Parental Love with Strings Attached
By Alfie Kohn

NOTE: An abridged version of this article was published (with the title "When a Parent's 'I Love You' Means 'Do as I Say.'") in the New York Times, September 15, 2009

More than 50 years ago, Carl Rogers suggested that successful psychotherapy relies on three key ingredients. Therapists must be genuine rather than hiding behind a mask of professionalism. They must understand their clients’ feelings accurately.  And they must put aside judgment in order to express “unconditional positive regard” for those they seek to help.

That last one is a doozy – not only because it’s so difficult but because of what the need for it says about how we were raised.  Rogers believed that therapists need to accept their clients without any strings attached so that the clients can begin to accept themselves.  And the reason so many have disowned or repressed parts of who they are is because their parents put “conditions of worth” on their care:  I love you, but only when you’re well-behaved (or successful in school, or impressive to other adults, or quiet, or thin, or deferential, or cute . . .)

The implication is that loving our children isn’t enough. We have to love them unconditionally – for who they are, not for what they do.

As a father, I know this is a tall order, but it becomes even more challenging now that so much of the advice we are given amounts to exactly the opposite.  In effect, we’re given tips in conditional parenting, which comes in two flavors:  turn up the affection when they’re good, withhold affection when they’re not.

Thus, TV’s “Dr. Phil” McGraw tells us in his book Family First that what children need or enjoy should be offered contingently, turned into rewards to be doled out or withheld so they “behave according to your wishes.” And “one of the most powerful currencies for a child,” he adds, “is the parents’ acceptance and approval.” 

Likewise, Jo Frost of “Supernanny,” in her book of the same name, says, “The best rewards are attention, praise, and love,” and these should be held back “when the child behaves badly . . . until she says she is sorry,” at which point the love is turned back on.

Note that conditional parenting isn’t limited to old-school authoritarians.  Some people who wouldn’t dream of spanking choose instead to discipline their young children by forcibly isolating them, a tactic we prefer to call “time out.”  Conversely, “positive reinforcement” teaches children that they’re loved – and lovable – only when they do whatever we decide is a “good job.”

This raises the intriguing possibility that the problem with praise isn’t that it is done the wrong way -- or handed out too easily, as social conservatives insist.  Rather, it might be just another method of control, analogous to punishment.  The primary message of all types of conditional parenting is that children must earn a parent’s love.  A steady diet of that, Rogers warned, and children might eventually need a therapist to provide the unconditional acceptance they didn’t get when it counted.

But was Rogers right?  Before we toss out mainstream discipline, it would be nice to have some evidence.  And now we do.

In 2004, two Israeli researchers, Avi Assor and Guy Roth, joined Edward Deci, a leading American expert on the psychology of motivation, in asking more than 100 college students whether the love they had received from their parents had seemed to depend on whether they had succeeded in school, practiced hard for sports, been considerate toward others, or suppressed emotions like anger and fear.

It turned out that children who received conditional approval were indeed somewhat more likely to act as the parent wanted.  But compliance came at a steep price.  First, these children tended to resent and dislike their parents.  Second, they were apt to say that the way they acted was often due more to a “strong internal pressure” than to “a real sense of choice.”  Moreover, their happiness after succeeding at something was usually short-lived and they often felt guilty or ashamed.

In a companion study, Assor and his colleagues interviewed mothers of grown children. With this generation, too, conditional parenting proved damaging.  Those mothers who, as children, sensed that they were loved only when they lived up to their parents’ expectations now felt less worthy as adults.  Yet despite the negative effects, these mothers were more likely to use conditional affection with their own children.

This July, the same researchers, now joined by two of Deci’s colleagues at the University of Rochester, published two replications and extensions of the 2004 study.   This time their subjects were ninth graders, and this time giving more attention and affection when children did what parents wanted was carefully distinguished from giving less when they did not.

The studies found that both positive and negative conditional parenting were harmful, but in slightly different ways.  The positive kind sometimes succeeded in getting children to work harder on academic tasks, but at the cost of unhealthy feelings of “internal compulsion.” Negative conditional parenting, meanwhile, didn’t even work in the short run; it just increased the teenagers’ negative feelings about their parents.

What these – and other – studies tell us, if we’re able to hear the news, is that praising children for doing something right isn’t a meaningful alternative to pulling back or punishing when they do something wrong.  Both are examples of conditional parenting, and both are counterproductive.

The child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, who readily acknowledged that the version of negative conditional parenting known as time-out can cause “deep feelings of anxiety,” nevertheless endorsed them for that very reason.  “When our words are not enough,” he said, “the threat of the withdrawal of our love and affection is the only sound method to impress on him that he had better conform to our request.”

But the data suggest that love withdrawal isn’t particularly effective at getting compliance, much less at promoting moral development.  Even if we did succeed in making children obey us, though – say, by using positive reinforcement – is obedience worth the possible long-term psychological harm?  Should parental love be used as a tool for controlling children?

Deeper issues also underlie a different sort of criticism.  Albert Bandura, the father of the branch of psychology known as social learning theory, declared that unconditional love “would make children directionless and quite unlovable” – an assertion entirely unsupported by empirical studies.  The idea that children accepted for who they are would lack direction or appeal is most informative for what it tells us about the dark view of human nature held by those who issue such warnings.

In practice, according to an impressive collection of data by Deci and others, unconditional acceptance by parents as well as teachers should be accompanied by “autonomy support”:  explaining reasons for requests, maximizing opportunities for the child to participate in making decisions, being encouraging without manipulating, and actively imagining how things look from the child’s point of view.

The last of these features is important with respect to unconditional parenting itself.  Most of us would protest that of course we love our children without any strings attached.  But what counts is how things look from the perspective of the children – whether they feel just as loved when they mess up or fall short.

Carl Rogers didn’t say so, but I’ll bet he would have been glad to see less demand for skillful therapists if that meant more people were growing into adulthood having already felt unconditionally accepted. 

Copyright © 2009 by Alfie Kohn. This article may be downloaded, reproduced, and distributed without permission as long as each copy includes this notice along with citation information (i.e., name of the periodical in which it originally appeared, date of publication, and author's name). Permission must be obtained in order to reprint this article in a published work or in order to offer it for sale in any form. Please write to the address indicated on the Contact page at

Atrocious Advice from "Supernanny"
By Alfie Kohn

NOTE: An abridged version of this article was published (with the title "Supernanny State") in The Nation, May 23, 2005

A despot welcomes a riot. Disorder provides an excuse to rescind liberties in order to restore calm. There are only two choices, after all: chaos and control. Even the creators of Get Smart understood that.

And so, too, do the creators of Supernanny and Nanny 911. Each week they poke their cameras into a dysfunctional suburban home where the children are bouncing off the walls and the parents are ready to climb them. There's whining, there's yelling, there's hitting . . . and the kids are just as bad. But wait. Look up there: It's a bird. It's a plain-dressed, no-nonsense British nanny, poised to swoop in with a prescription for old-fashioned control. Soon the clueless American parents will be comfortably back in charge, the children will be calm and compliant, and everyone will be sodden with gratitude. Cue the syrupy music, the slow-mo hugs, the peek at next week's even more hopeless family.

These programs elevate viewer manipulation to an art form. For starters, the selection of unusually obnoxious children invites us to enjoy a shiver of self-congratulation: At least my kids -- and my parenting skills -- aren't that bad! More to the point, these anarchic families set us up to root for totalitarian solutions. Anything to stop the rioting.

We're encouraged to pretend that living with a camera crew doesn't influence how parents and children interact, and to disregard what it says about these people that they allowed their humiliation to be televised. We're asked to believe that families can be utterly transformed in a few days and to assume that the final redemptive images reveal the exceptional skills of the nanny -- rather than of the program's editing staff. By now, a fair number of TV dramas, and even some sitcoms, refrain from serving up contrived happy endings. Sometimes the patient dies, the perp outwits the prosecutor, the jerk is unreformed. Yet here, in the realm of nonfiction programming, a tidy solution must be found before sign-off. Perhaps it's reality television that's most divorced from reality.

We might just laugh off the implausibility of these programs except that they're teaching millions of real parents how to raise their real kids. To that extent, it matters that they're selling snake-oil.

Consider ABC's Supernanny . (Fox's copycat Nanny 911 differs mostly in that a rotating cast of nannies shares top billing.) The show is rigidly formulaic: Jo Frost, the titular nanny and now bestselling author, arrives, observes, grimaces, states the obvious, imposes a schedule along with a set of rules and punishments. The parents stumble but then get the hang of her system. Contentment ensues.

The limits of the show, however, are less consequential than the limits of its star. Ms. Frost's approach to family crises is stunningly simple-minded; it's the narrowness of her repertoire, not merely the constraints of the medium, that lead her to ignore the important questions. She never stops to ask whether the demands of work and kids could be more gracefully reconciled if high-quality, low-cost daycare was available. She doesn't even inquire into psychological issues. Are the parents' expectations appropriate for the age of the child? Might something deeper than a lack of skills explain why they respond, or fail to respond, to their children as they do? How were they raised?

The nanny never peers below the surface, and her analysis of every family is identical. The problem is always that the parents aren't sufficiently vigorous in controlling their children. She has no reservations about power as long as only the big people have it. Kids are the enemy to be conquered. (At the beginning of Nanny 911, the stentorian narrator warns of tots "taking over the household"; the children in one episode are described as "little monsters.") Parents learn how to get them to take their naps now. Whether the kids are tired is irrelevant.

Supernanny's favorite words are "technique" and "consistency." First, a schedule is posted -- they will all eat at six o'clock because she says so - and the children are given a list of generic rules. The point is enforcement and order, not teaching and reflection. Thus, rather than helping a child to think about the effects of his aggression on others, he is simply informed that hitting is "unacceptable"; reasons and morality don't enter into it. Then he is forced to "stand in the naughty corner." Later, the nanny instructs Dad to command the child to apologize. The desired words are muttered under duress. The adults seem pleased.

For balance, kids are controlled with rewards as well as with punishments. Those who haven't been eating what (or when, or as much as) the parent wishes are slathered with praise as soon as they do so - a "Good boy!" for every mouthful. Sure enough, they fork in some more food. These children may be so desperate for acceptance that they settle for contingent reinforcement in place of the unconditional love they really need.

The little girl in one family is accustomed to having Mom lie down next to her at bedtime. Forget it, says Supernanny, and the tradition is ended without warning or explanation. When the girl screams, that only proves how manipulative she is. Later, Mom confesses, "I felt like I was almost mistreating her." "Do not give in," urges the nanny, and misgivings soon yield to "It's working; it's getting quieter" - meaning that her daughter has abandoned hope that Mom will snuggle with her.

On another episode, a boy is playing with a hose in the backyard when his mother suddenly announces, "You're done." The boy protests ("I'm cleaning!") so she turns off the water. He becomes angry and kicks over a wagon. Supernanny is incredulous: "Just because she turned the water off!" There is no comment about the autocratic, disrespectful parenting that precipitated his outburst. But then, autocratic, disrespectful parenting is her stock in trade.

Supernanny's superficiality isn't accidental; it's ideological. What these shows are peddling is behaviorism. The point isn't to raise a child; it's to reinforce or extinguish discrete behaviors - which is sufficient if you believe, along with the late B.F. Skinner and his surviving minions, that there's nothing to us other than those behaviors.

Behaviorism is as American as rewarding children with apple pie. We're a busy people, with fortunes to make and lands to conquer. We don't have time for theories or complications: Just give us techniques that work. If firing thousands of employees succeeds in boosting the company's stock price; if imposing a scripted, mind-numbing curriculum succeeds in raising students' test scores; if relying on bribes and threats succeeds in making children obey, then there's no need to ask, "But for how long does it work? And at what cost?"

In the course of researching a book on these issues, I discovered some disconcerting research on the damaging effects of techniques like the "naughty corner" (better known as time-out), which are basically forms of love withdrawal. I also found quite a bit of evidence that parents who refrain from excessive control and rely instead on warmth and reason are more likely to have children who do what they're asked - and who grow into responsible, compassionate, healthy people.

If you can bear to sit through them, the nanny programs provide a fairly reliable guide for how not to raise children. They also offer an invitation to think about the pervasiveness of pop-behaviorism and our hunger for the quick fix. "I guarantee you," Supernanny earnestly, if tautologically, exhorts one pair of parents, "every time you're consistent, [your child] gets the same message."

Granted, but what message?

Copyright © 2005 by Alfie Kohn. This article may be downloaded, reproduced, and distributed without permission as long as each copy includes this notice along with citation information (i.e., name of the periodical in which it originally appeared, date of publication, and author's name). Permission must be obtained in order to reprint this article in a published work or in order to offer it for sale in any form. Please write to the address indicated on the Contact page at

Five Reasons to Stop Saying "Good Job!"
By Alfie Kohn

NOTE: This article was published in Young Children, September 2001; and, in abridged form (with the title "Hooked on Praise"), in Parents Magazine, May 2000.

Hang out at a playground, visit a school, or show up at a child's birthday party, and there's one phrase you can count on hearing repeatedly: "Good job!" Even tiny infants are praised for smacking their hands together ("Good clapping!"). Many of us blurt out these judgments of our children to the point that it has become almost a verbal tic.

Plenty of books and articles advise us against relying on punishment, from spanking to forcible isolation ("time out"). Occasionally someone will even ask us to rethink the practice of bribing children with stickers or food. But you'll have to look awfully hard to find a discouraging word about what is euphemistically called positive reinforcement.

Lest there be any misunderstanding, the point here is not to call into question the importance of supporting and encouraging children, the need to love them and hug them and help them feel good about themselves. Praise, however, is a different story entirely. Here's why.

1. Manipulating children. Suppose you offer a verbal reward to reinforce the behavior of a two-year-old who eats without spilling, or a five-year-old who cleans up her art supplies. Who benefits from this? Is it possible that telling kids they've done a good job may have less to do with their emotional needs than with our convenience?

Rheta DeVries, a professor of education at the University of Northern Iowa, refers to this as "sugar-coated control." Very much like tangible rewards - or, for that matter, punishments - it's a way of doing something to children to get them to comply with our wishes. It may be effective at producing this result (at least for a while), but it's very different from working with kids - for example, by engaging them in conversation about what makes a classroom (or family) function smoothly, or how other people are affected by what we have done -- or failed to do. The latter approach is not only more respectful but more likely to help kids become thoughtful people.

The reason praise can work in the short run is that young children are hungry for our approval. But we have a responsibility not to exploit that dependence for our own convenience. A "Good job!" to reinforce something that makes our lives a little easier can be an example of taking advantage of children's dependence. Kids may also come to feel manipulated by this, even if they can't quite explain why.

2. Creating praise junkies. To be sure, not every use of praise is a calculated tactic to control children's behavior. Sometimes we compliment kids just because we're genuinely pleased by what they've done. Even then, however, it's worth looking more closely. Rather than bolstering a child's self-esteem, praise may increase kids' dependence on us. The more we say, "I like the way you…." or "Good ______ing," the more kids come to rely on our evaluations, our decisions about what's good and bad, rather than learning to form their own judgments. It leads them to measure their worth in terms of what will lead us to smile and dole out some more approval.

Mary Budd Rowe, a researcher at the University of Florida, discovered that students who were praised lavishly by their teachers were more tentative in their responses, more apt to answer in a questioning tone of voice ("Um, seven?"). They tended to back off from an idea they had proposed as soon as an adult disagreed with them. And they were less likely to persist with difficult tasks or share their ideas with other students.

In short, "Good job!" doesn't reassure children; ultimately, it makes them feel less secure. It may even create a vicious circle such that the more we slather on the praise, the more kids seem to need it, so we praise them some more. Sadly, some of these kids will grow into adults who continue to need someone else to pat them on the head and tell them whether what they did was OK. Surely this is not what we want for our daughters and sons.

3. Stealing a child's pleasure. Apart from the issue of dependence, a child deserves to take delight in her accomplishments, to feel pride in what she's learned how to do. She also deserves to decide when to feel that way. Every time we say, "Good job!", though, we're telling a child how to feel.

To be sure, there are times when our evaluations are appropriate and our guidance is necessary -- especially with toddlers and preschoolers. But a constant stream of value judgments is neither necessary nor useful for children's development. Unfortunately, we may not have realized that "Good job!" is just as much an evaluation as "Bad job!" The most notable feature of a positive judgment isn't that it's positive, but that it's a judgment. And people, including kids, don't like being judged.

I cherish the occasions when my daughter manages to do something for the first time, or does something better than she's ever done it before. But I try to resist the knee-jerk tendency to say, "Good job!" because I don't want to dilute her joy. I want her to share her pleasure with me, not look to me for a verdict. I want her to exclaim, "I did it!" (which she often does) instead of asking me uncertainly, "Was that good?"

4. Losing interest. "Good painting!" may get children to keep painting for as long as we keep watching and praising. But, warns Lilian Katz, one of the country's leading authorities on early childhood education, "once attention is withdrawn, many kids won't touch the activity again." Indeed, an impressive body of scientific research has shown that the more we reward people for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward. Now the point isn't to draw, to read, to think, to create - the point is to get the goody, whether it's an ice cream, a sticker, or a "Good job!"

In a troubling study conducted by Joan Grusec at the University of Toronto, young children who were frequently praised for displays of generosity tended to be slightly less generous on an everyday basis than other children were. Every time they had heard "Good sharing!" or "I'm so proud of you for helping," they became a little less interested in sharing or helping. Those actions came to be seen not as something valuable in their own right but as something they had to do to get that reaction again from an adult. Generosity became a means to an end.

Does praise motivate kids? Sure. It motivates kids to get praise. Alas, that's often at the expense of commitment to whatever they were doing that prompted the praise.

5. Reducing achievement. As if it weren't bad enough that "Good job!" can undermine independence, pleasure, and interest, it can also interfere with how good a job children actually do. Researchers keep finding that kids who are praised for doing well at a creative task tend to stumble at the next task - and they don't do as well as children who weren't praised to begin with.

Why does this happen? Partly because the praise creates pressure to "keep up the good work" that gets in the way of doing so. Partly because their interest in what they're doing may have declined. Partly because they become less likely to take risks - a prerequisite for creativity - once they start thinking about how to keep those positive comments coming.

More generally, "Good job!" is a remnant of an approach to psychology that reduces all of human life to behaviors that can be seen and measured. Unfortunately, this ignores the thoughts, feelings, and values that lie behind behaviors. For example, a child may share a snack with a friend as a way of attracting praise, or as a way of making sure the other child has enough to eat. Praise for sharing ignores these different motives. Worse, it actually promotes the less desirable motive by making children more likely to fish for praise in the future.


Once you start to see praise for what it is - and what it does - these constant little evaluative eruptions from adults start to produce the same effect as fingernails being dragged down a blackboard. You begin to root for a child to give his teachers or parents a taste of their own treacle by turning around to them and saying (in the same saccharine tone of voice), "Good praising!"

Still, it's not an easy habit to break. It can seem strange, at least at first, to stop praising; it can feel as though you're being chilly or withholding something. But that, it soon becomes clear, suggests that we praise more because we need to say it than because children need to hear it. Whenever that's true, it's time to rethink what we're doing.

What kids do need is unconditional support, love with no strings attached. That's not just different from praise - it's the opposite of praise. "Good job!" is conditional. It means we're offering attention and acknowledgement and approval for jumping through our hoops, for doing things that please us.

This point, you'll notice, is very different from a criticism that some people offer to the effect that we give kids too much approval, or give it too easily. They recommend that we become more miserly with our praise and demand that kids "earn" it. But the real problem isn't that children expect to be praised for everything they do these days. It's that we're tempted to take shortcuts, to manipulate kids with rewards instead of explaining and helping them to develop needed skills and good values.

So what's the alternative? That depends on the situation, but whatever we decide to say instead has to be offered in the context of genuine affection and love for who kids are rather than for what they've done. When unconditional support is present, "Good job!" isn't necessary; when it's absent, "Good job!" won't help.

If we're praising positive actions as a way of discouraging misbehavior, this is unlikely to be effective for long. Even when it works, we can't really say the child is now "behaving himself"; it would be more accurate to say the praise is behaving him. The alternative is to work with the child, to figure out the reasons he's acting that way. We may have to reconsider our own requests rather than just looking for a way to get kids to obey. (Instead of using "Good job!" to get a four-year-old to sit quietly through a long class meeting or family dinner, perhaps we should ask whether it's reasonable to expect a child to do so.)

We also need to bring kids in on the process of making decisions. If a child is doing something that disturbs others, then sitting down with her later and asking, "What do you think we can do to solve this problem?" will likely be more effective than bribes or threats. It also helps a child learn how to solve problems and teaches that her ideas and feelings are important. Of course, this process takes time and talent, care and courage. Tossing off a "Good job!" when the child acts in the way we deem appropriate takes none of those things, which helps to explain why "doing to" strategies are a lot more popular than "working with" strategies.

And what can we say when kids just do something impressive? Consider three possible responses:

* Say nothing. Some people insist a helpful act must be "reinforced" because, secretly or unconsciously, they believe it was a fluke. If children are basically evil, then they have to be given an artificial reason for being nice (namely, to get a verbal reward). But if that cynicism is unfounded - and a lot of research suggests that it is - then praise may not be necessary.

* Say what you saw. A simple, evaluation-free statement ("You put your shoes on by yourself" or even just "You did it") tells your child that you noticed. It also lets her take pride in what she did. In other cases, a more elaborate description may make sense. If your child draws a picture, you might provide feedback - not judgment - about what you noticed: "This mountain is huge!" "Boy, you sure used a lot of purple today!"

If a child does something caring or generous, you might gently draw his attention to the effect of his action on the other person: "Look at Abigail's face! She seems pretty happy now that you gave her some of your snack." This is completely different from praise, where the emphasis is on how you feel about her sharing.

* Talk less, ask more. Even better than descriptions are questions. Why tell him what part of his drawing impressed you when you can ask him what he likes best about it? Asking "What was the hardest part to draw?" or "How did you figure out how to make the feet the right size?" is likely to nourish his interest in drawing. Saying "Good job!", as we've seen, may have exactly the opposite effect.

This doesn't mean that all compliments, all thank-you's, all expressions of delight are harmful. We need to consider our motives for what we say (a genuine expression of enthusiasm is better than a desire to manipulate the child's future behavior) as well as the actual effects of doing so. Are our reactions helping the child to feel a sense of control over her life -- or to constantly look to us for approval? Are they helping her to become more excited about what she's doing in its own right - or turning it into something she just wants to get through in order to receive a pat on the head?

It's not a matter of memorizing a new script, but of keeping in mind our long-term goals for our children and watching for the effects of what we say. The bad news is that the use of positive reinforcement really isn't so positive. The good news is that you don't have to evaluate in order to encourage.

Copyright © 2001 by Alfie Kohn. This article may be downloaded, reproduced, and distributed without permission as long as each copy includes this notice along with citation information (i.e., name of the periodical in which it originally appeared, date of publication, and author's name). Permission must be obtained in order to reprint this article in a published work or in order to offer it for sale in any form. Please write to the address indicated on the Contact page at

A Different View:
How We Can Help Children See the World from Another Perspective

By Alfie Kohn

NOTE: This article, published in Greater Good, Spring-Summer 2005, is adapted from the book Unconditional Parenting.

Franz Kafka once described war as a “monstrous failure of imagination.” In order to kill, one must cease to see individual human beings and instead reduce them to an abstraction: “the enemy.” Even in popular entertainment, the bad guys are never shown at home with their children. It’s easy to cheer the death of a caricature, not of a three-dimensional person.

But to step outside one’s own viewpoint, and consider how the world looks to another person is one of the most remarkable capabilities of the human mind. Psychologists call this skill “perspective taking,” and it offers a foundation for morality. People who can – and do – think about how others experience the world are more likely to reach out and help those people – or, at a minimum, are less likely to harm them.

Taking another person’s perspective means realizing that in war, each person underneath our bombs is the center of his universe, just as you are the center of yours: He gets the flu, worries about his aged mother, likes sweets, falls in love – even though he lives half a world away and speaks a different language. To see things from his point of view is to recognize all the particulars that make him human, and ultimately it is to understand that his life is no less valuable than yours.

Less dramatically, many of the social problems we encounter on a daily basis can be understood as a failure of perspective taking. People who litter, block traffic by double-parking, or rip pages out of library books seem to be locked into themselves, unable or unwilling to imagine how others will have to deal with their thoughtlessness.

Developing the skill of perspective taking is a challenge; it’s something people need to practice from the time they’re young. So it’s imperative that we try to cultivate it in our kids.

There are different levels of perspective taking, of course, and more sophisticated versions may elude very young children. The best we may be able to hope for in the case of a four year old is the rather primitive ethics of the Golden Rule. We might say (in a tone that sounds like an invitation to reflect, rather than a reprimand), “I notice you finished all the juice and didn’t leave any for Amy. How do you think you would have felt if Amy had done that?” The premise of this question, probably correct, is that both kids like juice and would be disappointed to find none available.

But George Bernard Shaw reminded us that this sort of assumption doesn’t always make sense. “Do not do unto others as you expect they should do unto you,” he advised. “Their tastes may not be the same.” And, we might add, their needs or values or backgrounds might not be the same, either. Older children and adults can realize that it’s not enough to imagine ourselves in someone else’s situation: We have to imagine what they’re feeling in that situation. We have to see with her eyes rather than just with our own. We have to – if I may switch metaphors – ask not just what it’s like to be in her shoes, but what it’s like to have her feet.

So how can we promote perspective taking in our children? How can we help them to develop an increasingly sophisticated understanding of how things look from points of view other than their own? First, we can set an example. After a supermarket cashier says something rude to us, we can comment to our child who has witnessed this: “Huh. He didn’t seem to be in a very good mood today, did he? What do you think might have happened to that man that made him so grouchy? Do you think someone may have hurt his feelings?”

It is enormously powerful to say things like this to our kids, to teach them that we need not respond to an individual who acts unpleasantly by getting angry – or, for that matter, by blaming ourselves. Rather, we can attempt to enter the world of that other person. It’s our choice: Every day our children can watch us as we imagine someone else’s point of view – or they can watch us remain self-centered. Every day they can witness our efforts to see strangers as human beings – or they can witness our failure to do so.

Besides setting an example, we can also encourage perspective taking by discussing books and television shows with our kids in a way that highlights the characters’ diverse perspectives. (“We’re seeing all of this through the eyes of the doctor, aren’t we? But what do you think the little girl is feeling about what just happened?”) We can even use perspective taking as a tool to help siblings resolve their conflicts. “Okay,” we might say, after a blow-up. “Tell me what just happened, but pretend you’re your brother and describe how things might have seemed to him.”

Finally, we can help younger children become more sensitive to others’ emotions by gently directing their attention to someone’s tone of voice, posture, or facial expression, and by inviting them to reflect on what that person might be thinking and how he or she might be feeling. The point here is to build a skill (learning how to read other people), but also to promote a disposition (wanting to know how others are feeling, and being willing to figure it out). “I know Grandma said it would be okay to go on another walk with you, but I noticed that she paused a few seconds before agreeing. And did you see how tired she seemed when she sat down just now?”

The very act of teaching kids to pick up on such cues can help them to develop the habit of seeing more deeply into others. It will encourage them to experience the world as another person does, and perhaps to get a feel for what it’s like to be that other person. This is a major step toward wanting to help rather than to hurt – and, ultimately, toward becoming a better person oneself.

Copyright © 2005 by Alfie Kohn. This article may be downloaded, reproduced, and distributed without permission as long as each copy includes this notice along with citation information (i.e., name of the periodical in which it originally appeared, date of publication, and author's name). Permission must be obtained in order to reprint this article in a published work or in order to offer it for sale in any form. Please write to the address indicated on the Contact page at