“Rewards and punishments are not opposites at all; they are two sides of the same coin. And it is a coin that does not buy very much,” says Alfie Kohn, a leading figure in progressive education. The author and lecturer is an advocate of unconditional love when it comes to parenting – and so am I. In the current educational environment, moms and dads are often given tips in “conditional parenting,” a style rooted in the notion that we give affection when children are good and withhold it when they are not, on the assumption that positive reinforcement teaches children to do the right thing.

The problem with this approach of “love withdrawal” is that it does not promote moral development, because children learn to respond to what we want, but they don’t especially find out for themselves what is right and why it is right. Research confirms that this sort of compliance comes at a steep price: In a survey by Edward Deci, Avi Assor, and Guy Roth, 100 college students were asked if the love they received from their parents correlated with their success in school, their athletic achievement, and their consideration of others. The respondents tended to resent and dislike their parents, and they also felt a “strong internal pressure” rather than a “real sense of choice.”

“Children learn how to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions,”
Kohn clarifies. That is the premise upon which camp communities across the country are created. Camp is the best demonstration of moral order and democracy, because the community is intentionally sculpted to enable children to practice growing up – by making their own good choices in a safe, healthy, and planned environment.

The bonus, of course, is that their parents aren’t there to pull any marionette strings, so kids learn to depend upon their own good judgment – with the coaching and positive role-modeling of their counselors.

Do the right thing because it is the right thing to do. Not because someone is watching and might catch you if you do the wrong thing. Not because your parents told you they would buy you a present. Not because your parents told you they would not buy you a present. Not because your friends put pressure on you.

I like “Supernanny” Jo Frost (and she certainly is a “child-saver” for dysfunctional families!), but her presupposition that the best rewards are attention, praise, and love don’t do much for instilling values that will guide children through the rest of their lives – when their parents are no longer there to turn the love off when the behavior is bad. A college student is not going to benefit much from an isolating discipline technique such as a “time out”; nor will “positive reinforcement” from a distance provide the guiding motivation for making a good choice.

The best results, rather, are obtained from unconditional acceptance with a goal to raise caring, competent, strong adults who are independent, self-disciplined, and resilient. How do they achieve this moral development? By having lots and lots of opportunities to cultivate their own set of values, which in turn become their own ethical platform for good decision-making. It’s empowering and life-affirming.

Another study at the University of Rochester examined the behavior of ninth graders, both when giving more approval when children did what parents wanted and giving less when they did not. The studies found that both positive and negative conditional parenting were harmful. While the former approach sometimes yielded the byproduct of children succeeding at working harder on academic tasks, the cost was unhealthy feelings of “internal compulsion.”

“What these and other studies tell us, if we’re able to hear the news, is that praising children for doing something right isn’t a meaningful alternative to pulling back or punishing when they do something wrong,” opines Kohn.

The data derives that unconditional parenting is the way to go! However, there is an essential accompanying component to this parenting style:

It’s called Autonomy Support, and it goes like this: explain reasons for request, maximize opportunities for your child to participate in making good decisions, be encouraging without manipulation, and actively imagine how things look from your child’s point of view.

Camp, of course, is one great place to start, because there is a clear and fair set of rules by which every member of the community abides. Within the boundaries of emotional and physical safety that are part of the infrastructure of camp, kids get to make good choices and be accountable for their decisions. They develop the 3 R’s of summer learning: responsibility, respect, and resilience.

The skills of principled decision-making are much more effective than time-outs, positive reinforcements, or bribes. It’s with an internal moral compass that our children will find their own way in this world as adults – long after we are not beside them to tell them what to do.

Make it a mantra: “Do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.”

[Campfire] Stories to Read Together
“You Are My I Love You” by Maryann Cusimano
“Love You Forever” by Robert Munsch
“Mama, Do You Love Me” by Barbara Joose
“The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein
“Oh, The Thinks You Can Think” by Dr. Seuss