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Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reasonby Alfie Kohn
Chapter 1: Conditional Parenting
I have sometimes derived comfort from the idea that, despite all the mistakes I've made (and will continue to make) as a parent, my children will turn out just fine for the simple reason that I really love them. After all, love heals all wounds. All you need is love. Love means never having to say you're sorry about how you lost your temper this morning in the kitchen.
This reassuring notion is based on the idea that there exists a thing called Parental Love, a single substance that you can supply to your children in greater or lesser quantities. (Greater, of course, is better.) But what if this assumption turns out to be fatally simplistic? What if there actually are different ways of loving a child, and not all of them are equally desirable? The psychoanalyst Alice Miller once observed that it's possible to love a child "passionately--but not in the way he needs to be loved." If she's right, the relevant question isn't just whether--or even how much--we love our kids. It also matters how we love them.
Once that's understood, we could pretty quickly come up with a long list of different types of parental love, along with suggestions about which are better. This book looks at one such distinction--namely, between loving kids 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 we deem appropriate, or by performing up to our standards. The second sort of love is unconditional: It doesn't hinge on how they act, whether they're successful or well behaved or anything else.
I want to defend the idea of unconditional parenting on the basis of both a value judgment and a prediction. The value judgment is, very simply, that children shouldn't have to earn our approval. We ought to love them, as my friend Deborah says, "for no good reason." Furthermore, what counts is not just that we believe we love them unconditionally, but that they feel loved in that way.
The prediction, meanwhile, is that loving children unconditionally will have a positive effect. It's not only the right thing to do, morally speaking, but also a smart thing to do. Children need to be loved as they are, and for who they are. When that happens, they can accept themselves as fundamentally good people, even when they screw up or fall short. And with this basic need met, they're also freer to accept (and help) other people. Unconditional love, in short, is what children require in order to flourish.
Nevertheless, we parents are often pulled in the direction of placing conditions on our approval. We're led to do so not only by what we were raised to believe, but also by the way we were raised. You might say we're conditioned to be conditional. The roots of this sensibility have crept deep into the soil of American consciousness. In fact, unconditional acceptance seems to be rare even as an ideal: An Internet search for variants of the word unconditional mostly turns up discussions about religion or pets. Apparently, it's 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. This chapter and the following three will explore the behavioral issues, and in particular the way many popular discipline strategies cause children to feel they're accepted only when they act the way we demand. Chapter 5 will then consider how some children conclude that their parents' love depends on their performance--for example, at school or in sports.
In the second half of the book, I'll offer concrete suggestions for how we can move beyond this approach and offer something closer to the kind of love our kids need. But first, I'd like to examine the broader idea of conditional parenting: what assumptions underlie it (and distinguish it from the unconditional kind), and what effects it actually has on children.
My daughter, Abigail, went through a tough time a few months after her fourth birthday, which may have been related to the arrival of a rival. She became more resistant to requests, more likely to sound nasty, scream, stamp her feet. Ordinary rituals and transitions quickly escalated into a battle of wills. One evening, I remember, she promised to get right into the bath after dinner. She failed to do so--and then, when reminded of that promise, she shrieked loudly enough to wake her baby brother. When asked to be quieter, she yelled again.
So here's the question: Once things calmed down, should my wife and I have proceeded with the normal evening routine of snuggling with her and reading a story together? The conditional approach to parenting says no: We would be rewarding her unacceptable behavior if we followed it with the usual pleasant activities. Those activities should be suspended, and she should be informed, gently but firmly, why that "consequence" was being imposed.
This course of action feels reassuringly familiar to most of us and consistent with what a lot of parenting books advise. What's more, I have to admit that it would have been satisfying on some level for me to lay down the law because I was seriously annoyed by Abigail's defiance. It would have offered me the sense that I, the parent, was putting my foot down, letting her know she wasn't allowed to act like that. I'd be back in control.
The unconditional approach, however, says this is a temptation to be resisted, and that we should indeed snuggle and read a story as usual. But that doesn't mean we ought to just ignore what happened. Unconditional parenting isn't a fancy term for letting kids do whatever they want. It's very important (once the storm has passed) to teach, to reflect together--which is exactly what we did with our daughter after we read her a story. Whatever lesson we hoped to impart was far more likely to be learned if she knew that our love for her was undimmed by how she had acted.
Whether we've thought about them or not, each of these two styles of parenting rests on a distinctive set of beliefs about psychology, about children, even about human nature. To begin with, the conditional approach is closely related to a school of thought known as behaviorism, which is commonly associated with the late B. F. Skinner. Its most striking characteristic, as the name suggests, is its exclusive focus on behaviors. All that matters about people, in this view, is what you can see and measure. You can't see a desire or a fear, so you might as well just concentrate on what people do.
Furthermore, all behaviors are believed to start and stop, wax and wane, solely on the basis of whether they are "reinforced." Behaviorists assume that everything we do can be explained in terms of whether it produces some kind of reward, either one that's deliberately offered or one that occurs naturally. If a child is affectionate with his parent, or shares his dessert with a friend, it's said to be purely because this has led to pleasurable responses in the past.
In short: External forces, such as what someone has previously been rewarded (or punished) for doing, account for how we act--and how we act is the sum total of who we are. Even people who have never read any of Skinner's books seem to have accepted his assumptions. When parents and teachers constantly talk about a child's "behavior," they're acting as though nothing matters except the stuff on the surface. It's not a question of who kids are, what they think or feel or need. Forget motives and values: The idea is just to change what they do. This, of course, is an invitation to rely on discipline techniques whose only purpose is to make kids act--or stop acting--in a particular way.
A more specific example of everyday behaviorism: Perhaps you've met parents who force their children to apologize after doing something hurtful or mean. ("Can you say you're sorry?") Now, what's going on here? Do the parents assume that making children speak this sentence will magically produce in them the feeling of being sorry, despite all evidence to the contrary? Or, worse, do they not even care whether the child really is sorry, because sincerity is irrelevant and all that matters is the act of uttering the appropriate words? Compulsory apologies mostly train children to say things they don't mean--that is, to lie.
But this is not just an isolated parental practice that ought to be reconsidered. It's one of many possible examples of how Skinnerian thinking--caring only about behaviors--has narrowed our understanding of children and warped the way we deal with them. We see it also in programs that are intended to train little kids to go to sleep on their own or to start using the potty. From the perspective of these programs, why a child may be sobbing in the dark is irrelevant. It could be terror or boredom or loneliness or hunger or some other reason. Similarly, it doesn't matter what reason a toddler may have for not wanting to pee in the toilet when his parent asks him to do so. Experts who offer step-by-step recipes for "teaching" children to sleep in a room by themselves, or who urge us to offer gold stars, M&Ms, or praise for tinkling in the toilet, are concerned not with the thoughts and feelings and intentions that give rise to a behavior, only with the behavior itself. (While I haven't done the actual counting that would be necessary to test this, I would tentatively propose the following rule of thumb: The value of a parenting book is inversely proportional to the number of times it contains the word behavior.)
Let's come back to Abigail. Conditional parenting assumes that reading her a book and otherwise expressing our continued love for her will only encourage her to throw another fit. She will have learned that it's okay to wake the baby and refuse to get in the bath because she will interpret our affection as reinforcement for whatever she had just been doing.
Unconditional parenting looks at this situation--and, indeed, at human beings--very differently. For starters, it asks us to consider that the reasons for what Abigail has done may be more "inside" than "outside." Her actions can't necessarily be explained, in mechanical fashion, by looking at external forces like positive responses to her previous behavior. Perhaps she is overwhelmed by fears that she can't name, or by frustrations that she doesn't know how to express.
Unconditional parenting assumes that behaviors are just the outward expression of feelings and thoughts, needs and intentions. In a nutshell, it's the child who engages in a behavior, not just the behavior itself, that matters. Children are not pets to be trained, nor are they computers, programmed to respond predictably to an input. They act this way rather than that way for many different reasons, some of which may be hard to tease apart. But we can't just ignore those reasons and respond only to the effects (that is, the behaviors). Indeed, each of those reasons probably calls for a completely different course of action. If, for example, it turned out that Abigail was really being defiant because she's worried about the implications of our paying so much attention to her baby brother, then we're going to have deal with that, not merely try to stamp out the way she's expressing her fear.
Alongside our efforts to understand and address specific reasons for specific actions, there is one overriding imperative: She needs to know we love her, come what may. In fact, it's especially important tonight for her to be able to snuggle with us, to see from our actions that our love for her is unshakable. That's what will help her get through this bad patch.
In any case, imposing what amounts to a punishment isn't likely to be constructive. It probably will start her crying all over again. And even if it did succeed in shutting her up temporarily--or in preventing her from expressing whatever she's feeling tomorrow night for fear of making us pull away from her--its overall impact is unlikely to be positive. This is true, first, because it doesn't address what's going on in her head, and, second, because what we see as teaching her a lesson will likely appear to her as though we're withholding our love. In a general sense, this will make her more unhappy, perhaps cause her to feel alone and unsupported. In a specific sense, it will teach her that she is loved--and lovable--only when she acts the way we want. The available research, which I'll review shortly, strongly suggests that this will just make things worse.
As I've thought about these issues over the years, I've come to believe that conditional parenting can't be completely explained by behaviorism. Something else is going on here. Once again, imagine the situation: A child is yelling, obviously upset, and when she quiets down her daddy lies in bed with his arm around her and reads her a Frog and Toad story. In response, the proponent of conditional parenting exclaims, "No, no, no, you're just reinforcing her bad behavior! You're teaching her that it's all right to be naughty!"
This interpretation doesn't merely reflect an assumption about what kids learn in a given situation, or even how they learn. It reflects an awfully sour view of children--and, by extension, of human nature. It assumes that, given half a chance, kids will take advantage of us. Give 'em an inch, they'll take a mile. They will draw the worst possible lesson from an ambiguous situation (not "I'm loved anyway" but "Yay! It's okay to make trouble!"). Acceptance without strings attached will just be interpreted as permission to act in a way that's selfish, demanding, greedy, or inconsiderate. At least in part, then, conditional parenting is based on the deeply cynical belief that accepting kids for who they are just frees them to be bad because, well, that's who they are.
By contrast, the unconditional approach to parenting begins with the reminder that Abigail's goal is not to make me miserable. She's not being malicious. She's telling me in the only way she knows how that something is wrong. It may be something that just happened, or it may reveal undercurrents that have been there for a while. This approach offers a vote of confidence in children, a challenge to the assumption that they'll derive the wrong lesson from affection, or that they'd always want to act badly if they thought they could get away with it.
Such a perspective is not romantic or unrealistic, a denial of the fact that kids (and adults) sometimes do rotten things. Kids need to be guided and helped, yes, but they're not little monsters who must be tamed or brought to heel. They have the capacity to be compassionate or aggressive, altruistic or selfish, cooperative or competitive. A great deal depends on how they're raised--including, among other things, whether they feel loved unconditionally. And when young children pitch a fit, or refuse to get in the tub as they said they would, this can often be understood in terms of their age--that is, their inability to understand the source of their unease, to express their feelings in more appropriate ways, to remember and keep their promises. In important ways, then, the choice between conditional and unconditional parenting is a choice between radically different views of human nature.
But there's one more set of assumptions that we should lay bare. In our society, we are taught that good things must always be earned, never given away. Indeed, many people become infuriated at the possibility that this precept has been violated. Notice, for example, the hostility many people feel toward welfare and those who rely on it. Or the rampant use of pay-for-performance schemes in the workplace. Or the number of teachers who define anything enjoyable (like recess) as a treat, a kind of payment for living up to the teacher's expectations.
Ultimately, conditional parenting reflects a tendency to see almost every human interaction, even among family members, as a kind of economic transaction. The laws of the marketplace--supply and demand, tit for tat--have assumed the status of universal and absolute principles, as though everything in our lives, including what we do with our children, is analogous to buying a car or renting an apartment.
One parenting author--a behaviorist, not coincidentally--put it this way: "If I wish to take my child for a ride or even if I wish to hug and kiss her, I must first be certain that she has earned it." Before you dismiss this as the view of a lone extremist, consider that the eminent psychologist Diana Baumrind (see pp. 104-5) made a similar argument against unconditional parenting, declaring that "the rule of reciprocity, of paying for value received, is a law of life that applies to us all."
Even many writers and therapists who don't address the issue explicitly nevertheless seem to rely on some sort of economic model. If we read between the lines, their advice appears to be based on the belief that when children don't act the way we want, the things they like ought to be withheld from them. After all, people shouldn't get something for nothing. Not even happiness. Or love.
How many times have you heard it said--emphatically, defiantly--that something or other is "a privilege, not a right"? Sometimes I fantasize about conducting a research study to determine what personality characteristics are generally found in people who take this stance. Imagine someone who insists that everything from ice cream to attention should be made conditional on how children act, that these things should never simply be given away. Can you picture this person? What facial expression do you see? How happy is this person? Does he or she really enjoy being with children? Would you want this person as a friend?
Also, when I hear the "privilege, not a right" line, I always find myself wondering what the speaker would regard as a right. Is there anything to which human beings are simply entitled? Are there no relationships we would want to exempt from economic laws? It's true that adults expect to be compensated for their work, just as they expect to pay for food and other things. But the question is whether, or under what circumstances, a similar "rule of reciprocity" applies to our dealings with friends and family. Social psychologists have noticed that there are indeed some people with whom we have what might be called an exchange relationship: I do something for you only if you do something for me (or give something to me). But they quickly add that this is not true, nor would we want it to be true, of all our relationships, some of which are based on caring rather than on reciprocity. In fact, one study found that people who see their relationships with their spouses in terms of exchange, taking care to get as much as they give, tend to have marriages that are less satisfying.
When our kids grow up, there will be plenty of occasions for them to take their places as economic actors, as consumers and workers, where self-interest rules and the terms of each exchange can be precisely calculated. But unconditional parenting insists that the family ought to be a haven, a refuge, from such transactions. In particular, love from one's parents does not have to be paid for in any sense. It is purely and simply a gift. It is something to which all children are entitled.
If that makes sense to you, and if any of the other underlying assumptions of unconditional parenting ring true as well--that we ought to be looking at the whole child, not just at behaviors; that we shouldn't assume the worst about children's inclinations; and so on--then we need to call into question all the conventional discipline techniques that are based on the opposites of these assumptions. Those practices that define conditional parenting tend to be ways of doing things to children to produce obedience. By contrast, the suggestions offered in the latter half of this book, which flow naturally from the idea of unconditional parenting, are variations on the theme of working with children to help them grow into decent people and good decision-makers.
Just as it's possible for our practices to be at odds with the long-term goals we hold for our children (see Introduction), so there might be an inconsistency between the methods associated with conditional parenting and our most basic beliefs. In both instances, it may make sense to reconsider what we're doing with our kids. But the case against conditional parenting doesn't end with its connection to values and assumptions that many of us will find troubling. That case becomes even stronger once we investigate the real-world effects such parenting has on children.
Nearly half a century ago, the pioneering psychologist Carl Rogers offered an answer to the question "What happens when a parent's love depends on what children do?" He explained that those on the receiving end of such love come to disown the parts of themselves that aren't valued. Eventually they regard themselves as worthy only when they act (or think or feel) in specific ways. This is basically a recipe for neurosis--or worse. A publication by the Irish Department of Health and Children (which has been circulated and adopted by other organizations all over the world) offers ten examples to illustrate the concept of "emotional abuse." Number two on the list, right after "persistent criticism, sarcasm, hostility, or blaming," is "conditional parenting, in which the level of care shown to a child is made contingent on his or her behaviours or actions."
Most parents, if asked, would insist that of course they love their children unconditionally, and that this is true despite their use of the strategies that I (and other writers) have identified as problematic. Some parents might even say that they discipline their children in this way because they love them. But I want to return to an observation that so far I've made only in passing. How we feel about our kids isn't as important as how they experience those feelings and how they regard the way we treat them. Educators remind us that what counts in a classroom is not what the teacher teaches; it's what the learner learns. And so it is in families. What matters is the message our kids receive, not the one we think we're sending.
Researchers trying to study the effects of different styles of discipline have not had an easy time trying to figure out how to identify and measure what actually goes on in people's homes. It's not always possible to observe the relevant interactions firsthand (or even to videotape them), so some experiments have been done in laboratories, where a parent and a child are asked to do something together. Sometimes parents are interviewed, or asked to fill out a questionnaire, about their usual parenting styles. If the children are old enough, they may be asked what their parents do--or, if they're grown, what their parents used to do.
Each of these techniques has its drawbacks, and the choice of method can affect a study's results. When parents and children are asked separately to describe what's going on, for example, they may offer very different accounts. Interestingly, when there is some objective way to get at the truth, children's perceptions of their parents' behaviors prove to be every bit as accurate as the parents' reports of their own behaviors.
But the important question is not who's right, which, where feelings are concerned, is usually unanswerable. Rather, what matters is whose perspective is associated with various consequences to the children. Consider one study that investigated a version of conditional parenting. Kids whose parents said they used this approach weren't in any worse shape than kids whose parents said they didn't. But when the researcher separated the kids on the basis of whether they felt their parents used this technique, the difference was striking. On average, children who said they experienced conditional affection from their parents weren't doing as well as children who didn't report receiving conditional affection. The details of this study will be discussed later; my point here is simply that what we think we're doing (or would swear we're not doing) doesn't matter as much, in terms of the impact on our kids, as their experience of what we're doing.
There has been a small surge in research on conditional parenting over the last few years, and one of the most remarkable examples was just published in 2004. In that study, information was collected from more than a hundred college students, each of whom was asked whether the love offered by his or her parents tended to vary depending on any of four possible conditions: whether the student as a child had (1) succeeded in school, (2) practiced hard for sports, (3) been considerate toward others, or (4) suppressed negative emotions such as fear. The students were also asked several other questions, including whether they did, in fact, tend to act in those ways (that is, hide their feelings, study hard for tests, and so on) and how they got along with their parents.
It turned out that the use of conditional love seemed to be at least somewhat successful at producing the desired behaviors. 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 college. But the cost of this strategy was substantial. For starters, the students who thought their parents loved them conditionally were much more likely to feel rejected and, as a result, to resent and dislike their parents.
You can easily imagine that, had they been asked, each of those parents would have declared, "I don't know where my son gets that idea! I love him no matter what!" Only because the researchers thought to interview the (now grown) children directly did they hear a very different--and very disturbing--story. Many of the students felt they had consistently received less affection whenever they failed to impress or obey their parents--and it was precisely these students whose relationships with their parents were likely to be strained.
To drive home the point, the researchers conducted a second study, this one with more than a hundred mothers of grown children. With this generation, too, conditional love 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. Remarkably, though, they tended to use the identical approach once they became parents. The mothers used conditional affection "with their own children in spite of the strategy['s] having had negative effects on them."
Although this is the first study (as far as I know) to show that conditional parenting styles can be passed on to one's children, other psychologists have found similar evidence about its effects. Some of these are discussed in the following chapter, which describes two specific ways in which conditional parenting is put into practice. Even in general terms, though, the results are fairly damning. For example, a group of researchers at the University of Denver has shown that teenagers who feel they have to fulfill certain conditions in order to win their parents' approval may end up not liking themselves. That, in turn, may lead a given adolescent to construct a "false self"--in other words, to pretend to be the kind of person whom his or her parents will love. This desperate strategy to gain acceptance is often associated with depression, a sense of hopelessness, and a tendency to lose touch with one's true self. At some point, such teenagers may not even know who they really are because they've had to work so hard to become something they're not.
Over many years, researchers have found that "the more conditional the support [one receives], the lower one's perceptions of overall worth as a person." When children receive affection with strings attached, they tend to accept themselves only with strings attached. By contrast, those who feel they're accepted unconditionally--by their parents or, according to other research, even by a teacher--are likely to feel better about themselves, exactly as Carl Rogers predicted.
And that brings us to the ultimate purpose of this book, the central question I invite you to ponder. In the questionnaires that are used to study conditional parenting, a teenager or young adult is typically asked to indicate "strong agreement," "agreement," "neutral feelings," "disagreement," or "strong disagreement" in response to sentences such as "My mother maintained a sense of loving connection with me even during our worst conflicts" or "When my dad disagrees with me, I know that he still loves me." So, how would you like your children to answer that sort of question in five or ten or fifteen years--and how do you think they will answer it?
Copyright (c) 2005 by Alfie Kohn
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