Friday, May 17, 2013

Book Discussion: Chapter 7 of Unconditional Parenting

The quotes in this post are all from the seventh chapter of Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason by Alfie Kohn: Principles of Unconditional Parenting.

Finally, Mr. Kohn begins to focus on how someone uses unconditional parenting. So, if you've been convinced by earlier chapter (or at least intrigued), here's where he starts to talk about what it looks like in a family. 

What I will do, in this chapter and those that follow, is lay out some broad principles, some ways of thinking about how to create alternatives to traditional parenting. These are derived from research, from a synthesis of the work of other thoughtful advisors, from my own experience, and from my observations of other families. You'll have to decide whether each idea seems reasonable and, if so, how it may apply to raising your own children.
Did you notice how he said "broad principles"? He doesn't give a lot of straightforward strategies or rules. As I think about unconditional parenting, it seems more like an overall attitude, a general thought process.
The recommendations I'll be offering are, frankly, more challenging than those proposed in a lot of other books. It's harder to make sure children feel loved unconditionally than it is just to love them. I's harder to respond to them in all their complexity than it is to focus just on their behaviors. It's harder to try to solve problems with them, to give them reasons for doing the right thing (let alone to help them formulate their own reasons), than it is to control them with carrots and sticks. "Working with" asks more of us than does "doing to."
I agree completely. In the very small ways I've tried to incorporate unconditional parenting, I've discovered it takes a lot more time and patience. I can't just yell at my kids to do something and punish them if they don't comply right away. Instead, my reactions must depend on the situation. I have to consider my request, my child's reaction, and the reasons for both. I have to slow down to talk, really talk, with my child. "What are we supposed to be doing right now? Why aren't you doing that? Do you know why we need to do that right now? Tell me. What do you need so we can get moving?"

Mr. Kohn provides a baker's dozen of guiding principles, which I don't want to list entirely here on the blog. (It's a good list; I highly recommend finding a copy of the book just to look over it.) The most important aspects of the principles for me were to focus on my relationship with my children and to focus on the long-term goal.

For example, this past year I had intended for us to attend daily Mass once a week. As time went on, however, I discovered Second Daughter was consistently a problem on those mornings. She was slow to dress, reluctant to get out the door, and I was yelling at her a lot. When we made it to Mass (usually late), we were both upset. Thinking about unconditional parenting, I asked myself why I was taking her to Mass. I want her to love the Mass, to be eager for her time with Jesus. I wanted to feel refreshed myself by the Mass. Instead, we were both angry and frustrated with each other and she hated going to Mass. Neither of us was getting much benefit from the Mass and she certainly wasn't learning to love it.

So we stopped going. Kansas Dad would leave early with the two oldest. The two younger ones and I would come along later, after Mass and morning prayers. I know a lot of parents who would have preferred to dress their daughter, drag her to the car, and get her to Mass, and I can certainly see how there is greater benefit in being at Mass than not being at Mass. I decided instead to focus on other ways to help Second Daughter learn to understand the Mass and love it (like Catechesis of the Good Shepherd). We were all happier and I didn't feel like I was harming my relationship with her on a regular basis by yelling and losing my temper.

Considering long-term goals, Mr. Kohn writes:
It's too easy to get trapped in the minutiae of everyday life, all the squabbles and frustrations that upstage the important questions...Whether your child spills the chocolate milk today, or loses her temper, or forgets to do her homework doesn't matter nearly as much as the things you do that either help or don't help her to become a decent, responsible, compassionate person.
Being a homeschooling family, we've already thought about long-term goals for our children. Other families do this too, of course, but a homeschooling family might make very different curriculum selections (for example) depending on what they want their children to be able to do over the course of time. Translating this idea to all of parenting seemed natural, once Mr. Kohn suggested it. As any parenting crisis arises, then, we should consider not just what has immediately happened (say, the two year old has spit his food all over the floor), but how our response to the situation may shape the kind of person he is. How we respond in any given single situation probably doesn't matter that much, but over time, the way we respond most of the time will make a big impression.

Second Daughter is inconsistent in clearing her place from the table. It is one of her very few responsibilities and she seems to revel in flaunting it, dashing out of the kitchen laughing when she leaves her plate on the table. We could probably have stopped this behavior very quickly by instituting a punishment when she neglects her chore, but if I thought about my long-term goal, it wasn't that she clear her place. My long-term goal is that she consider others who clean up the meal and that she have an attitude of seeking out things that she can do to help keep our home clean and tidy. So instead of punishment, we talk. Every day. Many times a day. Every time she leaves her plate on the table, I bring her back into the kitchen and we talk about how she has a responsibility to help our family take care of our house and our belongings, how she can show she is thankful for the time her father spent making pancakes and eggs (or whatever), and how we all have more time to do fun things like read stories and play games after dinner if we all work together to clean up after meals.

It's a work in progress, of course, and probably will be for some time, because even when she clears her plate after every meal, we'll still be talking about responsibility and stewardship and thankfulness.

Mr. Kohn also says the default response to requests should be yes, or at the very least, a discussion.
When I say that we should make sure we're not saying no too often or unnecessarily, I don't mean that our convenience, our wants, don't count, too. They do. But they shouldn't count for so much that we're gratuitously restricting our children, prohibiting them from trying things out. When you come right down to it, the whole process of raising a kid is pretty damned inconvenient, particularly if you want to do it well. If you're unwilling to give up any of your free time, if you want your house to stay quiet and clean, you might consider raising tropical fish instead.
Reading this paragraph, I thought of all the times I said no to something my children wanted to do because I didn't feel like getting up and bringing out the materials, or cleaning up the mess, or listening to them talk about it. As he says, it's not that we have to always say yes, but I think it's worthwhile to consider saying yes more often, or even most of the time. It occurs to me that writing up a post for the blog is far less important (for example) than spending a few minutes reading a story with my children, especially if I haven't read one yet today.

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
Discussion of quotes from chapter 6


  1. Well, I appreciate your review! I must admit I waver between "this guy is nuts" and "I think he's got a point there". I'm definitely not a poster child for the various forms of coercive parenting, but I do find myself yelling at times - especially when we're trying to just get something done! - and I know I could talk things through more with my four year old. It is good for me to read things like this, because I don't want to get complacent in my parenting as I get older!

  2. Amber, I know exactly what you mean. sometimes I wonder if his kids were anything like my kids because sometimes it seems like it just won't work. I keep reminding myself it's a long term process.


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