't allow the first issue to upstage the second—or, for that matter, that we don't spend more energy trying to get kids to be polite and well behaved than on trying to help them become genuinely compassionate and committed to doing the right thing."

"Better than yelling is telling. Better than telling is explaining. . . Better than explaining . . . is discussing."

"Remember—your ultimate goal isn't to get your way. Rather, you want to let your child know that she doesn't have to argue as well as you do in order to be taken seriously, and you want to help her learn how to frame her arguments more convincingly."

"One pair of researchers found that when mothers tended to impose their will on infants in the manner described in the Stayton study—that is, when they were more likely to 'disrupt the baby's ongoing activity rather than adapting to the timing and quality of [their] interventions and initiations to the baby's state, mood, and current interests'—the children were significantly more likely to be raised as hyperactive when they were five or six years old."

"Edward Deci put it this way: 'When people want only happiness, they can actually undermine their own development because the quest for happiness can lead them to suppress other aspects of their experience. . . . The true meaning of being alive is not just to feel happy, but to experience the full range of human emotions.'"
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Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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message 1: by Sara (new)

Sara Richins Sounds like I would agree with this author on a lot of things. I have especially been appalled at the notion that human nature is to do as little as possible. Is it not in our eternal nature to seek to grow and expand our knowledge and abilities? I especially relate to the maladaptive perfectionism and have traced the roots to particular parenting habits related to being too quick to correct, not taking time to understand why I was making a poor choice (like telling a lie because I was scared of getting spanked and feeling unloved or unaccepted because of the mistake). In general, I have been against parenting books because I do not feel they correspond with gospel principles, but I may actually give this one a chance. Thanks for the recommendation!


Mimi The author does have about a paragraph that is against the God of the Old Testament's parenting practices, but all in all, I did feel like it is in line. I mean, we do want our children to obey the commandments, but we want them to obey them because they've thought about it, know the reasons, and then decided to on their own. Otherwise they won't be strong enough to withstand anything that comes their way.


Esther Yeah, I ended up buying the book because I wanted to be able to re-read it and underline things in it. Also because of all the quotes from it that I put on post-it notes placed all around my home to help me to remember to be a more mindful parent and how to do that. I don't agree whole-heartedly with everything but has made me a better parent. I'm so glad you read it...I often feel a little lonely trying to parent along these lines.


Mimi I'm glad you found it and recommended it, because it really has changed how I parent. Before I just did, you know, what everyone else did as a parent without really thinking about why or whether it was effective. It was just "what was done." It is definitely more time consuming to find out why Jill is doing something that to just put her in time out for a while though! But it's worth it. And her responses have been interesting. Apparently it makes her feel happy to pee her pants. That's a direct quote. Sigh. :)


message 5: by A. (new)

A. The thing for me with parenting books is they don't address my most dire moments as a parent, for example, when Hallie woke up from a nap in a bad mood and would not stop kicking Hanna, and I couldn't get Hanna to walk away from Hallie because she was crying too hard (Hallie was kicking her in the face) and I was holding Heather who was also crying, so I grabbed Hallie's leg to stop her from kicking Hanna (because she wasn't listening to me when I told her to stop) and then she tried to kick Hanna again anyway, and the jolt of her moving her leg that I was holding caused me to almost drop Heather... I have rarely been as angry as I was at that moment, when she was hurting both of my other children. What would he have said to do then, with all three of them screaming?


Mimi I would guess that he would qualify that as a time where control is necessary. Perhaps run and go set Heather down away from the kicking Hallie. Run back and get Hanna. Explain to Hallie that perhaps it would be a good idea if she went and read a book while she calmed down and got happier. Then comfort Hanna and Heather. Once Hanna and Heather were happy and calm, go back to Hallie and try to talk to her about it, explain that we all have bad moods sometimes, try to get her to understand how much it hurts Hanna when she gets kicked in the face, try to express how important it is to listen to mommy, and make sure Hallie has no doubt that you love her.

But honestly, a situation like that is a lot easier to dissect after the fact. So that might just have been one to survive and then use all of the techniques the rest of the time and your kids will turn out fine. :)

Sorry about that moment. :(


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