This book was recommended to me by a colleague – fortuitious, I thought, since I’d been thinking it was about time for me to start reading discipline books, which this kind of is. I got a nudge in the right direction – and a book that is rocking my little parenting world, challenging just about everything I had thought about discipline in such a way that I can’t really disagree with him.
Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn Many discipline books start with the question, “How can I get my kids to do what I say?”. Wrong question, says Kohn. Instead, we should start with, “What values and qualities do I want my children to possess? What can I do now to foster their development?” It turns out that teaching children unquestioning obedience is not helpful for long-term moral development – teaching empathy, independence, the ability to make good choices. So far, so good. Next: discipline is not really effective. Spankings (no surprise) and time-outs both encourage children to think first of the likelihood that they might get caught and punished and second (if at all) of the effects of their actions on other people. Time-outs come under special fire for sending the message to children – not meant by parents, but taken to heart by the children – that they are getting a time out from being loved. Well, I confess that I often want someone who’s done something wrong to suffer, including my own child. But maybe I could see that this is juvenile, and I certainly remember feeling rebellious more than repentant when I was punished as a child. But now comes the real kicker: rewards are equally bad methods for teaching good moral behavior, and for pretty much the same reasons: if the methods work at all, they work by making kids focus on the rewards and on the loss of love if they fail to perform. Kohn calls punishment and rewards two side of the same bad coin. Not only does he consider using rewards to be manipulative, but he cites studies that show that rewards decrease incidences of the target behavior – and verbal praise has the same effect as such rewards as money, candy, or grades.
At this point in the book, the questions are burning in my mind (and perhaps yours): If you’re not supposed to use punishments or rewards, what are you supposed to do? How are we supposed to keep our kids from running wild? Kohn does actually have some suggestions that sound useful. The basic principles involve things like keeping in mind what your child is actually capable of doing, making sure you make your child feel loved at all times (including not using treats as a reward for good behavior and going with your child if you feel that he or she needs to be removed from the situation), and treating things as problems to be solved rather than bad behavior to be punished. He doesn’t like to do absolute rules, because he really believes that the right thing to do depends on the child and the situation.
A lot of this is a long way off from what I was raised with, what I’ve read, and conventional wisdom. But his case is convincing, and backed up with decades of well-documented research. It will take some practice and rethinking, but I am going to try. I would put this on my most highly recommended parenting list. Even if you don’t want to follow him the whole way, this book is sure to make you look at children and parenting in a new light.
Sorry for the length, and congratulations to any who made it through this!