Sand in the Gears

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Parent, heal thyself

September 25th, 2009 Posted in The Art of Parenting

The problem with too many modern commentators on parenting, I think, is their inability to distinguish love from acceptance. This confusion is apparent in Alfie Kohn’s New York Times essay, where he writes:

“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.”

Notice how he uses the word “love” in the first paragraph, and then switches to “approval” in the second? But these aren’t the same thing, are they? Now to be sure, if we parents screw up, our children will come to think that disapproval of behavior equals disapproval of self equals withdrawal of love. What we need is not an expectation-free acceptance of everything our children do (and honestly, can you imagine a better way to raise a miserable human being?), but the ability to guide their behavior while ensuring that they know we love them desperately, completely, without reservation. Which is why, in fact, we bother to guide their behavior in the first place.

It’s easy to lose this in the heat of battle, I know. You’re mad because this little knucklehead has, for the 147th time, “forgotten” to put the cap back on the milk jug. So you bark and tell him how irresponsible he is and ban him from milk for a week. It’s not the punishment, see, that makes him feel unloved. It’s the ugly look on your face. That’s what we need to cultivate — lovingkindness in our hearts. Not some hippie-dippy I-accept-you-no-matter-what-because-you-are-an-autonomous-entity-even-though-you’re-only-three mentality.

Our problems as parents, I suspect, stem mostly from the sickness in our own souls, not from ignorance of some undiscovered set of modern parenting techniques. You want to be a better parent? Get on your knees and pray for patience, strength, and a loving heart. You want your children to quit arguing, or lying, or laying about like sloths? Get on your knees and pray that you can see and walk away from your own argumentative heart, your subtly deceitful tongue, your lazy or despairing attitudes. Just like they learn from us how to speak, they learn from us how to sin.

But you won’t find that spelled out in the New York Times, will you?