Disciplining Children Means Our Love Is Conditional

I am confused…Apparently, my method of raising my daughter is conditional…All this time I was under the impression that by disciplining her when she did something wrong and rewarding her when she did something right, I was raising her to be a well behaved human being who knew right from wrong, but I was wrong …

A recent study highlighted in the New York Times says by rewarding good behaviour with affection and things and punishing bad behaviour by withholding love and comfort we are doing nothing but harming our children…It goes on to suggest that in order to raise happy and well adjusted human beings, parents should not try to make an example of their child by using conditional means (rewards, punishment), but lead by example…

We all know that spanking children (aggressive negative conditioning) can be harmful, but what most of us don’t know is that positive conditioning (rewards, showering love) may also have negative results…According to research, positive reinforcements make our children feel that they are worthy of love only when they do what we think is right…The study also suggests that praise is just another method of control, analogous to punishment and both are forms of conditional parenting…

In 2004, two Israeli researchers, Avi Assor and Guy Roth, joined Edward L. Deci, a leading American expert on the psychology of motivation, in asking more than 100 college students whether the love they had received from their parents had seemed to depend on whether they had succeeded in school, practiced hard for sports, been considerate toward others or suppressed emotions like anger and fear.

In a companion study, Dr. Assor and his colleagues interviewed mothers of grown children. With this generation, too, conditional parenting proved damaging. Those mothers who, as children, sensed that they were loved only when they lived up to their parents’ expectations now felt less worthy as adults. Yet despite the negative effects, these mothers were more likely to use conditional affection with their own children.

This July, the same researchers, now joined by two of Dr. Deci’s colleagues at the University of Rochester, published two replications and extensions of the 2004 study. This time the subjects were ninth graders, and this time giving more approval when children did what parents wanted was carefully distinguished from giving less when they did not.

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 didn’t even work in the short run; it just increased the teenagers’ negative feelings about their parents.

…data suggest that love withdrawal isn’t particularly effective at getting compliance, much less at promoting moral development. Even if we did succeed in making children obey us, though — 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?

…according to an impressive collection of data by Dr. Deci and others, 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.

All this research has only managed to make my brain go haywire…I was just wondering if unconditional love and no discipline is a practical form of teaching despite what research says? I know from experience that even if I lead by example, my daughter doesn’t always follow…In such situtations, what should I do? Keep leading expecting her to follow? By always bestowing unconditional love on her, won’t she think I’m a sucker and that she can get away with just about anything? Will this sort of thinking help her in the long run?

I’m sure someone will soon publish another research saying that all this is crap and the system of rewards and punishment is the only way to raise well adjusted children…


22 thoughts on “Disciplining Children Means Our Love Is Conditional

  1. I’m no expert on parenting, but these researches are extremely confusing. And you answered your question in the last line yourself. There probably be another study published soon enough proving just the opposite of this. I guess what works with you and your child is the best way there is.


  2. I am ,perhaps, more experienced than most of you.
    I have only one recipe,….Only the mother and her formula works for the kids.
    God has blessed the mothers with this gift and let us avoid trying to prove HIM wrong.
    Sorry for being blunt.
    Mr.Chowla, I like your recipe 🙂


  3. Solid post…kept me thinking for long. Does negative conditional parenting means withdrawal of love and affection? I think more important is whenever the children do any wrongdoing, as a parent, we should tell them what is the right thing to do, and not tell them stuff like “Mama will not love you if you do it or more harmful is Papa will love the other sibling more than you if do it again”. Such injection of fear of loosing love or that unhealthy comparison in the home itself plants the damage seed.

    Just by giving unconditional love how would we correct them if they do anything wrong. and as an adult we know anything coming for granted does not seem to have its value, do the children think likewise or they think otherwise? The point is to guide them, show them the right path, but never talk to them in terms of love/affection and most importantly always be there whether they succeed or fail. Just the belief that my parents are always there for me will be sufficient for them to be independent and more often enable them to take the right decision.And anyway who does not do mistake? Don’t we as adult?
    Always being there is unconditional love…I agree with what you have said…


  4. Has it not struck you that this is exactly what Sri Krishna says in the Gita? “Work not for a reward, but never cease to do thy work’.

    Of course reward and punishment are two sides of the same coin. What these researchers are suggesting without knowing is really what our sages taught thousands of years ago. Unconditional love, which is impossible without detachment, is the ideal one must strive to attain. But it is almost impossible for most to get there.

    Has anyone got neurotic listening to the sages or reading the Gita?

    So, know that there is an ideal. Also know that virtually no one gets there. Do whatever you can best, without feeling guilty.If you teach such detachment to your child, she is not going to wind up in NYC; if she learns well she will head for the Himalayas, metaphorically speaking. Anything wrong with that?
    Mr. Sharma, I haven’t read the Gita so I’m clueless about the teachings of Sri Krishna…You are right, doing one’s best without feeling guilty is the way to go…


  5. Yes it is confusing, I also feel that the same rules do not apply to all children. I guess what they mean is remind, reinforce by own example, and appreciate a good behaviour, gentle reminders work, like “Did you wash your hands?”… Why withhold love!!!?

    Withholding praise need not mean withholding love, too much harshness can make a child feel unloved. What can be sadder than that! Sad, unhappy children often grow up into adults who have complexes…

    I have seen patient, loving, gentle parents have well behaved, well adjusted, happy kids. Neglect and inconsistency makes badly behaved, confused kids. Inconsistency is the worst, it confuses a child… Just trying to understand what they mean… neglect is the worse form of withholding of love…
    Just my random thoughts Bones… the topic touched a chord.
    I can’t understand why sending a child into his/her room as ‘punishment’ means withholding love…Aren’t we supposed to teach our children that there are consequences for each and every action? Also, even if we lead by example, we are still conditioning our children to be what we want them to be i.e. we are controlling them…Should we just let them flitter around and do as they please? Is that unconditional love? I always thought unconditional love involved being there for your child no matter what they have done…


  6. Bones, there is some ridiculous research that is published everyday….someone recently told me that showering is bad for one’s health!

    On this topic, I am afraid I am very old school…..leading by example is critical, but how do you instill values in a child, if not by reward and punishment?


    Quirky Indian


    • yep!! absolutely with QI on this!

      Sraboney you are doing just great I think and there’s no need to take such dime a dozen researches seriously..
      seriously they should name this century of crappiest worthless good for nothing researches…all they do is research on stuff that doesn’t do squat for humanity(some very dumb ones are coming to mind)


  7. What is the connection between laying down rules and withholding love?
    I think people who have worked for rewards as children tend to be unhappy as adults because they still tend to expect praise for everything and confuse lack of it with lack of love.
    I think these studies really make parents into wrecks. Best is to go by our parental instinct – We must believe that a parent would not do anything to hurt our child and it is ok to say ‘no’ or punish a child for bad behavior. As long as we communicate with the child clearly, the child will read our signals loud and clear without feeling unloved.


  8. Agrh…. Parenting is indeed very tough..My daughter is nearing 3yrs old.. I am finding it hard to maintain the balance between being rude and being polite.. She doesn’t listen to me when i tell it sweet..she doesn’t listen to me when i shout..So,what am i ought to do 😦 And yes,being in a joint family,i will hear infinte comments on how bad modern-mummies are 🙄
    Yeah, I know what you mean – they only get worse 🙂


  9. Hi

    Unconditional love is one thing and instilling discipline is something different. Both are absolutely essential for a child.

    We make a mistake trying to mix our love for the child and the need for discipline, the need to cultivate good habits and so on.

    For a moment please keep aside the veil of anger that you temporarily draw on yourself and see the act of discipline that you want to instill in your child.

    What is the essence of your act? Isn’t it an act of unconditional love. You insist on discipline so that when the child grows, she grows up to be a person with the right values and attitude. Your anger is not so deep that you hold a grudge for the next twenty years. It will vanish within a few moments.
    Yes, I agree with you…As I say, a stranger won’t try to discipline my daughter because he/she doesn’t care about her

    Love has always got to be unconditional as if the child perceives that this is like a transaction, they tend to get manipulative. Sweet enough to extract what they want and devils when you are not around.

    You love your daughter in every circumstance and for what she is and do not expect anything in return from her. That is why it is unconditional. Do not therefore resort to the “do this and you get this”. This is the external motivation used in a factory or office atmosphere or whilst training pets.

    Relationship with a child is pure, very personal and much beyond a motivation exercise.


  10. If we go after all these researches and studies then by now I should be behind bars. The type of things my daughter picks up. 😆

    We are adults and have the capability to decide right from wrong. Bring your child the way you deem right.


  11. “….being encouraging without manipulating, and actively imagining how things look from the child’s point of view.”

    What in heaven’s name do the mean by ‘actively imagining’? I guess it really depends on the degree of imagination one has. I don’t think subjects as sensitive as this can be gauged with varying degrees of ‘imagination’.

    I personally feel that these researchers should get a real job. These same guys will come out a few months now and totally refute their own theory.


  12. Like I mentioned in Butterfly’s post LOVE is the only answer……..long after the disciplining & the smacking & the treats the children look back & remember the love and the security 🙂


  13. First of all, I dont believe in these research reports. These have been published, based upon some inputs, of which I or my family was never a part of. And I certainly dont believe in generalising such sensitive family bonding issues.

    I am different and the way I take care of my children will be entirely different from what you do with your daughter. We both will be good mothers, but our way of doing things might be different. And, the way we deal with our children, is all based on our children’s individual personality.

    I believe in showering my love unconditionally, on my daughters. Yes, discipline is also being taught by setting a living example.


  14. Wow! As QI said, we will have contradicting research every day!

    As for parenting, I think we have to go with what works for each one of us. Each child is different and sometimes, I have to change tactics based on situations too. So I guess, we should just ignore these researches and go by our instincts.


  15. Nonsense is all I can say!
    Whenever I start getting confused reading something like this I think of what kind of a person I am and why am I like this. The answer always reaches my parents and how they brought us up. I make some changes considering the difference in environment in which I grew up and my kids are now growing up, but the basics reamin the same. I guess that is what matters.


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