Unconditional parenting

Last night I started reading Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn. It’s been sat by my bed unopened for two years, since I was pregnant with DS and DD looked like she was about to embark on the ‘terrible twos’, and I ordered a rash of parenting books to join the ranks of baby books on my shelf.

So why open it now? We’ve been having some mysterious clinginess ishoos at nursery, where she’s been quite happy since she was seven months old but now keeps bursting into tears. I’ve been worried about the nursery thing, which makes me feel even more guilty than I do anyway about working two and a half days from home.

My mum’s advice was to do the same as she did with me when I was hysterical every morning before school when I first started: bribe her. Apparently a child behavioural specialist in the late 70s advised my mum to tell me that if I didn’t cry at school I would get a treat on the way home. She says it worked immediately. For some reason, this didn’t sit comfortably with me: I don’t like the idea of negating DD’s emotions, or asking her to pretend she is fine when she isn’t (I’ve obviously been doing this since I was four and it hasn’t necessarily been a good thing!). But I tried it last week and lo and behold, the promise of going for coffee and cake anywhere she wanted on Friday morning if she had ‘no silly tears’ (trying to make it clear that real hurt and upset tears were fine, it was the tears for no apparent reason that we were trying to stop) worked. She had a ‘happy day’ at nursery and we had a lovely time with babycinos on Friday morning.

But yesterday the bribe didn’t work and she had a bit of a ‘sensitive’ day, as her lovely male key worker put it. And I thought: there has to be a better way than this. I’ve never been a fan of reward charts (apart from stickers to mark potty training progress) and naughty steps, although like every other mum I know, I praise and reward good behaviour and threaten the withdrawal of treats for bad behaviour. It’s the only way I know.

So I opened Unconditional Parenting. One stone cold bath later, and I have a whole new way of thinking about parenting. The premise is that responding to ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviour with rewards and punishments may work for short-term control of our children, but if we think about the adults we want them to become (eg happy, thoughtful, inquisitive, independent, creative, fulfilled, loving etc), these techniques may actually do harm in the long term. Unconditional parenting, says Kohn, is about working with children, not doing stuff to them. It’s about recognising their feelings (that they may be unable to articulate other than in tantrums, hysterics or naughtiness), and letting them know that we really do love them, always, just how they are, just for being themselves, not because they have been ‘good’.

Is it possible that children see withdrawal of treats or punishments, however minor this seems to us, as a withdrawal of their parents’ love? To me it seems unconditional parenting isn’t just about making it clear that we love our children unconditionally, no matter what their behaviour, but that we respect them as individuals with their own personality and feelings, rather than as nuisances to try and get under our control.

I haven’t got to the bit of the book where Kohn talks about how to practically handle tricky situations differently, so I haven’t actually got any new tools at my disposal yet. But even the first few chapters of the book struck a chord with me and made me think that maybe there is another way of handling my kiddies. I’m still a bit resistant to the idea that it’s not all about getting them to do what they are told, I must admit, but I’m keeping an open mind.



    • Brillant post as always, MWA, thanks. I guess the bottom line is that none of these books are about you or your children. I’m also pretty sure my kids know I love them unconditionally even though I throw in the odd reward or punishment related to behaviour. Interesting to have a different way of looking at parenting, and some different approaches to consider, but I agree that feeling even more than usual that you may be fucking up your kids is not helpful!

  1. Recently had a similar issue with Milo – crying on arrival and not wanting to go to nursery. Same with Daddy. No amount of cuddles and reassurance helped. Guilt and worry abounded: was I reflecting my own angst onto Milo; why the sudden change; were we right to leave him at nursery (there and then and generally); was he happy?
    Talking to keyworkers and M helped. Happy? Check. Friends? Check. Solution for us was to have news or things to tell his friends/keyworker on arrival at nursery. This ranged from flowers/signs of Spring on the walk there, the cars/bikes/transporters/tractors (etc) we saw, to activities done the day before. Result – the walk to nursery was an adventure and he was eager to tell his friends/keyworker his news, waving us off with a kiss and a hug. The Mummy-Milo or Daddy-Milo talks on the way probably helped and assuaged our guilt too…. Did it really help the tears? Was it part of growing up? I don’t know, probably a combination of things. But it worked for us. Each one is individual and ultimately we can only try our best and, as you say, love them always.

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