Alfie Kohn’s wisdom on Unconditional Parenting

Nov 15, 2013


Yesterday evening, I had the honor of hearing Alfie Kohn (author of “Unconditional Parenting” and other cutting edge books) speak. Passionate, energetic, interactive with his audience, and even capable of expressing some vulnerability – these are traits I long to see when I attend any lecture. And although he was a bit on the professorial side in his language, I was thoroughly engaged and entertained, and left a wiser woman/mother than how I arrived. In this post, I’d like to share my major takeaways.

Kohn introduced right off the bat the notion that traditional ways of parenting are undermining our very own goals for our children.

When asked what we most want for our children in the long term, or what we hope they can become, the audience responded with qualities like: happy, self-knowledge, free of fear, compassionate, sensitive to others, autonomous, independent. Then we were asked to consider the relationship between what we want them to be and what we as role models actually DO on a daily basis when interacting with our kids.

In other words, do we consistently consider/value these qualities in them while they are young? So that they can experience, e.g. what it is like to have freedom of choice AND compassion for others at the same time? Hmmm, probably not if we are always telling them what to do—where’s the choice and where’s the compassion for them and their personal needs/wishes?

So with this in mind, Kohn (a parent himself) is dedicating his professional life to introduce to parents and educators the idea that we can make big shifts from short-term thinking to long-term thinking.

Short-term parenting has to do with automatic-pilot reacting, e.g. “how do I get them to do what I ask?” It’s very focused on behavior, or what we can see on the outside. When we focus on / react only at this level, we are stuck in short-term interactions that generally do not contribute to long-term goals, such as the qualities we hope to instill in them. In order to do that, we can achieve a lot more results by focusing on the really important underlying needs of our children. This is what drives behavior, in all of us, young to old.

To be a bit more concrete  . . . as parents, we generally face two choices in how we approach our children:

Choice #1: “Doing To”    

The “doing to” approach falls into the short-term, conditional parenting category and in a simple word has to do with control . . . knowingly or not, wanting to control our children’s behavior. It can involve any of the following techniques:

  • threats
  • bribes
  • punishment, e.g. physical/verbal abuse, time-outs, removal of something important
  • positive reinforcements, e.g. praise, saying “good job!” and other rewards

Kohn is adamant that the “positive consequences” are merely the other side of the same coin, called control. According to him these bribe-like approaches might “successfully” address/correct behavior in the short term, but they never help people to be e.g. compassionate, sensitive, free of fear, experience choice . . . because they only cause the “victim” to focus on themselves and what their behavior gets or doesn’t get them.

Furthermore, these acts of coercion/control come across to kids as conditional love, e.g. “they love me only when I act in this way, and not in this way.” What they need MOST when they screw up is unconditional love, instead of a punitive reaction, which gives them a sense of powerlessness and distance from love. In the end it comes down to this: “The more we use power, the less influence we have over their lives.”

So, at this point you may be asking, “But kids need limits, discipline, to learn respect!”

To this Kohn likes to say, “Children learn to make good decisions by making decisions and not by following directions.”

Now you might be asking, “How on earth do we move AWAY from the behavior-manipulating ways of traditional parenting and TOWARD enabling our children to make sound decisions?” To help answer this, Kohn presented:

Choice #2. “Working With”

The “working with” approach falls into the long-term, unconditional parenting category. Kohn makes the following suggestions:

Shift AWAY from a focus on compliance (via punishments and rewards) and TOWARD:

  • respect for what’s going on in them (investigate underlying needs)
  • real choice – not just what we give as options; include their ideas, too
  • giving them a say in decision-making/cooperation/negotiation.

And HOW exactly? Kohn provided several tips, including:

  • Put the relationship first; when you do put a foot down, be sure it’s worth the strain it’s likely to put on the relationship
  • Talk less, ask more open-ended questions (instead of yes/no or leading questions)
  • Ask yourself “what does she need and how can I help her meet it?” Remember that above all, children and adults alike want to be understood!
  • Instead of praise, make observations, like “you did it!” or ask questions, “how did you decide to do that – I’ve never seen it before.”
  • Consider how your actions and words appear to the child (ask yourself, “how would I feel?”)
  • Help your kid see the consequences of their actions on others via empathy, e.g. ask, “how do you think she’s feeling right now?”
  • Empower your kids by asking, “what do you think you could do to make it better?” “What do you think we can do to solve the problem?”
  • Embrace unconditional parenting by loving your kid(s) for who they are, not what they do; give them the message: “I love you no matter what”
  • Reconsider your requests; what we want might be the problem (perhaps they can come up with better strategies that work for them and us)
  • Attribute to children’s motives the facts and possible needs (instead of judgments, assumptions, or worst case scenario); when we see their underlying needs, we typically feel more compassion.

I walked away from this evening with a sense of validation and empowerment – not because I find unconditional parenting easy, but because the “working with” approach is exactly what I’ve been trying out the past couple of years with my kids (9 & 7). The nonviolent communication (NVC) model has brought me brand new skills in empathy and connecting with my own needs and those of my partner and children. I’m amazed at how much more understanding and connection there is now. And I get so much energy out of teaching it to others (via coaching clients and Mothers’ Circles) – for more information, see


For more information on Alfie Kohn and his writings, see

Cara Crisler
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1 Comment. Leave new

Saskia wiegant
November 16, 2013 8:56 am

Thanks cara for your story… It helps me to be more creative and flexible in parenting… Saskia


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