Unconditional parenting….or giving your own kid play therapy?


It’s no secret I’m into natural parenting, gentle parenting, attentive parenting, attachment parenting…whatever labels you put on it, I am into paying attention to my kids, conveying to them that they are loved, having fun with my kids. I believe my kids, just because they happen to be babies, are not subhuman. I take their needs seriously. I also trust them to know when their tummies are full, when they are sleepy, and when they want to be cuddled versus left alone to play.

That being said, I’ve been hearing more and more about something branded ‘unconditional parenting.’ I’ve not read The Book on it, let’s get that out there. But I’ve heard anecdotal stuff, I’ve read some research papers online, and…..I’m horrified.

The idea behind it is good: to let your child know they are loved for who they are, not what they do. I AM BEHIND THIS A MILLION PERCENT.

But part of this, a major part of it, seems to be not offering your child praise.

So, if you child has been working really hard on a painting, for example, and shows it to you, you might say, ‘You used blue and red and green.’ Or ‘Tell me about what you have drawn.’

I don’t see anything wrong with this, but let’s be clear: I think these techniques and theories might have been drawn from child centred play therapy. And that is something I have read the books on. It’s something I’ve done, and done well, with children who are needing some therapeutic support. It’s for kids who are having troubles at home – and who, dare I say it, might not be getting positive praise from their parental figures.

I believe empty praise is shit, don’t get me wrong. But if your child does something they are clearly proud of, they have worked hard at, and they show it to you ? I think a lovely ‘That’s a great painting, Snort!’ isn’t misplaced. Of course, you can follow it up with, ‘Coco, looks like you had a lot of fun making that painting, did you? Tell me about it! What a fantastic job.’

When our kids are little, they are self-contained in many ways. They have the seeds – the ‘nature’ bit. But babies, toddlers, and children look to their parents (I include whoever is the main attachment figure here – be it a grandparent, uncle, whoever) to give them feedback…this is the ‘nurture’ bit that helps them grow and bloom. When you convey to your child that you love them, you are proud of them, you think they do a good job at things, it helps them to solidify an inner picture of self-worth, confidence, and resilience.

When I am with a child in the context of play therapy, I stick more to observational comments and questions. For instance, my longest term play therapy client was a child who did not have any consistency or safety from her life. My job was not to be her parent, my job was to help her regain some of the things she’d lost, and to develop things she’d never had an opportunity to do.

My job was to help her explore her pain, her fear, her anger. She was seven years old.

I cared very deeply for this child and believe she knew it; we had a fantastic relationship, we had a lot of fun, we shared a lot of troubled moments where she confided things that she was worried about.

Her life was pretty fucked up, but you know what? Her parent loved her. Her parent gave her praise, and that little girl was one of the most creative and resilient children I’ve had the pleasure of working with.

I believe everything in life is about balance. I adore play therapy and I think the theory of trusting children to heal in their own time is fantastic. I think children are amazing, perceptive, and full of potential – even the ones who are throwing shit around the room, even the ones who are refusing to talk, even the ones who are hitting and stealing and lying. I think those children are even more amazing – and honest.

What I try to let kids know when I’m working with them (and this extends to teenagers as well) is that I trust them, I respect them, I believe in them. I am not a detached sort of therapist, and that’s because I’m not a detached sort of person. I radiate warmth, acceptance, and curiousity – or at least I hope I do.

After over14 years working in a professional and paid capacity with a very wide range of people ages 0-18, I can’t see how it’s good to never give your child praise. Praise doesn’t have to mean the end product is more important than the process. Praise doesn’t have to equate to pressure to be the best.

Praise can be a hug, a pat on the back, a smile, a few words. Well placed and meaningful praise can make your child feel special, loved, and willing to take risks in the world. If they receive what they need to get externally from their parent when they are young, they are able to internalize this and offer it to themselves as they get older.

I listen to myself when I talk to the babies, and there is no doubt that the therapeutic theories I’ve read, used, and taught have leaked into my being. About twenty minutes ago I heard myself said, ‘Okay, Coconut is feeling angry because she doesn’t want her mama to wash her face.’ I am always naming emotions (without any judgment or expectation attached), I am always describing what they are doing – but I am also always giving them a kiss or cuddle when things are going well.

I don’t want to ‘condition’ my children like dogs – that’s not why I do it. But you know, there are lots of things to learn in this world – what do I think of myself? How do I feel when my mama holds my sister/brother instead of me? When I wake up in the night and it’s dark, how do I feel?

I want to make sure my children are learning a lot of good lessons, lessons based in love rather than fear, or anger, or neglect. Praise is a form of encouragement and a message of unconditional love when done correctly, and to suggest that praise harms a child?

What a load of ridiculous fucking nonsense.



20 Responses to “Unconditional parenting….or giving your own kid play therapy?”

  1. Christine LaRocque Says:

    I have to recommend this fantastic book to you. It’s called Raising Happiness by Christine Carter. I *think* you would like it. It touches on some of this.

    I love this post. Really. It hits home. Well said, my friend.

    • existere Says:

      I went to amazon.com and looked at the reviews – the one sentence that popped out at me was ‘praising enjoyment and effort.’ I liked that a lot.

      In fact, I think that’s what UPers are trying to do – to let their kids know that taking part an enjoying yourself is as important, if not more so, than the end result. I think a lot of us are certainly trying to do that for our kids, in whatever ways we see fit. I still think praise is valid and important though!!!

      Thanks for the comment…

  2. Amanda Says:

    hm, I used to be very confused about the “no praise” thing as well. It totally turned me off to UP. But if you read Alfie Kohn’s book or chat to other UParents it makes things more clear.

    ‘That’s a great painting, Snort!’ is not “praise” as such, imo. It’s your opinion and you are sharing it with your child. I would probably add ‘I think…’ to the front of that so the child understands it’s an opinion. I think the point is to have the child understand that it’s ‘only’ an opinion and if he/she disagrees then that’s totally cool. KWIM?

    What I would think of as damaging praise is the whole “good boy/girl” thing. Say… you ask your child to pick up all the toys and put them in the toy box and he/she does so. Would you rather say ‘good boy! you did what I said! you are behaving and being a very good boy today’ or ‘Wow, that really has helped me a lot. Thank you for helping me’? I think the first option tells the child the the only thing he/she did correctly is obey and please you. The second option is simply thanking another human being for the help they have given you. I hope by using the second option my son will do these things out of love for others and simply wanting to help rather than just “being good” for his Mommy.

    When my son labels something correctly or draws a picture I watch his face for cues. If he’s clearly very happy and pleased with himself I go along with it. I say things like “I really like that picture. It looks just like a face/flower/football” If he correctly identifies a flower, dog, door, etc I say “oh! you’re right! That is a ___!” in an enthusiastic voice. That’s just stating fact. It’s not “praise” or conditioning. I think it is simply interacting with my son in a completely human way. I don’t think about it to much to be honest… despite my massive wall of text. LOL

    I appreciate the techniques and theories in Kohn’s book because I was raised in a very very conditional way. It is ingrained into me to be conditional but I do not want that for my children.

    So when you say “What a load of ridiculous fucking nonsense” without having actually looked into what UP reaaallly is… it kind offended me a little. Even if I don’t really label myself as UP or AP or whatever else.

    • existere Says:

      What a lot of interesting stuff here. I don’t disagree with any of it, and it certainly has better informed me. Thank you for this.

      I think a lot of this is in semantics – ie, how we define ‘praise.’ I WOULD say it’s praise to say you think a painting is fantastic or you like it (though I REALLY like the idea of adding ‘I think’ to the beginning!!), though I can see what you would say it was just an opinion. But I think an opinion can be praising or hurtful, positive or negative.

      I think perhaps my problem here is that I don’t know enough about the subject. All I can comment on is what I’ve heard – and everything I’ve read on ‘a certain website’ that we both frequent seems to focus on praise. And the stuff I’ve read directly from Kohn online have been lists of why praise is damaging.

      I do get why ‘good girl/boy’ might not be a good choice for some families. But I honestly think it is the INTENT behind the words, or any words or actions you have with your child. I think kids have the innate ability to hear what’s really being said, on a greater depth than just what the words are. So the tone of voice, the facial expression, the real meaning. ‘Good girl’ to one person might be absent minded, conditional, etc but to another it might be just the linguistics they are using to convey the same stuff you have mentioned above – and your way in inarguably more graceful and I like the words better.

      The fact that you are watching L’s facial cues, responding to him with enthusiasm, and wanting to be involved in his world? I think those things are what is going to let him know he’s got a fantastic mummy who loves him no matter what. That is the ‘cake’, and the words we use are the ‘icing.’ That’s my opinion, anyway.

      I am sorry I offended you, and in fact (from what I know of you) I really respect you as a parent and person, so I’ll probably do more research. I don’t think I’ll change my opinion much – and in fact I think we have very similar opinions, just dressed up differently. And mine was also loaded with a swear word and judgmental, while yours was not. Anyway, thanks again for the info, you’ve given me a clearer understanding of the ideas behind UP and I thank you for it!!

      • existere Says:

        And I’d also say ‘Wow, that really has helped me a lot. Thank you for helping me’ was praise as well – but meaningful, thoughtful praise.

        Praise to a kid is any encouraging, loving comment, I’d say. Just an opinion though…

      • Amanda Says:

        I totally agree that it’s about what you define as ‘praise’ and the intent behind it. I don’t agree that ‘Wow, that really has helped me a lot. Thank you for helping me’ is praise because I would say the same thing to an adult who helped me. It’s cool if my son takes away from that a feeling of ‘oh, mom is happy! I like seeing mom happy!’ Actually, that’s a good thing, I think. Giving a good comment to show appreciation or share emotions is totally different from praise, imo. 🙂

        I think it’s a bit condescending of children to praise them when your main purpose is to condition them into doing a certain behaviour more often.

        Basically, from what I can gather, UP is simply rejecting the view that children need to be conditioned, encouraged, etc; into being “good”. UP assumes that all humans are born good, want to be good, want to love and to be kind and caring. We, the parents/adults, do not need nor is it our place to play mind games to get these children to “behave”. The whole praise issue is only a small one in UP, I think

        Also, much of the time, when the word “good” is applied to children it simply means ‘follows orders, keeps quiet, doesn’t make a mess, eats every bit of food even if they find it foul’, doesn’t make a fuss. When the same word is applied to an adult it means things like ‘honourable, moral, kind, helpful,’. I want my children to be good but I want them to define what that means and not me.

        So yeah, we probably are really really similar in our parenting views. Reading on the same website I think you are talking about put me off UP at first. I was like…wuuuutt??? I can’t be happy for my child and show him that I am pleased for him??? Then I looked more into it. UP is not about being a cold robot who simply describes the factual. 😛

        I do recommend reading that book even if you end up disagreeing but I do think everyone could take at least a little something from it. 🙂

        And thanks for saying you respect me. I hope you know I totally think you are an awesome Mama too. 🙂

        • existere Says:

          I do want to read that book, I admit it, but only because you recommend it. If that’s not a cheesy thing to say. Everything you are saying is making sense to me, though!

          Um, what else..OH. The thing is, we are all conditioning our kids. All the time. Intentionally or not. They will be watching us and our reactions to things, and they’ll want to modify their actions to match up with pleasing us if we have a good relationship with them. I agree that babies are born good and people genuinely want to be good, but as parents our job IS to help shape our kids. I suppose everyone puts different value on what we expect – I certainly don’t expect them to eat anything they don’t want to, to hug or kiss or cuddle with virtual strangers, to be quiet all the time, to sleep through the night (ha!), etc.

          As they get older, I WILL expect them to share and take turns, to not hit each other, etc etc etc. I will be setting guidelines, and part of that, I suppose, will be conveying my sense of pleasure when they are behaving in a caring way towards themselves, each other, us, other people. I also suspect it won’t be hugely needed (fuck, let’s be honest, I HOPE so) because from right now they are both learning that I do trust them to know themselves. That being said, we’ve got toy stealing and the like going on – I know they don’t understand right now, but I hope to help them understand as soon as they are capable.

          Am I babbling? Yes. I don’t even remember what I was going to say when I started this. Uh.

          But I think I may keep my eye open for a cheapie copy of that book. I really need to heal up already and get fit so I can go to charity shops!! Though I don’t know our local shops would have many books about this sort of parenting in there….I would love to be proved wrong. Onward, charity shops! 🙂

          • Amanda Says:

            🙂 I couldn’t find the book for sale in the UK and had to order it from the USA! But I have heard that some libraries carry it but ours doesn’t. Hopefully yours does.

            And of course our children will be watching us, picking up stuff from us, and modifying behaviour. I agree with that and completely believe this is just natural human behaviour. It goes along with the theory of ‘born good, born wanting to help and make others happy’. It’s when we take advantage of this and intentionally try to bend them or make them do certain things we like by giving or withdrawing love that the problems come.

            (insert ‘good vibes’ smiley from that ‘other website’) LOL

  3. Pshouseblog Says:

    Wow this is an exciting post because I sortof disagree with you. I actually don’t have a lot of passion about it like one of your other comment. But I want to mention why I don’t do praise on purpose with T. When I was a kid praise was always very empty if it happened at all. I don’t remember ring told “good job” or any other equivalent and so if I was praised at all it was empty. I nev’er felt like anyone was proud of me as a result.
    My partner grew up in a “woe this is such a good job! Way To go! Wow, good job getting on the tricycle by yourself! Wow, good job stacking those blocks! Wow good job saying “A”!” and as a result-he and I both think he has lots of trouble figuring out what HE wants to do. I ask him hat he likes? And he says “well it makes you happy when Im with you and the baby so that’s what I like” or “well you like me to be a crunchy parent like you so that’s what I like.” other than coffee, &political tv shows he has no idea what he likes or wants and were trying to untangle his interests from everyone elses. I’m not sure that even made sense.
    As a result of his mothers praiseypraise when she visits, T acts completely different. Rather than doing things because she find them rewarding, she does them to get a response from an adult like it is a game. She will say “hi nana!” over and over b/c nana then says “oh! Good JOB!”
    also I guess I’m not a nonpraiser 100%. yesterday I was holding T and she pointed to alphabet magnets on a fridge and correctly identified all of them, something I didn’t even know she could do. She was grinning, I was proud, and I tol her so “I had no idea you knew all of those! Fantastic job! You are learning your letters really well!” which was my attempt to share HER joy in her accomplishment. She was already proud and didn’t seem to care what I said.

    • existere Says:

      I don’t think praise alone made Wes who he is. I mean, there are a lot of contributing factors – and I go back to thinking a lot of it is about INTENT.

      I was reading elsewhere about a nana who offered biscuits to her grandson, and when he said yes, she went and got them. She then entered the room and refused to give him the biscuits unless he said ‘the magic word.’ I’m not sure where I’m going with that, other than that is a bit fucked as she offered – and it’s a bit fucked than T’s nana (who is understandably excited about getting attention from such a CUTIE PIE BABY) put all the focus on ‘praising’ saying hello. Uh, what?

      I am starting to think that what I mean by praise is not what other people mean. And I think that might be some of the problem. I am NOT anti-praise and will no doubt offer my snickerdoodles praise as they grow, but it will be very much tempered by a heavy, heavy dose of awareness of what I am saying (or not saying).

      I think what you did with T is interesting – I bet she was proud, and because you backed her up, it appeared it didn’t matter. But if you had ignored her or said something hurtful? That shit would have mattered. I hope this makes marginal sense…it’s after 5 pm and I have two ‘teething’ babies who never seem to sprout any teeth.

      Also, I like you for a lot of reasons, but you gave me a new one today with this: ‘Wow this is an exciting post because I sortof disagree with you.’

      • P.S. House Says:

        I think you are right. I have a hard time believing that a “loving” (avoiding the use of AP terms here b/c you can love a child thoroughly and not be AP) parent will never give positive feedback to their child for an achievement. I also think you’ve had experience with lots of messed up people and are able to see that one action even done consistently (like no “wow good jobs!”) doesn’t necessarily=fucked up result. Or even negate the positive responses that DO get given.
        I did not find your post offensive at all, just intriguing. I have in my head that “praise=good job.” and “good job=I dont really care about what you did” but that doesn’t make it so.

        • existere Says:

          Your last sentence is what I imagine a LOT of people have in their heads, and why a crusade of anti-praisers has popped up. Praise to me means something very, very different. I am going to go away and think quite carefully about why that is, as well as what praise I was or was not given as a child….

          • P.S. House Says:

            I noticed today while I was at work that with my own kid I’m more prone to thoughtful responses rather than just “good job!”‘s. But with the kid I watch I keep saying “oh thts nice” and “great job! You’re very helpful”‘s. I’m almost apalle at that as it feels like an empathy thing-I don’t really have the ability to decode what subtle clues she’s giving me as I can w/ T. On the other hand-oh well. But I thought it was interesting and wanted to share it.

  4. Kristin Says:

    I agree that “That’s a great picture, you did a great job” is praise. Good boy and good girl are more labels than praise. Barbara Colorosso (if I remember correctly) makes the distinction between labeling your kid (you’re so smart! you’re so lazy) and praising their actions. Her argument was that if you praise the efforts and the actions then they feel good about what they did but if you put a label on them it can create expectations that they feel they must live up to. This resonated with me because my mother never put pressure on me to perform or get good grades but I knew that I was a “smart kid” with “lots of potential” so I wound up putting a lot of pressure on myself.

    Martin Seligman makes the distinction between conditional and unconditional praise. Unconditional praise is like what you called “empty praise.” It’s when your kid sucked out at a ball game and feels down and you say, “No, you did great!” rather than “That’s okay, we’ll work on your game and practice and you’ll do better next time.”

    When you praise unconditionally you give them an empty, two dimensional kind of “self-esteem” and they also learn that it doesn’t matter what they do, if you praise them when they know they didn’t do a good job then why would they believe you when they praise their real achievements? But when you praise their efforts and their successes their self-esteem is deeper because it’s based on a sense of mastery and achievement. When they don’t do well they get support to do better and when they do do well they get praise for a job well done.

    Anyway I’m rambling, I recommend “The Optimistic Child” by Martin Seligman and “Kids Are Worth It” by Barbara Colorosso.

    • existere Says:

      Ah, yes. Labels are no good. The thing that gets me (perhaps off topic, but roll with me!) is the question everyone seems to ask me: ”Which one is the good one, and which one is the bad one?’ Uh, WHAT? I wasn’t aware that twins came with all the good poured into one and all the bad into the other. We are very careful about labels, and automatically correct other people if they start up. People are obsessed with labelling them even this young – smart, funny, cranky, whatever. It’s not cool for all of the reasons you mentioned above, and more!

      I also think empty praise can be harmful, but wouldn’t class it as genuine ‘praise’ anyway…

      Um, what else was I going to say? My wife just texted to say she was on her way home and I am now derailed.


      OH YEAH. I think if a kid sucks ass in a baseball game or whatever, there can be praise linked to that. Yes, everything you said – but also, ‘You tried really hard, and making an effort is something you can be proud of.’ That sounds not pretty, but all I can think of is my wife coming home!! Ha. Sorry.

      But thank you for this comment.

      • existere Says:

        Oh, and I will look those books up. I wish I had money given to me for buying books, you know? My old job gave me 200.00 towards books for my counselling course, and that was like a shopping bonanza. I wish I had some of that 200 now!!

  5. CJ Says:

    I once read a quote that said something to the extent of “Fill your child’s praise bucket so full that no matter how many holes the world pokes in it, it can never run out.”

  6. Katie B. Says:

    It drives me nuts that DH uses undirected “good girl” and “good job” CONSTANTLY. I try to direct my praise – “Thank you, that was so very helpful” “Wow, I’m impressed, you ate that whole serving!”, etc., because I can see the effects Kohn describes (I’ve only read one of his essays, once) in L; with “good job” she clearly does things for the ego strokes, but with “so helpful” she does things to do them.

    We both want to encourage her, but DH is very conventional.. and I’m not, so much. So we end up double praising, in an effort to cover the bases we each feel the other is missing. *sigh*

  7. catsandcradles Says:

    While you’re checking out books, you might want to take a look at Nuture Shock, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merriman (I think that’s her name). I haven’t read the whole book, but the first chapter (which I have read) is specifically on praise, and cites some studies that I’ve read about in another neuroscience book. (Yes, I’m a giant nerd. Anyway.) Basically, what matters is *how* you praise kids. Children who are praised for things like effort are more willing to try harder things, whereas children who are told things like “you’re smart” are significantly less willing to try difficult things, and risk not looking smart. They’ll lower the bar to a point they know they can reach it without having to try, and avoid risking looking dumb.

    From personal experience, I was told growing up by parents, teachers, etc,. that I was smart. And not to sound egotistical, but I am. What I wish I *were*, though, was someone with an easier time trying, failing, and learning from it. Because I’m also honest enough to admit that it’s something I struggle with, a fair amount. I think my wife has the same thing going on. For whatever that’s worth.

    I’m personally a fan of ideas that have actual research backing them up, so this book is kind of appealing to me. I do want to read the entire book at some point, but the chapters I’ve read have been pretty interesting. And the studies that they talk about are fairly wide-ranging. So it’s worth thinking about.

    I also draw a distinction between what I consider praise and just being loving (not in any particular method-sense, just generally being loving). “I love you” is never conditional, and I think kids should be told that (by word or action) frequently. But that’s not quite the same as “you’re very smart” or “what a good girl/boy you are”.

    I agree that part of the job of parents is to condition children into being “good” (capable, considerate, etc.) people, and that children should always feel secure in being loved, but I don’t know that indiscriminant praise is the way to go about that. Not that I’m saying that’s what you do, but I think that’s what the “non-praising” thing is about.

    Just a thought.

    • existere Says:

      Yes, I think this is all semantics, like I’ve said to some others. I think pshouseblog summed it up nicely when she said to her “praise=good job.” and “good job=I dont really care about what you did”. This is not how I think about praise.

      I think this is because my exposure to children has come from a therapeutic background and lots of experience prior to having children. So to me, praise is something that is thought about, meaningful and in context. I think to a lot of parents who’ve done some reading, praise has taken on an altogether more sinister tone. I think that’s sad.

      I, too, am a nerd. Everything I learned through my counselling training was largely backed by research, and I draw from that knowledge when writing this post. I agree with praising effort. I don’t necessarily think labelling as child as ‘you’re smart’ is praise all of the time. I seem to share with you and PB the curse of being told she was smart again and again, and I am, but like you I wish I would have learned to be okay with failing now and then. I was taught that the end result is really all that matters, and I choose to reject that teaching now as an adult.

      I’m currently reading some neuroscience stuff from my course (because I roll like that), and will add your book to my ever growing list of things to check out. Sadly, I am unlikey to have the funds to purchase any of these due to the purchasing of diapers and baby books and toilet paper. *sigh*

      Thanks for the comment!

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