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Book Review

Unconditional Parenting

by Alfie Kohn
Atria, 2006
Softcover, 272 pages
Retail price: $14.00

reviewed by Stephanie Mattei
Folsom NJ USA
From NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 24 No. 3, May-June 2007, p.127

Alfie Kohn is a nationally respected educator and writer on human behavior, education, and parenting. In Unconditional Parenting, he argues that a fundamental need all children have is to experience being loved unconditionally, regardless of their behavior. Children also need to experience acceptance in the face of shortcomings and mistakes. Although all parents love their children unconditionally, many mainstream parenting approaches advocate techniques that entail "love withdrawal," as Kohn describes it. Kohn sees these approaches as forms of control, the underlying message being that our children are loved conditionally (i.e., only when they please us).

Many parenting books on the market promise that they will provide the reader with the tools to "fix" misbehavior. Their techniques are designed to help parents make children do what they want them to do. The goal of these parenting books is showing parents how to make children comply. The basic assumption underlying those books is that it is the parents' job to control their children's behavior, and that if not curbed, children will grow up to be selfish, rude, and out-of-control.

Unconditional Parenting offers a radically different view of human nature and helps parents question the most basic assumptions about raising children. Kohn asks the reader to reconsider the basis of the parent-child relationship and the implications of power-based discipline. Additionally, Kohn addresses parents' unconscious fears: parental inadequacy, powerlessness, spoiling (permissiveness), and being judged.

According to Kohn, the most compelling problem that arises from many popular parenting strategies is that children may experience themselves as lovable and worthy only when they please the authority figure who maintains control. This is clearly not the message any parent wants to purposely convey to a child. Kohn presents convincing research illustrating the damage caused by conventional parenting practices, which misguide our children into believing that they must earn our approval in order to be lovable, and that they are loved for what they do and not for who they are. Kohn challenges the reader to consider whether those strategies are really consistent with our long-term objectives for our children.

The core principle of mainstream parenting is still one of "love withdrawal" and "power over" children. This book explains that punishments and rewards are all forms of control. They are all variations of the old concepts of bribes and threats. Rewards and punishments provide either temporary obedience (submission) or fuel rebellion because their goal is to manipulate behavior.

Kohn argues that this approach does not empower children to reflect on the kind of people they want to be, nor to take responsibility for their actions. Making children dependent on rewards and punishments does not foster moral development. Children do not experience the intrinsic joy of contributing to others, but are rather conditioned to focus on the consequence of pleasing the adult in power: "Will I be punished or rewarded?" The most striking long-term effect of love withdrawal is fear of abandonment.

Kohn suggests a dramatically different approach by asking a groundbreaking question: "What do kids need -- and how can we meet those needs?" He further suggests treating children as people whose feelings, wants, decisions, viewpoints, and questions matter. Put the relationship first and attribute to children the best possible motive consistent with the facts. His interest is to work with children rather than do things to them.

Kohn empowers the reader to make a mental paradigm shift in seeing children as fully human, i.e., relating to them as partners (not subordinates).

As stated in an LLLI concept, "From infancy on, children need loving guidance which reflects acceptance of their capabilities and sensitivity to their feelings." Unconditional Parenting is a book that encourages parents to accept their children unconditionally. To help us on our journey, Kohn offers us a question to keep in mind: "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?"

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