Friday, September 18, 2009

Loving your children unconditionally

The New York Times has an interesting article today about how making your love for you children conditional can cause long lasting psychological effects, and doesn't get you what you want anyways. Some excerpts:

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.

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.

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?

The snarky side of me wants to email this article to my parents (especially my mom), but I'm going to refrain.


  1. That article really hit a nerve for me. Thanks for posting it.

  2. I wrote about this as well.

    Check it out:

    Shana Tova

  3. I just wrote a post as well:

  4. I hope being disillusioned with your children doesn't count as negative parenting. If it does I'm in a world of hurt....

    Parenting is so hard, so very, very hard.

  5. Did we really need studies to show this?

  6. Yes obviously we do, since there are tons of parents out there just like mine, who think that by withdrawing their love they can control their children, and there are also tons who think that positive reinforcement helps their children turn out better.

    I for one was under the impression that positive reinforcement was a good thing until I read this article...

  7. It is really too bad that an article like this is necessary; but, it is. Thanks for passing it on to all of us.

  8. I just wrote a post on that article a few hours ago! It seems to have really stirred up emotions.

    I'm not willing to give up on positive reinforcement quite so easily. I say why in my post.

    (In case you want to read it, it's at )

    If you disagree with me, I'd love to hear why, because I'm always looking for a better way to raise my children.

  9. excellent article. I must say that we have raised 3 kids with unconditional love..NEVER conditional, knowing each child is different in many ways. My children are very self confident, very individual..not perfect..never perfect..but they have the tools and the back up of their family, all of be their best.

  10. We shouldn't judge our children ..we should teach our children and get them prepared for the world outside the home. Children need to learn that there are consequences for every choice. BUT..we have one thing in this life we should be able to fall back on..and thats our immediate family. Ofcourse that is not always the case..and when it isn't the case it is surely heartbreaking and I speak from much experience. My mother truly loved me but my father couldn't care less if i lived or died, doesn't know his grandchildren or me for that matter. I know the pain that AE lives with. I cry with her all the time because some things shouldn't ever be. This is why AE, if you are smart, you will always remember that and never be that way with your own children. Children need discipline but they also need to know they are accepted (unless they are doing things that are unacceptable and harmful to themselves or others). gosh i can go on and on withthhs..i really think the article has been quite thought provoking

  11. All children deserve unconditional love. Problem is, you don't really "choose" as a parent to give it, you either do or you don't.

    What you do though, is choose what behaviors to reinforce and which to try to extinguish. Ideally the unconditional love is there and communicated consistently whether there are behaviors that are deemed acceptible or not.

    Positive reinforcement is a good thing when it is clear that it is the behavior that is being reinforced, not the worth of the human being in the eyes of the one providing the reinforcement.

  12. AE, I'm sure your parents love you. I'm sure your parents love you and are proud of you in spite of themselves. Parents are wired that way. Their decision not to be involved in your life is no reflection of their love. It's about the way they feel about your choices.

    I agree...parents should unconditionally love their kids, and most (normal, functional) ones do. But there is a big difference between loving someone and wanting to be in a close relationship with them or approving of their choices.

    I'm sure you love your husband unconditionally. But would you want to be in a relationship with him if he chose to be an Orthodox Jewish Conservative Republican? See what I mean?

    If parents don't make it clear to their kids that they have values and standards, would kids respect their parents' opinions?

    Parental love should be free and unconditional. But shouldn't a parent's approval need to be earned in order for it to be valued? Whether or not your parents approve of your choices and want to be engaged in your life is really up to them. And it works both ways. I'm guessing you love your parents too, and I'm guessing you think their choices have been really bad.

  13. My mother used to tell my brother and all me all the time that if we ever got a girl pregnant, that we should make sure to tell her. She told us that she might yell and scream for a few hours, but that afterwards, she'd sit us down with the young woman in question and make sure that everything would work out (financials, etc.). She wanted us to know that whatever we ever did, no matter how disappointed she'd be in us, that she'd always be there to help us, and to make sure that the baby would be provided for, no matter what it took.

    And then she'd tell us that if we we ever got drunk at 3 AM, that we should call her and ask her to pick us up. She told us that no matter what hour of the day, she'd get out of bed, pick us up, and wait until morning to yell and scream.

    I never realized she was giving a hidush. I always just assumed that this is what ordinary everyday parents do. I mean, what else is a parent going to do? Disown you for violating everything she ever said about having sexual relations before marriage? That seemed as likely as my mom flying to the moon on a broomstick to eat cheese.

    And all this, the only thing I can recall her talking about more often is the need to eat enough and produce grandchildren. (Gevalt, she'd ask us if we were hungry and wanted more to eat while we still had food on our plates! And once, I was dating a woman once, and only a few weeks into the relationship, my mom said she already knew where she'd buy the wedding dress. For crying out loud Mom!)


Anonymous comments are enabled for now