Tuesday, September 15, 2009

What Does Love Look Like?

The New York Times has a very thought provoking piece on love and parenting. I hope that every parent and every potential parent reads it and tells me what they think. Here is a portion of the piece:

More than 50 years ago, the psychologist Carl Rogers suggested that simply loving our children wasn’t enough. We have to love them unconditionally, he said — for who they are, not for what they do.

As a father, I know this is a tall order, but it becomes even more challenging now that so much of the advice we are given amounts to exactly the opposite. In effect, we’re given tips in conditional parenting, which comes in two flavors: turn up the affection when they’re good, withhold affection when they’re not.

Thus, the talk show host Phil McGraw tells us in his book “Family First” (Free Press, 2004) that what children need or enjoy should be offered contingently, turned into rewards to be doled out or withheld so they “behave according to your wishes.” And “one of the most powerful currencies for a child,” he adds, “is the parents’ acceptance and approval.”

Likewise, Jo Frost of “Supernanny,” in her book of the same name (Hyperion, 2005), says, “The best rewards are attention, praise and love,” and these should be held back “when the child behaves badly until she says she is sorry,” at which point the love is turned back on.

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.”

This raises the intriguing possibility that the problem with praise isn’t that it is done the wrong way — or handed out too easily, as social conservatives insist. Rather, it might be just another method of control, analogous to punishment. The primary message of all types of conditional parenting is that children must earn a parent’s love. A steady diet of that, Rogers warned, and children might eventually need a therapist to provide the unconditional acceptance they didn’t get when it counted.

But was Rogers right? Before we toss out mainstream discipline, it would be nice to have some evidence. And now we do.

In 2004, two Israeli researchers, Avi Assor and Guy Roth, joined Edward L. Deci, a leading American expert on the psychology of motivation, in asking more than 100 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.

It turned out that children who received conditional approval were indeed somewhat more likely to act as the parent wanted. But compliance came at a steep price. First, these children tended to resent and dislike their parents. Second, they were apt to say that the way they acted was often due more to a “strong internal pressure” than to “a real sense of choice.” Moreover, their happiness after succeeding at something was usually short-lived, and they often felt guilty or ashamed. (Read the whole thing here)

As a new parent it never occurred to me to consciously use the giving or withholding of affection as a form of behavior modification for my son. As a social scientist in training, the findings of the studies mentioned in this piece definitely give me food for thought. My question right now is what does 'love' look like in the parent-child relationship?

Three selections for the Baha'i Writings immediately came to mind. The first is from a portion of a letter from the Universal House of Justice:

"An all-embracing love of children, the manner of treating them, the quality of the attention shown them, the spirit of adult behaviour toward them -- these are all among the vital aspects of the requisite attitude. Love demands discipline, the courage to accustom children to hardship, not to indulge their whims or leave them entirely to their own devices. (The Universal House of Justice, Ridvan 157, 2000, p. 9)

I find it interesting that "an all-embracing love of children" is followed by the standard "love demands discipline, the courage to accustom children to hardship".

The next selection is from Baha'u'llah's mystical work the Seven Valleys which is about the journey of the soul:

"And if, by the help of God, he findeth on this journey a trace of the traceless Friend, and inhaleth the fragrance of the long-lost Joseph from the heavenly messenger, he shall straightway step into THE VALLEY OF LOVE and be dissolved in the fire of love. In this city the heaven of ecstasy is upraised and the world-illuming sun of yearning shineth, and the fire of love is ablaze; and when the fire of love is ablaze, it burneth to ashes the harvest of reason. Now is the traveler unaware of himself, and of aught besides himself. He seeth neither ignorance nor knowledge, neither doubt nor certitude; he knoweth not the morn of guidance from the night of error. He fleeth both from unbelief and faith, and deadly poison is a balm to him. Wherefore Attar saith: For the infidel, error -- for the faithful, faith; For Attar's heart, an atom of Thy pain. The steed of this Valley is pain; and if there be no pain this journey will never end. (Baha'u'llah, The Seven Valleys, p. 7)

In referring to the "steed of pain" as a necessary vehicle for the valley of love, I think Baha'u'llah is trying to tell us that love does not always feel good. In fact, at certain stages of the soul's journey, pain is a requirement for progress.

Finally, 'Abdu'l-Baha offered this commentary on love, "If I love you, I need not continually speak of my love -- you will know without any words. On the other hand if I love you not, that also will you know -- and you would not believe me, were I to tell you in a thousand words, that I loved you" (Abdu'l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 16)

It seems to me that one of my tasks as a parent is to show my son through deeds what love looks like. Part of this will be helping him to understand that love (even when it is unconditional) does not always look pretty or feel good. In fact, sometimes the pain he may experience in his relationship with me will be the evidence of my love.

I also believe I have a duty to show him that there are consequences for the way he behaves. One of those consequences is the way others feel and behave toward him (including his parents). I'm not advocating the 'conditional parenting' tactic, but knowing when what he does has a negative impact on others is a crucial part of his socialization and spiritual development. Who will teach him that if not his parents? How best to do so is something that his mother and I will have to learn, making lots of mistakes in the process.

I would love to think that our son will someday participate in a study and happily report how much he liked his mom and dad. Is that our goal though? And if he reported otherwise does it mean we were bad parents? I guess time will tell.