Saturday, March 2, 2013

Book Discussion: Chapter 4 of Unconditional Parenting

The quotes in this post are all from the fourth chapter of Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason by Alfie Kohn: Punitive Damages.
Announcing how we plan to punish children ("Remember, if you do x, then I'll do y to you") may salve our conscience because we gave them fair warning, but all we've really done is threaten them. We've told them in advance exactly how we'll make them suffer if they fail to obey.
Oh, my, this is exactly what I do when I'm trying to get my kids into the van after an excursion - almost word for word, "Remember, if you can't leave when it's time, then next time someone asks us to come to the zoo, I'll have to say no because you wouldn't leave when it was time." I thought I was being reasonable. Is it really just a threat? What's the unconditional parenting way to get them into the van when it's time to go? (The last time we went to the zoo, I ended up carrying Second Son kicking and screaming to the van but I didn't use this line. I wonder if that was an unconditional parenting success or failure?)

Then there are "natural consequences." Using natural consequences as a parenting method
invites parents to discipline by inaction--that is, by refusing to help. If a child is late for dinner, we're supposed to let her go hungry. If she leaves her raincoat at school, we're supposed to let her get wet the following day...the far more powerful lesson that she's likely to take away is that we could have helped--but didn't.
I used to think this is a great way for kids to learn about consequences of their actions. As children grow into teenagers and young adults, I believe they can take more responsibility for their own lives and, when they have everything they need to be successful and know that they are now the responsible party, I think there could be great benefit to allowing them to experience consequences. However, I do not think this is a good tactic for young children. If my four year old refuses to take her coat to the zoo (which she did), I do not think I should let her shiver in the winter chill all day long. She is simply not capable of rationally making a decision about leaving her coat.

As children age, they can take greater responsibility for their actions. A teenager may very well have to suffer consequence for something like missing the bus, but I think it's a far stronger position as a parent to sit down with him and say something like, "I'm sorry you have missed the bus. Let's think together about how to handle this situation. Do you have any suggestions?" In this way, we can help develop problem-solving skills in our children, modeling the thought process as necessary. Perhaps more importantly, (hopefully) they will understand that we will always be available for help if they do get in over their heads.

Mr. Kohn writes that people continue to punish when it doesn't seem to be working (in gaining compliance), but I didn't find that a compelling argument against punishment at all. His method probably isn't going to work on the first try, either. Parenting young children in particular will always seem to be a circular endeavor; we have to repeat ourselves every day or every hour for years. I'm not sure how long that lasts, but I know I say the some of the same things to my nine-year-old that I say to my two-year-old.

For him, all punishment is equal: corporal punishment, grounding, time-outs, "natural consequences." Everything. But it's not clear to me that is true.

He has six main theories explaining why punishment fails:
  1. Punishment leads to anger.  Perhaps they'll think about how to get revenge. This seems particularly likely for kids who are grounded or sent to their rooms to "think about their actions." (I was thinking about this theory when I posted this Caddie Woodlawn quote.)
  2. Using punishment teaches children that those who are powerful are able to make and enforce the rules, even if they are unfair or morally wrong.
  3. Punishment becomes less effective over time. It's just not possible to exert the same control over a fifteen-year-old as a five-year-old. 
  4. Punishing a child damages the trust and security children should have in their parents.
  5. Punishment distracts children from the main point.
    [P]unishment doesn't lead children to focus on what they've done, much less on why they did it or what they should have done leads them to think about how mean their parents are and maybe how they're going to get their revenge...[and] on the punishment itself: how unfair it is and how to avoid it next time.
  6. Finally, punishment encourages children to see only the effects on themselves rather than how their actions might have affected other people. Taken to the extreme, that line of thinking may lead them to believe they can do things that are immoral as long as they can avoid any external harm to themselves.
These theories make sense to me. I know I've been in these situations myself. Even as an adult, I find it extremely difficult to step back and recognize the truth when I feel like I'm being "punished." (I'm thinking of public policy, laws, or employee evaluations here, not that anyone is physically punishing me for anything). Young children are probably completely incapable of setting their feelings aside to calmly reflect on a situation.
It's hard for them to sort out why someone who clearly cares for them also makes them suffer from time to time. It creates the warped idea, which children may carry with them throughout their lives, that causing people pain is part of what it means to love them. Or else it may simply teach that love is necessarily conditional, that it lasts only as long as people do exactly what you want.
Just in case you thought you could explain why you are punishing your child and avoid the pitfalls theorized above:
The truth is that explanation doesn't minimize the bad effects of punishment so much as punishment minimizes the good effects of explanation.
When someone is anticipating or experiencing punishment, they are not thinking about an explanation. They are thinking only about how they feel and how it's all someone else's fault.

Previous posts on Unconditional Parenting

Thoughts on the Introduction
Discussion of quotes from chapter 1
Discussion of quotes from chapter 2
Discussion of quotes from chapter 3


  1. I liked this chapter a lot. Really, the book has made me think so much more about what I do and say/how I do and say it to my kids. I find myself quite often thinking how I would feel in their shoes, especially when I am acting like a crazed fire-breathing dragon. Kids are people too. My husband has said for a long time that there is no reason to treat or talk to a child in a way that you wouldn't treat or talk to an adult (or want to be treated or talked to yourself), especially when it comes to respect.

    I think parenting is more spiral than circular. I will often find when we are having a particular issue it will seem horrible, and I feel like I am repeating myself a million times, etc. But then all of a sudden several months have passed by and said issue has become non-issue. It doesn't happen at once and it's so easy to feel like my life is a continual day-long butting of head against wall, but I find when I step back and look at things from farther off, it is easier to see our progress. It's hard to see the forest for the trees sometimes, especially with the toddler/preschool crowd.

    It sounds silly, but one of the things this book has done is helped me get past my guilt for not punishing my kids/enforcing a consequence over every little thing. There are many times I compare myself to others (which II probably shouldn't be doing in the first place) and feel like I'm being lenient with my kids by not punishing them for the million little infractions I often see other kids punished for (does that make sense?) and this has given me a way of making my thought process a little more concrete as to why I do (or don't I suppose) respond the way I do to the things they do. And I will agree 100%, I think punishments/natural consequences/time-outs, what have you, teach kids to look out for themselves first and most, and worry about how their actions will effect themselves above others. And that's not real life. Not real *Christian* life anyways.

    As for natural consequences, I couldn't agree more. They need to be age appropriate, and it is much more kind/empathetic/whatever to actually sit down and work *through* them with your kids in a sincere way than just standing back and watching.

    Compliance is handy, and punishment/consequences may achieve more consistent compliance, but at what long-term cost?

    Thanks for hashing out your thoughts. I took this book back after finishing it a week or so ago, so it's nice to kind of go through it again via your blog.

  2. Monica, I like your husband's thoughts on how we should be respectful to our children. I realize the parent-young child relationship is different than any between adults, but if anything, perhaps it should be more respectful and loving. I've started thinking more carefully through the kinds of things I say to my children now and trying to filter out the kinds of things I would be embarrassed to say to another adult or that I would find insulting if they were said to me.

  3. He also often reminds me that parenting is one big 18 year long experiment. Ah the voice of reason...


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