In David Brooks’ hortatory sermon on what parental love should be, he preaches that “it is supposed to be oblivious to achievement. It’s meant to be an unconditional support - a gift that cannot be bought and cannot be earned. It sits outside the logic of the meritocracy, the closest humans come to grace.” (Love and Merit, NYT 4//24/15) In his essay, he refers to current trends in child-rearing involving greater praise and greater honing, compared with an earlier generation that stressed greater obedience. He might have stretched his imagination further and realized that as far back as recorded history, there have been different modes of parenting and few (if any) considered unconditional love a necessity or even a factor. Open favoritism figures prominently in the Bible from Abraham’s preference for Isaac over Ishmael to Isaac’s preference for Esau over Jacob to Jacob’s love for Joseph over all his brothers. Cultural outlooks produce very different modes of parenting as well; the tiger mother considers it a sign of the greatest love to push her child to excellence so that child’s life will offer more rewards that come with personal achievement.
Unconditional love is a harbor for diminished expectations. Brooks wants children to be loved for who they are “intrinsically.” That intrinsic phase is over by the time children are old enough to observe the world around them, learn the difference between a smile and a reprimand and proceed to develop their own strengths and weaknesses. By the time they are toddlers, most children have learned what is expected of them and how to rebel against that by manipulation or succumb to it for the reward. Ask a sleep-deprived parent, or one whose child has school-phobia or one whose child has more serious disturbances that often fracture a family how complex unconditional love can be.
The psychologists whose studies are referenced by Brooks tell us that children who receive conditional love “feel driven by internalized pressures more than by real freedom of choice. They feel less worth as adults.” In studies of self-esteem among schoolchildren, Professor Bernadette Gray-Little of the University of No. Carolina found that black students over the age of 10 scored highest, despite poorer academic and economic achievement. Perhaps feeling less worthy is a function of greater self-awareness in realizing one’s limitations, or being more cognizant of the surrounding competition - not just a reaction to the pressures of conditional love.
If we accept the truism that it’s easier to live and work with people who are cooperative, self-starting, dependable and capable of performing the role or job they have chosen, parents should do their utmost to help children develop those traits. Don’t children as well as adults work harder for a bonus? Isn’t that bonus initially the approval of a parent, caregiver or teacher who’s in charge of you? What is approval if not a form of conditional love?
The notion of unconditional love seems very much like the disclaimer of a beautiful woman who says that looks are unimportant or a very wealthy man shrugging of the importance of money. It’s a back-handed way of being self-congratulatory for people who already have what they want and can pretend not to care about it. It’s human nature to want our children to succeed, not just as an extension of our egos, but because we believe it’s the best route for greater choices and happiness. So far, no one has been able to prescribe a universal formula for raising children well. Though statistically, it’s best if they have two parents who are intelligent, financially secure and interested in them, we also know how many exceptions to the rule exist. That should produce enough humility to resist the certainty that failure to provide children with unconditional love is a crippler of individual self-worth. If you live in a competitive society, as Brooks and his readers do, it’s both facile and unrealistic to pretend that parents can remain unaffected watching their children sabotage themselves. Using whatever ploys one can to help children attain self-discipline and the willingness to work hard is the best hope for their independence and self-sufficiency. Approval and disapproval are ultimately just the carrots and sticks of conditional parental love.
Have PoliticalMavens.com delivered to your inbox in a daily digest by clicking here