Of course, the parent must be an example and a guide, straddling the line between compassionate and firm, but is it not possible to raise our children with deep respect and empathy without manipulation?
One of my heroes in the field of education, Alfie Kohn, has written an excellent piece on unconditional parenting. What a concept.
In Parental Love with Strings Attached, which appeared in the New York Times last fall, he explains:
Conditional parenting isn’t limited to old-school authoritarians. Some people who wouldn’t dream of spanking choose instead to discipline their young children by forcibly isolating them, a tactic we prefer to call “time out.” Conversely, “positive reinforcement” teaches children that they’re loved – and lovable – only when they do whatever we decide is a “good job.”
This raises the intriguing possibility that the problem with praise isn’t that it is done the wrong way -- or handed out too easily, as social conservatives insist. Rather, it might be just another method of control, analogous to punishment. The primary message of all types of conditional parenting is that children must earn a parent’s love.
As a parent of a talkative, energetic and willful boy, I am having to forge my own way that agrees with my philosophy on life and one that obviously complements my husband's.
I'll admit that disciplining my son has been quite the trial and error approach, often inconsistent, experimental in nature, and perhaps a bit loosey-goosey to outside observers. Sometimes I'm gentle and communicate clearly, other times I slip into patterns I'm not so pleased with. But I am definitely very hip to this idea of unconditional love, and so rather than imposing an iron fist, I prefer talking through problems with my son and being emotionally open and accessible. I want my son to gain a deep understanding of how his behavior affects other people. I want him to develop his own internal behavior compass based on empathy and real-world relationships.
Alfie Kohn cites scientific research showing that: "Children who received conditional approval were indeed somewhat more likely to act as the parent wanted. But... they tended to resent and dislike their parents... They were (also) 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."
Additionally, grown-ups, who as children "sensed that they were loved only when they lived up to their parents’ expectations, ...felt less worthy as adults."
In short, as Kohn asserts, using love withdrawal as a parenting method "isn’t particularly effective at getting compliance, much less at promoting moral development."
So, what is Kohn's answer and how does it mesh with my own ideas of parenting with unconditional love?
Kohn's conclusion, based on scientific research from the field of psychology, is this:
"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."
The idea of "autonomy support" is quite in line with how I was raised and with how I am trying to parent Jonah. In reality, to love someone unconditionally is one of the most difficult human tasks. I sometimes forget and raise my voice, I'll be honest. But I'm giving it my best shot, always questioning my own motivations and recommitting myself daily to basing my interactions with my son on mutual respect, empathy, and joy. In my professional life as a teacher, as well, I have made it a goal to try for the same kind of approach with my students. Parenting and teaching with unconditional love. What a trip.