Alfie Kohn Biography, Theories and Books: The Father of Unconditional Parenting

Alfie Kohn is perhaps one of the most controversial and highly regarded figures in the area of parenting and education.

His ideas and theories have challenged traditional beliefs and called into question many of the practices that have been widely accepted for years.

In this article you'll get:

  • A short introductive biography

  • In-depth insights into his parenting theories on unconditional parenting and rewards and punishments

  • A discussion of most influential books along with a list of their most important points


Portrait of Alfie KohnThe Biography of Alfie Kohn

Born in Miami, Florida on Oct 15, 1957, Alfie Kohn earned a B.A. from Brown University and a Masters degree from the University of Chicago.

After teaching at both the highschool and college levels, Kohn now spends his time writing and lecturing at various education and management conferences as well as at parent groups and organizations.




The Forefathers Kohn Looks up to

Strongly influenced by the ideas of John Dewey, Jean Piaget, and Carl Rogers, Kohn has been very outspoken, and even critical, of many conventional parenting methods that are based on behaviorism and external control.

He argues that although many people believe that things such as rewards, punishments, incentives, and competition will encourage children to strive for excellence and achievement, the opposite is actually true.

They strive not to excel and be the best they can be but to avoid punishment or get the reward.

Just below this you'll find a 12 minute video with a rather young Alfie Kohn on Oprah where he talks about the problem of rewarding kids for e.g. good grades and doing their homework. What basically happens is they lose their sense of curiosity and stop wanting to learn!

"Rewards buy only one thing, temporary compliance. But in the long run, they not only not help, they make things worse because [...] the more you reward people for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest in what they had to do to get the reward."

Kohn Provocatively Challenges What We Take for Given

Although Kohn's ideas have been argued and criticized, his theories are strongly grounded in research as well as his own personal experiences as a teacher and a parent of two children.

In a - what I find to be - a lovely provocative way he challenges the status quo and sheds new light on the principles and norms that we have blindly accepted for years.

His work has led to many changes within the education system and much positive feedback from parents who have put his theories into practice.

Kohn has published 12 books (you can see some of them at the end of this page), all of which have seen international success and been translated into several languages.

He has also authored several articles and continues to be a strong influence among educators, parents, and managers.

Alfie Kohn's Theories and Contributions

Close-up photo of Alfie KohnAlfie Kohn has been at the forefront of both the parenting and educational field for many years.

His contributions have brought about many changes in parenting, education, and management skills.

Although he continues to have a great impact in the area of social and human behavior, he is perhaps most famous for his "progressive" thinking and is best known for his views on:


Unconditional Parenting
- Love with no Strings Attached

Alfie Kohn revolutionized the parenting world when he introduced the concept of Unconditional Parenting.

All of a sudden, behaviorist theories based on controlling your children to make them fit a socially acceptable mold were being challenged.

In unconditional parenting love and acceptance are regarded more highly than training and compliance. Rewards and punishment are replaced with unconditional support.

As you can imagine, this created quite an uproar, especially among those who had spent years advocating a more authoritarian - or even authoritative - approach to parenting.

But, unconditional parenting wasn't a completely new idea.

Conscious parenting (unconditional parenting) is love with no strings attached: Picture of heart with wingsIn fact, Kohn used Carl Rogers Unconditional Positive Regard as a springboard for many of his theories.

But, until Alfie Kohn's ideas took the world by storm, child-centered parenting was considered to be permissive and indulgent.

However, Kohn backs-up all his theories with studies and research.

He doesn't just say that conditional love may be potentially harmful long-term, but he references research that proves those who believed they had to earn their parents love as children felt less worthy and experienced more insecurity as adults.

With so many facts to support his ideas, it became increasingly difficult to ignore what he had to say.

Many parents, disillusioned with past methods, began taking Kohn's ideas seriously and putting his findings into practice.

Rewards and Punishments - Should We only Show Children Love when They Please Us?

Alfie Kohn has made many valuable contributions to the field of parenting, but his views on rewards and punishment are among the most debated.

The premise is that rewarding our children for "good" behavior and punishing them for "bad" behavior teaches them that they are loved only when they please us.

Rewards are perceived as affirmation, and punishment is seen as a withdrawal of our love.

  • "Praising children for doing something right isn't a meaningful alternative to pulling back or punishing when they do something wrong. Both are examples of conditional parenting, and both are counterproductive ... Most of us would protest that of course we love our children without any strings attached. But what counts is how things look from the perspective of the children - whether they feel just as loved when they mess up or fall short."
    - excerpt from the article Parental Love With Strings Attached, Sept 15. 2009.

Kohn's ideas of "loving with no strings attached", giving unconditional positive regard, and empowering our children by letting them be involved in the decision making processes changed the way parents viewed their children - and themselves.

Parenting as a Partnership - Working "With" our Children

Using these principles, parenting is now a partnership we have with our children. Rather than doing something "to them" , we now can work "with" them to achieve a win/win situation that is a result of "character" instead of "control".

While rewards, punishments, incentives, and competitions usually create behavior that is a result of extrinsic or "external" factors, Kohn's principles of unconditional parenting encourage intrinsic behavior or actions that result from an "internal" desire to do what is right.

When we say, "Clean up your toys and you can have a cookie", we are prompting a child to action based on a reward. If we take the reward away, will the child still willingly comply?

Or, if speaking to a parent disrespectfully earns a punishment, will the child avoid speaking his mind simply to prevent the consequences? And, does this actually stop the disrespect or just the expression of it?

I have my own opinion, what do you think?

Check out this short video below to hear Kohn speak about punishment and time out:

Meeting Needs to Allow for Full Growth

Kohn also promotes the idea of meeting our children's needs - and recognizing that not every child has the same needs.

While behaviorist theories state, "These are the rules, follow them!", unconditional parenting looks at each child as an individual and finds ways to make him feel loved and accepted no matter what happens or what he does.

Many conventional parenting methods work to get kids to "do whatever they are told". In other words, the goal is unquestioned obedience.

We make our children "behave" much the same way we make our family pet behave. But Kohn says that we should be asking, "What do children need - and how can we meet those needs?"

By giving our children what they need, they will become strong, confident individuals who will act from internal convictions and beliefs rather than from externally enforced compliance.

They will strive for excellence - not because they want to become number one, but because they can feel that doing their best simply feels good - it just feels right! Yes, it really is that simple!

They will not be afraid to fight for their dreams because they know that failure will not cost them your love. And they will find their self-worth and value from internal sources rather than from external acceptance.

Here is a radio interview with Alfie Kohn by Laura Markham where he speaks of parenting and, among other things, the difference between short term and long goals:

Educational Contributions

- The Current System Is Creating Winners and Losers - Is that Really What We Want?

Alfie Kohn has also had a great influence on the field of education. His criticism of standardized testing and traditional grading procedures has received mixed reception.

He argues that students are placed in the unhealthy situation of being constantly compared to others and judged on a scale that makes some people winners while others are losers.

The current system of rewards and punishment can create a fear of failure and discourage risk taking while diminishing self-esteem and self-worth.

Students who are successful according to conventional grading systems are praised and rewarded while others are criticized or ignored.

Replacing Praise with Support

According to Kohn, educators, like parents, need to replace praise with support, and create a more student-directed rather than teacher-directed model of learning.

If the home should be child-centered, the classroom should be student-focused. Unconditional Teaching ... it may mean re-vamping the educational system but imagine the benefits!

This does not mean that the student controls the teacher or the child rules the home.

According to Kohn, it is about working together to create something valuable and precious rather than a robot that can recite facts, behave "appropriately" based on an external system of rewards and punishments, and never develops the ability to think autonomously.

Parenting Is also about School Involvement

Kohn encourages parents to visit their children's schools and become involved in the educational process.

This way, parents are aware of any "conditional teaching" and may be able to positively influence changes within the classroom.

Since children spend so much time at school, an important part of parenting is making sure that the educational environment is a healthy one!

Published Books by Alfie Kohn

Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishment to Love and Reason

When people hear the name Alfie Kohn, their first thought is usually Unconditional Parenting.

Whether you agree with him or not, if you are a parent you have probably heard this book mentioned at some point in time. Like Dr. Spock's The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, Alfie Kohn's Unconditional Parenting is often considered a "must have" for any parent.

Kohn's purpose for this book is to encourage parents to examine the way they think about, feel about and behave with their children.

It asks us to look at our parenting methods and decide if they are effective, if they are producing the results we desire, and if they are really - ultimately - keeping our children's best interests in mind.

Some of the main highlights include:

  •  Ask the question, "What do children need - and how can we meet those needs?" rather than "How can we get our children to do whatever they are told?"

  • Children have a basic need for unconditional love - they need to know that they are loved even when they make a mistake or fall short of expectations. Love "without strings attached."

  • Replace praise with unconditional support.

  • Rewards and punishments are a form of control that teach children they are only loved when they please us. Time-outs, gold star charts, and awards convey the message that they are valued more for what they do rather than for who they are. This is the opposite of unconditional love, and is in fact, telling our children that our love and acceptance is "conditional".

  • It is important to give our children choices and include them in the decision making processes.

  • As parents, we should try to see things from our children's perspective.

  • Focus on long-term parenting goals. Short term goals try to control immediate behavior without thinking about long-term consequences and this can result in damaged relationships, insecurity, low self-esteem, problems with authority, stunted moral development, and lack of respect. As parents, we want our children to become adults who can think for themselves, relate well with others, and are able to give unconditional love. Kohn said, "When we do things that are controlling, we are not going to get those long-term outcomes."

  • Mutual respect. Our children will learn to respect others when they feel respected rather than controlled. This means working "with" our children rather than "doing to" them.

  • "What Holds us Back?" Kohn discusses reasons why we don't always love unconditionally and how we can overcome these fears to effectively meet our children's needs.

Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes

Most of us have been taught that certain actions will earn specific rewards.

The "do this and you will get that" mindset has been so ingrained in us that we often make it a natural part of our parenting techniques.

But, essentially, we are "bribing" or "manipulating" our children. We are teaching them that behavior is always hinged on rewards rather than what feels right and what feels wrong. And, we are controlling their behavior by offering something appealing.

Have you heard the advertisements on television that promise to send you a free gift if you make a donation to their charitable organization?

Why must there by an incentive for generosity?

Because society has been infused with the idea that every good action must have a tangible reward.

And, this teaching begins at home, right at infancy. When we - often with the best of intensions - give stickers for cleaning a bedroom or treats for good behavior, we are instilling the "do this and you'll get that" attitude in our children.

Punished By Rewards discusses the damaging effects of prizes, praise, and incentives:

  • Rewards may work short-term but can have negative long-term effects.

  • Incentives do not promote excellence. People will not always do their best when bribed with rewards, but will often perform only to the level required to obtain the incentive.

  • Rewards may manipulate what a child "does" but will not change who a child "is". Take away the rewards and the child may behave differently.

  • Some children will feel pressure (from themselves or others) to achieve rewards, which can take the fun and creativity out of certain activities.

  • When rewards motivate people, they can also be the cause for a lack of motivation, especially if the incentive is not appealing or interesting to a particular child.

No Contest: The Case against Competition

Have you ever been told that being competitive is a survival instinct that is part of human nature?

Well, Alfie Kohn disagrees. He believes that competition in the home, school, or any social environment causes more damage than good.

Whenever there is a "winner" there is also a "loser" and children grow up feeling that they can never meet certain standards of expectation.

According to Kohn competition does not build character. It destroys self-esteem, causes strain in relationships, and makes some children feel that they are less valuable than others. Rather than embracing their strengths, they lament what they perceive to be their "weaknesses".

Competition turns "playing fields into battlefields" and causes kids to strive to become "number one".

Essentially, Kohn is saying that competition takes the emphasis off "doing your best" to "becoming the best".

And, if you are not the best, then you are a "loser".

It creates a situation where children are forced to constantly "outdo" each other, and Kohn argues that competition actually stops children from doing their best because of the attack on their self-worth and esteem.

In this book, Kohn discusses the dangers of competitive environments and offers alternatives such as cooperative activities.

He encourages families:

  • to put away the board games and choose non-competitive options

  • to be careful not to compare children with their siblings or friends

  • to avoid having contests (ie. Who can change into their pajamas the fastest?

  • Last one to the house is a rotten egg, etc.)
    to let children know that they are loved unconditionally - not only when they win.

The Brighter Side of Human Nature: Altruism and Empathy in Everyday Life

Good news!

Alfie Kohn has found that we are more generous and altruistic than we thought - and he has hundreds of studies to prove it!

We hear so much about selfishness and aggression and everything that is wrong with this big, scary world.

But, according to Kohn, caring and generosity is still alive and well, and we can teach our children to be both empathetic and kind. And, we don't need to give them rewards to do it!

Throw out your pre-conceived ideas (women are more altruistic than men, violence is genetic) and prepare to be refreshingly encouraged as you discover the Brighter Side of Human Nature.

Other Alfie Kohn Resources Online

If you wish to dive more into Kohn and his theories you can find more information here:

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