Posts tagged ‘Alfie Kohn’

5 Things That Rocked Our Parenting World

I was washing the dishes the other day feeling thankful for a few things that have radically changed our lives in terms of parenting, and although I write about all aspects of my life I realized it isn’t usually in bullet point style but rather more prosaic and random. And then I thought that perhaps a direct description might be helpful, especially for newcomers to the blog that haven’t found themselves thumbing through the archives.

So here they are.


Sometimes, while walking the dog, I can get a little airy-fairy thinking about empathy. The more I think about it, the more I realize it is the key to everything. Finding the strength or ability to empathize with someone else drastically changes not only the terrain of the conversation or argument but the geology of the relationship itself. And when it comes to kids it is truly miraculous. Ancient struggles like tooth brushing, bedtime, and sibling squabbles literally melt away when any individual involved can feel empathy for another.

Using empathy while parenting means that as soon as feelings come up for your children you recognize them with words and spirit and then communicate this back. If done honestly, without even a trace of condescension, the effect is instantaneous. Once we realized the potential for using empathy we completely switched over, forgoing punishment, threats, time-outs, praise, bribes, rewards, stickers, and any imposed consequences. For more on this topic browse through the first two categories in the column to your right.

Attachment Parenting

All of our girls started life with the benefits of attachment parenting. Co-sleeping, baby wearing, and a strong connection with their parents, eased them all through babyhood, but we didn’t stop there. We continue to parent in a way that fosters connection. Each decision is made by weighing whether or not the action is one that will connect us to our children or move them, even slightly, away. The principles of attachment are our barometer. For more on this read Mothering Magazine, or visit Attachment Parenting International.

Law of Attraction

There is a theory that thoughts create reality and it makes sense to us. Most people apply this theory to manifest money or something else desirable but not yet acquired, but we realized it can also be applied to parenting. We are careful to use only language that describes what we want to happen instead of what we are afraid might happen.

Not: Careful honey! I don’t want you to fall and poke your eye out with that stick.

Instead: Honey, I want you to stay safe. Will you walk while holding that stick?

Children always hear the nouns and verbs of the sentence, instead of all the conjunctions. So in the first example they hear eye, stick, poke, which makes it far more likely that they will indeed stab themselves with the stick. In the second example they hear safe, walk, stick, which conjures an image of what the parent would prefer to see.

Alfie Kohn

When we were struggling with the uselessness of time-outs we stumbled upon Kohn’s book Unconditional Parenting and a whole world was opened to us that made a lot of sense. I love logic and the argument he makes for ditching both punishment and praise is undeniably convincing. The stance of unconditional parenting drastically changed the dynamics in our family and I am thankful for it every day. Look here and here for more of my thoughts on this topic and here to purchase your own copy of the book.


It sounds too good to be true but it turns out that disagreeable behaviors, like biting, pinching, contrariness, food cravings, or screaming, can be attributed to imbalances in health instead of personality types, childhood “stages”, or attitude problems. And, in addition, the imbalance can immediately be addressed with homeopathy.

Homeopathy follows the theory that like cures like. If a child is experiencing grumpiness, a snotty nose, cravings for sugar, and sleeping with his butt in the air, there is something (a plant, mineral, or toxin) in the world that, if ingested in quantity, would create this same set of symptoms. But when that same substance is diluted to an extreme degree, in the form of a sugar pellet remedy, and ingested, these same symptoms go away. When Echo is nursing more often that usual, overly obsessed with reading, hitting, and talking in her sleep, there is a remedy that matches this set of seemingly random symptoms and if she takes it the symptoms depart. So instead of looking for ways to parent her out of a state like this, or waiting for her to “grow out of it”, we can talk to our doctor  and drop a few pellets on her tongue instead. It feels like magic.

These are the biggies, the things I am thankful to have stumbled upon. I hope they help you too.

Oops. Also…

Sign Language. We used sign language with all three girls and thus avoided truckloads of crying and frustration. When they needed help, they signed for help. When they were hungry they signed for food. In short, NO GUESSING, which made for happy kids, and happy parents.

Modeling. Children emulate what they see. We want our kids to say “please” and “thank you’ and the best way we have found to create these “good manners” is to use “thank you” and “please” when we are talking. We have never prompted.

Elimination Communication. We were late to get on the gentle pottying train. We didn’t start until Echo came along and it wasn’t until after her first birthday that we truly began in earnest, but it was worth it. We tuned into her cycles and mannerisms and within six months she was wearing underwear. Read more here.


May 8, 2010 at 7:08 pm 2 comments

out with the old

There have been a flurry of questions about the previous posts. We have always been empathic parents, even when using both praise and punishment, but now we use empathy as our primary tool, and leave praise and punishment out of the equation. Here is what our transition has been like.

Bella, now nine years old, was four when Nathan and I  decided to go cold turkey with praise and punishment. When we told her we would no longer be giving her time-outs, and that we would offer empathy and information instead, her eyes widened and a big grin slid across her face. She was delighted. Her sister Xi was two at the time, but began immediately to reap the rewards of the new parenting style as well since we didn’t have to set her down in order to rush Bella off  for a time-out. Nor did she have to endure the shouting that occurred every time Bella fought against the very idea of a time-out. Instead, Xi remained in arms while we held Bella and sorted through the trouble. Echo, born a couple years later, has been parented with empathy from the get go, and has had the benefit, in addition to her parents, of two sisters handling her baby demands and screams with sincere empathy and problem solving instead of eye rolling and threats.

As we shifted toward empathy as our main response, the main thing we noticed was the tendency for the child to still squirm away from responsibility. Accustomed to a disagreeable consequence, they would still do things to evade punishment, like distorting the facts of the situation to paint themselves in a better light. We had to continuously remind them that there was not going to be a time-out, that they could be completely honest with us and we would still hold them, love them, and work it out with words.

That being said, although both Nathan and I parent this way all the time, the co-parents of Bella and Xi do not. So some of these difficulties with candor still occasionally pop up today. We find that the more time, proportionally speaking, the child spends in another environment, the more often these difficulties arise. The daughter that spends most of the week away from us, might, during a moment of strife, first respond with a lie, (before she realizes this is unnecessary), in an effort to protect herself from the punishment she is accustomed to receiving at her other home. The second daughter, who spends less time away from us, might twist the facts just slightly before remembering that she doesn’t have to. The third daughter, who is with us all day, every day, cops to an offense immediately. “I wanted that toy so I grabbed it from her and then I punched her!

In addition to learning that there was no longer any reason not to be honest with us, the girls also had to learn that we were being honest with them. Our questions about their emotional state were not rhetorical. At first, if we asked “How do you feel about that?“, we often got a reluctant, disgruntled, “Fine“, in return. They did not yet know that we really did want to know how they felt, we really did have every intention of not only discovering their opinions but also factoring them in completely, and using this information to find solutions that met everybody’s needs. It took time to build their trust.

Parenting in this new way also required a little restructuring of our days. It took awhile to get used to allowing for time in the moment to see an empathic discussion through to its end. We are now aware that in comparison, time is actually saved by parenting in this manner. For example, leaving the grocery store in order to carry out that common threat: “If you can’t stop ________, then we will have to leave the store!“, is even more inefficient than taking a moment to actually be with a child while he melts down in the cereal aisle. When using empathy, information, and patience as your primary parenting tools, designing a simple day for you and your children becomes a necessary practicality. If you are unwilling to forcibly strap your toddler into their car seat when they resist buckling up, squeezing several back to back appointments into one day just isn’t smart.

Eliminating praise took some getting used to as well. The very idea that sweet sounding words like “Good job“, and “Well done!” might be harmful is a bit of a brain twister. We certainly slipped on occasion, but by and by, the other, simply observational ways of responding, became second nature and now we hardly think of it at all. But let’s face it, even if we no longer praise our kids, %99.9 of the rest of our culture does. There is no way to avoid it.

When confronted with a stranger that wants to let my kid know she is a “good girl, good traveler, or good helper, ” I might say something like “Oh, we don’t do the whole good/bad thing.” and smile. This is, of course, completely confusing to them (not to mention unheard of) and certainly will not change their future behavior, but I do it to be true to myself and to honor my girl. Though it is tempting to try to convert others to interact without praise, the challenge is too big, and the numbers of praisers too immense. Instead I soothe myself with the idea that there is an oasis here at home, a place where they are loved unconditionally, and that the time they spend in this environment is rich and influential.

We also check in with our girls after they hear a bit of praise from others. The bank teller said you were a good girl. Why do you think she said that? How did you feel when she said that? Or, we offer additional information so that they might hear the intent behind the words.

I think Grandpa said “Good Job!” about your drawing because 1. he loves you so much, 2. he wants you to feel good and thinks that might be a way to communicate that, and 3. he likes the drawing.

We give them information that there are all kinds of opinions about everything, and that if they are feeling good about their work, if they are meeting their own goals, that might be the best way to identify whether or not it’s a job well done.

Praise is a potent thing. After receiving praise, even once, I hear Echo using it around the house. Little whisperings to herself like: Good Job Echo!. Or she will ask: is this a good job mom, the way I am scrambling these eggs? I try to understand what she is looking for by asking her some questions.

Are you wondering if I like what you are doing?  Yes I do.

Are you wondering if what you are doing is helpful to me? Yes it is.

Are you wanting me to notice that you know how to scramble eggs all by yourself? Yes. I see you. You didn’t know how to do that before, but now you do.

It takes a lot of self-confidence to do something in a way that others do not. The odds are that we will be the only parents at the park that do not scream “Good job!” as our child careens down the slide. The odds are that several parents will consider our empathy and negotiations “permissive”. Though we now take this in stride – our self empathy (when we were feeling lonely because we did not fit into the parenting norm) and our finding a supportive community were both crucial to the success of our transition to this empathic style of parenting.

Although this transition started by leaving praise and punishment behind, we continue to transition by:

*looking really closely at each interaction

*unlearning our automatic responses

*being mindful of what is most important in every instance

*and holding the integrity of our relationship with these girls as the highest priority.

And so far, I have no regrets.

March 1, 2010 at 11:49 pm 8 comments

you’re so smart

Natalie I found it so interesting to watch you with Echo. Typically, after an event like that, I expect people to heap praise onto a child. But, by doing that I understand that you’re beginning a lifetime of the good/bad – praise/punish cycle. As a child I did not respond well to that model. So I’m curious as to what it looks like to not do that.

But, as I watched Echo write her name i got really excited…I could easily imagine myself saying things like “Oh look at you, you’re so smart…so good, blah, blah.” So, my question to you is: Do you have to fight an urge to say things like that?

The answer is yes, sort of. I was really excited when Echo wrote her name. I was fairly bursting inside, but I did not want to influence Echo’s experience with my own value judgments of good or bad, smart, or not, etc. I use her feelings as my model. In this case she was almost blase so I remained pretty neutral. (If she had been ecstatic I would have jumped up and down with her.)

Real life examples are:

“Oh wow! You are jumping!” not “Good jumping Echo!”

“Oh yah, I see it. How do you like it?” not “Great drawing! You are such a good artist!”

“I see you!” not “Good job!”

Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn is the perfect read if you are looking to get out of the praise/punishment cycle that I think most of us suffered from in our childhood. I think the effect of praise, in particular, during my childhood still continues to affect me negatively today. It’s such a mind bender because it seems like a wonderful thing to let your kid know that you are proud, or that you think they did a good job. We have found though, through research and experience, that the best way to stifle a child’s natural interest is to praise them. Start with Kohn’s book, it is essential, in my opinion.

Also visit the Natural Parenting Center for more examples of neutrality and using unconditional parenting in real life.

Thanks Alyssa!

October 16, 2009 at 4:00 pm 1 comment

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