Withholding love from your kids when they misbehave seems like a bad parenting tactic — but according to Alfie Kohn in the Times, "giving more approval" when kids do well could screw them up too.
Kohn says "conditional parenting," in which parents "turn up the affection when they're good, withhold affection when they're not" is in vogue these days, endorsed by Dr. Phil and Jo Frost of "Supernanny." The idea of "withholding affection" sounds harsh, but Kohn's definition of the practice is actually pretty broad. He writes,
Conditional parenting isn't limited to old-school authoritarians. Some people who wouldn't dream of spanking choose instead to discipline their young children by forcibly isolating them, a tactic we prefer to call "time out." Conversely, "positive reinforcement" teaches children that they are loved, and lovable, only when they do whatever we decide is a "good job."
Most of us probably had a few time-outs in our day, and many got rewards when we scored well on tests. So does that mean we're messed up for life? Well, maybe. Kohn cites a study that asked college students "whether the love they had received from their parents had seemed to depend on whether they had succeeded in school, practiced hard for sports, been considerate toward others or suppressed emotions like anger and fear." The students who "received conditional approval" were actually more likely to live up to parental expectations — but often at the price of disliking their parents, and living their lives according to a "strong internal pressure" than to "a real sense of choice."
But do a few time-outs and a few gold stars turn kids into resentful automata who trudge along under constant "internal pressure" created by their parents? Unfortunately, it's kind of hard to tell. Kohn uses terms like love, acceptance, affection, and approval almost interchangeably, but of course they're very different. As one commenter on the Times Well blog said,
The only real currency I have as a parent is my approval. She wants to make me happy and proud, so she behaves. When she misbehaves, she knows we're disappointed.
But that's not the same as loving her conditionally. I love her no matter what, even if I disapprove of behavior.
It seems likely that making parental love contingent on success in school — or even on being "considerate toward others" — might be damaging to kids. But there's a big difference between withholding love and expressing disapproval, and it's a little hard to imagine raising a child without sometimes doing the latter. Kohn advocates "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." Perhaps "making a clear distinction between loving someone and approving of all her behavior" should be added to this list. While helping kids develop their own moral compasses is an admirable goal, children will need to learn eventually that their behavior affects the way others see them — but not whether they are deserving of love.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Kohn's piece, though, is that it adds to a growing body of criticism against parental praise. According to Kohn, praise doesn't create soft, self-satisfied narcissists as so many armchair sociologists allege. Instead, if given in a conditional way, it can destroy kids' ability to make their own decisions. And recent studies have shown that children praised for their intelligence care more about doing well than about actually learning. Parents are just as unlikely to quit praising their kids as they are to stop occasionally "disapproving" of them. But in both cases, they should make it clear that no matter how proud or angry they may be in the moment, their love does not depend on being good or doing well.