January 20, 2011

Parenting wars: The case for unconditional love

Amy Chua's WSJ piece on "Chinese mothers" has stirred up a hornet's nest among parents and I've been wanting to say my piece about it. But let's start with Ben Stein, who says much of it for me:

[Chua's essay] was answered with many letters to the editor pro and con. Then it was answered by an essay from a Jewish mother with the interesting name of Ayelet Waldman. She alleged herself to be indulgent and accommodating, but she also admitted belittling and needling her daughter to tears because the daughter did not get all A's.

Possibly, Ms. Waldman thought she was being cute and funny in saying that she only restrained herself from screaming at the daughter because of her husband's admonitions.

Frankly, I don't think any of this is funny. Screaming at children over their grades, especially to the point of the child's tears, is child abuse, pure and simple. It's not funny and it's not good parenting. It is a crushing, scarring, disastrous experience for the child. It isn't the least bit funny. People who do it belong in prison, not lauded as supermoms.

Nor does it work. I never saw a child who could be tortured into doing better work in school. If such children exist, and maybe they do, they are far more to be pitied for the lifelong scars their confused mothers have inflicted than envied.

Interestingly enough, I will add another caveat: I have never seen a wildly successful adult who got there because his mother made him cry over his grades. Men and women succeed because they find a field of endeavor that matches their interests and abilities. It's that simple. They then motivate themselves and achieve.

I'll go even further. I don't believe the most successful people are the ones who got the best grades, got into the best schools, or made the most money. The most successful ones are those who find peace of mind. If they can do it with mothers who manufacture self-loathing the way Ms. Chua or Ms. Waldman do, it's despite those Moms and not because of them. This whole idea that there is something noble about browbeating your own children is just plain sick.
Amen to that.

It continues to surprise me that liberals and conservatives, Christians and secularists, and everyone in between have so fully bought into behavior modification as their primary parenting philosophy. Christians and conservatives may emphasize the stick, and liberals may give more freely of the carrots, but all are dependent on the use of "reinforcement" to prod, "motivate," and micromanage their kids' behavior.

Experienced parents, if they are honest, will testify to the limited usefulness of positive and negative reinforcement. But they rarely give up on it, so brainwashed are they that their children will never do anything worthwhile if left to their own devices. Parents just keep tweaking the "motivators": Be more consistent, they're advised; try more appealing carrots, or heavier sticks. When, as often happens, parents run out of leverage and hit an immoveable wall, some wish they had based their relationship with their kids on something other than manipulation and power.

Does anyone, particularly Christians and conservatives, ever stop to think about the importance of free will? How about unconditional love?

Allow me to paste in what I wrote a while back at RightNetwork:
Josh grumbles and dawdles when he's told to pick up his toys or do his homework. He has a habit of mistreating his little brother. Jenna can't seem to get herself out of bed on time or keep her room tidy. By the age of twelve the eye-rolling is well underway. At fourteen she barely gives her mother the time of day.

Mainstream parenting books suggest that when the going gets tough, the tough offer carrots and sticks. And if the method fails it's because it hasn't been properly applied. Perhaps Josh acts out because Mom and Dad haven't "motivated" the little guy with a tempting-enough incentive, or hit him hard enough with the stick of "logical consequences."

Though these parenting books don't come right out and say so, their methods are based on behavior modification. The key to getting a child to comply, they say, is the use of positive or negative reinforcement, as if he were a lab rat or a pigeon. I don't know quite how it happened, but sometime in the last forty years or so, B. F. Skinner and his ilk became the go-to guys for parenting advice. Problem is, Skinner's experiments were all done on animals, not human beings. And a child is nothing like a pigeon.

Positive and negative reinforcement as a parenting tool has so thoroughly pervaded our thinking and practice that it's difficult to imagine raising children without it. In the eyes of too many teachers, coaches, and parents, kids are sluggards who would never do a single constructive thing but for the chorus of hollow praise, bribes, and threats running continuously in the background. (If you doubt this, attend a U-10 soccer game this weekend. The "positive reinforcement" is urgent and unremitting.)

There's a dirty little secret veteran parents have discovered: Behavior-mod tricks don't really work very well. When they do work, say, to help a child develop the habit of making his bed every morning, the success achieved extends just as far as the child is willing to acquire the habit, and no further.

Sometimes a reward works well at first. But then the appeal wanes and a new kind of carrot must be offered. Jenna gets a kick out of affixing a smiley sticker to that cheery chart on the fridge after doing her daily chore, but that only lasts a few days. Likewise with negative reinforcement; the parent of an unyielding child may find himself forced to up the ante, successively removing more and more privileges from Josh's life to the point where there's nothing left to take away except things, like playing outside or reading comic books.

Time-outs, a surprisingly ineffective tactic given its near-universal use, will get longer or more frequent when the child isn't compliant. And if Josh's parents believe he's spending his alone time deeply regretting that whack he gave his brother, and making a firm purpose of amendment for the future, well, it's possible, I suppose. But a likelier scenario is that he's stewing in his resentment toward those who have, in his eyes, wronged him. Under different circumstances he might have arrived at some contrition on his own. As it is, he may now see himself as a victim and dwell on ways to get even. Ironically, his time in solitary is teaching him a lesson which is the polar opposite of the one his parents had in mind: the importance of personal responsibility and the golden rule.

Carrot-and-stick parenting takes an external view of the child, focusing too much on his behavior and not enough on his motives or intentions. And it shows little respect for his free will, which is treated as an obstacle to be worked around, subverted or coerced into line, rather than what it really is: a gift that separates human beings from Skinner's pigeons and aligns us with the angels, enabling us to choose virtue over vice, or not. A parent who overrides a child's will to prevent him from choosing vice prevents him from choosing virtue as well.

Parents who see their role as helping their children grow in virtue might want to think twice about the carrot-and-stick approach. But what can they put in its place? The long answer won't fit in this space, but a short one was simply expressed by an unnamed headmaster, commenting on the best way to teach the young: "There is only one system of education, through love and one's own example."
What I was hinting at with that quotation is that the foundation, the bedrock of successful parenting, is the child's certainty that he is loved and accepted no matter what. The child who knows his parents love him for himself alone is one who will be open to the essential guidance he needs from his parents. He will naturally want to please his parents and comply with their wishes. He will accept their values, and their authority, rather than rebel against them. Conversely, the insecure child will often flee or withdraw from the parent, cutting himself off from just the things he needs to grow into maturity: his parents' love, guidance, and discipline.

Following are some explanations and examples of unconditional love. Apologies to regular readers who may recognize much of this from previous posts, but these excerpts speak volumes. First, a critical point from my favorite parenting book, Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers by Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Mate, MD:
Children do not experience our intentions, no matter how heartfelt. They experience what we manifest in tone and behavior. We cannot assume that children will know what our priorities our: we must live our priorities. Many a child for whom the parents feel unconditional love receives the message that this love is very conditional indeed. . . . Unconditional acceptance is the most difficult convey exactly when it is most needed: when our children have disappointed us, violated our values, or made themselves odious to us. . . . (p. 196-7)

An instance of unconditional love from a father:
At some point, the computer froze and I had to shut it down and then it hit me. I realized what a jerk I was. Well, that's not true. I know what a jerk I am. But I realized what a jerk I was today. My seven year old wasn't upset because she got five wrong. She was scared of telling me she got five wrong. I hadn't even taken the time to notice that my seven year old had been circling me the entire afternoon and early evening. Looking to me...for something. And then quickly looking away. Even while cleaning the dishes I noticed her looking at me out of the corner of her eye. I noticed it but I didn't see it, if you know what I mean. She'd been waiting for me to say what I should've said the moment she walked out of school. That no matter what happened I love her. That no matter what happened I'm proud of her. And no matter what happened I think she's the most special seven year old in the world.

This little girl. My little girl. She was waiting for her dopey father to tell her he loved her all day and that it was just a math test. Instead he told her to circle subtraction signs.

I had to face it. I did a lot worse on my test than she did on hers. Sometimes you just think that children know how much we love them. But the harsh words we say I think somehow stick with them longer than many of our kindnesses. Our little cruelties are like splinters. They go in easily, cause pain, and they're very difficult to get out. [emphasis added]
Archbold's complete post here.

Our essential need for unconditional love, from Pope Benedict XVI:
We can love ourselves only if we have first been loved by someone else. The life a mother gives to her child is not just physical life; she gives total life when she takes the child’s tears and turns them into smiles. It is only when life has been accepted and is perceived as accepted that it becomes also acceptable. Man is that strange creature that needs not just physical birth but also appreciation if he is to subsist . . . If an individual is to accept himself, someone must say to him: “It is good that you exist” – must say it, not with words, but with that act of the entire being that we call love. For it is the way of love to will the other’s existence and, at the same time, to bring that existence forth again.

The power of mother-love, from a tribute to the life of the late Christopher Nolan:
He published his first book at 15, a collection of poems appropriately titled “Dam-burst of Dreams.” His second book won Britain’s prestigious “Whitbread Book of the Year:” in 1988. It was called “Under the Eye of the Clock,” a biographical work in which he refers to himself as Joseph Meehan. At one point in the book Nolan writes of crying upon the realization that he is not like other children:

"Looking through his tears he saw [his mother] bent low in order to look into his eyes. `... Listen here Joseph, you can see, you can hear, you can think, you can understand everything you hear. You like your food, you like nice clothes, you are loved by me and Dad. We love you just as you are.' Pussing still, sniveling still, he was listening to his mother's voice. She spoke sort of matter-of-factly but he blubbered moaning sounds. His mother said her say and that was that. She got on with her work while he got on with his crying.

"The decision arrived at that day, was burnt forever in his mind. He was only three years in age but he was now fanning the only spark he saw, his being alive and more immediate, his being wanted just as he was...."
That day looked out through his eyes for the rest of his life. Comfort came in child-like notions, his clumsy body was his, but molested by mother-love he looked lollying looks at his limbs, and liked Joseph Meehan."
Read the rest of Raymond Arroyo's post on Nolan.

A common defense of harsh parenting goes like this: "My parents treated me that way and I turned out just fine." An adult who belittles or bullies his own child might want to re-examine that belief.

Another one: "But kids are so resilient." Well, some are and some aren't. The most resilient kids, who can grow from adversity, are those who feel secure in their parents' love, no matter what. Insecure kids can adapt, too, but the adaptations they make will not always be good for them or society.

Most recent posts here.


  1. This is a beautiful post, and no, not redundant to your regular readers. I still need to pick up the Neufeld book, but the authors remind me of the parenting dude I like so much, Rosemond, who affirms the power of unconditional love, the need to not be a helicopter-mom, and why carrot/stick doesn't work.
    Thank you for a lovely post on the evil of Tiger Mom. I hadn't seen the Stein piece yet, I still have a draft after reading Rosemond's response.

  2. It's not either/or. It's both. As a person who has encountered so many parents and students over the decades, I nearly lose count of the bright kids who enter adulthood as lost souls because Mom and Dad would never insist that their darling actually conform to some standard outside themselves, or actually achieve anything! And they resent anyone who suggests that it is advisable to actually set and meet goals.

    Just in the past month, I saw yet one more family snatch failure from the jaws of success.
    Is that kid 'loved unconditionally'? Perhaps. But not loved enough by Mom and Dad to actually be actively parented in preparation for adulthood. Laziness is not love, it's negligence, and there's lots of it out there, nesting in America's MacMansions.

    On the other hand, there are cruel parents out there, and I've seen the damage done there. It's terrible. Not even Dr. Chua is advocating cruelty. But sometimes, a parent has to be willing to draw the hard line, and say: 'I insist on a work ethic, on a clean room, on laundry done, on music lessons done well. I will not settle for less than excellence, because this is what equips you for adult life. I am here to love you and launch you. I'm willing for you to be mad at me if that's what it takes. Now, E-major, three octaves, contrary motion, sixteenth notes, metronome at 82. Don't get up off that bench until you've learned it. If you cry about it, it just takes longer.'

    As I've posted before, and still maintain, I give Dr. Chua 2 3/4 cheers for her approach. And, much credit is due her for getting the conversation going in earnest.

  3. I fall into the mean mommy category, or so I have been told. Nothing close to Chua, but I am strict. One of the advantages of being an older mom is that you see the mistakes that your friends made.

    I expect certain things and I don't bend on them. But you are correct they need to know that they are loved no matter what. One thing I do everytime is that I ask that he tell me why he is sorry. Which is usually done through tears. I then tell him it is all over and that I love him. I want him to learn responsibility and so far this has seemed to work. He is only five, so I may have to modify it as he gets older.

  4. JACG: I fall into "mean mommy" territory, too, at least according to my in-laws. ; ) Because we don't accept misbehavior and work to correct it immediately. But we correct with patience and love (well, I hope that's apparent on the receiving end) and have started questioning pjToddler in the same way you do: why are you sorry? What did you do? Do we bite/hit/throw food? Seems endless at the moment.

    Old South: how you say Chua isn't cruel by calling her kid "garbage" haunts me. I taught high school and, like you, have seen the spectrum of parental failures/outcomes. I agree that there's a soft bigotry of low expectations rampant in our culture, but I don't think an army of Chua-moms will do anything other than spur legions of kids who question their self-worth.

  5. To me, disciplining a child isn't "mean." Calling them garbage is.

    Maintaining a close loving relationship (not to be confused, as it often seems to be, with being permissive/negligent/lazy) is what allows effective parenting to take place. Losing kids to the peer culture, a magnet for poorly-attached kids, makes it all fall apart.

  6. And another thing ;) --

    You can have all the standards you want but if your child refuses to listen to you or take direction from you, it's all for naught.

    On the other hand, if you have a good relationship with your child, they will be naturally inclined to please, imitate, and obey you. It's not a magic pill to make a child perfect (we are all human) but rather the foundation on which you can build. Discipline, attentiveness, standards, effort, rules, etc. are all important in child rearing.

    But shaming often undermines the love and trust between parent and child.

  7. Jill, I agree--discipline isn't mean, but our culture makes it out to be. Rules and all that...

    I agree that kids, especially young ones, have a natural inclination to please. I just wish mine would allow the natural inclination to take over a little more. She tries so hard to be almost three ; ) We're currently in the midst of a little Veruca phase. She's slowly learning that demanding anything produces nothing.

  8. David Brooks shares an interesting insight in his NY Times essay of January 18. He zeros in on the high degree of competence needed to develop social skills. He's got some good points to make.

    Again, I'm just soooo happy to see this long, long overdue conversation take place.

    Chua has drawn an indignant reaction from many quarters. But, in the end, her kids will have some really grinding choices to make, like Juilliard vs. Eastman, or Brown vs. Yale, or Stanford med school vs. physics for grad school. A lot of other 'more loved' children will be deciding on working at Walmart vs. Target, trade school vs. community college, this rehab center vs. that one vs. county jail. Another group of them will be thirty-three-year-old grandparents. Do the math.

    They may one day wish Mom 'n Dad had been a bit meaner...

    It's not an exaggeration. I see it happening before my eyes. My daughter just completed a prestigious grad school program, funded by competitive scholarships that she won because her mom and I insisted she learn how to write English cogently, and that only great grades were acceptable. Lots of hugs and praise for her successes along the way, btw.

    Of the 400+ kids who entered ninth grade with her, half of them disappeared from school rolls before their class graduated. About 20% of those entered college. About half of those graduated from a college. (If my math is right, that's about 20 students...) Only four made it through a grad program. 1 percent of the ninth graders made it to something that resembles professional life. Not everybody should (or wants or needs to) go to grad school. But I contend that there were a few more eligible candidates in that 400.

    My kid has multiple job offers. She's happily married to a great young man.

    She's not mad at us for being 'mean mom and dad'. It got loud at our house on more than one occasion, and there were some miserable days and very unpleasant confrontations along the way. They were necessary.

    I plan to keep sharing comments on this topic over in my scribbling corner.

    Kudos to Pundit and Pundette for keep the conversation going.

    This country needs to have this conversation.


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