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How to Raise Children Without Punishment and Reward (Unconditional Parenting)

Updated on August 20, 2014
Love should come without a condition.
Love should come without a condition. | Source

A while ago I witnessed a discussion between a mother of a small child, and an older woman whom I assumed was the child's grandmother.The girl, a vibrant two-year-old, out of all the fun activities you can do in a playground, chose to throw sand in the air to let it rain down on her.

The older woman told the child "not to play with the sand, dear, it's messing up your hair." The mother disagreed. "Just let her play with the sand," she said, "I will wash it out later." Grandma was persistent though and said, "No, she must learn to do as she's told. Or she'll never learn." This made me think. Do I want my children to always do as they're told?

And I imagined that girl, twenty-five years later, sitting in an office and following the directions her boss was giving her. I imagined her being promoted, because she so carefully did so.Then I imagined her boss demanding her to do inappriopriate things, things she didn't feel comfortable with doing. But she did so, anyway, because she learned to do as she was told. Or she either wouldn't get the reward (promotion), or she would be punished (dismissed).

Freedom to roam, an important factor in the development of your child's autonomy
Freedom to roam, an important factor in the development of your child's autonomy | Source

Rewarding and punishing

There are a lot of books promoting the concept of punishment and reward. While the past years the focus has become more prominent on the "reward" part, they are essentially two sides of the same coin. This theory by B.F. Skinner is called operant conditioning. He stated that when behavior is followed by positive reinforcement, both animals and humans are likely to repeat this behavior. Whereas the behavior would recede when behavior was punished. He tested his theory on rat in a box, using electrical pulses as punishment and food as reward.

Now this theory makes perfect sense, right? If I would stand behind you right now with a gun and told you to make me a sandwich, there's a big chance you'd make me one. And if I would do it over, and over again, every day of the year, maybe after a year I wouldn't even need a gun.

So, what's the downside?

There are multiple things you should consider when trying to raise your child:

  • What's the kind of adult you want him/her to become? Most of us would probably answer this question with adverbs like "happy", "resilient", "independent", "creative", "respectful" and "loving". Rarely parents use words like "submissive", "quiet" or even "fearful''. Yet, when using operant conditioning, the latter is most likely the outcome of our efforts.
  • How do we want our children to feel about us? While we might usually have their best interest at heart, our children are still developing their abilities to empathize and are not mind-readers. So when we keep putting our children away on time-outs, telling them they can't have things they want unless they do what we say and playing the Boogieman, we are essentially sending them the message "I do not love you right now". And that's going to be the main focus for your child at that moment, this unloved and powerless feeling. It will probably worsen the problem even further, as they will not think about the problem itself but on "how can I win my caregivers love back as soon as possible?"
  • Are you training a pet or raising a human? The equation might seem laughable, still it's something we have to keep in mind. The effects of operant conditioning are effective on short-term and mostly in pretty specific situations. Like dogs who sit down to wait before crossing over a street, eagerly eyeing the cookie in your hand. They don't know why they sit there, that it's for their own safety and probably will just run the streets when they get a chance to roam free. Your children will need to learn how the world works. They need to know why you do the things you do.

Let them explore limits with our love and guidance
Let them explore limits with our love and guidance | Source

Unconditional love

According to Mr. Kohn we need to take a second look at our parenting techniques. Instead of a set of rules, his parenting advice hands you a vision that you can use to find your own way.

But what exactly does this vision entail?

  • Don't deal with love. Rather than using love as a trade-object, it should be something that is there by default and without conditions. The relationship we develop with them will be an example for any future bonds and will teach them what it means to be close to someone.
  • To limit limits. Exploration is the key to foster their independence. When their exploration is as free as possible and at their own pace, it will give a boost to their self-esteem and help them become assertive and autonomous adults.
  • Intrinsic motivation. Raising a child is not a game of control. We cannot control everything that is going to happen in their lives and that is okay. Because they have the motivation to ''do stuff'', already there. They see us walk, they get up and try their first wobbly steps. They see us talk, and they want to join in the conversation. Our need to add external motivation through rewarding/punishing may even decrease their intrinsic motivation. And if intrinsic motivation and external reinforcement collide this can lead to unpleasant games of power.

Alfie Kohn on Rewarding

Are you inspired by the theory of Alfie Kohn?

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The theory of Unconditional Parenting is discussed in many books. If you want to learn more about the subject, these books will offer you various studies to prove the positive effects of this parenting style.

Lead by intrinsic motivation, we each follow our own path towards happiness.
Lead by intrinsic motivation, we each follow our own path towards happiness. | Source


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    • msginger profile image

      Mirmana 3 years ago from AMSTERDAM

      Exactly melissa! I'm glad so much is written about the subject already, because it fascinates me also. It's useful for examining every loving relationship you have.

    • RanaKm profile image

      RanaKm 3 years ago

      Absolutely right! :)

    • profile image

      melissakaspshak 3 years ago

      Wow! This is a huge subject for one hub. It brings into question (or debate) not only how to raise a child, but also how to teach young children AS WELL AS examining you're own upbringing and how it has shaped your decisions as an adult. Fascinating!

    • msginger profile image

      Mirmana 3 years ago from AMSTERDAM

      Yes I do. I meant when all people agree children are raised best in this manner, the world will be a better place. But I get that you interpret it otherwise!

    • RanaKm profile image

      RanaKm 3 years ago

      Oh no thank you for sharing such a beautiful topic, I also loved the part where you talked about giving love unconditionally because that's how things should be done but unfortunately too many parents just don't realize this.. And about agreeing oh the world shouldn't necessarily be beautiful if we agree to each other hah because agreeing depends on people's thinking and thoughts, what might be right for us won't be realized to be so by other people and when things are wrong, agreeing to them won't be beautiful haha I'm sure you get my point now :)

    • msginger profile image

      Mirmana 3 years ago from AMSTERDAM

      I agree with you Denise. We have to put a lot of trust in our children and ourselves to accomplish this. I think empathy is at the base of a lot of principles (not to hurt each other, respect other people, being able to view a problem from different perspectives) and if we can help them develop that, we can go a long way.

    • msginger profile image

      Mirmana 3 years ago from AMSTERDAM

      Thank you RanaKm! I will elaborate on the point you mentioned. I'm so excited when people agree, because I believe we can create a beautiful world this way.

    • denise.w.anderson profile image

      Denise W Anderson 3 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      This concept of "unconditional parenting" is mind-boggling! As I come from the generation of "authoritative" versus "authoritarian" parenting, to have "no limits" would seem counter productive. I would hope that in letting go of control that we would teach principles that our children can use to guide their actions throughout their lives.

    • RanaKm profile image

      RanaKm 3 years ago

      Omg I absolutely love your thoughts concerning this subject and I love that you mentioned this " Are you training a pet or a human" a lot of parents do that..I was hoping for you to put a wider explanation specifically on this one though but the whole topic is connected and all the ideas match so it's still complete and well organized :) * voted up*


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