Minatours, Medusa, Icarus and logic in parenting

I tripped across a recent newspaper column in The New York Times that ran under the headline "When Parents Say 'I Love You,' Means 'Do as I Say.'" It made me think of three young adult clients whose parents have struggled with setting up systems of rewards and punishments that were balanced with the notion of helping their children stay safe, improve their judgment, develop and mature, become independent and take ownership over the choices they make in their lives.

The piece was one of those that just seemed destined to be brilliant in its contrainism. In reality, it ended up only being contrary.

The logic of the piece went a little like this: (a) unconditional love is a good thing; (b) some parents put conditions on attention and affection; (c) therefore, conditions and unconditional love could not co-exist; (d) therefore systems of punishments left children feeling resentful and anxious, and (e) negative reinforcement systems left children feeling resentful, anxious and unlikely to comply.

"Even if we did succeed in making children obey us," the article asks, "through — say, by using positive reinforcement — is obedience worth the possible long-term psychological harm? Should parental love be used as a tool for controlling children?"

No, it concluded.

Throw it all out. Create a system "autonomy support" by including their in decision-making, encouraging them and explaining the reasons for the rules.

And! They had research to prove it!

Studies showed, the article said, that adult children who thought their parents love was unconditional did not like their parents very much, were resentful, anxious, did not take ownership over their behaviors and lives and were destined for more unhappiness and anxiety than those of us, like me, who felt their parents love was unconditional.

This all makes sense -- well, if you are into false choices, faulty logic, and you are willing to believe that a pot of gold and the end of a pretty rainbow is in the last room of the Labyrinth, as opposed to Medusa, the Minotaur and a freshly imprinted set of Icracus wings.

Unconditional love is probably a good thing. But it is hardly mutually exclusive from putting conditions on behaviors. Would it be worth it, given the frustration and hardships on children, to have a system of conditions designed to create obedience? Perhaps. But this isn't boot camp. Parenting is not so much about obedience as it is creating a safe environment, where children can learn, grow, develop, mature, prepare to make decisions on their own and learn that actions often have consequences, both good and bad. So, in many ways, creating systems of rewards and punishments are a most loving thing to do. It's what the real world is like.

Next, what about this notion of autonomy support? Once again, when did the idea of including children in decision-making, encouraging them and explaining the reasons for the rules become mutually exclusive of the idea of punishment and rewards systems? In this idea, in fact, we find the brick that makes this "house of new parenting" come crumbling down - completely, utterly, totally. Punishment and reward systems provide the opportunity to explain the reasons for rules to children, gives you a chance to encourage them, dissuade them from poor decisions and to involve them in decision-making that affects them. In fact, the best punishment and rewards systems, to a reasonable degree and individually tailored to each family and child, include some elements of all of these ideas.

The failure in the author's logic and extrapolation of the studies is monumental in its simplicity. It assumes that the feelings of children who felt that their parents love was conditional is a measure of whether positive and negative rewards systems work. Since all the children in the studies felt that their parents love was conditional, perhaps the problem was that their parents love was conditional or that their parents were not able to communicate that their punishment and rewards systems were designed because of the fact that they did love their children enough to help guide them as they tried to allow them to develop more independence and autonomy. In fact, I think most people who give it much thought would agree that it is quite loving for a parent to make the effort to punish, reward and help their children to develop. Sometimes that love has to be delivered in some tough ways -- and the toughest love of all to deliver is the two-word kind: no.

This point could be illustrated by the dozens of cases I get involved with each where parents are struggling over creating boundaries with loved ones who have serious mental illnesses -- in the name of their sanity and not enabling adult children to avoid treatment. This point could be illustrated by the parent who takes a step back in their financial support because they know that a drug or alcohol problem is being enabled by their actions. This point could be illustrated by the treatment providers and parents who force psychiatric hospitalizations on clients, knowing that while they might get better and might be safe, that enormous harm is being delivered to their relationships.

None of these cases are examples of love that is conditioned, but they are examples of loving someone so very much that you are willing to put conditions on your relationship that would help the person you love even if it ran the risk of losing them (to you, at least, even if they do get better). Still, more benignly, but perhaps more accurately, illustrating the point are the cases of young adults in need of motivation who do not have serious mental illnesses.

So, back to the three clients I mentioned above. To varying degrees, each client is an example of loving and structured parenting that has lead to dramatic improvements in the lives of the clients. One client talks fondly to me now about a punishment system his parents put in place a little while ago - finances while in college were conditioned on a sliding scale of academic performance, which had slipped. He remembers the anxiety of coming into my office at 8 in the morning to figure out, among other things, what he was going to select as major, how he was going to improve his grades and going over budgets to determine how he was going to pay his bills if he did not get the necessary grades. He just knows that his parents tough move helped motivate him, and, he never doubted that it was the most loving thing his parents could have done at that point.

The other two clients are in the middle of it as we speak.

One client's parents had legitimate concerns that cutting off his financial support would send him a message, in a life already filled with many emotional disappointments, that their love was conditional. After going back and forth over the topic of connecting money to performance, combined with some system of accountability, reinforcement and support, we tripped across something that has, so far, worked smoothly. When we backed off a bit out of collective frustration that followed an outburst from the client, he began taking ownership over many things that he did not seem to be willing to do for years. He was doing them for himself now. He told me recently, "My parents could take all the money away from me, I know they would still love me," echoing a point that most of us already knew. "I just needed you all to get out of the way so I could do this for me." Things are not perfect, but they sure are better than they have been in some time. He's taking care of elements of self-care and getting excited about things in a way haven't seen since knowing him.

The other client is very intelligent (I mean, ridiculously intelligent), although she concedes, when asked the question of how old she is emotionally, that she's "about sixteen" in maturity. Before we ever met I had heard that she struggled with motivation and direction, and in our second meeting she flat out said that she knew that she needed her parents to stay on top of her to even do the things that she wanted to do for herself, much less the things that she did not agree with.

In her case, the difficult part -- okay, one of the difficult parts -- was coming up with systems of rewards that she could not manipulate (she's smart, after all), punishments that would not leave her with the message that love was not unconditional, that would foster personal responsibility, help her with direction and allow her to actually decide what she thought was important for her, as opposed to us didactically dictating that to her (which there was a temptation to do because of her emotional immaturity, and would have been a disaster because of her intellectual superiority).

I can't be sure whether she doesn't have us all around her little finger, but my best guess is that all of our goals have collided -- her parents want her to mature and have direction, she wants to as well, while preserving some parts of her that are youth like and creative in a positive way. Her parents have settled on giving her responsibilities without conditions, adjusting support without conditions or rewards, and we've implemented a rewards system that she helped design, is fully aware of and because of open communication knows is being done because she is loved (not a condition of that love) that is predicated on doing things she wants to do: volunteering in a professional setting, succeeding and learning in her classes, staying involved in groups she has in the past and following her social, academic, occupational and creative dreams. She seems much more motivated and directed now, and is plotting her own course, making her own choices - not ones that we are forcing upon her.

Each client has loving parents and I have no doubt that each of them believe that their parents are unconditional. Each client has had their parents do some things that they don't like in the name of motivating that, and I have no doubt that when I talk to each client in years future, they will view what their parents did as the loving thing, as the caring thing and as a necessary thing that has improved their lives. If either of the three thought this was merely about obedience, I'm sure they would be resentful and even more frustrated (and, in fact, on the issues where they feel it is just about obedience, they have no problem pointing it out and working with me and their parents to either understand the lesson or adjust the program). Not to mention, of course, that punishments and rewards safely and lovingly model the real world's system of doing business.

So before we throw out "conditional parenting" for "autonomy support" alone, we might want to look at combining parenting with negative and positive consequences, with support for independence, development, decision-making and taking ownership, and a host of other notions.

Otherwise, we might as well hand our kids those Icarus wings and tell them to learn too fly to close to the Sun on their own.

(Note: The article also hoists a notion of "encouraging without manipulating," which does seem like a mutually exclusive proposition, since encouragement inherently motivates -- positively or negatively -- no matter what your intentions are. This could also get me onto one of my pet peeves -- the false choice between manipulation and motivation, but I will save the philosophical case for manipulation in the name of love for another day, one in which I have not made you all suffer so much already via the hand of my writing).

(Additional Note: My ire at this article was inspired by reading it, but this post was inspired by Dr. Al Jerome, an excellent psychologist I work with in private practice. I'm sure he would not endorse all my ideas, but his critique of the article inspired me to write. Dr. Jerome has a blog at http://draljerome.wordpress.com/; he can also be reached at www.draljerome.com.)

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