Chapter 1: Conditional Parenting
I have sometimes derived comfort from the idea that, despite
all the mistakes I've made (and will continue to make) as
a parent, my children will turn out just fine for the simple
reason that I really love them. After all, love heals all
wounds. All you need is love. Love means never having to say
you're sorry about how you lost your temper this morning in
This reassuring notion is based on the idea that there exists
a thing called Parental Love, a single substance that you
can supply to your children in greater or lesser quantities.
(Greater, of course, is better.) But what if this assumption
turns out to be fatally simplistic? What if there actually
were different ways of loving a child, and not all of them
were equally desirable? The psychoanalyst Alice Miller once
observed that it's possible to love a child "passionately
- but not in the way he needs to be loved." If she's right,
the relevant question isn't just whether - or even how much
-- we love our kids. It also matters how we love them.
Once that's understood, we could pretty quickly come up with
a long list of different types of parental love, along with
suggestions about which are better. This book looks at one
such distinction - namely, between loving kids for what
they do and loving them for who they are. The first
sort of love is conditional, which means children must earn
it by acting in ways we deem appropriate, or by performing
up to our standards. The second sort of love is unconditional:
It doesn't hinge on how they act, whether they're successful
or well-behaved or anything else.
I want to defend the idea of unconditional parenting on the
basis of both a value judgment and a prediction. The value
judgment is, very simply, that children shouldn't have to
earn our approval. We ought to love them, as my friend Deborah
says, "for no good reason." Furthermore, what counts is not
just that we believe we love them unconditionally, but that
they feel loved in that way.
The prediction, meanwhile, is that loving children unconditionally
will have a positive effect. It's not only the right thing
to do, morally speaking, but also a smart thing to do. Children
need to be loved as they are, and for who they are. When that
happens, they can accept themselves as fundamentally good
people, even when they screw up or fall short. And with this
basic need met, they're also freer to accept (and help) other
people. Unconditional love, in short, is what children require
in order to flourish.
Nevertheless, we parents are often pulled in the direction
of placing conditions on our approval. We're led to do so
not only by what we were raised to believe, but also by the
way we were raised. You might say we're conditioned to be
conditional. The roots of this sensibility have crept deep
into the soil of American consciousness. In fact, unconditional
acceptance seems to be rare even as an ideal: An Internet
search for variants of the word unconditional mostly
turns up discussions about religion or pets. Apparently, it's
hard for many people to imagine love among humans without
For a child, some of those strings have to do with good
behavior and some have to do with achievement.
This chapter and the following three will explore the behavioral
issues, and in particular the way many popular discipline
strategies cause children to feel they're accepted only when
they act the way we demand. Chapter 5 will then consider how
some children conclude that their parents' love depends on
their performance - for example, at school or in sports.
In the second half of the book, I'll offer concrete suggestions
for how we can move beyond this approach and offer something
closer to the kind of love our kids need. But first, I'd like
to examine the broader idea of conditional parenting: what
assumptions underlie it (and distinguish it from the unconditional
kind) and what effects it actually has on children.
Two Ways to Raise Kids: Underlying Assumptions
My daughter Abigail went through a tough time a few months after
her fourth birthday, which may have been related to the arrival
of a rival. She became more resistant to requests, more likely
to sound nasty, scream, stamp her feet. Ordinary rituals and
transitions quickly escalated into a battle of wills. One evening,
I remember, she promised to get right into the bath after dinner.
She failed to do so - and then, when reminded of that promise,
she shrieked so loudly as to wake her baby brother. When asked
to be quieter, she yelled again.
So here's the question: Once things calmed down, should my wife
and I have proceeded with the normal evening routine of snuggling
with her and reading a story together? The conditional approach
to parenting says no: We would be rewarding her unacceptable
behavior if we followed it with the usual pleasant activities.
Those activities should be suspended, and she should be informed,
gently but firmly, why that "consequence" was being imposed.
This course of action feels reassuringly familiar to most of
us and consistent with what a lot of parenting books advise.
What's more, I have to admit that it would have been satisfying
on some level for me to lay down the law because I was seriously
annoyed by Abigail's defiance. It would have offered me the
sense that I, the parent, was putting my foot down, letting
her know she wasn't allowed to act like that. I'd be back in
The unconditional approach, however, says this is a temptation
to be resisted, and that we should indeed snuggle and read a
story as usual. But that doesn't mean we ought to just ignore
what happened. Unconditional parenting isn't a fancy term for
letting kids do whatever they want. It's very important (once
the storm has passed) to teach, to reflect together - which
is exactly what we did with our daughter after we read her a
story. Whatever lesson we hoped to impart was far more likely
to be learned if she knew that our love for her was undimmed
by how she had acted.
Whether we've thought about them or not, each of these two styles
of parenting rests on a distinctive set of beliefs about psychology,
about children, even about human nature. To begin with, the
conditional approach is closely related to a school of thought
known as behaviorism, which is commonly associated with the
late B. F. Skinner. Its most striking characteristic, as the
name suggests, is its exclusive focus on behaviors. All that
matters about people, on this view, is what you can see and
measure. You can't see a desire or a fear, so you might as well
just concentrate on what people do.
Furthermore, all behaviors are believed to start and stop, wax
and wane, solely on the basis of whether they are "reinforced."
Behaviorists assume that everything we do can be explained in
terms of whether it produces some kind of reward, either one
that's deliberately offered or one that occurs naturally. If
a child is affectionate with his parent, or shares his dessert
with a friend, it's said to be purely because this has led to
pleasurable responses in the past.
In short: External forces, such as what someone has previously
been rewarded (or punished) for doing, account for how we act
-- and how we act is the sum total of who we are. Even people
who have never read any of Skinner's books seem to have accepted
his assumptions. When parents and teachers constantly talk about
a child's "behavior," they're acting as though nothing matters
except the stuff on the surface. It's not a question of who
kids are, what they think or feel or need. Forget motives and
values: The idea is just to change what they do. This, of course,
is an invitation to rely on discipline techniques whose only
purpose is to make kids act - or stop acting - in a particular
A more specific example of everyday behaviorism: Perhaps you've
met parents who force their children to apologize after doing
something hurtful or mean. ("Can you say you're sorry?") Now,
what's going on here? Do the parents assume that making children
speak this sentence will magically produce in them the feeling
of being sorry, despite all evidence to the contrary?
Or, worse, do they not even care whether the child really is
sorry because sincerity is irrelevant and all that matters is
the act of uttering the appropriate words? Compulsory apologies
mostly train children to say things they don't mean - that is,
But this is not just an isolated parental practice that ought
to be reconsidered. It's one of many possible examples of how
Skinnerian thinking - caring only about behaviors - has narrowed
our understanding of children and warped the way we deal with
them. We see it also in programs that are intended to train
little kids to go to sleep on their own or to start using the
potty. From the perspective of these programs, why a
child may be sobbing in the dark is irrelevant. It could be
terror or boredom or loneliness or hunger or something else.
Similarly, it doesn't matter what reason a toddler may have
for not wanting to pee in the toilet when his parent asks him
to do so. Experts who offer step-by-step recipes for "teaching"
children to sleep in a room by themselves, or who urge us to
offer gold stars, M&Ms, or praise for tinkling in the toilet,
are not concerned with the thoughts and feelings and intentions
that give rise to a behavior, only with the behavior itself.
(While I haven't done the actual counting that would be necessary
to test this, I would tentatively propose the following rule
of thumb: The value of a parenting book is inversely proportional
to the number of times it contains the word behavior.)
Let's come back to Abigail. Conditional parenting assumes that
reading her a book and otherwise expressing our continued love
for her will only encourage her to throw another fit. She will
have learned that it's OK to wake the baby and refuse to get
in the bath because she will interpret our affection as reinforcement
for whatever she had just been doing.
Unconditional parenting looks at this situation - and, indeed,
at human beings -- very differently. For starters, it asks us
to consider that the reasons for what Abigail has done may be
more "inside" than "outside." Her actions can't necessarily
be explained, in mechanical fashion, by looking at external
forces like positive responses to her previous behavior. Perhaps
she is overwhelmed by fears that she can't name, or by frustrations
that she doesn't know how to express.
Unconditional parenting assumes that behaviors are just the
outward expression of feelings and thoughts, needs and intentions.
In a nutshell, it's the child who engages in a behavior,
not just the behavior itself, that matters. Children are
not pets to be trained, nor are they computers, programmed to
respond predictably to an input. They act this way rather than
that way for many different reasons, some of which may be hard
to tease apart. But we can't just ignore those reasons and respond
only to the effects (that is, the behaviors). Indeed, each of
those reasons probably calls for a completely different course
of action. If, for example, it turned out that Abigail was really
being defiant because she's worried about the implications of
our paying so much attention to her baby brother, then we're
going to have deal with that, not merely try to stamp out the
way she's expressing her fear.
Alongside our efforts to understand and address specific reasons
for specific actions, there is one overriding imperative: She
needs to know we love her, come what may. In fact, it's especially
important tonight for her to be able to snuggle with us, to
see from our actions that our love for her is unshakeable. That's
what will help her get through this bad patch.
In any case, imposing what amounts to a punishment isn't likely
to be constructive. It probably will start her crying all over
again. And even if it did succeed in shutting her up temporarily
- or in preventing her from expressing whatever she's feeling
tomorrow night for fear of making us pull away from her - its
overall impact is unlikely to be positive. This is true, first,
because it doesn't address what's going on in her head, and,
second, because what we see as teaching her a lesson will likely
appear to her as though we're withholding our love. In a general
sense, this will make her more unhappy, perhaps cause her to
feel alone and unsupported. In a specific sense, it will teach
her that she is loved - and lovable - only when she acts the
way we want. The available research, which I'll review shortly,
strongly suggests that this will just make things worse.
As I've thought about these issues over the years, I've come
to believe that conditional parenting can't be completely explained
by behaviorism. Something else is going on here. Once again,
imagine the situation: A child is yelling, obviously upset,
and when she quiets down her daddy lies in bed with his arm
around her and reads her a Frog and Toad story. In response,
the proponent of conditional parenting exclaims, "No, no, no,
you're just reinforcing her bad behavior! You're teaching her
that it's all right to be naughty!"
This interpretation doesn't merely reflect an assumption about
what kids learn in a given situation, or even how they
learn. It reflects an awfully sour view of children - and, by
extension, of human nature. It assumes that, given half a chance,
kids will take advantage of us. Give 'em an inch, they'll take
a mile. They will draw the worst possible lesson from an ambiguous
situation (not "I'm loved anyway" but "Yay! It's okay to make
trouble!"). Acceptance without strings attached will just be
interpreted as permission to act in a way that's selfish, demanding,
greedy, or inconsiderate. At least in part, then, conditional
parenting is based on the deeply cynical belief that accepting
kids for who they are just frees them to be bad because, well,
that's who they are.
By contrast, the unconditional approach to parenting begins
with the reminder that Abigail's goal is not to make me miserable.
She's not being malicious. She's telling me in the only way
she knows how that something is wrong. It may be something that
just happened, or it may reveal undercurrents that have been
there for a while. This approach offers a vote of confidence
in children, a challenge to the assumption that they'll derive
the wrong lesson from affection, or that they'd always want
to act badly if they thought they could get away with it.
Such a perspective is not romantic or unrealistic, a denial
of the fact that kids (or adults) sometimes do rotten things.
Kids need to be guided and helped, yes, but they're not little
monsters who must be tamed or brought to heel. They have the
capacity to be compassionate or aggressive, altruistic or selfish,
cooperative or competitive. A great deal depends on how they're
raised - including, among other things, whether they feel loved
unconditionally. And when young children pitch a fit, or refuse
to get in the tub as they said they would, this can often be
understood in terms of their age - that is, their inability
to understand the source of their unease, to express their feelings
in more appropriate ways, to remember and keep their promises.
In important ways, then, the choice between conditional and
unconditional parenting is a choice between radically different
views of human nature.
But there's one more set of assumptions that we should lay bare.
In our society, we are taught that good things must always be
earned, never given away. Indeed, many people become infuriated
at the possibility that this precept has been violated. Notice,
for example, the hostility many people feel toward welfare and
those who rely on it. Or the rampant use of pay-for-performance
schemes in the workplace. Or the number of teachers who define
anything enjoyable (like recess) as a treat, a kind of payment
for living up to the teacher's expectations.
Ultimately, conditional parenting reflects a tendency to see
almost every human interaction, even among family members, as
a kind of economic transaction. The laws of the marketplace
- supply and demand, tit for tat - have assumed the status of
universal and absolute principles, as though everything in our
lives, including what we do with our children, is analogous
to buying a car or renting an apartment.
One parenting author - a behaviorist, not coincidentally - put
it this way: "If I wish to take my child for a ride or even
if I wish to hug and kiss her, I must first be certain that
she has earned it." Before you dismiss this as the view of a
lone extremist, consider that the eminent psychologist Diana
Baumrind made a similar argument against unconditional parenting,
declaring that "the rule of reciprocity, of paying for value
received, is a law of life that applies to us all."
Even many writers and therapists who don't address the issue
explicitly nevertheless seem to rely on some sort of economic
model. If we read between the lines, their advice appears to
be based on the belief that when children don't act the way
we want, the things they like ought to be withheld from them.
After all, people shouldn't get something for nothing. Not even
happiness. Or love.
How many times have you heard it said - emphatically, defiantly
-- that something or other is "a privilege, not a right"? Sometimes
I fantasize about conducting a research study to determine what
personality characteristics are generally found in people who
take this stance. Imagine someone who insists that everything
from ice cream to attention should be made conditional on how
children act, that these things should never simply be given
away. Can you picture this person? What facial expression do
you see? How happy is this person? Does he or she really enjoy
being with children? Would you want this person as a friend?
Also, when I hear the "privilege, not a right" line, I always
find myself wondering what the speaker would regard as
a right. Is there anything to which human beings are simply
entitled? Are there no relationships we would want to exempt
from economic laws? It's true that adults expect to be compensated
for their work, just as they expect to pay for food and other
things. But the question is whether, or under what circumstances,
a similar "rule of reciprocity" applies to our dealings with
friends and family. Social psychologists have noticed that there
are indeed some people with whom we have what might be called
an exchange relationship: I do something for you only if you
do something for me (or give something to me). But they quickly
add that this is not true, nor would we want it to be true,
of all our relationships, some of which are based on caring
rather than on reciprocity. In fact, one study found that people
who see their relationships with their spouses in terms of exchange,
taking care to get as much as they give, tend to have marriages
that are less satisfying.
When our kids grow up, there will be plenty of occasions for
them to take their places as economic actors, as consumers and
workers, where self-interest rules and the terms of each exchange
can be precisely calculated. But unconditional parenting insists
that the family ought to be a haven, a refuge, from such transactions.
In particular, love from one's parents does not have to be paid
for in any sense. It is purely and simply a gift. It is something
to which all children are entitled.
If that makes sense to you, and if any of the other underlying
assumptions of unconditional parenting ring true as well - that
we ought to be looking at the whole child, not just at behaviors;
that we shouldn't assume the worst about children's inclinations;
and so on - then we need to call into question all the conventional
discipline techniques that are based on the opposites of these
assumptions. Those practices that define conditional parenting
tend to be ways of doing things to children to produce obedience.
By contrast, the suggestions offered in the latter half of this
book, which flow naturally from the idea of unconditional parenting,
are variations on the theme of working with children
to help them grow into decent people and good decision-makers.
Thus, we might summarize the differences between these two approaches
||Whole child (including reasons, thoughts, feelings)
|View of Human Nature
||Positive or balanced
|View of Parental Love
||A privilege to be earned
||"Working with" (Problem solving)
||"Doing to" (Control via rewards and punishments)
The Effects of Conditional Parenting
Just as it's possible for our practices to be at odds with the
long-term goals we hold for our children (see Introduction),
so there might be an inconsistency between the methods associated
with conditional parenting and our most basic beliefs. In both
instances, it may make sense to reconsider what we're doing
with our kids. But the case against conditional parenting doesn't
end with its connection to values and assumptions that many
of us will find troubling. That case becomes even stronger once
we investigate the real-world effects such parenting has on
Nearly half a century ago, the pioneering psychologist Carl
Rogers offered an answer to the question "What happens when
a parent's love depends on what children do?" He explained that
those on the receiving end of such love come to disown the parts
of themselves that aren't valued. Eventually they regard themselves
as worthy only when they act (or think or feel) in specific
ways. This is basically a recipe for neurosis - or worse. A
publication by the Irish Department of Health and Children (which
has been circulated and adopted by other organizations all over
the world) offers ten examples to illustrate the concept of
"emotional abuse." Number two on the list, right after "persistent
criticism, sarcasm, hostility or blaming," is "conditional parenting,
in which the level of care shown to a child is made contingent
on his or her behaviours or actions."
Most parents, if asked, would insist that, of course
they love their children unconditionally, and that this is true
despite their use of the strategies that I (and other writers)
have identified as problematic. Some parents might even say
that they discipline their children in this way because they
love them. But I want to return to an observation that so far
I've made only in passing. How we feel about our kids isn't
as important as how they experience those feelings and how they
regard the way we treat them. Educators remind us that what
counts in a classroom is not what the teacher teaches; it's
what the learner learns. And so it is in families. What matters
is the message our kids receive, not the one we think we're
Researchers trying to study the effects of different styles
of discipline have not had an easy time trying to figure out
how to identify and measure what actually goes on in people's
homes. It's not always possible to observe the relevant interactions
firsthand (or even to videotape them), so some experiments have
been done in laboratories, where a parent and a child are asked
to do something together. Sometimes parents are interviewed,
or asked to fill out a questionnaire, about their usual parenting
styles. If the children are old enough, they may be asked
what their parents do - or, if they're grown, what their parents
used to do.
Each of these techniques has its drawbacks, and the choice of
method can affect a study's results. When parents and children
are asked separately to describe what's going on, for example,
they may offer very different accounts. Interestingly, when
there is some objective way to get at the truth, children's
perceptions of their parents' behaviors prove to be every bit
as accurate as the parents' reports of their own behaviors.
But the important question is not who's right, which, where
feelings are concerned, is usually unanswerable. Rather, what
matters is whose perspective is associated with various consequences
to the children. Consider one study that investigated a version
of conditional parenting. Kids whose parents said they used
this approach weren't in any worse shape than kids whose parents
said they didn't. But when the researcher separated the kids
on the basis of whether they felt their parents used
this technique, the difference was striking. On average, children
who said they experienced conditional affection from their parents
weren't doing as well as children who didn't report receiving
conditional affection. The details of this study will be discussed
later; my point here is simply that what we think we're doing
(or would swear we're not doing) doesn't matter as much, in
terms of the impact on our kids, as their experience
of what we're doing.
There has been a small surge in research on conditional parenting
over the last few years, and one of the most remarkable examples
was just published in 2004. In that study, information was collected
from more than a hundred college students, each of whom was
asked whether the love offered by his or her parents tended
to vary depending on any of four possible conditions: whether
the student as a child had (1) succeeded in school, (2) practiced
hard for sports, (3) been considerate toward others, or (4)
suppressed negative emotions such as fear. The students were
also asked several other questions, including whether they did,
in fact, tend to act in those ways (that is, hide their feelings,
study hard for tests, and so on) and how they got along with
It turned out that the use of conditional love seemed to be
at least somewhat successful at producing the desired behaviors.
Children who received approval from their parents only if they
acted in a particular way were a bit more likely to act that
way -- even in college. But the cost of this strategy was substantial.
For starters, the students who thought their parents loved them
conditionally were much more likely to feel rejected and, as
a result, to resent and dislike their parents.
You can easily imagine that, had they been asked, each of those
parents would have declared, "I don't know where my son gets
that idea! I love him no matter what!" Only because the researchers
thought to interview the (now grown) children directly did they
hear a very different - and very disturbing - story. Many of
the students felt they had consistently received less affection
whenever they failed to impress or obey their parents - and
it was precisely these students whose relationships with their
parents were likely to be strained.
To drive home the point, the researchers conducted a second
study, this one with more than a hundred mothers of grown children.
With this generation, too, conditional love proved damaging.
Those mothers who, as children, sensed that they were loved
only when they lived up to their parents' expectations now felt
less worthy as adults. Remarkably, though, they tended to
use the identical approach once they became parents. The
mothers used conditional affection "with their own children
in spite of the strategy['s] having had negative effects on
Although this is the first study (as far as I know) to show
that conditional parenting styles can be passed on to one's
children, other psychologists have found similar evidence about
its effects. Some of these are discussed in the following chapter,
which describes two specific ways by which conditional parenting
is put into practice. Even in general terms, though, the results
are fairly damning. For example, a group of researchers at the
University of Denver have shown that teenagers who feel they
have to fulfill certain conditions in order to win their parents'
approval may end up not liking themselves. That, in turn, may
lead a given adolescent to construct a "false self" - in other
words, to pretend to be the kind of person whom his or her parents
will love. This desperate strategy to gain acceptance
is often associated with depression, a sense of hopelessness,
and a tendency to lose touch with one's true self. At some point,
such teenagers may not even know who they really are because
they've had to work so hard to become something they're not.
Over many years, researchers have found that, "the more conditional
the support [one receives], the lower one's perceptions of overall
worth as a person." When children receive affection with strings
attached, they tend to accept themselves only with strings
attached. By contrast, those who feel they're accepted unconditionally
- by their parents or, according to other research, even by
a teacher - are likely to feel better about themselves, exactly
as Carl Rogers predicted.
And that brings us to the ultimate purpose of this book, the
central question I invite you to ponder. In the questionnaires
that are used to study conditional parenting, a teenager or
young adult is typically asked to indicate "strong agreement,"
"agreement," "neutral feelings," "disagreement," or "strong
disagreement" in response to sentences such as: "My mother maintained
a sense of loving connection with me even during our worst conflicts"
or "When my dad disagrees with me, I know that he still loves
me." So, how would you like your children to answer that
sort of question in five or ten or fifteen years - and how do
you think they will answer it?
Copyright 2005 by Alfie Kohn. Endnotes have been omitted.