Friday, December 21, 2012

Book Discussion: Unconditional Parenting

Kansas Dad read Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason by Alfie Kohn first and suggested I read it. I'm not sure why it wasn't on my list already since I read Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes years ago and was intrigued. (You can read what I wrote about it here.)

I've read the whole book now but I'm still mulling it over in my head. I've made notes on each of the chapters and thought I would write a little bit about them on the blog to see if I can figure out what I think about it all. This post is just the beginning, with a few quotes from the introduction. There are ten chapters, but I'm not certain I'll post about all of them.

Essentially, Mr. Kohn is suggesting we consider seriously the use of rewards and punishments in our parenting. He uses the phrase unconditional parenting to describe a type of parenting vastly different from what you may encounter in typical parenting magazines or books. Frankly, it might be vastly different from anything you see in your neighborhood. Even after reading the book, I find it a little difficult to define this parenting style. It begins with the desire to fulfill a child's needs and a refusal to make those needs subservient to eliciting a particular behavior from the child.

In unconditional parenting, parents don't do things to a child (like send him to a time-out or physically move his hand to grab a toy and drop it into a toy box). Instead, it means working with a child to solve problems.
[C]onventional approaches to parenting such as punishments (including "time-outs"), rewards (including positive reinforcement), and other forms of control teach children that they are loved only when they please us or impress us.
After reading the whole book, I have to admit, I like the ideas. If I were to imagine myself as the perfect parent, this book has described exactly how I'd like to talk with my children and the way I'd like to build a relationship with them. Repeatedly, I found myself recalling Parenting with Grace and, though they don't mention this book at all, I think they'd agree with many of the suggestions.
Are my everyday practices likely to help my children grow into the kind of people I'd like them to be? Will the things I just said to my child at the supermarket contribute in some small way to her becoming happy and balanced and independent and fulfilled and so on--or is it possible (gulp) that the way I tend to handle such situations makes those outcomes less likely? If so, what should I be doing instead?
This quote is one of the reasons this book captured my attention. In the past, I've sometimes wondered if my behavior as we rush the kids out the door to go to Mass hindered my ability to receive the blessings of the Mass itself. Now I also wonder if it hinders the ability of the children to receive those blessings. Perhaps it's better to be a few minutes late and to arrive without having yelled at the older ones or physically wrestled a smaller one into clothes she doesn't want to wear. Is she in a state of mind to listen and learn, to feel loved by Jesus in the Eucharist? Or is she spending the entire Mass fretting about her clothes or wondering why Mama yelled?

I used to think I wanted my children to be quiet at church, for them to pay attention. Now I'm wondering if my real goes isn't that they learn to love the Mass. How should my behavior at Mass with them be different to address this loftier goal? How should my expectations of them change now and as they grow to meet that goal?

After relating an incident where a fellow passenger on an airplane complimented the parents of a child who was quiet by saying he was good:
Consider for a moment the key word in that sentence. Good is an adjective often laden with moral significance. It can be a synonym for ethical or honorable or compassionate. However, where children are concerned, the word is just as likely to mean nothing more than quiet--or, perhaps, not a pain in the butt to me. Overhearing that comment in the plane, I had a little ding! moment of my own. I realized that this is what many people in our society seem to want most from children: not that they are caring or creative or curious, but simply that they are well behaved. A "good" child--from infancy to adolescence--is one who isn't too much trouble to us grown-ups.
Alfie Kohn has no illusions that this kind of parenting is easy. One of my fears is that this kind of parenting is impossible. Thinking about it more, I am reminded again of Parenting with Grace. The "Grace" in the title doesn't mean parenting in a graceful way, calm and composed. It means parenting with the Grace of God. Though Mr. Kohn doesn't seem to be a religious person, I'm not sure I could possible succeed even a little in unconditional parenting without the grace of God.
There are times when my best strategies fall flat, when my patience runs out, when I just want my kids to do what I tell them. It's hard to keep the big picture in mind when one of my children is shrieking in a restaurant. For that matter, it's sometimes hard to remember the kind of people we want to be when we're in the middle of a hectic day, or when we feel the pull of less noble impulses. It's hard, but it's still worthwhile.
There is the great question this book has raised in my mind: Am I the kind of person I want to be when I am with my children? Am I the kind of person I want them to be?


  1. Thanks for blogging on this, I've been very curious. Still debating about checking it out and reading. I liked "Parenting With Grace".

    Here's my take on the whole "time-out" thing though, because I know Parenting With Grace was kind of "anti" time-out. And pardon me while I ramble...I am not a huge fan of using time-outs as a direct punishment, but I have a very short temper as does my daughter. If she (or both of us) don't spend a bit of time in "time-out" (or more aptly cool-down time) we are completely unproductive in working anything out and things escalate to epic proportions. So while I don't necessarily send her to time-out as a punishment, I send her (and myself) there a lot just so we can get our cool before working through things. Take sass...she has gotten terribly sassy, and if I try to talk her through talking nicely it usually does not go well, she just gets sassier, and I have the bad habit of starting to sass back, and so goes the vicious circle. If I immediately tell her to correct herself nicely and she does, then we're good. If she doesn't she is sent (or taken) to her room where she will usually slam the door and scream, but once cooled down we can rationally talk through things, she can answer me respectfully (and I can be respectful to her) and we move on. Until it happens again.

    So I guess what I'm saying is I have no idea how to completely avoid timeouts or we might all, well, it just wouldn't be pretty.

    If I were the perfect parent then yeah, we could handle it and I would be imminently patient, et al and we would live in a beautiful world of no time-outs or punishments or anything. But my daughter's not perfect and heaven knows I'm not. ANd there are probably parents out there with much longer fuses (my husband for example) that can handle things differently. But for where we are right now, I just feel it is the most effective approach. I guess what I'm asking is does the book take temperament of parent and child and such into account? Because I really do feel that that plays into parenting a lot more than most parenting books give it credit for..... Does this make sense?

  2. That being said, I rarely if ever use time-outs with my 2's and 3's. I find redirection or dealing with the problem in a very simple way (IE apologizing for hitting) and then quickly moving on to be much more effective and feel like time-outs really don't teach the desired "lesson" for that age.

  3. Monica, he's actually really not helpful in terms of actual suggestions for different situations. Instead, it's more like he gives these generic questions that apply to the person you want your child to be. I do remember he said that parents should feel free to remove themselves from situations as necessary to remain calm. And he said there's nothing wrong at all with a child who chooses to remove themselves from a situation. I think he would say even a "forced" time-out would be alright if the child could choose where to go and when to return (though don't quote me on that).

    I've personally found time-outs ineffective because the kids have always been just as happy wherever I put them so generally I don't bother. I do sometimes ask them to go relax or calm down and come back when they're ready. I suppose he would think that was ok, but sometimes it's hard to tell.

    He does acknowledge over and over again that this kind of parenting is very difficult, must more difficult than the behavior modification techniques most parenting books advocate.

  4. Interesting. And I would guess you have a different perspective on the book as well simply because you have children who have hit the age of reason, and have generally been at this longer than I.
    In my opinion most of the "behavior modification" techniques I've read about seem very manipulative and gimicky.
    So would you recommend this book for others (me) to read? Or should I just get my summary vicariously through you? (kidding. sort of.)

  5. I'm still not sure he's right about everything, but I do think I'd recommend the book to anyone who thinks he might be, to see if he convinces you. This approach does work better as children grow up, but even Second Daughter (at four) can be reasoned with, at least sometimes. There's no real reason to rush, though, if you're willing to wait until I finish my posts. Then you can decide if you think it's worth reading.

    I agree that a lot of the techniques seem manipulative or just wrong. Maybe I just want him to be right so I can justify avoiding those kinds of things even when I've seen them get results in terms of children being quiet at Mass (for example).

  6. You know, I was talking to my spiritual director (who is a priest) about children behaving/being quiet at Mass here last summer and he had some insight that has really given me some peace when it comes to that issue. He basically made the point that a lot of children behave out of fear, not because it's the right thing to do. Learning to behave because it is the right thing to do is hard, and it takes a long time (heck, I'm still learning ;-D). But it's a lifetime process, not a gimick. Kids are going to act like kids because they are, well, kids. And no, it's not OK to use that as a blanket excuse for bad behavior and just turn the other way and let them run wild at Mass, but if you are genuinely trying (and I know you are Kansas Mom, with your involvement in CGS, and just the things I know about you as a parent) then that is ultimately what matters. Even if they misbehave, or are loud or obnoxious or you leave Mass and don't even remember what the homily was about, if you continue to try, to teach them through your Christ-like example, to continually *gently* turn them in the right direction, then you're doing the right thing. Even on the bad days. You've got to look at the big picture. I think often with parenting it's hard to see the forest for the trees simply due to the sheer fact that surviving the next hour at times seems impossible. And it's times like those that I think a lot of parents pick up the "quick fix" books and voile. But many of those books don't show the long term repercussions and I truly believe that you are not doing your child any favors whatsoever parenting them in that way. Parenting isn't supposed to be easy.

    Does that make sense? It was a good pep talk for me anyways.

    Thanks for the discussion, I appreciate it and look forward to more reviews of this book.


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