Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn

There is a Better Way

The subtitle explains the book quite clearly: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason.

So many of us have grown up with the stick and the carrot as deterrents against and incentives for behaviour, so this can seem like a rational way to treat our children. Kohn argues that there is a better way.

When my kids were very little, I parented them that way: withholding approval until my kids behaved the way I wanted them to. 90% of my communications with them was to criticize them so that they could improve. However, something about it seemed off, even as I justified my punitive approach to correcting their behaviours. I became more aware that I was raging rather than disciplining.

Choosing to Parent Differently

When I finally realized that my children deeply feared me, I knew I had to change the way I parented. I started by verbally telling my kids all the time that I loved them no matter what. 

When we disagreed, we would often toss out to each other a reminder “I love you [Mommy/Kiddo]” as if the unspoken part was, “despite our disagreement or your poophead move just now”. 

Then I started shifting a higher percentage of our communication into conversations that built our relationship and trust, rather than me just doing parental “duties,” like nagging, reminding, cajoling and ordering, I watched the kiddie shows they liked to watch, we talked about their video games, etc. And slowly they stopped tensing up when I would come into the room, knowing that I wasn’t going to yell at them to do something they SHOULD be doing.

Now they say things like, “Mommy, you’re not going to like this, but…” and proceed to talk to me honestly. This change is a huge win for us because it means they aren’t trying to hide things from me but rather feel safe enough to share something that might have in the past made me very angry.

Why Unconditional Parenting is Important

The most striking long-term effect of love withdrawal is fear. Even as young adults, people who were treated that way by their parents are still likely to be unusually anxious. They may be afraid to show anger. Then tend to display a significant fear of failure. And their adult relationships may be warped by a need to avoid attachment—perhaps because they live in dread of being abandoned all over again.

Fundamentally Alfie Kohn’s argument is that behavioural scientists developed positive reinforcement as a way to control animal behaviour. Using this technique to influence children without taking the time to understand their thoughts, feelings, or intentions ends up being counterproductive for the longer-term goals we have for their success as self-sufficient and confident, resilient adults.

Parenting through fear may seem like it works in the short run, but a child experiences that as love that is conditional upon their behaviour. Because children fear the withdrawal of that love, they will often do whatever they can to stay in the good graces of their parents. They will be obedient regardless of their own feelings, perspectives, and ultimately what is actually right or wrong.

Creating obedient kids controlled by their fear of parents means that they may be easily controlled by others as well, like peers or authority figures and less able to fight for their needs or protect their boundaries.

Do we want to raise our kids to make decisions based on fear? Do we want them to have challenges with their relationships!? Do we want them to be easily manipulated by others? Or do we want them to know how they feel? To trust their own judgment about what is the morally right thing to do?

If I always tell my children that “they are wrong and I am right,” how are they to develop their judgment? If I dictate how they SHOULD feel, how can they learn how they DO feel, and to trust that? 

It’s about the Why

Shouldn’t our goal be for the children to refrain from doing certain things not because we’ve forbidden them, but just because they’re wrong? We want them to ask “How will doing x make that other kid feel?”not “Am I allowed to do x?” or “Will I get in trouble for doing x?” We want our children to understand the impact of their actions and intrinsically make good decisions.

In other words, we want to raise moral human beings, people who make decisions based on logical reasoning and empathy for those around them, not because they were told that something is right or wrong. 

The world is a complex place with many moving parts. The more we help them find their own way to interpret the multiple pieces of information, the more they will be able to live their lives the way they want to—with integrity and confidence.

We cannot just raise our kids based on how we see the world, but how they will need to see the world when they become adults.

Our Own Childhood

By the way, Kohn points out: “It’s pointless to talk about what holds you back from being a better parent without reflecting on how the way you were raised shapes your internal architecture. It affects not only what you do with your kids, but what you don’t do.” 

We must do the work to figure out where our parental playbook came from, how that impacted us, and which parts we want to change as we parent the next generation.

Just a gentle warning: For many of us, doing this work can be triggering. Understanding the past can help us connect the dots to why we behave in ways we don’t want to behave now as parents and lead to positive change. At the same time, it can be incredibly difficult to live through the fears from our childhood.

But we are all doing the best we can and change takes time, not measured in days or months, but years. We start where we start. 


Overdoing Goal Setting

A goal is not always meant to be reached, it often serves simply as something to aim at.

Bruce Lee

People always tell you to be specific about your goals. The more specific you are, the more likely you can achieve your goals. And for the most part, that’s true isn’t it? You have to know what you want, to know needs to be done, to do it, and then finally know that you did it.

However, I feel like we’ve overdone this and goals have become this never-ending pressure to do more, better, and faster. And this translates into unnecessary pressure on our children.

For example, we want our children to be successful.

So we start asking them to achieve at a younger and younger age. We put them in sports, music, language, or coding programs. We show off when they do something that is impressive. We look disappointed when they don’t get a good grade or didn’t win. We push them to practice and be better (‘more perfect’). There is this ‘path’ for success that involves the right program at the right university, which requires the right grades from the right courses from the right high school, which means that learning the right things in middle school and elementary school is essential, which means… you guessed it… the right kindergarten activities!!!

Is the goal for them to be rich? Employable? Competent? Happy? Or is the goal for them to be capable of making good decisions, to be the best version of themselves? Do those activities even help them reach the right goals? The goals that will help them achieve what they want to achieve?

The most successful people do not follow others’ formula. They develop their own mantras, their truths, their visions. They do learn from others. They often learn from other people’s mistakes. They don’t just do exactly what other successful people do. They learn. They are always learning. They experience. They are always experiencing. They do. They are always doing.

Being specific about a goal isn’t what gets you there, because it just isn’t ever really possible to do exactly as we plan or want. It’s more important to be able to respond if things DON’T go as we planned.

It isn’t realistic for every Olympic athlete to win a medal, but they aim for it. It doesn’t make sense for quarterly sales to be consistent, given how much the world changes. But having a general target and some flexibility to figure it out can be very exciting and stimulating for some. It isn’t reasonable to expect every child to be able to accomplish the same level of learnings for every topic at a certain age. But being around others who are also striving to learn and grow can inspire a group of kids to excel together.

We need things to aim at.

We need to aspire.

But depending on who we are and our circumstances, we will reach what we can reach. That’s fine. Then, on an as needed basis, we adjust our aspirations, our approach, our expectations, our routines.

And we go again.


How Children Learn by John Holt

This is a book that I wish all parents could read before they start getting stressed about their children’s education. The premise is that if you let kids be curious, they will be motivated to learn and they will know what they need and want to learn. What a novel concept for me, but wow, it really makes sense now. I want to share a few paragraphs from the book that left such a deep imprint in my mind:

For it seems to me a fact that, in our struggle to make sense out of life, the things we most need to learn are the things we most want to learn. To put this another way, curiosity is hardly ever idle. What we want to know, we want to know for a reason. The reason is that there is a hole, a gap, an empty space in our understanding of things, our mental model of the world. We feel that gap like a hole in a tooth and want to fill it up. It makes us ask How? When? Why? While the gap is there, we are in tension, in suspense. Listen to the anxiety in a person’s voice when he says, “This doesn’t make sense!” When the gap in our understanding is filled, we feel pleasure, satisfaction, relief. Things make sense again — or at any rate, they make more sense than they did.

When we learn this way, for these reasons, we learn both rapidly and permanently. The person who really needs to know something does not need to be told many times, drilled, tested. Once is enough. The new piece of knowledge fits into the gap ready for it, like a missing piece in a jigsaw puzzle. Once in place, it is held in, it can’t fall out. We don’t forget the things that make the world a more reasonable or interesting place for us, that make our mental model more complete and accurate.

Therefore, we do not need to “motivate” children into learning, by wheedling, bribing, or bullying. We do not need to keep picking away at their minds to make sure they are learning. What we need to do, and all we need to do, is bring as much of the world as we can into the school and the classroom; give children as much help and guidance as they need and ask for; listen respectfully when they feel like talking; and then get out of the way. We can trust them to do the rest.

Really, this book should be called: How PEOPLE learn.

I always had problems with school; I got decent grades but never truly interacted with the content. Enough stayed in the brain to do okay on tests, but content disappeared pretty much immediately afterwards.

As an adult, it’s been difficult to finish a book from cover to cover. But this one got read in a few days, with the above paragraphs POPPING OUT. Now that I think about it, the voice in the head would often mumble, “Say, I really SHOULD read this. It’s on the best seller’s list and it is supposed to help me be more successful.” But maybe I don’t care much about being “successful” or good at [blah blah blah], so I often ended up reading the first chapter and then leaving the book lying around to gather dust. But this book was different. A “thirsty for water” kind interest in the topic developed.

Is this what it feels like to LOVE WHAT YOU DO? Is this what it feels like to learn what you are curious about?

Hm. Food for thought. Water to drink.