Some thoughts on parenting: what’s love got to do with it?
July 23, 2010
I am very happy to let our increasing band of MoreBits readers know that Emily Cutts, currently visiting the USA on a six-month sabbatical, has agreed to write regularly for the site: her articles are filed under “Emily’s News and Views”. Emily is an independent thinker whose studies and experience in the teaching, research and practice of Positive Psychology creatively and deeply inform her writing. She puts forward some challenging views in this article.
Please leave your comments – agree or disagree, we like to know your thoughts!
“If thou must love me, let it be for nought except for love’s sake only.”
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
There is no doubt that all parents, with very few exceptions, love their children. Most parents will love their child unlike any other person in the world. However, looking around, there is a paradox at play. Parental love is no longer seen as a given.
Caregivers are being encouraged, by the likes of Super Nanny, to withdraw their love when their child fails to do what they want, (and then to give it back when they conform). As a parent I find this type of advice worrying, especially because it is so influential but mostly because I think it is ineffective and damaging for the child. Love from a parent, I believe, should be unconditional. You are loved as you are, not because you are a good boy, a top student or display kind behaviour.
I recently had a conversation with an acquaintance of mine, a mother to a 19 month old boy. She told me that she was using the Naughty Step (NS) to discipline her son John (not his real name) for throwing tantrums. ‘NS for a 19 month old?‘ I thought. Does a child this age really intend to do bad things and to be naughty? Is this an appropriate way to encourage good behaviour? It made me wonder what caused the tantrum in the first place, and was it really the child’s fault? It also made me wonder whether people are thinking through the consequences of such an approach.
For those of you who don’t know, NS is a technique used to discipline a child. If they do something naughty then you put them on a step (or mat if they are under 3) away from toys and people. They stay there for a minute for every year of their life, so a 2 year old would stay on the step for 2 minutes. Attention, praise and love should be withheld until the child apologizes.
The use of the NS is widespread. A UK charity called Raising Kids (dedicated to giving advice and tips to parents on positive parenting practices, but which now no longer exists in the UK) carried out a survey, in 2006, of 3,388 mothers and fathers. They found that half the parents had used time outs (a similar method to naughty step) and reward charts to influence their child’s behaviour: 43% used the naughty step.
People obviously like this technique and are using NS, but what are the consequences? There are various reasons why I think that parents should think twice before putting their child on the NS and adopting such an approach.
Firstly, the naughty step encourages parents to believe that the problem lies with the child, rather than looking at their own actions and taking responsibility for things that they might be doing to cause the problem. Often a child plays up because we have not listened to them, or met their needs in one way or another.
We should be changing ourselves first, and not expecting so much of our young ones. Parenting styles can have a huge impact on the behaviour of a child.
Secondly, I think that people tend to use the naughty step as a panacea. If you go onto Super Nanny’s website, for example, you will see comments from parents, complaining that the NS isn’t working any longer, when it once did. This is usually because parents use NS for all problems, and therefore undermine its value. Others have noted this too.
For example, The National Family and Parenting Institute, a UK Government-supported family advice charity, said it was concerned that parents saw the naughty step as a “cure-all” when every child was different and had individual needs. The families on Super Nanny’s show are extreme cases, and often the naughty step is needed because of extremely bad parenting over a long period. These families are far from the norm.
Thirdly, the NS labels the child, and encourages them to think badly of themselves. This is because it has such a negative connotation and can lead them to think that they are a bad person when sent there. Stereotyping young people in such a way can have a long lasting impact upon their motivation and well-being, and could also make them feel resentful. I think this reflects some of our views of young people in the UK.
A friend of mine recently told me about two experiences of schooling, one in Denmark and one in the UK. She said that the difference was enormous. In the UK, she was viewed negatively, believing that people thought the worst of her and her peers; in Denmark, the polar opposite. I think NS reflects a wider belief about young people: they are going to be bad and do naughty things, therefore we need to nip this in the bud.
One way to do it is the NS, and so people end up using it with 19 month olds.
Fourthly, the NS manipulates the parents’ love towards their children – the unconditional love which a child needs to help them understand the boundaries and limits in life. Carl Rogers, the famous psychotherapist and founding father of the humanistic movement in Psychology, said that the goal of therapy should be to recreate this unconditional love which the client had never received – clearly he thought that the conditional love of parents causes, and is the root of, many long term mental health problems.
Does conditional love negatively effect young people? Researchers asked students about whether the love they had received from parents was conditional (1). For example did their parents show them love when they got good grades, or suppressed negative emotions like anger or fear, or when they were nice to people?
The study found that those who had received conditional love did indeed act as the parent wanted them to. But they disliked and resented their parents. They felt that the choices they made were not really their own and that feelings of success were fleeting, leaving them feeling guilty or ashamed. Not only this, but conditional parenting leaves people feeling unworthy. Most recently researchers have revealed that conditional love, especially when it is withdrawn, eg via the NS, doesn’t always work.(2)
Bringing up children is complicated and complex with parents forever feeling under pressure to do the right thing. I think that we are often, wrongly, led to believe that some things work when maybe they don’t. Therefore we need to think through some of these approaches and whether they may be useful, helpful and constructive to our goal of raising healthy, resilient and happy children.
Yes, children do sometimes need to cool off and reflect on their behaviour: but the NS should not be the answer for normal families.
Showing unconditional love for a child does not mean adopting a laissez faire approach and letting them do what they want. Rather the research shows that when parents set limits and boundaries and are firm with their children, then they grow into happy confident individuals.
This can be done with the understanding, support, compassion and forgiveness that comes with unconditional love.
In conclusion, let’s revisit the example I offered at the beginning, about 19 month old “John” being put on a NS. It turned out that he fell asleep just afterwards – he was tired. Unfortunately, the mother didn’t pick this up and punished him for something that could have been avoided– taking away her love when he needed it – instead of listening to him and responding in a more loving way to his needs.
Of course, as I have said, parenting is a difficult business. We don’t always see things objectively in the heat of the moment. However, if we can learn to take a step back, think a little more about our reasons for doing the things we do, and call upon love during hard times, then the naughty step should be redundant.
Why would we want to use a method which not only undermines our relationship with our children but the relationship they have with themselves and others?
(1) Assor, A., Roth, G., & Deci, E. L. (2004). The emotional costs of perceived parental conditional regard: A self-determination theory analysis. Journal of Personality, 72, 47-87.
(2) Roth, G., Assor, A., Niemiec, C. P., Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2009). The emotional and academic consequences of parental conditional regard: Comparing conditional positive regard, conditional negative regard, and autonomy support as parenting practices. Developmental Psychology, 45, 1119–1142.
Book on unconditional parenting, by authoritive figure on the topic, Alfie Kohn.
Emily worked until recently for the pioneering Centre for Confidence and Well-being in Glasgow, Scotland UK, on a freelance basis as a Psychology researcher. She has also co-created and taught on Psychology of Well-being courses. She is currently on a six-month sabbatical in the USA with her husband and son.
Her interests lie in the science of motivation and education, though also in the general area of well-being: anything which helps us understand what makes people tick, and how to improve life.
1600 words copyright Emily Cutts/Anne Whitaker 2010
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