Visit your local Barnes & Noble, and chances are, you'll be overwhelmed by rows of parenting books by authors who claim that they can solve any number of your parenting dilemmas. Raising children can be overwhelming enough, without having to fork over $26,95 just to discover that you've chosen a book that is, in fact, completely useless.
Alfie Kohn's Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason is not that book. A self-described "provocative challenge to the conventional wisdom about discipline," it is an excellent choice if you're looking for an alternative to the more traditional approach to parenting that most authors seem to offer. In Unconditional Parenting, Kohn goes far beyond a basic discussion of how to get you kids to do as they're told, instead forcing us to reconsider what we really want for our children and challenging us to do better by them.
According to Kohn, himself the father of two girls, traditional methods of discipline rely far too heavily on control and conditional love. He describes common practices such as time-outs, rewards, bribes, and even punishments as "conditional parenting" practices, which he believes can be detrimental to a healthy parent-child relationship. For a lot of parents, this idea is fairly radical. How are we supposed to make our child behave at the grocery store if we can't promise a treat in the checkout line or threaten to take away a favorite toy?
The answer, says Kohn, is to not think in terms of making a child behave at all. He believes that children deserve respect and the knowledge that they are loved unconditionally, and that when they get both, behavior problems will greatly decrease.
"Kids really respond when they're treated with respect, involved with problem solving, and assumed to be well intentioned," he writes. "Our choice is between controlling and teaching, between creating an atmosphere of distrust and one of trust, between setting an example of power and helping children learn responsibility, between quick-fix parenting and the kind that's focused on long-term goals."
I first read Unconditional Parenting when my daughter was not quite three. And while I had to agree that a lot of what Kohn says makes sense, I also had a lot of "you've got to be kidding me" moments. For example, his suggestion to avoid saying no whenever possible just didn't seem like a feasible way to deal with my opinionated and headstrong two year old. "She'll run my life if I never tell her no," I remember whining to my husband.
But as my daughter has matured and I've reread Kohn's book, I've found that a lot of what he says really does work (at least once your child has grown out of the typical belligerent behavior that characterizes just about every two year old. Yes, there are times when children need to hear and accept the answer no, but there are also plenty of times when we as parents say no when we could just as easily say yes. It is also hard to deny Kohn's basic claim that we get better results and more cooperation when we work with our kids rather than repeatedly threatening and punishing them.
Unconditional Parenting is written in an easy-to-read, conversational style that busy parents will appreciate, and is even available on DVD in a lecture format if you prefer. The book is available through the St. Louis and St. Charles County library systems and is on the shelf in several area bookstores.