Friday, 18 September 2009

What's love got to do with it?

I've been struggling with this post since about fifteen minutes after I hit "publish" on my last one. I just can't get it straight in my mind. So I shall try to be methodical.

1. The hot topic?

I read this article in The New York Times: When a Parent's 'I Love You' Means 'Do as I Say'. Its point seems to be that if you heap praise on a child when they behave or do something really well, you may as well enroll them in therapy now, because they will be fucked up for life, feeling they never got unconditional love. In the author's own words:
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.

2. What is my problem with that?

Ehm, if the theory is correct, I would first of all like a refund on all those parenting books I have. Then I would like to ask "What's the alternative?" because while I'm willing to admit I may sometimes be a little on the controlling side, surely part of my job as a mother is to deliver fully functional human beings at the end of this ride. And praise sure does work.

3. How do I parent?

Parenting never came very naturally to me. The only thing I knew was I would do things differently. And in difficult situations, I would not
ignore - say something nasty - shout something nasty - lash out physically - the end.
After a lot of soul searching, therapy, and research, I came up with some rules for myself.
  1. Always be loving.
  2. Never intend to hurt.
I thought I'd best keep it simple.

To start with, these rules sufficed. As soon as the children were able to move themselves around, though, another problem arose: how to steer their behaviour? They must be kept away from the oven, be taught not to overturn the box of Krispies (that took a few attempts), not to hit other children, and so on. Simple love wasn't going to cut it.

I worried and read a lot about how to teach Jack (our poor guinea pig, being the first child) to behave without ever withholding love, for precisely the reason that he should never feel our love depends on what he does. So far, I thought I was doing ok. The main part of the plan is to give the children lots of positive attention all the time, and also to praise them when they're not misbehaving. When they do test the boundaries, I will talk to them and tell them not to. If necessary, I will add why. If they persists, there's a warning. After that, there's a time-out or punishment (like no dessert). I try to be matter-of-fact about it - not shout or get really wound-up (this doesn't always work). I also try to listen to their wishes and negotiate if possible.

This plan? Totally works. Of course, that doesn't mean it's the right thing to do.

4. Am I "using my love" to get my children to behave?

I think the author of this article confuses attention/praise with love. If you only say "I love you" when your child has just performed a little trick, I suppose you will make them think you only love them for their tricks. But children do see the difference between disapproval of naughty behaviour and not loving them. The other night, the children were testing me rather a lot while I was putting them to bed. Just before Jack jumped into bed he went too far and I told him he was not getting a treat the next day. Less than a minute later, though, we were cuddling and doing the rest of the night routine. He knows the difference.

I don't think love really comes into it. The children know I love them all the time. In fact, half the time I'm telling them what not to do, I will be using terms of endearment in the middle (equivalent to sweetie or dearest or somesuch). Jack tells me at length how much I love him, no matter what, forever, even if he's naughty or dead, and also when he wasn't born yet. (He likes to cover all his bases.)

I suppose time-outs do, in practice, mean that you withhold love. You put a physical distance between you and your child. All of a sudden, I'm not so sure about that one. On the other hand, a time-out is often for my sake as much as theirs. It allows me some cooling-off time as well as them.

5. What does the article say I should do?

Here's a quote:
In practice, [..] 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.
Sure, wonderful, yes to all of the above. Only "encouraging"? How do you do that without praise or positive reinforcement? And also, that's all fine and dandy until they start hitting other children. How far do you go then in your "autonomy support"?

6. My conclusion

I think the author confuses approval/praise with love. As long as your children are clear you love them all the time, and just as much when they misbehave, there is nothing wrong with praise for good actions, and even the odd punishment or time-out for a bad one, if needed.

7. How about you?

I'd really LOVE to get some opinions on all this. What do you think? All this does not sit easily with me. I hated being a child because someone else was always calling the shots. Now I'm in charge, and I have two inmates at my mercy. I try to be fair and listen to their wishes, but ultimately I'm the boss. I'm a reluctant dictator, though, and I think that's why I'm so susceptible when some idiot comes by who tells me that I'm fucking up my children by telling them they're great. Sorry about the length of this post. This has really been on my mind. Please tell me what you're thinking. Especially if you disagree with me.


  1. I don't trust studies. I think you are the parents of your children and no one else is.
    That's what I think.

  2. Great post, very thought provoking. I always end a difficult situation with a big cuddle to ensure it's clear that the behaviour in the situation was the problem. Praise and disapproval for behaviour, but always love for the person, that's my rule. Not a rule actually, it's what I feel, I could never not love my daughter, however bad her behaviour.

  3. Follow your instinct (aka soul-searching, therapy and research). Read something else.

  4. I haven't read the article, but from what you say, it does indeed sound as if the author can't distinguish approval of a behaviour from love of a person. Luckily, children are far more sophisticated than him/her, and can do so from a very early age. My daughter has had conversations with me (age 5) where she has explained "even when I am mad at you, Mommy, don't worry because I still love you". So she has got it, and has already started worrying that she is screwing ME up!

    For what it's worth, I do notice that in America, parents often distinguish the specific act very carefully, when they are praising or disciplining. So they say "I don't like the way you hit your brother", "we don't hit people", rather than "stop being violent". I think it's a good idea.

    But I don't go with the idea that it's all about supporting the child as he/she makes his/her own way in the world. Children feel safe and secure when they have boundaries, and they can't possibly work those out for themselves. If you don't fill the role as authority figure in their lives, they will be at sea. This took me a while to realise, and my oldest had a much harder time than my 2nd and 3rd. I was always trying to make him an equal with me, so if he had a sticker chart, I had one too. He said "you go to bed when you like, so why can't I?". Then, after chatting with a friend, I stopped trying to make everything equal and changed tack, and just started saying 'I'm the mother, it's my job to do x, and when you're a parent, it'll be your turn to make the rules". He was so much happier. I'm just glad I realised when he was 4, not 14!

    How can a child learn to behave if you don't teach them? I don't think it's loving to load all the responsibility for figuring out how to behave onto them.

  5. You've read some of what I've dealt with on the top anyway. I try so hard to NOT be my mom that I end up doing things that she used to do unintentionally. My Aunt always said to me "I will always love you but I may not like you sometimes, and that will be the same for you too".

    It's a catch 22, what you read and how you react are often 2 very different things. Reactive answers come in the heat of the moment and I ofetn times find myself using methodical movements in response to actions and not actually getting anwhere. Point in fact Nathaniel will wake up and promptly go in and jump on sleeping Ryan. where upon I go in and begin to soothe the screaming Ryan while saying to Nathaneil " do you think that was very nice?". The next action is always very predictable from there as soon as I think it is difused and I can go and perhaps pee/brush my teeth/put on my glasses so I can see, all hell breaks loose and they are at it on the floor kicking, biting and scratching each other. Maybe it's only boys that are like that but I can only respond with forcefully wrenching them apart and hauling them off into seperate rooms and usually holding one if not 2 doorknobs shut (I've even tied them closed when it gets bad).

    I agree with Iota's comment that "I'm the parent, you're the kid" if they can understand it. IF not I say use the garden hose and drench them. We all turned out a little messed up, when they come in and tell you they are moving out you can always hand them the business card sof a few therapists that you have scoped out for them ahead of time;)

  6. I have read the article now, and it IS persuasive, but I think that's because it's clever, not because it's right. For example, he quotes Supernanny as suggesting parents withold love and praise when a child misbehaves, but that is quoting her very out of context. If you watch her shows, you get a much more rounded picture of how she relates to kids and their parents. In most of her cases, the children are out of control in the first place because they haven't understood boundaries of behaviour, or because those boundaries haven't been enforced.

    He says it's important for children to feel loved even when they mess up or fall short, and I totally agree with that. But how on earth are they to know they've messed up or fallen short if you don't - lovingly - teach them?

    I think the most telling thing is at the beginning of the article, where he says that we have to love children unconditionally, and says "As a father, I know this is a tall order". I think, as a mother, that it comes as part of the package.

    Sorry to go on, but this has got under my skin, as it did yours.

  7. there's also an award over at mine

  8. I think this is key: "children do see the difference between disapproval of naughty behaviour and not loving them."

    And I agree with this: "a time-out is often for my sake as much as theirs. It allows me some cooling-off time as well as them."

    I've been going to parenting classes the last few weeks, and there are some similar strains here, only a little different. For instance, don't by way of your praise make the child think it is his or her job to make you happy.

  9. The author of this article is an idiot.

    (Mother of 4 teenage boys here...)

  10. I've read his book. Frogdancer is right. It's been a while, but I recall being annoyed because the first several chapters were so very negative -- all the things all parents are doing all wrong. It wasn't till well into the book that he said anything positive at all. Tedious in the extreme.

    When he did get to the positive stuff, the theory of it all wasn't problematic for me, in fact I use many of his principles every day, but his application of them?? Good heavens. I can't imagine but that it wouldn't create selfish brats in the extreme. I wonder how well-socialized he is, too: I seem to remember him saying in the book that he doesn't see the point of manners. (!!)

    A friend recounted how she heard him interviewed years back, as he told how he dealt with his daughter's temper tantrums.

    The daughter was NINE. Nine, and still throwing screaming temper tantrums. I think that says about as much as we need to know about his method's effectiveness. And does it sound like that child is happy???

    I think you've wisely seen the crux of his problem. There is a difference... and kids know it.

  11. hmm, i'm not sure if the author of the article interpreted the research correctly. But I think there is a difference between setting boundaries, praising good behavior, vs. only showing loving feelings when someone is doing good things. The way you are saying you parent your children is not what I think they are talking about.

    My parents used negative and positive reinforcement and their love was certainly the point where after I stopped being religious I never heard my mom tell me she loved me again (it's been over 12 years now) and she eventually disowned me because she 'couldn't have a relationship with me' because of the horrible things I was doing (the horrible thing being marrying my husband). I think the article has really resonated among the people I know because a lot of them have gone through similar experiences.

  12. Change books. I agree with some of the other comments - use your instinct, love your children and let them know it and do what YOU think is right in every situation - now my kids are older (12 and 15) 'discipine' gets harder and harder but all things considered we manage ok because they have always had boundaries and they know they can only 'push' me so far - it has worked for us so far but who knows if it will continue to do so and who knows if in the process I have fucked them up - only time will tell but I am keeping my fingers crossed and I know that everything I have done with/for them I have done thinking it was the right thing at that particular point in time - and no parent can do more than that

  13. Interesting. Not having had children myself yet, I am not sure how it all works out in reality, but I must say that parents who are more or less indifferent to their children's actions (good and bad) and worse than parents who "praise with love" or whatever.

  14. It sounds like you are doing a very good job parenting. A couple of points: I think the "time outs" are very good when separation is simply needed. My children when small would sometimes get to the point where steam was about to pour out of their ears; then a little separation from other people was important simply to keep them (or me) from doing something that would be regretted. The time outs were punishment so much as a lesson in walking away from a situation when it gets at least momentarily untenable or unresolveable. That seems to me a bit different from using time outs as punishment. I was lucky enough not to have to impose a lot of punishments on my children, but I think the most effective ones really relate to the natural consequences of the act, or can be seen as that.

    I wrote on this same subject on my blog ManicDDaily -
    and you asked me about the praise issue.

    i think praise, a blanket of praise, is something parents should be somewhat careful about (as the Times article says), as it really can create a dependency on such praise. That is, someone who is fed on praise can get to the point that he or she does not feel satisfied without it. Praise does not come as readily in adult life; and sometimes a job that is done sufficiently well, or satisfactorily, and doesn't generate a lot of hoopla, should be enough for someone. The praise hungry have a hard time with that. If they are not actively praised, they feel kind of terrible. And when they are praised, they don't believe the acknowledgement is genuine.

    That does not mean to say that you don't encourage a child. I guess part of the point is being attentive. Sometimes parents substitute praise for attention.

    Also, one way to "praise" which can be effective is to describe the feelings or the situations that result from a child's actions, rather than labeling the child. So, for example, you might say, "when I see a sparkling clean room, it makes my heart sing!" (I know that sounds stupid, but something like that.) Instead of "What a wonderful child you are to have cleaned your room."

    The best teacher of this type of parenting, in my mind, - and I have to say I've not bought a lot of recent childrearing books - was Dr. Haim Ginott, who wrote "Between Parent and Child", and then his followers, Elaine Mazlish and Adelle Farber - "Liberated Parents Liberated Children" and "How to talk to Children so they'll listen, how to listen so they'll talk."

    You commented on my blog on the article- I also wrote another post specifically about effects of overpraise and the kind of neediness that can result.

  15. SORRY - I meant to say in my comment that the time outs were NOT punishments so much as separations for calming down. Sorry.

  16. Hey Mwa,

    I like and agree with what you're saying, and I second ManicDDaily in saying that you sound like an excellent and loving mom.

    The author of the original article, Alfie Kohn, advocates for unconditional love, but you are right to point out the differences between withholding love and failing to set appropriate limits.

    Theorists tend to overstate their position, and no matter how kind, are at some level promoting themselves as much as their ideas. The notion of using less control is a worthwhile one, however, as our parents' way has often lead to our modern feelings of angst and confusion.

    Even though I'm a male, I'd be the first to admit that theories that men write in the quiet of their studies often bear little resemblance to the experience of caregivers "on the ground." Parenting is not about theories, it's about developing together with our children, in your case hopefully healing from the wounds of the past (thus evolving spiritually) while giving your kids the opportunity to balance being individuals with being part of the group (in our shrinking world).

    Whether or not you can get a refund on all those parenting books, as a psychologist and writer, I'm a bit subversive in that I want us all to stop reading, and needing those books (and I want us to stop needing therapy too). So here we are, on the web, finding community and encouraging each other to care about all our collective children.

    Namaste, Bruce

  17. I read that article, too. All I know is that a parent should never, ever withhold their love. You can be strict, but you don't have to be unnecessarily cruel.

  18. I really dislike parenting books. Except "How to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk." Beyond that, all I can add to my blog rant on this same topic, is that I think it is unloving not to set good solid firm boundaries. And to teach children that WE have feelings that matter, as well as their own. Sometimes Mommy gets really pissed off. Because that is a normal human emotion. Parents who pretend not to have negative feelings around children kind of makes my skin crawl. Ya know?

    By the way, Hi and thanks for your note on my blog. :o)

  19. I don't have the energy to comment as I'd like, but basically, I go through periods of extreme doubt too, and sometimes end up tweaking my 'style' here or there, but basically don't let some esoteric thoughts on parenting get confused with the reality. The real physical world and relations and workplaces are comprised of praise and of consequence, parenthood is also supposed to be unconditional love and it definitely sounds like you've got that. Setting boundries and expectations is crucial to healthy emotional development in not only my opinion...honest praise or disapointment without ever withdrawing love is also...

  20. @Ms. Moon - You are right. These things can't be put in numbers. I do like to read about how other people parent, though. I have learned so much and would be lost without.

    @cartside - I try very hard to distinguish between disapproval of behaviour and the person. I find it hard to do the opposite, though. I often find myself saying "good girl" or "clever boy", indirectly implying that they may not be when they are misbehaving. That I find the tough part.

    Thanks for the award!

    @Pueblo girl - Good advice. I will.

    @Iota - It got under your skin, too, eh? :-) I think you are so right about the boundaries. I love my children to bits, but we can't be truly equal while they are little because I have to set the boundaries. I do think children are much happier with clear and consistent boundaries. I have noticed that whenever I let things slip, they are somehow insecure or unhappier.

    @Meghan - It's hard, dealing with the past while dealing with being a mother. I'm glad I got a few years of therapy in before I became a mother. I'm not sure I would have dared otherwise. You have to just remember to start fresh each day, and all you can do is try your best.

  21. @Steph - You have a very good point there. I'm always so proud of my children, but I wouldn't want them to feel responsible for that. When I'm sad, I tell them that they are not the reason, while still showing them I have emotions.

    @Frogdancer - Thank you for that! :-)

    @MaryP - Aha! So glad you read the book and have more information!

    Those examples of the manners and the temper tantrums show that I would indeed not agree with all of his ideas. Just the idea of temper tantrums lasting that long is awful. They are so easy to nip in the bud, I don't see why you wouldn't.

    @Abandoning Eden - I think that is precisely the reason it resonated with me and why I was so affected. So I agree with you on that point.

    I do think the author goes further than showing unconditional love, though. And that is where I start to disagree.

    @Kathryn - You are right. We can only love and keep trying. And I'm sure we can't help but fuck them up a little, and then they will write beautiful poetry when they grow up and be interesting people. Completely sane people are boring anyway. So really we're doing them a favour.

    @Megan - I don't get indifferent parents. Why have children in the first place then?

  22. @ManicDDaily - Great point about not using time outs as punishment. I think I will treat them differently from now on.

    I keep hearing good things about "How to talk to children so they'll listen, how to listen so they'll talk" - I think I will read that one. I like the sound of the other books, too.

    Thank you for coming over and adding to the debate. I will be coming over to visit your blog.

    @privilegeofparenting - Finding community indeed. I think I might stick to the books for a while, though. I love absorbing new ideas. I may steer clear of male theorists, though. :-)

    I do work on the controlling thing each day, thinking if I'm doing this for the children or for me. I'm getting better each day.

    Thank you so much for stopping by and giving your opinion. I will be reading your blog because I love it.

    @Wendi - It seems a lot of people read that article. It bothered me a bit that The New York Times didn't make it clear that it was a bit of a fringe theory.

    I hate it too when parents do not show love to their children. I know a lot of people wouldn't know how, but it's always upsetting to see.

    @Katherine - I am so reading that book now.

    I do agree that parents should show emotions to children. If they (sometimes) see frustration or sadness, and how to deal with them, that is a lot more healthy than having a pretend-sunshine-world where no one ever feels anything.

    @Maggie May - As long as we keep doubting ourselves and are willing to question what we are doing, at least we are on the path somewhere. I see what you mean about reality. In some situations, our reactions can never be anything but imperfect.

    I hope you find your energy soon.

  23. I've been thinking about this all weekend and wondering what to add. I think most of what I would say has already been said (far better) but here's my feelings...

    I think it's easy to over think stuff like this.

    Yes it's important that we are aware of the impact we're having on our children but if we start to worry that every little wrong turn of phrase or response is going to put them in therapy for the rest of their lives then we'll all become so neurotic and anxious that we really WILL mess our children up.

    For me, it seems natural and instinctive to praise Kai when he does something 'good' or well, or ignore or chastise when he does something 'naughty'. Kai is already as child that has to hear a lot of 'no' - he is fundementally a boy who likes to test the boundaries out of curiosity. And he really needs his boundaries and responds well to them. He also delights in being praised and encouraged. But I always give him a 'why' to go with his 'no' and achievements are cherished no matter how small in comparison to others. If it's a big deal to Kai then it's a big deal to me. I hope that will give him a good sense of proportion, give him a feeling of security and self-worth, but also an understanding of right and wrong.

    I hope that the fact that I love him just as much whatever he's doing shines through everything I do and everything I ever communicate to him. The naughty is soon forgotten, and affection and comfort is never witheld.

    That is all...

  24. Ok, this article all sounds really theoretic to me. Like someone who has no kids wrote it. I believe it is important not only for children but for adults to be rewarded for a job well done and penalized for bad perfomance. Afterall, that's more or less how life works, too. Or it's supposed to. I think it's important that they realize that good things come to those who work for them. Of course it's good to give them choices and let them participate in decisions sometimes, but kids are not small adults. They need guidance.

    Praise/rewards for a good job or "punishment" for behaving poorly or bad grades are the way you teach kids right from wrong. You cannot give them free reign all the time, they need guidance. That's part of a parent's role.


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