This post contains affiliate links to one of my favorite books.
You love your children unconditionally.
You know that. I know it.
But do they?
What matters is not whether we know that we love our children, but whether they feel loved based on how we treat them.
This is the premise of Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn. His approach is based in the idea that our kids shouldn’t have to earn our approval. Children should be able to rest in our love; they shouldn’t have to work for it.
Conventional parenting often relies upon threats, punishment, and bribes. These tactics prioritize obedience instead of fostering connection and healthy growth.
Any form of punishment risks the message “I don’t love you when you behave that way.”
Deliberately hurting a child is indefensible. You can try to make it more palatable with terms like “spank” or “pop”, but hitting a child is never justified. And if a moral argument isn’t enough, “the data overwhelmingly show that corporal punishment makes children more aggressive and leads to a variety of other damaging consequences” (Kohn).
While many parents view solitary confinement (“time-outs”) as a gentler alternative to physical punishment, withholding affection and attention can cause lasting damage. One researcher wrote that it “may be more devastating emotionally than power assertion because it poses the ultimate threat of abandonment or separation.”
Kohn refers to the flip side of love withdrawal as not-so-positive reinforcement. This includes rewards such as candy and gold stars, but also something as simple as a “Good job!”
Whether children are being rewarded for helping around the house, learning something new, or sharing with a friend, rewards and manipulative praise suck the joy out of it. Rewards teach children to accomplish a task in order to get something, diverting them from the deeper and purer motivations that made the task enjoyable.
This sets the stage for “conditional self-approval” in which the child feels they’re only lovable when they behave a certain way, get high marks in school, etc. They become dependent on other people for validation — or swing in the opposite direction, and rebel against this “sugar-coated control.”
So what’s the alternative?
Choose connection over control.
Reject the mindset of “How can I make him obey?”
Instead, ask yourself, What does my child need?
What hurt are they trying to offload?
How can we work together to solve this problem?
We can be allies to our children, helping them to navigate this huge and confusing world.
7 Principles of Unconditional Parenting
Question convention. Don’t simply follow cultural norms or recreate your own childhood. Hold on to the things that serve your family, but let go of the practices that don’t. And really take some time to reflect upon which is which.
Many parenting philosophies, gentle and otherwise, operate on the assumption that the parent’s wants and needs are more valid than those of their child.
Before focusing on the HOW, consider the WHETHER.
Do you really need to pressure your child to finish their meal? Or would it be better to simply provide healthy food and trust that they’ll eat their fill?
Do you need to enforce a certain bedtime? Or can you let them listen to their bodies?
Reconsider the ways in which you interact with your children.
Are they helping to strengthen your bond… or straining it?
Put the relationship first.
Your relationship with your child is far more important than daily challenges. Kohn writes, “We need to ask whether it’s worth jeopardizing that relationship to get a baby to sleep through the night, or a toddler to start using the potty, or child to mind his manners.”
We want our children to feel safe with us. To come to us when they need advice, when they’re in trouble.
Choose connection over correction. Help them develop the skills they’ll need to thrive.
Consider your long-term goals.
What sort of adults do you want your children to be?
Are your choices supporting those goals?
If you want your son to love reading and be a lifelong learner, how can you support him in that? Surely reading stacks of books together is better than forcing worksheets.
If you want your daughter to be strong and independent, give her the opportunity to exercise those traits now. She has the right to choose what she wears, speak her mind, and decline unwanted affection.
Obedience is not the goal.
I don’t want my son to be an obedient adult… or even an obedient child. I do want him to be kind and respectful — but I foster those traits by treating him with respect and kindness, not by demanding specific behaviors.
Change how you see, not just how you act.
Respectful parenting isn’t a strategy.
Unconditional Parenting isn’t a series of tricks to get your kids to do what you want.
It’s a complete paradigm shift.
Don’t be in a hurry.
So many daily stresses are created when we try to rush children along.
One of the most beautiful things about babies and children is their ability to be completely centered in the present. As often as possible, enter into that flow.
As much as you can, structure your life to avoid falling into a frenzied rush.
You’re not perfect. None of us are. And it’s okay for our kids to see that.
Children can sense the anger behind a smile, the laughter behind contrived sternness. It’s okay to be yourself — and to admit when you mess up.
Just today, when I was rushing around the kitchen and my toddler pulled a carton of eggs to the floor, I roared in frustration. Not exactly at him, but near him. He ran into the next room and looked at me in confusion, an uncertain smile flickering beneath teary eyes.
I held my arms out. “I’m sorry, Love.”
He ran to me and I picked him up.
“Yeah, I felt frustrated when the eggs fell on the ground and broke. I’m sorry I yelled.”
And that was that. Connection and cleanup.
While it’s best to be mindful of our emotions and create a calm environment for our littles, upsets happen. And when they do, we can apologize, reconnect, and move on.
It all comes down to respect.
They deserve a say over their lives. They deserve to be accepted for who they are. And they deserve our unconditional love.
Unconditional Parenting contains 13 principles in all. Kohn also includes a number of actionable ideas for ensuring that our children feel loved, even when we feel frustrated by their behavior. It’s a must read for any parent.
Thanks for reading! What are your favorite books on parenting?