Epistemic Spot Check: Unconditional Parenting

by ElizabethAceso Under Glass3 min read10th Nov 20196 comments


Epistemic Spot Check

Epistemic spot checks started as a process in which I investigate a few of a book’s claims to see if it is trustworthy before continuing to read it. This had a number of problems, such as emphasizing a trust/don’t trust binary over model building, and emphasizing provability over importance. I’m in the middle of revamping ESCs to become something better. This post is both a ~ESC of a particular book and a reflection on the process of doing ESCs and what I have and should improve(d).

As is my new custom, I took my notes in Roam, a workflowy/wiki hybrid. Roam is so magic that my raw notes are better formatted there than I could ever hope to make them in a linear document like this, so I’m just going to share my conclusions here, and if you’re interested in the process, follow the links to Roam. Notes are formatted as follows:

  • The target source gets its own page
  • On this page I list some details about the book and claims it makes. If the claim is citing another source, I may include a link to the source.
  • If I investigate a claim or have an opinion so strong it doesn’t seem worth verifying (“Parenting is hard”), I’ll mark it with a credence slider. The meaning of each credence will eventually be explained here, although I’m still working out the system.
    • Then I’ll hand-type a number for the credence in a bullet point, because sliders are changeable even by people who otherwise have only read privileges.
  • You can see my notes on the source for a claim by clicking on the source in the claim
  • You may see a number to the side of a claim. That means it’s been cited by another page. It is likely a synthesis page, where I have drawn a conclusion from a variety of sources.

This post’s topic is Unconditional Parenting (Alfie Kohn) (affiliate link), which has the thesis that even positive reinforcement is treating your kid like a dog and hinders their emotional and moral development.

Unconditional Parenting failed its spot check pretty hard. Of three citations I actually researched (as opposed to agreed with without investigation, such as “Parenting is hard”), two barely mentioned the thing they were cited for as an evidence-free aside, and one reported exactly what UP claimed but was too small and subdivided to prove anything. 

Nonetheless, I thought UP might have good ideas kept reading it. One of the things Epistemic Spot Checks were designed to detect was “science washing”- the process of taking the thing you already believe and hunting for things to cite that could plausibly support it to make your process look more rigorous. And they do pretty well at that. The problem is that science washing doesn’t prove an idea is wrong, merely that it hasn’t presented a particular form of proof. It could still be true or useful- in fact when I dug into a series of self-help books, rigor didn’t seem to have any correlation with how useful they were. And with something like child-rearing, where I dismiss almost all studies as “too small, too limited”, saying everything needs rigorous peer-reviewed backing is the same as refusing to learn. So I continued with Unconditional Parenting to absorb its models, with the understanding that I would be evaluating its models for myself.

Unconditional Parenting is a principle based book, and its principles are:

  • It is not enough for you to love your children; they must feel loved unconditionally. 
  • Any punishment or conditionality of rewards endangers that feeling of being loved unconditionally.
  • Children should be respected as autonomous beings.
  • Obedience is often a sign of insecurity.
  • The way kids learn to make good decisions is by making decisions, not by following directions.

These seem like plausible principles to me, especially the first and last ones. They are, however, costly principles to implement. And I’m not even talking about things where you absolutely have to override their autonomy like vaccines. I’m talking about when your two children’s autonomies lead them in opposite directions at the beach, or you will lose your job if you don’t keep them on a certain schedule in the morning and their intrinsic desire is to watch the water drip from the faucet for 10 minutes. 

What I would really have liked is for this book to spend less time on its principles and bullshit scientific citations, and more time going through concrete real world examples where multiple principles are competing. Kohn explicitly declines to do this, saying specifics are too hard and scripts embody the rigid, unresponsive parenting he’s railing against, but I think that’s a cop out. Teaching principles in isolation is easy and pointless: the meaningful part is what you do when they’re difficult and in conflict with other things you value.

So overall, Unconditional Parenting:

  • Should be evaluated as one dude’s opinion, not the outcome of a scientific process
  • Is a useful set of opinions that I find plausible and intend to apply with modifications to my potential kids.
  • Failed to do the hard work of demonstrating implementation of its principles.
  • Is a very light read once you ignore all the science-washing.



As always, tremendous thanks to my Patreon patrons for their support.


PS. The evidence-lives-in-Roam format is new, and I'm curious how it's affecting readability. If you've followed along with this series, please comment with how it's working for you.