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Parenting: Conditional Love is Good!

Is conditional love really a bad thing?

Note: In a previous post, Unconditional Love is Bad!, I provoked some strong responses from readers. The main beef that they had was with my notion that parents withdraw their love from their children. Let me clarify this point. I'm not talking about what we as parents feel (of course, we always love our children no matter what they do), but rather what children perceive, and I believe that they do perceive loss of love. They don't know the difference between withholding love and disapproval. In reading this newsletter, please think about my ideas from the perspective of your children, not yourself.

So here I go with another bold and controversial statement: Conditional love is good! Yes, as much as parents have been brainwashed to believe that unconditional love is the Holy Grail and that conditional love is Satan (no religious connotations intended), I am telling you that they are not. Like most things in life, unconditional and conditional love are neither good nor bad; it is what you do with them that makes them so. You can use them as tools for your children's healthy growth or as weapons that can harm your children's development.

I'm going to describe several red flags to see if you are using the wrong kind of conditional love. I will then show you how you can use conditional love to help your children become successful, happy, and value-driven human beings.

Red Flag #1: Outcome Love

One of the obstacles to children's success and happiness occurs when parents use their love to threaten and control them. Love becomes a weapon when parents make their love conditional on their children's success or failure, what I call outcome love. Parents who deliberately offer outcome love believe that love is not an entitlement for children, but rather something that must be earned. They implicitly believe in a "transactional" approach in which love is a reward for success and withdrawal of love is a payment for failure.

Outcome love can be communicated openly or subtly to children. Some parents become so invested in their children's achievements, whether academic, athletic, or artistic, that they actively reward success and punish failure. These parents reward success by giving their love in the form of effusive praise, physical affection, and lavish gifts. When these parents perceive that their children have failed, they punish their children with expressions of disappointment, anger, and derision, or by withholding of love with neglect, emotional distance, absence of physical contact, and withdrawal of support and encouragement.

The most extreme example of outcome love I have seen came from the mother of a young athlete with whom I worked a few years ago. Prior to my involvement, over a summer of competitions in which the girl had some difficult losses, her mother smashed her daughter's equipment, abandoned her at a competition, told her daughter repeatedly that she didn't love her, and didn't speak a word to her daughter for a week. Not surprisingly, this story doesn't have a happy ending. After several months, I was fired by the mother for "undermining" her efforts to help her daughter. The girl later informed me that she had quit her sport and hated her mother. Clearly, this is an extraordinarily blatant and painful case of outcome love, but one that is not so far from many parents I have seen in my practice.

More commonly, you may create subtle outcome love without realizing it. When your children are successful, it's natural for them to feel happy and excited, and when they do poorly to feel sad and disappointed. Because you experience your children's successes and failures vicariously, you may express these same emotions empathically back to your children without any intention of conveying outcome love. But your children may not yet be sophisticated enough to understand that you are simply sharing their joys and disappointments. Instead, your children see strong positive emotions from you when they succeed and strong negative emotions when they fail. These inadvertent messages create the appearance of outcome love and may produce many of the same difficulties in children as those resulting from parents who actively express outcome love.

The Columbia University researchers Melissa Kamins and Carol Dweck discovered that children who believed that their self-worth was dependent on how they performed were highly self-critical, showed strong negative emotions, judged their performances severely, and demonstrated less persistence following setbacks. This research shows that outcome love produces children who live in a constant state of fear. They are maniacally driven to succeed in order to receive their parents' love, yet they have a powerful dread of failure and the anticipated loss of love from their parents.

Red Flag #2: Dangling-Carrot Love

Another painful and destructive form of conditional love is dangling-carrot love, in which love is promised by parents and held seemingly within reach, but is never truly attainable. This expression came from my work with a young professional athlete who introduced me to a song by Alanis Morissette in which she sings of the "transparent dangling carrot." Much like the donkey who keeps moving forward in the belief that it will be able to reach the carrot tied at the end of a stick in front of it, children are impelled to keep trying to reach the love that they so desperately seek from their parents.

Unfortunately, no matter how hard these children try or whatever high level of success they achieve, nothing is ever good enough to gain the love from their parents that they want so badly. Parents who use dangling-carrot love put their children in a hopeless position. Their children are never rewarded for their efforts, yet they are loath to give up. To do so would be to surrender the hope that their parents really do love them. So these children keep striving, chasing that elusive carrot, however fruitlessly, to be good enough to earn their parents' love.

If you are a parent who communicates dangling-carrot love, you would show it by never being completely satisfied with how your children perform. For example, your son brings home a test in which he earned a score of 94 and you ask him why he missed three questions. Or your daughter receives a standing ovation for her dance performance, but the first thing you say is that she missed three steps in her choreography. In both examples, your children succeeded by most anyone's standards, yet their achievements were still not completely worthy of your love. Why do parents use this destructive kind of love? Probably in the mistaken belief that if parents give complete and unlimited approval of their children's achievements, they will never achieve up to their fullest abilities.

Conditional Love That Works

Love should have strings attached. Most things of importance in life are earned, whether values like trust, respect, and responsibility, or substantial things such as education and career. Why should love be any different? Love is your most powerful tool for influencing your children. But the key is to attach the right strings to your love.

Instead of outcome or dangling-carrot love, you should use value love, in which love is conditional on your children's adopting essential values and acting in socially appropriate and ethical ways. Value love nurtures the development of positive values and moral behavior, fosters healthy growth, and encourages achievement and happiness. You can instill values and life skills, such as respect, responsibility, hard work, discipline, compassion, and generosity, by giving praise-offering love-when your children demonstrate these values and showing disapproval-withholding love-when your children don't demonstrate these values.

There are several important differences between outcome and dangling-carrot love and value love. First, value love is about the over-all development and well-being of children. Not only will value love help children become successful (because it instills values and life skills such as hard work, discipline, the joys of achievement), but it will also help them to become happy (because they are learning the values and life skills that engender happiness) and good human beings (because good people come from good values).
In contrast, outcome and dangling-carrot love have quite the opposite effect. Yes, these children will achieve some degree of success, but, being driven by fear, they will likely never fully realize their ability. Plus, the chances are that they will be unhappy kids because of the relentless pressure to succeed that they are under. Finally, because their parents focus so much on achievement, rather than on the whole person, these children are more likely to miss out on all of those great values that make decent people.

Second, unhealthy conditional love is outside of children's control. In other words, no matter what they do, these children can't get the love they deserve from their parents. This loss of control will, in time, cause feelings of helplessness and, possibly, anger and resentment toward their parents. Conversely, all of the values and life skills that are fostered by value love are within children's control. They know what they can do to "earn" their parents' love and have the power to gain that love (read approval) when they want it. This sense of control has benefits to their self-esteem, motivation, and emotional lives.

Third, with outcome and dangling-carrot love, children sense that their parents are acting on their own needs and interests rather than on what is best for their children. This perception can create several harmful results. It causes conflict between children and parents that can generate anger, resentment, and resistance on the part of the children. Parents, in turn, likely unaware of their use of this bad form of conditional love, are bitter toward their children whom they perceive to be ungrateful for their parents' efforts to help them succeed. The ultimate result of this conflict is that children may act against their own best interests by sabotaging their efforts to exact revenge on their parents. And, sadly, the relationship between parent and child is severely damaged, sometimes irreparably.

Finally, children raised with outcome and dangling-carrot love internalize their parents' style of love and use it as the basis for loving themselves. In other words, they come to only love themselves when they live up to the now-internalized expectations and they hate themselves when they fail to do so. Children raised with value love, by contrast, ingrain that healthy style of love and are able to love themselves independent of the successes or failures they experience in their lives.

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