Thursday, April 11, 2013

Book Discussion: Chapter 6 of Unconditional Parenting

The quotes in this post are all from the sixth chapter of Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason by Alfie Kohn: What Holds Us Back?. 

In this chapter, Mr. Kohn asks why people choose not to use unconditional parenting.
If conditional and control-based parenting are really as bad as I say they are--and, more important, if they're as bad as scientific research and real-world experience show they are--then why are they so popular? Or, to put it differently, what holds so many of us back from being better parents?
The tone of his question seems to imply we have all learned about unconditional parenting and dismissed it as a valid way to parent. I think it's more likely people have never heard a strong argument in favor of this method. I haven't read extensively in the "how to parent" genre, but like any parent I've read much in newspapers and magazines as well as talked a lot with other parents. Mr. Kohn's book is really the first to argue for this particular type of parenting.

I think a better question is why the so-called parenting experts have not been writing and talking more about unconditional parenting. This chapter focuses more on addresses the arguments of individuals against using unconditional parenting rather than those of doctors, researchers, and other experts, though it does talk a little bit about our American society.
[O]ur culture isn't especially supportive of children in general, nor is there a surfeit of fondness for particular children unless they're cute and well behaved. If there's any collective affection, it's conditional at best.
It's nice to see someone admit that in a book.
Here's the point: If children in general aren't held in great esteem, it becomes easier for parents, even basically good parents, to treat their own kids disrespectfully. And to the extent that we ourselves harbor a dim view of children, we may be less likely, as I suggested in chapter 1, to offer unconditional love to any child, even our own, since we fear they'll just take advantage and try to get away with as much as they can.
On a day-to-day basis, it's hard to argue with the results of typical parenting. First of all, it's easier than unconditional parenting: "doing to" and making demands is much simpler and faster than "working with" a young child. We haven't instituted unconditional parenting completely in our home, but even in the small things I've done, I've had other parents tell me they would "not put up with that kind of behavior." (In this case, we were talking about getting my four year old dressed and out the door for a class. Rather than telling Second Daughter what to wear or dressing her myself, I had talked with her about what she should wear for the weather that day and the class she was attending and then talked with her each time she selected something I thought was inappropriate. In the end, we both walked out the door happy with what she was wearing and in time for her class, but later than I had originally intended.)

Secondly, typical (conditional) parenting does seem to get results. In the short term, using rewards and punishments changes a child's behavior in the way a parent wants. I think it takes a brave parent (and I'm not sure I'm there yet) to go against popular opinion and use unconditional parenting when we fear our children are going to misbehave and therefore prove that unconditional parenting doesn't work and we, therefore, are not good parents.

I want to be brave, though, and trust that unconditional parenting is going to help my children be the people God wants them to be. The more I consider my interactions with my children, the more I see the beauty of unconditional parenting and how it allows me to treat my children with the respect they deserve and to model the unconditional love God the Father has for all of us.

I know my relationship a child is not the same as my relationship with another adult, but sometimes I cringe when I think what I might feel if another adult said to me some of the things I have said to my children (and that are encouraged by conditional parenting techniques). Many of them seem even worse if I imagine someone I loved and respected saying them to me. For example, some parenting books recommend using the silent treatment with your children if they have behaved in a way that displeased you. Yet, I doubt any good book on marriage would recommend employing the silent treatment on a spouse.

The answer, though, is not permissiveness. That's an important idea. When trying to break out of a conditional parenting mindset, it's difficult to imagine how something like unconditional parenting is not permissiveness, but we should not let kids run wild. That, actually, would be ignoring children more than employing unconditional parenting.
That's an argument not for more discipline, but for grown-ups to spend more time with kids, to give them more guidance, and to treat them with more respect.
Then he gave an interesting argument - that many parenting books and advice columns present parenting as an "adversarial" relationship. As I thought about this statement, I realized it is often true. Parenting advice is often about getting a child to do what the parent wants without regard to the child's thoughts or feelings, only his or her actions.

Do I really want parenting my children to be about "winning battles" or "outmaneuvering them?"

If we want to think about parenting as a "side-by-side" activity, as parents and children move through life together, learning and helping and guiding, rewards and punishments seem more clearly to work against our final goals.

Later, Mr. Kohn presents one of the arguments Kansas Dad found very compelling.
But in another, more important sense, those who rely on traditional discipline have a tendency to overestimate what children can manage on their own. Such parents don't understand--or else they just ignore--how kids below a certain age simply can't be expected to eat neatly or keep quiet in a public place. Young children don't yet possess the skills that would make it sensible to hold them accountable for their behavior in the same way that we hold an adult or even an older child accountable.
As a homeschooling mother, I find this thought particularly helpful. Just as I challenge and encourage my children as they move through a subject like math, I should challenge and encourage them in all their skills. It would not make sense for me to expect my third grade son to pass the AP exam in calculus and it may not make sense for me to expect my four year old daughter to pay attention to the homily at Mass. Rather than punishing her, I should make the accommodations she needs to help her through the Mass and to accept as much grace from her time in the church as she can. In this example, our help and guidance includes enrolling her in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program where she can learn about the Mass and how it shows God's great love for her, calling her attention back to the Mass when it wanders, quietly explaining how Father's homily applies to particular experiences she has had recently, marveling with her on the greatness of God's love, reading of our faith with her at home, practicing being still and reverent at home during family prayers, inviting her to share her thoughts with God, and so on.

I may not be right, of course, but the more I think of it, the more I believe my goal is not that Second Daughter be still at Mass, holding her hands in a prayerful way for 45 minutes, but that she come to love the Mass so when she is no longer living in our home, she will desire to attend on her own, that she will feel God's love and experience an overwhelming desire to want to praise and worship him. Not everyone feels that way every Sunday (or every day for daily Mass), but we experience it often enough to make the effort to attend and participate when we are struggling.

When Second Daughter is contemplating her confirmation or whether she will attend Mass when she's at college, will she look back at her childhood and remember Mass as a time when her parents faced her toward the altar with love and awe or will she remember Mass as a time of derision, anger, frustration, boredom, and punishment?

Then he gets to religion with a total of two paragraphs:
Further, while many religious people equate the idea of unconditionality with aspects of their faith, a case could be made, drawing on the holy books of Christianity and Judaism, that the deities in these religions offer the ultimate in conditional love. Both the Old and New Testaments repeatedly promise extravagant rewards for those who are properly reverent, and horrific punishments for those who aren't. God loves you if and only if you love Him--and, in some cases, if you meet various other criteria.
I've read a number of other reviews that rejected Mr. Kohn's entire book on the basis of these two paragraphs (quoted above only in part). Mr. Kohn's misunderstanding of the true love of God does not negate all of his arguments for unconditional parenting (and is, in fact, not that uncommon a belief about God). For me, the unconditional love of God is one of the strongest arguments in favor of unconditional parenting, that my actions as a parent should imitate his love for my children. 

I'll be honest here. One of the greatest hesitations I have in using unconditional parenting is how other parents, parents I know and respect, will respond. It's a difficult thing to go against the crowd.
As I've said, people in our culture are far more likely to fault parents for controlling too little rather than too much--and to approve of children because they're "well behaved" rather than because they're, say, curious. So when you combine the parent's anxiety about being judged with the likely direction of that judgment, you end up with this unsurprising fact: We're most likely to resort to coercive tactics, and to become preoccupied with the need to control our children, when we're out in public.
This was a good chapter. He addressed nearly everything I had running through my head when I thought of the reasons we shouldn't use unconditional parenting. I'm not sure I like all his answers, but at least he thought about and attempted to address many arguments against unconditional parenting.

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
Discussion of quotes from chapter 4
Discussion of quotes from chapter 5


  1. This paragraph:
    **I know my relationship a child is not the same as my relationship with another adult, but sometimes I cringe when I think what I might feel if another adult said to me some of the things I have said to my children... **

    I've been thinking about that a lot lately too, and trying to wrap my mind around how to best show respect to my children while still teaching them to show due respect to elders (parents, other adults, etc.) without seeming overbearing and legalistic. It is definitely a balance. ANd one that I am still struggling with.

    It is hard doing something that goes so against the grain. I mean, we are called to live counter-culturally when we live out our faith, but if you are like me you, for the most part, are surrounded by other Catholics/Christians and this makes it seem not quite so counter-cultural, even though it is. There is lots more variance in parenting even between those with whom we share our faith.

    I struggle too with being self-conscious and worrying about what others will think. It's so nice to parent along with other like-minded moms and not only about our faith and values, but the way we raise/discipline (and I mean that in the broader sense of the term) our kids.

    I would love to see this book interpretted in a Catholic light, because my other issue with the whole premise was that Kohn didn't seem to take concupiscence into account. That our kids, just like us, our going to tend to lie in the mud.

    As someone in the midst of the eye-burning exhaustion of the scary tunnel of early-childhood, I too agree that the more conventional methods sound very appealing at times. The times when I'd like to yell and scream and banish my kids to their rooms for the next week, I find the best thing to do is to pull back and look at the bigger picture, like Kohn addressed in chap1 (or was it the intro)? Where/how do I want my kids to be 20 yrs from now, and how do my actions towards them NOW, effect THAT. The day-to-day can seem suffocating at times, and I think this is why so many parents are all too eager to jump on board with the x behavior + y consequence = z outcome format of parenting. Again, it's the longterm vs. the short term. And I think too many people are just too exhausted (or they just plain don't care) to look past today or tomorrow. It's easier to "manipulate" our kids into behaving like "miniature adults" today, than to worry about something so abstract and seemingly far away as their own adulthood.

    As always, thanks for the discussion.

  2. Totally agree with you on the bit about religion, just writing a review of this book myself and although that small section left a bad taste in my mouth, it didn't ditract from the overall positive message of the book. I think it is sad that koh hasn't expereinced the unconditionality of God's love.

    1. Yes, Helen, I agree it is sad, but I also think it's not an unusual argument. In some ways, it shows how poorly Christians have shown God's love throughout history and in the modern world. Why should non-Christians believe in the unconditional love of God when they see all around them the conditional love of Christians?


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