One basic need all children have, educator Alfie 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, 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.
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This book had me squirming in my chair on a regular basis. Over and over, the author would present compelling research about how parenting with rewards and punishments doesn't necessarily get you a kid who's more compliant. And over and over, I would think to myself: "Well, if you don't use rewards and punishments, what the crap else are you going to do?" The author would dance around alternatives, but he kept referencing Chapter 7 as where he'd be presenting them in detail—which was over halfway through the book.
In the end, I'm not sure if I would have been ready to accept the ideas in that chapter had I not gone through the painful process of being challenged again and again and again in the first part of the book. Maybe the author has to break down a few walls before he can help you start to build up something completely different in their place.
Here are just a handful of the reasons why punishment doesn't work, according to the research covered in this book:
* Punishment makes people mad. I can recall with great clarity the times I was being punished for something that I had done, and I guarantee you I wasn't "reflecting" on my actions. I was getting even more pissed off at whomever was punishing me, and my actions were the furthest thing from my mind.
* Punishment models the use of power. Do we really want to teach our kids that might makes right? As adults, will it be healthy for them to exploit their power over their fellow humans?
* Punishment makes kids more self-centered. If I hit Susie, I'll have to sit in timeout and miss the rest of recess. Notice that I'm thinking about what will happen to me, not how Susie will feel.
What about rewards? If punishing non-compliance isn't effective, what about rewarding compliance?
"...rewards are remarkably ineffective at improving the quality of people's work or learning. 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."
Or worse, rewards can undermine the very behavior you're trying to encourage:
"...when there's no longer a goody to be gained, [kids are] less likely to help than are kids who weren't given a reward in the first place. They're also less likely to help than they themselves used to be. After all, they've learned that the point of coming to someone's aid is just to get a reward."
These are just a few of the points from the book, but I know what you're thinking right now: "Well, if you don't use rewards and punishments, what the crap else are you going to do?"
Or maybe: "Haha, your kid is going to walk all over you! Sucker!"
To the latter, I say: You could very well be right. But this book resonated with me on a much deeper level than the parenting practices I saw growing up or continue to see on Supernanny. What do you think that kid on the naughty step is thinking about? About how what they did was wrong and they'll never do it again? Or about how Mom is so unfair...or...next time she's not going to catch me...or...I'm going to hit little brother for tattling on me?
Certainly you can remember a time when you were in timeout as a kid. Maybe you were a perfect kid and sat quietly reflecting on your misbehavior and how you will never, ever do that again. But me? Not so much. I sat there thinking of ways to blame someone else. I sat there steaming about the person who was punishing me. I sat there making plans to not talk to anyone for the rest of the day to show how mad I was.
So what if instead when you did something wrong, your parents sat down with you and asked you what happened? What if they had helped you explore why you did what you did? What if they encouraged you to think of other ways you could have expressed your emotions?
Kids are smart. They have good ideas for how to solve problems, including their own. You just need to give them a chance and support the process with your loving guidance.
Do I think that this style of parenting will mean my daughter won't ever misbehave or have a tantrum or annoy the crap out of me sometimes? No, not at all. She'll still do all those things, but what will be different is how I react to her.
Kids see rewards as approval and love, and they see punishments as a withdrawal of that approval and love. So on a basic level, will my actions teach my daughter that I love her only when she behaves in the exact way that I want her to? Do I really want to raise a daughter who is blindly compliant with whomever has more power than her? (Even if I did want a compliant daughter, research shows that rewards and punishment aren't effective in getting that.)
No. I want to teach her that I love her always, not just because she does what I want her to. I want a daughter who can make smart decisions for herself, not just do what the person with more power is telling her to do.
If any of this is resonating with you and if you're wondering what could possibly replace rewards and punishments, I would suggest that you read the book yourself. There's no easy formula for parenting without rewards and punishments, and this book will help you explore what that style of parenting will be for you and your family.
Kohn presents a lot of data at the start of the book to really encourage thinking about what traditional parenting looks like and the effects it has on children. After going over all the data - which suggests we are mostly conditional parenting and that is unhealthy for our children, he discusses how to be unconditional.
I admit, I wasn't prepared to read all the data. Some of it was very eye opening really made me think. I just reached a point where I didn't want to read it anymore. Kohn points out most parenting books use no data or research to back up their claims and only anecdotal evidence. I really think it's because the data makes the book feel heavy and it wasn't what I thought I was getting. My guess is most books discussed studies and data and numbers fewer parents would read them.
That aside, the book felt sort of vague to me during the second half, which is the how to half. But if you think about it, you can't really write hard, fast rules to follow these principles, and yet, aside from loving unconditionally and not loving conditionally, I wasn't sure what the principles were.
In the end, I felt I understood enough of what he was saying to get it, and yet the book felt lacking somehow. (Of course, I can only offer vague reasons why - which is ironic!) But it made sense. The data presented really made me think (I just think he spent more time then he needed to on it).
The most important thing to me though is that I walked away with a good sense of conditional parenting and wanting to be more like that. I admit I saw myself in some of the conditional anecdotes, which really made me cringe and think I don't want to do that anymore! And yet on the other hand, I walked away feeling like I was already doing a lot of right things. And who doesn't like a book that validates some of what you are already doing!
The second half shows you how to change, and answers the annoying questions I had after the first - 'yes, but how?' Because the focus of the parenting strategy endorsed in the book, there is an acknowledgement that perfection will never be achieved, but it shows how such questions are less important than one thinks: what is more important - actually, what is paramount, is the unconditional nature of parenting. Under such a mindset, one knows that things will take longer, will involve more work from the parent in explaining and loving, and the short-term goals will not always be achieved.
But what is the point of being a parent? What does a child need? I would suggest it is to be given everything necessary so that one's children grow up to be happy, motivated, emotionally congruent adults, with the knowledge they can deal with life on their own, and are not afraid to ask for help if they need it. This is a long-term goal, and this book reminds us that we are dealing with children, and all their inconsistencies, frustrations and above all, their learning. They must be allowed to get it wrong, so they can understand why they should get it right.
As such, this book provides a framework for the parent to feel comfortable in a role where the short-term failures are actually for the benefit of the long-term successes.
Forty pages in: Not an easy read; it's like looking into a bright light shining in my eyes.
One thing I wish he'd done: Write a little blurb like "if you're with me so far and want to change what you're doing, glance at p. 157; it may not make total sense if you haven't read everything to that point, but you may find it helpful in the meantime".