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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
Focus Whole child (including reasons, thoughts, feelings) Behavior
View of Human Nature Positive or balanced Negative
View of Parental Love A gift A privilege to be earned
Strategies "Working with" (Problem-solving) "Doing to" (Control via rewards and 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  • When you send your child away, what's really being switched off or withdrawn is your presence, your attention, you love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...
"I like the way you..." saying nothing (and just paying attention)
"Good drawing! I love those pictures!" describing, rather than evaluating, what you see: "Hey, there's something new on the feet of those people you just drew. They've got toes."
"You're such a great helper!" explaining the effects of the child's action on other people: "You set the table! That makes things a lot easier on me while I'm cooking."
"That was a great essay you wrote." inviting reflection: "How did you come up with that way of grabbing the reader's attention right at the beginning?"
"Good sharing, Michael." asking, rather than judging: "What made you decide to give some of 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."