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