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Alfie Kohn - Unconditional Parenting

Full title is Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason

I think callingthemoon recommended this book, and from the summary I assumed it was for HIPPIES. You know, "don't punish your kids, love them more, all you need is love, etc etc etc." I was skeptical, but ready. I'm game. I can be a hippy.

Oddly enough though the opening chapters strongly reminded me of book I read last year: Switch by Chip & Dan Heath. That book was not about parenting at all, it was about businesses and corporations and convincing people to go your way. The basic idea is that managers feel like they only have carrots and sticks to motivate their employees... do this or else you won't get a paycheck. This is horribly ineffective way to run a company. People aren't very well motivated by guilt, fear, threats... they'll do what you want (until you're not looking) but no more. You won't get their talents on your side. You have to appeal to something deeper.

Well, same thing for parenting! Except it's funny that when it came to reading about this topic for business people don't think of softie hippies, they think of Great Leaders!

The gist of Unconditional Parenting is that too many people make parenting into a super-controlled economic system, where every interaction you have with your kids must be feedback based on their behavior. Some books are even so bad they tell you not to hug your kid unless you feel like he's earned it. Every time you promise a trip to the zoo on Saturday, you get to hang it over her head all week (be good or we're not going to the zoo!), everything you say is directional, either praise or distaste.

Reading Switch and Unconditional Parenting so closely together made me realize that I wouldn't appreciate working in an environment like that, of course I should not treat my child that way!

Alfie Kohn says that the consequences of the constant tit-for-tat parenting is that kids lose their grasp of critical thinking for themselves, and never think of the real consequences for their actions. They think the consequence of not sharing is "mom will be mad because I'm supposed to share", when the real point is "my friend will be upset about losing his toy, I'd be upset too".

He says your child needs to understand that your feelings for her have nothing to do with how she acts. You want her to feel happy, feel loved, and thrive even if she's been crazy all day.

He says to constantly calibrate your expectations to make sure they're age-appropriate. Last week I was playing with the dog in the back yard, and Josie got the back gate open and ran STRAIGHT out into the street. I was screaming so loud some neighbors came out to make sure she hadn't already been run down. I seriously considered BEATING her, but instead we just went in the house and declared playtime over. And now I'm glad I did, because even though running in the street is considered by many to be a "spankable offense", the reality is Josie is one. She's too little to understand the consequences of the street, and it would not be good to lead her to believe that the consequence is punishment from me. What should I do? Get a better latch on that gate!

And by the way, in the book, all punishments are equally bad. Using time out instead of hand-slapping gets you no points. Stars on charts for rewards instead of, well, not being beaten have the same issue. It makes the consequence about you.

I read the No longer quivering blog by people who've escaped extreme fundamentalist Christian communities, and in those circles parents are told to tempt their little ones on purpose... put something on a table where your one-year-old can reach it, and when he does, hit him. Teach him early that you are the one in control. The result? Kids are stunted by their inability to interact with people on their own. The discipline reaches dangerously abusive levels, because when it doesn't work the advocates within the movement just tell parents they aren't hitting hard enough.

From the outside, we look at those parents and just think "well they cross the line", but the real problem is that their whole system of punishment & control doesn't work.

Unconditional Parenting told me a lot of things I already knew, a lot of things I could have guessed, but it made it all a little clearer, and I found it really interesting. I'm not saying I'll NEVER punish my kid. But I will definitely avoid making every little thing into a consequence. And if I am punishing my kid, and it's not working, my plan B will not be "more punishment", because as several books have told me now, that's not how you get through to people. Big people, little people, we have a lot more in common than we give little people credit for.


( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 14th, 2012 03:57 pm (UTC)
Hi, I've just added your journal because I've been browsing through interests and searching for new ones! This is really fascinating and makes a lot of sense. I think it shows that a lot of people try to treat all their interactions with people in a kind of carrot and stick way (possibly because that's how they were brought up, I know I was, and it didn't particularly work very well) and it's not helpful, in the workplace, in the family, friendships/relationships or anything.

It's really scary that extreme fundamentalist communities use punishment for control in such a deliberate way. Poor children.
Apr. 14th, 2012 04:15 pm (UTC)
Alfie Kohn is amazing. He's written some fantastic books for educators, including "Punished by Rewards".
Apr. 14th, 2012 06:05 pm (UTC)
Some books are even so bad they tell you not to hug your kid unless you feel like he's earned it

....what? Who would do that? That's terrible! :(

I think what you're saying this books is about is largely how we try to operate. But sometimes punishment is necessary too. Most of the time, though, we don't wind up reaching that point. Sticker rewards, I think are perfectly fine as long as that's not the only thing you're doing. Every kid is different, we're pretty lucky with a fairly easy-going one. I have to worry more about falling into the "I'm disappointed" trap because I think that's one she'd take very personally, more than other things.

Also, I hate when people say "age appropriate" because there comes a time when no one tells you what that is. :P Help, she's four, what do I do now?

Summary: parenting is hard.
Apr. 14th, 2012 08:01 pm (UTC)
Most parenting books are garbage in that they're philosophical treatises which sometimes make reference to research and imply that the research findings have relevance to the treatise.

Here are two books which will depress the hell out of dreamer parents but the research cited and the model which was tested actually give you something meaningful to work with and guide your understanding of what in going on in this new parenting relationship you find yourself in.

The NURTURE ASSUMPTION: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do

No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality
Apr. 14th, 2012 08:56 pm (UTC)
I read that book too. I certainly do not want to punish my kid a lot--I'm hoping I don't have to. I'm worried about getting into a battle of wills, because my mom and I were constantly locked in a battle of wills when I was growing up, and about 90% of it was because her expectations for me were in no way appropriate. She thought that I was deliberately disobeying her, but I was trying to do the right thing, I just didn't understand what it was, and she never told me what was right, only what was unacceptable. Now as a parent I don't know how I'd handle a battle of wills. I'd be constantly second-guessing myself. I hope to avoid it entirely.

Your comparison to the book about workplaces is interesting. This made me realize that my workplace, unfortunately, bears a lot of similarities to the family I grew up in. (Is out-of-touch upper management a complaint everywhere?) Demands made with no knowledge of what our practice is really like. ("Ask every patient if they want a pertussis shot!" I'm a pharmacist. If it's not strictly unethical of me to do suggestive selling, it certainly isn't going to help my relationship with my patients when they think that I'm trying to get them to buy stuff like the gal at the front register tries to get them to buy peanut butter cups.) Being blamed for things we only vaguely have control over. ("You didn't increase your script count 10%!" What were we supposed to do, go out on the street and drag people into the pharmacy?) Etc.
Apr. 15th, 2012 01:47 am (UTC)
I was just reading 1-2-3 Magic! I have seen friends with older kids use it over the years and working wonders. What I like about it is the habit of parents constantly repeating themselves (I do this too) to get the kid to do one thing, and a way to quit that habit. But the rest of it both hubby and I find too carrot-stick. It's too many rules for us to keep track of let alone a kid! But we couldn't really point out an alternative. Thanks for this post. Will check it out!
Apr. 15th, 2012 02:52 am (UTC)
Interesting sounding book, but I wonder if it is hard to set limits with no consequences...

Have you read the "Love and Logic" series? Those books make sense to me that if there is a consequence it is one that is logical to the situation. (For instance, kid runs into the street-- you go inside. Kid eats the whole cookie jar, no more desserts that day or something like that. Kid hits another kid, they take a break to cool off and maybe think about how to make reparations...They aren't just random consequences). I wouldn't know how to do it with no consequences.
Apr. 15th, 2012 07:24 am (UTC)
Totally off topic -- you all okay after those storms?
Apr. 15th, 2012 05:21 pm (UTC)
Yes :) thanks for checking. they passed a good ways south of us.
Apr. 15th, 2012 07:40 pm (UTC)
Glad to hear it.
Apr. 15th, 2012 03:38 pm (UTC)
Adding that book to my list ASAP. This sounds very in line with my own way of thinking. For instance, if the cats start chewing on something plastic left out, Rob's reaction is to chastise the cat (he knew she shouldn't do it) mine is to say "Well we should have put that away" and just move it out of harms way.

Another commentator also brought up a golden tenet of mine (easy for me, I have no kids!). The idea that punishments need to be related to the crime.
Apr. 16th, 2012 02:30 pm (UTC)
That makes a lot of sense to me. My mom and dad always operated on the "logical consequences" principle of things.
Apr. 16th, 2012 09:24 pm (UTC)
"put something on a table where your one-year-old can reach it, and when he does, hit him."

My first thought in response to that was, "Sounds like the Spartans teaching the kids to steal--but punishing them severely if they get caught." Wrong lesson, basically.
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )

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