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Teen Health 411

When "I Love You" Means "Do What I Say"

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Conditional love is finally getting the press it deserves - and it is all bad! Sorry Dr. Phil and Supernanny, many of us do not believe that what children need or want (specifically approval or love) should be offered contingently or doled out as rewards or withheld until they behave according to our wishes. Praising children for doing something right or punishing if they do something wrong - are both conditional and counterproductive.

Research completed in 2004 (Assor & Roth) with adults and recently replicated with ninth graders (Deci) suggests that children who received conditional approval were in fact more likely to do what a parent wanted, but as adults, the children tend to not like their parents much, feel internal pressure to do things versus a sense of choice or control, and they often felt guilty or ashamed of their behavior. In addition, children who reported feeling more loved when they lived up to their parents' expectations feel less worthy as adults.

An alternative to conditional love is unconditional acceptance with autonomy support, explanations about requests, allowing children to participate in decision making, and encouragement (versus manipulation). These principles come from Carl Rogers, Thomas Gordon, with more recent support from Greg Baer, and real love.

The psychologist Carl Rogers said many years ago that simply loving our children was not enough - we had to love them unconditionally - for who they are, not what they do. He had five basic principles of parenting, which were:
  • The rejection of the value of reinforcement and punishment.
  • The Zen concept of free agency.
  • Unconditional love.
  • Active listening.
  • Children’s choice parenting, advocates children making their own decisions with parents taking the role of a consultant.
Parenting with these principles is not easy or convenient, but there is something about it that feels right - to both children and parents, which gives it quite a bit of power with me.
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About the Author

Dr. Brown is a developmental psychologist specializing in adolescent health.

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