Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn

Just over a week ago, I wrote this line: “I don’t worry quite so much about ruining my kids’ lives anymore, which is really nice.” That very afternoon I borrowed and started reading Alfie Kohn’s Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishment to Love and Reason, and about a chapter into it I thought to myself, “OH MY GOODNESS I’M TOTALLY RUINING MY KIDS’ LIVES.” After reading another chapter I was so depressed I signed up to Netflix and ate the remaining stash of chocolates hidden at the bottom of our fridge. (I’ll quit sugar next week.)

The book points out the fact that both punishments and rewards are ways of manipulating children to do what we want them to, which isn’t a particularly respectful way of relating to another human, nor is it a useful way of encouraging the development of internal regulation, independence, and morals. According to Kohn, in terms of the effects on a child’s psychological wellbeing, smacking’s not that different to timeout, and timeout’s not that different to praise – all of these are methods used to try to control our children’s behaviour so that they’ll do what we tell them to and earn us parenting points when next in public. They’re also ways we teach our children implicitly that our love for/happiness with/acceptance of them is based on how well they follow our rules, live up to our standards, and don’t embarrass us.

Whole child (incl. reasons, thoughts, feelings)
View of Human Nature
Positive or balanced
View of Parental Love
A gift
A privilege to be earned
“Working with”
(Problem solving)
“Doing to” (Control via punishments and rewards)

I say “we” when really I mean “I”. This book was seriously painful to read. I’m so guilty of withdrawing love - rather than reaching out with grace – when I’ve been hurt by or when I’m disappointed with someone. The economic model of interacting with others is the only one I know: You want my love? Earn it. You hurt me? You pay. We should always be even, or as even as possible. (I can see that my egalitarianism is damaging and childish when taken to this extreme, but it comes so naturally to me I literally cannot imagine a world where I relate to other people any differently! This book completely dismantled my whole framework for relationships. It sucked to read it. I’m so thankful I did.) 

As gut-wrenching and guilt-producing as this book was (I thought I was parenting completely differently to the way I was parented! I didnt realise I was offering exactly the same thing, just in nicer packaging!), it was also practical and helpful. There will be many changes implemented as a result of my reading it; one of which: I will (try very hard to) no longer bribe my children. Mo’s sweet tooth has meant he can be convinced to do almost anything as long as he’s promised a sugary reward afterwards, and we’ve taken advantage of this far too regularly. The most obvious change for us in this regard will be dessert: there’s an interesting argument in the book about letting children listen to their bodies and decide for themselves how much they need to eat (and about the detrimental effects of constantly overriding this). (This ties in to Ellyn Satter’s ‘Division of Responsibility in Feeding’, which is something I read yonks ago but have mostly ignored simply because I haven’t been bothered thinking it through: When it comes to food, adults decide where, when and what, and the children decide whether and how much.) We’re not going to use the dessert bribe to force our kids to eat anymore.

It was interesting to think about how permissive parenting is typically seen as less acceptable than controlling parenting, and what that means for how I act – and want my kids to act – around others. It was interesting to think about how I can change my language and reactions to encourage Mo and Hazel to think about other people rather than themselves (the other day I gave Mo a dried apricot and he asked for one for Hazel, too, so that she wouldn’t feel left out when he returned to the lounge room. In the past I’ve said things like, “That’s so considerate and kind, buddy!” Kohn suggests something like: “Hazel will feel so loved when she sees you’ve thought of her!”). It was good to be forced to think about how I can step back and guide, rather than hang over and control, my kids.

I found Kohn’s argument for unconditional parenting (which makes up the majority of the book) to be an incredibly valuable tool for trimming off the parts of my parenting practice that weren’t consistent with my parenting philosophy. (Fortunately for my mental health and diminished chocolate supplies, when Kohn moved from the Whys to the Hows of unconditional parenting, I realised we already do – or aim for, at least – a lot of what he suggests.) This book makes the perfect prequel to How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk and I highly – HIGHLY - recommend it for anyone who hangs out with children and/or parents on a regular basis. 

* The table above is copied from page 19 of the book.


  1. can you become the perfect parent and then teach me?

    1. OKAY. I hope to have it all figured out in about 15 years.

  2. I'm kind of scared to read this book...I think I'll put it on my list while I work up the courage!