Book Review: “Unconditional Parenting” by Alfie Kohn

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 (Photo via Stephan Hocchaus, Flickr CC)

All children have one basic need: to be loved unconditionally.

This is the basic premise of American author Alfie Kohn’s 2005 book Unconditional Parenting: moving from rewards and punishments to love and reason. What parent would disagree with that? I don’t think any.

But, what if I said to you that Kohn argues that the traditional parenting method of punishing bad behavior and rewarding good behavior actually sends a message of conditional love to our children? Skeptical? Me, too, before reading this book. But, now that I’ve finished it, I cannot recommend it enough for parents. In fact, it has also made me reflect on my eight years of teaching; so, I would also recommend it to teachers.

You might be wondering why write a review on a book unrelated to bilingualism. Well, whether you’re raising children in one or three languages, you’re most likely  interested in reading books on the general topic of parenting. And, I think you should add this book to your “to read” list.

Here are a few lessons I’ve learned from this book:

(1) Parent paradigm shift

Kohn’s book has caused me to change how I view my role as mother from  “how can I get my daughter to do X?” (what Kohn calls “conditional” parenting, a style of parenting essentially rooted in the Behaviorist thought of American psychologist B.F. Skinner) to “how can I work with, or problem solve with” my child? This shift in thinking has helped me begin to see my daughter not as my adversary, not as a child out to manipulate me, but rather as a complex being who is more than just the sum of her actions and behavior (see #5 below).

(2) Punishment – 

Whether physical like spanking or seemingly benign like a “time-out,” punishment, according to Kohn, is not only ineffective in helping children learn, and internalize, right from wrong, but it’s also harmful. After E. was born, friends and family would occasionally ask if D. and I thought spanking was okay. I was leaning more towards time-out because to me it seemed rational and pacific and would allow for E. to think about or process her inappropriate behavior. The opposite turns out to be true.

Did you know (I didn’t!) that the term “time out” is “…an abbreviation for time out from positive reinforcement” (26) and that it originates from the work of behaviorist psychologists in the 1950s? (A colleague of Skinners published an article (1958) called “Control of Behavior of Chimpanzees and Pigeons by Time-out from Positive Reinforcement” (26)). Kohn argues that when a parent responds to a child’s misbehavior or disobedience by sending him to his bedroom for “time-out” “…what’s really being switched off or withdrawn is your presence, your attention, your love” (27).  But, of course that’s not what I mean! You are probably thinking (I thought that at first, too). But, Kohn says that “how we feel about our kids isn’t as important as how they experience those feelings and how they regard the way we treat them” (2).

(3) Positive Reinforcement –

Equally ineffective, as well as potentially damaging, is positive reinforcement. (I wrote in detail about this point in a previous blog post, which you can read here.) Kohn asserts that phrases like “good job!” aren’t “…descriptions; [they’re] judgment[s]. And that has unsettling implications for how children are likely to perceive how [parents] feel about them. Instead of ‘I love you,’ what praise may communicate is ‘I love you because you’ve done well’” (36). Although any sincere parent would argue, “Of course I don’t mean that when I say ‘good job’ to my child’s art drawing,” what matters, Kohn argues, is not what we think, but what our children perceive we mean.

Unfortunately, continual empty praise (e.g., “good job!” when your child swings high at the park) from parents can “…morph into conditional self-approval…” or “worse, positive reinforcement often creates a vicious circle that’s reminiscent of what we find with love withdrawal: The more we praise, the more our children need to be praised” (40). Can a parent not express sincere pride and joy for their child? Of course not! Kohn does address this in the book.

(4) Choices for children

What would you say if I told you that parents say “no” too often, instead of not enough? Or, if I said that most parents actually control their children too much?

Kohn argues that, as a matter of morality, “all people [including children] ought to have some control over their own lives” (167). And, the more parents allow their children to experience a sense of autonomy “…children are more likely to do what they’re asked and less likely to behave” (168). Kohn encourages parents to experiment for a day: count how many times you tell your child “no” and then ask yourself if each of those times it was absolutely necessary (i.e., for the child’s safety) or if it was because the ensuing behavior would have been an inconvenience for you. (I did, and I was shocked at how often I said “no” and not for reasons of safety.) I was left wondering how I can give my daughter a greater sense of autonomy even though she’s only 15 months old.

(5) The whole child –

Parents need to look at the whole child, not just his/her behavior. This means, for example, when my daughter hits me in the face, it’s not just that isolated behavior that I need to address, but rather her situation, the greater context. Is she tired? Is she hungry? Since she can’t yet speak, is this her way of communicating frustration or maybe overstimulation? So, before addressing my daughter’s behavior, Kohn suggests that we emotionally and/or physically connect (instead of a time-out, which communicates “love withdrawal”) with our child (to show our unconditional love) in order to bring her to a calm state in which she is ready to listen and internalize our discussion of why said behavior was wrong. After all, we want our children to want to make healthy and moral decisions (intrinsic motivation), not just act correctly for a reward (extrinsic).

So, what are the alternatives then to punishments and rewards? Our main question, Kohn states, “…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?‘” (118). And, yes, he does provide a long list (13 strategies to be exact) of alternatives to punishments and rewards. I’ll let you read his book to find out what they are!

There is so much more I could write here in my review, but I will limit myself to these five points. If any of the ideas here have struck a chord with you, or even if you find yourself vehemently disagreeing with Kohn’s arguments, I encourage you to read the book in its entirety. Somehow, even after a million edits to this post, I still don’t feel like I’ve done the book justice.

Interested in learning more about Alfie Kohn, or want to read some of his work? You can check out his website here.

Have you read Unconditional Parenting, or another book by Kohn? What are your thoughts? Any other parenting books (related or not to bilingual parenting) that you recommend? Drop me line. I’d love to hear from you!

One thought on “Book Review: “Unconditional Parenting” by Alfie Kohn

  1. Pingback: Españolita hits 100 posts! | Españolita...¡sobre la marcha!

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