“Mind” – Parental Love – When “I Love You” Means Doing as Haim Ginott Said

The New York Times published an article on September 14 about unconditional love by Alfie Kohn “When a Parent’s ‘I Love You’ Means ‘Do As I Say.’  The article is about the difficulties in sorting through conflicting parenting advice  –  the older advice from Carl Rogers (and also Fred) promoting unconditional love, and the newer advice from people such as talk show host Dr. Phil, and Supernanny, promoting a more manipulative parental approach, one that directly involves the granting of praise and acceptance for good behavior and the withholding of affection for bad.

The article comments on a series of studies done in 2004, and also more recently, by Drs. Avi Assor, Guy Roth, Edward L. Deci, that imply that more manipulative parental love, particularly one that incorporates positive conditioning of praise and approbation, can be effective at promoting academic achievement and achievement of parental goals, but can also carry a price of inner compulsion, lack of long-term satisfaction.  (The conditional love that focused on punishment and withholding of affection seemed mainly to create resentment of parents.)

I have to say that I definitely fall into the unconditional love camp.   (I prefer Mr. Rogers to Dr. Phil.)   First, I can’t really imagine withholding love from my children (even when angry).

However, I also understand that parenting that is overly heavy on the praise can be very burdensome, creating a lifelong need for specific approval and acknowledgement.   In addition to the problems noted by the studies, I believe that this kind of “positive” conditioning (and the resulting need and compulsion) while perhaps helpful in promoting academic performance, can become very problematic outside the academic world where good grades are not awarded for one’s conduct, and where the hurdles for achievement are not clearly delineated.  (In the non-academic world, the hurdles on the road to achievement can often not even be located, much less jumped.)

But if both negative and positive conditioning are problematic, what are parents supposed to do?

As a young child, I used to frequently see Dr. Haim Ginott on the Today Show.  (He was a child psychologist who seemed to be a regular guest.)

Now there was a guy who knew about parenting.  I don’t think he had children of his own, so he may not have had the parents’ perspective down pat, but he definitely understood the child’s perspective.   (He happened to be a very short man, who spoke English as a second language.  Somehow all of this made me feel, back then, that he knew just where we stood.)

He also looked to me like a child’s drawing of a psychiatrist, with glasses set low on a slightly intrusive nose; a small goatee bisecting his chin.   But instead of carting around the pomposity of expertise (or a couch), he sported a palpable sense of humor and compassion and an odd childlike simplicity.

He definitely fit into the unconditional love school.  As part of this, he was very specific about not praising; and not blaming.

It is not correct to say that Ginott let everything slide or that he would not condemn;  he believed parents should be quick to make their feelings about bad behavior known and to let that behavior have consequences,  the natural ones, including, for example,  the parents’ irritation; but he (like Christ) condemned the sin, not the sinner.  The method of expressing disapproval was extremely important; it was to be an expression of facts and feelings.

For example, if a child’s room were a mess, the parent was not supposed to say “you are a pig!”  but something like, “it makes me so upset to see a room like this—I think of all the living creatures it could harbor, germs, mice, even pigs!”   Or “someone with a room like this doesn’t have time to go out and play yet.”  Or simply “rooms like this must be cleaned IMMEDIATELY.”

As a child, I would marvel at his approach.   How could he fool any kid, I’d wonder.  Wouldn’t they know he just thought they were piggy?  Or that his folks were keeping him inside?

But I’d also feel, well, that the dirty room better get cleaned up soon.

His approach to praise seemed very severe to me back then, but as I’ve grown older, I’ve recognized its genius.  Telling a child he’s done a great drawing, a masterpiece, can be absolutely paralyzing, he said.  The danger of a fall from grace (a failure to produce another masterpiece) is so immediate the child may not even feel able to continue.

As a result, instead of praise, Ginott advocated actually looking at the child’s work, commenting on specific details, such as “that color blue makes me think of a summer sky.”  Or “I can see that you spent a lot of time working on that airplane.  Look at all the little rockets.”  Or “when I see a drawing of apples like that, it makes me hungry.”  (I’m sorry if I am misrepresenting Ginott’s theories by the way;  I am relying on childhood memories and also books I read years ago as a young parent – his Between Parent and Child, and the books by Elaine Mazlish and Adelle Farber, two of his followers.)

The same theory applied to honoring good conduct:  “when children sit so quietly, the room feels like a beautiful oasis.”   He would not say, for example, “what a good boy,” “what a nice girl.”  (Again, I am making up these examples!)

While Ginott’s techniques allowed for positive and negative reinforcement of types of behavior, the child him or herself was separate from the behavior, deemed capable of exerting some control over it, allowed and expected to exert some control over the behavior, but not defined by it.  As a result, the child and the love of the parent were not caught in the vagaries of behavior and consequences, but could maintain that constancy and unconditionality which seemingly (or at least according to these studies) helps lead to a lasting sense of self-worth.

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2 Comments on ““Mind” – Parental Love – When “I Love You” Means Doing as Haim Ginott Said”

  1. Mwa Says:

    Very nice post. I like your thoughtful approach to the subject. I’ve been struggling with that New York Times article myself (I discuss my feelings at length on http://mwaonline.blogspot.com/2009/09/whats-love-got-to-do-with-it.html ). I am going to consider and research some more these ideas on not praising the children too much. I see how that could create problems. I am, however, wondering if it would be just as problematic if you don’t praise your children enough, especially when they see other children being praised. Won’t they feel inadequate?

    I would love to hear your opinion on my ideas.

    • manicddaily Says:

      Thanks so much at your comment. I did look at your post (which I thought very interesting) and commented –though I’m sorry, I made a typo in original comment which I corrected. Sorry sorry. (It’s too early on a Saturday morning for me.) It’s a hard balance for parents to strike. The next post, More on Minding, is specifically about neediness that can result from a dependence on praise, though I think the craving of praise can also be a craving for attention (not just love) for some children.


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