Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason by Alfie Kohn

Sep 17, 2010

up.jpgIt annoys me the way our culture deemphasizes the training it takes to parent well. Perhaps it’s because within a capitalistic society jobs for which we are not monetarily compensated are placed on the lowest echelon. But parenting is a big deal and we should prepare for it.

So where do you go for good training? I stopped reading parenting books a couple of years ago when I became annoyed with the conflicting advice they offer. But recently a friend of mine shared this article by Alfie Kohn, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/15/health/15mind.html?_r=1 and it inspired me to end my boycott of parenting guides.

I’m glad I did. Unconditional Parenting is the most important book I’ve ever read. From my own work in therapy, and by just paying attention to people around me, I long ago figured out that miserably treated children often grow up to be miserable adults who then inflict their misery onto their own children. So I wondered…what if we were able to somehow break this cycle? And if the world was populated with people who were no longer chronically miserable, could we attain world peace? A doctor I once saw mentioned that scientists now think that one out of every fifty people are sociopaths and that there’s a strong genetic component to violent personalities, so world peace might continue to be stuck in the realm of Lennonist dreams. But what about the other forty-nine people? Could the way we raise children make life better for most of us?

Kohn thinks so. His beef with most parenting guides is that they focus not on what’s best for the child, but on what’s best for the adult who is trying to get the child to do what they want. He thinks we should control children less and try seeing the world from their point of view more. His theory is backed up by loads of scientific and sociological studies that show how kids are more empathetic, well adjusted, creative, and happy when they are raised with more unconditional love and less control through punishments and rewards.

Here’s a summary of his three parenting goals: “Expressing unconditional love, giving children more chances to make decisions, and imagining how things look from the child’s point of view.” Here are his guiding principles on how to achieve those goals: “Be reflective, reconsider your requests, keep your eye on your long-term goals, put the relationship first, change how you see not just how you act, R-E-S-P-E-C-T, be authentic, talk less ask more, keep their ages in mind, attribute to children the best possible motive consistent with the facts, don’t stick your no’s in unnecessarily, don’t be rigid, don’t be in a hurry.”

Applying Kohn’s theory to daily life with my four year old daughter has already shown what a difference a simple change in perspective makes. A few nights ago, my daughter and I were “playing preschool.” As she practiced tracing shapes in a workbook, whenever she’d mess up she’d grunt and groan. Soon she threw her pencil across the room. I asked her to pick it up. She responded by growling louder and punching me in the arm. It was a very light punch, but still, I was shocked since it was the first time she had ever been physically violent with me. Pre-Kohn, I would have put her in time-out, let her cry it out for awhile, then explained to her that throwing pencils and punching people is wrong because someone could get hurt. But Kohn says time-outs, from a child’s perspective, feel like love-withdrawal. “I won’t pay attention to you until you act a certain way” feels an awful lot like “I won’t love you unless you act a certain way.” But children need to know we care about them especially when they make mistakes. When a child thinks her parents don’t love her when she goofs up, she’ll learn to focus her energy on how to please her parents, but lose focus on the real lesson. If I continue punishing my child when she throws pencils and punches people, she’ll eventually learn to quit doing these things when I’m around. However, my goal is not to achieve obedience but to teach my daughter to think for herself when I’m not around.

So instead of punishing my daughter, I asked her, “Why did you throw the pencil and then punch me?” She said, “Because I’m fwustrated!” I said, “I can tell. Let’s go sit on the futon and talk about this.” I picked her up, took her to the futon with me, and sat her in my lap, stroking her hair and kissing her cheeks. When she calmed down a bit, I asked her why she felt frustrated. She said because her shapes didn’t look like the shapes in the book. I told her that I used to feel frustrated when I was her age and I was learning how to draw shapes. I asked her, “Do you think I learned how to draw shapes by throwing my pencil and punching people in the arm?” She laughed and said no. I told her the only way I learned how to make shapes was to keep trying and trying and trying. “I made really lousy shapes at first. But after lots of practice, I can make pretty decent shapes now. How do you think you can learn how to make shapes?” She said, “By trying and trying and trying!” I said, “That’s right, Sweetie. I guarantee the shapes you make right now won’t look very good. No one’s shapes look good when they first start learning to make them. Not Daddy’s, not Grandpa’s, not mine. But some day yours will look good if you keep practicing.” She leaned forward, gave me a hug and said, without any prompting from me, “I sorry I hit you, Mama. I wanna go try to make some more shapes now.” And the look on her face. I imagined she felt relieved that I understood her, that it’s clear I’m her ally who wants to teach her and not an authoritarian who wants to punish her.

We’ll see how it goes. I’ve noticed a definite shift in our relationship already. I no longer dread the difficult stages of my daughter’s development, but instead I look forward to guiding her along her journey. I just wish I had read this book when we first started potty training.

Alfie Kohn’s ideas about parenting are pretty radical. The nerve of this guy, actually wanting us to respect our children and try to see things from their point of view. But it takes radical ideas to change the world. Come to think of it, this sounds like a pretty good way to treat grownups too.

Reviewed by Becky C.
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