Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Unconditional Parenting

I made a special trip up to the central branch of the Wichita Library on Monday to pick up a copy of Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn. I had heard about this book before, as I've read a few things by Kohn about schools and education. He believes that the school system, force learning and grading discourages children from actually wanting to learn. I could definitely see that. He's not a homeschooling advocate, though, but a "fix the system" advocate.
I thought this book, and the whole idea of unconditional parenting, which he believes should not involve punishments or rewards was pretty extreme. I've known others who advocate "no punishment," and I know that they don't believe in catering to their children, or refusing to set limits on behavior, and I generally think the discipline techniques they advocate work, but I didn't know why they were so set against punishment.
When someone on one of my forums, whom I respect greatly and who is generally a very level-headed, intelligent person, recommended this book I was intrigued. Several of us have since borrowed or bought the book and have started a "book club" style discussion about it. I have not yet finished the book, but I have been very pleasantly surprised and impressed by the book as a whole.
Kohn argues from two perspectives: first, and fundamentally, the most important thing that children need is to know that they are loved unconditionally by their parents, and he believes and punishment and rewards interfere with that, especially what he calls "love withdrawal" techniques like time out. Even if parents don't intend to do so, these techniques can give the impression that children are loved only when they are doing what the parents' want. Second, Kohn cites a great deal of research that show that punishment and rewards don't work, even in the short term, and in the long term interfere with children's moral development, what we Catholics might call formation of conscience.
The research is really what sets this book apart. This isn't just some guy arguing for his philosophical beliefs, although those certainly play a part, but he also cites numerous studies that have been done on discipline and parenting over the years to bolster his position. He does have some practical ideas in the second half of the book, which I haven't finished yet, but I've read better "practical" ideas from the same perspective. What I haven't read is such a good argument for this position itself.

10 comments:

  1. I haven't read the book, but I will point this out: Anyone can find any kind of study to back up their particular viewpoint. When I hear or read "according to such and such study", I am immediately skeptical. I think studies are such a large non-sequitor in an argument that no one realizes that they shouldn't even enter into a debate. Kind of like the elephant in the room that no one talks about.

    Of course, that is just my opinion. I could be wrong (but I don't think I am).

    Josie

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  2. In response to Josie (hi, Josie!), I have to say she has a point. I have worked in "soft" science reseach, meaning not lab work or clinical trials or more rigorous experimental research. The researchers I worked with have been professionals trained in proper research techniques. Having seen the data that these people were basing their conclusions on makes me seriously skeptical. There are some well-designed studies with good data collection and appropriate analysis, but not all!

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  3. Of course that some data is very poor, some studies are exceedingly poorly designed, and some have been twisted by the researchers or by the media. So, I agree that *one single study* cannot be used to say much. However, I very much disagree with this:

    "I think studies are such a large non-sequitor in an argument that no one realizes that they shouldn't even enter into a debate."

    Without studies, that is without some kind of evidence supporting one's position, how can there be a debate at all? If you are in fundamental disagreement about the facts in question, and there is no agreed upon way to provide evidence for one side or another, than the discussion is pointless.

    The problem, for the most part (and of course in my opinion) isn't with research studies, it is with the public's understanding of what they mean. One single research study means very little. Numerous research studies, with similar hypotheses tested and re-tested by differing individuals, over a period of several decades, all converging on a conclusion, are pretty persuasive evidence.

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  4. There's an inadvertent "that" in the first sentence of my previous comment. Please forgive me its presence!

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  5. No! No forgiveness for you! You will be dragged out and beaten by the Grammar Nazi's!

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  6. IMO, if you want to debate a subject you should really do your own research. I don't think that you should rely on studies, no matter how good they are. I personally think they are an evidentary crutch.

    If you want to debate a subject, you can do your own research or state your own experience or even use simple common sense.

    I am just very cynical about different studies being used by various people to prove a point, when that very same material can be used by people on opposite sides of an argument to prove their points.

    :) Josie

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  7. "IMO, if you want to debate a subject you should really do your own research. I don't think that you should rely on studies, no matter how good they are. I personally think they are an evidentary crutch.

    If you want to debate a subject, you can do your own research or state your own experience or even use simple common sense."

    I just can't agree at all with this. "My own experience" (for each individual) encompasses so little information, compared to what can be learned from looking at the wider population. And people interpret "their own experiences" and "common sense" in vastly different ways, just as may seem to be done for studies. Quite frankly, no single individual, in order to form an opinion on something, could do the research that universities or other organizations perform. They don't have the means to perform the studies, or even the knowledge of what to be studying.

    What an individual's research most consists of is reading opposing evidence, looking at the quality of the study, and looking at the evidence as a whole to draw a conclusion. If we were restricted to "knowing" only what we've learned ourselves then we'd all know very little.

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  8. :)

    I just don't see how anyone can take a study as evidence - unless they themselves investigated how that study was conducted, who did the study and what kind of prejudices could have influenced the conclusions of that study.

    Perhaps we should agree to disagree? ;)

    Josie

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  9. I don't think there's a disagreement here. I think what Becky's trying to say is that you *should* investigate how certain studies are conducted before you use them.

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  10. Exactly, you do need to look at who's done a study before you ascribe much meaning to it. But beyond that, in my mind there is a difference between just a generic "study" that the media reports on, and university research. And even with the latter, it is many many studies showing a (relative) consensus that has weight, not one single study. People can misrepresent research, but you can always look up the study to get a better idea of what the data says. I don't trust the news media's reports on research, ever, without further reading the study.

    Josie, I do know what you mean about people saying, this study says such and such, without looking more closely at the research.
    Someone on one of my forums, in a discussion about the sanitation of cloth diapers, post an article about a study that showed that washing machines are full of germs, like e-coli, because fewer people are using bleach and people are washing on cooler temperatures. The researcher's recommendation was to run a hot wash cycle with bleach, with the washer empty of clothes, every once in a while to sanitize the machine. Guess who funded the study?

    Clorox.

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What do you think? Let me know.