Raising children to be mature, responsible adults is among life’s most challenging enterprises. And years of research and clinical experience has shown that for kids to develop both strength and integrity of character, two factors are of key importance: affection and approval. The manner in which children experience these two things during their upbringing can have a deep and lasting impact not only on their moral development but also on how well-adjusted and sucessful they’re likely to be in life.
Mental health professionals have long known that the most successful and well-adjusted adults come from homes in which love was experienced both liberally and unconditionally whereas parental approval was bestowed quite conditionally. And when it comes to that conditional approval, it’s important that it’s specifically linked to behavior. Basically, a child has to get these messages loudly and clearly from their caretakers: “I love you thoroughly and no matter what, but when it comes to what you do, some things are simply not okay.”
Some recent studies have called into question the wisdom of what has been long called “conditional parenting.” But when these studies are carefully scrutinized, it appears they largely define parental “approval” as “displays of affection” (i.e., a parent showing pleasure or displeasure with their children through the open demonstration of emotional fondness). Because of this error, the conclusions of these studies have been at variance with not only the mounds of prior research but also with my years of experience as a therapist
Now, it’s true that some parents who truly love their children have used the giving or withholding of affection as way of motivating their children to please. And this is a problem because children who learn that they will “feel the love” of their caretakers only if they meet and heed certain expectations might very well strive to please, but they also learn that compliance comes with a steep emotional price that can be quite damaging to the spirit.
I’ve specialized in the treatment of personality and character disturbance for most of my professional life, and early in my career, many of my clients were troubled children and adolescents. I learned relatively quickly that kids do best in their formative years when they know not only that they are truly, deeply, and unconditionally loved but also that when it comes to their behavior (and even their thinking patterns and attitudes), not just anything goes. Chidren trying to develop their own moral compass have to know that their parents hold certain values and principles and that those principles are worth both defending and emulating. It also helps a lot if parents don’t merely “preach” or try to impose principles but rather “model” their own faithful adherence to them. Children are motivated to be their best when they are well-bonded to those guiding them and get the clear message that to earn the approval and respect they naturally seek, they need to exhibit behavior consistent with the values promoted by those they love and trust.
When I was collecting clinical data for my book In Sheep’s Clothing, I encountered far too many children who did not feel fully and unconditionally loved. Some of these children knew in their guts that they were either unwanted in some way or considered too much of a burden to be fully and eagerly embraced. And this deep sense of rejection was at the bottom of a lot of their anger, depression, and despair. It also fueled a host of behavioral problems. I also witnessed many parents who, while they truly loved their children, used the giving or withholding of affection as way of getting their children to do things. This form of emotional manipulation only teaches a child that strings are always attached to gestures of love and that failure to meet expectations generally comes with steep, sometimes unbearable emotional price tag. Sadly, I saw too many instances where this kind of manipulation left lasting scars. But I also was struck by how often a youngster was positively motivated by the approval of someone whose character they could truly admire. Whether we adults are aware of or appreciate the fact, young folks are always appraising us for our values and the nature of our allegiance to them. And, with the exception of those rare individuals who innately lack the capacity to do so, they’ll bond to us when they know in the deepest recesses of their soul that we love them fully and unconditionally. They’ll also aspire to be persons of integrity when they know how much our values really matter.
I think one of the things that drew me early on to the cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) paradigm is that it afforded me as a therapist the ability to display the kind of appropriate unconditional regard for a human being so necessary to forming a trusting therapeutic bond while simultaneously providing me with the tools to both call out and make a value statment about the thinking patterns, attitudes, and most especially, behaviors that are so often destructive to a healthy relationship (for more on this topic see the many articles on CBT including: A Primer on Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and The Mechanics of Genuine CBT). It also gave me a chance to model and promote the core values my experience has taught me are essential to sound character formation (for more on this see the 10 Commandments of Character Development section of Character Disturbance and the series of articles on this blog on the same topic), as well as an opportunity to reinforce a person’s genuine efforts to adopt and live by those values. Just as the research has shown so convincingly what promotes sound character development in our children, the research on CBT has consistently attested to the value of coupling unconditional regard with conditional endorsement of behavior in adults seeking to become better persons.
Character Matters will be a live broadcast this Sunday evening at 7 pm EDT (4PM PDT), so I can take your phone calls.