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on February 25, 2008
I was skeptical before reading this book. No time outs? No punishments, no rewards? There's a problem with praise? I was even skeptical for the first few chapters. But by the end, I was won over by the sheer amount of research backing up Kohl's parenting philosophy.

I told my husband when I finished it that I was going to try it. We were done with time outs, punishments and praise. My husband raised his eyebrows but went along. While I can't say that we've done this perfectly, the change this wrought in the behavior of our oldest (4 yrs old) was amazing. So much so that my husband said about two weeks later that whatever it was that I was doing differently, I should keep doing it. Her preschool teacher remarked that my daughter just seemed to "really change, really grow" all of a sudden. Truly, it was remarkable.

It should be noted that this is not a "how-to" book. There are not a lot of practical examples of how to parent as Kohl suggests. For this, I would suggest reading "How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk" by Faber and Mazlish (as well as their other books).

Even if you end up not agreeing with this book, I would suggest reading it since it will challenge you to think critically about what kind of children you want to raise and how they way you parent affects them.

ETA: It's now been two years since I first read this book and I would still consider this the most important, even if not most helpful, parenting book I have read. It not only transformed my parenting but it gave me tools for sorting through the mounds of often contradictory advice out there. Reading this put me on a quest to build a better, more effective parenting toolbox, and I am so grateful for having learned better ways of responding to conflicts with my children (and for seriously reducing said conflicts as well!). For books helpful in this manner, I would also recommend reading Larry Cohen's "Playful Parenting" and Mary Sheedy Kurchinka's "Kids, Parents and Power Struggles."
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on June 29, 2009
Overall, I'm glad I read it, as it is a thought-provoking read that ultimately made a better parent just by grappling with the issues it presents.

Here is what I liked about it:

Kohn emphasizes teaching empathy, teaching kids about the effects their behavior will have on OTHER people, not just on themselves; teaching kids to behave because it's the right thing to do, not out of fear of punishment or desire for reward. This is an extremely important and useful concept that many parenting books neglect.

I think many of his observations about "conditional" parenting are spot on, and things I remember painfully from my own childhood.

Everything he says is well-documented, not just his own spouting opinion. I think he is especially brave to take on race, religion and culture when he makes his assertions. I find his information about self-esteem to be particularly relevant.

I like that he allows hardworking parents to cut themselves a slice of slack. The world is not going to come to a crashing halt if your child sees you fumble. I have a three-year-old, and his advice about three-year-olds is helpful in the practical sense. There truly ARE many times when I feel like yelling at my child, "Are you dense?!" only to have Kohn's words echo back at me, "I'm not dense! I'm THREE!" A lot of this information is reassuring and helps me to be more calm and patient.

Finally, he advises parents to take his own advice with a grain of salt, something most parenting gurus won't do. He acknowledges that there are times when your child needs a bath or you need to get out of the house by a certain time and you will have to impose your will on the child and there isn't a way around that. He acknowledges that sometimes a thought experiment is just a thought experiment. I appreciate that kind of honesty.

What I didn't like:

Kohn jumps to conclusions a lot and misses some important details. For example, he says that a creative, empathetic child is better than an obedient child. Well, you know, in the long run, sure, I want my child to be creative and self-reliant and not be a "yes-child" who bows to every authority. But when she was two, I had a terrible time teaching her to walk on the side of the street instead of in the middle (no sidewalks in our neighborhood). It took many tries of picking her up and carrying her home kicking and screaming before she learned to obey me. The point is, sometimes there ARE times when you just plain want your child to obey, and when obedience is a necessary, reasonable goal in the situation. The younger the child, the more true this is, but a child of any age needs to have SOME respect for authority. Maybe not total blind obedience, but some level of acknowledgment that there are people who know more than he does whom he might just benefit from listening to.

And any parent can tell you there are some times when your kid is just plain being bratty, and you as the parent have to make him toe the line. I'm not a huge fan of time-out or punishment in general, but there are times when it IS called for, and it is not love withdrawal. Or if it is, then maybe that's what's needed to get the kid to stop being obnoxious! I feel particularly strongly about natural consequences. Kohn claims that what your child will remember is not the lesson, but that you could have helped and didn't. Well, maybe. But I'm sure all of us who had halfway decent parents will remember some times in our childhood when our parents did things we didn't like at the time, but now that we're grown, we're glad for the lessons we learned from them. My dad taught me to play the trumpet, standing behind me with his hands around my waist, making me push out his hands breathing with my diaphragm. I would never have developed good musicianship if he hadn't done that. My husband's mother used to make him cook meals from scratch AND clean up after himself. We wouldn't be as healthy if she hadn't done that. Sometimes parents have to do things that their kids are going to find jerky, or at least not helpful, at the time, but nevertheless it's necessary to do it anyway. It all depends on the individual parents and children and the situation--it's not something you can make a blanket statement about (at least not an accurate blanket statement).

I totally disagree with Kohn that being polite ("please" and "thank you") for its own sake is pointless, and most certainly will encourage a child to use those words, even if she's not old enough to talk yet and I have to say them for her. I do agree with him that the point is to make the other person feel good, not to get what you yourself want, so I won't force the issue.

Finally, I think that all of Kohn's advice on the whole carried out to its logical extreme is just impossible. It would result in mass scale brattiness that would undo all the creativity and empathy that might go along with it.

My conclusions:

I think it's best for a person to have medium self-esteem. I want my daughter to feel like a good and capable person without having an overinflated ego. I do praise her when she has done something genuinely impressive, when I think she really HAS done a good job; I would praise any friend or relative of any age in that instance. I do NOT praise her as positive reinforcement to get her to do it again, nor do I pile on empty praise to inflate her ego. I try to help her see how her actions, good and bad, affect others; but when she really is being obnoxious, I have no qualms about either letting the chips fall where they may (natural consequences) or removing either herself or myself from the situation (punishment, albeit mild punishment; "love withdrawal"). I tell her I love her even when I'm angry, but that doesn't stop me from letting her know that what she did was wrong.

I'm glad I read this book and I recommend it to anyone who can read it with an open, critical mind and find what makes sense and what applies and what doesn't.

By the way, I know some young adults who were raised this way. They did indeed "turn out well" as far as being creative and empathetic; they're nice people. But they're not doing so well on the "go-to-work-every-day-and-hold-down-a-job-in-order-to-pay-their-own-bills" front. I don't know if this is a phase they will outgrow or if maybe a little more discipline when they were younger might have helped move them along a bit.
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on July 9, 2006
This is perhaps one of the most important books I've read.

It makes a strong case for why both punishment/criticism/consequences and rewards/praise not only are ineffective in getting kids to do what we want but also cause lasting harm to kids' development. It provides many great insights toward alternatives, all flowing from the idea that we must unconditionally meet children's needs, that this is how we can give kids a solid foundation upon which to develop healthfully.

Yet the book is certainly not about being a pushover as a parent. The punishment/reward opposites it criticzes are distinguished as, themselves, just one side of another pair of dysfunctional parenting opposites. They are just different ways to use power to control kids. On the other hand is permissiveness, which is also ineffective. The book makes clear that it is both possible and necessary to be a parent, to set boundaries, and that it's simply a question of how one does so, respecting kids as human beings and seeking to work with them toward positive ends rather than do things to them that can't possibly move them toward the ends we want.

UP sheds a great amount of light on parenting, education and, if one is willing to extend its ideas, communication in general, even among adults. On top of all this, it is an easy and enjoyable read.

For those already interested in approaches such as attachment parenting, unschooling, positive discipline, etc., this book is a must read, giving perhaps the broadest picture possible about why these various approaches are so necessary and providing ways for people to make connections among them.

For anyone who is a parent of a child of any age, for anyone who relates with kids of any age, and really for anyone who wants to improve their communication and their relationships in general, I highly recommend that you find an opportunity to read this book soon.
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on March 10, 2006
I was a little hesitant about purchasing this book. I've worked with children for a good portion of my life and now have one of my own. I've always used rewards and punishments. Honestly, I really didn't know about any other way to teach children right from wrong..... until I read this book.

The first half of the book describes why punishments and rewards are so detrimental to children. I must say that while this was interesting, it certainly was long. I found myself feeling like I was reading the same thing over and over and kept wondering "Ok already, so what's the alternative?" The second half of the book dives into just that--what can you do instead of telling your child "good job" or putting them in time-out.

While I'm not sure about how well some of his suggestions would pan out with real children, it certainly was an interesting read. It definitely prompts you to re-examine everything you thought you knew about parenting. And the basic premise that everything we do as parents should teach our children that we love them unconditionally is exceptional. Even if you're not sure you agree with Kohn, I do suggest giving this book a try and broadening your perspective on how we raise our kids.
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on May 1, 2005
(...) I read Mr. Kohn's book with interest and curiosity. While I am a strong believer in the usefulness of rewards in some situations, I certainly am also a proponent of using love and reason. Mr. Kohn's assertion that the use of rewards is incompatible with an approach that emphasizes love and reason perplexes me.

As a clinical psychologist who works with children and families, I strive to address complex emotional feelings and interactions rather than simply to treat superficial behavior. So I did appreciate Alfie Kohn's insistence in Unconditional Parenting on the need for parents to consider the underlying reasons for children's misbehavior. His example of allowing his four-year-old daughter the usual snuggly bedtime story despite her earlier temper tantrum, which he recognized was connected to her jealousy of her newborn brother, aptly illustrates the need to take into account situational factors in responding to children's behavior. Withdrawing his attention and refusing a bed time story (as Mr. Kohn asserts would be recommended by behavioral psychologists) would certainly only have left his daughter feeling more alone, angry, and jealous.

However, I am concerned that this book takes a quite extreme view about the use of rewards, discouraging parents from using what I consider to be at times a useful parenting tool that can help avoid stress and conflict. That said, I am actually in agreement with Mr. Kohn that some who use "behavioral" techniques (following in the footsteps of the father of behaviorism, B. F. Skinner) do employ reward plans in a manner that ignores underlying feelings and fails to include dialogue and reasoning with children.

What Mr. Kohn doesn't seem to consider is the possibility that rewards can be used in a humanistic manner, that they can be empowering of children, and that they can facilitate warm bonds between parents and children. (...)

In discussing research on use of rewards, I am concerned that Mr. Kohn fails to convey the results of the entire body of research on the effect of rewards. It is true that research (most of it coming from studies done in psychology laboratories rather than in natural settings) shows that individuals who are rewarded for doing activities that are intended to be interesting are less likely to continue doing those activities, compared to individuals who are not rewarded. But, this finding does not extend to activities that children don't find interesting. Nor does it appear to apply to individuals who have a history of not succeeding at tasks. In my experience, it is a rare parent who even thinks of using rewards for an activity that the child already enjoys doing! It is in the mundane activities such as getting children to brush teeth, get organized and out of house in the morning, apply themselves to studying multiplication tables, and so on, that rewards can be useful in helping motivate children to do things they don't like to do. I believe that in the process of earning strategically chosen rewards (e.g. enrollment in an exciting computer class after successfully memorizing multiplication tables), children can come to see the benefits of mastering the less interesting tasks of life.

Positive aspects of this book include Mr. Kohn's plea to parents to think about long-term objectives and to avoid pushing children too hard to succeed at goals that parents deem important. I also very much agree with the way he urges parents to encourage children to problem-solve about how to resolve difficulties.

Children certainly benefit when parents respect their need for autonomy, love them despite their mistakes, and strive to develop children's ability to use reasoning to overcome problems. However, there is no "one size fits all" approach to parenting. Children have distinctly different personalities, and my clinical practice as well as my personal experience raising two sons has taught me that some children respond to reasoning better than others. Parents need to decide for themselves what approaches help them to be positive, loving parents. They shouldn't feel it necessary to stick to a single predetermined philosophy.
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on November 21, 2010
I've been meaning to read this book for quite awhile, and finally got around to checking it out at the library last week. On the front cover it says, "A provocative challenge to the conventional wisdom about discipline," and that is certainly true. In the first few chapters, he discusses what he calls "conditional parenting." The premise of the book is that kids need to feel that they are loved unconditionally. This is not the same thing as their parents loving them unconditionally; most parents believe that they do that. The child has to not only BE loved unconditionally, but FEEL loved unconditionally. Mr. Kohn is opposed to punishment as a form of discipline, suggesting that parents instead look at circumstances where traditional parents punish as an opportunity to work towards solving the problem *with* the child, rather than doing something *to* the child. He looks at one very popular form of punishment these days: the time-out. The way this is often done, he says, is a form of love withdrawal. "You do something I don't like, and I isolate you until you conform."

What may be even harder to wrap your mind around is that when it comes to unconditional parenting, praise is just the other side of the punishment coin. He says that praise implies that we approve of our children more when they behave in ways we like, and that they begin doing things in order to get praise, rather than because they're the right things to do. Both praise and punishment create feelings of insecurity and self-centeredness, and everything becomes about what will be done to them or for them if they do x, y, or z. He also looks at how we define "success." And most importantly, he talks about long-term goals. What do we want for our children in the long term? We want them to be happy, confident, independent, successful (whatever that may mean for us). But the things we do in the short term are often designed to elicit a specific behavior - usually, compliance to our demands.

Once he finished discussing the problems with punishment and praise in parenting (often citing research and the opinions of professionals), he goes on to discuss the principles of unconditional parenting. These are:

Be reflective.
Reconsider your requests.
Keep your eye on your long-term goals.
Put the relationship first.
Change how you see, not just how you act.
Be authentic.
Talk less, ask more.
Keep their ages in mind.
Attribute to children the best possible motive consistent with the facts.
Don't stick to your no's unnecessarily.
Don't be rigid.
Don't be in a hurry.
The only problem I see with this book is only that most parents won't read it. We've come a little way in how we view children, but we still have a long way to go, and most parents have traditional principles of parenting too deeply ingrained to consider an approach where a child gets more autonomy, more freedom, more power in his own life. Another probable reason this book is not more popular among parents is that there is no easy fix. There isn't a list of canned responses you can make to your child to get him to act the way you want. There are no formulas. The book is about knowing your child, respecting him, communicating with him in an honest and age-appropriate way.

I see this as a book that sets aside what we've been told over the years, and lays out what we should have known instinctively, with our own common sense. It's analogous to birth, where once we begin to look at the research and use our common sense regarding procedures and interventions, we see that everything we were raised to believe about birth is wrong. I challenge parents to read this book, and spend a few weeks living by its principles, and see how the relationship with your children changes.
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on January 3, 2007
I found the book very interesting, and it challenged many of my guiding premises about parenting. I had always considered myself a patient, loving Mom..But Alfie set me straight!! No, seriously..I agree with him that it is necessary to consider a child's needs, valuable to consider their feelings, and important to respect them as individuals....But, there is a lot to be said for controlling their behavior and avoiding bedlam in your home. He equates allowing children to experience natural consequenses with punishing and spanking..all tantamount to withdrawal of love..and he goes too far.

I'm glad I've read it, and would reccomend it as PART OF a parenting library...But the ideals presented are not realistic, as the author himself admits when he says that he uses consequenses when absolutly needed. I like the concept that our goal as parents should be studied, and our parenting choices should fit that goal. there is value in this book..But it's far from a "How To" raise great people kind of book..Lots of theory and condemnation of current practices..and lots to think about.
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on October 3, 2005
I was compelled to write a review for the first time on Amazon after being so shocked to see the negative reviews for this marvelous book. Alphie Kohn is the first (that I know of) to put not only himself as a parent but also the whole body of parenting advice literature in a critical light. His own humble advice is simple and logical but, at the same time, nothing less than earth-shattering. It puts the whole concept of parenting under the microscope and makes us ask ourselves whether our ideas are ethical, or even practical. I have now seen my children blossom under the respect I have been able to give them after reading this book without fear of losing my "authority." I found that my children are even more able to show me the respect I need as a mother and a person, when they are being respected themselves. This means taking their needs and feelings seriously, as seriously as we take our friend's or spouse's needs. What a simple concept, but oh so threatening to most of us who are deeply afraid of those shopping-mall tantrums and bad reports from teachers. It takes a lot of courage for parents to shut out the rest of the world, with its judgements and expectations, and relate directly with the small, but equally valuable, person that is our child. What scares so many parents is the idea of losing control, and this fear comes through in negative reviews. What a sad reflection on us as "big people" and as a civilized society, where everyone, except of course the young, have equal rights for respect, dignity and freedom.
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on July 21, 2005
I agree with the other reviewer who said you have to leave what you have been programmed to do as a parent behind. The ubiquitous "time outs" and "good jobs!!!!!!!!!!" that most parents subscribe to which confront you everywhere you go give parents a false sense of security. Just because most parents (and sadly some educators) are employing these methods do not make them right or healthy. Spanking was big when I was growing up; everybody did it - but now we know how just plain wrong it is!

This book requires an open mind, courage, patience and creativity. Mr. Kohn does not deliver the answers for you but he gives you tools to find the answers for your own unique child. He will make you think wholly and truly about the kind of parent you want to be and the kind of child you are helping to shape with your words and actions. Moving away from rewards and punishments (which is sadly regarded as unorthodox in our society!) is a bold parenting move, one that requires a steadfast conviction that our children come first and our relationship with them is fostered more by love and reason NOT by the carrot-stick mentality used to train animals. For the reviewers who say that kohn's ideas are not realistic; yes, it's hard to incorporate these ideas into your life - the question you have to ask yourself is: Is it worth it? To that I say an emphatic YES!

His other book: The Schools our Children Deserve is excellent as well.
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on April 20, 2007
I opened the Wall Street Journal today to find an article entitled "The Most-Praised Generation Goes to Work." The article describes how some employers have to "dish out kudos to workers for little more than showing up." One company has a staff "celebrations assistant" whose job is to throw confetti at employees and pass out helium ballons; another estimates that employees receive praise every 20 seconds. The examples go on and on. Perhaps parents and educators need to look at "rewards and praise" in a new light. This book does just that and I wish I would have read it sooner! I cannot recommend this book enough. Instead of giving you a "blow-by-blow" of what to do in a specific situation, Kohn gives you strategies that can apply and be expanded to numerous situations. Many new parents and teachers want to know what to do if the child does "this." Well, as we all experience by dealing with various people in our lives, we need to treat each person as an individual and may deal with the situation differently depending on the people involved. One important point Kohn makes that I found extremely insightful was to think (and listen) to how we speak to our (and others') children. If we would not want to be spoken to like that then perhaps we need to reflect on how we can handle the situation differently. Good luck to all new parents and educators who are willing to take a deep look at their choices and make the necessary changes to help our children!
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