Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Wolf of Conditional Love

           The wolf of conditional love is lurking in these homes.
            --David Brooks, NYT

In his column yesterday, "Love and Merit," David Brooks warns us not to link our love for our children to their achievements. On the most obvious level, few would argue. A few examples of bad parenting:

"A minus! A minus! You are no son of mine." 

"If you marry that girl, you are dead to me."

"Say that again and I'll smack you."

So, we all agree on that. What Mr. Brooks is talking about is more subtle. He says:

"Children are bathed in love, but it is often directional love. Parents shower their kids with affection, but it is meritocratic affection. It is intermingled with the desire to help their children achieve worldly success.

Very frequently it is manipulative. Parents unconsciously shape their smiles and frowns to steer their children toward behavior they think will lead to achievement. Parents glow with extra fervor when their child studies hard, practices hard, wins first place, gets into a prestigious college."

Guilty! And proud of it. Indeed, I would be even more proud had I used only smiles and praise to reinforce behavior I valued, as opposed to the odd threat or swat on a young bottom.

Let's examine the words that strike such terror into Mr. Brooks' timorous heart: "the wolf of conditional love."

Wolf: a fierce and cunning survivor. Raised Romulus and Remus.

Conditional: You can have this if you do that. Examples: you can stay at the dinner table if you don't throw food at your brother; you can have your allowance if you take out the trash; you can not be grounded if you come home on time.

Love: In the case of children, affection and protection.

Of these three, love is the trickiest. It has taken on so much secondary meaning that it is hardly recognizable. Boiled down to it's Darwinian basics, it means this: In the case of lovers, lust that morphs into affection. In the case of parents, protectiveness that morphs into letting go.

Letting go means releasing children to survive in the wild. It's hard to let go. Terrifying. But all of us know that our job as parents is to prepare our children to live on their own. Keeping them out of traffic in the street morphs into keeping them away from drugs, which morphs into making sure they can get a job to pay their own rent. A Nobel Prize would be good, but probably not absolutely necessary.

Brooks concludes:

"Parental love is supposed to be oblivious to achievement. It’s meant to be an unconditional support — a gift that cannot be bought and cannot be earned. It sits outside the logic of the meritocracy, the closest humans come to grace."

That sounds great, but what does it mean? Most households don't live in states of grace. They live in lightly controlled chaos. Parents are not saints. They are guides. Loving, nurturing guides, to be sure, but first and foremost guides. That's their job. Anyone can hug a child. A parent has the harder job of helping him become a well-adjusted, high-functioning adult. Unconditional love is a nice concept, but in practice, it is baloney. Hugs are not love. They are comfort. Frowns at bad grades are not a withholding of love, they are guidance. 

Love for your children is what you feel inside. It is the flood of joy when they run to greet you. The ache when they are gone. The fear that you have not done your best. Self-doubt in the parent/child relationship goes both ways. It's just a fact of how we are wired: a parent's protectiveness colliding with a child's need for independence. Both parents and children feel a little guilty now and then about how they navigate these emotionally treacherous waters. The answer isn't to shy from the conflict but to contend with it vigorously, rowdily, flexibly, messily, empathetically. This is what makes us strong. As parents and children. As people.

1 comment:

  1. Children should and do come the closest to receiving unconditional love. For the rest, well....... love isn't an entitlement. If it were, we wouldn't need divorce lawyers.