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

Ok. So I thought I’d heard everything when it came to getting kids to listen and obey.

I grew up volunteering in Sunday School, worked at a daycare, my mom’s been a preschool teacher and administrator for most of my life, I have a degree in Elementary Education and I took an entire class dedicated to classroom management. I’d put all the strategies I’d learned into practice during clinicals, student teaching, teaching a college course and taking on the role of preschool director at my current church. Not to mention I’ve been a parent for 5 years.

Seriously. I thought I’d heard it all.

It all came down to either you punish or reward a child’s behavior.  Positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement.  Both of these work best when combined with reasoning.  Explaining the why behind the behavior.  Most every parenting book said about the same thing, it was just wrapped in a different package. When I found a book with a new idea, I was thrown for a loop.

According to Alfie Kohn, in his book Unconditional Parenting both of these options are detrimental to a child’s well being.  That not only is punishment (even in the form of a time out) bad for a kid’s mental health, so is a system of rewards.

Wait, what?!


Let me explain.  But it’ll be brief.  He dedicates 6 out of the 10 chapters to tell you why it’s a poor choice.  If you’re intrigued, please read it because his examples and explanations are much better than this little nutshell I’m about to give you. My teachers always told me I was concise, so here you go…super short and simple version of the first 6 chapters:

Even though you know that you love your child unconditionally, and you tell your child you love them no matter what they do, the popular forms of punishment or reward say just the opposite to a child.  Kohn calls these forms of parenting conditional parenting. When you spank or send a child to timeout, you are withdrawing yourself (and therefore, your love) from them. According to Kohn, isolating a child in order for him or her to “think about what you just did” usually isn’t what ends up happening.  Usually they spend their time thinking about how you’ve abandoned them and how mean you are – especially when they’re young.  Conditional parenting also happens when rewards are used. You praise your child when they’re good, therefore your love is conditional based on their behavior.

Kohn would argue these forms of behavior modification are just that behavior modification.  They don’t address the long term goals you have for your children because morals and self-discipline are lacking.   Children learn to do only what needs to be done in order to please their parents, not what might be morally right or have other’s best interests in mind. Or, the opposite might happen where the child rebels and acts out and neither of these forms of parenting are of any use. And even if you talk things through while using these systems (explaining the why), you still can’t be effective because your behavior (love withdraw) speaks much louder than and works against your words.

All of this is backed up by lots of research and studies.  Which I’ve yet to see in any parenting books I’ve read so far. Now, I understand research is one sided when making a case, and there very well might be research out there that says the opposite, but research and studies included in a parenting book certainly makes it seem more legit to me.

The research and studies were about how harmful these forms of parenting can be for a child. It resonated with me, because I turned out to be one of those kids/adults in the studies.  I rarely speak my mind or question authority, but at the same time I rebel against authority in small “not so bad” ways – ways where I can’t get caught or in trouble (and sometimes just in my mind). I have lower self-esteem, I’ve been ridiculously self centered most of my life, I fear failure, I had an extremely hard time learning to think for myself in college and early adulthood….

But I don’t know how much of this is from how I was disciplined, and how much of it is simply my personality because Nick and I both grew up being spanked and given rewards for good behavior.  He’s very secure, speaks his mind, is an independent and creative thinker, has compassion for others…. So who knows.  I think personality certainly plays into the mix.


Ok, so what DOES work if we can’t reward or punish?

Good question.

The short answer:  “Working With” instead of “Doing To”.

Focusing on the whole child and your long term goals for him or her instead of simply changing the current behavior.  This can be done by showing unconditional love, allowing them more opportunities to make decisions, and trying to see things from their point of view.

Instead of constantly telling them what to do and how to behave, telling them no and assuming you know what they need or want – allow them to participate.  To have a say. To explain themselves. To self regulate. Guide them through the thought process by asking questions.

It’s more work. It takes more time and patience.  But supposedly, in the long run it’s worth it. The end result should be confident, moral, independent thinkers who can put others before themselves.


I like this idea.  But it left me with lots to think about. Lots of questions and thoughts about how it’s supposed to line up with the Bible and what I thought I’d known all my life.  So that’s for the next post…..

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