I recently read Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason by Alfie Kohn. The premise behind the book is this (from Publishers Weekly):
“Kohn, the father of young children, sprinkles his text with anecdotes that shore up his well-researched hypothesis that children do best with unconditional love, respect and the opportunity to make their own choices. Kohn questions why parents and parenting literature focus on compliance and quick fixes, and points out that docility and short-term obedience are not what most parents desire of their children in the long run. He insists that “controlling parents” are actually conveying to their kids that they love them conditionally—that is, only when they achieve or behave. Tactics like time-out, bribes and threats, Kohn claims, just worsen matters.”
I have mixed feelings about the book but overall I liked it and found the thoughts and research valuable. The ideas of focusing on consistently showing kids love, and respecting them as individuals with valid thoughts and feelings, fit right in with attachment theory. Prior to reading the book, I had established feelings regarding love and respect. I have always thought that the idea of respecting elders is ridiculous. Age means nothing, does not make a person intelligent or trustworthy or deserving of anything. There is no magic age at which a person gets to stop behaving in a respectful manner toward others, no “badge” for reaching the age of 60 that says, “You did great for the last 6 decades, now you can take a break from being decent!” Not only that, but people who lack age and experience are not undeserving of respect. How is a child supposed to achieve proper relationship building without given a chance to exercise the process?
Additionally, I have found the points made in Kohn’s book to be applicable to marriage and work relationships. On the surface it seems simple – people will not behave in a way that benefits you if you treat them poorly. The difficulty comes in when defining poor treatment – obviously there are a lot of people out there who think that TALKING LOUDER to enforce their point rather than providing information with which to reason is just fine. This book is mainly targeted toward those people (unfortunately, I have doubts that those people are reading this book).
So, why the conflicted feelings? I think part of the problem with anything that suggests behaving in a manner that is different than the societal norm will beg the question, “Sure, I can do this for my kids, but what if the rest of the family and world around him doesn’t? Is it a waste of time to deliver a message that is inconsistent with other messages my child is receiving?” The short answer to that is no, and I feel that anything positive a parent can do at home will provide a buffer against negative things the child experiences out of the home. Parental influence is strong, whether the child’s resultant behavior reflects it or not. That’s the thing with kids – you can do your best to raise them the “right” way and yet their interpretation of the things you teach them may look completely different than you thought it might.
I think it will also be difficult for any person who was not raised unconditionally to employ these methods. Not impossible, but since parenting is so complicated already, many would have difficulty being consistent. Still, it’s better than not trying at all.
Lastly, I have to admit to some doubt surrounding the lack of rewards. I understand the concept that an unconditional parent is attempting to foster intrinsic motivation rather than promising rewards that might be interpreted as a conditional token of affection (i.e. “If you act the way I want you to, I’ll give you what your little heart desires.”). There is a lot of manipulation going on with rewards, and that definitely doesn’t sit well with me. Still, how does a parent do something nice for their child without it being interpreted as a reward for behavior? And how does this fit with a person whose “love language” is gift giving? This is one point that I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around, and I think it will take some more thought on my part.
I don’t think that the methods Alfie Kohn describes are fool-proof but there is a lot of good described in the book. I like the fact that it’s not about changing practice so much as changing intent and encouraging parents to think more about why they are making decisions and providing more information to their children instead of saying, “Because I said so.” There is certainly nothing wrong with love, reason, and respect.
If you’ve read this book or others like it, I’d love to hear your thoughts!