I recently ran across a NY Times article from 2009 that I first read in grad school. It’s titled When a Parent’s ‘I Love You’ Means ‘Do as I Say’ (it’s still available online if you want to read the whole thing). I’ve got two kiddos on the way, so I’m as keen as ever to learn vicariously and soak up parenting advice now before I’m too tired and overwhelmed to understand it. A quick re-read gave me not only food for thought regarding the value and risks of using attention, encouragement, and isolation as child-rearing tactics, but also a reminder of why God’s love is so much better than an earthly parent’s.
Here’s an excerpt:
… The talk show host Phil McGraw tells us in his book “Family First” (Free Press, 2004) that what children need or enjoy should be offered contingently, turned into rewards to be doled out or withheld so they “behave according to your wishes.” And “one of the most powerful currencies for a child,” he adds, “is the parents’ acceptance and approval.”
Likewise, Jo Frost of “Supernanny,” in her book of the same name (Hyperion, 2005), says, “The best rewards are attention, praise and love,” and these should be held back “when the child behaves badly until she says she is sorry,” at which point the love is turned back on.
As a parent-to-be, and (as much as I hate comparing kids to animals) a pet-owner, I can relate to this kind of thinking. It’s pretty simple, and seems to make sense. Reward good behavior so the child will repeat it. Punish or ignore bad behavior so it won’t be repeated. Except it doesn’t actually work that way at all.
What we’re really talking about here is conditional love. We communicate approval and love on the condition that our child (or pet, or friend, or employee) does what we want, and we withhold that approval when they don’t. We may not stop loving them in the sense that our feelings toward them actually change, but, especially in the case of developing children, such complexities and mixed messages are often hidden by the much simpler, observable reality that our love isn’t perceivable. We may get what we want – compliance – through this approach to discipline, but that’s not the end of the story.
In a number of studies, researchers found that children who received conditional approval did, in fact, obey their parents more often. But they also tended to resent and dislike their parents; grew into adulthood lacking what they described as a sense of real choice; experienced happiness only fleetingly, even when succeeding; and felt “less worthy” as adults than others.
Compare these traits to the life promised by a God who loves his children unconditionally:
- John 10:10 says Jesus Christ “came that [we] may have life and have it abundantly”
- Romans 5:8 tells us that Christ “[showed] his love for us in that while we were still sinners, [he] died for us” (emphasis added)
- Romans 6:23 describes our “eternal life in Christ Jesus” as a “free gift”
- Ephesians 2:8-9 says that our salvation “is not your own doing; it is the gift of God”
- Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”
- In 1 Thessalonians 2:11, Paul even uses a father-son metaphor in describing the way he treats other children of God: “… Like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.”
It’s liberating and wonderful to know that not only is God’s love never-ending, but it’s more than a carrot tied to the end of a stick intended to trick us into serving him.
It’s scary to love people unconditionally. It’s hard to trust that they won’t betray our love and hurt us. But if God’s love for us, His children, really is to be the model for our love of one another, then I’m left with no choice but to believe, in spite of past experience and future misgivings, that the reward for unconditional love is far greater than its risks.