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How to love unconditionally: Parenting & unconditional love in real life

Before sharing with you my perspective on "unconditional love" in parenting, I’d like to first give you excerpts from an essay about parenting, written by Alfie Kohn, the author of 11 books about human behavior and education, including “Unconditional Parenting” and “Punished by Rewards.” After that, I will comment on where I agree with this perspective, and where I differ with it.

Here are excerpts from the essay by Alfie Kohn (my comments come afterwards):

“In 2004, two Israeli researchers, Avi Assor and Guy Roth, joined Edward L. 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, Dr. 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 Dr. Deci’s colleagues at the University of Rochester, published two replications and extensions of the 2004 study. This time the subjects were ninth graders, and this time giving more approval 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 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.”

…“ according to an impressive collection of data by Dr. 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.”

Now, a few comments (from me).

First, I'd like to comment on the phrase “unconditional love” in the essay that I quoted. This is a loaded phrase. Of course, everybody agrees that unconditional love is an ideal. But the word “unconditional” is so strong that, to many people, it implies that “unconditional love” is not of this world.

So I want to demystify the use of this phrase.

To start with, I want to make it clear that, even if “perfect parenting” were of this world… it wouldn’t be good. The consensus is that the ideal is actually “good enough parenting”, meaning that there are going to be quite a few missteps. Not only is it OK for missteps to occur, it is actually great! Some missteps within the context of parenting that is overall “good enough” help train kids to deal with the challenges of the world.

Now, more specifically to the phrase “unconditional love”.
I believe it helps to see it within the context of the studies that were quoted in the essay. The problem came when parents were so obsessed about performance, and so anxious about their children’s performance, that they couldn’t tolerate the children’s pace of learning. They raised the stakes emotionally, through punishments or rewards that created a strong emotional pressure for the child to perform, so strong that the child lost a sense of self.

The problem is not that these parents fall short of some saintly ideal of “unconditional love”. It is that their obsession or anxiety about performance makes it very hard for the children to have enough space to figure things out. In other words, it is a situation where the parents’ needs are so overwhelming that it is all about the parents, not about the children.

So, I believe the phrase “unconditional love” is misleading. The key concept in the essay is in the last paragraph of the excerpt, when the author talks about “autonomy support”. Raising children is about progressively developing their capacity for autonomy, in an age-appropriate way. Of course, there are all kinds of ways to do that, including rewards and punishments. Of course, there are going to be missteps. But the key is that, on the whole, the process is oriented toward helping children grow into autonomy.

I also want to be careful about using the word “autonomy”, which could be misconstrued as absolute independence. We are social animals, we thrive on (healthy) interdependence. The kind of emotional pressure alluded to in the study raises the stakes to such a degree that it becomes hard for the children (and the adults they grow into) to have healthy boundaries. They’re going to be either compliant (albeit in a resentful way), or defiant, or aimless and hollow. They’re going to have a hard time managing conflicts, and with negotiating with others when there is a conflict, because their emotional template is that there can only be one winner in a conflict: you either let the parents win, or you defeat them.

Achieving healthy interdependence doesn’t require the kind of “unconditional love” that only a saint can give. What it takes is parents who are not so anxious about performance (for their own reasons) that they are unable to tolerate the children’s age-appropriate difficulties and slower pace.

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