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. 


Do I WANT to Know?!

Musical Desks

It took us a while to figure this out at the beginning of the pandemic, because A2 was increasingly getting annoyed by A1’s loud (or as we call it, bullhorn) voice as their work desks were side by side in their bedroom. Simultaneously, I was constantly having to move my laptop on and off the breakfast/lunch/dinner table, sitting WAY TOO close to the refrigerator where leftover food often called out my name, and always dealing with the nearby doorbell. A1 was begging for us to extend the wired internet connection to their room upstairs, and I was desperate for a space to call my own.

After much contemplation on my part and consent from everyone else, I moved upstairs into the master bedroom and shifted A1 to a desk downstairs. A1 was extremely happy because it became WAY faster to play Rainbow Six Siege (not to mention he can eat at his desk, which is not allowed upstairs), A2 was relieved because he essentially became the master of their shared bedroom, I was ecstatic because I had my own permanent quiet space for a laptop and Zoom meetings, and my husband, who has his own office, was quite content that he didn’t have to play musical desks, at least this round.

Don’t Ask If You Don’t Want to Know

A1 built his own computer with his Dad’s help one summer and it runs a lot faster than the hand-me-down laptop I inherited. So when he’s not on his computer and I want to be downstairs to (hey, no, not to snack!) make myself a tea or something, I will sometimes use A1’s computer as a terminal.

The last time I asked if I could borrow it, this is how our conversation went:

Our game of Musical Desks has suddenly gotten a little more complicated than I was expecting! 

Would you want a more direct answer from your child to this question?


Parenting with Humour

Adrienne Hedger is the award-winning cartoonist behind the popular web comic “Hedger Humor.” Her work has been featured on BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, Upworthy,, Yahoo!, Disney, Nickelodeon, and other popular media outlets. Several of Adrienne’s cartoons have become viral sensations, reaching tens of millions of people worldwide. She lives in California with her husband, two teenage daughters, and her dog.

When you are doing the work to understand your (often over-) reactions to your children, a lot of it can be quite challenging and emotionally heavy. Triggers take a lot of headspace to understand and process. Reframing our thoughts is difficult to do! So when I discover a source of humour that reflects parental challenges, I grab it and hold on as tightly as I can. That’s why I subscribe to Adrienne’s monthly emails: they make me laugh out loud.

It’s not that Adrienne’s cartoons are all mirth and jolliness, it’s that she gets it. Okay, yes, her cartoons can be silly and hilarious for sure, but she really, really knows the frustrations we parents feel and captures that perfectly. She then expertly takes challenging parental moments and helps us take a step back to see a bigger picture. She finds the funny in an emotionally charged moment,skillfully using storytelling to shift our perspective. Her message is: Parenting is HARD, but if we can laugh a bit during situations we can’t really control, maybe we can enjoy them a bit more.

We had the BEST conversation, in which she shared her story and parenting approach. We even had a cartoon moment of our own when she went into her closet to be near the Wi-Fi and have some quiet.

We talked about how:

  • Her life was lived in two very different worlds because her parents were divorced — her father was delighted by kids and laughed a lot, whereas her mother had to do the day-to-day parenting and so the threshold for silliness was at a more ‘normal’ level than Adrienne’s is now.
  • Her husband has a very different parenting style and she has had to share parenting duties full-time with another person, unlike her mother who had complete control. She cannot just run her own show! That took adjusting.
  • Her “unpredictable” parenting approach (to quote from her daughter) is actually consistent if we look at it from the perspective of stakes, like ‘harmless’ versus ‘safety’ issues. We concluded that the litmus test consists of asking: Is it ‘reversible’?
  • Sometimes people think that she lives in the ‘ha-ha’ happy world of cartoons. In actuality, she’s living in the same frustrating parenting world we all do.
  • The act of cartooning her life has changed her parenting. It’s kind of like being a reporter: she can step out of the drama and take a more meta view of the situation.
  • Parenting is so ridiculous. It is really, really hard. You love your kids so much. There is so much at stake. The best way to survive it is to turn to humour!

Her advice: Get yourself a notebook and put it somewhere very convenient, where you spend a lot of time in the house. Jot down funny ‘moments’ in your family life whenever they arise. Capture things that made your laugh or touched you. After a year of that, you will have gems to look at with warmth.

Read Adrienne’s hilarious and relatable cartoons at her Hedger Humor website, watch her videos on YouTube, like her Facebook page, and laugh along at Instagram.


Screen Time in COVID Days

In 2020, my boys have probably clocked more time in front of the screen than they have accumulated in the previous decade.

Part of me wants to berate myself for letting it get out of hand. You know, for being a bad mom, because I’ve used the time to do other things that were much more easily accomplished without “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, where’s the…?” or “It’s not fair! Why can he… and I have to…?” or the “I’m hungry, what is there is to eat? Ew, don’t have anything other than fruit?” And yet, as the year of COVID continues to be, I find myself more and more fascinated by what they choose to do.

Initially, they binge watched YouTube and TikTok. Then they started making videos and memes. Of course they were playing online games with friends and randos, which made me feel very uncomfortable. We often had the talk about strangers and not giving out their personal information.

Due to his high pitched laugh and gentle style, A1 often got asked if he was a girl. But during COVID, he’s turned into a nearly 6-foot tall deeper voiced GUY. He still laughs with abandon in his hilarious high pitched giggles, but no one mistakes him for a girl. I love listening to him interact with his friends as they play a wide range of games. There are certainly toxic situations, which I am incredibly proud to see him maneuver of or just leave from. But I can see collaborative and leadership skills develop as he helps newbies or yells commands as they fight the other team. He’s learned to be a good winner, but more importantly, he’s learned to shrug off loss. He does not tie his happiness to winning or losing, he learns from each experience, and he has a lot of fun. He’s also appreciated the importance of typing, which I tried to cultivate when they didn’t see the value of it yet. He is able to get off when it’s time to get off, he has made new friends both on and offline due to these games, and he’s shown more and more interest in the business-end of the video game industry, telling us about how stocks are doing and strategies implemented by the big players.

A2 loves watching YouTube, and, similar to his brother, he every so often shares something to impress me (well, to show me that not everything on YouTube or the Internet is junk). He has been learning how to edit graphics and is very interested in programing to make games. A2 makes memes and streams on TikTok of course. He plays more with his own friends, but finds the interpersonal side of things stressful. This morning, he shared with me about a game he and his friends were making. He created the world, so he has control. But what impressed me most was his understanding of the strengths of each friend, how he manages the relationships, how he makes decisions (he gets final say as he owns the world). He made me feel like he would be a better manager than I have been in my 20 years of managing people!

They both spend WAY more time on their screens than I would think is ideal from the perspective of impact to their eyes or brain, but I observe them developing amazing skills in communications, resilience, computer applications, and more!

So as a scheming mom, I’ve come up with a monthly Detox Day.

At our family meeting today, I introduced the idea and we will try it out. It definitely balances out our monthly Frivolous Day, which is a sort of free for all day where we do what we want. Finger crossed, we can get through Detox Day.

To be honest, I think I’m more worried about me and my iPhone addiction than I am about them!


Doing “More with Less” Does Not Work!

I would like to flip the Do More with Less mentality to more a Reflect and Rest approach, which ironically allows us to do more with less in the longer run.

Today, A2 and I had a wonderful conversation when he asked me about the “use it or lose it” phrase, which he found to be very confusing. I explained that when someone was in charge of a small budget that rolled up into a big budget, the two levels had very differing priorities and it caused them to have to figure out how to manage things. Like, the people handling bigger budgets had to figure out how to spend money wisely overall and the people managing little budgets had to figure out how to address their own needs. He pointed out that the people managing the bigger budgets once upon a time managed smaller budgets, so at least they would understand the perspective of the people managing the smaller budgets. You’d like to think so, my son, you’d like to think so. I explained that everyone wants to do more with less; we talked about how if you don’t use the budget you said you were going to use, then the higher ups think that you don’t need the money, even though you may actually be saving it for something in the longer run.

On my walk home by myself, the thoughts about how our world keeps trying to do more with less: more work with less people, more projects with less money, more tasks with less time, etc. etc. We keep trying to ‘save’ our resources by doing more with less. But in the longer run, this obsession with efficiency has caused so much burnout and health issues that the cost of doing ‘more with less’ far outweighs the savings we make, which really just ends up being profit for the higher ups in a capitalistic world. (Sorry, my lefty socialist side is coming out.)

More isn’t just about short-term quantity, it is about long-term quality and sustainability.

For example, buying clothes or shoes. By buying cheaply made or trendy fashionable wearables, we are just ensuring that we have to keep buying. Buying more isn’t going to solve our problems… buying LESS but APPROPRIATE will. That may involve buying things that are a bit more expensive in the short-run but longer lasting, maybe classy and sturdier.

Another example is the way so many of us want to avoid confrontation, because it takes us off track and it’s pretty painful in the moment. However, by facing confrontation head on and slowly turning it into a conversation or a collaboration, we can create a better longer term solution for everyone. Saving more time by avoiding annoying issues isn’t going to solve our problems… spending the time to think about and addressing it can help us save a lot more time in the long run, even if it may feeling more painful in the short-run.

And when kids are taking standardized tests to ‘prove’ that they know what they need to know at a certain level, we are just encouraging them to study to do well on a test and then promptly forget about it. Instead, we need to take the time to get to know them, their strengths and areas of interest to help them build the skills they need and want to accomplish the goals they aspire to meet. Saving time through standardizing everything may help us measure things that we we need to understand from a big picture level, but misusing those test to measure our individual worth becomes counterproductive.

My final example I learned from the Life Decluttered Facebook group: If you have more stuff than you have space for it, you WILL have clutter. So that not only works from a physical perspective, but also from a mental perspective. When we are juggling more tasks than we can manage, we WILL have overwhelming stress. And the way to reduce clutter or stress is to have less and organize better. But it takes time to be able to develop the skills and the motivation to have less and organize better. We must regularly reflect and rest in order to do a few things:

  • Understand your issues
  • Remember your motivations
  • Get into a healthy headspace
  • Be kind to yourself
  • Get support!
  • Prioritize
  • Understand your resources (time, money, energy)
  • Be kind to yourself
  • Develop a plan and maybe a timeline
  • Start somewhere
  • Be kind to yourself
  • Evolve your plan as you learn from where you started
  • Celebrate the wins
  • Know that many things are not a “One and Done”, but an iterative (phase by phase, step by baby step) process
  • Be kind to yourself!!!!!!!!!

Did I mention that I finally started to learn what it means to be kind to myself?

People have always told me that I was a perfectionist and that I was too hard on myself. And I always responded with, uh, no, if I were a perfectionist, I would be doing much better, I would be more effective, I would be smarter, I would be getting more done, I wouldn’t be so lazy… PUH-LEEZ… I am NOT a perfectionist! But now I understand what a perfectionist is. It’s someone who won’t let go when their ideal isn’t met.

Being kind to myself means that I forgive myself when I didn’t do what I didn’t do. Being kind to myself means that if things take longer than I think they should, then they take longer. Being kind to myself means not labeling myself as stupid, forgetful, messy, a ‘bad’ mom, but rather… Oh! I don’t yet have a solid system or routine to make this happen smoothly… YET. So as a recovering perfectionist, instead of getting mad at myself that I haven’t yet gotten around to cleaning out our storage unit, I’m going to celebrate that I’ve gone through the house slowly but surely, learning and developing systems to help us do more with less. And… I’m going to give myself time to reflect and rest.

Won’t you join me on this journey? Less is more!


A Parent’s Job is to Be a Better Adult!

The other day I saw a meme on Facebook: “Our job as parents is not to train children to act like adults. Our job is to be better adults.”

Something about having (or even being around) children forces us to look at ourselves more closely and critically. Children are at once 1) mirrors, reflecting us back to us, 2) sponges, soaking up and learning everything, and 3) little drunk people, who cannot control their emotions and behaviours.

When we yell in frustration “STOP YELLING, BE QUIET OR ELSE!” they will copy our approach to dealing with things that don’t go their  way. 

When we tell them that their work is just not good enough, their brains internalize our voice and they learn to tell themselves they are not good enough.

When we force them to do things they are not developmentally ready to do, we undermine their growth and maturity.

They hear every negative thing we say about others; they see every reaction we have under stress; they internalize our messages…

We must be our best selves as we help them develop their own navigation system for the world: they need a sense of right and wrong, judgment to know the difference, wisdom to make good decisions, and strength to stick to the right choices. 

Children watch our every word and deed, learning from every breath we take and every move we make. It is imperative for us to strive to be better adults. We must model for them good behaviour.


“For Real Life! I Have Monsters in My Head!”

“Mommy, adults are so silly.  They say things like ‘monsters don’t exist…’ How would they know?  Just because they can’t see the monsters doesn’t mean they don’t exist in my head!  I have monsters in my head.  For real life!”

How insightful and how true!  How can I tell my son that monsters don’t exist, that they aren’t real when he’s the one who has to deal with the realities of said monster in this head.  The fear is real, the heart-pounding is real, the stress and the pain… it’s all real.

So what next?  The monster may not be a real, physical being that I can handcuff and throw in jail to make my son feel safer.  But… telling him that the monster is not real is not helpful.  What I need to do is to listen, lean in and help him deal with his truth.  What he needs from me is not judgment, but the guidance to figure out how to deal with his realities, his challenges.

So this is what we do:

  1. Identify the problem. There is a monster in my head. I’m too scared to fall asleep.
  2. Explore our options. Would it help to keep the lights on? the door open? Mommy lying next to me?
  3. Evaluate the pros and cons of the options. My brother can’t sleep with the lights on or the door open.  But he would love to have Mommy stay for a bit too.
  4. Pick a plan of action. Mommy will lie down with boys for a few minutes.
  5. Implement it.  Together. There will be days when Mommy can do this, but not every night.  Will we be okay on the nights Mommy can’t do this?
  6. Assess the outcome. This seems to work…
  7. Apply any lessons. Even though it feels better when Mommy stays with us, we seem to be okay on the nights Mommy can’t do it.  Sometimes my brother has to compromise and allow the night light or the door to be open. 
  8. Celebrate the win! Hey, we can compromise and there may be more than one solution!
  9.  Show the love. Mommy loves you, no matter what, and we will figure it out, no matter what.

That last one seems to be super important to my monster-fearing little one.


Chopped Apples Means Love

A while back, I told my mom that like she used to do for us, I wash, peel, and chop up fruit for my kids to eat.  They love it and can inhale quite a bit.  My mom laughed and said, yes, your little sister used to wonder why American apples never tasted as good as Taiwanese apples.  She reminded me that I also stopped eating fruit when I went to study at University in Canada, away from home. 

Food is a way to for parents to show their love to their children.  The taste of a clean, peeled, chilled apple is Mom’s LOVE. My mom sent me her journal entry and I’ve translated it for us to enjoy.

Taiwanese Apples are Better than American Apples!

In the heart of S, there was a question. Since apples are imported from the United States to Taiwan, why then did the apples that were eaten in the States never as delicious as the ones she ate at home in Taipei?  It wasn’t until one night during her senior year at university, did she suddenly realize the answer!

Two of her classmates were hanging out with her in her dorm room that night. She took out an apple from the refrigerator and asked the two whether they would like to have some. Both of them shook their heads no. She then cut up the apple and just before she started to eat and purely out of courtesy, she politely asked them once again if they wanted to have any.  Her friends suddenly changed their minds and now wanted to have some.

The question that S had harboured for so long was finally answered! The apple eaten at home in Taiwan was peeled, washed, and cut into pieces by mom. Of course that tasted so much better than apples in the U.S. that had to be peeled, washed, and cut into pieces by herself!




I published this article in my Kung Fu Mama WordPress blog post a few years ago… and today, my sister (of apple story above), sent me the link to a great article “Love in the Shape of Cut Fruit” by Chinese American Connie Wang. See? So you really CAN taste LOVE!


A Tiger Mom Roaring

In 2011, Amy Chua published the controversial Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother book, sharing her style of Asian-American parenting style that many of us grew up around (whether our own family or those of our friends).  It’s all about having high expectations and rigorously working towards meeting them. It’s about aiming for perfection and not settling for less than perfection.  It’s about squashing all that is not good enough.  It’s about practicing until we perform with excellence at all times.

Except we’re talking about our children.  Who are human.  Who have their own personalities.  Their own interests.  And who… well… don’t always meet those expectations in the time frame we want them to.

When my first son was born, I fluctuated between Attachment Parenting and Tiger Mother Parenting.  It was a frustrating experience for me and probably very stressful for him.  I was all over him.  He had to do everything correctly – and he did, or at least he tried.  My second son did not respond very well to Tiger Mom at all. This one had to do things his way or not at all.  I spent evenings and weekends hovering, worried about everything that they couldn’t do.  I watched them at classes and critiqued them as soon as they walked over after class.  I hovered over my husband to hover over them.  They got it from both of us.

What I came to realize is that more than anything, I want them to grow up confident, able to problem solve and willing to do what it takes to achieve what they want.  What THEY WANT.  Not what I WANT.  All that takes abilities, discipline, perseverance, motivation, curiosity and patience. I also want them to make the world a better place than they found it, which takes ethics, humour, empathy, love, hope, humility and respect.

My Tiger Mom approach involved a lot of criticism about what they weren’t doing and should be doing.  It involved strict rules and little room for enjoying each other. I was angry a lot because they were never quite perfect. There was so much room for improvement.  There was a lot of, well, roaring going on in my household. At my children. By me.  I wasn’t being empathetic, loving… or respectful.

One day I saw the pain I was causing them, reflecting from their eyes, when I yelled about something. Another day I watched them yelling at each other. My interpretation of Tiger Momming was not working for us. Something had to change.

I was looking for an approach that helped me guide my children through this crazy world with wisdom and love, not with fear and anger, with calm and thought, not with obedience and stress.

It was time for this Tiger Mom to stop roaring.  It was time for a new approach.


I’m Proud of You, Mommy

This morning my 11-year old son comes to me and smiles in a weird (but positive) way.  He says, “You know, I’m really proud of you.  It’s not easy to NOT yell at kids – not a lot of parents can do that. And now we hardly have a day when you yell at us.”

I look back at him and reply, “I’ve worked really hard on that over the past few years.”

He hugs me, then leans back and looks me in the eyes as he maturely and confidently says “I know. I’m really proud of you. It’s not easy and I know I’m a really lucky kid. I love you!”

“I love you too, kiddo.” I kiss him and he goes back upstairs.

You bring tears to my eyes kid.  To be appreciated for something I’ve worked very hard on, that in our society gets no real recognition, means the absolute world to me.

If I were to be perfectly honest with myself, at times, being a yelly mommy felt somehow justifiable.  But… one day, when you about 3 feet tall, the look on your face, the fear in your eyes got me… it got through my anger, my frustrations, my fears, my insecurities, my beliefs about how to end up with a well behaved kid.

You made me question everything about the relationship a mother is supposed to have with her kids. It cut through the lack of sleep, the stress at work, the dissatisfaction I had with life in general… You made me realize in that moment that no one, especially an innocent child, deserves to be yelled at, even when it’s for “bad or naughty behaviour”.  From then on, I was determined to be the kind of mother you deserved to have.

I have good days, I have bad days.  I am human.  You’ve accepted me for who I am, the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Thank you for being proud of me.  Thank you for telling me.  Thank you for seeing my efforts, appreciating me, and celebrating my accomplishments! I love you!

That was a 5-minute exchange, but it was profoundly nourishing.