Unconditional Parenting, Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason

This book has Blown. My. Mind.

In his landmark book, Unconditional Parenting (and in his DVD) Alfie Kohn begins instead by asking, What are our long-term goals for our children? It follows that we need to work WITH them, rather than doing things TO them, in order to reach those goals.

Kohn argues that punishments (including time-outs) and rewards (including positive reinforcement, like saying “Good job!”) may sometimes produce temporary compliance, but they do nothing to help kids grow into responsible, caring, ethical, happy people. Moreover, he suggests that permissiveness is less worrisome than a fear of permissiveness that leads us to over control our children. Kohn offers ten important guidelines to help viewers reconnect to their own best instincts as parents.

If you are practicing Attachment Parenting, this is a must read. So much of the Attachment Parenting guidelines are in place to help you have a strong and loving relationship with your child, so that your child feels unconditionally loved. Because unconditionally loved children grow up to be responsible, ethical, caring, happy adults. Parenting babies is easy, tend to them if they are crying and keep them close. But as they get older, it’s so much more tricky!

If you are not sure how attachment parenting looks past infancy this book is for you. I also highly recommend a book called Conscious Parenting. These two books go hand and hand and will give you the tools you need to parent differently that you were parented.

Check out my favorite quotes from each chapter below:

Chapter 1:

“We ought to love them, for no good reason, and furthermore, what counts is not just that we believe we love unconditionally, but that they feel loved in that way.”

“Whatever lesson we hoped to impart was far more likely to be learned if she knew that our love her was undimmed by how she had acted.”

“Compulsory apologies mostly train children to say things they don’t mean–that is, to lie.”

“In our society, we are taught that good things must always be earned, never given away.”

“Ultimately, conditional parenting reflects a tendency to to see almost every human interaction, even among family members, as kind of economic transaction.”

“Unconditional parenting insists that the family ought to be a haven, a refuge, from such transactions. Love from parents is purely and simply a gift. It is something to which all children are entitled.”

Chapter 2:

“The parent can either walk away, (which may leave a child sobbing, or crying out in a panic, “Mommy, come back! Come back!) or banish the child to his room or some other place where a parent isn’t. This tactic might accurately be called forcible isolation. But that label would make a lot of parents uncomfortable, so a more innocuous term tends to be used instead, one that allows us to avoid facing up to what’s really going on. The preferred euphemism, as perhaps you’ve guessed, is time-out.”

“Time-out is actually an abbreviation for time out from positive reinforcement. The practice was developed almost half a century ago as a way of training LABORATORY ANIMALS.”

“For many people, the first question would be whether this approach works. Once again, however, that proves to be a more complicated matter than it may seem. We have to ask, “Works to do what?”

“Spanking and time-out, both communicate to children that if they do something we don’t like, we’ll make them suffer in order to change their behavior. The only remaining question is how we’ll make them suffer: by causing physical pain through hitting, or by causing emotional pain through enforced isolation.”

“Intrinsic motivation basically means you like what you’re doing for its own sake, whereas extrinsic motivation means you do something as a means to an end- in order to get a reward or avoid a punishment. It’s the difference between reading a book because you want to find out what happens in the next chapter and reading because you’ve been promised a sticker or a pizza for doing so.”

“The more that people are rewarded for doing something, the more likely they are to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward.”

Chapter 3:

“Conditional parenting can be the consequence of control even if it wasn’t the intention, and, conversely, control can help to explain the destructive effects of conditional parenting.”

“The dominant problem with parenting in our society isn’t permissiveness, but the FEAR of permissiveness. We are so worried about spoiling our kids that we often end up over controlling them.”

“The way many kids are treated suggests a lack of respect for their needs and preferences-in fact, a lack of respect for children, period.”

“It’s easy for most of us to observe Bad Parenting on Parade, to watch people who are much more controlling that we are, and to take comfort from saying, “At least I’d never do that.” But the real challenge is to reflect on the things we have been known to do and ask whether they’re really in our children’s best interest.”

“The kids who do what they’re told are likely to be those whose parents DON’T rely on power and instead have developed a warm and secure relationship with them.”

“There may be times when some control, in the usual sense, is unavoidable, and here the trick is indeed to avoid overdoing it. Bu rather than just trying to find a happy medium between “too controlling” and “not controlling enough”, we need to think in terms of an approach to parenting that’s fundamentally different from control.”

Chapter 4:

“To punish kids, very simply, is to make something unpleasant happen to them-or prevent them from experiencing something pleasant-usually with the goal of changing their future behavior. The punisher makes them suffer, in other words, to teach them a lesson.”

“Announcing how we plan to punish children (“Remember, if you do x, then I’ll do y to you”) may salve our conscience because we gave them fair warning, but all we’ve really done is threaten them. We’ve told them in advance exactly how we’ll make them suffer if they fail to obey.”

“In Punishment Lite, also called “natural consequences”, when  a child leaves her raincoat at school, we are supposed to let her get wet the next day. This is said to teach her to be more punctual, less forgetful or whatever. But the far more powerful lesson that she is likely to take is what we could have helped-but didn’t.”

“It’s hard for kids to sort out why someone who clearly cares for them also makes them suffer from time to time. It creates a warped idea, which children may carry with them throughout their lives, that causing pain is part of what it means to love them. Or else it may simply teach that love is necessarily conditional, that it lasts only as long as people do exactly what you want.”

“Why Punishment Fails:
-It makes people mad
-It models the use of power
-It eventually loses its effectiveness
-It erodes our relationships with our kids
-It distracts kids from the important issues
-It makes kids more self centered”

Chapter 5:

“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.”

“Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with being proud of our kids. But when the bragging seems excessive-when its too intense, or too frequent, or starts up too quickly-it’s possible that the parent’s identity is a little too wrapped up in the child’s accomplishments.”

“There’s a huge difference between a student whose objective is to get a good grade and a student whose objective is to solve a problem or understand a story. What’s more, the research suggests that when kids are encouraged to focus on getting better marks in school, three things tend to happen: They lose interest in the learning itself, they try to avoid tasks that are challenging, and they’re less likely to think deeply and critically.”

“The more we want our children to (1) be lifelong learners, genuinely excited about words and numbers and ideas, (2) avoid sticking with what’s easy and safe, and (3) become sophisticated thinkers, the more we should do everything possible to help them forget about grades. Better yet, we’d want to encourage teachers and principals to minimize (or even eliminate) the use of grades.”

“Some parents don’t offer money for straight A’s; instead, they pay off their kids with affection and approval. In effect, they’re using their love as a lever to get their kids to succeed-to the point that their children may come to feel as though their parents’ positive feelings for them rise and fall with grade point average.”

“The research overwhelmingly showed that competition holds people back from working or learning their best.”

“To the contrary, 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.”

Chapter 6:

“Everything up to this point leads us to one overwhelming question: Why do we do it? If conditional and control-based parenting are really as bad as they say they are-and more important, if they’re as bad as scientific research and real-world experience show they are-then why are they so popular? Or to put it differently, what holds so many of us back from being better parents?”

“The reasons we parent as we do might be said to fall roughly into four categories: what we see and hear, what we believe, what we feel and, as a result of all those, what we fear.”

“It’s the most obvious explanation for why we treat our children as we do: We learned how you’re supposed to raise kids from watching how someone raised us.”

“The less aware we are of that learning process, the more likely we are to reproduce parenting patterns without bothering to ask whether they make sense. It takes some effort, some sharp thinking, even some courage to step back and decide which values and rituals ought to find a place in our new families and which ones are pointless and even pernicious.”

“Bad discipline is easy. Very little is asked of us when we respond to children’s misbehavior by doing something unpleasant to them. “Doing to” strategies are mostly mindless. “Working with” strategies, on the other hand, ask a lot more of us.”

“Our culture isn’t especially supportive of children in general, nor is there a surfeit of fondness for particular children unless they’re cute and well behaved.”

“If kids are not held in great esteem, it becomes easier for parents, even basically good parents, to treat their own kids disrespectfully.”

“A study of more than three hundred parents found that those who held a negative view of human nature were more likely to be very controlling with their kids.”

“If we wonder why parent-child relationships are so often adversarial, we have to understand this as one more symptom of a hyper-competitive society. The moms and dads who are most likely to try to control their children, and who do the most damage to them, are the those who need to win.”

“Lots of people believe that when any individual, even a small child, does something bad, then something bad should be done to that individual in return. So many parents see punishment as a moral imperative.”

“As a rule, when your basic emotional needs have not been met, those needs don’t just vanish when you’re older. Instead, you may continue to try to satisfy them, often in direct and even convoluted ways. That effort sometimes requires an exhausting, near-constant focus on yourself in order to prove that you really are smart, or attractive or lovable. What’s more, the people who need you to focus on them, notably your children, may find you emotionally unavailable.”

“What distinguishes truly great parents is their willingness to confront troubling questions about what they have been doing and what was done to them.”

“We’re unlikely to meet our long-term goals for our kids unless we’re ready to ask the following question: Is it possible that what I just did with them had more to do with my own needs, my fears and my own upbringing than with what’s really in their best interest?”

 Chapter 9:

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

Chapter 10:

“No matter how old your children are, it’s not too late to have a positive impact from this point forward.”

To get a copy of Unconditional Parenting click here. 

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  • Ali
    November 9, 2010 at 12:48 PM

    This book sounds similar to one I am reading called 'Raising our children, Raising ourselves' by Naomi Aldort. It is a fascinating concept that one could actually parent a productive, compassionate, empathetic adult without using any type of even gentle punishment system. I am not sure I totally buy it, though. But I am quite sure that is my own fear and preprogrammed childhood stuff talking (at least according to Naomi). I just wish I could meet at least a group of people that were parented this way and are adults now. Like some proof, b/c God knows we all want to do it 'right'.
    Will pick up a copy of this one when I'm done reading the other. Another one I LOVE is by Wayne Dyer 'What do you really want for your children'. That book changed my whole thought process a few years ago.
    Well, I hope this turns out to be a longterm and very productive book club!
    Look forward to it 🙂

  • Stephanie
    November 9, 2010 at 1:23 PM

    oh, I want to read that one next!! And I love Wayne Dyer, I will have to look into that one.
    Have you ever read the 5 love languages for children? That was a parenting-paradigm-shifting book for me as well (and for my relationship for that matter) That goes for Unconditional Parenting, as well, I never really realized how much I "conditionally" love Peter and vice versa. Our new mantra in the house, is, "would we say that to Penelope?" if the answer is no, then we shouldn't say it to each other. But I digress…
    I hope its a long term and productive book club too!

  • Ali
    November 9, 2010 at 2:01 PM

    I have not read the 5 LL for C. We have the one for couples on our coffee table and have been reading the first couple chapters for oh a couple years 🙂 We were just talking last night at dinner that we HAD to finish reading it! I love your new mantra. We might have some very quite days around here, on occasion. if we adopted that… that is for sure! I'll try it.

  • Star
    December 11, 2010 at 5:36 AM

    Anxiously awaiting news of the book club……

  • Stephanie
    December 13, 2010 at 1:48 AM

    Hey Star! I was having some writer's block, but I got the first chapter post up just now! 😉