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COMMENTARY–March 3, 2002


“The Ugliness of Conditional Love”


No matter how hard I try to maintain an open mind and a loving heart, there are still times when I succumb to the ugliness of dispensing conditional love.


Recently, my eleven-year-old son taught me a lesson about the instability and confusion created by dispensing conditional love.  I picked him up from school one afternoon last week, and he sat quietly in the back.  I mentioned that the school guard asked me to wait at the school gate as he waved a caravan of huge and intimidating Sport Utility Vehicles ahead of me, letting them come very close to my sedan. 


I told my son, as usual, that I hoped fewer people would buy SUVs in the future.  Afterwards, my son offered me a bored comment, saying that there were enough SUVs on the roads to indicate that a lot of people liked SUVs enough to probably continue buying them.  It was a good, honest, and reasonable response to my comments.  For some reason, though, I perceived disrespect and a trace of condescension in his tone:  his remark upset me.


I suppressed my anger, but I made it clear that his remark offended me.  For a period of about thirty minutes, something stirred deeply within me, and it was unpleasant.  I was filled with regret and overcome with the notion that I had been wasting my time rearing my son and that I was a failure as a mother.  It was a cascade of unhappy emotions, all triggered by a simple lackadaisical remark he made. 


In a weak attempt to reconcile matters with my son, I tried to explain why I believed he insulted me.  As he listened to me, I saw that he feared that I no longer loved him.  At that moment, I should have gone over to hug him and relieve his concerns immediately.  Instead, I affirmed my own righteousness and left his room, only to quickly return to his room and reiterate how disrespectful he had been. 


After I finished my mini-lecture, my son unleashed his anger and told me that my anger was “like a nuclear explosion that clouded the air with radioactive fallout for a long time.”  He demonstrated the fallout by spreading his arms widely.  The analogy was impressive and accurate. 


He went on to tell me that whenever things were going very smoothly and happily, I could be counted on to destroy the calm by picking on him for a mistake he made.  This was an exaggeration but not altogether untrue.  His point was well taken, and I stood in his room and thought for a minute, confounded by his eloquence and the truth of his statement. 


In a somewhat calmer state of mind, I tried to clarify why his remark had disturbed me.  His tone had reflected boredom and disinterest.  More disturbing than anything else, though, was the tone of condescension.  In a way, I could hardly blame my son for his attitude. 


For several days before our argument, I had been talking to him often about some decidedly unattractive aspects of the fast food industry while reading a well-researched book called Fast Food Nation.  My son, a person who likes junk food once in a while, resented my expostulations and the plan to never frequent another fast food joint.  He had had enough of my lecturing, and he relayed his disinterest through a little barb that wounded me. 


To be honest, there was a moment when I did not like my son.  Psychologists recommend that parents say that it was the child’s behavior and action, not the child himself, that caused the parental disapproval.  Parents are not supposed to say that they do not like their child, but the reality is that parents are human. 


Parents have a lot of likes and dislikes.  Regrettably, sometimes, the object of our dislike is our own child.  Even so, parents can choose to respond to a child’s behavior in a way that minimizes potential conflict. After all, parents are more mature and capable of making sense of an awkward situation.  In my case, I know I certainly could have handled my disagreement with my son in a much better and more kindly fashion.


Afterward, I was able to tell my son that I loved him and cared about him deeply.  I did.  The problem, though, was that when I was upset, I did something that was frightening to a child—I set conditions on my love for him.  Without warning, I suddenly withdrew my love for him because I did not like what he said. 


This behavior may be human, but it is unfair.  We love our children dearly, but many of us are quick to withdraw our love.  This is called conditional love, and it is basically a cruel and unkind form of love.   


Conditional love sets conditions upon a parent’s love for a child.  If a child behaves according to his parent’s wishes, he will be loved.  Conversely, if he behaves contrary to his parent’s wishes, he will not be loved.  Many different cultures utilize conditional love in the name of enforcing discipline, usually citing that it is “for the child’s good,” however little it benefits the child. 


The psychologist Alice Miller dispels the myth behind child-rearing practices that purport to be good for a child.  She reveals the truth behind dispensing conditional love in her book For Your Own Good.  When one reads her book, one comprehends that conditional love often breeds confusion, hatred, disregard, and perhaps even sadistic and homicidal urges.  The chilling child-rearing practices espoused by German pedagogy in the nineteenth century have survived into the twenty-first century and exist here in American homes. 


Most fundamental to the pedagogy that accepts conditional love as its basis is the view that young infants and children are inherently evil and that they need to be trained and disciplined.  This concept arises from a basic misunderstanding of healthy human development. 


For example, whereas the drives of an infant are primarily biological, they are often viewed as signs of a baby’s willfulness and stubbornness.  A newborn has a biological need for frequent nourishment that will probably necessitate frequent nursing.  This is not unreasonable since the fetus, in the womb, received a continuous infusion of glucose and nutrients from his mother’s bloodstream via the placenta.  Instead of accepting a newborn’s need for repeated nourishment as a biological certainty, however, mothers are often advised to “train” or “teach” their newborn to adhere to a schedule of feedings. 


If the baby cries, a mother is cautioned to ignore the baby.  If the baby persists in crying, as biology dictates he should, then he is believed to be willful and manipulative.  Such a way of thinking is accepted as being sound when, in truth, it is completely mistaken.


Similarly, older children are incorrectly viewed as being manipulative, self-centered, deceptive, and corrupt creatures.  A child is often accused of wrongdoing before he is given a chance to defend himself.  Many parents are often reluctant to listen to their child if they suspect wrongdoing.  They believe it is better to dispense punishment before they bother to investigate the wrongdoing. 


Apologies, after all, can always be issued later if a parent chooses to do so.  The primary point is that a parent has to nip a child’s “evil” in the bud before it proliferates.  Such a view of children is, by definition, inhumane for it fails to respect the inherent dignity and integrity of the child.


German pedagogy was profoundly disturbing because it involved a combination of severe corporal punishment and an absolute disregard for children.  Children could be beaten, humiliated, and distressed psychologically without any parental remorse.  In fact, German pedagogy encouraged parents to be cruel both physically and psychologically to their children.  In the name of being “good” parents, adults convinced themselves and their children that they were being cruel for their good. 


As parents inflicted punishment, they would claim that “it hurt them more than it did the child” when he was punished.  Inevitably, some of these children then matured into adults who believed that pedagogy was for the good of their own and others’ children.  This is why there are parents, school administrators, legislators, and even physicians who still advocate the use of corporal punishment and emotional browbeating in the home and in school. 


It is hard to believe that we live in a society that condones corporal punishment, but the majority of American parents and pediatricians believe in its judicious use.  Essentially, they advocate the use of spanking when a parent is not angry.  As a pediatrician and mother, I cannot fathom exactly what that means. 


The fact is that parents become angry, often for not very good reasons, and they wish to punish their children.  The idea that parents can become calm and collected enough to judiciously spank children for their good is ludicrous.  If a parent is calm and no longer angry, he or she has no need to spank since he or she can speak with the child no matter how young he is. 


Fundamentally, there is absolutely no reason for physical violence, for that is what spanking is.  Yet parents persist in utilizing corporal punishment as a form of discipline because it enforces their concept of love, which is conditional.  If a child does something wrong, then parents believe they have the right to put conditions on their love for that child. 


The ultimate irony is that most parents who dispense love conditionally believe they are loving parents.  For children, however, there is nothing less stable and more confusing in life than the task of earning their parents’ love.  Parents are fickle, and it does not take much to change their moods. 


In fact, parents may not always tolerate a child’s behavior in the same way from moment to moment.  This means that a child can experience happiness with a parent at one moment and then, suddenly experience rejection and despair the next moment.  This instability is heart-rending for children because they are so uncertain about their parents’ love. 


On a personal note, I know that I could have responded differently to my son.  Instead of taking my son’s comment seriously, I could have ignored it and changed the subject.   This is not to say that my son bore no responsibility in goading me because he knew intuitively that he was saying something that would irritate me.  Yet I cannot blame him entirely for exasperating me.  I could have chosen, ultimately, to wield authority without resorting to the use of conditional love. 


Conditional love has negative consequences, the foremost being that it teaches children a skewed view of love and themselves.  It is difficult for children to love themselves when the conditions under which they receive love are so tenuous.  In an essay published in 1970, the distinguished anthropologist Ashley Montagu writes:  “If one doesn’t love oneself one cannot love others.  To make loving order in the world we must first have had loving order made in ourselves.”  [1] 


In order for children to love others, they need to have been loved themselves.  The fickle nature of conditional love, however, makes it an inadequate and inconstant source of love.  This is why Ashley Montagu (1970, 467) proposed that human beings share unconditional love, which he described as follows:


Love is unconditional, it makes no bargains, it trades with no one for anything.  It conveys the feeling, the in-the-bone belief, that you are all for the other, that you are always available to give him your support, to contribute to his development as best you can.  Love values the other for what he is, not because he is something you want or expect him to be.


When I was upset with my son, I was not offering him unconditional love.  I did not convey to him the feeling that I was there for him, that I supported him, or that I contributed to his development.  Worst of all, I did not value him for who he was.  In other words, my love was conditional.


There is little doubt that I could have persisted in being self-righteous and stayed upset longer, but I was deeply unhappy.  The entire situation felt wrong, and it led me to put myself in my son’s place.  How would I feel if my mother glared at me, upset with me for something I believed to be a minor infraction? 


As I thought about it, I could easily recall myself as a child with my own mother staring at me angrily.  I could see that she appeared not to love me, just as my son probably believed I no longer loved him.  It was a painful recollection and one that I wish I had not brought upon my son, but I already had. 


I know there are many adults, like myself, who experienced conditional love during childhood.  We learned that love was impermanent and uncertain.  This is, however, a limited and narrow view of love, for love can be unconditional, just the way Ashley Montagu described it.  Unconditional love is what makes us happy and gives us the capacity to look beyond personality deficiencies and human error.  Our children deserve to learn about unconditional love so that when they mature, they will know unequivocally that conditional love is unjust. 


All human beings, from newborn to adult, need to receive love without conditions.  Otherwise, we will all live under the radioactive fallout of anger, mistrust, hatred, and worse.  There is a better way to live and it begins when we acknowledge the terrible ugliness of conditional love.


Revised April 13, 2006


Note:  Unbelievably, I am now driving a small SUV.









[1]   Montagu,Ashley. 1970. A scientist looks at LOVE. Phi Delta Kappan, May: 466.

Copyright 2006 The Nurturing Mother. All rights reserved.
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