Thursday, January 17, 2013

Book Discussion: Chapter 1 of Unconditional Parenting

Back in December, I wrote about the introduction of Unconditional Parenting and shared a few of my thoughts as I finished the book.

In the first chapter of Unconditional Parenting, Alfie Kohn talks about conditional parenting, his term for the type of parenting that focuses on the behavior of children.
This book looks at one such distinction--namely, between loving kids for what they do and loving them for who they are. The first sort of love is conditional, which means children must earn it by acting in ways we deem appropriate, or by performing up to our standards. The second sort of love is unconditional: It doesn't hinge on how they act, whether they're successful or well behaved or anything else.
Though we might argue with the name he's given it, the description he provides of what this kind of parenting looks like is pretty much the type of parenting I see all around me and the type I've always thought I should employ. There's a spectrum, of course, but this "conditional parenting" is what seems familiar and sensible. If a child does not obey, I, the parent, should use force or some other tactic to ensure obedience in the future (time-outs, loss of privileges, making the child return and redo a chore or task, additional chores, whatever it might be).

What Mr. Kohn argues is that, from the child's point of view, we as parents are only happy with them if they behave in a particular way - generally by doing whatever we say whenever we say regardless of how the child feels or what the child thinks is right. He spends the rest of the first half of the book expanding on what conditional parenting is and why it's detrimental to a child's development into the person we probably want them to be and to the relationship between a parent and child.

Most parents will say they do love their children unconditionally but does a parent's behavior show that? When my children are disobedient, do I act like I love them anyway?
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. Educators remind us that what counts in a classroom is not what the teacher teaches; it's what the learner learns. And so it is in families. What matters is the message our kids receive, not the one we think we're sending.
Acting like I love my children when I am rushing, frustrated, or angry is extremely difficult. Even months after reading this book and considering it as I am reacting to them, I find myself struggling to respond with love when they are misbehaving. I find it particularly difficult with the two year old because two year olds are irrational beings, very loud destructive irrational beings.

Do I spend as much time thinking about why my children are doing something as I do thinking about how I can get them to stop doing it? According to Mr. Kohn, knowing why a child is behaving a particular way may change how we react to that behavior.
Unconditional parenting assumes that behaviors are just the outward expression of feelings and thoughts, needs and intentions. In a nutshell, it's the child who engages in a behavior, not just the behavior itself, that matters...They act this way rather than that way for many different reasons, some of which may be hard to tease apart. But we can't just ignore those reasons and respond only to the effects (that is, the behaviors). Indeed, each of those reasons probably calls for a completely different course of action.
Notice this doesn't mean that all behaviors are permissible, or even that most behaviors are permissible. Mr. Kohn thinks the first step when a parent sees inappropriate behavior should be to think about why this is happening. (Of course, action should come immediately when there's danger involved.) With my little ones, the first example that comes to mind is thinking about how tired or hungry they might be when they start acting out. Remember that two year old I mentioned earlier? It is tremendously hard for a two year old to resist his impulses and is probably impossible if he is hungry or if it's time for a nap. If I could just remember that...

Some people would respond that children need to learn about the consequences of their actions. Punishments for misbehavior, then, are merely the first step in learning about bad things that will happen if they don't follow the rules when they're grown up. Mr. Kohn asks, though, if we need to teach our kids about consequences from a very early age.
When our kids grow up, there will be plenty of occasions for them to take their places as economic actors, as consumers and workers, where self-interest rules and the terms of each exchange can be precisely calculated. But unconditional parenting insists that the family ought to be a haven, a refuge, from such transactions. In particular, love from one's parents does not have to be paid for in any sense. It is purely and simply a gift. It is something to which all children are entitled.
We can't shield our children from all consequences, but perhaps we should shield young children as much as we can. As our children grow, Mr. Kohn would argue it's better to work with our children as they deal with consequences of their actions rather than simply subjecting them to an arbitrary (or a "natural") consequence.

I think this would probably fall along a spectrum. We would offer more assistance and buffers for a four year old than a sixteen year old, but even the sixteen year old would receive help rather than being left on his or her own to deal with "consequences." This makes sense to me. After all, if I want my sixteen year old daughter to come to me if (heaven forbid) she should find herself pregnant, than how should I respond if she oversleeps and misses the bus? If I refuse a ride in the latter situation, why should she trust me to respond with love and forgiveness in the first?

I'm just thinking my way through these chapters. I'm still not really sure where I'm going to find myself as a parent. Thoughts are welcome, especially if you've read the book.

Previous posts on Unconditional Parenting:
Thoughts on the Introduction


  1. Kansas Mom,
    Is sounds like this book takes a perspective very similar to "Shepherding a Child's Heart" by Tedd Tripp. If you haven't read that book, I highly recommend it.

    1. Dan, I have heard of that book, but haven't read it. I will put it on my list. Thanks!

  2. I continue to enjoy your thoughts, and hope you don't mind me chiming in even though I haven't read the book.

    I have typed and deleted no less than 15 different things now. I guess if nothing else this is giving me a lot of food for thought myself but my ability to articulate anything is nil at the moment.

    After all my typing and deleting (seriously, you'd laugh if you knew) I think the part about working through consequences with kids rather than subjecting them to them arbitrarily really hits the nail on the head, and that this can be done in a loving and appropriate way whether our children are toddlers or adults. I think society would tell us otherwise, and too many people just want a magical equation that will make their kids behave well so they can go on with their busy lives (which I think is another huge issue in and of itself, but that's a whole other tangent), but when you go overboard with enforced consequences, natural or arbitrary, the long-term (and maybe even unintended) lesson it teaches is that "might makes right" and you get kids who learn early on to manipulate and it just becomes a vicious circle (IMHO).

    1. Oh, Monica, you have mentioned a number of the arguments Kohn makes in this book! If we use punishments and rewards to get kids to do what we like, we're just teaching them how to manipulate the people around them. If we focus on what will happen to them if they do something wrong, we're just teaching them they should only do the right thing if the wrong thing will bring bad consequences back to them. (I'm not sure that makes sense the way I've written it, but it'll probably come up again in the posts.)

  3. Thanks! Curious for you to post more, and still debating about whether to just read the book myself. I'd probably want my hubby to read it too though so we could discuss it together, rather than me having to relay everything to him, and he just doesn't have time to read. SO....

  4. Monica, you could read it out loud to him. We've never done that, but I know of at least three couples that read out loud to each other regularly and always liked the idea.

  5. Hmmmmmm,I'll have to think about that. I've read bits and pieces of this and that to him aloud before when it seems important enough, so that may be a good idea.

  6. I have been thinking about the idea of unconditional parenting though I haven't read the book and while I firmly agree that I want my children to know that I love them no matter what their actions or reactions and I want them to understand why we do certain things, I don't think the idea of consequences necessarily takes away from this. Especially in a big family. For example, my 3 year old will occasionally make incredibly unreasonable demands (as do all 3 year olds) and I try to patiently answer his questions and firmly tell him no when his demands are not possible but at some point his 1 year old brother needs me to help him (or something else) and Asher simply has to obey. So he can go to bed because he is tired. He would tell me one more thing for an hour and this is just not feasible or reasonable. I can allow my children a lot of grace but if hey don't learn that you can't scream no matter how hungry or tired you are then this will impact their relationship aitbb friends and family. And if my 16 year old oversleeps I would definitely take her to school but I would also ask her to help out in an extra way - watch a sibling so I could get extra work done since I was late for work. Hopefully not yelling at her but she needs to understand that behaviors do have real consequences. And my 9 year old needs to understand that when he has a really bad attitude it will affect my desire to play a game with him the next time. Not in a snarky, mean way but so he understands that his behavior does effect how others feel. I'm rambling but I think many parenting ideas work if you have infinite time and no other demands and that's not realistic. And I will add that our listening the first time sticker chart for our 3 year old has worked and we try to help him understand that if he listens the first time there is more time for other things and our family is happier.

    I think all these things do take patience and love in your response and lots of explanation so kids do know that the love is there unconditionally.

  7. Becca, I think you're right that there has to be a balance. Even Kohn says there are times when you just have to get out the door and you certainly can't let your child go without a diaper change just because he or she doesn't want it.

    But I think what I'm starting to consider is how to order our home and our lives so that the battles are at a minimum. Are there times when I set limits that really aren't necessary? When we encounter problems, do I place myself beside my children in order to solve them, or do I decide what the answer is and dictate it?

    I have to admit that I have failed to get through a whole day employing his recommendations. So far it just seems unworkable. But perhaps it's one of those lofty goals we should strive toward even when faced with near certain failure? I am reminded of the title of the last parenting book I read: Parenting with Grace. I used to always think of elegance and calm when I thought of that title, but the authors really meant with the grace of God. There's certainly no other way to parent unconditionally.


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