Guiding principles of unconditional parenting


I want to share a section of Alfie Kohn’s book, Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason, because these concepts are really helping me find reserves of patience and lovingkindness for my daughter that I never knew were in there! In return, she has become far more cooperative with me and more enjoyable to be around than ever before.

Many of my friends already put several of these philosophies into practice in their own ways, but I thought it may be helpful to share this nonetheless in case something resonates with you, even if you disagree.  Here I’ve included Kohn’s guiding principles with a quotation from his book for each, interspersed with some photos.  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Red roses desaturated in Pixlr Express and then faded to add back some color

1. Be reflective.  “The best parents are introspective… trying to become better parents tomorrow than we are today… The more transparent you are to yourself — the better you come to understand how your own needs and experiences affect the way you act with your children (such as what drives you crazy and why) — the more likely it is that you’ll improve.”

2. Reconsider your requests.  “Some parents want to know how to get their kids to practice the piano.  The more pressing question, however is: If the whole process is excruciating for the child, why are you forcing him to take lessons? For him or for you? Before searching for some method to get kids to do what we tell them, we should first take time time to rethink the value or necessity of our requests.”

3. Keep your eye on your long-term goals.  “We ought to keep in mind what we’re really looking for… and keep a sense of perspective.  Whether your child spills the chocolate milk today, or loses her temper, or forgets to do her homework doesn’t matter nearly as much as the things you do that either help or don’t help her to become a decent, responsible, compassionate person.”

Edited lightness and added the bokeh in Pixlr Express

4. Put the relationship first.  “Kids are more likely to come to us when they’re in trouble, to look to us for advice, and to want to spend time with us when they can choose whether to do so.  Furthermore, when they know they can trust us, they’re most likely to do what we ask if we tell them it’s really important.”

5. Change how you see, not just how you act.  “Unconditional parents don’t just behave differently, such as by avoiding the use of punishment.  They see things differently.  When a child does something inappropriate, conditional parents are likely to perceive this as an infraction… Unconditional parents are apt to see the same act as a problem to be solved, an opportunity for teaching rather than for making the child suffer… To see children’s behavior as a ‘teachable moment’ invites us to include them in the process of solving the problem, which is more likely to be effective.”

6. RESPECT.  “Kids are more likely to respect others (including you) you if they themselves feel respected… It’s disrespectful for a parent to tell a child what she is and isn’t experiencing – for example, to respond to an angry declaration that she hates her brother by saying, ‘Of course you don’t!’… Apart from failing to help the situation, the child may come to believe that her feelings aren’t important, that there’s something wrong with her for having them, and that she can only be loved if she gets upset about the things Mommy thinks it’s okay to get upset about.”

Simply adjusted the lightness and saturation in PSE

7. Be authentic.  “We mustn’t stop being people with [our children].  We shouldn’t hide behind the role of mom or dad, to the point that our humanity disappears… Real people have needs of their own, things they enjoy doing, things they hate.  Kids should know that.  Real people sometimes become flustered or distracted or tired.  They aren’t always sure what to do.  Sometimes they say things without thinking and later regret them.  We shouldn’t pretend to be more competent than we are.  And when we screw up, we should admit it… Children will still look up to us even if we’re candid about our limitations, even if we speak to them from our hearts, and even if they can see that, for all the privileges and wisdom that adulthood confers, we’re still just people struggling to make our way in the world, todo the right thing, to balance people’s needs, to keep learning — just as they are.”

Everyone still with me here? Yay!

8. Talk less, ask more. “Dictating to kids (even in a nice way) is far less productive than eliciting ideas and objections and feelings from them.  If talking to our children about what they’ve done wrong fails to bring about the results we were hoping for, it isn’t because some stronger form of discipline is required.  It may be because we did most of the talking.  Maybe we were so busy trying to get them to see our point of view that we didn’t really hear theirs.  To be a great parent is more a function of listening than of explaining… As a rule, our first priority is to figure out the source of the problem, to recognize what children need… Our job is to create that sense of safety, to listen without judgement.”

9. Keep their ages in mind.  “We have to keep our expectations keyed to what they’re capable of doing.”

Pixlr Express (I think). Converted to sepia and then faded the effect to bring back color.

10. Attribute to children the best possible motive consistent with the facts.  “We usually don’t know for sure why a child acted the way he did; our beliefs about those reasons can create a self-fulfilling prophecy… The most obvious case it which this makes sense has to do with immaturity.  Mischief often can be explained by a simple lack of skills or guidance, an innocent desire to explore, an inability to foresee what happens when you take that thing and do this to it… This advice is especially important with young children, whose apparent misbehavior really is likely to be due mostly to their age and whose sense of themselves is still in formation… However, even with older children, our first reaction shouldn’t be to blame; we need to sympathize and try to understand why our children acted as they did.”

11. Don’t stick your no’s in unnecessarily.  “Most parents are constantly saying no.  According to descriptive studies, young children in particular are prevented from doing something they want, or made to do something they’d rather not, literally every few minutes… When I say that we should make sure we’re not saying no too often or unnecessarily, I don’t mean that our convenience, our wants, don’t count too.  They do.  But they shouldn’t count for so much that we’re gratuitously restricting our children, prohibiting them from trying things out.  When you come right down to it, the whole process of raising a kid is pretty damned inconvenient, particularly if you want to do it well.  If you’re unwilling to give up any of your free time, if you want your house to stay quiet and clean, you might consider raising tropical fish instead.” 

(I put the italics there because this part really made me pause.  I am ALWAYS cleaning up around my daughter and wishing for more quiet time! It has helped me to remember WHY I don’t have those things right now and that it’s worth it.)

“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… This requires enormous reserves of attention and patience.”

12. Don’t be rigid.  “Waive the rules on special occasions; forget about bedtime now and then… Make it clear to your kids that what you’re doing is an exception… but don’t let a fear of creating a precedent prevent you from being flexible and spontaneous… The same considerations apply to how you respond to misbehavior.  Any given action has to be understood in a context… Allowances should be made for a child having an off day or for the possibility that you’re feeling less tolerant this evening… It’s amazing how much less stressed and defensive everyone is, and how there’s less pressure to insist on a uniform definition of justice… when we think in terms of problems to be solved rather than infractions to be punished.”

13. Don’t be in a hurry.  “Parents become more controlling when time is short, just as they do when they’re in public… Rearranging your schedule gives you the luxury of waiting out a child who is being defiant or resistant, rather than pulling out threats or otherwise imposing your will.  If she’s refusing to do something that you’ve decided must be done, you can say, ‘Sorry, sweetie, but you have to put your coat on.  It’s very cold out and we’re going to be walking for a while.  But if you’d rather wait for a minute, that’s fine.  Tell me when you’re ready.’ If you back off and give kids some time, they usually come around… Rather than trying to change your child’s behavior, it usually makes more sense to alter the environment.”

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8 thoughts on “Guiding principles of unconditional parenting

  1. Will you be my mom? To late for that I guess.

    This got me thinking that perhaps many things we expect from children have similarities to bullying. We want them to do things because we are older and bigger. If we tried to put ourselves in their shoes, we might be kinder, have more patience.

    • I definitely think so. When my daughter deliberately doesn’t listen or follow instructions, I feel some form of internal rage… like maybe my “authority” is being threatened or something. Seeing it as a reason to get down on her level and listen seems to help sometimes. I also like imagining what things look like from her perspective. If I were looking at everyone’s legs all day, I’d want them to get down on the floor with me too. Even our bathtub must seem so huge to her!

  2. I’m reading this from the perspective of having already raised my kids. There’s some good stuff here but I’m telling you, all bets are off when the hormones kick in. Seriously. But if you give them a good foundation when they’re young and refrain from killing them during the teenage years, ahhh…they will eventually come back to you as rational adults. And trust me, there is NOTHING better than that!

  3. This is great. I’ll have to pick up that book. Sounds like a lot of what I have instinctly figured out and gathered from other sources. Love this post. Thank you! Happy to meet you.

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