Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Conditional or Unconditional Love?

When it comes to parenting, which is better: conditional or unconditional love? This is the question raised by an article in today's New York Times by Alfie Kohn titled, "When a Parent's 'I Love You' Means 'Do As I Say' "

Kohn cites famous psychologist Carl Rogers as the father of unconditional love in parenting. Rogers felt that children need unconditional love so much that, if deprived of it by parents, they would seek it as adults through therapy.

There are many present-day advocates of conditional parental love: Dr. Laura, Dr. Phil, and Jo Frost (of "Supernanny" fame). They believe that children should behave according to their parent's wishes and that love/approval should be withheld if they don't. Praise, or withholding it, becomes a tool to shape childrens' behaviors.

To decide the case between unconditional or conditional love, Kohn cites a 2004 study of 100 college students. The study found that children who received conditional approval were more likely to do what their parents wanted, but often resented or disliked their parents. Another study of ninth graders concluded conditional parenting is often counterproductive.

I am an advocate of loving our children for who they are rather than for what they do. However, I find this difficult to put into practice. My definition of love is "acting in the best interests" of another person. When it comes to our children, we want the best for them. Yet, the question remains: how do we get them to want the best for themselves and act in their own best interests?

I cast my lot with unconditional parental love because of the dangers of withholding love. Children need to know they are loved no matter how badly they act. This doesn't mean we praise bad behavior, but that we criticize the action rather than the person. What do you think?

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