What’s it all about, Alfie?

before all self-consciousnessAlfie Kohn is a great champion of unconditional love (and also of Carl Rogers’ emphasis on accepting kids, and others, for who they are rather than shaping them into who, or what, we might want them to be).  In a recent piece in the New York Times he cites research to support his assertions that giving love when kids do what we want them to do, and withholding love when they do not, is destructive, or at least counter-productive ( see “When a Parent’s ‘I Love You’ Means ‘Do as I Say’” : http://tiny.cc/MjEvs).

Looking at ninth graders, for example, researchers found that positive conditional parenting did get kids to do a little more work, but also resulted in feelings of “inner compulsion” (perhaps we could call this the foundation for workaholism?).  Additionally, negative conditional parenting did nothing positive at all, and only made kids resentful—increasing negative feelings about their parents.

Kohn says, “What these and other studies tell us, if we’re able to hear the news, is that praising children for doing something right isn’t a meaningful alternative to pulling back or punishing when they do something wrong. Both are examples of conditional parenting, and both are counterproductive.”


Now I must admit that my  own parenting perspective (and the “advice” I have sometimes dished out) has been shaped by both behavioral paradigms on the one hand and Kohn and Carl Rogers on the other (and then Jung on the non-rational mystical third hand, but we’ll get into that another day).  The more I learn, the more I am inclined to steer clear of advice-giving, and of “conditional parenting” and to strive to encounter each other as they are.  It seems hard to imagine our world going in a worse direction, at least in terms of overall authenticity, so a little science in support of being less judgmental and controlling is a breath of fresh air in my view.

I’m also interested in compassion and unconditional regard for us parents, who were “conditioned” into our feelings of emptiness, fear, inauthenticity and work-compulsion.  My hope is that if we strive to recognize the totality (rather than just the totalitarianism) even in the things, ideas and people we don’t like, or disagree with; maybe then we will find more well-being, and those good feelings that truly last—an elusive elixir which keeps us miners searching for a heart of gold.  

Nevertheless, despite all earnest attempts at unconditionality, it seems unlikely that we can all stop “conditioning” each other (Are we supposed to smile at every aggression we meet?  Can we allow that some people naturally and authentically like to tell others what to do, only they call it leadership?).  I imagine that Alfie Kohn would acknowledge that social conditioning is unavoidable, but what he is saying, I believe, is let’s be more mindful as parents about deliberately employing conditioning to shape our kids.  This ultimately hinges on trust in not just our kids, but in the universe that gave birth to them, us and our situation—on finding the magic in the world by letting things unfold a little less tightly wound, which might just unwind some of our own long-standing wounds.

As far as what to do as parents, Kohn concludes by suggesting that, “according to an impressive collection of data by Dr. Deci and others, unconditional acceptance by parents as well as teachers should be accompanied by ‘autonomy support’: explaining reasons for requests, maximizing opportunities for the child to participate in making decisions, being encouraging without manipulating, and actively imagining how things look from the child’s point of view.”

Sounds good to me.  As I say, I’m more interested in getting us thinking for ourselves (and helping our children do the same) than in deciding what’s the best way for you, or anyone else, to parent or live life.  Good relationships, with ourselves, our children and each other seem to me a huge hedge against emptiness and “inner compulsion.”  

Kohn ends by saying, “Rogers didn’t say so, but I’ll bet he would have been glad to see less demand for skillful therapists if that meant more people were growing into adulthood having already felt unconditionally accepted.”  My model as a therapist is quite precisely to try and render myself obsolete, and to work with parents so that their children will grow up being true to themselves and knowing who they are.  I’m sure I’ll be able to find something interesting to do with myself if nobody needs any more therapy in this world.

And in that spirit, I choose to dedicate today to being more a listener than a talker, more an accepter and appreciator than a mover and a shaker; please join me, or go forth and move and shake it up!  Either way, let’s do what we choose to do with authenticity, and in honor of all our collective children (or forget about the children, if that’s really what you want to do today—maybe there will still be someone there to pick up the slack, and maybe you’ll be ready to step up later when I’ve finally had it with all this caring about the children stuff).

Namaste, Bruce

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7 Responses to “What’s it all about, Alfie?”

  1. Laurie Says:

    Spot on. This reminds me to breathe before I speak, to step back. Gives me strength.

  2. Nancy Says:

    I have been to a University Field Advisor Workshop lately, where I met many social workers and mental health professionals who were about to take on training students at their work settings. I felt a bit adrift in the room, where everyone was explaining how cognitive behavioral therapy, and dialectical behavioral therapy were the dominant techniques being employed in mental health settings in the community. Although I understand how these conditioning therapies make one feel like one is doing something to get mentally ill individuals moving in their life. it feels artificial and short sighted as the primary way of dealing with people who are deeply struggling. Although unconditional positive regard is difficult with someone who is deceiving themselves with manipulative, self destructive behaviors.
    Perhaps it is ok to provide conditional focus to stop self destructive behaviors , while communicating profound positive regard for the person. It is a hard balance.

  3. A.N. Says:

    It made me so happy to see Alfie K’s name in your post today!
    He has a great DVD series called The Unconditional Love that my husband and I watch as a homework for parenting when we feel stuck.
    Being parents of a child with special needs and a “typical” child we find ourselves guided by both our children in the way we parent and those “ways” can be quite different for each child and no “way” is constant from time to time.. When we can let ourselves trust in the unconditional love-ways, the imaginative solutions seek us out and the children seem much more at peace-and us too! And that is the only constant.

    I find it that even when I set the limit or the situation calls for a consequence it’s the way it’s done that meters the most. His takes on parenting feel much closer to my heart and intuitive than anything else I have come across.
    Thank you Bruce.

  4. A.N. Says:

    Ooops! I meant DVD called Unconditional Parenting: Moving from rewards and punishment to love and reason…..

  5. Mwa Says:

    Very thoughtful post. I have been thinking about this article myself, and have been very conflicted about it. I found your thoughts very helpful.

    Here’s what I thought:
    http://mwaonline.blogspot.com/2009/09/whats-love-got-to-do-with-it.html
    I’d be interested to see if you think I misunderstood or fundamentally disagree.

  6. privilegeofparenting Says:

    Hey Mwa,

    I do like what you say, and appreciate your irreverent and independent voice!

    I think that if we study the picture of your kid’s poop on the bathroom floor long enough while imagining you laughing, photographing and blogging we’re all going in the right direction.

    Namaste, Bruce

  7. chris white Says:

    great article Bruce! really enjoyed the way you played with these ideas.
    and I think we land in basically the same place in the end too.
    yes – we have a mind that is open to conditioning, and the environment (particularly the people in it) usually provides a positive or negative “mark” on every experience which we store in our memory and maybe learn from.
    but that is a more primitive part of the brain, and not the part that make us most human and provide the fruits of our maturation (if it occurs).
    the parts associated with the higher human capacities (particularly the pre-frontal cortex) develop best when we are NOT manipulated, especially by the ones we love. manipulation by our loved ones causes defendedness which slows down maturation. that, to me, is the whole point: do you want short term compliance or development of long-term solutions where the kids eventually can self-regulate and make good decisions on their own?
    thanks again bruce. really like this one.

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