February 20, 2009

Unconditional Parenting

Two years ago, an online friend introduced me to Alfie Kohn and his books.  I was in a rough place in my life at the time.  My in-laws had been in a terrible car accident, our neighbors house had just burned to the ground, my SIL was in the process of being diagnosed with cancer, did I mention I was pregnant?-- and this was just the tip of the iceberg for the rest of the year. It's hard to imagine even now how things just got worse and worse as each month passed, until B was finally laid off on December 21st.  But for all the bad that we went through, it was also probably the most transformative year I've ever had.  Even though it would be another nine months before our family was back on it's feet, we all came out of it in a much better place than we started.  Alfie was a pretty big part of that in some ways because it gave me something to focus on.  I couldn't control much in my life, but I could control my relationship with my children.  
It's not as simple as that though.  I learned quite a lot from his books and I went on to read the many others I've been mentioning here for a while now, but I am far from the perfect parent.  For example, I've just now gone back and read all my posts on parenting.  Even trying my hardest, I would definitely be considered a "conditional parent."  Sometimes, I can't help but wonder if all this reading is only succeeding in making me crazy.  I know that what I actually do doesn't work and makes things harder.  I know what I am supposed to be doing, but it's hard to remember in the moment.   It's easy to get discouraged.  I decided the best course of action was the keep reading all of my books constantly.  If I am always in the middle of reading how to be a better parent, then it should be easy to always have a quick tip ready.  I am highlighting, dog-earring, and making notes in all the margins.  I may end up having to purchase new copies of each book just so I can actually read them again.
So I started with Kohn's Unconditional Parenting.  It was the book that started it all and seemed a good place to begin again.  I remember the book, of course, but I had no idea how different it would read now-- after two years it's like a completely different experience.  I'm totally on board with the concepts and now I can really understand what he's saying.  It's amazingly clear what sort of parent I want to be and then *ding ding ding* I see an explanation for why I am struggling with this so darn much.  I just have to put this out here.  I mean, I've been saying it for a while now, but to actually see it in black and white!  I do not remember having read it before or more likely I just didn't make the connection, but here it is:
 He's talking about how the way in which we are raised, affects how we raise our own children. (Emphasis all mine.)
"...He argued that if you haven't experienced empathic parenting, it's hard for you to become such a parent yourself.  The same might be said of unconditional love:  If you didn't get it, you don't have it to give.""
"...As a rule, when your basic emotional needs haven't been met, those needs don't just vanish when you are older....That effort sometimes requires an exhausting, near-constant focus on yourself in order to prove that you really are smart or attractive or lovable."
"...Those who habitually put their own needs first are also more likely to believe that their children's misbehaviors are deliberate and rooted in their nature or personality, rather than emerging from a particular situation."
Fear of Inadequacy
"...No one sets out to be a bad parent.  We all love our children and want more than anything to keep them safe and happy.  But sometimes we also feel helpless and confused, frustrated when things don't go as planned, and secretly (or not so secretly) doubtful about being able to do what we should."
Fear of Powerlessness
"...Each of us was once completely vulnerable and dependent on someone else.  On an unconscious level, some people fear that once that thin veneer of adulthood is shattered, time will rush backward and they will revert to being powerless.  They deal with that fear by pretending they're invulnerable as adults.  Because it's terrifying to be out of control, they  need to believe they're always in control. (I have actually commented many times that I thought being a parent  meant I got to be in control finally.)
Alas, that can easily turn into a need to have control over others, to come out on top and feel triumphant, to regard disagreements even with their children as battles that they must win.  They fear that to yield an inch, to change their minds, to admit they're wrong, to fail to put their foot down, will be to lose everything. 
This is particularly true of people who were raised in traditional families where the parent's word was law.  That experience causes children "to learn that no one is ready to respond to their needs and wishes in conflict situations." as two researchers put it.  The feeling of powerlessness that this engenders never really goes away, with the result that, years later, they  may try to attain some degree of control by controlling their own children.  Thus, paradoxical though it may seem, the parents who "see themselves as lacking power are most likely to make use of coercive control tactics."
Fear of Being Judged
"Some parents live in terror of what other people -- not only their friends and relatives, but the nameless and omnipresent judge known as "they" -- will think of their children, and thus their own parenting skills.  This fear is particularly debilitating when it's accompanied by the other two fears just mentioned" 
"We're most likely to resort to coercive tactics, and to become preoccupied with the need to control our children, when we're out in public."
And there you have it.  This is me, this is where I am.  I can no longer let this be an excuse and I can not allow this to be the way I parent.  As a side note, you may be wondering what this has to do with secular parenting and I would say--  everything.  As Alfie says, "...the deities in these religions offer the ultimate in conditional love."  Religion is about control and fear.  How hypocritical of me to be more humanistic to every other person in my life, while ignoring the very people that are most dear to me.  


  1. Kohn really is a great starting point and I thank you so much for recommending Unconditional Parenting to me.

    If you haven't already, you might try Faber/Mazlish "How to Talk to your kids..." and "Parent Effectiveness Training" by Gordon. Together they have really helped me start to put what Kohn says into practice.

  2. Hey Dawn :) I've read 3 of Faber/Mazlish. I really enjoy them and they are so easy to read. I plan to get to them all and own them eventually. I haven't yet read anything by Gordon though. He's on my list. If you recommend him, then I'll move them up!

  3. I'm reading P.E.T now. It's very similar really to Faber/Mazlish but I think he clarifies some things that I was not getting. One thing he really empahasize is which problems the children own and which the parents own. I'm only about halfway through but so far it's been very helpful.