Loving Your Children

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A friend and I recently had a conversation about how to provide for the healthy emotional development of his newborn child. He talked about the difference between how he was raised and a method posited by a psychologist he knows.

My friend grew up in a family where almost everything he did was praised. He was made to feel special all the time based upon his behaviors. Everything he did was great. The psychologist told him that showing interest about the reason behind behaviors is a better parenting method than indiscriminately praising those behaviors.

For example, let’s say I’m a six year old kid and I’ve just drawn a picture of a bunch of people at a park. My friend’s parents would congratulate me and put it up on the refrigerator. The psychologist’s approach would be to show interest by asking me all kinds of questions, including my motivation for drawing it and who the individuals in the picture are, for example.

The psychologist’s strategy is probably preferable as we will get into below, but both child rearing types have the potential for positive or negative outcomes. That’s because the single most important factor in both scenarios is not the method as such but the underlying subjective belief of the child that he or she is loved. When I asked my friend if he had felt loved by his parents his answer was affirmative without any hesitation. The way that his caregivers made him know he was loved was by praise and recognition of his behaviors.

Taking the time to be authentically interested in the underlying motivation behind a behavior usually transmits this same feeling of love to a child. By showing curiosity about thought processes it’s usually pretty obvious that you care and the child picks up on this. He or she gets to feel heard and to talk openly about thoughts and feelings.

In both scenarios the common denominator is the sometimes unspoken but always present certainty of being loved. But let’s imagine a child who secretly does not feel loved. His parents give him gold stars and recognition for good grades or artistic projects. They are reinforcing behavior but it might be based on their own needs to raise a successful child and therefore be viewed in a positive light by the community, for example. In this case no amount of praise will make up for the true motivation behind the praise, which the child will pick up on. This praise is no substitute for love.

Or let’s say a parent is extremely interested in everything his child does but this interest stems from a need to control behavior. The parent is obsessed with managing his child’s life in order to feel a personal sense of security and control in an uncertain world. On a basic level this child will know that the interest shown is for selfish reasons and again no amount of curiosity will replace the hole created from a lack of authentic love.

We can see that the behavioral route of praising or the existential route of interest and curiosity is of secondary importance to the internal motivations of the caregiver. If one or the other method is done out of genuine love for the child then either will act as a vehicle to transmit this love and we can expect generally favorable outcomes.

This is why I highly recommend that anyone thinking about having a child embark on a course of therapy to sort out feelings towards their own primary caregivers. Neurosis is generational and you have the chance to break the cycle by having the courage to look deeply at your own life and the history of your relationship with your parents. If you secretly feel unlovable or worthless you will likely pass these feelings along and instill them in your child, regardless of how many behaviors you congratulate or the amount of interest that you show.

Assuming that love does underlie these two types of parenting I agree with the psychologist that the existential route is better. In addition to acting as a vehicle for instilling the feeling of being loved it provides the opportunity to explore various ways of being. Your child will feel confident and get numerous chances to discover a personality and set of values that feel right and lead to a happy existence.