September 2, 2011

Unconditional Parenting and Why it Works for Her (Guest Post)

Since my youngin' is only 14 month and barely talking, I thought I'd have my sister of Dirt Don't Hurt Mom weigh in and tell us about her success with Unconditional Parenting.

In our house, we read Alfie Kohn's book, but she watched the Unconditional Parenting DVD's.

We shared our recent success with Unconditional Parenting here.

I have to say that her kids are pretty much always well behaved when they are with us even for extended periods of time. Even when things get hard or they miss their mom...especially now that we unconditional parent her kids too.

Take it away, sis...

With two kids under 4, 20 months apart, I’d try anything.

Discipline was taking a toll on me. I yelled. They screamed and cried. They flat out refused to do what I asked. We were bribing with candy or TV or popcorn and a movie. Everything felt wrong about this. We weren’t working as a team. We were struggling and fighting and playing a game of chicken. This was not the way I wanted to be interacting with my children. Not now and certainly not when they are teenagers.

I picked up the “Unconditional Parenting” DVD, because I knew it would be close to impossible to get my husband to read the book. I had heard some friends discuss the philosophies and techniques used in the book, and was curious. It sounded hippy dippy, overly sensitive, and unrealistic. It also seemed to be working with their children.
Plus, I’m a little hippy dippy, sometimes overly sensitive and usually optimistically unrealistic.

My husband and I sat down and watched the video together (after I pre-screened it to make sure he’d sit through it and it wasn’t bizarre). We listened to Alfie Kohn explain that our children should know that we love and respect them, and that we should always treat them with love and respect, just the way we expect them to treat others.

We listened. Sometimes we looked at each other in disbelief.

Then the seminar was over and we discussed what we had heard. In talking to one another, we realized that we BOTH thought that aspects of his philosophy would work really well for our kids. We also discovered that there were parts of his philosophy that we knew we would not be able to implement when we were seeing red, after a long day, when both kids are already hysterical. We agreed to follow his practices as much as possible, but to be flexible with ourselves, to forgive one another when we each just couldn’t maintain composure, and to acknowledge that it was going to be very hard to change our patterns.

We also talked about taking over for one another when it was clear that the parent doing the disciplining was in over their head (too angry, being ganged up on, overly tired).

Our list of “Do’s and Don’ts”:

DO: Take a moment to look at things from your child’s perspective. Think about how your child will best respond. Go with that.

DO: Always assume best intentions. Your child probably isn’t being malicious. They have opinions and emotions and those should be respected.

DO: Ask simple questions. If you don’t understand their motive, ask. If they are little, guess, and ask for affirmation.

DO: Offer solutions that respect their feelings.

DON’T: Think of it as punishment. Think of it as brainstorming.

DON’T: Minimize their emotions. If a child is mad, explain that it’s ok to be mad, but it’s not ok to hit. If the child sad, it’s ok to be sad and cry, but I can’t understand what you need when you are crying. When you are ready to talk, I’ll be able to help you.

DON’T: dumb it down. Children that are spoken to in a respectful, grown up way are more likely to feel like a part of the solution, because you are talking to them like you talk to daddy (or mommy). **Disclaimer-I have no idea if this is actually true. But it’s working for me.

This is how it goes down:
My 2 ½ year old son hits his sister on the back because she is feeding cat treats to the cat (this happened at 7:30 am this morning, so it is fresh in my mind.)

“Darian, you CAN’T FEED THOSE TO THE CATS” Smack, Smack, Smack.

Darian is sobbing because he hit her HARD.

Old technique:
“RHYS WILLIAM. NO HITTING! Tell your sister you are sorry!”
“You apologize to your sister for hurting her. We ask nicely for things”

He is now sobbing because I’m yelling and visibly upset.

“You will go to your room until you can apologize to your sister and calm down.”

Screaming, crying “NOOOO, No room, No mommy!!!!” kicking as I carry him and plop him hard on the bed, running out to close the door before he gets up and grabs on to me.
30 seconds later, he’s wailing in the hallway, screaming at the top of his lungs. I put him back in his room, stating “We don’t hit. Kids that hit go to their rooms. We do not hit in our family.” I, meanwhile am being kicked and punched and he’s wiggling out of my arms while he wails and wails.

This happens 2 or 3 more times, and nothing positive is happening. So my heart melts, I go in to soothe him, and he is so worked up that it takes 25 minutes to get him to stop crying. Plus, he probably pees himself because he’s so upset, which makes him MORE upset (because he’s been working so hard to be a potty trained “big boy”).

This is when I realize that I’ve just punished him using the EXACT same techniques he had just used with his sister. AND I have to wash an extra load of laundry. AND dinner is burned.
Feelings: Shame. Guilt. He’s confused and I’m horrified with myself.

I still respond this way on overtired days. It only makes me more tired and feel tremendously defeated.

New technique:
My first order of business. Move Rhys away from Darian so he can’t hurt her. Tell him:

“Your sister is hurt. I’m going to help her feel better and then we can talk about what happened.”

I hold Darian and talk to her softly about how I know that her brother hit her, and that I’m so sorry that happened. Rhys is now sobbing on the couch. I tell Darian that I’m going to talk to Rhys about what he just did. She’s only ok with this because I tended to her first.

There is no rule about cat treats in our house, so I know that he is probably just upset that she was doing something he wanted to do.

I get very close to Rhys, making sure I touch him lovingly while speaking, and say
(Seeing things from the child’s perspective): “Buddy, it seemed like you wanted to give the cat a treat. Is that what you wanted?” (I guessed his motive and asked for affirmation because he was already worked up and upset. If we were discussing something that needed to be done in the future, ie: making his bed, I would have asked him for his feedback instead. He’s so little still that he has difficulty coming up with the words and this works him up even more.)

He nods or says “yes.”

If you don’t know, ask: “You hit Darian instead of telling her what you needed. That hurt her body and her feelings. Did you want to hurt her?”


Offer solutions that respect their feelings: “Do you think you should have just asked her nicely to let you give the cat a treat, too rather than hitting her when you were mad?”


“Okay, so next time please say ‘Darian, I’d like to give him one after you give him one’”

He repeats me.

I turn to Darian. “D, please always give your brother a turn when he asks you nicely. Sharing is important in our family and in the whole world. Rhys, buddy, it’s your turn now! One treat only, please.”

This whole process takes about 5 minutes, tops. The initial screaming and crying is over within 2 minutes, and we may have a few minutes of discussion.

Feelings: Elation, Pride, a sense of unity. Rhys feels heard, Darian feels defended, and the situation is diffused immediately.

Let me just say, I am NOT always in a place where this is successful. I fail miserably
a) In the middle of the night
B) After a long day at work
C) When I’m trying to get us out of the house on time

In general, my kids are confident, and feel like they have a voice in our family because of these techniques. This is a ROYAL PAIN IN MY ASS at least 50 percent of the time. EVERYTHING is up for discussion.

I spend all my waking hours discussing options with my children. RARELY do they just do what I ask. This isn’t easy. It’s not convenient. But it is worth it. They are perfect for everyone else. They trust me. And I feel like they will continue to trust me and talk me through their problems both at home and in the world.

I don’t beat myself up when I slip up. I fail 50% of the time. We still put Rhys in his room when he’s crying uncontrollably for some who knows why reason. My husband and I have a really hard time handing the “crybaby” factor. While we know there IS a reason for the tears, we have yet to discover a way to diffuse them quickly. I need a break sometimes or I’m at risk of REALLY going off the handle. This doesn’t actually solve anything, nor does it limit the amount of tantrum time, but it does give me a moment to pity myself and breathe (or pee) before I dive back in to toddler hormone hell.

While the successes are TREMENDOUSLY SUCCESSFUL, the failures are equally as miserable.
What I’ve found is that since we have started using this method, my children are significantly more sensitive when I’m not so open to seeing things from their perspective. They are more confused and more volatile. It’s helpful if I can calm myself down quickly and switch to “unconditional” mode.

My sister and I use the “Unconditional Parenting” guidelines differently for our children. She is starting with T younger than I started with my kids, and they have one child on which they can focus all of their energy, while we have the added challenge of two. He’s also a different kid than either of mine. My hubby and I partner differently, and our backgrounds and personal histories make each of our experiences unique. Both of our variations on the method work. And they work on each other’s children☺


If you have questions on specific situations and how I would handle them, please feel free to ask in the comments. I’ll do my best to give you a good example.


  1. This is exactly how i raised my children . . .

  2. this is so wonderful. Jena is in temper/attitude full swing. It's killing me and 80% of the time I end up feeling guilty after "her" outburst and my following out burst doesn't really do the trick of explaining to her how she should be nice.

    I recently read an article about not giving your child a warning before time out (one more time and your going on time out) so now if she hits a friend I pick her up and say time out hitting. She sits there(sobs there) until she is calm and I explain to her we don't hit and hurt her friends.
    It has been working and also keeps me from reaching boiling point. But I wanted another way to get eye level with her and talk it out. So I'll be trying this out too. Thanks!