There are two great defining features of child-rearing today. First, children are now praised to an unprecedented degree. As Dorothy Parker once joked, American children aren’t raised; they are incited. They are given food, shelter and applause. That’s a thousand times more true today. Children are incessantly told how special they are.
The second defining feature is that children are honed to an unprecedented degree. The meritocracy is more competitive than ever before. Parents are more anxious about their kids getting into good colleges and onto good career paths. Parents spend much more time than in past generations investing in their children’s skills and résumés and driving them to practices and rehearsals.
These two great trends – greater praise and greater honing – combine in intense ways. Children are bathed in love, but it is often directional love. Parents shower their kids with affection, but it is meritocratic affection. It is intermingled with the desire to help their children achieve worldly success.
Very frequently it is manipulative. Parents unconsciously shape their smiles and frowns to steer their children toward behavior they think will lead to achievement. Parents glow with extra fervor when their child studies hard, practices hard, wins first place, gets into a prestigious college.
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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.
The wolf of conditional love is lurking in these homes. The parents don’t perceive this; they feel they love their children in all circumstances. But the children often perceive things differently.
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.
These children begin to assume that this merit-tangled love is the natural order of the universe. The tiny glances of approval and disapproval are built into the fabric of communication so deep that they flow under the level of awareness. But they generate enormous internal pressure, the assumption that it is necessary to behave in a certain way to be worthy of love - to be self-worthy.
The shadowy presence of conditional love produces a fear, the fear that there is no utterly safe love; there is no completely secure place where young people can be utterly honest and themselves.
On the one hand, many of the parents in these families are extremely close to their children. They communicate constantly. But the whole situation is fraught. These parents unconsciously regard their children as an arts project and insist their children go to colleges and have jobs that will give the parents status and pleasure - that will validate their effectiveness as dads and moms.
Meanwhile, children who are uncertain of their parents’ love develop a voracious hunger for it. This conditional love is like an acid that dissolves children’s internal criteria to make their own decisions about their own colleges, majors and careers. At key decision-points, they unconsciously imagine how their parents will react. They guide their lives by these imagined reactions and respond with hair-trigger sensitivity to any possibility of coldness or distancing.
These children tell their parents those things that will elicit praise and hide the parts of their lives that won’t. Studies by Avi Assor, Guy Roth and Edward L. Deci suggest that children who receive conditional love often do better in the short run. They can be model students. But they suffer in the long run. They come to resent their parents. They are so influenced by fear that they become risk averse. They lose a sense of agency. They feel driven by internalized pressures more than by real freedom of choice. They feel less worthy as adults.
Parents two generations ago were much more likely to say that they expected their children to be more obedient than parents today. But this desire for obedience hasn’t gone away; it’s just gone underground. Parents are less likely to demand obedience with explicit rules and lectures. But they are more likely to use love as a tool to exercise control.
The culture of the meritocracy is incredibly powerful. Parents desperately want happiness for their children and naturally want to steer them toward success in every way they can. But the pressures of the meritocracy can sometimes put this love on a false basis.
The meritocracy is based on earned success. It is based on talent and achievement. But parental love is supposed to be oblivious to achievement. It’s meant to be an unconditional support - a gift that cannot be bought and cannot be earned. It sits outside the logic of the meritocracy, the closest humans come to grace.