In my last post, I offered an outline of Alfie Kohn’s main points in his book Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason. I examined some of the problems with rewards and punishment, and why we might seek out different ways to raise children who want to do good.
I promised I would explore some of the reasons this style of parenting resonates with me. In this post, I want to focus on my personal experiences and convictions; in my next post, I want to focus on how it lines up with my picture of God through Jesus and his backwards Kingdom. (There’s some overlap, of course, since many of my convictions are borne out of my understanding of God).
(Warning: this post contains way too many instances of the word “resonates.” I couldn’t find an equally satisfactory synonym. Sorry about that).
#1: This parenting style resonates with my commitment to radical non-violence, and my conviction that there is no such thing as redemptive violence.
In other words, it is consistent with my belief that violence in any form is always, necessarily, a bad thing, and cannot, by its very nature, produce or cause good.
(This does not mean that God can’t step in and redeem violence, for he can and does; but I don’t believe there is any value inherent in the violence itself).
I don’t believe in hurting someone “for their own good.” Ever. Whether that’s with hitting, angry words, or even with silence or the withdrawal of affection. Intentionally causing someone to suffer is, in my personal estimation, never valuable, regardless of how benign one’s intentions.
#2: This parenting style resonates with my belief in our mixed nature.
The punishment-reward model of parenting is based on the assumption that humans are naturally rebellious and inclined to evil (or at least chaos), and therefore need external motivation to do good and be orderly, and discouragement from doing evil and being disorderly.
But that isn’t consistent with my experience of humanity. Yes, there’s lots of evil and rebellion and disorder, but there’s also a lot of good. And not all of the good is motivated by the promise of rewards.
I believe there is an equally strong impulse within us to altruism, compassion, and creativity. We are, after all, made in God’s image, even if that image is marred by sin.
I’ve read about toddlers sharing toys with other kids just because it distressed them to see the other child so sad, and men diving into rivers to save children (and drowning in the process), just because it was the right thing to do. I personally know artists who create beautiful things not because they will be rewarded for it (they generally won’t), but because some inner drive compels them to.
Because we long for both good and evil, we don’t necessarily need external motivators like rewards and punishment to coerce us into being inventive, kind, or productive.
We can also be inspired to do good through beauty, love, and truth.
I trust that my child can and will make good choices, even when nobody is there to reward or punish her.
Personally, I’d rather err on the side of optimism about what humans can do.
#3: This parenting style resonates with my belief that a child is a complete human being, worthy of as much respect as any adult.
I believe that a child’s desires, values, and preferences are just as important as an adult’s, and thus need to be considered just as much as mine or my husband’s.
I want to treat children with the same courtesy I would offer to someone of equal status to me. Because I strive never to demean, belittle, or physically harm my peers for any reason, I feel compelled to extend that respect to people who are smaller, weaker, younger, and less experienced than myself.
#4: This parenting style resonates with my faith in my child’s innate wisdom regarding her needs.
As an attachment parent, I believe that my child was born with natural insights into her own physical and emotional needs, as well as the means to express those needs to me. She knows better than I do how much food, sleep, and physical touch she needs. It is not my job, then, to impose those things upon her, but to listen to her and to help her get those needs met.
I don’t believe it is my job to force her to be healthy and comfortable, because she already desires those things herself. So I don’t need to tell her what to eat, when to sleep, and what clothes to wear to stay comfortable and protected; I only need to create an environment and offer her appropriate foods and clothing to help her meet those needs herself.
#5: This parenting style matches up with my observation that my child ultimately has control over her own body.
I want to respect and honour that. Since I can’t force her to go to sleep, eat certain foods, or respect me, it’s a waste of energy to try, and demeaning to her budding sense of self.
#6: It resonates with my desire to see my kid find intrinsic motivation.
I want my child to pee in the potty because she realizes it’s uncomfortable to be wet. I want her to play the piano or paint or write stories because she finds these activities enjoyable, not because she will get a sticker or an ice cream cone if she does them. I want her to eat vegetables because she recognizes that they taste good and make her feel good. I want her to tidy up because she can see that it’s easier to work and play in a space that’s organized.
And I don’t think punishment and rewards facilitate this kind of intrinsic motivation.
If she does all these things (pees in the potty, plays the piano) because of what I’ll give her (or what I’ll do to her if she doesn’t do them), then I can never be certain that she’ll do them when I’m not around to reward or punish her.
And that’s what I ultimately want for my daughter: to want to be clean, healthy, and creative.
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So there you go.
Like I said, next I want to explore how Alfie Kohn’s Unconditional Parenting lines up with my understanding of God and his Kingdom. Stay tuned!
How about you? Do any of these things resonate with you, too?