Review of “Unconditional Parenting” — Why Grades Are Making Children Less Self Motivated

Review of “Unconditional Parenting” — Why Grades Are Making Children Less Self Motivated

Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn was a fascinating and challenging read.

If you’re like me, and want to actually find the most effective parenting style, then you want to pick up books that challenge your theories on parenting.

Which is exactly what Unconditional Parenting did for me.

Alfie Kohn’s main premise, that’s backed up by quite a bit of research, is that when parents use positive rewards OR punishment on their children the children learn to see their parents love as Conditional.  Hense the title of Unconditional Parenting.

Kohn backs this up with lots of fascinating research.

One study Alfie Kohn outlines in this book was how children who had their homework and test scores graded became less motivated and did worse then children who received no grades for doing the same work.

How is this possible?

Because the classrooms that did not grade their students homework or test scores, and that outperformed the children in a traditional classroom, focused on helping the children develop a joy for learning and the discovery of new information.

Children Lose Motivation To Learn When Their Performance Is Graded

Kohn also argues that when you give out grades, and a child does not get a good grade, the child feels focuses on how he let the teacher down, or how his mother will feel about the bad grade… instead of focusing on what he should be focusing on, learning.  And when you take the focus off of the joy of improvement and discovery, motivation almost always decreases.

Which brings up the question, Maybe we should spend less time forcing our children to learn things WE want them to learn, and more time supporting their innate passions and interests?   But who am I to say such things since I dropped out of college to do just that and now run a small handful of niche businesses in areas I’m passionate about that do multiple millions in sales a year 😉  But I digress…

When I first started reading Unconditional Parenting I thought to myself, “Oh no, not some other bum preaching about self esteem and how we have to always make everyone feel good.”

But I’m happy to say that I don’t think that’s what Alfie Kohn was trying to say at all!

In fact Kohn points out several instances where children who were not graded ended up far outperforming the other children.  Not because the teacher bribed them with a good grade, or punished them with a bad grade.  But something much more effective…

They outperformed the other children because by giving the child the freedom to learn in the way they wanted to, they developed a much stronger intrinsic motivation to learn, then children who had been trained to only learn if their was a bribe involved.

He points out that study after study has shown that parents who push their kids to excel… whether that be in music, school, learning to read or whatever, are FAR less motivated to continue to get better then a child who are not pushed.

All in all the book brought up some incredibly interesting points, backed up by research that really suggest we stop trying to bribe our children to be good AND stop punishing them for being bad… and instead look to a whole new approach.


I can’t help but respectfully admit that this book rubbed me with an anti-achievement theme that I found troubling.

(If Alfie ever reads this, “Alfie, I mean this in the most respectful way and would love to ask you about this in more depth some day, maybe in an interview?)

I don’t know if Alfie Kohn was trying to accomplish this anti-achievement feel, and he certainly points out that children can achieve more when they aren’t graded or scored.  But it felt like Kohn was trying to discourage parents from letting their children compete to win, and just focus on having fun instead.

And I find that troubling.

His logic for this was because when children compete just to beat another person, they have been statistically proven time and time again to be less self motivated in the future.

And Kohn’s right!  There is a TON of research out there that backs him up.

However there is also research that shows children don’t become less motivated if instead of focusing on just winning, they focus on “Self Mastery”, meaning they logically evaluate how they did in specific terms.

For example: If a child strikes out while playing a game of baseball, but before the game asked their father to video tape their swing so they can see if they are doing better… and then actually analyzes their swing after the game; the research suggests that this type of specific, logical evaluation of trying to “Self Master” something their passionate about is does NOT cause them to be less self-motivated.

So if I could ask Alfie Kohn one question about his book, that would be the question.

Now I admit the type of child who asks his parents to video tape their at bats so they can see if they’re getting better is about one in a million, but if I could ask Alfie Kohn one question, that would be my question…

Can you avoid the negative effects of competition by only competing in things you are incredibly passionate about, and un-forced to compete in by your parents?

Because that kid who asked their dad to video tape their swing, so he could see if he was improving was me as a child, and when it comes to being self motivated I can very honestly say that few stack up with me.  And I’d be curious to know if Kohn would attribute my hi levels of self motivation to the fact that my parents never pushed me in baseball EVER, or am I just a statistical anomaly.

Either way, you really owe it to yourself to go pick up a copy of Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn, it just might change the course of your child’s life.  I’m sure it will for my own.

Thank You Alfie Kohn for a thought provoking book!

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  1. My wife and I homeschool our children, and have since they started school in Kindergarten. They are now 14 (son) & 15 (daughter) years old.

    While we mark errors on their schoolwork so that they can correct their own errors, we do not grade their work. We never have. We do give “rewards” of facebook time when they complete their work, but those 15 minute increments of facebook time (15 min. for each subject completed daily) have nothing to do with how well the schoolwork was completed. Our kids know that they should try their very best at everything they do, but they also know that there is no way that we can all excel at everything we try. Their passion for learning is amazing, and they both have individual talents and skills that we also encourage them to pursue and practice. It makes for a much more pleasant study atmosphere, and they are doing much better than they would be were they to attend public school.

    I would like to add, for readers who may wish to argue that homeschooled children don’t get enough social time with others, our kids spend more time socializing than most kids in public school. They have hip-hop dance class, church youth group, band practice, “Friday School” co-op with other homeschoolers in our county, church on Sundays, movie night at friends’ homes weekly, and, it seems that there’s always some function for them to attend, almost every week or two. I only wish that I had that sort of social life when I was a kid in public school. LOL

    • Mac Strider says:

      About your socializing point…

      Even though you bring up a good point that home schooled children can have just as many socializing opportunities as publicly schooled kids, there is a lot of research that shows that “socializing” as we all refer to it, doesn’t really have anything to do with building social skills in our kids at all. In fact in lots of cases kids who are “socialized” end up being worse of socially.

      This is because kids learn by example, and not all examples of kids their age are good… instead it’s the frequency of positive interactions with older kids, who can model good behavior that has a bigger impact on their social development.

  2. paysdegex says:

    I am a great fan of ‘Unconditional Parenting’, and I think the best thing about Kohn’s book is that it encourages parents to actually stop and think about their parenting strategies, and consider how effective they are and how they fit in with what we actually want for our children in the long term…

    I found the intrinsic/extrinsic reward stuff really interesting, and I think (hope) that in time it will come to be more widely accepted that over-reliance on rewarding good behaviour is as ineffective (dare I say counterproductive) as over-reliance on punishing bad.

    As for the question of competion, I don’t think Kohn was suggesting that children shouldn’t be allowed to compete or encouraged to achieve – there is enjoyment in the experience of competing, and pleasure in the sense of achievement that comes from knowing you have done your best… emphasising enjoyment over achievement or success ensures that our children understand that they have our permission to run, or swim, or play football, or chess, or do complex algebra, or whatever it is that floats their boat, not to make us proud or demonstrate their intelligence or skill, but simply for the pleasure of it…. and being able to take pleasure in the things we (have to)do is fundamental to our happiness as adults…

    I believe children instinctively know how to do stuff just because it’s fun, to be able to take pleasure in whatever it is they are doing in that particular moment – all we need to is stop training our children out of that habit.

    • Mac Strider says:

      Here’s the problem I have with the thought process of just doing things for fun…

      You end up losing, which is of course un-fun.

      But I don’t like the mindset of being OK with losing.

      Instead I propose another option of trying to develop a love for MASTERING the skills it takes to win, so that even if you lose, you can be proud that you got better. Because I think you have to have pride in getting better. I’m not sure if you’re a religious person or not, but I really believe in the scripture that says, “those without vision shall perish”. And I take that to mean that every one of us should have a vision for bettering ourselves and creating something better.

      And I think that is something our children should be constantly thinking about… “How can I get better”. If they can value that self mastery process, more then winning and losing, I think that creates a win win situation that allows for competition, winning PLUS fits in with Alfie Kohn’s research.

      Do you agree?

  3. eastlandgrl says:

    interesting, thanks


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