Open Letter to Alfie Kohn

Dear Mr. Kohn,

I finally read Unconditional Parenting, which was recommended more than a year ago by a mom I really dig. At the time I was too busy to read it, and we were doing pretty dang well with the whole “respect kids don’t dictate to them; give them choices and empathy” stuff. I prioritized other work because I didn’t need your book at that moment.

Except that I did, because pretty soon after I put your book in my online shopping cart as a reminder to eventually read it, he turned Three.

All our parenting techniques went out the window as we fought to figure out how to get through each day. We started listening to those voices from family and friends who told us to take a harder line; as he got more out of control, we tried harder to control him. We tore out our hair and bookmarked the gypsies’ “going rates” page, and I cried almost every night in exhaustion and rage and terror at the creature who replaced the child we had parented so carefully. We drew the boundaries more tightly and he acted, predictably, as though the walls were closing in on him.

We barely made it out of Three alive. It took everything we could muster to survive. But unfortunately it meant we went from working with to doing to our son. And now that we’re coming out we know we’ve lost our way.

So thank you for the reminder that kids who are given firm rules and punished into following them misbehave just as often as children who are given respect and choices. And that those children who are treated as decent humans turn out to be just that.

Thank you, too, for the reminder that focusing on our long-term goals means both boys need to make as many decisions as possible now so they’re practiced in making good decisions later. That if we want to learn to influence them, we can’t coerce them. Not just because it’s demoralizing but because it doesn’t work.

Thank you for making me write down what I value so I’d remember that if I want these young humans to grow up and stand up for what’s right—to question repressive rules and fight for what’s important—they have to do it now. Gulp. With our structures (which are now more reasonable, generally created with his participation, imposed only when necessary, and flexible).

I feel more in control now that I’m not controlling. My son feels less caged and cornered and is a lot nicer to be around.

And we’ve redoubled our efforts to find an elementary school that refuses to create an environment where punishment and reward teaches kids only to obey, to do things for what their actions will get them rather than how their actions affect others.

Thank you for getting us back on track toward unconditional love and respectful, flexible, mindful parenting.

—The Calmer, Gentler NaptimeWriting Family

P.S. Dearest readers: don’t worry. The snark doled out weekly for most of the residents of this planet remains in all its bloggy goodness. There are only two mushy little dudes who get the aforementioned awesome me. The rest of you get the worn little nubbin that’s left after all the patient, respectful, engaged, long-term-focused defaulting to yes stuff.

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14 thoughts on “Open Letter to Alfie Kohn

  1. “create an environment where punishment and reward teaches kids only to obey, to do things for what their actions will get them rather than how their actions affect others.” ~ Strikes a very strong cord.

    I need to read that book…

    We are struggling with the aspect of discipline (I use this term loosely) right now. I am trying to be a gentle parent, to reason, show empathy, teach kindness. I try to save my stern-ness for extreme situations ( like when said three YO scratches my eyeballs out)but lately I find myself frustrated, and Hubs and I often have different views on discipline.

  2. @Kitch You know as well as I do my calm comes in small waves, once in a while, and I quickly blog them lest the world knows what a high-strung FREAK I am most of the time
    @jc you’re an awesome unicorn, Rainbow Glitter.
    @Jen you totally should read it. He’s pretty heavy handed with the research and reiterates way beyond my tolerance level, but let’s just say I had that sour parenting stomach that screams “nothing is working, so why do more of the same” and read the whole book in three naptimes. Instead of blogging. Took three pages of notes. ‘Nuff of a recommendation, methinks.

  3. I’ve been meaning to read his book, but am worried that it will make me even more neurotic and self-castigating about my parenting. I aspire to always consider the message I’m sending to my future, adult children when I respond to them, but often I just react… and then mull it over before going to bed and wish I’d done things differently.

    And I don’t buy the idea that your parenting techniques went out the window… I’ve seen you parent.

    (and… unschool with me!)

  4. Phew! Thanks for reassuring me that Snarkwoman still exists. I was a little worried after reading this letter. And yet, it’s nice to get a glimpse of a kinder, gentler you. Keeps us on our toes!

  5. We do the best we can…somedays all we can do is hang on…There is something brilliant about a child who knows right from wrong, without the nastiness that we sometimes fall into as parents. Thanks for the reminder!

  6. Hm. I am not a big fan of Alfie Kohn. He takes research and totally skews it to one extreme of the other, making completely unjustified proclamations. There’s always a tiny nugget of truth, but nothing near enough to justify his proscriptions. I mentioned his name to my mom when I first heard about him and she shuddered. “Is that guy still around? He single-handedly destroyed an entire generation of inner-city children. What a crackpot.” I think she was engaging in hyperbole, but in a similar manner to Mr. Kohn himself.

    Our kid is an angel, and has been even through the terrible 2s (he’ll be worse at three, they say, but he wasn’t). One of my big pet peeves is parenting books that tell you that if you don’t do what they’re selling your kid will turn out badly in one way or another. It’s not true. Kids turn out fine under a million different parenting regimes.

    If your kid is the one who kept repeatedly trying to brain my kid with his heavy metal toolbox at that one non-violent parenting playgroup we went to, then yes, your kid needs more of something that Alfie Kohn and Althea Solther can’t provide. Otherwise keep doing what you’re doing but don’t be afraid to change it out if it isn’t working. (I find it ironic how violent the kids are at non-violent playgroups compared to how nicely the kids play at the standard playgroups I’ve been to. The parents may be nonviolently following their kids around gently preventing violence, but the kids aren’t getting the message.)

    If you want some books based on actual research, I recommend, “What’s going on in there” and “Our Babies, Ourselves.” Everything else is preying on maternal insecurity.

  7. @nicoleandmaggie I respect you’re not being into Alfie Kohn. I know nothing about him except what appears in this book and I like the approach. His writing gets a bit reiterative for my taste, but so do most nonfiction writers publishing for the general population.

    I’m glad your child is easy to raise. Mine is not. He’s spirited, intense, righteous, persistent, outrageously smart, empathetic, hilarious, emotional, and highly verbal. He’s awesome and he’s three handfuls of parenting dilemmas every day.

    And Spouse and I want to get him through the tough phases unscathed so he can be an awesome adult, but most parenting styles would totally maim who he is, so we’re seeking gentle styles that build mutual respect.

    I disagree that there are a million different ways to parent and have kids turn out fine. Yes, there are lost great ways to parent, but there are millions more NOT okay ways to raise children. I don’t want automatons, I want decent human beings. I want grown children who have the skills to maintain healthy relationships, who don’t toe the line just because it’s a line. Belittling kids, hitting them, threatening them, scaring them, berating them, punishing them, expecting them to be little adults, and demanding total obedience without asking kids what they want are not what I consider acceptable. Neither is teaching them that we love them when they are behaving the way we want them to, and that we don’t love them as much when they misbehave. There’s a reason a lot of humanity maims, kills, and hates other humans, and I don’t think gentle parenting is one of them. I’m not accusing any other parenting style of causing wars, but that doesn’t mean every parenting choice is a good one.

    Kohn does not advocate permissive parenting at all. Nor does he discuss (in Unconditional Parenting, which is all I’ve read) violence or pretend violence which, for the record, are completely different things. Pretend violent play is a normal part of development and includes playing swords, guns (fingers and cardboard tubes and the like, not plastic guns), “I’m pouring poison on your path and if you come here you will die,” and wrestling. (Violent video games are not part of this “okay” kind of pretend violence, but that’s another story.) Actual violence is never okay. By this standard, all playgroups should be nonviolent, and should firmly and unequivocably teach that hurting other people is not okay (ideally by teaching empathy) but specifically structuring playgroups to avoid pretend violence seems like a “to each her own” kind of requirement. Teaching kids to say “stop it, I don’t like that;” or “I don’t like shooting please don’t pretend to shoot at me” seems pretty straightforward.

    But as I said, Kohn doesn’t discuss that at all. So I’m not sure who advocates letting another child hit your “angel,” but I certainly don’t.

  8. Cool letter, and I really enjoyed reading through all the comments. I personally unconditional parent and unschool too(well dd is almost 1 now, haha).

    I enjoy reading kohn, another fave and life alterer for me has been ‘no contest’.

    OH! and I LOVE ‘Naptime Writing’, what a great mama blog title (I say as babe sleeps nuzzled against me in bed).

    Check me out it you feel up to it.

  9. Just wondering how Alfie’s advice has gone over in your house, now that a few months have gone by since you posted this. I found your blog yesterday after searching for reviews on the dvd, and LOVE your writing & attitude on parenting. I went for it and ordered the dvd today, now I’m just hoping to hear from you that the methods have been beneficial with you and yours. Thanks so much!

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