Shelf Help: Unconditional Parenting – Alfie Kohn

I noticed this book in my local library when I was searching for yet another sleep-help book. The book’s full title is Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Reason and Love. Great title. While my love for my children is not conditional, I fear that my parenting has been.

It was my father-in-law who introduced the concept of a ‘deal’ to the Abomb when he was about 18 months.

You can have the truck after we have a cuddle. That’s the deal, OK?


Meant in good spirits and kind of cute to have your 18 month old asking you whether it’s a deal.

Deal, Mummy?

But the concept of a ‘deal’ forms the basis of much parenting. How do I get my child to do something I want them to do? I offer a reward or a punishment. Easy. Child complies. Receives or avoids something in return.

This approach has always made me feel slightly uncomfortable. Sometimes it feels as if my whole day is deal brokering. And, of course, as with anything that is used consistently and inappropriately over time, it works less and less.

So now, with a thorough understanding about how deals work, my 4 year old says, without irony, so here’s how we’ll do it Mummy, you get me some watermelon and then I’ll turn the TV off.

Cringe. Deals are no longer funny or cute. They push my buttons.

Kohn is on the money when he says that while the use of rewards or punishments my help you control the situation with your child and help you achieve what you want, it doesn’t foster any meaningful relationship or intellectual engagement on the child’s part.

Trouble is, I’ve been relying on it so long, it’s sort of how we work. The Abomb gets it, he doesn’t always comply, but he gets the reasoning and more often than not he’ll do it. Sdash is learning it quickly too. If you get into bed, I’ll bring you a cracker is such an easy way of putting a resistant child to bed. But, it just feels so cheap you know?

My dream is that I will be able to explain to my child what I need doing or not doing and they, albeit begrudgingly, will understand. They may not want to do it and they may voice this. They may not even comply with my request but the process will be different. I won’t be constantly thinking what it is I can exchange with them to get what I want.

I found that many of the principles of Unconditional Parenting resonated with me and made me self-reflect deeply about the way I parent.

In the next post I’ll provide an outline of these principles.


There have been many parenting issues that have sprung up for our family over the past 5 years. The Abomb began life as a very easygoing, happy, pretty straightforward baby. This changed. About 6 months after the birth of his first brother, things became tougher. Since then, we’ve had our ‘easy’ phases and our more ‘challenging’ phases. He’s very sensitive and does not seem to manage extreme emotions well. Extreme excitement, happiness, anger and sadness all play out in exaggerated behaviours which can be challenging to handle and even more challenging to fix. I guess, in all honesty, to date I’ve approached parenting with a ‘fix it’ attitude. That is, I can’t help but feel I need to ‘fix’ him, ‘fix’ the problem. I am starting to learn, albeit slowly, that this approach is both exhausting for me, frustrating for him and generally totally unproductive.

Fact is, the Abomb pushes all of my buttons. My mad, bad buttons at that. We clash but our expressions of love are as intense as our expressions of frustration. I am aware that I have been responding to him as a person, rather than to his behaviours. This I now know to be fundamentally unproductive and basically unfair. I know I need to manage the behaviour because who is he is, is a vibrant, thoughtful, loving and generous human being.

It is this challenge, to manage his often extreme behaviour, which has motivated my search for tangible alternatives. I’ve begun reading parenting theory and parenting ‘self-help’ madly. Often I’ve found the philosophy compelling, heartfelt, inspiring but not practical. Sometimes, I read information which provides many alternatives but fails to explain why these are effective. And then, there are times I read, listen or watch something that resonates so strongly with me that I begin to feel inspired as a parent.

I want is to share this search with you. To discuss with you what has worked for us and what hasn’t. To share my ongoing attempts to create a positive and generative family dynamic. To share my attempts to foster the individual gifts and idiosyncrasies my children possess.

I so want to give each one of my children the opportunity to thrive and to appreciate each of life’s moments, the delightful and the challenging.

This is my attempt.

Each Monday I bring you, Shelf Help, my review of parenting theories and information I’ve read.

We are mad readers in this family so on Wednesdays I will post Book buzz, a review of children’s literature that we’ve enjoyed.

On Fridays I will post Family Fables, which will look at how we’ve implemented some of the strategies I’ve read about and how successful this has been.

Every second Thursday there will be a guest post, Food for family, on children’s nutrition with a recipe.

Of course, this is all bound to change but it’s the current plan.

I’m really pleased you’ve found me, or in fact, found us because my family will be littered across these pages. I always find reading great blogs with a nicely brewed cup of coffee or glass of red wine quite perfect. So feel free!