Posted tagged ‘Unconditional Love’

The Burden of Childhood Specialness – Firefly

September 20, 2009

I really am almost done with writing about The New York Times September 14, 2009 article by Alfie Kohn, “Mind:…” about the hazards of parental praise and punishment.   (You may be sick of it too.)

However, one fellow mother and blogger recently commented on the issue of praise as discussed in the article and my posts.  She found it hard to think of praise for children as problematic.  (Sorry, I’m oversimplifying her comment.)   She worried that not praising children might cause them to feel bad, particularly in the context of praise given to others.

I didn’t mean to condemn all praise for children!  But I do think parental praise can become problematic when it conditions a child into a reliance upon a sense of specialness.

Yes, of course, every child is special.  (Unique, God’s creation, like a snowflake, etc.)

The specialness I am talking about is not a child’s uniqueness so much as his or her “bestness,” “gold-star-ness,” “very very good-girlness or boyness.”

A security blanket of parental praise, especially combined with precocity, can be a potent combination for a child.  While the parent, in praising, may mean simply to acknowledge the child, and perhaps, excite and exhort him or her into making continued efforts (and, unwittingly to continue being a great reflection of the parent), the child may confuse this specialness as a condition for parental affection, and even for his or her own validity.

As the precocious child grows up, the child’s sense of specialness can shift from glow to burden.  The world has many many many special people.   (Thankfully!)    Someone who is used to the repeated confirmation of their sense of specialness by well-meaning, compliant, eager parents may have a hard time achieving plain old contentment (i.e. sufficiency) as they move into a heap whose top can hardly be seen.  The failure to feel special may feel like failure itself.    (My fellow blogger, kindly commenting, suggested self-awareness could help with this;  but feelings are feelings; they are not always mitigated by rational thinking.)

Anyway!  I realized today that I had a poem about this very issue:


As a child, I was told that I was a star,
whose brilliance would light up the world like a jar
filled with fireflies.  In the place I grew up,
we’d crouch in dark grass, catching them in the cup
of a hand that they quickly transformed into heart,
a roseate, luminescent, star part.
From palm, we would pour them into our glass,
so we could catch more, faster than fast.

Then, everything changed. Maybe it was the time
when the man I had loved would no longer be mine,
or when all the freedom I’d anticipated
could no longer be fully emancipated.
Jobs couldn’t be quit, hours must be put in,
the soiled re-washed, the fanciful shut in.
My erstwhile fresh talent now seemed like old rot,
I had to be happy with what I had got.

Now, when I think back to that life as a star,
I see less of the firefly, more of the jar,
the air holes on top we made with a pick
used to pry nuts from shells, a sharp metal stick.
It tore holes that were cutting, jagged beneath,
and could easily pierce an insect’s bright sheath.
I think of those holes, the sharp underside
that ceilinged that glow, that unreasoning pride.

(All rights reserved.  From Going on Somewhere, by Karin Gustafson – available on Amazon.)

PS – I am relinking this post to Victoria C. Slotto’s blog liv2write2day, to answer her prompt about singing one’s self.

PPS – for a much more lighthearted view of young adulthood check out my comic teen novel, NOSE DIVE.

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

September 16, 2009

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.