Books, Family, Reflections

Unconditional Parenting – Alfie Kohn

Where to begin?

This book had popped up several times in various of my reading sources over the past year.  I finally tracked down a copy at a distant branch of the library last month.   I knew, from what I had read previously, that I was going to be challenged by it.  And I was.

This is a discussion book rather than a techniques book.  He is clear about that from the start, and reiterates it throughout.  It is thought provoking, caustic, witty, and caring.  He does not pull punches, neither soften the blow when describing parenting techniques that you or I may currently be defaulting to.   I found it uncomfortable to read at times, and perhaps this is why it took quite so long to finish it.  Perhaps it was also his writing style.  I had to concentrate, in the late night* reading sessions that I am restricted to, and re-read passages on more than one occasion.

The main thrust of the book is to challenge our unquestioning belief that rewards and punishments, in all their guises, is the right way to raise our children.  Throughout the text you are referenced to further notes at the back where he may expand upon the points being made. Then after the notes and unlike many parenting books, this one has a large section of references.  Eleven pages, all up, of scholarly journal articles and various books.

His is a continuation of the ideas first encountered by me in How to Talk So Kids Will Listen, and Listen So Kids Will Talk.  He feels further along that continuum of parenting than Faber and Mazlish but that could be because he is discussing the actual paradigms themselves and the consequences to the children of mindlessly following the mainstream accepted practices.  He offers ideas in the latter half of the book, but nothing concrete with which to transition from traditional styles.  I understand that he feels each culture, group, parent, child and situation are different and a “one size fits all” approach is not the way forward.  But I do think that for parents wanting to apply themselves to a no-reward, no-punishment style of parenting are left with too little to help them towards it.

I am glad that I read it.  I may even buy it, in order to revisit the ideas and keep my mind on the end goal.  But I think that for practical, helping me to change my style, advice I will stick with Faber and Mazlish.  They are certainly coming at parenting from the same end of the spectrum, and most importantly they have concrete ideas and suggestions for how to replace one form of parenting with another less intrusive, more respectful way.

Saying all of that, I would highly recommend reading this if you want to keep your mind alive and open to the differences in the way parenting can be carried out.  It will, most probably, prod and poke you.  It may prick your conscience.  You may even have a strong negative reaction to it.  It will all depend on you.  And that is one more strength of this book – you can assess parenting styles by how you feel, how you were brought up.  You don’t have to take his word for how child-parent interactions work – just take a good, long, hard look at how you are as a person now.

Okay, so here are some snippets for you so you get an idea of what the book is like.

It may sound obvious, but we sometimes seem to forget that, even when kids do rotten things, our goal should not be to make them feel bad, nor to stamp a particular behaviour out of existence.  Rather, what we want is to influence the way they think and feel, to help them become the kind of people who wouldn’t want to act cruelly.  And, of course, our other goal is to avoid injuring our relationship with them in the process.

The aim is to help them come into their own morals.  Not force them to obey “the rules”.  In essence to have an internal guide for what is right, not an external “bogey man”.

On what I found to be quite a humorous note:

The exhortation to “be the parent!” usually is intended to mean that you should take control, put your foot down.  But I use that phrase to mean that you should rise above the temptation of a childish quid pro quo: “Oh yeah? Well, if you’re not going to do your chores, then I’m not going to give you dessert! So there!”  Many books actually encourage this sort of parental behaviour (without the “Oh, yeah?” and “So there!” of course).  Once you think about it, it’s pretty obvious how unhelpful this sort of response really is.

And another prod at this sort of parenting behaviour:

Do we want to act with our children as though we, too, were six years old?  An awful lot of what passes for discipline consists of tit-for-tat responses that merely give us the satisfaction of getting even.

I liked this question too.  It squarely puts it back on us to “be the parent” and show our kids that they are loved unconditionally.

The first question here is so obvious that many of us never stop to think about it: What is my mood usually like when I’m with my kids?  Of course, this isn’t a concern for the kind of people whose sunny smiles never dim no matter what the circumstances. […] But what about the rest of us, who regard such chronically happy parents with a mixture of envy and incredulity?  We can’t just will ourselves to become more cheerful or patient people.  But we can, and we should, invest the effort to be as positive as possible with our kids.

And, in an interesting note about the dichotomy that this may bring about between home and *out there*, be it school or elsewhere:

The result may continue to be that your child is treated one way at home and another way at school.  Here, the focus is on reasons and values; there, on behaviors.  Here, he’s led to consider the consequences of his actions to others; there, the consequences to himself.  Here, he’s encouraged to think; there, to do what he’s told.  Here, he’s appreciated for who he is; there, only for what he does.

It makes for some amount of pondering over. I am particularly taken with his ideas around consequences.

I’d love to hear your opinions on this book, and suggestions for any others like it.


* not so late for most, but recently anything after 8p.m. counts as late into the night here.

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