Are Time-outs for Tots Conditional Love?

Recently, in the New York Times' science section and Motherlode blog, education writer Alfie Kohn argued that both praise and punishment are equally bad for kids. Essentially his point was that praise and punishment both teach a child that our love for them is conditional – we only care for them when they succeed and stay out of trouble. Accordingly, Kohn thinks that parents should not praise or punish their kids. From no dessert to time-outs and groundings, "What a good job!" and trophies – it all should be thrown out the window. If parents do so any of those terrible things, Kohn warns, children are hostile, resentful, and likely end up in therapy.

His pieces have left parents across the nation scratching their heads; they were left feeling incredibly helpless and unsure about how to parent.

While Kohn's made some interesting points in the past, we think that Kohn went way too far in both pieces for two reasons. First, he overstated the science he had to support his argument. Second, there's plenty of science to make the counter-argument: that children can feel unconditionally loved when praised or punished.

As to the science he used, Kohn relied on only two studies to support his claim: Assor et al. (2004) and Roth et al. (2009). It's important to note that the data is limited to findings on ninth graders and college students. The research doesn't include any work on toddlers, preschoolers or elementary-school aged children. We can't assume that a two-year-old will have the same reaction as 12- or 20-year-old. In fact, the evidence suggests that kids at different ages will have dramatically different responses. (For example, before age seven, most children take praise at face-value. After that, the kids think praise is only given to children who are struggling; it's no longer a recognition of achievement.) Also, the Assor and Roth studies were both done in Israel; the findings may be culturally specific.

So the Assor and Roth findings don't prove anything about how to handle children; at most, their work suggests that researchers should look at similar patterns of parent-child interaction.

Even more importantly, these studies Kohn relied on to prove the harm of praise and punishment do not actually relate to either praise or punishment.
Instead, the scholars were researching a more direct loss of love and parental attachment. College students were asked if they agreed with statements such as: "As a child or adolescent, I often felt that I would lose much of my father's affection if I did poorly at school." The high schooler was something along the lines of "If I do poorly in school, my mother will ignore me for a while."

These questions yielded a fairly unsurprising result. If teens and college students reported parents regularly withholding their affection and contact, because of the children's actions, they also reported a certain amount of hostility to their parents. They were also a bit hostile if parents increased their affection when they were succeeding.

And the researchers specifically reflected on the idea that love-withdrawal was probably the worst punishment possible: it would be far worse than a physical or mental form of discipline.

This research doesn't specifically relate to praising school kids when they work hard. It doesn't analyze the effect of giving time-outs to a two-year-old. It doesn't even relate to American high school students.

The real problem with Kohn's articles is that, already, there is a lot of confusion about when to praise, and his pieces just add to it. They give the impression that parents must make a choice between unconditional love on the one side, and praise and punishment on the other. And that's just not true.

Most research finds that kids need rules and structure – not as a form of prison, but a scaffold of autonomy they can build on.

Oberlin College professor Nancy Darling has surveyed thousands of adolescents, in the US, the Philippines, and Chile. She's found that when parents set no rules, or when parents fail to enforce rules they've set, it sends a message that parents simply don't care about their kids' well-being or the kids' actions. The adolescents think the parents just can't be bothered by their transgressions.

While combining praise with a statement of love is problematic. For example, "You're such a smart girl, and I love you," sends a child a message that if she's no longer is smart, the love will stop. But there's nothing in the research that says parents should stop saying, "I love you." It just that they should stop combining displays of love and affection and praise for achievement. Keep them separate. Once again, this isn't an either or situation.

Stanford professor Carol Dweck's perspective on praise is that – when we praise or punish – we need to make it clear that we are responding to what a child does, not who they are. We shouldn't say "Bad Boy!" when the kid breaks a vase, and we shouldn't say "Boy Genius!" when he made a vase in art class. Both "Bad Boy" and "Boy Genius" are wild overstatements of what we really think.

Instead, we can simply say, "You know you shouldn't play ball in the house," and "You worked really hard on that vase, didn't you?" those are fine.

Beyond the moment, they teach children that we pay attention to what they are doing, and that we can be trusted to give them a fair and accurate response when they need it. Lessons we want them to remember when they're 17, and they have a broken heart or just had a fender-bender.

As I said earlier, we just don't have to make a choice between praise, punishment and unconditional love. That's just a false choice. If necessary, we can praise or punish for what they do. We love them for who they are. As long as we keep that straight, we'll be fine.

Which brings me to Florrie Ng.

Florrie Ng had kids in the U.S. and China take IQ tests. And after they did so, she lied – no matter what the kids' scores, she told their mothers that the kids did badly. Then she left the mothers in the room with the kids for five minutes.

The American moms talked to their kids about what they would have for dinner. They talked about the day. They never mentioned the test. The Chinese moms immediately told the kids that the children didn't do well enough on the test; then the mothers and children sat down to look at where the kids went wrong.

Upon the retest, the Chinese kids improved at twice the rate of the Americans.

Now, you might have this image of the Chinese moms as being cold and unfeeling. But that wasn't the case at all. The Chinese moms focused on the kids' improvement, but they were just as warm and supportive as the American moms.