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Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn.
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How can we raise kids to be self-confident, independent, and compassionate? In Unconditional Parenting, author and lecturer Alfie Kohn argues that we should throw away the standard parenting rulebook and replace it with a new approach built on unconditional support, acceptance, and understanding.

Unconditional Parenting, published in 2005, was an early contribution to the popular “gentle parenting” movement: a set of loosely associated approaches that move away from traditional discipline...

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Unconditional Parenting Summary Part 1: Why We Need to Rethink Parenting

Kohn notes that most parents have similar long-term goals for their children: They want them to be happy, independent, confident, and creative. But he cautions that it’s easy to forget about these goals in the short term and shift your focus to whether or not the child is being “good” (doing what you want them to do) or “bad” (doing something else) at any given moment.

This concept of “good” and “bad” behavior, and the system of rewards and punishments that springs up to reinforce it, entangles both parents and children so deeply that it can be hard to see alternatives. Kohn identifies several problems with these disciplinary systems, but the central one is that rewards and punishments make children feel that their parents’ love, approval, and affection are contingent on them behaving well.

(Shortform note: While Kohn’s methods are similar to those of other gentle parenting advocates, his emphasis on unconditional love over behavior change strategies sets him apart from most others. This underlying attitude of unconditional support does seem to be important. For example, research shows that both negative and positive “parental conditional regard” [have...

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Unconditional Parenting Summary Part 2: Conditional Parenting Strategies: What We’re Doing Wrong

What exactly are most parents doing wrong? In this section, we’ll look at the two faces of conditional parenting, rewards and punishments, and Kohn’s reasons for wanting to get rid of them entirely. We’ll start by looking at all of the things Kohn considers rewards and why he says you shouldn’t use them. Then we’ll do the same for punishments.

Kohn doesn’t differentiate clearly between promised consequences (bribes and threats) and actual ones—for the sake of simplicity, we’ve grouped bribes with rewards and threats with punishments.

Conditional Parenting Strategy #1: Rewards

Parents commonly use rewards (or the promise of rewards) to encourage behavior they want from their child. Kohn’s definition of rewards is extremely broad: He groups intangible rewards such as hugs and praise with more conventional ones such as food and gold stars.

What Counts as a Reward?

A reward is anything a child receives in return for “good” behavior. Rewards include:

  • Gifts, food, and money
  • Good grades
  • Gold stars
  • Affection
  • Praise

(Shortform note: Kohn singles out one type of praise, “good job!”, as particularly noxious, as it frames whatever a child...

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Unconditional Parenting Summary Part 3: Unconditional Parenting: Guidelines and Techniques

We’ve covered the broad differences between conditional and unconditional parenting and the case for getting rid of conditional parenting techniques. But what exactly do we replace them with? In this section, we’ll list six practical guidelines that you can refer to if you’d like to try out unconditional parenting. Kohn deliberately doesn’t offer scripts or specific advice, saying that paying attention, reflecting, and following the principles is enough. Parents have criticized him for this, however, so for each guideline, we’ll add one or two specific techniques for you to experiment with.

Kohn sets out 13 guidelines in the book. The ones we present here don’t overlap exactly with these—some of these (such as respecting the child and prioritizing the relationship) are more theoretical, so we’ve already covered them elsewhere.

Guideline #1: See Things From the Child’s Perspective

According to Kohn, the basis for all unconditional parenting techniques is empathy. Young children get carted from place to place, they’re physically smaller and weaker than adults, and in general they have very little control over their lives. They’re also dealing with [impulses...

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Unconditional Parenting Summary Conclusion

Kohn acknowledges that unconditional parenting is far more demanding than traditional parenting methods, but promises that your investment will be reflected in happier, more independent, more thoughtful children who will grow up to be loving parents to their own children. (Shortform note: Interestingly, sensitive parenting also seems to have long-term financial benefits for both individual families and society in general. Families with sensitive parents tend to spend less on their children, while the children of sensitive parents prompt less public spending in the form of health and social services.)

As Kohn points out throughout the book, children look to their parents to model desirable behavior, and parenting style tends to be passed...

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Shortform Exercise: Rethink a Past Punishment

Unconditional parenting is about doing away with rewards and punishments completely. Think through how you might do this in practice.

Think of a punishment you’ve experienced in your life. This can be either a punishment you’ve doled out as a parent or one that you received as a child. Describe what happened. What behavior was being punished? What was the punishment?

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Table of Contents

  • 1-Page Summary
  • Part 1: Why We Need to Rethink Parenting
  • Part 2: Conditional Parenting Strategies: What We’re Doing Wrong
  • Part 3: Unconditional Parenting: Guidelines and Techniques
  • Conclusion
  • Exercise: Rethink a Past Punishment