In the first of my posts last month on Dorothy Martyn’s Beyond Deserving, I mentioned Alfie Kohn’s book Unconditional Parenting. This book turned my approach to parenting upside down when I read it earlier this year, and Kohn has now published a summary of his thesis in today’s New York Times.

He begins by citing Carl Rogers’ assertion 50 years ago that a psychotherapist must express “unconditional positive regard” for their clients. Only if the therapist accepts their clients unconditionally can the clients begin to accept themselves. Kohn continues:

And the reason so many have disowned or repressed parts of who they are is because their parents put “conditions of worth” on their care:  I love you, but only when you’re well-behaved (or successful in school, or impressive to other adults, or quiet, or thin, or deferential, or cute …)

Loving our children unconditionally is “a tall order”, Kohn accepts, but it is made even harder by the advice with which we are surrounded:

In effect, we’re given tips in conditional parenting, which comes in two flavors:  turn up the affection when they’re good, withhold affection when they’re not.

He quotes “Dr Phil” and “Supernanny” Jo Frost as examples of parenting gurus recommending that parents withhold “attention, praise and love” until their children “behave according to your wishes”. The point being that conditional parenting is not just about “old-school authoritarians” spanking their children, but is also to be found in the supposedly more liberal approaches of alternating “time-outs” with “positive reinforcement”.

The effect in each case is the same:

The primary message of all types of conditional parenting is that children must earn a parent’s love. A steady diet of that, Rogers warned, and children might eventually need a therapist to provide the unconditional acceptance they didn’t get when it counted.

Kohn gives two examples of studies in which young people were asked about their experience of being on the receiving end of conditional parenting:

The studies found that both positive and negative conditional parenting were harmful, but in slightly different ways. The positive kind sometimes succeeded in getting children to work harder on academic tasks, but at the cost of unhealthy feelings of “internal compulsion.” Negative conditional parenting, meanwhile, didn’t even work in the short run; it just increased the teenagers’ negative feelings about their parents.

What does Kohn propose as an alternative? He only has time to sketch this out in a couple of paragraphs (his book is highly recommended for those wanting to know more), but in summary he states that:

…unconditional acceptance by parents as well as teachers should be accompanied by “autonomy support”: explaining reasons for requests, maximizing opportunities for the child to participate in making decisions, being encouraging without manipulating, and actively imagining how things look from the child’s point of view.

“How things look from the child’s point of view” is central to Kohn’s case, as he continues:

Most of us would protest that of course we love our children without any strings attached.  But what counts is how things look from the perspective of the children – whether they feel just as loved when they mess up or fall short.

As I suspect Dorothy Martyn would agree, Christians have more reason than most to appreciate the importance of an unconditional love that can be relied upon even when we “mess up or fall short”. That is what God gives us, so we have no right to withhold that same love from our children.

Of course, we will “mess up or fall short” in the attempt to show unconditional love for our children – on a daily basis, I can testify – but that shouldn’t stop us trying.