I recently read Alfie Kohn’s book Unconditial Parenting. This is one of those books that I wish every parent would read. But I suspect that many would not even take this book seriously. Unfortunately those are the parents who would need this book’s advice the most.
It’s not a book that gives you practical tips to make your everyday life easier. In fact, after reading this book, your everyday parenting will probably become harder – because the book will make you think about parenting in a different way.
Instead of summarizing the book in my own words, I will let it speak for itself, by quoting the paragraphs that made the strongest impression on me.
This book looks at one such distinction [between different types of parental love] – namely, between loving kids for what they do and loving them for who they are. The first sort of love is conditional, which means children must earn it by acting in ways we deem appropriate, or by performing up to our standards. The second sort of love is unconditional: It doesn’t hinge on how they act, whether they’re successful or well behaved or anything else.
In our society, we are taught that good things must always be earned, never given away. Indeed, many people become infuriated at the possibility that this precept has been violated. Notice, for example, the hostility many people feel toward welfare and those who rely on it.
Ultimately, conditional parenting reflects a tendency to see almost any human interaction, even among family members, as a kind of economic transaction.
The way many kids are treated suggests a lack of respect for their needs and preferences – in fact, a lack of respect for children, period. A lot of parents act as though they believe that kids don’t deserve respect in the way adults do. Many years ago, the psychologist Haim Ginott invited us to consider the way we might react if our child accidentally left behind some item that belonged to him or her – and then to contrast that with the way we might react if a chronically forgetful friend of ours did the same thing. Few of us would think of berating another adult in the tone that is routinely used with kids: “What is the matter with you? How many times do I have to remind you to look around for all your things before you leave? Do you think I have nothing better to do than…” and so on. With an adult, we’d be more likely to say, simply, “Here’s your umbrella.”
A fair amount of research suggests that people’s basic parenting styles “are already in place before they gain direct experience with their own offspring.” These styles are deeply rooted in experiences they had long ago.
A man left a message on my website recently that read, in part, “I watch, as if a spectator at a train wreck, as my friends use the same parental behaviors that wounded them when they were little. It is not a pretty sight.” Nor, I would add, is it a simple matter to determine why this happens. The folks he’s talking about presumably didn’t sit down and consciously decide to make their own kids as unhappy as they were.
If you haven’t experienced emphatic parenting, it’s hard for you to become such a parent yourself. The same might be said of unconditional love: If you didn’t get it, you don’t have it to give. People who were accepted only conditinoally as children may come to accept others (including their own kids) in the same way.
Some parents live in terror of what other people – not only their friends and relatives, but the nameless and omnipresent judge known as “they” – will think of their children, and thus of their own parenting skills. [...] Even relatively secure parents are sometimes made uncomfortable by the possibility that someone somewhere might be thinking, “Boy, that mother doesn’t know what she’s doing. I mean, just look at her kids!” Consider how much of what we do with our children is driven by worries about how we’ll be perceived by other adults.
These excerpts represent the foundations of the book, and the parts that resonated most with me. But there are also more concrete principles and recommendations. This is a book to return to again and again. It is full of immensely important insights. It is also very readable and “just right”: neither too long nor too short, neither too academic in tone nor too breezy. I wish every adult would read this.