My son wanted a bicycle for himself. I told him that I would buy one for him if he ranked within first three in the class. My mother strongly disapproved my approach. No conditions were acceptable to her. Either you buy one for him and see him happy, or you explain why you are unable to buy one for him at this time, she said.
A small event it was but it remained etched on my mind. I am quoting below what Alfie Kohn wrote in New York Times of Sept 15, 2009 which he later expanded in his article titled ‘Parental Love With Strings Attached’. He disapproves putting ‘Conditional Worth’ on the parental care meaning ‘I love you because you are well behaved’.
But that is just half of the story. The twist in the tale comes at the end. And it is research based! So we have to think twice before saying ‘I do not agree’. He says ‘praising children for doing something right isn’t a meaningful alternative to pulling back or punishing when they do something wrong’. Now that debunks the ‘Catch Them Doing Right’ theory of all parents [and HR Managers alike!]. That is a shocker for me!! But it does make sense when one thinks about the entire issue. I am quoting an excerpt from Alfie Kohn’s article.
In 2004, two Israeli researchers, Avi Assor and Guy Roth, joined Edward 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, 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.
This July, the same researchers, now joined by two of Deci’s colleagues at the University of Rochester, published two replications and extensions of the 2004 study. This time their subjects were ninth graders, and this time giving more attention and affection when children did what parents wanted was carefully distinguished from giving less when they did not.
The studies found that both positive and negative conditional parenting were harmful, but in slightly different ways. The positive kind sometimes succeeded in getting children to work harder on academic tasks, but at the cost of unhealthy feelings of “internal compulsion.” Negative conditional parenting, meanwhile, didn’t even work in the short run; it just increased the teenagers’ negative feelings about their parents.
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.
In practice, according to an impressive collection of data by 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.
The last of these features is important with respect to unconditional parenting itself. Most of us would protest that of course we love our children without any strings attached. But what counts is how things look from the perspective of the children – whether they feel just as loved when they mess up or fall short.
It is a bit too late for me to correct myself. I have often felt that parenting is a very difficult, important and yet a neglected subject. Alfie Kohn’s articles provide a hope that it will be taken more seriously.