Unconditional Parenting - by Alfie Kohn
This book establishes an ambitious objective that may be beyond my reach. However, it serves as a valuable reminder that I can strive to demonstrate unwavering love for my children and myself.
- Work with them instead of doing things to them.
- Kids deserve the respect as adults do.
- Encourage more, judge less, love always.
Here are some text that I highlighted in the book:
(Even more liberating is the recognition that other parents, too, have dark moments when they catch themselves not liking their own child, or wondering whether it’s all worth it, or entertaining various other unspeakable thoughts.)
We may find ourselves joining all those people around us who prize docility in children and value short-term obedience above all.
realized that this is what many people in our society seem to want most from children: not that they are caring or creative or curious, but simply that they are well behaved. A “good” child—from infancy to adolescence—is one who isn’t too much trouble to us grown-ups.
From the time he was young, he dressed the way you told him to dress; he acted the way you told him to act; he said the things you told him to say. He’s been listening to somebody else tell him what to do. . . . He hasn’t changed. He is still listening to somebody else tell him what to do. The problem is, it isn’t you anymore; it’s his peers.
Likewise, some parents may insist that what matters most to them is helping their children to set and meet their own goals. If that makes sense to us, then we have to be prepared for the possibility that they’ll make choices and embrace values that aren’t the same as ours.
I’ll be talking about why it makes good sense to shift away from the usual strategies for doing things to kids, and toward ways of working with them.
between loving kids for what they do and loving them for who they are. The first sort of love is conditional, which means children must earn it by acting in ways we deem appropriate, or by performing up to our standards. The second sort of love is un conditional: It doesn’t hinge on how they act, whether they’re successful or well behaved or anything else.
We ought to love them, as my friend Deborah says, “for no good reason.”
Children need to be loved as they are, and for who they are. When that happens, they can accept themselves as fundamentally good people, even when they screw up or fall short. And with this basic need met, they’re also freer to accept (and help) other people. Unconditional love, in short, is what children require in order to flourish.
For a child, some of those strings have to do with good behavior and some have to do with achievement.
The conditional approach to parenting says no: We would be rewarding her unacceptable behavior if we followed it with the usual pleasant activities. Those activities should be suspended, and she should be informed, gently but firmly, why that “consequence” was being imposed.
Unconditional parenting isn’t a fancy term for letting kids do whatever they want. It’s very important (once the storm has passed) to teach, to reflect together—which is exactly what we did with our daughter after we read her a story. Whatever lesson we hoped to impart was far more likely to be learned if she knew that our love for her was undimmed by how she had acted.
But unconditional parenting insists that the family ought to be a haven, a refuge, from such transactions. In particular, love from one’s parents does not have to be paid for in any sense. It is purely and simply a gift. It is something to which all children are entitled.
those on the receiving end of such love come to disown the parts of themselves that aren’t valued. Eventually they regard themselves as worthy only when they act (or think or feel) in specific ways.
Many of the students felt they had consistently received less affection whenever they failed to impress or obey their parents—and it was precisely these students whose relationships with their parents were likely to be strained.
Over many years, researchers have found that “the more conditional the support [one receives], the lower one’s perceptions of overall worth as a person.” When children receive affection with strings attached, they tend to accept themselves only with strings attached. By contrast, those who feel they’re accepted unconditionally—by their parents or, according to other research, even by a teacher—are likely to feel better about themselves, exactly as Carl Rogers predicted.
“When my dad disagrees with me, I know that he still loves me.”
Power-based discipline included hitting, yelling, and threatening. Love-based discipline included just about everything else. As the research results came in, it quickly became clear that power produced poorer results than love.
These, then, are the two faces of conditional parenting: “love withdrawal” (the stick) and “positive reinforcement” (the carrot).
what’s really being switched off or withdrawn is your presence, your attention, your love. You may not have thought of it that way. Indeed, you may insist that your love for your child is undiminished by his misbehavior. But, as we’ve seen, what matters is how things look to the child.
Love-withdrawal techniques can succeed in making a child’s behavior more acceptable to adults, but the engine that drives their success is the deeply felt “anxiety about possible loss of parental love,” says Hoffman.
It makes perfect sense, then, that 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. They 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.
For example, researchers have found that children who are rewarded for doing something nice are less likely to think of themselves as nice people. Instead, they tend to attribute their behavior to the reward. Then, when there’s no longer a goody to be gained, they’re less likely to help than are kids who weren’t given a reward in the first place.
Intrinsic motivation basically means you like what you’re doing for its own sake, whereas extrinsic motivation means you do something as a means to an end—in order to get a reward or avoid a punishment.
The more that people are rewarded for doing something, the more likely they are to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward.
positive reinforcement exemplifies the idea of conditional parenting.
Caring parents are attentive, and they often (though not always) describe something they noticed that the child has done and invite him or her to reflect on its implications. But “Good job!” isn’t a description; it’s a judgment. And that has unsettling implications for how children are likely to perceive how we feel about them. Instead of “I love you,” what praise may communicate is “I love you because you’ve done well.”
All young children have a deep need for their parents’ approval. That’s why praise often “works” in the short run to get them to do what we want. But we have a responsibility to avoid exploiting their dependence for our own convenience—which is exactly what we’re doing when we give them a big smile and say things like “I really like how fast you got ready for school this morning!” Kids may come to feel manipulated by this “sugar-coated control,” even if they can’t quite explain why. But whether or not they catch on and rebel, there’s something decidedly distasteful about the practice. It’s not all that different from waiting until your child is thirsty and then giving her water only after she does something to make your life a little easier. Worse, positive reinforcement often creates a vicious circle that’s reminiscent of what we find with love withdrawal: The more we praise, the more our children need to be praised.
What kids really need is love without strings attached. But if all that’s offered—the only alternative to criticism or neglect—is approval based on what they’ve done, they’ll lap that up and then, perhaps vaguely unsatisfied, come back for more. Sadly, some parents who received too little unconditional love when they were children end up misdiagnosing the problem and assume that it was praise they lacked. Then they “Good job!” their own children to death, ensuring that another generation fails to get what’s really needed.
By contrast, unconditional self-esteem, the very sort that’s most likely to be ridiculed in some quarters, turns out to be the best goal to shoot for. People who, as a rule, don’t think their value hinges on their performance are more likely to see failure as just a temporary setback, a problem to be solved. They also seem less likely to be anxious or depressed. And one more thing: They’re less likely to be concerned about the whole issue of self-esteem!
a paradox of self-esteem: If you need it, you don’t have it, and if you have it, you don’t need it.”
And how often at restaurants had we seen parents fussing at their kids—correcting their manners, reprimanding them about their posture, commenting on what (and how much) they were eating, and generally making dinnertime something from which the children couldn’t wait to escape. (No wonder so many kids aren’t hungry during family meals, but develop an appetite a short time later.)
Until you’ve pushed your own stroller, you don’t really understand how people this tiny can manage to push your buttons and sap your patience. (Of course, neither are you able to appreciate the transcendent moments of delight they can provide.)
Have you been to the grocery store lately? It has become more painful than it’s ever been! [Watching] parents use bribes, humiliation, punishment, rewards, and generally abusive tactics is almost unbearable.
The way many kids are treated suggests a lack of respect for their needs and preferences—in fact, a lack of respect for children, period. A lot of parents act as though they believe that kids don’t deserve respect in the way adults do. Many years ago, the psychologist Haim Ginott invited us to consider the way we might react if our child accidentally left behind some item that belonged to him or her—and then to contrast that with the way we might react if a chronically forgetful friend of ours did the same thing.
Some parents interfere by force of habit, barking out “Stop running!” even when there’s little risk of injury to person or property. Some act as though they’re trying to rub a child’s face in his own powerlessness and show him who’s boss. (“ Because I’m the mommy, that’s why!” “My house, my rules!”) Some try to control children with physical force, while others prefer guilt (“ After all I’ve done for you! You’re breaking my heart. . . .”). Some parents nag kids continuously, emitting a steady hum of reminders and criticisms. Others give no evidence of objecting to what their children are doing until, seemingly out of nowhere, they explode; an invisible tripwire has been crossed—which may have more to do with the adult’s mood than with the child’s behavior—and suddenly the parent becomes furious and frighteningly coercive.
They not only expect absolute obedience, and use punishment freely to obtain it, but also believe it’s more important for children to comply with authority than to think for themselves or express their opinions. They insist that kids need to be carefully monitored, and when a rule is broken—which just confirms their dark suspicions about what children are really like—authoritarian parents tend to assume the child deliberately chose to break it, irrespective of his or her age, and now must be held accountable.
One reason that a heavy-handed, do-what-I-say approach tends not to work very well is that, in the final analysis, we really can’t control our kids—at least, not in the ways that matter.
“Authoritarian control . . . obtains conformity but at the expense of personal freedom,”
They seem to be perfect, but they’re actually leading a “double life,” as one therapist put it: “Because our parents insisted on exercising control over our lives, we created one life that they knew about, and one that remained a secret from them.”
Why was it so damaging to hear “I love you only when you . . .” from their parents? Because that message made them feel controlled from the inside.
They discovered that those parents who insisted their children eat only during mealtimes (rather than when they were hungry), or who encouraged them to clean their plates (even when they obviously weren’t hungry), or who used food (especially desserts) as a reward wound up with children who lost the ability to regulate their caloric intake.
When kids feel forced to do things—or are too tightly regulated in the way they do things—they’re likely to become less interested in what they’re doing and less likely to stick with something challenging.
we need to be in control of helping them to gain control over their own lives. The goal is empowerment rather than conformity, and the methods are respectful rather than coercive.
Punishment proved to be counterproductive regardless of whether the parents were using it to stop aggression, excessive dependence, bed-wetting, or something else.
Hitting children clearly “teaches them a lesson”—and the lesson is that you can get your way with people who are weaker than you are by hurting them.
This communicates a message of distrust (“ I don’t think you’ll do the right thing without the fear of punishment”), leads kids to think of themselves as complying for extrinsic reasons, and emphasizes their powerlessness.
“Misbehavior and punishment are not opposites that cancel each other; on the contrary, they breed and reinforce each other.”
Punishing kids—with the threat that you’ll do so again if they displease you in the future—is an excellent way to hone their skills at escaping detection.
It’s hard for them to sort out why someone who clearly cares for them also makes them suffer from time to time. It creates the warped idea, which children may carry with them throughout their lives, that causing people pain is part of what it means to love them.
And, as the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm once lamented, “Few parents have the courage and independence to care more for their children’s happiness than for their success.” In extreme cases, the “press for success” can reach a fever pitch, such that the child’s present is essentially mortgaged to the future.
They have acquired the habit of asking teachers, “Do we need to know this?”—rather than, say, “What does this mean?”—
And their self-esteem often suffers along with their relationships. After all, when your sense of competence depends on triumphing over others, you will, at best, feel reassured and confirmed only sometimes. By definition, not everyone can win.
it’s possible that the parent’s identity is a little too wrapped up in the child’s accomplishments. This is particularly true when the boasts sound, well, more triumphant than loving. They have a competitive ring to them, the not-so-subtle point being that the child in question isn’t just smart but smarter than every other kid.
when kids are encouraged to focus on getting better marks in school, three things tend to happen: They lose interest in the learning itself, they try to avoid tasks that are challenging, and they’re less likely to think deeply and critically.
children who were offered incentives for good grades or given consequences for bad grades tended to become less interested in learning and, as a result, less likely to do well in school later on,
Grades are bad, and using controlling techniques to make kids focus on bringing up their grades is worse. Worst of all, though, is when those controlling techniques add up to conditional parenting. Some parents don’t offer money for straight A’s; instead, they pay off their kids with affection and approval. In effect, they’re using their love as a lever to get their kids to succeed—to the point that their children may come to feel as though their parents’ positive feelings for them rise and fall with their grade point average.
few of us would say it’s worth the price of having them come to resent their parents and to feel guilty and unhappy and unfree.
children who are unconditionally loved are more likely to accept themselves unconditionally.
Being accepted without conditions helps them to develop a healthy confidence in themselves, a sense that it’s safe to take risks and try new things. From deep contentment comes the courage to achieve.
It’s not a coincidence that authoritarian parents, who demand absolute obedience, also tend to attribute unflattering characteristics to children—and sometimes to people in general. A study of more than three hundred parents found that those who held a negative view of human nature were likely to be very controlling with their kids.
Research confirms that parents who “attribute greater competence and responsibility to misbehaving children” are more likely to get upset with them, to condemn and punish them. They become frustrated by what they see as inappropriate behavior, and they respond, in effect, by cracking down on little kids for being little kids.
Alice Miller: “Many people continue to pass on the cruel deeds and attitudes to which they were subjected as children, so that they can continue to idealize their parents.”
Those who habitually put their own needs first are also more likely to believe that their children’s misbehaviors are deliberate and rooted in their nature or personality, rather than emerging from a particular situation.
“what we call ‘behavior problems’ are often situations of legitimate conflict; we just get to call them behavior problems because we have more power” than children do. (You’re not allowed to say that your spouse has a behavior problem.)
abusive parents are especially likely “to see themselves as victims of the malevolent intentions of children.” But which came first: the behavior or the belief? Perhaps by seeing ourselves as the victims, or by talking about how “manipulative” a child is, “we are trying to justify our negative reaction by looking for equally negative motives in the child.”
The assumption that sooner is always better may come from a fear of later. That fear, in turn, can reflect the belief that children shouldn’t be “babied.” It’s time to wean them, time to potty-train them, time to get them walking and talking and doing more things on their own. Parents worry when their children act in ways that they think are too young. But why?
The people most likely to have made their peace with going slow are the parents of children with developmental disabilities. They’ve had to face down their worst fears and work through them. But the trick is for parents of all children to relax and let them proceed at their own pace.
The upshot is this. We’re unlikely to meet our long-term goals for our kids unless we’re ready to ask the following question: Is it possible that what I just did with them had more to do with my needs, my fears, and my own upbringing than with what’s really in their best interests?
The shift away from older methods, however, has to be accompanied by a shift in goal. Specifically, our main question shouldn’t be “How do I get my child to do what I say?” but “What does my child need—and how can I meet those needs?”
To focus on children’s needs, and to work with them to make sure their needs are met, constitutes a commitment to taking children seriously. It means treating them as people whose feelings and desires and questions matter. A child’s preferences can’t always be accommodated, but they can always be considered and they need never be dismissed out of hand.
Here they are all together: 1. Be reflective. 2. Reconsider your requests. 3. Keep your eye on your long-term goals. 4. Put the relationship first. 5. Change how you see, not just how you act. 6. R-E-S-P-E-C-T. 7. Be authentic. 8. Talk less, ask more. 9. Keep their ages in mind. 10. Attribute to children the best possible motive consistent with the facts. 11. Don’t stick your no’s in unnecessarily. 12. Don’t be rigid. 13. Don’t be in a hurry.
our first priority is to figure out the source of the problem, to recognize what children need.
distraction is ineffective and even insulting when applied to an older child, just as it would be if you complained about something that was bothering you only to have your spouse try to change the subject.
We can help kids to develop good values by treating them as though they were already motivated by those values. They thereby come to believe what’s best about themselves and live up to our trust in them.
Just because a child’s action may have a negative effect on you doesn’t mean that was the child’s intention.
What matters most is the reason for our decisions, and the extent to which we’re willing to provide guidance, to support children’s choices, to be there with them—all of which is a lot more challenging than just saying yes or no. What I’m talking about might be called mindful child-rearing, which is the opposite of being on autoparent. It requires enormous reserves of attention and patience. In some cases, it asks us to question the way we ourselves were raised.
Some people very quickly become fair-weather parents, supportive and attentive only when their children are easy to be with. But unconditional love matters most when they’re not.
Somehow, in other words, we have to communicate that we love them even when we’re not thrilled with what they’re doing.
LIMIT THE NUMBER OF YOUR CRITICISMS. Bite your tongue and swallow a lot of your objections. For one thing, frequent negative responses are counterproductive. If kids feel we’re impossible to please, they’ll just stop trying. Being selective about what we object to or forbid makes the “no” count for more on those occasions when we really do have to say it. But the main point is that too much criticism and disapproval may lead a child to feel unworthy.
Explicit negative evaluations may not be necessary if we simply say what we see (“ Jeremy looked kind of sad after you said that to him”) and ask questions (“ The next time you’re feeling frustrated, what do you think you could do instead of pushing?”).
we sometimes seem to forget that, even when kids do rotten things, our goal should not be to make them feel bad, nor to stamp a particular behavior out of existence. Rather, what we want is to influence the way they think and feel, to help them become the kind of people who wouldn’t want to act cruelly. And, of course, our other goal is to avoid injuring our relationship with them in the process.
My wife is always reminding me, especially when yet another dinner we made for our children lies uneaten, that all we can do is prepare nutritious meals (taking their preferences into account whenever possible) and then hope for the best. Not only is that all we can do; it’s what we have to keep doing, no matter how many of those meals end up in the garbage can.
by misbehaving, children may be testing something else entirely—namely, the unconditionality of our love. Perhaps they’re acting in unacceptable ways to see if we’ll stop accepting them. Our response has to be a stubborn refusal to take the bait. We must reassure them: “No matter what you do, no matter how frustrated I get, I will never, never, never stop loving you.”
But my point here is that when we do give them things, there should be no strings attached. Presents should never be offered as an incentive for behaving well, getting good grades, or doing anything else.
the problem with children whom we would describe as spoiled is that they “get too much of what they want and too little of what they need.”
Just paying attention to what kids are doing and showing interest in their activities is a form of encouragement. In fact, it’s more important than what we say immediately after kids do something marvelous. When unconditional love and genuine enthusiasm are always present, “Good job!” isn’t necessary; when they’re absent, “Good job!” won’t help.
A simple, evaluation-free statement lets a child know that you noticed. It also lets her take pride in what she did. When, in her second year, my daughter finally made it up the stairs under her own steam, I was thrilled, of course, but I didn’t feel the need to subject her to my judgment. I just said, “You did it” so she would know that I saw and I cared, but also so she could feel proud of herself.
“I like the way you . . .” saying nothing (and just paying attention) “Good drawing! I love those pictures!” describing, rather than evaluating, what you see: “Hey, there’s something new on the feet of those people you just drew. They’ve got toes.” “You’re such a great helper!” explaining the effects of the child’s action on other people: “You set the table! Boy, that makes things a lot easier on me while I’m cooking.” “That was a great essay you wrote.” inviting reflection: “How did you come up with that way of grabbing the reader’s attention right at the beginning?” “Good sharing, Michael.” asking, rather than judging: “What made you decide to give some of your brownie to Deirdre when you didn’t have to?”
In some cases, it may make sense simply to ask our kids point-blank: “Do you sometimes feel as though I love you more when you get good grades [or do well in sports, or accomplish something I can brag about to my friends] than when you don’t?”
Plenty of brilliant and accomplished adults were mediocre students, while plenty of rising stars end up burning out.
Our obligation is to warn our children about the implications of becoming addicted to A’s and dollars and trophies, not to serve as enablers of those addictions. We need to keep them—and ourselves—focused on the things that really matter. That means strengthening our relationship with them, making it clear that our love is absolutely unrelated to how well they perform. It means reconsidering how we respond to the thousand tiny triumphs and setbacks that fill a childhood.
A considerable body of evidence suggests that when children are led to become preoccupied with how well they’re doing, they often take less pleasure from what they’re doing.
How good is this project? Have I met these standards? How much improvement have I shown?”, then learning tends to become a chore rather than an occasion for excitement. Now it’s not stuff they want to figure out; it’s stuff they have to get better at.
“So, what’s your opinion about how dinosaurs became extinct?” is a question that supports intellectual growth. “How come only a B-minus on that paper?” is not. If a child has written an essay, it makes sense to focus not on whether it’s good enough but on its content (and on the process of crafting it). A parent might ask: “How did you come to choose what to write about? What did you learn from your research? Why did you save that important point for the end? Did your opinion about the topic change at all after you started to write?”
Again, the most effective (and least destructive) way to help a child succeed—whether she’s writing or skiing, playing a trumpet or a computer game—is to do everything possible to help her fall in love with what she’s doing, to pay less attention to how successful she was (or is likely to be) and show more interest in the task. That’s just another way of saying that we need to encourage more, judge less, and love always.
The way kids learn to make good decisions is by making decisions, not by following directions.
it makes sense to raise them with respect, to offer them unconditional support, and to give them choices on a regular basis. That foundation allows them to evaluate the controlling people and institutions they’ll eventually face by applying the higher standard they encountered while growing up.
when children ask whether it’s okay to do something, it often makes sense to respond with “Well, what do you think?”
It’s important that we tune in to what they’re telling us and try to honor their requests whenever possible rather than insisting on a fixed schedule for eating and sleeping, or interacting with them in a way that entertains us but doesn’t really please them.
If we let kids do whatever they want, even when we disapprove, we risk sending the message that we really don’t care, that we’re washing our hands of responsibility.
“Let’s talk about what’s fair to you but also what might address my concerns. Let’s come up with some ideas and try them out.”
The other option is to build a trusting relationship with them from the time they’re small and involve them in making decisions. That way, the doing-to approach, which we already know to be offensive and counterproductive, proves to be unnecessary as well.
If a child is in a foul temper, angrily resisting every suggestion you make, don’t get pulled into a struggle. Discussion doesn’t make sense when she’s unable to reason, and of course hollering back never makes sense. Give her a few minutes to recover. The storm will pass.
Rule number one: If you’re in public, ignore everyone around you. The more worried you are about how other people will judge your parenting skills, the greater the chance that you’ll respond with too much control and too little love and patience. This is not about what people think of you; it’s about what your child needs.
By patiently laying out reasons, we accomplish two things at once. First, we let kids know what’s important to us and why. Second, we engage their minds, helping them to reflect on—indeed, to wrestle with—moral questions.
Remember—your ultimate goal isn’t to get your way. Rather, you want to let your child know that she doesn’t have to argue as well as you do in order to be taken seriously, and you want to help her learn how to frame her arguments more convincingly. We want kids to “talk back” to us, as long as they do so respectfully—and we want them to get better at it.
Many researchers have followed Martin Hoffman in referring to this approach as “other-oriented” reasoning or “inductive” discipline (because children are induced to think about the effects of their actions on others). Hoffman discovered that children whose mothers consistently did this tended to show “advanced moral development.”
Kafka once described war as a “monstrous failure of imagination.” In order to kill, one must cease to see individual human beings and instead reduce them to abstractions such as “the enemy.”
It is enormously powerful to say things like this to our kids, to teach them that we need not respond to an individual who acts unpleasantly by getting angry—or, for that matter, by blaming ourselves. Instead, we can attempt to enter the world of that other person. It’s our choice: Every day our children can watch us as we imagine someone else’s point of view—or they can watch us remain self-centered. Every day they can witness our effort to see strangers as human beings—or they can witness our failure to do so.