Thursday, July 20, 2006

Review: Unconditional Parenting

[Alfie Kohn. Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason. New York: Atria Books, 2005.]

It makes me faintly ill that certain things in our society are almost inevitably obtained from professionals via some sort of cash transaction -- nutrition advice, for example, or psychological support. Or parenting advice. There is something obscene about the fact that such deeply personal and deeply important stuff that is so relevant to our everday living has been professionalized and the only way that it can be efficiently transmitted from them who have it to them who need it is by paying exorbitant sums of money for one-on-one time or by buying a book. It is the sort of stuff that in an ideal world we could learn from the families we are born into and the families we create for ourselves, and from elders in the community. My discomfort with this inescapable approach to the transmission of personal how-to information is compounded by the fact that the vast majority of books that are intended to help you live your life, whether they are about making money or relationships or some other form of self-help, are terrible, stupid, awful documents that range from useless to actively harmful.

On the other hand, it is better to be able to access such information this way than not at all. Having ideas about how one might live one's life in book form and accessible for purchase or borrowing is a means by which people can transcend the limitations of their local reality in a particular way, and access information that the people surrounding them might never have heard of or might actively wish to prevent from spreading. And even if the content of 98% of such books is suspect, the fact that the other 2% are out there is no less important.

Unconditional Parenting comes from the 2% that actually have something useful to say. It contains no quick fixes, it is careful and thoughtful, and it encourages readers to think critically for themselves.

The main goal of the book is to challenge some of the central received "wisdom" about how children should be raised. Kohn argues that for most of us, in terms of effectively realizing our values and achieving our long-term goals for our children, a parenting strategy that relies on punishment and rewards is a bad move. Under "punishment" he includes not only its harsher physical manifestations, which have fallen somewhat out of favour in North America in the last few decades, but also the supposedly sensitive replacements that have been found for spanking like "time-outs." In fact, he argues that in the long term, things like time-outs can be even more damaging to children because from the perspective of the child being disciplined they function as a withdrawal of love and an illustration that our love for them is conditional on their behaviour and performance, rather than unconditional and based purely on them being them.

His opposition to rewards is also counterintuitive for many parents with progressive values. Whether it is money for good grades or a "Good job!" for taking that first pee in the potty, Kohn argues that rewards encourage kids to focus not on the value of the task itself, not on the impact their actions might have on others, but purely on what they themselves might gain from doing it. While this may have a favourable impact on the specific behaviour in question over the short-term (though often it does not do even that), it actually tends to decrease the interest that children have in the task that parents are trying to encourage, and fosters in children an overall framework for deciding upon their actions that prioritizes a very narrow understanding of gain.

The goal of the book is not to take sides in the rhetorical framework which opposes strict, traditional, punitive discipline with a lax approach that leave kids to do whatever they want. Rather, instead of defending either black or white in this debate, or proposing grey as a compromise, Kohn proposes orange: do not "do to" and do not "do nothing", but rather "do with." In fact, he argues, the rampant notion that there is a crisis of lax discipline in North America is mostly myth, as far more children and youth are regularly prohibited from doing something harmless in an arbitrary manner by parents who do not want to be thought of as softies by other parents (or in-laws) than there are children who are allowed to "run wild." In fact, these two often do not function as opposites but rather as different phases in the repertoire of the same parent.

What Kohn proposes instead is an emphasis on building and maintaining relationships with our children. He suggests encouraging them without praising them, i.e. providing affirmation and support and love that is explicitly not about using positive emotion to reward obedience or success, but rather just because they are our children. He also promotes the idea of encouraging them to think about how they feel and how their actions make others feel, and thereby to pay attention to what is intrinsically worthwhile or fun about whatever it is they are doing. When there are problems, he encourages us to work with our children to find solutions rather than dictate to them. He is very big on parents making an effort to see situations through the eyes of their children, and on working hard to make sure they know they are loved at all times. Give them choices. Encourage autonomy. Let them make mistakes. Listen to them and respect them and arrive at decisions cooperatively where possible.

One of the interesting facets of this book is that while he relates his approach to the values that parents have, and to our long-term goals for our children to be healthy and happy and functional rather than our short-term desire that they just get on with doing what we want them to do in the moment, he connects it rigorously to scientific research on parenting. Now, I am a bit dubious about exactly how much authority I would give to positivist science in this realm, and to parenting methods as determined by such studies, so I'm glad he also talks about values and so on. However, while I'm cautious with such studies, I get the sense that he is as well, and the use that he makes of them seems to be fairly appropriate. And you know what? Chances are, any of the statements in the preceding few paragraphs in this review that made you say, "Oh, well, that just wouldn't work" has probably been supported by such a study. Punishments and rewards really do have those negative effects, and involved and connected parents that avoid using "love withdrawal" (as in time-outs) as a punishment and prefer to work with their kids not only are more likely to have the long-term impact on their kids that they want, but even the short-term impacts are more desirable as well in many cases.

This approach really resonates for me. I'm sure any regular readers of this blog can probably identify the way it fits nicely into my larger analysis of the world. Parenting is one area where power-over cannot be completely avoided, but with Kohn's approach it can be vastly reduced and used responsibly. I'm all about encouraging autonomy, empathy with others, critical thinking, and skepticism towards authority, even if it's mine (though I know that's easier to say while he's only three). I'm a fan of dialogue and negotiation rather than arbitrary dictates.

However, it isn't necessarily easy, because we don't live in a society where those things are particularly encouraged, in parenting or in many other contexts. Kohn mentions a number of things that discourage parents from fully embracing this approach. Things like lack of energy and ease of falling into less than ideal patterns when tired or stressed are a factor for everyone, but the one that applies most directly to me, I think, has to do with anxieties around the responses of other people when in public. Through the way I was raised and because of my own personality, I sometimes catch myself a bit too concerned with maintaining middle-class ideas of decorum and etiquette even when I would intellectually acknowledge them to be silly when applied to a pre-schooler, and I am sometimes too keen to avoid being seen and judged by other parents (who 90% of the time wouldn't see and wouldn't care anyway, I'm sure). This can sometimes lead me to giving more attention to parenting as a performance of those things than as a practice fundamentally grounded in supporting L through a journey in which he must take the lead. I was aware of this before and tried to take efforts not to let it push me into parenting choices that were more directive and less sympathetic and dialogic than I would ideally want, but reading this book has definitely made me even more vigilant in making such mindfulness a regular part of my parenting practice.

I think the book could have done more to talk about the impact of different social locations both on children and on their parents as that pertains to the topic of the book. A discussion of how the research that is presented relates to parenting styles and social realities that are prevalent in African American versus white contexts is part of the appendix, with some very brief attention to its broader cross-cultural relevance as well. It could have been integrated into the book and it could've been given substantially more depth, and I think it gave the specificities in the experiences of many African Americans rather short shrift. Throughout he is careful in his use of pronouns and descriptors to allow for families with one parent or with same-gender parents. I think the biggest gap in the book is around gender, with very little discussion of how it all relates to the genders of the children and the parents involved.

Reading this book has been a positive experience for both my partner and myself, I think. It has helped give support for things that I already felt as well as helping my thinking (and hopefully my practice) develop in a number of potentially important ways. It gives me new conceptual tools for examining how I was raised myself and the parenting I see around me and in popular culture, and for improving my process of extracting from that the things that I wish to replicate in my own parenting while more accurately identifying what I wish to leave behind.

[Edit: For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]


Meaghan Walker-Williams said...

For another 2%er series of books on parenting, which also touches on politics and the roots of "the worship of authority" - I highly recommend Alice Miller's "For Your Own Good" and "Thou Shall Not Be Aware". It's mindblowing stuff. And very challenging to much of what is considered conventional wisdom about child-rearing practices.

Scott said...

Hi Meaghan...thanks for the recommendations!

Mac said...

Liked your review of this book. I also thought the book was great.

If you liked that one I think you'll probably like this one as well!