Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason

Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason

by Alfie Kohn

This book examines the distinction between two types of parental discipline approach and love: loving children for what they do and loving them for who they are. The first type of love is conditional, which means that children must earn it by acting appropriately or meeting our expectations. The second type of love is unconditional, which is not dependent on how they behave or act. You will learn why conditional parenting harms your children and how to raise them with unconditional parenting principles, using love and reason instead of punishments.

Summary Notes

Conditional vs. Unconditional parenting

"Children need to be loved as they are and for who they are."

As parents, all we want is the best for our children. That’s why we try to raise them the best way we can. However, there are some toxic parenting practices that we must be aware of as they might lead us to a conditional parenting style, which can negatively impact our children.

Conditional parenting is a behavior-management approach that neglects children's emotions, thoughts, needs, and motivations in favor of punishments and rewards. This makes the children believe they are unlovable and will only be loved and accepted if they comply with their parents' demands. With this approach, parents connect their child’s misbehavior to their negative personality. For example, if a kid misbehaves, it’s probably because they are mean or reckless.

When this approach is incorporated, the child will likely experience a lack of respect, love, support, low self-esteem, and confidence, which can hurt their emotional and psychological well-being.

To avoid this, it’s best to practice the opposite approach: unconditional parenting. This parenting style is built on support, acceptance, and compassion. Here, parents perceive their child as a whole being with thoughts, feelings, and motives. It also includes an optimistic perspective on human nature as the parent attributes the child's undesired behavior to naivety, inattention, and unawareness of the consequences. This parenting style teaches children that love is a gift and that they are loved regardless of their actions. Parents don’t use punishments to manage the kid's behavior but instead, work with the child to address difficulties through understanding and explanation.

By using this approach, you’ll be able to give your child the support they need to change undesirable behavior and grow into an emotionally and psychologically healthy person.

Actions to take

Parenting Demands Awareness

"Most of us would benefit by spending more time reviewing what we've done with our children in order to be better parents tomorrow than we are today."

Some parents try to convince themselves that their demands, even if unreasonable, are in the best interests of their children. But this shouldn’t be the case.

To be better parents, we need to be self-critical and introspective. This means being reasonable with our demands by being honest with ourselves and clarifying the motivation behind our parenting. The more honest we are with ourselves, the better we’ll understand how our needs and experiences affect our parenting, which in turn, could affect our child.

When our child does not comply with our requests, the issue is sometimes not with them but with us. This usually happens when our expectations as parents are not aligned with what a child of a certain age should be able to do. And even if a child can do something, it's still a good idea to ask if they should. For example, if you want your kid to practice the piano, ask yourself first: Why are you making him take lessons? Is it for you or your child? Could it cause him to develop an aversion to music? By evaluating your parental demands, you’re ensuring everything is in your child's best interests, not just meeting your own needs.

Actions to take

Long-term Goals

"The good news is that when parents do manage to keep their broader objectives in view, they tend to use better parenting skills, and they get better results."

Sometimes, the methods you use to raise your child could work against you rather than help you achieve your parenting goals. Say you want your child to grow up to be a confident person, for example. Then, to achieve that goal, you decided to use a conditional parenting approach, making you criticize your child daily. Clearly, this approach won’t help you achieve the goal you set for your child. What’s worse is that it can even harm your child’s well-being.

When doing things for your child, it’s important to consider first whether it aligns with your larger parenting goals. Remember that the things you do or don't do to help your child become a decent, responsible, caring person are far more important than whether they spilled their juice, lost their temper, or forgot to finish their homework today.

Our relationship with our children is a top priority. Misbehavior is easier to confront, and problems are easier to solve when kids feel safe enough to tell you why they did something wrong. Sometimes we have to make our kids do something against their will, and they'll resent us for it and feel negative emotions. But before moving to restraining measures and doing anything that might impair our relationship with a child, such as causing them discomfort or doing something that could be seen as limiting our love, we should consider whether they’re worth it first.

Actions to take

Parent-Child Relationship

"Speaking of paramount goals, there's no overstating the importance of the relationship we create with our children."

A parent-child relationship should be based on love, support, understanding, and respect. Respect is a vital part of every healthy relationship. If kids feel valued, they'll respect others and us. However, some parents don’t always respect their kids. They dismiss their children's demands, anger, and worries. Respecting children entails avoiding these things and acknowledging that they may know more than we do.

Respect implies honesty. There should be no shame in admitting mistakes, especially when you get frustrated, distracted, or exhausted. What’s more important is that you make an effort to apologize to your kid after making them. Many parents worry that building close, honest relationships with their kids would make it harder to keep them under control. However, our children are more likely to respect us if we are honest with them.

Actions to take

Hearing Your Child

"Our first priority is to figure out the source of the problem, to recognize what children need."

When children are old enough to tell their parents when they are unhappy, the next question is whether or not they feel safe doing so. In parenting, listening is more important than talking. If confronting our kids about their mistakes doesn’t result in our desired outcome, it doesn’t mean they require tougher punishment. Usually, it’s because we did more talking than listening during our conversation with our child.

As parents, we often get into problems because we feel compelled to speak out, even when it would be in everyone's best interest for us to remain silent. Sometimes the best way to recognize a child's negative feelings is to simply be there without saying a word.

For example, suppose your toddler is facing challenges during their progression from toddlerhood, like wanting to get more freedom than they can reasonably manage. In such a case, a parent whose only concern is maintaining order and discipline is the last thing your child needs at this time; what they need the most is to be heard.

Children should be free to explain their feelings, and we must ask whether they feel comfortable enough to do it. After all, our responsibility as parents is to make them feel secure enough to open up to us about anything by reassuring them that they won’t face any consequences for doing so.

Actions to take

Understanding The Motives Behind Children's Behavior

"We need to sympathize and try to understand why our children acted as they did."

Children form conclusions about their motives based partly on our beliefs about them. If we continuously assign negative motives to a child's actions, the child may eventually adopt those motives and begin behaving accordingly. For example, if we keep relating our child's malicious acts to a troublemaker, they may become exactly what we fear. Without proper guidance, they may eventually adopt that identity.

Mischievous behavior in children can be explained by a lack of skills or guidance, an innocent desire to explore, and an inability to predict what will happen when they do something. It’s important to be aware of these factors, as not all negative acts committed by our children are done intentionally.

When our children misbehave, our first thought should not be to blame them. Instead, we should try to understand why they did what they did.

Actions to take

Parents Restrictions

"Don't say no if you don't absolutely have to."

Permissiveness, or the view that children are spoiled because adults lack control over them, includes the belief that parents don't say ‘no’ to their child’s requests often enough. In reality, most parents usually say no, especially to toddlers. Studies show that toddlers are stopped from doing what they want every few minutes.

But as kids become older, many parental restrictions become more limited. When our child’s safety is threatened, our reactions are especially helpful. However, we should do it properly—with sympathy and explanation.

When responding to a child’s requests to participate in certain activities, we should watch our responses to them. Whenever we can, we should say “yes,” especially when we don’t have a strong reason for disagreeing with their requests.

It is hard to follow a long list of rules that never ends. This puts us in a tough spot. On the one hand, we may feel compelled to give up and let children have their way. Conversely, we may refuse to change our minds and spend too much time arguing, which is very unpleasant. What matters most is why we say yes or no and how willing we are to give advice, support our kids' choices, and be there for them, which is much harder than just saying yes or no. It takes a lot of patience and concentration.

We can't listen to every child's request and weigh the pros and cons of every possible answer, especially when we're stressed and busy. But even if we can't do it all the time, we should try to do it as often as possible.

Actions to take


"When we use punishments and other strategies to manipulate children's behavior, they may come to feel they're loved only when they conform to our demands."

Punishments include physical assault, restricting affection or attention, humiliation, isolation, or withdrawal of love. When punishing our children, we seldom consider what we’re doing to them—whether physical or verbal punishment. We just think of putting them in pain so they can learn a lesson.

Parents occasionally use the fact that they deeply love their children to justify the use of punishment, which confuses kids. They would have difficulty understanding how someone who loves them may inflict pain. This gives kids the wrong idea that hurting people is part of what it means to love them. They may carry this idea with them for the rest of their lives.

Some parents do not physically punish their children but instead, use love withholding which is equally harmful. This could be presented in various ways:
- A parent may withdraw in reaction to something the kid has done, becoming chillier and less affectionate.
- A parent may state unequivocally, "I don't love you when you behave that way," or "When you do things like that, I don't even want to be around you."
- Some parents withdraw their affection by ignoring their children.
- Some parents physically distance themselves from their kids.

Love withholding has a lot in common with more severe kinds of punishment. Both indicate to children that if they do anything we don't like as parents, we will make them suffer to correct their behavior. This is usually destructive and, thus, must be removed from our parenting approach.

There are better alternatives to punishing our child: being kind and compassionate instead of expressing our power; being honest about how demanding our requests can sometimes be; justifying the reasons for our requests; turning requests into a game; giving our example, and giving children choices.

Actions to take

Unconditional Acceptance And Love

"We can accept and love our children for who they are, with no strings attached."

Giving children unconditional love and acceptance is one of the crucial aspects of parenting. This means that children would never doubt our love for them and that we accept and love them just as they are. As a parent, this is hard to do every day, but we should try to get closer to acceptance and love that doesn't depend on anything.

The first step to achieving this is to examine how we raise our children and determine whether our actions and words show conditional or unconditional love. Second, we should develop the practice of asking ourselves, "Would I feel unconditionally loved if the words I just spoke to my child or the way I treated them were said to me?" When the response to that question is clearly "no," it's a sign we have entered into conditional parenting mode.

To avoid entering the conditional parenting mode, we should reduce how often we criticize our children and make each criticism less harsh. We should also be doing more things that could send a message of unconditional acceptance. For example, telling our children, "No matter what you do, no matter how upset I am, I will never stop loving you.", especially during times of conflict.

Regardless of how much we dislike our children’s actions, we must continually reaffirm our unconditional acceptance. As parents, children's feelings of love and worth should always be our top priority.

Actions to take

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