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preservations… for posterity

Unconditional Parenting

I’ve been intrigued by attachment parenting for the last five years or so. By the time I was pregnant I was fully devoted to AP and all that it entails. I was committed to breastfeeding, to responding to my baby’s cries, and to wearing my baby. I wasn’t sure about discipline, though. I had read some of the posts in the gentle discipline forum on Mothering, and I really wasn’t sure if this was the approach for me. Sometimes the posters had kids that seemed really out of control… and I thought that there must be a better way. Both my husband and I grew up under a very traditional form of his discipline, and honestly it has been hard for us to imagine anything else.

Enter Alfie Kohn, author of Unconditional Parenting. He is the antithesis of the traditional, authoritarian parent. Kohn doesn’t appeal to emotion, and he doesn’t tell you that it will be easy, but he does tell you that it will be detrimental to punish or reward your children. The underlying premise is that any punishment or reward points to a conditional kind of love. He advocates a working with rather than a doing to approach. He sums up his principles as follows:

  1. Be reflective. Be honest with yourself about your motives.
  2. Reconsider your requests. Too often there is a blanket acceptance of parental prerogative.
  3. Keep your eye on your long-term goals. Is mindless obedience one of them?
  4. Put the relationship first. Being right isn’t all that matters.
  5. Change how you see, not just how you act. When a child does something in appropriate, see it a problem to be solved or an opportunity to teach; not as a reason to make a child suffer through punishment.
  6. Respect. This is a main tenant of Kohn’s approach – children are people and they deserve respect.
  7. Be authentic. Don’t hide behind your parental role to the point that your humanity disappears.
  8. Talk less, ask more. You have to know the source of the problem in order to solve it. Let your child help direct you.
  9. Keep their ages in mind. Recognize your child’s stage of development – don’t set unrealistically high expectations.
  10. Attribute to children the best possible motive consistent with the facts. Don’t automatically assume that a child is about to misbehave. I still remember the time when I was admiring the Christmas presents under the tree. When my aunt yelled at me not to start opening them yet, she assumed the worst possible motive. She ruined my peaceful moment and replaced it with an upsetting memory.
  11. Don’t stick your no’s in unnecessarily. Yes should be the default response, say no only when you have a real reason.
  12. Don’t be rigid. Make exceptions, be flexible.
  13. Don’t be in a hurry. Do what you can to head off problems.

True unconditional parenting isn’t just a list of dos and don’ts – it’s an underlying attitude of respect for the child, a commitment to the parent-child relationship and a long-term view of the child’s future. Kohn cites a number of interesting studies to illustrate his stance.  While this book really challenged the way that I think about discipline issues, I still find Kohn’s approach to be too all-or-nothing for my taste. Is sending a child to time-out really sending the message that you are withdrawing/withholding your love? In some circumstances, maybe. But my parents used some of the techniques that Kohn criticizes, and I never felt conditionally loved as he alleges. I always have known that my parents love me unconditionally.

Instances like this make parenting so hard – it’s difficult to know what to do when your experience doesn’t agree with the latest research. Maybe I would be a better version of myself if my parents had never sent me to time-out or used other so-called conditional parenting techniques. Yet I am pretty pleased with the way my childhood unfolded and I believe that my parents did a great job. How will my husband and I reconcile our growing-up experiences with research like Kohn cites and with our own muddled views of human nature? It’s something we’re still figuring out.


June 19, 2009 - Posted by | books, parenting

1 Comment

  1. > How will my husband and I reconcile our growing-up experiences with research like Kohn cites and with our own muddled views of human nature?

    Just fine, I imagine.

    As a parent-to-be I’ve thought a lot about this lately. I’m still forming my thoughts, but one of the ideas solidifying in my mind is that there are plenty of approaches that work well. Choosing the “correct” set of practices is an act of futility. Each family is a unique entity and requires its own solution which will require a lot of trial, error, and adaptation over time.

    “Plans are of little importance, but planning is essential” — Winston Churchill

    Comment by James | June 24, 2009

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