Book Review: Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn

I’ve been meaning to read this book for quite awhile, and finally got around to checking it out at the library last week.  On the front cover it says, “A provocative challenge to the conventional wisdom about discipline,” and that is certainly true.  In the first few chapters, he discusses what he calls “conditional parenting.”  The premise of the book is that kids need to feel that they are loved unconditionally.  This is not the same thing as their parents loving them unconditionally; most parents believe that they do that.  The child has to not only BE loved unconditionally, but FEEL loved unconditionally.  Mr. Kohn is opposed to punishment as a form of discipline, suggesting that parents instead look at circumstances where traditional parents punish as an opportunity to work towards solving the problem *with* the child, rather than doing something *to* the child.  He looks at one very popular form of punishment these days: the time-out.  The way this is often done, he says, is a form of love withdrawal.  “You do something I don’t like, and I isolate you until you conform.”

What may be even harder to wrap your mind around is that when it comes to unconditional parenting, praise is just the other side of the punishment coin.  He says that praise implies that we approve of our children more when they behave in ways we like, and that they begin doing things in order to get praise, rather than because they’re the right things to do.  Both praise and punishment create feelings of insecurity and self-centeredness, and everything becomes about what will be done to them or for them if they do x, y, or z.   He also looks at how we define “success.”  And most importantly, he talks about long-term goals.  What do we want for our children in the long term?  We want them to be happy, confident, independent, successful (whatever that may mean for us).  But the things we do in the short term are often designed to elicit a specific behavior – usually, compliance to our demands.

Once he finished discussing the problems with punishment and praise in parenting (often citing research and the opinions of professionals), he goes on to discuss the principles of unconditional parenting.  These are:

  1. Be reflective.
  2. Reconsider your requests.
  3. Keep your eye on your long-term goals.
  4. Put the relationship first.
  5. Change how you see, not just how you act.
  6. Respect.
  7. Be authentic.
  8. Talk less, ask more.
  9. Keep their ages in mind.
  10. Attribute to children the best possible motive consistent with the facts.
  11. Don’t stick to your no’s unnecessarily.
  12. Don’t be rigid.
  13. Don’t be in a hurry.

The only problem I see with this book is only that most parents won’t read it.  We’ve come a little way in how we view children, but we still have a long way to go, and most parents have traditional principles of parenting too deeply ingrained to consider an approach where a child gets more autonomy, more freedom, more power in his own life.  Another probable reason this book is not more popular among parents is that there is no easy fix.  There isn’t a list of canned responses you can make to your child to get him to act the way you want.  There are no formulas.  The book is about knowing your child, respecting him, communicating with him in an honest and age-appropriate way.

I see this as a book that sets aside what we’ve been told over the years, and lays out what we should have known instinctively, with our own common sense.  It’s analogous to birth, where once we begin to look at the research and use our common sense regarding procedures and interventions, we see that everything we were raised to believe about birth is wrong.  I challenge parents to read this book, and spend a few weeks living by its principles, and see how the relationship with your children changes.