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!

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“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.

Happy parent and child

Happy parent and child

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?

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References

(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 and son Lauchie

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.

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1600 words copyright Emily Cutts/Anne Whitaker 2010
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

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5 Responses to “Some thoughts on parenting: what’s love got to do with it?”

  1. Brilliant article!

    We have used time outs with our eight year old son but it hasn’t been that effective.

    My son has significant emotional and behavioral challeges that make life extremely difficult for him and for us. We are often at a complete loss for how to best correct and help him.

    I try so hard to make sure I am giving unconditional love, but I so often fall apart with anger and emotion myself because of the extreme stress.

    The one largest problem that we have talked about with our therapist is how to help him calm down. The only thing that works is for him to be separated and alone for a period of time.

    If I try to stay, but remain quiet, just letting him know that I am there to love and support him, putting a hand on his shoulder for example, he will continue to rage, argue and scream at me.

    It seems that as long as there is a person there at whom he can direct blame and anger, he cannot move past his fixations and fury.

    But if left alone, there is nothing to fuel him and the rage eventually disipates.

    Unfortunately, he does not WANT to be alone at those moments. He wants to rage, hit, scream and blame. He wants me to change the situation to fit his desires.

    SO, I am left trying to figure out how I can ensure that he feels my love and support while giving him the space to calm down.

    AND after all of that, I am also left trying to figure out how to “discipline” him for his bad choices and behaviours. Sometimes, it is not his fault. His emotions are extremely intense and his explosions are almost beyond his control.

    But sometimes, often, there are choices that he makes that need to be corrected so that he doesn’t continue to make the same mistakes.

    Sigh — it is NOT easy!!! And goodness knows I mess it all up WAY too often!

  2. Emily said

    Hi Janice,

    Thanks for your response.

    Obviously it is hard to judge the situation from one short message, so take what I say with a pinch of salt. Also, I want to make clear that I am not an educational or clinical psychologists – you may want some advice from one of those professions.

    Having said that, over the years I have come across various strands of research which indicate that there are some small things people can do to decrease negative behaviour in young people, and to help them flourish. Some of these things can be used in extreme cases such as ADHD. You may have come across this work, but if not I thought that you might find it useful. I will link to the research, or further reading, so that you can follow up any of the suggestions if you wish.

    1. If you are finding that your son is particularly challenging at certain times of the day you could factor in a walk to the park before this time. Studies show that a walk in the park (a park with green space with trees) can increase attention in children with ADHD. More here: http://www.education.com/reference/article/walk-park-improves-ADHD/ and here: http://www.centreforconfidence.co.uk/flourishing-lives.php?pid=168

    2. Fish oils rich in omega 3 – EPA and DHA – have been shown to positively influence mood and behaviour. Some people have tried this with young children with behavioural problems. The great news is that fish oils don’t have the side effects that medications do (though in some extreme cases practitioners think that a child might need both). If this is the case for you speak to your doctor about it. http://www.oilofpisces.com/attentiondeficitdisorder.html

    3. Teach your son about the growth mindset. A huge body of research suggests that serious problems can be overcome through hard work, effort and constructive feedback. The brain actually changes. You can help your son too by praising for the effort he puts in and the process or strategies he uses. This has been shown to help children persevere at difficult tasks and to feel OK about failures – and to see them as a learning experience. A wealth of resources here: http://www.centreforconfidence.co.uk/projects.php?p=cGlkPTU4 and this is an excellent book http://www.normandoidge.com/normandoidge/MAIN.html You could use this too. Don’t blame yourself for the setbacks, think about what you can learn and how you can improve things.

    4. This is a controversial one, but I saw from your website that your son may be on medication. Have you come across the work on placebos? Research has shown that when children with ADHD take a placebo the parents and caregivers perceptions of them change. More here: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/06:/090629165611.htm You could contact the psychologist Robert Epstein as he is knowledgeable about this area: http://drrobertepstein.com/ and again, you may want to speak to your doctor about this.

    6. Reduce the amount of Television your son watches, it can influence challenging behaviour. More here: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/07/100706161759.htm

    The Centre for Confidence and Well-being has a rich resource of information on the flourishing section of their website: http://www.centreforconfidence.co.uk/flourishing-lives.php

    Good luck with everything.

    Thanks again for your comments
    Emily

  3. Dear Janice

    thank you for your openness and honesty – I do hope Emily’s very full and practical response will be of some help to you. Please feel free to circulate the link to this article if you feel that its content and both your responses could be helpful to other parents.

    With every good wish

    Anne W

  4. Madeleine said

    Dear Emily,
    I think your article is very relevant and interesting and must confess made me a bit guilty!! My son has experienced the naughty ‘corner’ from at least 12 months…
    You raise a very good question, namely can children that young understand the concept of naughtiness. I don’t think they can, however for me the NC has been a means of showing boundies and not expressing that my child is somehow (purposefully) naughty. Let me give an example. Son aged around 1.4, visits grandparents who have a floor lamp with glass fittings than could easily fall over when CURIOUS (not naughty) baby starts shaking it. Baby continues to ‘investigate’ even when he has been told kindly not to play with it, he gets a warning that if he touches it again he will go into the NC. He looks at me and touches the base of the lamp with his foot… Off we trot to the NC for a minute. This is not so much about punishment than it is about learning consequences and listening to what is being said. And it is not about withdrawing love either – is love only about attention? For me the above anecdote is an act of love : I care ( read love) enough about my son to set boundaries and follow through. He also learns that just because he does something inapproprate does not mean I do not love him ( I hope!) as he chooses whether to continue an undesired behaviour or not. I tottally agree with Emily that emotional blackmail is a terrible and detrimental method to discipline and perphaps where the NC/step does not work or has the appearence of withdrawn love is the lack of warning (choice) for the child.
    I think it is ok to use the NC, but mindfully and not as Emily points out, a ‘cure all’ method with the conotations of emotional black mail. The trick I think is consistency in methodology and disciplne techniques that match the undesired behaviour (from removing children from the incident, temporarily restricting previliges to count down to the NC ) and the temperment/ sensitivity of the child no less.

  5. Emily said

    Dear Madeleine,

    Thank you for the considered response and for sharing your experiences, as Anne said earlier we really do value people being so open in their comments. I think you touch on a very interesting example, and also on the role of parenting style. The research does show that parenting styles which are warm, loving but which have clear limits are the ones which are most conducive to healthy child development. It is obvious that you are providing this kind of secure environment for your son.

    The reason I wrote this article was because of the misapplication of the naughty step, its overuse and also its being used with very young children. I do not mean to make people feel guilty, but rather open up a discussion about the use of the naughty step. So thanks, for starting this.

    The reason I think a young child should not be put on the naughty step is because it can make a minor incident into a major event. Something like touching a light for example, I think, would be better responded to with a No and then a distraction, either by moving them away from the light or engaging them in something stimulating. Putting them on the NS extends the ‘situation’ and leaves the child feeling bad about themselves (after all there is some labeling going on here, it is a ‘naughty’ corner they must have been naughty). The child comes to know that they have been ‘bad’ when they are put on the step.

    In this case of touching the light, the child is not being naughty, they are testing the boundaries and looking for your response. When an adult responds to this type of situation with a ‘No’ and displays some understanding, such as ‘ I know you wanted to touch the light, but I am sorry you are not allowed to play with lights’ and then distracts the child, they are showing love, compassion and understanding of the child’s perspective. They are also giving them some strategies to use when faced with temptations, so that the child will learn to navigate future situations. This way the child knows what the boundaries are, and can help themselves stay within them. Also, as far as I understand, self-control takes time (years) to develop and so you are helping them to control their behaviour.

    Another thought I had since writing the article was about creating a stimulating environment for young ones. When children are fully engaged in an activity they are less likely to display ‘challenging’ behaviour. For example, my son, from a year onwards, would play for over an hour in a bucket of water with empty jugs and bottles: no time for trouble when he is engrossed in play. (see Nurture Shock chapter 8 for a discussion of the role of play)

    This is a complex area, and clearly there is more to be said

    Emily

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