I think it goes without saying that every parent (at least most of us) love our children “unconditionally”. In fact, this belief has been so completely accepted in my own mind that I never even considered it a possibility that my actions might communicate something different. That is, until a friend shared with me a book she was reading which was about unconditional love. I’m afraid I cannot recall the exact title or the author.
Based on the theories of the author, it appears that some disciplinary tactics adopted by parents are based on “conditional love”. Stuff like “time-outs”, and even a lot of the non-violent methods of discipline were considered “conditional love”. So I asked my friend, “If we can’t use these methods for discipline, then how do we discipline our children?” At the time, my friend hadn’t finished reading the book so she could not answer me.
I had completely forgotten about the book until I read that article “Are Time Outs for Tots Conditional Love” by Ashley Merryman.
Why am I concerned? Well, Although I know I love Gavin unconditionally, it concerns me to think that he may perceive my love for him as “conditional” due to the behaviours and actions that I respond to him with. I do use “time outs” with Gavin and he does know that certain behaviours of his upsets me and makes me mad. I know that he corrects his behaviour to “make me happy”. Does that mean I love him “conditionally”? Does that mean, he perceives my love as “conditional”?
On the flip side of the coin, we also know that permissive parenting is also construed by children to mean that we – the parents – don’t really care about them – the children. We also know that it is important to provide firm love not only to keep our children in line but to help them feel secure and loved.
The question now is: where is the middle ground? How do you convey your unconditional love to your child and still adequately discipline a child if praise and punishment are suggestive of conditional love?
Well, the question has been put to rest by Ashley Merryman’s article:
“…we just don’t have to make a choice between praise, punishment and unconditional love. That’s just a false choice. If necessary, we can praise or punish for what they do. We love them for who they are. As long as we keep that straight, we’ll be fine.”
It isn’t so much that we cannot use praise and punishment to keep our children in line but how we use these tools of discipline with our children. It is equally as important to discipline to our children as it is to let them know our love for them in unconditional:
“Most research finds that kids need rules and structure – not as a form of prison, but a scaffold of autonomy they can build on.
Oberlin College professor Nancy Darling has surveyed thousands of adolescents, in the US, the Philippines, and Chile. She’s found that when parents set no rules, or when parents fail to enforce rules they’ve set, it sends a message that parents simply don’t care about their kids’ well-being or the kids’ actions. The adolescents think the parents just can’t be bothered by their transgressions.”
So how are praise and punishment used correctly or incorrectly? Merryman says it is important not to combine praise with a statement of love. For example:
“You’re such a smart girl, and I love you,” sends a child a message that if she’s no longer is smart, the love will stop. But there’s nothing in the research that says parents should stop saying, “I love you.” It just that they should stop combining displays of love and affection and praise for achievement. Keep them separate. Once again, this isn’t an either or situation.
Stanford professor Carol Dweck’s perspective on praise is that – when we praise or punish – we need to make it clear that we are responding to what a child does, not who they are. We shouldn’t say “Bad Boy!” when the kid breaks a vase, and we shouldn’t say “Boy Genius!” when he made a vase in art class. Both “Bad Boy” and “Boy Genius” are wild overstatements of what we really think.
Instead, we can simply say, “You know you shouldn’t play ball in the house,” and “You worked really hard on that vase, didn’t you?” those are fine. “
Appropriate praise and punishment are important to teach our children that we are paying attention to what they are doing. Our children need us to provide them with a fair and accurate response to their actions which formulate the basis of lessons that they need to learn and remember for life.
Well, that’s good news. For me anyway…