Unconditional Parenting (UP) is a parenting philosophy laid forth by Alfie Kohn in his book of the same name. It's a gentle, empathetic approach to parenting that is based on mutual trust and respect. It holds children in high esteem, it gives them a voice and takes their needs seriously. It's a long-view approach that focuses on overall wellbeing and happiness rather than manipulating specific behaviors. Most parenting advice tries to answer the question, "How do I make my kids be good?" and this book asks, "How do I raise a good person?"
More specifically, it reasons that we should avoid manipulating their behavior - at all. That we should neither punish nor praise them in order to stifle or cultivate any given behavior. In doing so, we're just throwing carrots and sticks at them, when what they need is only love. Neutral, nonjudgemental, unconditional love.
The logic here is that children will learn, through punishment and praise, that your esteem of them, and in turn their own self-esteem, hinges on their behavior. The message they receive is that they are less worthy of love when they are bad, and more worthy of it when they are good. They think they have to earn your love. Something as simple as praising a well-thrown ball with a simple, "Whoa, good job!" can convey the message that you love them more when they do impressive things. Or even that you were surprised that they could do something so amazing. The message should be that you love them all the time, whether they are being a prefect angel or a whiny monster beast.
Your esteem of them heavily influences their self-esteem. They may grow up thinking more highly of themselves when they've done well and be shattered by failure if they learn from you that their self-worth is tied up with their successes and failures, rather than having a solid foundation of self-worth that doesn't much change whether they get an A or an F. If they do fail at something, they are more likely to overcome it quickly and learn from their errors rather than being crushed and thinking that they themselves are a failure.
Also, their motivation for doing or not doing something becomes extrinsic, rather than intrinsic, if parents use behavior manipulation in the form of punishment and praise. They may avoid doing something "bad," but mostly to avoid punishment. "I shouldn't throw this handful of sand because I don't want time out" rather than, "I shouldn't throw this sand because it might hurt someone." Conversely, they might do something "good," but only for the reward they may get, not because it is an inherently good thing to do. "I'll put my toys away so I can get a cookie," not, "I should put my toys away because it will help out Mom." When you promote intrinsic motivation, you teach empathy. When you promote extrinsic motivation, you teach self-centeredness.
The issue there is that young children, toddlers especially, are naturally self-centered and don't even have the capacity for empathy until they are much older. It can be so tempting to punish and praise because it seems to work - you are using their nature to your (short-term) advantage. A two year old simply doesn't understand that throwing sand will hurt someone else, she literally may not be capable of that, but she can understand the consequence it will have on her, which is why she gives the toy back when you threaten time out, but not when you point out how sad she made the other child. You have to keep the long-term goal in mind. You have to allow for the fact that stealing toys is a developmentally appropriate behavior for a 2 year old. Punishing them now can impede their later capacity for empathy.
So what do you do to get your kids to be good? You don't. You forget about "good" and "bad." You understand that two year olds throw tantrums, that they steal toys, that they hit. They just do. Your job is to give them a positive, yes-oriented environment, empower them, hear their voice, take them seriously, and let your not-to-be-underestimated modeling of good behavior do the work for you.
Don't misunderstand - this isn't permissive parenting. It isn't about letting your kids be bullies because it's easier than trying to fight it. It's actually far, far more intensive than simple discipline - each conflict is viewed as a unique problem to be solved, where motivations and feelings are considered and discussed, and a resolution is achieved jointly.
It is difficult to be succinct and actually sum-up UP because it is such a broad philosophy, but there are twelve principles included in the book (I've included short quotes from the book):
Edited by luckiest - 1/4/13 at 1:28pm
"...most of us would benefit by spending more time reviewing what we've done with our children in order to be better parents tomorrow than we are today."
RECONSIDER YOUR REQUESTS
"Perhaps when your child doesn't do what you're demanding, the problem isn't with the child but with what it is you're demanding."
KEEP YOUR EYE ON YOUR LONG-TERM GOALS
"Whether your child spills the chocolate milk today, or loses her temper, or forgets to do her homework doesn't matter nearly as much as the things you do that either help or don't help her to become a decent, responsible, compassionate person."
PUT THE RELATIONSHIP FIRST
"Of course, a solid and loving relationship isn't justified primarily because it's useful; it's an end in itself. That's why we need to ask whether it's wroth jeopardizing that relationship in order to get a baby to sleep through the night, or a toddler to start using the potty, or a child to mind his manners."
CHANGE HOW YOU SEE, NOT JUST HOW YOU ACT
"When a child does something inappropriate, conditional parents are likely to perceive this as an infraction, and infractions naturally seem to call for 'consequences.' Unconditional parents are apt to see the same act as a problem to be solved, an opportunity for teaching rather than for making the child suffer."
"...kids are morel likely to respect others (including you) if they themselves feel respected."
"We shouldn't hide behind the role of Father or Mother, to the point that our humanity (or our human connection with them) disappears."
TALK LESS, ASK MORE
"Dictating to kids (even in a nice way) is far less productive than eliciting ideas and objections and feelings from them."
"To be a great parent is more than a function of listening than of explaining."
KEEP THEIR AGES IN MIND
"Controlling parents [...] are likely to hold children to unrealistically high expectations, partly because they don't understand how unrealistic those expectations are. They might punish a toddler for failing to do what he said he would do, or demand that a preschooler sit quietly through a long family dinner."
"We have to keep our expectations keyed to what they're capable of doing."
"ATTRIBUTE TO CHILDREN THE BEST POSSIBLE MOTIVE CONSISTENT WITH THE FACTS"
"This sentence [...] springs from two facts. One: We usually don't know for sure why a child acted the way he did. Two: Our beliefs about those reasons can create a self-fulfilling prophecy."
"Just because a child's action may have a negative effect on you doesn't mean that was the child's intention."
DON'T STICK YOUR NO'S IN UNNECESSARILY
"What matters most is the reason for our decisions, and the extent to which we're willing to provide guidance, to support children's choices, to be there with them--all of which is a lot more challenging than saying yes or no. What I'm talking about might be called mindful child-rearing, which is the opposite of being an auto parent. It requires enormous reserves of attention and patience."
DON'T BE RIGID
"Any given action has to be understood in a context, as a function of specific situations and causes. Allowances should be made for a child's having an off day, or for the possibility that you're feeling less tolerant this evening."
DON'T BE IN A HURRY
"Parents become more controlling when time is short, just as they do when they're in public. The combination of the two conditions is killer."
"Rather than trying to change your child's behavior, it usually makes more sense to alter the environment."
"...I can't resist point out that the phrase, "don't be in a hurry" has another meaning. It might be thought of as a reminder to slow down and savor your time with your kids."