Post-Punitive Parenting

December 2020: I read this essay and added commentary for Episode 440 of the Everything Voluntary podcast.

My wife and I have jumped feet first into a parenting style that is contrary to conventional wisdom and everything we've done the list 6 years. It's also contrary to how I was raised. Not so much for me wife, thank goodness. That style? It's called "Unconditional Parenting", and it's creator is Alfie Kohn. The subtitle of Kohn's book summarizes it nicely, "Moving from rewards and punishments to love and reason."

Moving From Rewards and Punishments

I've spanked my son. I've put him in time-out. I've even put my almost-2-year-old daughter in time-out. I've yelled. I've shouted. I've been as mean as I can be in order to get compliance out of my children. I've been a monster, and I created a monster in my wife. She's spanked, she's used time-out, and she's been loud and controlling as well. But she wasn't raised that way at all. She adopted my approach, and did a 180. She was raised with a soft voice and a tender heart. Her parents are that way. They never yelled and they never spanked.

No more. We're done with that. We're convinced that it's counter-productive, and that it will hinder our children's development to be the kind of people we'd like them to be, ie. self-confident, self-reliant, self-actualizing, caring, curious, etc. Kohn has convinced us that those methods will impede our goal of raising our children to become good and wholesome adults. We're done with spanking, yelling, and time-outs. We're done with punishments, period!

But we're also done with rewards. We're done with bribes and promises in return for obedience. They're counter-productive too. Kids learn to place more value on the rewards than on the activity, or to only be nice to others kids because they've been promised something. And when the rewards stop coming, the activity or good behavior stops, too.

With both punishments and rewards, you're "doing to" the kids. They learn to be selfish. They learn to focus on what will happen to them if they don't comply, or what will happen to them if they do comply. They never learn to think about others, for others' sake.

To Love and Reason

So what's the alternative? Kohn spends the first 7 chapters detailing the destructiveness of punishments and rewards. It took 7 chapters to get us to commit to trying something else. And that something else is simply beautiful. No longer do we have any desire to control our kids, or to force them into compliance. We've thrown our authoritarian approach out the window. 

We've replaced it with love and reason. When your child is upset, take on their perspective. Figure out why they're upset, why they're acting like a little brat, etc. There's a reason. Punishments and rewards are conditional parenting. They tell your child that you don't love them when they do something wrong, but only when they do something right. It's their perspective that matters, not yours. If you love your child unconditionally than love them unconditionally! If they "misbehave", ie. behave in a way that you disapprove of, for whatever arbitrary reason, then kneel down and make it a bonding moment. Ask the child about it. Talk to him, reason with him. Help him understand why what he did was wrong. But make sure that it was wrong. If he's just curious, help him explore his curiosity. Mentor your child as he explores the world around him!

Even when your child throws himself on the floor in the middle of the supermarket. Rule #1 in this scenario, forget everyone else around you. Your focus is your child. He's upset. To disregard his feelings is to disrespect your child. Who cares how embarrassing or inconvenient it is to you (somebody's been raised with conditional parenting). He needs you to help him understand why he can't have the fruit snacks, or that super-cool cartoon character cereal. And for heaven's sake, stop saying NO so often. It's a knee-jerk response to a child's seemingly irrational request. But he doesn't think it's irrational.

Time and Patience

The hardest part about making this commitment has been realizing how much fixing we have to do of ourselves. Our first reaction is to be punitive or to promise rewards. It's much easier, but only brings temporary compliance. It will bite you in the rear-end in the long run. We've had to wail and gnash our teeth against our desire to take the easy route. Unconditional parenting takes a lot of time and a lot of patience right now. Later on, less time will be needed to keep your teenager safe and doing the things he should be doing. Kids that are raised this way don't live double lives, don't let others control them, and have a close, counsel-filled relationship with their parents. (My wife has this type of relationship with her parents, I don't.)

Compatibility With Our Religious and Political Beliefs

A close friend of mine first introduced me to Kohn's work. He shares my religious and political beliefs, and knew that I'd be interested. And I was! I abhor violence, coercion, and authoritarian control. But I was conflicted. I used what I abhorred against my own children. But what else was there? I thought that punishments and rewards were all there was. I was dead wrong.

I'm a voluntaryist, and a Latter-day Saint. I am a disciple of Jesus Christ. To think that Christ would raise children as a conditional parent is to misunderstand what he taught. He didn't teach punishments and conditional love. He didn't teach spanking and time-outs. He taught us to suffer the children, and to love them unconditionally. Only through putting off the Natural Man's punitive parenting can one parent as Christ would parent. My wife and I are thrilled that we've found Kohn's work. We've read his book and watched his DVD. The adventure is just beginning, and we're completely committed!

UPDATE: You can find a series of podcasts underway on Kohn's work from a libertarian perspective over here at


Anonymous said…
Spare the rod, spoil the child. That's also in the Bible which is part of the LDS faith. This is a slippery slope to raising brats. Be careful!
Joel said…
Unconditional Parenting is an excellent goal to work towards. However, sometimes love and reason fail in ensuring the natural consequences of a child's choice, and rewards and punishments must be included. Each parent should constantly evaluate the necessary balance for each child. Rewards and punishments do not necessarily teach a child that love is conditional - if reason is included with the rewards and punishment in a balanced approach, the child learns that behavior can lead to rewards and punishment and that love is unconditional and eternal. A love and reason approach can be taken to an unhealthy extreme.
I recommend studying Kohn's work. It'll change your mind. It did ours.
Aaron said…
Thanks for this post. I have been the kind of parent you have described yourself to be. Threatening dire punishments if the child didn't obey. I hate myself when I do this. I want to be a loving, caring parent. I've read some of the 'Love & Logic' parenting books and think they are fantastic. The 'Unconditional Parenting' approach seems on first blush to be similar.
I should add, it has nothing to do with permissiveness. That's a false dichotomy, punitive or permissive. This will help you see why Kohn's approach is the healthy balance.
Joel said…
Yeah - I might well agree with Mr. Kohn's approach; maybe it is merely your articulation of your interpretation of Kohn's work that I think might lead some to an unhealthy extreme. I'll have to read the book some day.

For instance, if my child show's disrespect for me and every other shopper in a supermarket by throwing a temper tantrum merely because I say no, it might be appropriate for me to illustrate that that particular type of disrespect for everyone else around us is inappropriate. To show my child that it is OK to "forget everyone else around you" might be very damaging to his understanding of true principles. It depends on the child, on the parent, and on the situation.
It's my conveyance, I'm sure. And that rule #1 is for you, not the child. Yes, he needs to understand how he makes other people feel. That's the point. Spanking doesn't teach him that.
vontrapp said…
Joel, "ensuring natural consequences ..."

Is the consequence in fact natural? We need to ensure that our children *understand* natural consequences, because there is no way to ensure that they exist or to remove them, they just are. There's no need to impose consequences, only to impart understanding of the consequences that already exist.

Then I read your other comments, and some good discussion. Thanks guys! :)
Joel said…
"There's no need to impose consequences, only to impart understanding of the consequences that already exist." I agree with that statement. The problem in parenting comes when parents fail to realize that sometimes the natural consequences of a parent's actions in relation to their children can protect those children from the natural consequences of the children's actions.

I'll take an extreme example: suppose my child decided to steal a box of "super-cool cartoon character cereal" since I would not purchase one for him. A natural consequence for stealing could include paying for the item plus an additional fine as punishment. I could be doing that child an egregious disservice by paying for the stolen item and the fine. On the other hand, for a different child, I might be providing the necessary mercy for a mistake. Again, it depends on the child, the parent, and the situation.

Parents have the potential of perpetuating dangerous deceptions in the children by mitigating the natural consequences of misdeeds.

It might be argued that the natural consequences I refer to are man-made consequences, because they come from the laws of men. I would disagree with this argument, for I am confident "that governments were instituted of God for the benefit of man" and law is natural (made by God) when it conforms with the proper role of government.
Nini said…
If you respect your children from day one. They will learn to respect others in return. Sky- I couldn't agree more!! This is the way Doug and I have been raising our kids... It is the best way! I would rather my kids love and respect me... than fear me! It does take a lot of time and a LOT of deep breaths but My children _for the most part_ are well behaved and have great manors. They also know that their opinion matters... and if they don't understand they know they can ask questions to figure things out. The best way to teach children is to listen to them.
To Anonymous above, that phrase "spare the rod and spoil the child" is NOT in the Bible. I was fooled, and have heard it claimed many times that it was. Here's a great resource on corporal punishment and the Bible:
Anonymous said…
Hi all, really great to read your comments. I have read Kohn. May I also recommend the book 'Gentle Discipline'.

We would say we definitely lean towards the UCP Approach. It's certainly true that once a power struggle is in play then nobody wins.. There's always one party left feeling sore. It seems that my child respects us because we treat him like a person- not a pet- and give him insight and understanding about a world that is still
largely so mysterious to him. When tired or ill we Find that we each, to some degree, loose our impulse-control.. Our child- his ability to cooperate, and us- our ability to be tolerant. UCP requires a huge degree of patience and understanding and it's a process of learning a growing together in skills of relating, honouring and valuing each other and sharing in an open and trusting family environment. I am thrilled to find an alternative to authoritarian parenting, however, I do believe that Kohn is just a man - not a messenger and so therefore at times we deviate a little.. For example, we now give our child a sticker for his colourful poster chart after he's slept a full night in his bed. He loves choosing the colour and sticking it on by himself and it Motivates him to focus on learning the behaviour, and gives him something to look forward to. This has helped us all get a better nights sleep and has thus facilitated a more joyful and vibrant home environment.. Very different to our grey-faced days of exhaustion due to sleep-deprivation!.
I agree, it is definitely down to the
child, the circumstances, the parent. We all do what we
can.. According to our own wisdom and that which we have gleaned from others.
Truly I am so uplifted and inspired to hear this discussion, it is a subject so close to my heart.
Thanks skyler for posting this!
Ellie UK
Thanks for your thoughts Ellie, from the UK!