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Parenting: Unconditional Love Is Bad!

Is unconditional love really best for your children?

Key points

  • Up until the 1950s, conditional love was the dominant American parenting approach. It switched to unconditional love in the '60s.
  • Both purely conditional and unconditional approaches to parenting have their drawbacks. Instead, a balance between them is best.
  • Parents can encourage children's achievement by using healthy conditional love to instill values like hard work, discipline, and patience.

The basic idea behind unconditional love seems quite reasonable. You should love your children just for who they are, regardless of what they do. Children shouldn't have to worry whether their actions will cause you to love them less. They should be able to count on your love no matter what.

But unconditional love is a rather new phenomenon. As recently as the 1950s, conditional love was the dominant parenting approach. It was a way to maintain control, foster conformity, and instill certain values and beliefs held by parents and society at large.

The Pushback

But something happened in the sixties. Perhaps it was a reaction to the rigidity of the post-World War II era. It was as if the children of the forties and fifties said, "That's enough. We want to be loved regardless of what we do." So they decided to raise their children with unconditional love.

Within a short time, America went from "Love if you obey and behave" to "Love without limits." Instead of figuring out what kinds of conditional love work and what kinds don't, many parents cut all of the strings and made love conditional on nothing.

Unfortunately, the pendulum swung too far. If you look at unconditional love carefully you see why this grand experiment failed. By taking away conditional love, parents lost their ability to influence their children. Parents gave their children carte blanche in the misguided belief that this freedom would build their self-esteem, foster maturity and independence, and allow them to become successful and happy people. But what it actually did was hurt self-esteem, encourage immaturity, and ill prepare children for life in the adult world.

Reality Check

Rewarding children—love is really the ultimate form of reward—regardless of their behavior robs children of one of their most important lessons-that their actions have consequences. What more powerful inducement to good action is there for your child than the threat of losing your love? I think we should give up on our belief that unconditional love exists. Most things in life have strings attached and love is no different.

In reality, you constantly use love to reward or punish your children's behavior. When you show disapproval toward your children, you are actually showing them that your love can be momentarily withheld, that your love is, in fact, conditional. For example, you probably do not act lovingly when your children are disobedient, selfish, whiny, or are cruel to their siblings. Are you truly withholding your love in these situations? Probably not; you still love them. But children are not sophisticated enough to tell the difference between "We disapprove of your behavior" and "Because of what you did, we are taking away our love." Your child's perception is that love has been temporarily suspended. To your child, it feels like, "I did something wrong and my parents don't love me now." Why do you think parenting experts tell you that, after you have given your children a time-out, you must tell them how much you love them.

Reversing on the Wrong Course

At some point, many parents saw that the pendulum had swung too far and they realized that unconditional love wasn't working. Many children were lazy, disinterested, and out of control. These children weren't good people and they weren't successful or happy. Clearly, a change needed to be made. So, many parents decided to return to conditional love.

Unfortunately, many parents reinstated the wrong kind of conditional love. Perhaps because of the economic uncertainty in recent decades, parents decided to direct their conditional love toward their children's achievement activities, believing that this approach would motivate their children to work hard, become successful, and overcome the difficult economic times. Parents began to make their love conditional on how their children performed in school. If Johnny got an A, his parents heaped love, attention, and gifts on him. When he received a D, they withdrew their love by expressing disappointment, hurt, embarrassment, or anger. As a result, children's self-esteem became overly connected to their achievement efforts. This conditional love caused achievement to become threatening to children because success and failure were too intimately linked with whether their parents would love them.

At the same time, parents maintained their unconditional love for their children's behavior. Parents gave their children unfettered freedom, few responsibilities, didn't hold them accountable for their actions, provided no consequences, and continued to love them no matter how they behaved—as long as they did well in school, it didn't matter if the children were spoiled brats!

Getting Conditional Love Right

Parents must reverse their use of unconditional and conditional love. You need to give your children unconditional love for their achievements so that they will be free from the fear that you will not love them if they fail to meet your expectations. This unconditional love will liberate your children from the specter of lost love and encourage them to give their best effort and achieve the highest level of which they are capable.

At the same time, you can encourage your children's achievement efforts by using conditional love for the values and attributes that will help them succeed, for example, in school, sports, and the performing arts. When you use conditional love to instill essential qualities, such hard work, discipline, patience, persistence, and perseverance, you then give them the tools to achieve their goals.

Similarly, you should make your love conditional on whether your children behave like decent human beings, namely, they act on healthy values such as honesty, kindness, respect, and responsibility. If your children behave poorly, they know that you will withdraw your love—at least temporarily. If they behave well, they know that you will give your love. In time, your children will learn to internalize this healthy conditional love and it will guide them in acting in ethical ways.

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