Following is an excerpt from our email series about effective parenting and the effect punishments and rewards have on kids.

I’d like to tell you a story (this is Cecilia):

Years ago, I got a degree in occupational therapy. I’ve worked with children nearly my entire career. Being in a medical field we were trained to look for “evidence” to support what we did with clients and patients. This makes sense. It’s good to have a reason for why you’re doing what you’re doing with someone in your care that is depending on you.

When we became parents I wanted to have “evidence” for our parenting. I thought surely, if I went to the research that I could find some “proof” about effective parenting. Turns out it wasn’t as simple as I thought it would be. It took years to find the kind of evidence that I was searching for. But as long as I kept to mostly research based sources (rather than relying on parenting books and experts with no foundation in science) I found the “proof” I was longing for.

Have you ever watched film develop (you know that stuff that used to be in cameras)? Imagine being in a dark room. You put photo paper in a shallow dish with liquid chemicals in it. And you watch. Within a few seconds hazy shapes and blobs begin to appear, getting into sharper and sharper focus. After several minutes your blobs on the paper have turned into an image. If you’ve done things right, you can see all the clean lines and details. You can see the dark parts contrast sharply with the white.

That’s how it’s been for me in developing a model for parenting. At first our approach to parenting was hazy, guided mostly by how we had been parented and the few books that we’d read that were not based in science. Then following our desire for “proof” we studied more books and honed our skills (with our own children, therapy clients, and kids in our classroom). What came into focus over the years was a model for the “best practices” of effective parenting. We continue to sharpen this model as more details come into focus, just like watching film develop.

I felt like I struck a gold mine when I sat down and read Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn. Summarized here is what I found in his book. We highly recommend his book for anyone who, like us, needed proof. If you want any more information about where this research comes from—get your hands on his book. Even the footnotes are interesting (says Cecilia – Jason thinks “interesting footnotes” is an oxymoron).

Here’s what Kohn says about parenting “best practices”: Research shows that kids are more likely to do what they are told when parents:

  1. Don’t rely on power (time outs, bribes, threats, rewards, etc.)
  2. Have a warm and secure relationship with them
  3. Treat them with respect
  4. Minimize control
  5. Offer reasons and explanations
  6. Are sensitive, accepting and cooperative with their children
  7. Are clear about their request and listen to their children’s objections
  8. Accommodate their children’s objections in a way that conveys respect for their autonomy and individuality


In the research children are less likely to do what they are told when their parents:

  1. Impose their will on the child
  2. Interrupt him arbitrarily
  3. Disregard his needs, wishes or the activity in progress
  4. Are commanding, criticizing or praising

Research shows that children with supportive and warm parents are also more likely to do what their parents want, even when they are not in the room or when they are following the directions of an adult that is not their parents (like a teacher or relative). Isn’t that cool?

This means that being warm and supportive with your children helps them at home when you’re not around and when they are outside your home—at school, during extra curricular activities, and at friends’ houses.

Does this mean that children with warm parents are always cooperative? No, of course not. These children sometimes say ‘yes’ and they sometimes say ‘no’ (especially during toddler and teen years). And often these kids do what they are asked, especially when it is reasonable, respectful and important to the person asking.

Does this mean that being a warm parent means that you just sit back and let the kids raise themselves? No. Warm parents offer guidance, set limits, empower their children rather than force conformity, and use respect and understanding rather than coercion.

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photo credit: Nomadic Lass