Unconditional Parenting

by Alfie Kohn

Troy Shu
Troy Shu
Updated at: March 12, 2024
Unconditional Parenting
Unconditional Parenting

What are the big ideas? 1. Unconditional love doesn't mean indiscriminate approval: The book emphasizes that unconditional love doesn't mean accepting children for

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What are the big ideas?

  1. Unconditional love doesn't mean indiscriminate approval: The book emphasizes that unconditional love doesn't mean accepting children for their misbehavior or providing no boundaries. Instead, it means accepting them as individuals and focusing on building problem-solving skills and resilience. (Chapter 1)
  2. Parenting styles vary along a continuum: The book challenges the idea that there are only fixed parenting styles and encourages parents to use a combination of strategies based on their unique situation and child's needs. (Chapter 1)
  3. Reasoning and explanation are more effective than punishment: The book argues that using reasoning, explanation, and empathy is more effective in teaching children moral values and promoting positive behavior than relying on punishment. (Chapters 2-4)
  4. Love withdrawal can be harmful: The book warns against the use of love withdrawal as a means of discipline, as it can negatively impact a child's emotional development and social relationships. (Chapter 6)
  5. Perspective taking is crucial for effective parenting: The book stresses the importance of understanding and acknowledging a child's perspective to help them feel heard, cared about, and unconditionally loved. (Chapter 8)




  • The focus on obedience in many parenting guides can lead to children who are well-behaved but lack a strong sense of themselves.
  • Discipline doesn't always help kids become self-disciplined, and an excessive need for internalization can stifle the development of their own values and ideas.
  • The pursuit of long-term goals for our children, such as helping them become independent thinkers, is important to keep in mind to avoid getting sucked into daily life frustrations and challenges.
  • The book aims to challenge conventional advice on raising kids and encourage a shift towards working with them rather than doing things to them.
  • The alternative tactics offered aim to help children grow up as good people and include practical ways of connecting with them, responding to their emotions, and setting clear boundaries.


“Even before i had children, I knew that being a parent was going to be challenging as well as rewarding. But I didn't really know. I didn't know how exhausted it was possible to become, or how clueless it was possible to feel, or how, each time I reached the end of my rope, I would somehow have to find more rope. I didn't understand that sometimes when your kids scream so loudly that the neighbors are ready to call the Department of Child Services, it's because you've served the wrong shape of pasta for dinner. I didn't realize that those deep-breathing exercises mothers are taught in natural-childbirth class dont really start to pay off until long after the child is out. I couldn't have predicted how relieved I'd be to learn that other peoples children struggle with the same issues, and act in some of the same ways, mine do. (Even more liberating is the recognition that other parents, too, have dark moments when they catch themselves not liking their own child, or wondering whether it's all worth it, or entertaining various other unspeakable thoughts). The bottom line is that raising kids is not for whimps.”

“My wife says [parenting] is a test of your capacity to deal with disorder and unpredictability -- a test you can't study for, and one whose results aren't always reassuring.”

“I realized that this is what many people in our society seem to want most from children: not that they are caring or creative or curious, but simply that they are well behaved. A “good” child—from infancy to adolescence—is one who isn’t too much trouble to us grown-ups.”

Chapter 1: Conditional Parenting


  • Unconditional love does not mean indiscriminate approval or a lack of boundaries. It means accepting children for who they are, rather than for what they do or achieve.
  • Conditional parenting and self-esteem can be unhealthy and unproductive. Instead, focus on building problem-solving skills and resilience in children.
  • Parenting styles should not be seen as fixed categories but rather as a continuum. Authoritative parenting is not the only effective style.
  • Use clear communication and give children age-appropriate responsibilities to build trust and respectful relationships.
  • Set realistic expectations based on children's developmental capabilities and avoid using love withdrawal as a disciplinary tool.
  • Recognize that children have their own unique needs and strengths, and provide an environment that fosters their growth.
  • Focus on building strong relationships with children rather than controlling their behavior through punishment or rewards.
  • Encourage healthy emotional expression and model healthy coping mechanisms for dealing with frustration and disappointment.


“We ought to love children, as my friend Deborah says, 'for no good reason.' Furthermore, what counts is not that we believe we love them unconditionally, but that they feel loved in that way.”

“Children need to be loved as they are, and for who they are. When that happens, they can accept themselves as fundamentally good people, even when they screw up or fall short. And with this basic need met, they’re also freer to accept (and help) other people. Unconditional love, in short, is what children require in order to flourish.”

“For starters, they’ve assumed that people who are raised to believe they’re basically competent have no reason to accomplish anything. I once heard someone defend that belief by declaring that “human nature is to do as little as necessary.” This prejudice is refuted not just by a few studies but by the entire branch of psychology dealing with motivation.16 Normally, it’s hard to stop happy, satisfied people from trying to learn more about themselves and the world, or from trying to do a job of which they can feel proud. The desire to do as little as possible is an aberration, a sign that something is wrong. It may suggest that someone feels threatened and therefore has fallen back on a strategy of damage control, or that rewards and punishments have caused that individual to lose interest in what he’s doing, or that he perceives a specific task—perhaps correctly—as pointless and dull.”

“From deep contentment comes the courage to achieve.”

“Being afraid of failure isn't at all the same thing as embracing success. In fact, the former gets in the way of the latter.”

“you’re so busy trying to deal with the implications of failing that you don’t have the time and energy to do what it takes to succeed.”

Chapter 2: Giving and Withholding Love


  • Parents who rely on reasoning and explanation rather than punishment have children who are more likely to be empathetic, altruistic, and prosocial.
  • Authoritarian parents use power-based methods and coercion more frequently, which can negatively impact their children's development of autonomy, self-esteem, and social skills.
  • Democratic parents provide more opportunities for their children to make decisions and be involved in the family, leading to better outcomes in various domains such as academic achievement and prosocial behavior.
  • Parenting styles may vary across cultures, and it is essential to consider cultural contexts when interpreting research on parenting.
  • Physical punishment, particularly corporal punishment, has been linked to negative outcomes for children, including increased aggression, lower cognitive abilities, and poorer mental health.
  • The effects of harsh physical discipline may be deleterious for all children, regardless of race or socioeconomic status, but there might be a boundary beyond which the harm becomes even more severe.
  • Parents' fears about child victimization are unrelated to their parenting orientation, and fearful parents may not always use the most effective strategies to protect their children.
  • Autonomy-supportive parenting is essential for all children, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds, as it helps them develop self-regulation, responsibility, and other crucial skills.


“Some parents withdraw their love by simply refusing to respond to a child—that is, by making a point of ignoring him. They may not say it out loud, but the message they’re sending is pretty clear: “If you do things I don’t like, I won’t pay any attention to you. I’ll pretend you’re not even here. If you want me to acknowledge you again, you’d better obey me.”

“So what, exactly, is the positive reinforcement that’s being suspended when a child is given a time-out? Sometimes he’s doing something fun and is forced to quit. But this isn’t always the case—and even when it is, I think there’s more to the story. When you send a child away, what’s really being switched off or withdrawn is your presence, your attention, your love. You may not have thought of it that way. Indeed, you may insist that your love for your child is undiminished by his misbehavior. But, as we’ve seen, what matters is how things look to the child.”

“Nothing is more important to us when we’re young than how our parents feel about us. Uncertainty about that, or terror about being abandoned, can leave its mark even after we’re grown.”

“But, as with punishments, they can never help someone to develop a commitment to a task or an action, a reason to keep doing it when there’s no longer a payoff.”

“After all, if we want a child to grow into a genuinely compassionate person, then it’s not enough to know whether he just did something helpful. We’d want to know why.”

Chapter 3: Too much Control


  • Offer explanations for requests instead of using the phrase "because I said so."
  • Turn requests into games or activities that engage children's interests.
  • Set an example by following rules yourself and allowing children to make choices within appropriate limits.
  • Use working-with strategies rather than doing-to strategies when addressing misbehavior.
  • Offer comfort and calm reassurance during tantrums instead of ignoring or responding harshly.
  • Involve your child in devising solutions for problems, encouraging their autonomy and decision-making skills.
  • Working-with strategies such as unconditional love, respect, trust, and offering choices can help children develop moral sophistication, cognitive flexibility, and the capacity to care about others.
  • Heavy-handed control and punishment have been shown to negatively impact a child's development in these areas.


“The dominant problem with parenting in our society isn't permissiveness, but the fear of permissiveness. We're so worried about spoiling kids that we often end up over controlling them.”

“The way kids learn to make good decisions is by making decisions, not by following directions.”

“Empowered kids are in the best position to deal constructively with disempowering circumstances. And we, as parents, are in the best position to empower them - as long as we're willing to limit our use of power over them.”

“In short, with each of the thousand-and-one problems that present themselves in family life, our choice is between controlling and teaching, between creating an atmosphere of distrust and one of trust, between setting an example of power and helping children to learn responsibility, between quick-fix parenting and the kind that's focused on long-term goals.”

Chapter 4: Punitive Damages


  • The common belief that children need punishment to learn right from wrong is a myth.
  • Punishment can have harmful effects, such as damaging the parent-child relationship and increasing aggression and antisocial behavior in children.
  • Alternatives to punishment, such as reasoning, explanation, and empathy, are more effective in teaching children moral values and promoting positive behavior.
  • Traditional forms of discipline, such as spanking and time-outs, should be avoided as they can have negative consequences and are not effective in the long term.
  • The "doing to" approach to discipline, which includes punishment and rewards, should be rejected in favor of the "working with" approach, which emphasizes reasoning, explanation, and empathy.
  • Parents who focus on their children's academic achievements and use rewards and punishments to motivate them are more likely to have children with lower grades and poorer achievement scores, as well as less motivation and persistence in doing their work.
  • Children are naturally inclined to try to make sense of the world and push themselves to do things just beyond their current level. Failure can lead to an expectation of future failure and a preference for easier tasks, as well as lower intrinsic motivation.
  • Alternatives to traditional forms of teaching and discipline should be considered, such as noncompetitive ways to play, learn, and work, and alternatives to academic grading.


“When you stand by and let bad things happen, your child experiences the twin disappointments that something went wrong and you did not seem to care enough about her to lift a finger to help prevent the mishap.”

“As Thomas Gordon pointed out, 'The inevitable result of consistently employing power to control [your] kids when they are young is that [you] never learn how to influence.' The more you rely on punishment, therefore, 'the less real influence you'll have on their lives.”

Chapter 5: Pushed to Succeed


  • Punitive discipline (including corporal punishment) is associated with increased problem behaviors in children.
  • Research suggests that the relationship between punishment and child behavior is reciprocal, with both children's actions and parents' attitudes influencing each other.
  • The negative effects of punishment on children extend beyond short-term compliance and include decreased moral internalization, increased aggression and antisocial behavior, decreased relationship quality between parent and child, decreased child mental health, increased risk of abuse, and negative long-term consequences for adults.
  • Alternative approaches to discipline that focus on positive reinforcement, reasoning, and setting clear limits have been shown to be more effective in promoting positive child behaviors.


“How we feel about our kids isn't as important as how they experience those feelings and how they regard the way we treat them.”

“Educators remind us that what counts in a classroom is not what the teacher teaches; it’s what the learner learns. And so it is in families. What matters is the message our kids receive, not the one we think we’re sending.”

“My mother maintained a sense of loving connection with me even during our worst conflicts” or “When my dad disagrees with me, I know that he still loves me.”13 So, how would you like your children to answer that sort of question in five or ten or fifteen years—and how do you think they will answer it?”

“Few parents have the courage and independence to care more for their children’s happiness than for their success.”

“In extreme cases, the "press for success" can reach a fever pitch, such that the child's present is essentially mortgaged to the future. Activities that might bring meaning or enjoyment are sacrificed in a ceaseless effort to prepare for Harvard.”

“They are not raising children so much as living résumés, and by the time high school arrives, the kids have learned to sign up for activities strictly to impress college admissions committees, ignoring (or, eventually, losing sight of) what they personally find interesting in the here-and-now. They have acquired the habit of asking teachers, “Do we need to know this?”—rather than, say, “What does this mean?”—as they grimly set about the business of trying to ratchet up their GPA or squeeze out another few points on the SAT.”

“Competition makes self-esteem conditional and precarious, and it has that effect on winners and losers alike. What’s more, the effect isn’t limited to “excessive” competition. Rather, it appears that anytime children are set against one another such that one can succeed only by making others fail, there is a psychological price to be paid.     *”

“There’s a huge difference between a student whose objective is to get a good grade and a student whose objective is to solve a problem or understand a story. What’s more, the research suggests that when kids are encouraged to focus on getting better marks in school, three things tend to happen: They lose interest in the learning itself, they try to avoid tasks that are challenging, and they’re less likely to think deeply and critically.”

“The research overwhelmingly showed that competition holds people back from working or learning at their best. For a variety of reasons, optimal performance at most tasks not only doesn’t require people to try to beat one another—it requires that they be freed from such an arrangement. There is no trade-off. Cooperation makes more sense than competition if we care mostly about bottom-line results, just as it does if our prime concern is how people feel about themselves and those around them.”

“Again, the most effective (and least destructive) way to help a child succeed—whether she’s writing or skiing, playing a trumpet or a computer game—is to do everything possible to help her fall in love with what she’s doing, to pay less attention to how successful she was (or is likely to be) and show more interest in the task. That’s just another way of saying that we need to encourage more, judge less, and love always.”

“Children aren’t helped to become caring members of a community, or ethical decision-makers, or critical thinkers, so much as they’re simply trained to follow directions.”

“Obviously, things work best when parents and teachers are helping kids to become good people—and, better yet, when they’re actively supporting one another’s efforts.”

“Think of your goal as giving your child a kind of inoculation, providing him with the unconditional love, respect, trust, and sense of perspective that will serve to immunize him against the most destructive effects of an overcontrolling environment or an unreasonable authority figure.”

Chapter 6: What holds us back?


  • Love withdrawal can be harmful to children's emotional development and social relationships.
  • Love withdrawal, or the threat of it, can make children more fearful, anxious, and insecure, as well as less willing to form close attachments with others.
  • The use of love withdrawal as a means of discipline is not an effective strategy for promoting moral development or encouraging prosocial behavior in children.
  • Praise can be problematic when it is used excessively or insincerely, and can actually undermine children's motivation and self-esteem in the long run.
  • The most effective way to foster children's emotional development and social relationships is through the provision of warmth, support, and unconditional acceptance.
  • The most effective way to promote moral development and encourage prosocial behavior in children is through the use of clear and consistent rules, reasonable consequences, and open communication.


“It’s more common to ignore the epidemic of punitive parenting and focus instead on the occasional example of permissiveness—sometimes even to the point of pronouncing an entire generation spoiled. It’s revealing, and even somewhat amusing, that similar alarms probably have been raised about every generation throughout recorded history.”

“One explanation was offered by Alice Miller: “Many people continue to pass on the cruel deeds and attitudes to which they were subjected as children, so that they can continue to idealize their parents.”16 Her premise is that we have a powerful, unconscious need to believe that everything our parents did to us was really for our own good and was done out of love. It’s too threatening for many of us even to entertain the possibility that they weren’t entirely well-meaning—or competent. So, in order to erase any doubts, we do the same things to our own children that our parents did to us.”

“Norman Kunc, who conducts workshops on inclusive education and non-coercive practices, points out that "what we call 'behavior problems' are often situations of legitimate conflict; we just get to call them behavior problems because we have more power" than children do. (You're not allowed to say that your spouse has a behavior problem.)”

Chapter 7: Principles of Unconditional Parenting


  • Create a secure attachment with your child through unconditional love and responsiveness.
  • Show children how moral people live by modeling kindness, empathy, and fairness.
  • Give children opportunities to practice helping others and making ethical decisions.
  • Use reason and explanation to help children understand moral concepts rather than just demanding obedience or using threats.
  • Engage in discussions with children about moral issues, listening actively and encouraging them to articulate their own perspectives.
  • Refrain from overwhelming children with logic and help them develop reasons to support their own views, even if they don't agree with yours.


“Thomas Gordon said it well: “Children sometimes know better than parents when they are sleepy or hungry; know better the qualities of their friends, their own aspirations and goals, how their various teachers treat them; know better the urges and needs within their bodies, whom they love and whom they don’t, what they value and what they don’t.”4 In any case, we can’t always assume that because we’re more mature we necessarily have more insight into our children than they have into themselves.”

“My advice is to make a point of apologizing to your child about something at least twice a month. Why twice a month? I don't know. It sounds about right to me. (Almost all the specific advice in parenting books is similarly arbitrary. At least I admit it.)”

“When you come right down to it, the whole process of raising a kid is pretty damned inconvenient, particularly if you want to do it well. If you’re unwilling to give up any of your free time, if you want your house to stay quiet and clean, you might consider raising tropical fish instead.”

“Besides, what best prepares children to deal with the challenges of the “real world” is to experience success and joy. People don’t get better at coping with unhappiness because they were deliberately made unhappy when they were young.”

“What matters most is the reason for our decisions, and the extent to which we’re willing to provide guidance, to support children’s choices, to be there with them—all of which is a lot more challenging than just saying yes or no.”

“The point isn’t just whether children know what to expect; it’s whether what they’ve come to expect makes sense.”

“Similarly, parents who want to teach the importance of honesty make it a practice never to lie to their children, even when it would be easier just to claim that there are no cookies left rather than to explain why they can’t have another one.”

Chapter 8: Love without Strings Attached


  • Perspective taking is important for effective parenting.
  • Understanding and acknowledging a child's perspective helps them feel heard, cared about, and unconditionally loved.
  • Humor can be used to defuse tense situations and make connections with children.
  • Taking a child's perspective can help improve interactions with other people's children as well.
  • Perspective taking is one aspect of parenting that requires ongoing effort and improvement.


“As Thomas Gordon pointed out, 'Parents who find unacceptable a great many things that their children do or say will inevitably foster in these children a deep feeling that they are unacceptable as persons.' That doesn't change just because the parents remember to say soothingly, 'We love you, honey; we just hate almost everything you do.”

“Not only is that all we can do; it’s what we have to keep doing, no matter how many of those meals end up in the garbage can.”

“The more pressing question, of course, is how we can communicate our love after kids keep acting up even when we think they ought to know better. (We’ve certainly told them enough times!) Here it’s common to assume that they’re “testing limits.” This is a very popular phrase in the discipline field and it’s often used as a justification for parents to impose more, or tighter, limits. Sometimes the assumption that kids are testing us even becomes a rationalization for punishing them. But my suspicion is that, by misbehaving, children may be testing something else entirely—namely, the unconditionality of our love. Perhaps they’re acting in unacceptable ways to see if we’ll stop accepting them.”

“Unconditional parents want to know how to do something other than threaten and punish. They don't see their relationship with their children as adversarial, so their goal is to avoid battles, not win them.”

“While it may be possible to spoil kids with too many things, it isn't possible to spoil them with too much (unconditional) love. As one writer put it, the problem with children whom we would describe as spoiled is that they 'get too much of what they want and too little of what they need.' Therefore, give them affection (which they need) without limit, without reservations, and without excuse. Pay as much attention to them as you can, regardless of mood or circumstance. Let them know you're delighted to be with them, that you care about them no matter what happens.”

“When unconditional love and genuine enthusiasm are always present, "Good job!" isn't necessary; when they're absent, "Good job!" won't help.”

“The research suggests that praise may have [a negative, unintended] effect, directing attention away from the task [at hand] and toward your reaction.”

“Use your words!' is a common instruction given to small children, sometimes even when they don't really have the right words. But the best way for us to use our words is to help kids see that the reason to help - and not to hurt - isn't what they'll get out of it, but the effects their actions have on others. To put it differently, I'm all in favor of teaching by 'consequences,' as long as the consequences we're stressing are those experienced by the people our children are interacting with rather than just those that they themselves experience.”

“Don’t say thank you because you’re afraid I’ll get mad at you if you don’t; that’s a terrible reason. Don’t say thank you because it’s polite; that’s not much of a reason at all. Say thank you because of its effect on the people you’re thanking.”

“The first is spatial: I can imagine how you literally see the world, such that what’s on my right is on your left when we’re facing one another. In the second type, I can imagine how you think about things—for example, how you might have trouble solving a problem that’s easy for me, or how you might hold beliefs about, say, raising children that are different from mine. The third kind consists of imagining how you feel, how something could upset you even if it doesn’t have that effect on me. (This last type of perspective taking is sometimes confused with “empathy,” which means that I share your feelings. To empathize isn’t just to understand that you’re angry but actually to feel angry along with you.)”

Chapter 9: Choices for Children


  • Allow children to make decisions that concern them, except when there is a compelling reason to override their choice.
  • People have a basic need for autonomy and experiencing the act of choosing.
  • Encourage children to propose ways of dealing with issues and participate in problem-solving.

Chapter 10: The Child’s Perspective


  • Focus on raising children to be concerned about others' happiness, not just their own
  • Children should ask "How will doing x make that other kid feel?" instead of "Am I allowed to do x?" or "Will I get in trouble for doing x?"
  • Human beings are born with the capacity to care and parents have an ally in their child's innate compassion
  • Punishments and rewards, rooted in self-interest, hinder moral growth and should be eliminated
  • Good parenting practices, such as modeling kindness and empathy, should replace bad ones for moral development.


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