Lessons from Kohn’s Unconditional Parenting

“The way kids learn to make good decisions is by making decisions, not by following directions.” (Kohn, pg 169)


If you’re looking for a quick disciplinary fix for toddler tantrums or basic non-compliance, Alfie Kohn is not your man.  He’s not about quick – nor about fixing for that matter.  In fact, he challenges you to slow down and reconsider the entire Behaviorist discipline model that guides most families and schools today.

Rather than using rewards or punishments to cajole or direct behavior, Kohn suggests we put the relationship at the center of parenting to attend the larger aim of meeting a child’s basic need to feel loved unconditionally. Unconditional Parenting is a provocative read backed with a ton of research that ultimately pushes for a paradigm shift in the way we love our children and guide them to become moral people.“If we want them to become moral people, as opposed to people who merely do what they’re told, then they have to be given the chance to construct such concepts as fairness or courage for themselves. “ (pg 196)


1) What does it really mean to love your children unconditionally and what kind of relationship do you want to have?

Kohn asserts that it is one thing for you to feel and express unconditional love for your child, and another for your child to feel unconditionally loved.  This is where we take a hard look at our actions and the way in which we guide them to be loving people themselves.

2) How do you foster intrinsic motivation in your children?  To be moral and caring of other people, to love learning, to follow his or her personal interests?

Kohn believes rewards and punishments do nothing but foster self-interest — to either receive the carrot, or avoid the stick.

Examples of Conditional Love

  • Offering gold stars, candy, dessert, extra attention or praise, money… in exchange for doing what we want them to do.
  • Using “loving” consequences to teach lessons:  If your child leaves their raincoat at school, you let her get wet the next day; if she is late for dinner, you let her go hungry; if she doesn’t say please, don’t let her have what she’s asking for.
  • Saying things like “I love you so much when you share with your brother” or “I can’t stand to be around you when you act like that.  You need a time out.”


1) Slowing down EVERYthing.  Building more time into everything we do to hopefully eliminate the stress that comes with a toddler not moving along according to our schedule.

2) Reconsidering what really matters.   The old “choose your battles” cliché.   I now ask myself many times a day:  “Does this really matter in the big picture of well being, safety, health….?” My answer is almost always, “No.”  And if it’s “yes” then I use as much gentle kindness as I can to insist on whatever it is.  A recent example was my toddler saying she didn’t want to hold hands in the parking lot.  I said this was not something I was comfortable negotiating because I want to keep her safe from cars that might not see her and that she must.  I escaped without a tantrum that day.

3) Focusing on how a behavior impacts others.  I used to simply say, “We don’t hit.”  Now when my toddler lightly hits or pushes our baby before I can catch it and the poor little one starts crying, I ask my toddler to notice her sister’s sadness and how she caused the upset and I remind her that it’s not OK to hit.   (Hasn’t put a stop to it yet…..but I’m hoping that somehow I might be helping her develop empathy for others!)

4) Paying attention and asking questions versus heaping on “GOOD JOB!”. One of the biggest impacts Alfie Kohn has made on my way of thinking about parenting has been around praise and rewards.  It was easy for me to rethink punishments — even time out — as a form of love withdrawal.  But to withhold praise or rewards – that seemed equally cruel.   Now I get how a child can develop attachment to a parent’s praise or approval and completely lose the opportunity to gain intrinsic motivation for anything.  I get it because I was one of those kids and am still trying not to be one of those adults.  So I’m now very careful to give my daughter space to create.  I try not to hover, to do something for her, or to show so much enthusiasm that I inadvertently allow my emotions/experience to trump hers.

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One Response to “Lessons from Kohn’s Unconditional Parenting”

  1. Reggie says:

    I loved this book and really, really working on the praise thing. I find the praise or at least, the excitement, comes out before I even realise. I am glad I re-visited this tonight.

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