Parent, heal thyself

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?


  1. Marc V

    The older I get, the more overwhelmed I feel about the concept AND application of unconditional love. It’s easy to practice the “surface” love, but loving to the marrow of your bones (and beyond) is the challenge of a lifetime. That’s all God asks of us.

    “Just like they learn from us how to speak, they learn from us how to sin.” Amen.
    Lord, help us poor sinners in our weakness with the beautiful children you have given us, blessing us beyond what we deserve. Forgive us when we fail to mirror Jesus in caring for our children.

    I need more patience in certain areas. I’m not hung up so much on results but the effort (or lack of) from my children. My oldest son is in his first season of football, and I can tell when he’s taking “off” on plays or slacking in practice. It’s very difficult to encourage and correct at the same time.

    In particular, the root of the problem is motivation. We parents are all pseudo-professors of the psychology of motivation, and unfortunately many of us lean too much on harsh discipline and painful consequences. I know I’m sometimes at a loss of what to do with a thick-skulled young’un.

  2. RockThrowingPeasant

    “My oldest son is in his first season of football, and I can tell when he’s taking “off” on plays or slacking in practice. It’s very difficult to encourage and correct at the same time.”

    As a former coach of my two boys’ football team, I hope you understand that almost all boys do that throughout the season. As a coach, it was frustrating and I noticed my boys when they did it more than the other boys. It was easier to spot because I knew their capabilities. It is rare, very rare, when you find a boy who doesn’t take time off or goof off. You seem to have a good perspective on it. Just keep the focus on fun and finding ways to love the game.

    Landing on my boys for slacking did nothing to improve their concentration or interest and only made me feel like I was brushing back the sea with a broom. The action is in the right direction and seems to have an effective tool for sweeping, but the situation is hopeless and the tool isn’t nearly as effective as I’d like to think.

  3. MyFaithandJoy

    Mr. Woodlief, I think you hit on an especially instructive point in your last paragraph, that misbehavior from both children and parents finds its roots in our sin nature. That’s what I think the NYT and every other secular thinker misses – humans aren’t going to self-actualize into productive, well-behaved human beings when they’re sufficiently “accepted.” Accepting ourselves in our unregenerate sin-stained condition logically leads to all the horrors depicted in the book of Judges, where every man did what was right in his own eyes. It’s only when we extend Christ’s purifying love, love that strives toward holiness, that we can show our children that we want God’s best for them. And God’s best involves obedience, submission, and worshipful joy – three elements that are desperately missing from families today.

  4. Bradley J. Moore

    This is a pretty deep subject, I would suspect. It’s easy to say “get on your knees and get right with God” but our sinful behaviors are steeped in generations of history and DNA and influence. Sometimes that “sin” can be very subtle, too – manipulative and controlling behavior to appease our own desires rather than our child’s best interest, for instance. Or thinking we are doing them good by our super-discipline, when the kid needs to be off the hook for a minute. It’s very difficult to seperate our own emotions, sin, theology, from being a “truly loving” parent. And we’ll never, ever, get it completely right.
    I thank God that I have a wife who complements my own parenting style, and together we can hopefully do good by our children. Mine are 14 and 17 yo girls. So far, so good.
    Thanks for a very thought-provoking post!

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