Thursday, July 8, 2010

The necessary kind of love

A few weeks ago, I posted an article called “A hole in my heart” where I stated that the assumption that all parents are programmed to love their children unconditionally and protect them from harm is not universally true. I can attest to this personally.

Let me expound upon that theme.

Emotional cruelty is a hidden cruelty and often very damaging to a family for multiple generations. A parent’s cruel, conditional love is most often repeated by the grown children toward their children – hence, the Bible verse about the sins of the father: “He committed all the sins his father had done before him.…” (1 Kings 15:3)

In the book Unconditional Parenting, Alfie Kohn looks at the difference between loving your children for what they do and loving them for who they are. The first sort of love is conditional, which means children must earn it by acting in ways their parents deem appropriate or by performing up to their parents’ expectations. The second sort of love is unconditional: It does not depend on how children behave or whether they are successful at what they do.

Parents all too often place conditions on their love in order to control their children. In fact, although this type of parent will believe they are being controlling out of love, it is really all about power and control. They view the child as a piece of clay to be shape in whatever form they want their child to be. They see the child's brain as an empty vessel to be filled with their own beliefs, personalities, etc – a 'mini me' per se. They are led to do so not only by what they were raised to believe, but also by how they were raised – conditioned to be conditional in giving love – causing the cycle (sins of the father) to continue. The child has to have a very strong personality to break the accepted behavior pattern after generations of “sin”.

The root of this type of thinking has crept deep into American consciousness. In fact, unconditional acceptance seems to be only an ideal: An Internet search for variants of the word ‘unconditional’ mostly turns up discussions about God or pets. Apparently, it is hard for many people to imagine love among humans without strings attached. For a child, some of those strings have to do with good behavior and some have to do with achievement.

Conditional love relies on discipline techniques whose only purpose is to make kids act – or stop acting – in a particular way. It is manipulative and controlling. It is like making a child say, “I’m sorry.” Apparently the parent hopes that making the child say it will make it true. There are no explanations. The child is not really taught anything except that when one is caught being bad, saying “sorry” will possibly deflect punishment. Nothing matters except the stuff on the surface. There are no questions about who kids are, what they think or feel or need, or why they behaved badly. There is no thought of motives and values: The idea is just to change the behavior.

This belief in harsh punishment, in breaking a child’s spirit, not only reflects an assumption about what kids learn in a given situation or how they learn, it also reflects a jaundiced view of children – and, by extension, of human nature. It assumes that, given half a chance, kids will take advantage of anyone or any situation as in the old saying, “Give them an inch, they'll take a mile.” According to this belief, acceptance without strings attached will be interpreted by the child as permission to act selfish, demanding, greedy, or inconsiderate. In other words, the belief in conditional parenting is based on the deeply cynical view that accepting kids for who they are allows them to be bad because that is who they are. It is true that those consequences are possible if one does not properly use teaching moments.

Children act out for many different reasons, some of which may be hard to discern. Parents, in their attempt to discipline, should not ignore the reasons behind the behavior and only respond to the behavior. For example, a 4-year-old may be defiant because she's worried about the implications of the new baby getting so much attention. She is worried that she is no longer loved and is expressing her fear the only way a 4-year-old can. The parents should deal with the 4-year-old’s feelings, not merely try to stomp out the way she's expressing her fear. Unconditional parenting assumes that behaviors are the outward expression of feelings and thoughts, needs and intentions. In this case, punishment is not necessary and would actually be the wrong thing to do. There is one overriding imperative: she needs to feel loved. Unconditional love means to nurture – not control. It's the child that matters, not just the behavior by itself.

Unconditional parenting is not a fancy term for letting kids do whatever they want. It does not throw out consequences or punishment altogether. Punishment is allowed – but it cannot be unreasonable or harsh. And it should not be physical – as in beatings with a belt or other instrument of torture. It is very important (once a child’s bad behavior has passed and penance served) to teach, to reflect together – then reinforce the love. Whatever lesson a parent hopes to impart is far more likely to be learned if the child knows that their parent’s love was not diminished by how she acted.

The unconditional approach to parenting begins with the reminder that the child is not trying to make the parent miserable. She is not being malicious. She does not want to be “bad”. She is telling the parent in the only way she knows how that something is wrong. Remember: Children do not understand their own feelings and therefore have great difficulty in expressing the roots of their behavior. It may be something that just happened, or it may reveal undercurrents that have been there for a while (such as abuse or fear). Unconditional love holds that children do not want to act badly. So when young children pitch a fit, or refuse to do as they said they would, this should be understood in terms of their age and their inability to discern the source of their unease or express their feelings in more appropriate ways.

Research has shown that the use of conditional love by parents has negative effects on the child’s entire life – and on society. Children who received approval from their parents only if they acted in a particular way were a bit more likely to act that way – even in adult life; but the cost of this strategy is substantial. The adults whose parents showed only conditional love were much more likely to feel rejected and, as a result, to resent and dislike their parents throughout their lives. Since they had consistently received less affection whenever they failed to impress or obey their parents, their relationships with their parents were likely to be strained.

More worrisome is that researchers at the University of Denver have shown that teenagers who feel they have to fulfill certain conditions in order to win their parents' love all too often end up not liking themselves and are therefore crippled in developing relationships. How can anyone love or care about others when they do not love themselves?

What kind of implications could this have on society? Society ends up with too many adults who think that good things must always be earned, never given away, never a gift. Indeed, many people become infuriated at the possibility that this “rule” has been violated. For example, many in our society feel hostility toward welfare and those who rely on it. Look at the rampant use of rewards for performance; or the number of teachers who define anything enjoyable (like recess) as a treat, a kind of payment for children living up to expectations. It is believed in our society that people shouldn't get something for nothing – not even happiness…or love.

Children need to be loved just as they are, and for whom they are – unconditionally. When that happens, they can accept themselves as fundamentally good people, even when they make mistakes, including horribly enormous ones, and fall short of parental expectations. Growing up with unconditional parental love causes the child’s cup to “runneth over” – and she then has the capacity to love and help others.

Some parents say that they discipline their children in this way because they love them – the old “this will hurt me more than you” routine. Yet, parents saying they love their children is not the same as how the children experience that love. Does the child feel loved? A parent can tell a child “I love you” over and over, but if actions do not show love then the child does not feel loved.
Words of love mean nothing if not followed by actually showing love.

Children have the capacity to be compassionate or aggressive, altruistic or selfish, cooperative or competitive. A great deal depends on how they are raised – including, among other things, whether they feel loved. A parent’s unconditional love should be purely and simply a gift – like God’s grace – to which all children are entitled.

Unconditional love is the necessary kind of love that parents must give their children in order for them to flourish and do well in their adult lives.

Source: Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason, by Alfie Kohn.