Why I Won’t Punish or Reward My Kid: Why Unconditional Parenting Resonates with Me

toddler beach swim diaper

Totally superfluous picture of my baby at the beach.

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.

baby carseat

#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.

* * *

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?

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...


  1. I really appreciate this post and I think I agree with all of it -mainly because I see “punishment” and “learning consequences” as two different subjects. It’s one thing to tell a child “You can’t play outside until we clean up from breakfast and make your bed.” and something different to tell the child “You have to clean up from breakfast and make your bed or you’ll be spanked/go to your room/won’t get dessert tonight.” I think former sets boundaries and allows the child to work out their own reasoning “I really want to go outside, but Mommy said I have to do x, y and z first” rather than “Mommy said I have to do x, y, and z and I don’t really know why and I’m afraid of the punishment (or I’ve had that punishment before and I now I want to fight it).” I think that the former also encouraging motivation based rewards – when the child crawls into bed at night a gentle reminder of why the bed is so comfy (you made it this morning) can act as it’s own motivation later on.

    I know the rewards part will come into effect more as my kids get older – in fact we’ve already talked about rewards and schoolwork and rewards and chores; my basic idea is best illustrated in my own life – I love it when my husband surprises me by bring home ice cream when I’ve put extra effort into cleaning the house, or do something out of the ordinary that required a lot of work and effort (and occasionally just because the day called for ice cream), but that ice cream would lose it’s appeal if he came home with it everyday or gave it to me every time I did something that is just a regular part of my day (Thanks for changing that diaper, here’s an ice cream. Thanks for taking out the garbage, here’s an ice cream). Rewards have their place, but to many rewards for insignificant events cheapen the experience.

    I definitely think there’s a line between a “consequences and celebration” mentality and a “punishment and reward” mentality that can still respect the child and encourage growth as a person.
    Molly Makes Do recently posted..Little ThingsMy Profile

  2. This book, this book. I don’t know what is going on here. It put my hackles up right away, and I don’t know why, because we do all this stuff. We do not reward the kids, ever. One time, Stephen cleaned up our entire basement, so I gave him a bag of gummy worms he had received for Christmas, and he’s never done it again. I really love the Duggars, and have copied their 10:1 method. I try to praise them ten times for every criticism or judgement I have to make. So I thought at first the book was talking about “rewards” in a super broad sense, as in, do not give attention to the good things they do. Now I am thinking it actually means material stuff? Because I totally agree with that. We have surprises and treats, but it’s usually just how I show love (my language.) Actually, I am having an AWFUL time in Silas’ speech therapy, because in order for the lady to get him to say a word, she blows bubbles. I don’t mind the Pavlovian way, but she actually says, “Silas, say STORE and I’ll blow bubbles!” I’m like, really? This is it? Oh man. It frustrates me so badly!

    • Oh Sandra, thanks for your honesty! :) I suspect we have more in common in this regard than we realize — we just have different ways of talking about it.

      Though my summary of the book may have given this impression, Kohn certainly doesn’t advocate not giving your kids positive attention when they do good things, or letting them get away with bad behaviour. He’s more concerned with making kids think they’re only good when they’ve done good things (and vice versa), whether that’s with excessive praise or material rewards. Your intentions also matter: it’s one thing to spontaneously exclaim, “Awesome job!” when your kid has done something awesome (which I’d define as celebrating together); it’s another to be calculated and mete out compliments as an effort to get your kid to repeat an action (which I’d define as manipulation).

      And thanks for the word “Pavlovian.” Forgot how relevant that guy was to this discussion!

  3. Interesting perspective. #3 particularly struck me, as I struggle with thinking of my children as things I own {and should be able to control} and not people I am blessed to raise and guide to adulthood. I have started asking myself if this is how I would address behavior if it were an adult on the other side. The answer is usually no!

    Here from The Parent’Hood linkup!
    Rachel @ The House of Burks recently posted..It never gets easier. {9/11}My Profile

    • I’m also struggling with the ownership/control aspect of my own psyche. I’m working really hard to resolve my NEED to control and my very sudden flood of anger when something doesn’t ‘go my way’. I never thought I was an angry or irrational person- in fact, quite the opposite! But then, I’d only ever dealt with adults who already understand the ‘rules’ of society. My toddler has challenged me to become a deeply better human being. It’s really tough. More so because I didn’t expect that I was flawed this way, she took me by surprise.
      My other challenge is that there is no one but myself to hold me accountable for the way I treat my children. I think I’m very used to the societal “rewards” I have gotten my whole life by being well mannered and intelligent. My children do not ‘reward’ this behavior. They challenge it at every turn, as we all well know! :D It makes it hard for me to continue to be patient, well mannered, and to act with empathy and intelligence. There is a monster inside me that flips out when she won’t GET OVER HERE AND GET READY RIGHT NOW OMG WE ARE SO LATE!
      Thinking clearly- our lateness has nothing to do with her. It is my fault and the fault of the day’s extra rigid timeline versus our usual laid back schedule. It is my own guilt and frustration that I have to reckon with, and she is caught in the middle.

      Rambling done. What I mean to say is ‘thank you’. This blog and its commenters have helped me make enormous strides into healing myself and strengthening my understanding of and relationship with my children.

      Sky recently posted..Guilty Mom takes an Activity PledgeMy Profile

  4. Wow, I completely disagree with most of what you have said in this post. But I did enjoy reading your perspective and approaches to parenting. I am a christian and I think the most important thing is that we raise our children to love, serve, and follow God first and always. Clearly, how we get there can greatly vary.

Speak Your Mind


CommentLuv badge