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Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and

Punishments to Love and Reason


Most parenting guides begin with the question How can we get kids to do what
they're told? and then proceed to offer various techniques for controlling them.

In this truly ground breaking book, nationally respected educator Alfie Kohn
begins instead by asking, What do kids need and how can we meet those needs?
What follows from that question are ideas for working "with" children rather than
doing things "to" them.

One basic need all children have, Kohn argues, is to be loved unconditionally, to
know that they will be accepted even if they screw up or fall short.

Yet conventional approaches to parenting such as punishments (including time-


outs ), rewards (including positive reinforcement), and other forms of control teach
children that they are loved only when they please us or impress us.

Kohn cites a body of powerful, and largely unknown, research detailing the
damage caused by leading children to believe they must earn our approval. That's
precisely the message children derive from common discipline techniques, even
though it's not the message most parents intend to send. More than just another
book about discipline, though, "Unconditional Parenting" addresses the ways
parents think about, feel about, and act with their children. It invites them to
question their most basic assumptions about raising kids while offering a wealth of
practical strategies for shifting from doing to to working with parenting including
how to replace praise with the unconditional support that children need to grow
into healthy, caring, responsible people. This is an eye-opening, paradigm-
shattering book that will reconnect readers to their own best instincts and inspire
them to become better parents.

Working with (instead of doing to)

The biggest message I have taken away from Alfie Kohns book is his emphasis to
shift towards working with our kids as opposed to doing to.
Doing to strategies are things like threatening, bribing and rewarding our kids as
ways to control our children. Instead some working with strategies he suggests are:

Reconsider your requests for example, instead of asking how do I get my


child to eat? instead look at your assumptions, look at what your child needs,
and place your focus on offering nutritious food instead.
Move to unconditionality I think we all love our children no matter what they
have done; however, we dont always act this way. Moving toward
unconditionality means acting in a way where your child knows you love them
for WHO they are, no matter WHAT they do.
Talk less, ask more
Assume the best from your child we dont always see what has happened and
know what has gone on. Instead of assuming the worst, you can also assume the
best!
Give age-appropriate choices

2. Use of praise, rewards and punishment

Alfie Kohn believes that praise, rewards and punishments are all ways of controlling
our children. These provide extrinsic motivation to behave in the way we want. But he
says this is the wrong type of motivation better for it to come from the child
themselves.

For example, instead of putting a child into time out if he has hit another child, you
can get the child to work out what to do to make amends. I think she feels so bad she
is crying. What can you do to make her feel better? By ending with a question, you
give your child a chance to come up with something (even a pre-verbal child!).

3. Use of testing in schools

Alfie Kohn is also very critical of the schools in the US (and many other
countries) where there is a lot of focus on test scores. He would like to see school
implement interactive, interdisciplinary, and question-based learning to get a deep
understanding as opposed to just learning facts. Sounds like a Montessori education
would meet many of these requirements.
Synopsis of Unconditional Parenting
By Alfie Kohn

Chapter 1: Conditional Parenting

Love kids for who they are (unconditional love) instead of for what they
do (conditional love).
Over many years, researchers have found that "the more conditional the
support [one receives], the lower one's perceptions of overall worth as a
person." When children receive affection with strings attached, they tend to
accept themselves only with strings attached.

Unconditional Conditional

Whole child (including reasons,


Focus Behavior
thoughts, feelings)

View of Human
Positive or balanced Negative
Nature

View of Parental
A gift A privilege to be earned
Love

"Doing to" (Control via rewards and


Strategies "Working with" (Problem-solving)
punishments)

Chapter 2: Giving and Withholding Love

Time-outs: This very popular discipline technique is a version of love


withdrawal at least when children are sent away against their will
When you send your child away, what's really being switched off or
withdrawn is your presence, your attention, you love
The Failure of Rewards

A considerable number of studies have found that children and adults alike
are less successful at many tasks when they're offered a reward for doing
them or for doing them well.
Rewards can never help someone to develop a commitment to a task or an
action, a reason to keep doing it when there's no longer a payoff.
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.

Not-So-Positive Reinforcement

Praise creates pressure to "keep up the good work" that gets in the way of
doing so. Partly because people's interest in what they're doing may have
declined (because now the main goal is to get more praise). Partly because
they become less likely to take risks a prerequisite for creativity once
they start thinking about how to keep those positive comments coming.
"Good job" isn't a description, it's a judgment.
Instead of "I love you," what praise may communicate is "I love you because
you've done well."
It's very easy for children to infer from a pattern of selective reinforcement
that we approve of them only when he does the things we like.
Children's sense of their competence, and perhaps of their worth, may come
to rise or fall as a result of our reaction.
The child comes to see their "whole self" as good only when they please the
parent. That's a powerful way of undermining self-esteem. The more we say
"Good job!" the worse the child comes to feel about themselves, and the
more praise they need.

Chapter 3: Too Much Control

The dominant problem with parenting in our society isn't permissiveness,


but the fear of permissiveness. We are so worried about spoiling kids that we
often end up overcontrolling them.
Few of us would think of berating another adult in the tone that is routinely
used with kids.
Chapter 4: Punitive Damages

Data overwhelmingly shows that corporal punishment makes children more


aggressive and leads to a variety of other damaging consequences.
"Natural consequences", another form of punishment, invites parents to
discipline by inaction that is, by refusing to help. If a child leaves their
raincoat at school, we're supposed to let them get wet the following day. This
is said to teach them to be more punctual, or less forgetful. But the far more
powerful lesson that they are likely to take away is that we could have helped
but didn't. Instead, the child experiences the twin disappointments that
something went wrong and you did not seem to care enough about them to
life a finger to help prevent the mishap.
The truth is that explanation doesn't minimize the bad effects of punishment
so much as punishment minimizes the good effects of explanation.

Why Punishment Fails

It makes people mad.


It models the use of power: Punishment now only makes a child angry, it
simultaneously provides them with a model for expressing that hostility
outwardly.
It eventually loses its effectiveness.
It erodes our relationships with our kids.
It distracts kids from the important issues: the idea that time-outs are an
acceptable form of discipline because they give kids time to think things over
is based on an absurdly unrealistic premise. Above all, they're likely to focus
on the punishment itself: how unfair it is an dhow to avoid it next time.
Punishing kids is an excellent way to hone their skills at escaping detection.

Chapter 5: Pushed to Succeed

The unconscious equation "My kid's a success, therefore I am, too" or


maybe even "My kid's a success, and I'm the reason" is directly tied to
tactics such as positive reinforcement, where children figure out that they
have to make good in order to get hugs and smiles, and that their parents
aren't proud of them for who they are, only for what they do.
Conditional parenting and conditional self-esteem are not just unhealthy,
they are unproductive. They lead to emotion-focused coping and repair of
the self, rather than problem-focused coping.
At School

Students whose main goal is to get A's are apt to become less interested in
what they're learning.
Grades lead students to pick the easiest possible assignment when they're
given a choice.
A quest for good grades often leads students to think in a more shallow and
superficial way. They may skim books for what they'll "need to know," doing
just what's required and no more.

Chapter 7: Principles of Unconditional Parenting

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?"

The Guiding Principles

Be reflective: try to figure out what may be driving your parenting style.
Reconsider your requests: before searching for some method to get kids to
do what we tell them, we should first take the time to rethink the value or
necessity of our requests.
Keep your eye on your long-term goals.
Put the relationship first: choose a "working with" as opposed to a "doing to"
response. See children's behavior as a "teachable moment".
Change how you see, not just how you act.
R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
Be authentic: make a point of apologizing to your child. First, it sets a
powerful example. 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
of your perfect parent pedestal and remind them that you're fallible.
Talk less, ask more.
Keep their ages in mind.
Attribute to children the best possible motive consistent with the facts:
sympathize and try to understand why our children acted as they did.
Don't stick your no's in unnecessarily: you need a good reason not to go
along with what's being proposed.
Don't be rigid.
Don't be in a hurry.
Chapter 8: Love Without Strings Attached

What to Minimize

Being selective about what we object to or forbid makes the "no" count for
more on those occasions when we really do have to say it.
Focus on what's wrong with this specific action ("Your voice sounded really
unkind just now when you were talking to your sister") rather than implying
that there's something wrong with the child ("You're so mean to people").
Explicit negative evaluations may not be necessary if we simply say what we
see ("Jeremy looked kind of said after you said that to him") and ask
questions ("The next time you're feeling frustrated, what do you think you
could do instead of pushing?").

Beyond Threats

Insisting that children who act out are just doing it "for the attention" seems
to imply that "wanting to be noticed is a mysterious or stupid need." It's as
though someone ridiculed you for going out to dinner with your friends,
explaining that you do this just because of your "need for companionship."

Beyond Bribes

By giving in to such temptation, I would be using the bribe as an instrument


of control rather than as an expression of love.
You can take special delight when your child does something remarkable,
but, again, not in a way that suggests your love hinges on such events. If you
strike that balance correctly, children are less likely to grow up feeling
they're worthwhile only when they succeed. They'll be able to fail without
concluding that they themselves are failures.
It's not necessary to evaluate kids in order to encourage them. Just paying
attention to what kids are doing and showing interest in their activities is a
form of encouragement.
I just said, "You did it" so they would know that I saw and I cared, but also
so they could feel proud of themselves.

Instead of saying... Try...


Instead of saying... Try...

"I like the way you..." saying nothing (and just paying attention)

describing, rather than evaluating, what you see: "Hey, there's


"Good drawing! I love
something new on the feet of those people you just drew. They've
those pictures!"
got toes."

"You're such a great explaining the effects of the child's action on other people: "You set
helper!" the table! That makes things a lot easier on me while I'm cooking."

"That was a great inviting reflection: "How did you come up with that way of grabbing
essay you wrote." the reader's attention right at the beginning?"

"Good sharing, asking, rather than judging: "What made you decide to give some of
Michael." your brownie to her when you didn't have to?"

On Success and Failure

First, it's when children fall short and feel incompetent that they most need
our love not our disappointment. Second, the dangers are just as great if,
when they do succeed, we lavish positive reinforcement on them in such a
way as to suggest that our love is based on what they've done, not on who
they are.
It's interest that drives excellence interest in the task itself, not interest in
being successful or in doing better than others.
In place of an excessive focus on school achievement, we should take a lively
interest in what the child is learning.

Chapter 9: Choices for our Children

The way kids learn to make good decisions is by making decisions, not by
following directions.
When children ask whether it's okay to do something, it often makes sense
to respond with "Well, what do you think?" This lets them know that their
viewpoint counts, and also invites them to play an active role in considering
the implications of their request.
Look for solutions together: "Let's talk about what's fair to you but also what
might address my concerns. Let's come up with some ideas and try them
out."
The question isn't whether limits and rules are sometimes necessary. It's
who sets them: the adults alone or the adults and kids together.

Chapter 10: The Child's Perspective

We want them to ask "How will doing x make that other kid feel?", not "Am I
allowed to do x?" or "Will I get in trouble for doing x?"
To support moral development, our message can't be simply that hitting is
bad or that sharing is good. What counts is helping kids to
understand why these things are true.
We should help children develop reasons to support their own views, even if
we don't agree with those views.
If you're sitting down with your child to discuss something about her
behavior that you'd like to see changed, you might invite her to imitate how
you typically sound when you're nagging her on that topic.

Perspective Taking

While many people dismiss those with whom they disagree ("How can she
hold that position on abortion!"), those accustomed to perspective-taking
tend to turn an exclamation point into a question mark ("How can she hold
that position on abortion? What experiences, assumptions, or underlying
values have led her to a view so different from my own?")
"Okay," we might say after a blowup. "Tell me what just happened, but
pretend you're your sister and describe how things might have seemed to
her."