Quotes from Unconditional Parenting, by Alfie Kohn

“A child is yelling, obviously upset, and when she quiets down her daddy lies in bed with his arm around her and reads her a Frog and Toad story. In response, the proponent of conditional parenting exclaims, ‘No, no, no, you’re just reinforcing her bad behavior! You’re teaching her that it’s all right to be naughty!’

This interpretation doesn’t merely reflect an assumption about what kids learn in a given situation, or even how they learn. It reflects an awfully sour view of children- and, by extension, of human nature. It assumes that, given half a chance, kids will take advantage of us. Give ’em an inch, they’ll take a mile. They will draw the worst possible lesson from an ambiguous situation (not ‘I’m loved anyway’ but ‘Yay! It’s okay to make trouble!’). Acceptance without strings attached will just be interpreted as permission to act in a way that’s selfish, demanding, greedy, or inconsiderate. At least in part, then, conditional parenting is based on the deeply cynical belief that accepting kids for who they are just frees them to be bad because, well, that’s who they are.”

“Ultimately, conditional parenting reflects a tendency to see almost every human interaction, even among family members, as a kind of economic transaction. The laws of the marketplace- supply and demand, tit for tat- have assumed the status of universal and absolute principles, as though everything in our lives, including what we do with our children, is analogous to buying a car or renting an apartment.”

“When we make children feel powerless, forcing them to submit to our will, this often generates intense anger, and just because that anger can’t be expressed at the moment doesn’t mean it disappears. What happens to it depends on the child’s personality and the specifics of the situation. Sometimes the result is more battles with the parent. As author Nancy Samalin comments, even ‘when we ‘win,’ we lose. When we make children obey by force, threats, or punishment, we make them feel helpless. They can’t stand feeling helpless, so they provoke another confrontation to prove they still have some power.’ And where do they learn how to use that power? From us. Not only does authoritarian parenting make them mad; it also teaches them how to direct their anger against another person.”

“External regulation can interfere with the development of internal regulation not only with regards to eating but also with regard to ethics. A heavy-handed parenting style does nothing to promote, and actually may undermine, children’s moral development. Those who are pressured to do as they’re told are unlikely to think through ethical dilemmas for themselves. This can quickly create a vicious circle: The less chance they have to make decisions about the right way to act, the more likely they are to act in ways which cause their parents to cite their irresponsibility as a reason for continuing to deny them the right to choose.”

“During any (recent) given year, more than 1.3 million children are homeless in the United States. Between 22 and 26 percent of young children are classified as poor, which is far higher than the rates in other industrialized societies. Americans continue to tolerate the real suffering that lies behind these statistics, and this speaks to our attitude towards children as surely as does the number of people who grouse about ‘these kids today.’

Here’s the point: If children in general aren’t held in great esteem, it becomes easier for parents, even basically good parents, to treat their own kids disrespectfully… 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.”

“The most popular false dichotomy runs as follows: ‘We need to take a hard line with kids and stop letting them do anything they feel like.’ In effect, traditional discipline is contrasted with permissiveness. Either I punish my child or else I let her ‘get away with’ whatever she did. Either I take a hard line or I draw no line at all…

Paradoxically, neglecting and punishing aren’t even really opposites. Both share the feature of offering absolutely no productive, respectful adult guidance of the sort that kids need.”

“Their interest in controlling others isn’t limited to children; they feel obligated to demonstrate that they’re superior to other adults, too. But it’s easier, and more socially acceptable, to do it with kids. Norman Kunc, who conducts workshops on inclusive education and non-coercive practices, points out that ‘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.)”

“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. It’s important to see a child as someone with a unique point of view, with very real fears and concerns (often quite different from our own), and with a distinctive way of reasoning (which is not merely ‘cute’).”

“Second, we need to get in the habit of asking ourselves a very specific question: ‘If that comment I just made to my child had been made to me- or if what I just did had been done to me- would I feel unconditionally loved?’ It’s not terribly complicated to perform this sort of imaginative reversal, but to do so on a regular basis can be nothing short of transformative.”

“The late psychologist Herbert Lovett once observed that if we ignore children when they misbehave, what we’re saying to them is: ‘We don’t know why you do this and we don’t care.’ To justify such a response by insisting that children who act out are just doing it ‘for the attention,’ Lovett added, seems to imply that ‘wanting to be noticed [is] a mysterious or stupid need.’ It’s as though someone ridiculed you for going out to dinner with your friends, explaining that you do this just because of your ‘need for companionship.'”

“There’s nothing brilliantly original about the notion that kids should be part of the problem-solving process when things go wrong, or, for that matter, that they should have some say about what happens to them on an ongoing basis. Yet I continue to be struck by how often parents fail to consider these possibilities, or neglect to act on them, or even angrily resist them…

The first argument is a moral one: All people ought to have some control over their own lives. In the case of children, of course, there are limits to how much control and what kind; plenty of things have to be decided for them, particularly when they’re young. But that doesn’t negate the basic principle. I believe our default position ought to be to let kids make decisions about matters that concern them except when there is a compelling reason for us to override that right.”

“Some parents talk about ‘choice’ not in the context of allowing kids to have more say but rather as a way of blaming them for deliberately deciding to do something bad. A sentence such as ‘You chose to break the rule’ amounts to using the word almost like a bludgeon against children. It’s also a way of trying to justify a punitive response, so it shouldn’t be surprising to learn that people who talk this way are indeed more likely to use punishment and other power-based interventions.
Adults who blithely insist that children choose to misbehave are rather like politicians who declare that people have only themselves to blame for being poor. In both cases, potentially relevant factors other than personal responsibility are ignored.”

“Children of different ages are frequently described as ‘manipulative.’ But, again, from the child’s perspective, she may just be struggling to have some say over what happens to her. If anyone is trying to manipulate here, it’s probably the grown-up. Perhaps kids would benefit from a helpful book called How to Handle Your Difficult Parents.”

2 thoughts on “Quotes from Unconditional Parenting, by Alfie Kohn

  1. Sue Lyle July 15, 2017 at 01:42 Reply

    Great article.

  2. Nicole July 15, 2017 at 14:45 Reply

    Fantastic book, I live in a household where the children (my nieces) are parented in an unconditional way, very much informed by this book. They are lovely children. One of the most striking things for me was how much it taught me about myself and how I treat others and how I want to be treated.

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