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Is Unconditional Love a Realistic Parenting Strategy?

September 16, 2009

I read the article, “When a Parent’s ‘I Love You’ Means ‘Do As I Say'” in yesterday’s New York Times and found myself feeling a little agitated, both as a psychologist and a parent.

Hey, unconditional love is a great concept.  Wouldn’t we all like to feel loved all the time no matter what we do?  But first of all, is that realistic?  Parents are people too – with feelings and emotions.  Should parents really be expected to show love to their children unconditionally?  I believe there’s a difference between loving your children and expressing that love.  Further, who you are is a separate concept from what you do.  I didn’t see much distinction of these concepts in the article.

We live in a world where there are consequences for our actions.  I’d like my children to learn from early on that there are consequences to their actions, and sometimes those consequences are that you cause hurt in a relationship.  I’d rather that my children learn those lessons at home in a loving relationship with their parents before they go out into the big, wide world.

I guess I’m not completely clear on what the author means by “conditional parenting.”  I’ve seen in my work many examples of bad parenting where parents try to manipulate their children by controlling when they do and do not show love.  But is this the same as having conditions?

The research cited in this article refers to retrospective studies in which adults were asked to reflect back on their experience of being parented.  I would much prefer to see a longitudinal study examining actual parenting practices with child outcomes.  In fact, there already is a large body of research that shows that parenting which combines warmth and structure (i.e., consequences or conditions?) leads to well-adjusted, successful children.  And we also know from the research that permissive parenting can often lead to less desirable outcomes for children.  My fear is that parents may interpret this article to equate unconditional love with permissiveness.  Then I’d be worried…

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