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Love Actually

Parenting in the age of expectations

That we–as parents and adult caregivers–too often superimpose our own needs and aspirations on young people is the focus of a new book written by the National Journal’s Ron Fournier. Titled Love That Boy: What Two Presidents, Eight Road Trips, and My Son Taught Me About a Parent's Expectations, this important work offers a cautionary tale about the emotional carnage conditional love can wreak.

Loosely based on his well-received column “How Two Presidents Helped Me Deal With Love, Guilt, and Fatherhood,” Fournier’s book makes a compelling case for recalibrating definitions of “perfect” by meeting kids where they are and, more important, accepting them for whom they are. As he himself learned, there is joy to be found in that process.

Alas, it’s not about parenting without expectations; it’s about having the right ones.

Madeleine Levine, Ph.D., author of Teach Your Children Well, offers up a parenting mission statement that uniquely frames the challenges parents face: “While we all hope that our children will do well in school, we hope with even greater fervor that they will do well in life. Our job is to help them know and appreciate themselves deeply, to be resilient in the face of adversity, to approach the world with zest, to find work that is satisfying, friends and spouses who are loving and loyal, and to hold a deep belief that they have something meaningful to contribute to the world.”

No small feat.

Yet, as Fournier points out, there exist models of parenting styles that offer guidance. Indeed, in her work with families, psychologist Diana Baumrind identified four modes of parenting: indulgent, authoritarian, authoritative and uninvolved. The labels themselves suggest what Baumrind maintains: Each differs in the extent to which it is "demanding" and "responsive." In other words, they address what standards for behavior are established and expected by parents ("demandingness") and how warm and supportive the parents are toward their children ("responsiveness").

Indulgent parents are responsive but establish few expectations for the behavior and responsibilities of their children. They're permissive and offer acceptance almost regardless of how their child acts. With few rules in place, their children are often prone to misbehavior.

Authoritarian parents, on the other hand, rate high on control and low on responsiveness. They tend to establish strict standards for conduct and may react harshly when those standards are not met. But they provide little supportive interaction. Children with authoritarian parents are often anxious, depressed and socially unsuccessful. They also may have trouble learning to think through choices on their own, for they have been brought up simply being told what to do and what not to do with few, if any, explanations.

Authoritative parents tend to be both demanding and responsive, holding children accountable for age-appropriate behavior while engaging them in the process of understanding expectations instead of simply adopting a "my way or the highway" approach.

And, finally, uninvolved parents are neither demanding (as are authoritarian parents) nor responsive (as are indulgent parents), leaving kids feeling disconnected, unwanted or unloved. They neither set expectations for their children nor pay them much attention or offer affection and support. In a sense, they're not really acting like parents at all.

Problem solved. Authoritative approaches will be most effective in both conveying unconditional love and supporting children in making choices most helpful to positive growth and development.

Not so fast.

While authoritative parenting has its merits, Alfie Kohn, author of “Unconditional Parenting,” points out that conditional parenting isn’t the sole domain of authoritarians but rather is unwittingly practiced by caregivers of all stripes. And although research suggests that conditional approval is more likely to produce the outcomes parents desire, it may leave in its wake resentful, unhappy children.

Moreover, in his article “Do You Send ‘Dark’ Messages of Love to Your Children?” Dr. Jim Taylor ups the ante, holding that conditional love can produce scars that persist into adulthood and influence the way the next generation raises their kids. He too believes that many, if not most, parents unknowingly withdraw or withhold love, stating, “The challenge is to become aware of the unconscious, and oftentimes unhealthy, messages of love you may send to your children.”

We are all human. And it is perhaps human nature that directs our reactions to the successes and failures of those we love. Yet it is incumbent upon us–particularly with regard to youth–to recognize effort over achievement, resiliency over success and individuality over conformity.

Better yet, Fournier provides some more granular advice: Don’t parent for the future, parent for today. Make different cool. Guide, don’t push. And revel in small victories.

He closes the book reflecting on his son, Tyler, who has Asperger's syndrome, taking care of his grandmother at the funeral of her husband. “Now I finally know what perfect is. It’s a child blessed with the grace to show goodness, even on the worst of days.”

Love without strings attached. That is love, actually.

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