Alfie Kohn’s book, Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason, encourages parents to parent with structure but without coercive control. He believes that a non-confrontational approach produces better results and happier relationships than an authoritarian style.
Kohn says that most parents focus on rewards and punishments to get their kids to do what they want. He says the old parenting style focused on punishments, while the new style focuses on rewards. For Kohn, thes parenting styles are flawed because the child learns that he is not unconditionally loved.
When I came across his thesis, I was immediately taken aback. It seems to be a total non-sequitur that just because a parent uses rewards and punishments, the child will jump to the conclusion that his parents only love him when he follows orders.
Even though I found his thesis dubious, I forged ahead with the book anyway to see if I could glean any knowledge.
Psychology of parenting
Kohn spends the first 3/4 of his book citing psychological studies that support the idea that the authoritarian, “because I told you so,” parenting style is ineffective and harmful to children. While I don’t use an authoritarian style myself, I am deeply skeptical of psychological studies.
Most studies in psychology cannot be replicated. Something like 70% of psychological studies are so deeply flawed that researchers don’t get the same outcomes when they try to reproduce them. Using the latest psychological studies as a basis to criticize is a bad idea.
Moral and ethical parenting
I appreciated Kohn’s moral and ethical arguments over the studies he pointed to.
For me, the parent-child relationship is the most precious and delicate relationship in the world. A child does not ask to be brought into the world. He is brought into the world by a sumptuous act. He had no say in his being born. The way we treat a new precious life deserves the utmost care and consideration.
The parent-child relationship is unique because the parent chooses to have a child, but the child doesn’t choose the parent. The child has no say as to whether his parents act like brutal jailors or loving teachers. Kohn says that most parenting, even the kind that uses positive reinforcement, is more like living with a brutal jailor.
Instead of thinking only about compliance, Kohn says we should treat our children more like autonomous human beings. The more we treat them with love and respect, the more they will adopt those same attributes.
Kohn asks parents to teach their children to think about long-term goals and self-reliance. He seeks a world where parents help teach kids to come up with their own goals and ways to achieve them. Parents who try to control, he says, often end up getting less control while destroying their children’s sense of autonomy.
Kohn says that many good kids simply do what their parents want them to do, and they lose themselves in the process. With an authoritarian style, you may get obedience, but you may create a dependent robot unable to think for themself.
Kohn maintains that by using love and reason, we can foster creativity in our kids, and we’ll have a happier relationship at home.
Kohn emphasizes the importance of showing respect toward kids. He encourages parents to consider the feelings and interests of the child and include them in more decisions daily.
Showing respect towards your children will go a long way towards building healthier, happier kids. Instead of treating kids like pets, treat them like a person.
Kohn says that parents often pretend to show respect by asking questions in the guise of command. A parent may say, “Should we get going, sweetie?” This isn’t really a question. It is a command with the threat of reward or punishment: let’s go or else. For Kohn, a better way is to consider the child’s needs and desires and leave at a time that works best for everyone involved.
Kohn is deeply against hitting one’s children as a punishment. For Kohn, this sends a message that it is okay to hit other people if they don’t behave the way you want them to.
Kohn, trying not to be ethnocentric, makes a bizarre assessment about black kids: it may be okay to hit your kids if you are black!
Kohn points out differences in parenting styles amongst different groups of people. Studies show that black families discipline their kids by hitting them much more often than white families.
His message to black families is deeply pessimistic. If he truly believes disciplining children by hitting them is harmful, he should stick to that message.
He denigrates his message by altering it according to ethnicity and skin color. It is as if he is saying to black families: “You are too unrefined to understand my message of non-violence towards kids. Go ahead and keep your backward methods of childrearing.”
I find his reasoning on this matter disturbing.
My assessment of the book
Kohn’s book is a reminder to consider the ways we are parenting. Are we trying to make good little robots or raise responsible, autonomous individuals? We should consider if our parenting style matches what we are trying to achieve.
If we place a premium on obedience, we may get obedient kids. But, it may come at the expense of teaching kids creativity and independent thinking.
I disagreed with much of what he had to say, but I liked his underlying message: treat kids as you would want to be treated, with love and respect.
If you are interested in his message but don’t want to read the book, check out this podcast with him: