"Smart, audacious and often hilarious. Takes everything you thought you knew about parenting and turns it on its ear." - Jennifer Jason Leigh


I can’t think of a better way for me to have spent Martin Luther King Day than to have worked on this post.

I’m a sucker for brilliant, funny performers.

My husband John Lehr is one.

But sometimes at night when we’re in bed eating frozen grapes and watching The Daily Show I’ll say “Honey, if I’d never met you—or if God forbid something happens to you—I’d want to marry Jon Stewart.” But then all I need is a quick commercial of Chris Rock doing stand up and it becomes “Wait, I mean Chris Rock. He’s a genius.”

Lately, however, it’s becoming Dr. Gabor Maté. Not only is he totally brilliant but he looks like he just walked out of an Almodavar film. (Sadly, John, for as far as he’s come style-wise, would never be able to pull off that rumpled-sports-jacket–with-a-t-shirt look that Maté does so effortlessly. With a European accent, no less. I mean just watch this.)


But now I’m thinking Alfie Kohn. Like Maté, he’s not a comedian either, but he’s got good comic timing. And John wore pleated pants when I met him too. And honestly, I think Kohn’s pleated pants may even be calculated. I mean Kohn needs to look as conservative and non-threatening as possible when he’s passionately disseminating information that makes people question everything they’d never even dreamed of having to question. And then he goes ahead and asks them to radically change the way they do what they do all day, every day—be it as a parent or teacher or just a human being who talks to kids. Anyway, that’s all just to say that me and my crazy mind were doing some “If my husband dies…” jockeying last Wednesday when I went to not one, but two Alfie Kohn talks in one evening. (And yes, my husband was right there next to me saying “That’s nice honey. He’s a good man. Jewish, too.”)


Kohn’s first talk about Unconditional Parenting was at my daughter’s school The Oaks in Hollywood at 4pm. Afterwards I wanted to stay and decompress with everyone but instead I grabbed one cookie at the reception and rushed off to sit in cross-town traffic in order to get a good seat at The Willows in Culver City to hear his second talk Pushed Too Hard: Parenting in an Achievement Crazy Culture. Like many who had never seen Kohn in person, Gina Osher over at the Twin Coach had her mind blown by it and was inspired to blog about it. I hope you’ll take a few moments to read her post that summarizes it beautifully.

While this post will be about the first talk, I’ll quickly say that at Willows, Kohn essentially exposed modern education for the thief that it is (and backed it up with his exhaustive research)….showing us how everything from reward-and-punishment classroom management styles, direct instruction, homework, grades, tests and competition literally rob children of their innate joy of learning. Bottom line: Why go to school if it will make your kids less interested in knowing things? His message to parents and educators: Take a big gulp, swallow your pride and think again. Your kids are worth it. Stand up! Say something! Do something. Don’t let this continue.


So back to The Oaks.

Kohn kicked off PARENTING MATTERS, a new series co-presented by Echo Parenting & Education and The Oaks. (I am proud to have played matchmaker here and have high hopes that the relationship between Echo and Oaks will grow and thrive. As Rabbi Schulweiss said at our wedding, “The reason this union is of importance to more than just you and your families is because of Tikkun olum…it’s potentional to help repair the world.”)

I don’t know what Kohn’s talk was officially titled but I’m calling it “Doing to” vs. “Working with” Parenting. While the former is rampant in our culture and is “effective” in the short term, ultimately it creates less generous, less empathetic, less self-disciplined, less genuinely interested people while damaging the parent-child relationship that we all not only hold so dear but ultimately creates the foundation of a healthy life. His message wasn’t what many wanted or were remotely expecting to hear. And for many I think it was a hard, horse pill that smells like yucky vitamins to swallow.

So without further ado…

Grant Hall holds about 150 people and I had third row seats. After having been one in a sea of thousands last time I saw Kohn at Occidental College, it was really exciting to see him in such an intimate setting. He can get so worked up! Even though he’s likely given the same talk many many times, he delivers it like the greatest of Broadway performers who during each one of their eight performances a week make the audience feel like it’s opening night. Kohn was as sharp and nimble as he was passionate. (See how much I love him?)

Ted Harmory, the Oaks’ Head of School, welcomed everyone by explaining that having Alfie Kohn on campus was particularly significant for him because it was one of Kohn’s books (Unconditional Parening? or Punished by Rewards?) that he read over a decade ago that transformed him as a father and an educator. Ted then introduced Brian Joseph, the Director of Programming at Echo Parenting & Education who essentially said the same thing. It was actually quite moving to witness two grown men publicly thank the man who so deeply influenced their thinking, parenting and careers and by extension, the lives of countless others.

 “The more you rely on your power with your kids the less influence you’ll have on their lives.”

The first part of Kohn’s talk was particularly intense. Like a masterful trial lawyer, he used logic, research and heart-breaking scenes from life to lay bear for us his argument that rewarding children with praise and punishing them with everything from spanking, yelling at, forced isolation, threats, humiliation or shaming are actually two sides of the same coin. You might think you’re helping your kid by Good jobbing them, but in essence, just like punishment, it is just another form of trying to control their behavior. Kohn classifies everything on that spectrum as Doing To parenting. Yes, when they are young, you’ll get temporary compliance but only at a significant cost.

Kohn explained that what history teaches us about power, psychology teaches us about intimacy. People who feel powerless, seek power. People who feel like victims become victimizers. I took this to mean, that if you don’t want your kid to be a bully, don’t bully them.

The buck has to stop somewhere. It would be best if it could stop with you.

“Punishments erode relationships.”

Kohn is anti consequences. He explains that they get in the way of true moral growth and ultimately create kids who are more self-centered. Not less. For instance, if a kid gets caught doing something and there is a consequence, he’ll just start thinking to himself, “How can I do that without getting caught?” It’s about him, not why he shouldn’t do what he did. On the other hand, what we want is for people to choose not to do something because of how it makes others and ourselves feel. Consequences can’t accomplish that.

Then what do you do? many wondered. How can one you possibly get their child to do something without a consequence, without a “If you don’t….then….” or without praising them into it?

“The way kids learn to make good decisions is by making decisions, not following directions.”

Well, Kohn was there to advocate for what he calls a WORK WITH style of parenting. You don’t need to be the all-knowing, infallible adult that you aren’t anyways. You can work with your children. You can learn from them. You can engage them in the process of decision-making. You can listen to them. You can try to see the world from their point of view. You can be empathetic and compassionate. And you can think the best of them, not the worst. When they do “good” things, you don’t have to think it’s a fluke and praise them for it hoping it will reinforce their behavior as if they are a rat in one of Skinner’s experiments. Working with your children, instead of doing to them, is not only more respectful, compassionate and humane but it is more effective if your goals are to raise children who are generous, thoughtful, empathetic and intrinsically motivated.

During the second part of the talk he laid out eight guidelines of Work With Parenting.

Before listing and describing them, Kohn explained that he wasn’t there to tell us what to do or say to your kids. He doesn’t know us and he doesn’t know our kids. It would be as presumptuous as it would be preposterous. Parenting is all about knowing your child. Observing them. And your relationship with them. How can you tell someone you don’t know what to say to someone you’ve never met? So, instead, he offered guidelines of how to work with your kids.

The guidelines are his. The commentary is my own.


If your kid doesn’t just up and do what you want him to do, or is putting up a fight (as in trying to stick up for themselves), did you really ask something reasonable?


 Is it really worth eroding your relationship with your kids (or their own relationship with their hypothalamus) to get them to not have a second cupcake?


I think this quote from to Kill a Mocking Bird captures some of what he meant:

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

You may not feel hot and sweaty in a jacket, but can you imagine that your child who isn’t putting it on when you asked, might? Perhaps he’s been playing for an hour while you’ve been sitting in the shade.


Can you imagine how it might feel to be three years old and to show up at a birthday party at a big gymnasium and be told to go jump on the trampoline with your hands in the air and follow the leader on obstacle course over balance bars and swinging ropes? And then when you cling to your mother and shake your head no and find that she’s not the warm refuge you were looking for but is instead is pushing your out there? After all, all the other kids are doing it. Ask: What is your kid seeing and feeling? Personally, I want my kids cautious when it comes to potentially new, scary overwhelming and dangerous situations. Honor it. (For example!)


How do we communicate this? It’s not enough to feel like we love the unconditionally. They need to feel it too.

You don’t want your kid feeling that they’re more loved when then get an A or win a game or share a toy or do as they are told or kiss grandma. Conversely you don’t want them feeling like they are unworthy of your love if they’ve messed up. They are always loveable.


Be authentic. Let them know you are vulnerable. That you make mistakes. If you made a mistake, apologize. If you are frustrated, tell them. You don’t’ have to scream about it! If you’re disappointed or sad, be disappointed or sad. All emotions are valid, why wouldn’t we want our children to see us vulnerable and human? It will make your closer.


Listen to them. Elicit information. Great parenting is a function of being a great listener.


You don’t need to think they did something nice because they were trying to manipulate you or to get something. Think the best of your kid.


And he means real choices. Not: “Do you want a red cup or a blue one?”


A mother who had clearly been deeply affected by Kohn’s talk said, “My child is older. I’ve made mistakes! Where do I start?”

Kohn answered by saying that he’s just be honest.

“Honey, I went to hear a parenting expert talk last night and I realized that so many of the things that I’ve been doing that I thought were helping you, actually aren’t. I have new perspective. Over time, I’d like to talk to you about these things. I’d like to hear your point of view. I want to work with you.”

Starting an authentic dialogue is important. And apologizing for mistreating your child is too.

There are so many ways I can imagine to help oneself become a Work With parent. Certainly it is a challenge. But I’ve found that with practice it does get easier (though I wouldn’t say easy!). Here’s some ideas.

  1. Go directly to alfiekohn.com.
  2. Take a parenting class from Echo Parenting & Education
  3. Bring the film Race to Nowhere to your community.
  4. Print Kohn’s 8 guidelines and put them on your refrigerator. Read daily.
  5. Create your own support group of like-mindedish parents and bring in material to discuss weekly. Places to start gathering material:
  • alfiekohn.com
  • rickackerly.com
  • goodjobandotherthings.com
  • ahaparenting.com
I know I’ve left out so much. If you went to the talks, please share!
I know this post is super long… so if you’ve read this far: THANK YOU.


19 Responses to “ALFIE KOHN: MY HERO”

  1. Chris Wulf says:

    Another well written segment. Alfie Kohn is also one of my heros. I think the most obvious thing, and what startled me most, that he pointed out was that “the message you send your children is not important. It is the message they recieve.” Alfie has does a great service to me and my daughter. I will recommend another, equally valuable resource. Marshall Rosenburg’s Non Violent Communication. I am in the process of combining the two into a healthier relationship between myself and my daughter. And less importantly, into a book. I am greatly heartened to find another like mind. A better parent makes for a better world.

    • Jennifer says:

      I wish someone would nominate alfie kohn for a nobel peace prize, already! and thank you for the reminder about how important it is that they get the message we want them to. And yes I am also a big fan of Dr. Rosenberg as Echo Parenting and Education is laregely founded on his principles of non-violent communication.

      i’m also so glad you found me.

      thank you for poking around the site and reading other posts. i appreciate it.


  2. Dara says:

    Thanks for the time you took to write all this. I’ll be posting this to our group on Facebook, “Olive Branch” which is geared toward people who used to spank but are now looking for something different. I have not spanked for 4 years but have still struggled with being a “Doing To” type parent. I really appreciate this posting. :)

  3. Jennifer,

    How wonderful!

    I’ve been a LONG time follower of Alfie (since the early 90′s), although my geographic location precludes me from being able to benefit from seeing him in person! I have seen the beauty of his ideas come to fruition in my own home, in the families with whom I work, and with the early childhood educators who are brave enough to depart from antiquated ideas on raising and educating children!

    Change is scary and change takes time. It is always worth it, though!

    Thanks for being a beam of light!

    Wendy @Kidlutions

    • Jennifer says:

      hey wendy….

      thank you so much for sharing my post. i’m curious…where do u live that alfie never gets near there?

      yes, change is scary. and people are so resistant to it! i can understand it, but i do think some kind of light bulb has to go off for you and no one can do that for you. and then you WANT to change.

      i appreciate the support!


  4. Molly says:

    I had the exact same Jon Stewart thought the other day!! LOVE him. Loved your post, too.

  5. Allie says:

    Hey Jennifer:
    couldn’t agree with you more about Alfie. I’ve seen him three times, from back when we had him speak at our school about a dozen years ago to last spring when the Mpls Open Schools hired him to do a staff development. Awesome stuff, for parenting as well as teaching. Thanks for the ‘guidlines’–especially 4-8 which at the middle school level are the most important to remember daily.
    Sheesh it would be fun to get our kids together one of these years, before we’re senior citizens!
    Love to you and John,
    ali (and jeff, billie and daisy)

    • Jennifer says:

      hey allie!

      yes…we must reunite before we’re 60…and i just ran into someone who said a woman who was sixty had just said to her, “40 to 60 goes fastest…in the blink of an eye!” i had to gulp. but in that case we’ve got to get on it.

      i’m so curious…did u go through the staff development with him? if so, what was it like? whose idea was it to bring him? what is his process with faculty? how did people respond to him?
      so many questions! i’d love to hear more about that.

      has his speaking style changed much over the years?

      and btw: thank you so much for keeping us on your holiday card list. we love to get them. alas, you don’t get ours because we don’t send them.

      lots of love and thanks so much for reading my blog. xo me

  6. michi says:

    jennifer- when i read that alfie kohn was in town and i missed him speak i felt like jumping in front of a train! what a missed opportunity! anyway,what do you think alfie would say about discussing consequences? sometimes the ‘what will happen’ discussion feels like a threat. there’s a fine line and i’m not sure whether i want to continue engaging in it but don’t know any alternatives.

    for instance, i’m not sure how i’ll get my 3 yr old to brush his teeth and take a bath. he hates doing both! i always say ‘it’s time to brush your teeth’ and i’m met with ‘no! no!’ then i get the ‘why do i have to brush?’ so i explain why and then there’s the series of why’s then we’re back to square one with unbrushed teeth. sure a day of unbrushed teeth won’t kill him but when i don’t set the limits then he’ll push very far. we tried not washing his hair then he goes days without washing hair. if it were up to him i’m sure he’d grow dreadlocks. same goes for eating. if it were up to him he’d be eating cupcakes for dinner every night.

    so what would alfie do? let my kid grow dreads and eat cupcakes every night with unbrushed teeth?

    and thank you SO much for summarizing his lecture.

    • Kim says:

      I am interested in what his answer would be to this as well. This is where I struggle. I’m trying to establish boundaries but when my twins (3 years old) test me, I have a hard time knowing what to do next.

      • sara says:

        i’d love more on this, too!
        my guy’s 2.5 and we’re having struggles over everyday things, too… which i know very par for the course for this age.

        our big deal right now is diaper changes – but all the examples above illustrate the same general idea: struggles, boundaries, limits.

        alfie’s my hero, too. i saw him speak where i live (santa barbara) in the summer of 2010 – he’s the raddest.

        we actively keep his unconditional parenting principles in mind all the time – and especially when we’re in the struggle cycle at diaper time! in fact, we’re due to watch his U.P. dvd again – we like to revisit it often because it’s that good and because it helps keep us in parenting-shape!

        diaper changes: we give choices and try to engage him in the decision making process, we are always willing/able to reconsider our requests (often before even making them) and definitely keep it real about our feelings, too… etc etc.

        but lately, it’s becoming such a song and dance to change a diaper. he just says “no” – with all actions in step. sometimes he’s matter of fact about it, other’s he’s totally bossy and upset about it.

        if it’s a wet diaper – and dude, even if it’s a full-on dirty diaper – we are totally willing to give him his time and space but there comes a time that it just needs to get done and we’ve given him his time but have to draw a line.

        lately we’re giving him the choice to work with us – but it feels like a threat to then tell him if he can’t that we’ll pick him up and “help” him so we can get the job done.

        it’s come to that a couple times and sometimes there are passive tears and cries that very, very quickly stop so the diaper change proceeds and wraps up and all is calm and bright.
        but if big feelings arise, we stop and hold a space for those feelings before proceeding (and in life in general). we’re not going to pin him down!

        but i can’t help but feel like we’re “doing to” in those circumstances because we ARE. and i hate it. but we start feeling like doormats because “working with” just ain’t happening despite our best efforts. and then we feel like he’s spiraling because he sees that we’re not firm on a limit and it makes him uneasy – he’s looking for a limit.

        okay, that turned into a way longer comment/question than i’d intended but i’d love love love any input you may have.

        (and i love your blog, too. i’m embarassed that this is the first time i’ve commented, though, because i’ve been readin’ for a while!)

        thanks in advance…
        and hi!
        xo sara

        • Jennifer says:


          forgive me for the late late late reply. if you’ve read my late reply to michi you’ll see it was a busy busy week for me.

          i do feel for you. it does seem like you’ve done everything to work with him.

          it is a health issue because he can get a rash and be very uncomfortable if a poop diaper is on too long. so at some point it has to come off.

          and sooner the better.

          my biggest question is: do you do the diaper changes standing up?

          i’ve seen two year olds asked to lie down for a diaper change because their parents are used to it and don’t realize you can easily do a diaper change standing up and the kid really fights it because it can feel so wrong to them.

          also do u discuss this with him when it’s not a heated time (like the diaper change isn’t imminent?) “honey, you don’t like to change your diaper. why?”

          can he choose the type of diaper? would he like pull ups? a couple of fun pull ups to choose from?

          and also, before the choices, before trying to engage him etc. do you first EMPATHIZE?

          honey you don’t like to change your diapers, right? you’d prefer to keep your diaper on with the poop? you don’t care that you’d get a rash? it’s upsetting for you.

          it’s so important for him to truly feel felt BEFORE you go to the choice and engagement.

          helpful at all?

          thanks for writing in sara and i’m so sorry about the delayed response. really. i hope it won’t keep you from writing in again.

          please let me know how things go.

    • Jennifer says:

      hey michi….

      first my apologies for taking soooo long to get back to you. a crazy week. my son hudson, who is also three, broke his arm and wanted me to sleep with him for a couple of nights and that’s usually when i’d answer questions. but he’s fine and im’m back.

      and actually hudson used to really hate brushing his teeth so it’s something i’m very familiar with. and actually just last month i went to an echo parenting master class and one woman broke down in tears because it is such a big battle for her and her child every night. and she didn’t want to be forceful and yet teeth brushing (and bathing) are health issues. and wiring into their brains the importance of self-care is so important.


      the cupcake thing i thing is easier to answer. if you have healthy foods in your house then those are his choices and then if he goes out and has a couple of cupcakes it is no big deal because it is infrequent.

      so back to the teeth and bathing.

      hudson used to be fine with bathing as a child. but one day he was over it. i don’t know if he’d slipped in the bath and became scared but he no longer would go. so i started using a wash cloth most of the time and would bathe him outside of the tub. but then one day i was at ikea and saw a freestanding plastic tub for $20 and i filled it with sudsy warm water and put it in the middle of the bathroom. he climbed in on his own and loved it. then i started putting that tub in the shower. when he was ready he’d climb in. i think he loved the autonomy. the control over the situation and knowing it was so shallow and nothing would happen to him. then one day, about six months later he wouldn’t go in it again!

      so i started getting in the tub and then he was fine. and we did that for a long while. then he just got back into it. still today he’s not dying to take a bath and as a result i give him options many days: would you like a wash cloth or a bath today? and for a wash cloth he’ll happily sit next to the tub on a math and let me suds him up. and he doesn’t like hair washing so i only do it once a week when he is in the tub and only at the end and i give him a wash cloth to cover his eyes with. so in short I WORK WITH HIM. oh also i never give him a bath after 3pm and usually not after 2! he’s just more up for it earlier in the day. and when he does get in he loves it and will play for an hour. go figure.

      RE: TEETH

      also i should mention that i first EMPATHIZE with him. You don’t want to take a bath. You say “it’s my body and i like it dirty.” And I understand that. It is your body. You’d rather have it dirty than get water on it and clean it. You aren’t bothered by the dirt.

      I want him first to feel felt. That I get it. TOTALLY.

      same with the teeth.

      But to me tooth brushing can feel especially invasive. After all it is an orifice that an object is invading (if it isn’t welcome.)

      So after you’ve empathized…have you asked your child to help come up with a solution.

      “Honey, brushing your teeth is important. You don’t like me to do it. You don’t want to do it yourself. Do you have any ideas….” You may be surprised.

      Hudson always controls when it will happen “after two more books” and then i simply hold him to it and won’t read more books after that…but he also lives up to it.

      Also, I’ve given him the chance to brush my teeth so he can have the control and i can know how it feels to have someone come into my mouth with a hard object.

      And finally, I’d try, “Honey would you like to brush your teeth with a wash cloth tonight?” I think the most important thing is the habit and then you can build back up to the tooth brush.


      let me know how things go! i hope they improve and again sorry for the belated response!


      • Michi says:

        Hi Jennifer,

        sorry it took me so long to reply back to you. i have no excuse. i just flaked and got busy but i saw your FB posting tonight which reminded me of this…well, let me tell you something. it’s working!! yes way!! i’m really trying hard to stay away from the if you don’t do xyz, then well xyz will happen to you and you’ll feel terrible and blah, blah, blah. so i ask him when it came to tooth brushing ‘what can i do to make this easier for you? do you have a suggestion? how would you like to do this?’ so every morning he’ll do it ‘his way’ then i help him finish the job. it’s not perfect and there’s still quite a resistance to get to the sink but we’re getting there. the hair washing is easier. we asked him again’ it seems like you don’t enjoy washing your hair but we have to wash so how would you like me to wash it? what would make it easier for you? any ideas?” and he wanted to put his hands over his ears and voila! he’s now completely over screaming too. it feels good to empower your child. it really does. it’s turning into a win win situation. now lets hope this all lasts for both him and me. thank you for your advice and your blog. it’s people like you with great info like this making other people’s lives SO much easier. i do have to pick up the unconditional parenting as well. thanks again!!

        • Jennifer says:

          Great to hear from you! And with such great results! Best news I’ve heard all week!

          You’ll be SO HAPPY you’re reading unconditional parenting. Here’s a link for any of you who want to read it but if you’re like me, forget the second you stop reading this sentence because you have so much going on!

          children REALLY appreciate and thrive when we work with them. they feel like we get them and their struggles. that we trust that they know themselves. that we see them as smart partners. it’s respectful. respect always brings great results. it’s not a fluke! it will last. and there might be set backs but stay with it. it will only get better because those neural pathways of trust and respect will get stronger!

          i appreciate you sharing your process with me and all the readers who visit.

          thank you.


        • Jennifer says:


          i wanted to add one thing.

          re: the sink

          FORGET IT.

          never once in my 5.75 years as a parent have i had my children at the sink when they brush their teeth!

          we have a tooth brush on the table next to their bed. with a little toothpaste on it. after a couple of books i help them brush their teeth and if they want water their is some, but they just swallow it and go back to reading. the bathroom and lights and all seems too much.

          perhaps delete the bathroom portion for now. likely better for older kids or those who don’t resist.

  7. This is a great summary, Jennifer! I just started reading his book “Unconditional Parenting” and am already blown away with how well he makes the case for his viewpoints. It’s a hard pill to swallow to realize you’ve been doing things in the name of loving your children that actually may hurt them, but I would much rather know and be able to make a change, than to bury my head in the sand! I’m so glad to have found Alfie Kohn and his message. And I’m honored that you included a mention of my Alfie Kohn post. Thank you!

    On another note, Jon Stewart is on my short list as well. ;-)
    Great post, I’ll definitely be sharing!

  8. Christine R. says:

    Thanks for the incredibly valuable info Jennifer! Vicarious Alfie I love it. I especially appreciate guideline #5 and resources!

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