Playing the “Conditional Love” Card

It’s interesting to see the term “conditional love” reenter the zeitgeist, as Ashley wrote about yesterday.

Conditional love, everyone can well remember, is being hot and cold with a child – accepting them only when they are polite, honest, bring home good grades, get into name-brand colleges, and marry well. Generations went into therapy and realized this was the dominant loving-style of their parents; it traumatized them by making them feel that any natural exploration off the predetermined path was taboo. Individualism and curiosity were forbidden – children felt like showpieces, useful only to impress other parents at the country club.

Since the dawn of the age of therapy, we’ve all understood that conditional love was the wrong message to send children. Unconditional love is what kids need. Ever since, we’ve heard the emphasis on unconditional love. Conditional love is almost unspeakable, unmentionable – something we were supposed to eradicate from children’s lives, like lead poisoning and the measles. An accusation of conditional love is sort of like an accusation of racial bias  – it’s a trump card. Even when the label is unjustified, it stings and causes shame.

So it was interesting to watch Alfie Kohn play the conditional love card, and watch parents squirm and fight back against the accusation.

The taboo of conditional love was a deep undercurrent in our society for a good twenty-five years. In fact, when I look back at what drove the trend to praise children so much, I think being on the rebound from a generation of conditional loving was its true source – not the self-esteem movement. Rather, the self-esteem movement hit such a nerve and became so popular because it played upon the larger, more profound psychological concern.

The self-esteem movement, in a sense, took advantage of the times. By conjuring the spectre of conditional love, the movement convinced American society that children needed far more than to be accepted and loved – they needed a constant stream of praise, stickers, A’s, and awards. If you didn’t lavish these on kids, the self-esteem movement argued, your child will feel unloved and develop low self-esteem.

But of course love and praise are two separate constructs. As Ashley has long noted, it’s when we merge praise and love that we start messing with kids’ heads. The simple tidbit of feedback so often given to kids – “you’re so smart, I love you” – isn’t perceived by kids as unconditional acceptance. It’s perceived as conditional love, because the parent has equated their love for the child with the child’s demonstrable intelligence.

Now that this meme has been reseeded, I’ll be curious if the accusation of conditional love is used by others as a way to win arguments and claim the moral high ground. We’ll be watching.

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