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LOCAL Review :: Children

Book Review: Unconditional Parenting

Alfie Kohn's radical parenting book, Unconditional Parenting, challenges traditional parenting methods.
Unconditional Parenting (cover)
When I hear that our president has sanctioned torture of prisoners or our Congress has approved an increase in the military budget while thousands are without healthcare, I wonder if our only hope is to raise a future generation who simply won’t use bribery, punishment and revenge; who won’t mistreat others out of a subconscious sense of personal inferiority.

For an anarchist, spiritual parent attempting to raise liberated kids, good advice is hard to find. So I’m eternally grateful to people like Dr. Haim Grinott (Liberated Parents, Liberated Children), Marshall Rosenberg (Nonviolent Communication), and my mother. I add to that short list Alfie Kohn, whose book Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishment to Love and Reason (New York: Atria/Simon & Schuster, 2005) articulated much of what I’ve felt in my gut, but been unable to articulate, as well as quite a few realities I’ve been trying to avoid facing.

Kohn’s premise is that if what we’re trying to facilitate in raising a child is a fulfilled and loving person, respectful of self and others, empathetic and self-motivated, then we must predicate our parenting techniques on these goals. As we know from our own lives, a person can only be present and loving to others when their own basic needs are met. This is true of children especially; in fact, adults who don’t get their needs met as kids often spend a lifetime trying to make up for it. The one need that is least likely to get met in first world families, it seems, is unconditional love. And it is perhaps only a child who has experienced unconditional love who can love herself unconditionally and then love others that way as well.

OK, so every parent’s response to this is “Of course I love my kid unconditionally?. To which Kohn replies, “But does your child know this?? Kohn’s answer, backed up by much evidence, is that most kids believe they must earn parental love and acceptance. Most common forms of discipline from time-outs to constant praise reinforce this belief in children. Kohn challenges parents to think through the ways kids respond to what we say and do to them.

The only way kids can know that we love them unconditionally is if our daily words and actions demonstrate this. Being that we live in a society that basically dislikes kids, says Kohn, it can be tough to treat even our own kids with respect. I have to agree. Sometimes, often, the short term result of getting kids to do what you want them to now, especially when other adults are present, seems to outweigh the benefits of an unconditionally loving discussion with them about their needs and feelings.

However, when I read that Pat Robertson has advocated the assassination of the President of Venezuela, I know that Kohn is right. We as parents have to learn to understand our kids’ needs, to control our tempers, to relinquish some control. If anyone else out there thinks these ideas aren’t completely nuts, read Unconditional Parenting —several times. And if you’d like to discuss it, e-mail me. I have three kids and would love some anarchist parenting company.

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