Unconditional Parenting: A Look at the Book

I was already well on the path towards gentle discipline — due to my increasing commitment to radical non-violence and embrace of attachment parenting – when I came across Alfie Kohn’s book Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason.

So I’d already determined that I would never hit my children to enforce obedience. I had no doubt, however, that I would still need to punish my children in some way when they behaved badly . . . I just didn’t know what that punishment would look like. Time-outs? Revoked TV privileges? Revoked desserts?

I was completely unprepared, then, for Alfie Kohn’s suggestion that we do away with punishing bad behaviour altogether . . . as well as rewarding good behavior.

Wait: What what what? This, I needed to hear. I was intrigued by the time I’d finished reading the back cover copy.

And by the time I had finished the introduction, I knew deep in my gut that this was absolutely the way I wanted to parent my child.

This book was a life-changer for me, you guys. I believe it is filled with wisdom and truth, and has a lot to say to followers of Jesus’ Way. (Note: it is a completely secular book, and even expresses some anti-religious sentiments. I’ll get to that later).

First I want to go over the details of the book, offering a brief summary. Then I want to explore why and how it resonates with me so much. In the following post, I want to explore the reasons Unconditional Parenting resonates with my understanding of Jesus and his backwards Kingdom.

The Premise

One of the main arguments Kohn makes is that the punishment/reward model is not concerned with children becoming caring or creative or curious human beings so much as it is with getting them to be well-behaved. And by “well-behaved,” we generally mean “not a nuisance to adults.”

As he explains, many parenting books offer guidance on how to win our battles with our kids. However, “the real question is whether we really want to see our kids as opponents to be beaten” (p. 100).

Kohn points out that we often talk about certain parenting strategies being “effective,” but he asks: do we know what we mean when we say that? Most often, we mean they get kids to do what we want them to do. This is essentially an issue of control, then – i.e., getting kids to do things our way. As Kohn puts it, “the focus is on how children behave, regardless of how they feel about complying with a given request. . . . [and] this is a pretty dubious way of measuring the value of parenting interventions” (p. 5). Wouldn’t we prefer kids to want to act kindly?

The Problem with Punishment and Rewards

The central problem with the whole reward-punishment system, Kohn argues, is that it sends the message that children are only lovable when they behave a certain way.

We can talk all we want about punishing children with love, but children almost never feel loved when they are being punished. (Do you remember feeling loved when you were punished as a child?)

And when we offer praise and rewards for good behavior, we send the message that we only like our children when they’re cheerful, helpful, and quiet. We don’t like them when they  are needy or express unpleasant emotions.

But there are other problems with the whole paradigm.

Here are a few of the problems with punishment that Kohn discusses:

  • All forms of punishment are acts of withholding love, whether it’s hitting a child, withholding affection, or demanding that a child leave our presence (i.e. time-outs). When you look at it this way, it begs the question: is it ever appropriate to withhold love? Even if kids are behaving in ways we don’t like?
  • All forms of punishment are based on getting children to focus on the consequences of their actions to themselves, rather than encouraging them to think about how their actions will affect other people.
  • All forms of punishment take advantage of “a child’s need for parental affection and approval, and their fears of loss of the parents’ emotional support,” and are therefore essentially forms of manipulation (p. 30).
  • Punishments distract kids from the real issue. Kids are much more likely to focus on the punishment itself, rather than the reason they were punished: they end up focusing on “how unfair it is and how to avoid it next time. Punishing kids . . . is an excellent way to hone their skills at escaping detection. . . . It also sets up a strong incentive to lie.” (p. 69)
  • Punishing children isn’t as effective as we think it is, either.  It might get them to listen for the short term (although often not even that. Have you ever seen a toddler, moments after the punishment, run right back to what he was doing?), but is remarkably ineffective at achieving long-term obedience, despite what we intuitively assume.

And the problem with rewards:

Rewards are actually astonishingly ineffective at improving the quality of people’s work or learning. Research demonstrates that it can, in fact, be counter-productive. For example:

  • Kids who are rewarded for being helpful end up being less helpful once the rewards stop coming (p. 34).
  • Children who are rewarded for doing something nice are less likely to think of themselves as nice people (p. 32).
  • Rewards discourage intrinsic motivation (i.e. doing things for their own sake) in favor of extrinsic motivation (i.e. doing things for the sake of a reward). For example, it discourages kids from finishing a book because they want to know what happens, and instead because they’ll get a sticker or a pizza if they do (p. 32).

Some Other Notes

mother child beachI’ll try to avoid just condensing the whole book for you in the form of a blog post. But a couple of other key arguments that struck my heart were the following:

  • Alfie Kohn emphasizes that children deserve respect just as much as adults do. This means we respect their needs and desires as much as our own. So if I want to go home but my kid wants to stay at the park, I have to ask myself: am I treating my needs and desires as more important than hers? Why? Just because I’m the adult and I have all the power?
  • We really can’t control fellow human beings – and that’s what children are — so it’s an exercise in futility to try. Punishment and rewards only provide the illusion of control. As Kohn puts it:

“It’s very difficult to make a child eat this food rather than that one, or pee here rather than there, and it’s simply impossible to force a child to go to sleep, or stop crying, or listen, or respect us. These are the issues that are most trying to parents precisely because it’s here that we run up against the inherent limits of what one human being can compel another human being to do” (p. 53, emphasis mine).

  • I also appreciated Kohn’s idea that our main question shouldn’t be, “How do I get my child to do what I say?” but “What does my child need – and how do I meet those needs?” (p. 118).
  • I also loved this: “We can help kids to develop good values by treating them as though they were already motivated by these values.”

But what are the alternatives to punishment and reward?

This is probably one of the first questions that comes to mind in response to Kohn’s arguments. And for the answer, I highly recommend reading the book. The latter half is filled with ideas and suggestions.

The emphasis, however, is on how to shift our minds away from that way of thinking completely – that we are responsible for making children behave a particular way.

Instead, Kohn suggests that we are responsible for nurturing things like compassion and creativity in our children, so that they will want to do good, and will have the personal resources to make good decisions. We do this by fostering an intimate parent-child relationship, by modeling compassion, by talking through their feelings, and by reasoning with them.

Punishment and rewards can never, in themselves, shape people into genuinely kind and loving people.

* * *

So, as I mentioned above, from here I want to explore why Kohn’s message resonates with me personally, and then to examine the connections that I see with Jesus’ Kingdom of Love.

What are your thoughts?

Note: this is an unsponsored post, but the links to the book are affiliate links. Meaning I get like 12 cents if you buy from them.
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Comments

  1. I can’t say that I’ve read the book although it does sound like a good read. What I want to comment on is simply some of my own experience as a parent – and I didn’t get any of this information from any book. First off, I don’t know how Kohn presents parents but I hope that he realizes (as well as all readers) that not all parents are punishing (or rewarding) in order to ‘get kids to do what we want them to do.’ I think its unfair to say that all punishments and/or rewards are ways to simply exercise control. We really need to have more faith in ourselves as parents, and our friends/family as fellow ‘parents’ to our children that we do have our children’s best in mind. I’ll give you an example: if my daughter runs to the road (we live in town) and I continue to reason with her to come back. I even explain to her how dangerous it is. If she does not listen to me (and continues to not listen to me), I would need to show her in some way how dangerous this behaviour is for her and even the car that may be coming from the end of the road. I realize this is an extreme case, but my point is still the same. Our job as parents often is to protect our kids from choices. As followers of Jesus, we have the Bible to show us the direction we need to go. We need to show that to them as well. And there will be times when we need to use more overt methods, than just talking to them.
    Second, children need to be talked to at an age appropriate level. There are times with my girls where reason DOES NOT work. They don’t understand what I’m saying and why I’m saying it. And in fact, by talking to them I do more harm than good. Talking to them can (at a premature age) distract them from the real issue just as much as a punishment or reward can. That being said, I would like to explore the issue of distraction more. I have not seen it with my girls – I’ll explain what I mean in a minute – but I have seen it from other children where lying or even manipulation themselves is the behaviour of choice. I’ve witnessed negative behaviour and then the question from the parent, “Did you do this?” and a flat out “no.” I’ve also witnessed it where the child knows parents are not around and consequently misbehaves causing harm to another person, and then when the recipient child defends him/herself, the parent disciplines the recipient child instead of the one who did the provoking. I would love to read some of the alternatives Kohn presents so that we too can avoid this behaviour.
    I for one don’t want to manipulate my children. Further, I don’t want my children to behave just to make me happy. That is why we try our utmost to encourage positive actions. We make a distinction between who they are and what they do. I don’t say “you are bad.” I do say, “what you did is wrong, it hurts (Mommy or your sister or whatever).” I try hard to avoid the word ‘bad’ altogether.
    Discipline is so difficult. There is no one way to do it. What works with one child may or may not work with another. However, we all need to learn from each other so that we can mix and match what will suit our children best. Its about them, its about encouraging them to be who Christ created them to be.
    Kathleen: if you own this book, I would love to borrow it. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Maria! It’s good to hear from parents with actual experience, not just newbies who have never had to deal with real discipline issues.

      I’m probably doing Alfie Kohn a disservice by trying to summarize his book in a single blog post. But I needed a starting-point for my own discussion.

      To my understanding, Kohn isn’t saying parents set out to manipulate their kids. Most parents are almost always motivated by love when they punish their kids. However, since we aren’t aware of better alternatives, we end up relying on forms of manipulation to get kids to listen. For example, because we know kids have a natural fear of being hit by a bigger, stronger person, we threaten them with spanking. Or because we know they crave our approval, we withhold it when they do something “bad.”

      That being said, I’ll admit I have no I idea what I would do if my kid was trying to run into the street. I haven’t had to deal with anything like that yet. I guess I would want to start by figuring out why she was doing it. Because there’s something on the other side she wants to get to? Because it seems more fun where there’s lots of space? Because it gets a reaction out of me? And that’s one of Kohn’s points: it’s helpful to discover the motivation, and then work with the kids to discover a solution (Bringing the desired object over to the safe side; finding an equally fun place to play; giving them our full attention; etc). It’s a lot more work, but ultimately, hopefully the child will be empowered rather than coerced into obedience.

      And you can absolutely borrow the book! It, of course, explains everything much better than I ever could.

      • I will only say that the girls don’t run on the street. They are phenomenal. I wonder sometimes why we are so blessed with kids who listen to us (most of the time). I hope its because we do explain everything. I always hated, “Do it because I said so,” so we try to explain everything to them in a way that makes sense.
        Thanks for your comments, I look forward to reading the book.

  2. I agree that both punishment and rewards can be detrimental – I think that the research shows this and common sense can back it up. However, I really did not like this book. I can’t remember why now, but I’m pretty sure the explicitly anti-religious comments were a part of it. I think I was so turned off by the way he wrongly oversimplified Christianity that I assume he was bringing other such biases to the table as well. I think there was more than that, though, because I do still read secular things when I believe I can learn from them. Anyway, I only made it halfway before I returned it to the library with the assurance that this book was not for me.

    But all that said, I can’t wait to read your next post on it :)

    Also, I have such a hard time not lavishing praise on Miriam. I’m all about words of affirmation (silly love language book coming in handy here), and have been so accustomed to positive praise and reinforcement for so long that it’s really difficult not to ooh and ahh every time she puts a single puzzle piece in! But just being aware of it has already helped, as now I really notice when my family or friends are over and they do it, and it kind of annoys me – so maybe I’m slowly getting there!
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    • Completely unrelated: I am so slow sometimes. I just now (finally) realized I can go from post to post using the arrows on the side where the gray is. That’s probably the highlight of my night.
      That Married Couple recently posted..Exploring fuel efficiencyMy Profile

      • Woah! Now that you said that, I see them too! I’ve been going back to the home page and scrolling around every time I wanted to find an old post…*facepalm*

        Haha, so thanks for sharing! Now you’ve made my day, too. ^_^

      • That Married Couple: I actually had them installed after you pointed out that there was no easy way to go from post to post. So thanks for drawing my attention to the need!

    • That Married Couple: I can definitely understand how his oversimplification of Christianity could have been a major turn-off!

      And I totally get the praise thing, too. It just comes so naturally, I think that everything my child does is amazing! But since reading the book, I do try to tone it down, and use neutral words like “You did it!” rather than “That was AMAZING!” when she does something impressive. I also try to work in lots of “You’re wonderful!” when she’s not doing something impressive, just to make it clear that I think she’s fantastic whether or not she’s wowing us adults.

  3. I didn’t love it or hate it; while I agree with the premise that we shouldn’t be doing punishment/reward based on the “because I said so” line of reasoning I do think it’s important that children understand that the world is based on a punishment/reward system to some extent and that (IMHO) you can use that as a motivator in the right occasions depending on the age/personality of the child.

    I didn’t like the “extreme” stance on rewarding based on language i.e. saying “good job”, mainly because I have a 1.5 year old and “Good Job” and “No, No” are where his reasoning level is at and is it is currently useful to cheer him on to encourage good behavior. Will I continue to say “Good Job” every time he puts his clothes away or does something I instruct (put the toy away, bring me this, wash your hands) when he gets older? Nope, there’s a time for everything, and this makes me think UP might be meant towards the older child – though I will definitely continue to praise my older child when appropriate.

    I did like the stance on respect and using appropriate language. I had already figured out before reading this that I’m a better, calmer parent when I don’t assume he’s doing anything out of spite or malice and remember to give him adequate time (and often repetition) to process what I ask. And I do agree that our jobs should be getting children to WANT to do things, act appropriately, etc. out of their own personal motivation rather than a rote reaction from a learned behavior, but I still see the benefits of praise and consequences appropriate for the age and personality of the child whether it’s a few minutes time out for out of control emotions/behavior or the denial of privileges for the older child/teenager; the later, I do agree with the author, should NOT be done with a “I don’t love you until you fix this” mentality, but rather a “I always love you, but this is why I got mad, or am disappointed in your behavior and these are the consequences I’ve set up in order to facilitate a better understanding”.
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    • Molly: I agree that the book has more to say about raising older children. There’s a bit of a gap when it comes to infants and toddlers that can’t be reasoned with, leaving me unsure of what to do in many situations.

      Are you familiar with Barbara Coloroso? She seems to provide a more balanced approach, emphasizing appropriate consequences for certain behaviours. I think you’d like her. :)

      • I’ll add her to my list – I’m afraid I just can’t see past the behavior/consequences link; personal motivation is fantastic, but eventually I just think you need to learn how your behaviors and actions will affect people when they are not in a perfect situation for reflection. There just comes a point where you have to learn how to live in a world that’s not perfect. I think I’ll keep this book in mind for a refresher once we’re into an age where reason/logic is a little more possible.
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      • Now my son is only four so I still feel like a newbie at all of this, but one thing I’ve found is that there is A LOT of redirection that can be done before they can understand reason. And they still learn from that. It makes me think about when he was just learning to nurse and having trouble with his latch. He kept sucking his lower lip in and making things painful for me. I asked an LC what I was supposed to do, and she told me to just keep checking it every time and pulling it out when he did it. I didn’t understand how that would make him stop doing it, but eventually it did! He just learned that that was how it was supposed to work. I think redirection can work the same way.
        Also there are natural and logical consequences that can come into play, too. If they throw a toy, natural consequence – it breaks, logical consequence – it gets put away until they are calmer or more interested in playing with it than throwing it. Hitting other children: natural consequence – they cry and possibly hit back or don’t want to play anymore, logical consequence – being removed from the situation (to sit with a parent, or go home). That also gives them a chance to find their equilibrium or work out whatever issue or emotion was prompting the hitting in the first place. There are consequences for behaviour, but they don’t have to be punishments.
        Hope that helps a little bit!

        • Awesome thoughts, Vanessa! I love all your examples.

          Your toy-breaking scenario reminds me of something I read about Montessori education. They intentionally use breakable materials to teach natural consequences. So when a kid drops her little glass cup, she sees the immediate (dramatic) consequence and learns from it. (She is also expected to help clean it up, cementing the lesson without resorting to punishment.)

          • That’s certainly one way to do it! I guess it would teach the lesson faster. I don’t know if I would go that route myself, although helping clean up is an important part, too.
            That said, I do try to think about whether he can handle the consequences (or if I can). Say it was a favorite toy, my phone, or something precious he wouldn’t even know to regret until he was older – I’m much more likely to try to put it away before broken, then to allow him to find out what happens when he throws it.
            If the natural consequences are beyond their ability to handle, it makes sense to me to put boundaries in place that would keep them from being in that situation.
            Re-reading my first comment, and even to me it sounds like, “hey, I’ve got this all figured out!” But I so don’t. I didn’t learn most of this on my own, but by reading others posts and articles on parenting and child development, and I still get it wrong. A lot. Just so you know you’re not alone in your questions and stumbling through.

  4. Umm. No. I don’t like this book. And I don’t think that it’s because of your summary! In the real world, there are consequences for our actions, be them good or bad. Now that being said, we, as parents are always trying to touch are children’s hearts. We are never trying to get lip service for something that the kids don’t agree with or believe. This means that there is a LOT of reasoning, but also punishments that occur naturally, as they do with life. If they are too full to finish their dinner, no dessert. If they hit each other with the baseball bat, I take it away (it’s foam, but still.) I let Hosanna punish herself: when she touches my coffee cup, the mug is hot. I think this helps cement the learning that has to take place. Some people are not auditory learners, so just hearing about what they are supposed to do is not going to give them the foundation they need to become a God-fearing man. I think that is showing love. And not conditionally: they always know that we love them. You must have a good balance of discipline and relationship.

    • You’re allowed to not like it! :)

      However, I don’t think I would consider any of the examples you suggested as “punishment,” and I don’t think Alfie Kohn would object to any of them. They’re all natural consequences or protective measures. If, in response to your kid not finishing his dinner or hitting someone with a bat, you spanked him or said he couldn’t watch his favourite TV show — both consequences totally unrelated to the problem — THAT would be considered an unhelpful punishment.

  5. Oh I read and loved this book too! I thought it was really inspirational and paradigm changing. My husband researches incentives among other things, and they actually do tend to have very negative effects for any task that isn’t simple, one dimensional, and easily measured. Obviously behaving well as a child therefore does not qualify.

    I also think that for the most part, treating a child like a dog (or using conditioning: praise for good behavior, scolding for bad) is unnecessary. Most normal children deeply desire to please their parents, fit in with others (and therefore behave in a socially appropriate manner), and to feel like they are helpful, kind, and good people. That’s one reason I think attachment parenting is a good complement to Kohn’s ideas: by the time it’s time for discipline/guidance, your child trusts you completely and is therefore willing to have their behavior shaped by you (since they feel this is in their best interest).

    On the other hand, my daughter is now a toddler, which means she craves clear boundaries and rules. I find it’s really important to clearly let her know what the expectations are, which includes scolding or admonishing her if she breaks them (and praising her for correct behavior when she does something right). An example would be saying “No, no” (and stopping her if necessary) when she tries to color on the furniture, and saying “That’s right! Good job!” when she colors on her paper, and then looks up at me. There’s no other way to explain it to her, as she’s too young for rationality (or morality). Many of Kohn’s very valuable lessons are really only applicable to older children (over age 7 or so, before that children are developmentally unable to think in terms of right and wrong).

    That doesn’t mean that he’s wrong though, just that young children don’t think in the same way as older humans.
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  6. Iiiiiiiinteresting. I’m only now starting to actually do research and reading into child rearing as a practical, rather than theoretical exercise. I might see about getting this book from the library and look forward to your further posts on it. ^_^

    It’s interesting that Grace, above, said she thinks treating children like dogs “(or using conditioning: praise for good behavior, scolding for bad)” is unnecessary; honestly, effective dog training is all about discerning the motivations behind canine behavior and seeking to facilitate desired behavior and hinder negative behavior, with the caveat that dogs (like very young toddlers?) have no capacity for reason. Punishment and reward are effective only when the dog is in your presence and only when immediately administered; that’s why dogs don’t pee on the carpet when you’re home but do it freely when you’re not–they don’t know that the action is wrong, only that it will result in certain consequences if and only if a human is around. And by the time you come home and find the mess, they have no idea why they’re being punished–obviously it’s because you hate them and they are intrinsically Bad Dogs and utter life failures.

    I can see how that correlates to what Kohn says in his book. You have to stop immediate dangerous behavior, and children, as they develop their reasoning facilities, will learn that actions have consequences, but the most effective long-term solution is to respect them and teach them to develop their own control and desire to do what is right.

    And maybe in that pre-reasoning stage, the only solution is the dog solution: manipulating their environment to facilitate desired behavior and discourage undesired behavior, while seeking an understanding of why they do the things they do and helping them learn to do those things appropriately. (With the caveat that you really are the boss of a dog because canine brains are programmed for unswavering submission to the alpha, but you’re not the boss of a child since children are human and do eventually become reasoning human beings. You have valuable experience to share with them and are in a position of leadership over them, but human leadership is very different from canine leadership. Etc.)

    I predict that will be a frustrating stage: you do know what’s better, and since they don’t yet have logic or even very long memories, you can’t really allow them to make all decisions willy-nilly, but you have to always be working on developing those skills so you don’t get into the habit of shutting them down with a “because I said so, that’s why” once they’re older.

    So like with your park example, it’s not just about your desire’s vs. your daughter’s but about what you, with your greater capacity for reason and longer experience, know she needs–she may want to stay and play but you know that if she does she’ll become overtired, cranky, and that staying out longer may genuinely harm her. And you can’t yet reason with an eighteen-month-old or let her experience the negative consequences–she won’t remember them or learn anything from them yet (though by the time she’s six or seven, she might, and your response would be different). So sometimes you have to take responsibility and make informed decisions in her best interest that she won’t yet understand /aren’t/ punishments. But you have to monitor your own reasons for making those decisons and modify those decisions as she grows so she’s not 17 and you’re still telling her what to do–by then, she can weigh the effects of her decisions for herself and hopefully you can trust her to make the right ones for her–which might not be the ones that you want her to make and I guess that’s really the hardest of all.

    Sigh. We’ll see how all this works out at my house. The DDH is a prosecuting attorney in the juvenile system, which means all he sees every day is abusive parents and delinquent kids. Take a very strict, hard-line authoritarian sort of personality and add a crushing fear of failing and knowing exactly how bad kids can be, and I’m afraid you get a pretty rigid disciplinarian. He likes psychology, too, though, so I’m looking for some good books that might help us both. ^_^ I do like getting your take, Kathleen!

  7. Im waaaaay behind on reading blogs. Anyhow…

    The only comment I’ll make for now is in regards to my experience as a child. My parents too had bees told not to praise because then we’d always look to others for validation, or something like that. The result was that I always thought I wasn’t good enough for my parents or a disappointment. I remember bringing home a report card from high school with several A+’s and A’s but one A- and wondering if it would finally be good enough to receive some pride or praise and being heartbroken that they nearly glanced at it. I was certain I still wasn’t good enough for them. The only comfort I had was that my teachers loved me and lived that I was such a hard worker and good student. Their approval kept me going and soon became my focus.

    It wasn’t until I happened to mention my parents not being proud of me and me never being good enough shortly before graduating college with a suma cum lauda and heading to graduate that I finally learned the truth. They were very proud of me and what I accomplished. They had just been told it would be bad for me to know that because it would cause me to seek outside approval. I think it backfired.
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    • Thanks for your story, Michele! It’s so helpful to hear real-life experiences.

      I wonder if there are ways of communicating that we’re proud of our kids without having to say, “Good job!” Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with saying “Good job,” but I do think Kohn makes some helpful observations about some of the pitfalls of praise. He suggests asking lots of questions to show interest in what your kids are doing, and observing out loud how helpful your kids are and how they make your life easier, more pleasant, etc. Maybe these would be enough to communicate pride and appreciation?

  8. Maybe for other kids. My parents where very involved in our lives and were always asking questions. I do remember my mom making comments like “it’s so nice when you clean the bathroom without being asked” but I never took that to mean that she was proud of me. I just thought she liked not having to ask. *shrug* maybe I was an odd child. However, I plan (and do already) to tell my daughter “good job” and “I’m proud of you” when she figures something out. It’s the truth do why hide it? I tell her all the time that I love her, that she’s beautiful/cute/funny/special/precious unprompted by her actions. I want her to grow up confident that no matter what, her parents love her and are delighted in her.
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  9. I understand that this thread is about Alfie Kohn. However, what about God and the bible?
    Proverbs is full of wonderful advice on child rearing. Yes, you may have preconceived notions about parenting, but referring to a secular book that is anti-Christian is a bit off sounding to me. This a Christian blog is it not?

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