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.
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
- 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.