Unconditional Parenting DVD

July 27, 2007

We just got a copy of the Alfie Kohn DVD ‘Unconditional Parenting’. There’s a book by the same name but we got the DVD because we like the idea that we can easily hand it to other people and they won’t need to worry about wading through a heavy tome (I haven’t seen the actual book) and especially we can give it to people who are suspicious of our approach to parenting. Karen has given it a friend already. 

The reason it’s good to give to those who doubt our sanity (but surely you believe in consequences Aaron?) is that Kohn’s work is backed up with some serious research, he repeatedly refers to studies throughout his talk and the whole thing probably feels quite safe to conventional people. Apart, that is, from the fact that he has an American accent which can be an issue for people around these parts. 

Alfie Kohn shows that punishing children is a primary indicator for children who will later go off the rails and also that calling it consequences, or logical consequences or even explaining the punishment first doesn’t make a difference to the child who just feels hurt by their parent’s actions. 

More importantly though he says that shifting to reward based parenting is not the answer either. People tend to see rewards or punishment as being opposites but in fact, says Alfie they are merely different sides of the same coin. 

Both rewards and punishment lead to self centeredness in children – it leads them to think; “What do I have to do and what might happen to me if I don’t?” (punishment) or “What do I have to do and what do I get if I do?” (reward) It totally distracts a child from noticing, for instance, that their sibling is currently upset because of something they did. 

Both approaches disconnect children from their inherent ability to know right from wrong and will likely turn them into the sort of people who only do the right thing because they think they will get in trouble if they don’t. 

Alife also has strong criticism of praise. He argues (backed up by studies of course) that external praise disconnects the child from their own inner motivations and they become less interested in doing the thing for which they get praise – be it drawing pictures, helping round the house or being nice toward the little sister. This doesn’t mean they won’t do these things but it does mean they won’t do them if you aren’t there to hand them a sparkly dinosaur sticker.  Follow this link and click on the “Five Reasons to Stop Saying ‘Good Job!'” article to read more about this. 

This praise issue was discussed on a NZ unschooling list recently, one mother said her son at age five went to school for five weeks (by his own choice) and even after that short time he came back addicted to praise. He insisted on getting a sticker reward for everything he did. His mother refused and instead gave him a big box full of stickers. Even then he still wanted her to actually give them to him. She held firm and insisted that he could give them to himself – and it still took several months for it to wear off! 

We hadn’t even realised we were doing much praise at our house but it soon became apparent that the kids want it from us when we tried to stop. Our oldest one insisted on knowing what we thought of her paintings and would follow Karen around badgering for a comment until she got one. We are struggling to come up with a solution because by now any positive comment will used to feed the need for praise, even statements that lack any judgement in them. We don’t want to go cold turkey because giving no comment at all is hardly natural and is kind of like withdrawing love so our plan is to just muddle through like everything else we do. 

Speaking of love withdrawal, Alfie says that’s what time-outs are – they’re time out from the mother or father’s love – and here we all are thinking it’s a much nicer alternative to physical punishment. Actually it’s a much more effective alternative to physical punishment  – and that should set off alarm bells too. 

Someone once made the comment that we shouldn’t need scientific evidence to encourage us to treat out children in a loving way and it’s a worrying sign of the state our society that we do but nonetheless it’s nice to have something like this on the shelf just in case. 

Rating: Five Stars (with shiny glitter).



  1. nteresting post. I have a 3 yr old and a 1.5 yr old and struggle with some of these issue. I will put this book on my reading list, but I am curious as to what is recommended for helping our children learn right from wrong. I also am curious as to what the negative effect of honest appraisal is. If I like a childs painting it seems appropriate to say I like it. Should I end there and not add a “well done” or should I not comment at all. Hmmm good stuff, just wanted to let you know some parents are listening!

    Oh and on a side note we “have” been using timeouts opposed to physical punishment and although they are not common it has as you said “worked” but obviously been hard on the children. After a difficult situation in which my oldest could just not seem to remember to not do a particular action which was harming my younger child I took her outside to have a long talk. After we got in a good space and I explained that all we were trying to do was remember not to hurt her brother. I told her we really did not like to make her feel bad we just did not know what else to do. I then asked her what we should do to help her remember…. she said “hugs” so now we do hugs. Works as good as anything else and seems to do no damage. Mabye a hug is praise, but until I figure out something better I a sticking with her suggestion.

    I have been reading since early in your post and have enjoyed much of it.


    Posted by: Todd | 08/03/2007

    “I then asked her what we should do to help her remember…. she said “hugs” so now we do hugs”

    You’ll be interested to know that’s exactly what Alfie Kohn reccommends parents do on the DVD – bring the kids into the process.

    “Mabye a hug is praise…”

    I think a hug is love – not praise. The underlying message of a hug is that the child is OK, and should feel OK no matter what. The underlying message of praise on the other hand is that the child needs to please an adult to feel OK.

    As for where the we cross the line between a normal comment and praise, the list I was on discussed itself to a standstill trying to work it out. In the end I think every child and every situtation is different – as usual.

    My personal view on teaching right and wrong is that kids already know the difference – the only problem they have is when they get emotionally overwhelmed and can’t see the other person’s point of view. Alfie’s main comment here (from memory) is that the whole punishment/reward system distracts kids from thinking about the effects of their actions on others and focuses them almost exclusively on themselves. ie they’ll decide whether it’s right or wrong to do something depending on what will happen to them if they get caught

    Posted by: Aaron | 08/03/2007

  2. […] that tend to destroy empathy (did I mention leaving a baby to cry already? What about the problem with excessive praise then?) and create adults with a poor ability to […]

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