I Love You If…: Motivation, Obedience and Conditional Parenting

An absurdly relevant article from maverick educator Alfie Kohn in the NY Times entitled “When […]

David Zahl / 9.16.09

An absurdly relevant article from maverick educator Alfie Kohn in the NY Times entitled “When A Parent’s Love Comes With Conditions”. It turns out that the Grace in Practice/Beyond Deserving description of reality stands up under the microscope. Once again, motivation itself proves to be both the most telling aspect of a relationship, but also the most impervious to coercion. The opposite of parental disapproval, it turns out, is not parental approval/affirmation – it involves doing away with the reward-punishment scale entirely. To paraphrase Gerhard Forde, the thirst for glory is not satisfied, it is extinguished. A truism that, needless to say, will sound incredibly conditional to the parents who read them (i.e. what happens if I fail to love my children this well?!). But to the children in the audience, well, that’s another story. It’s THE story, in fact, at least if all this talk of a heavenly Father has any, um, merit:

In 2004, two Israeli researchers, Avi Assor and Guy Roth, joined Edward L. Deci, a leading American expert on the psychology of motivation, in asking more than 100 college students whether the love they had received from their parents had seemed to depend on whether they had succeeded in school, practiced hard for sports, been considerate toward others or suppressed emotions like anger and fear.

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.

In a companion study, Dr. Assor and his colleagues interviewed mothers of grown children. With this generation, too, conditional parenting 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. Yet despite the negative effects, these mothers were more likely to use conditional affection with their own children.

What these and other studies tell us, if we’re able to hear the news, is that praising children for doing something right isn’t a meaningful alternative to pulling back or punishing when they do something wrong. Both are examples of conditional parenting, and both are counterproductive.

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?

Deeper issues also underlie a different sort of criticism. Albert Bandura, the father of the branch of psychology known as social learning theory, declared that unconditional love “would make children directionless and quite unlovable” — an assertion entirely unsupported by empirical studies.

In practice, according to an impressive collection of data by Dr. Deci and others, 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.