There are days when I’m not the kind of parent that I want to be, and on those nights I comfort myself by thinking that at least I love my kids unconditionally and they know it. I believe that unconditional love will buoy them when they’re feeling insecure—it’s the soft place they can land after a particularly challenging day.
But what if that soft place isn’t as forgiving as I think? David Brooks’s “Love and Merit” article in The New York Times, which went viral recently, has me (and a lot of other parents) thinking about the utopian idea of unconditional love and the way we manipulate our children based on it. Or as Brooks puts it, how parents “shape their smiles and frowns to steer their children toward behavior they think will lead to achievement.”
I admit, as Brooks says, that I “glow with extra fervor” when my oldest child gets good marks and others recognize his smarts. I catch myself sometimes because I don’t want him to think that I would love him any less if his marks were less than stellar. Then I worry that he will bring home bad marks just to test the limits of my love one day. Can you see how this is a conundrum?
Brooks argues that parents are overly tied up in their children’s achievements. Their glory is our glory, because we love them, we created them and we want the best for them. He writes:
“This sort of love is merit based. It is not simply: I love you. It is, I love you when you stay on my balance beam. I shower you with praise and care when you’re on my beam. […] Children in such families come to feel that childhood is a performance—on the athletic field, in school and beyond. They come to feel that love is not something that they deserve because of who they intrinsically are but is something they have to earn.”
Growing up, I was the favourite child. My grandparents showered praise on me—but it meant that I always had to perform. There’s no peace in knowing that your place on the top of the family chain can always be displaced. I experienced a lot of love, but it wasn’t necessarily unconditional—I knew my position was precarious and I could be toppled by one false move.
Or at least, that’s how I perceived it, and I swore that I would do it differently with my kids. And I do. Or at least I think I do.
We want the best for our kids—we want them to go to good universities, have good jobs and launch into successful and happy lives. The flip side of those desires is the fear that it won’t happen. So when our kids don’t live up to our dreams for them, we fear the worst. That anxiety colours how we treat them and could make them think that we love them a little less.
I recently re-watched the iconic ’80s film The Breakfast Club and I was struck that I no longer identified with the Molly Ringwald character Claire, but Claire’s unseen parents. Those angst-filled teenaged characters weren’t voicing my personal fears anymore; they now represented my kids and their fears of letting us down, and how they just want to be seen for who they truly are.
Our kids aren’t little robots that we’re shaping for future success. Their merits as people aren’t based on them meeting our expectations of who we think they are. For, just as Anthony Michael Hall (as the character Brian Johnson) says at the end of The Breakfast Club, inside of every one of our kids is “a brain, an athlete, and a basket case, a princess and a criminal.”
Loving kids unconditionally means loving the long-haired “criminal” as much as the “brain.”