tl;dr—the scientific(-ish) literature on parenting that I have read and my personal experience support some of the core principles of Unconditional Parenting.
“And with something like child-rearing, where I dismiss almost all studies as “too small, too limited””
While I understand the sentiment, however even the limited studies can provide useful information for filtering out interventsions and techniques that are less likely to provide a positive outcome. Before my first child was born I did a lot of reading on child psychology and on what impact could various different child raising methods have. Everyone has an opinion on child-rearing and there are hundreds of recommendations on what to do and what not to do. So before I decided to write anything on my list of approaches to try when raising a human I asked the following questions:
a) is there a theorethical framework in place on how or why approach X delivers the intended positive outcome? Is there something from psychology, evolutionary biology, brain biochemistry etc that could in theory support the claim that approach X has effect Y on the child.
b) are there studies that find an actual effect? Sure, most studies in this regard are limited but 5 limited studies finding a positive effect means I will rank approach X higher than approach Y that does not have any studies backing it up.
And while I have not heard about this “unconditional parenting” before it seems that my search for best strategies to grow a human have lead to similar core principles (albeit the reasoning might be somewhat different):
Conditionality of rewards and punishments is bad.
Toddlers lack a proper understanding of cause and effect. They dont really understand complicated or second order interactions—punishment for jumping on the bed after being told not to is being removed from the bed and not being allowed back for some time. The punishment cannot be loss of dessert or taking away some toys etc, that is just too long of a path to understand. With age you can introduce more complicated chains but even for older children the punishment needs to be as imminent and as related to the negative action as possible.
As for rewards they need to happen before the action that you are trying to buy. “I am going to give you this delicious snack and then you’ll let me take your temperature, okay?” It might seem like a very small difference from taking the temperature first and then giving the promised snack but it is an important difference.
In general you want to keep punishments and rewards to a minimum. Otherwise you will experience hyperinflation and the value of punishments and rewards becomes meaningless. However you can establish routines that are always true and so the punishment/reward fuse together with the action. (You can never eat your meals without a bib. Not giving you food is not a punishment for not wearing a bib nor is giving you food not a conditional reward for wearing a bib—wearing a bib and eating is just the same action, just how the world works)
Children should be respected as autonomous beings.
Children are autonomous beings, there is no question about that. It is indeed often costly to follow this principle but that is partly due to not taking it into account when making plans. Also you can often hide the fact that you are limiting their autonomy. In your beach example you can make it a game and grab one and chase the other. Also it is important to put yourself in their shoes—how would you react if someone told you “no more Netflix today, you have had enough”, why should children react any better to it? Wouldnt it be better if someone told you “stop watching Netflix, let’s do this super fun activity instead (and the activity is actually fun)”? Don’t ask of children what you don’t ask from yourself/other adults—it is often not possible to do but it certainly should be much more common than it usually is.
The way kids learn to make good decisions is by making decisions, not by following directions.
Absolutely agree. You can start practicing this from a very early age when they first show signs of understanding choice and starting to communicate more clearly (1-1.5 years). Having more control over their own lives is important. This also gives crucial decisionmaking experience and creates a habit of making decisions. You can also use an illusion of choice to get your way which is a win-win for everybody (do you want to wear these pants or these pants? (not leaving the house pantsless is not given as an option). Do you want me to dry you up or mommy? (continuing your 30 minute shower and running up our water bill is not given as option). As they get older you do have to become more subtle in creating an illusion of free will, which is still possible. Just don’t go overboard.
The above is not meant as a definitively best approach to raising humans. Just something that I filtered out from all the subject matter that I read and which so far seems to be working perfectly in an ongoing experimental setting. Will update with results in 60-70 years.