While I admire Brooks, and enjoyed “Love & Merit,” I was surprised to realize it was not exactly helpful to me as a parent. Brooks speaks to the dangers of conditioned love, which is an important warning. He describes well what meritocratic love can look like and why it is corrosive. Yet, his discourse on unconditional love is so spare that it amounts to “be good.”
I don’t disagree that parental love should be unconditional, but I’m guessing that lots of parents these days wonder how. And worry that unconditional support will not prepare their child for the realities of life. Realizing this, I got that what I wanted was for Brooks to write a follow-up piece. One that talks about what unconditional love looks like. Not likely; at least not soon. So, I thought to myself, what do I know about unconditional love, and how to bring more of it into my children's lives.
I grew up with an unconventional father. He was a family therapist by profession, and —not surprising if you know me— unapologetically curious and contemplative. From him, I often heard about “unconditional positive regard,” which is a term coined by Carl Rogers, a giant in 20th century psychology. Rogers developed the concept to describe the support a therapist or counselor gives to a client. But he also saw unconditional positive regard as a fundamental part of all healthy relationships. My father taught me to apply the concept of unconditional positive regard to parenting.
Unconditional positive regard is a great model for figuring out what unconditional parental love is, and how to give it to your kids. To be certain, it is a wordy concept and not exactly intuitive. Let me explain it a bit backwards. By “regard”, Rogers meant giving another your attention in a way that lets them know that they are seen and heard— that they matter to people in their lives. Regard does not have to be gazing into the eyes of a child with meaning. Rather, regard points to giving attention generously and with intention.
Rogers used “positive” to indicate that you actively communicate to the other person that they are already competent and resourceful. He based his work in psychology on the belief that human beings are essentially good. For Rogers, to give a loved one “positive regard” is to communicate that he/she is able to be self-aware, to solve problems, and to learn from mistakes. It is not to hover or rescue, nor to safeguard from pain.
Lastly, by “unconditional” Rogers mean accepted. He did not mean uncritical or misty-eyed. Unconditional means to say “I love you and you didn’t take out the garbage” or “I love you because you are you, not because you are good at math.” Unconditional does not mean that you are blind to negative behavior. But it does mean that you communicate that your regard is not contingent on compliance or achievement. Unconditional is accept the other person for who they are right now, for being their own unique self.
What is very different about the concept of unconditional positive regard is that it is a very active way of being, whereas much of the conventional ways of explaining unconditional love to me seem passive. Or at the least, seem to be non-active activities that occur once. Perhaps this is the problem of all statements that exhort: just do it! drink milk! be yourself! They somehow sit outside of time, waiting to be acted upon.
But unconditional positive regard gives parents a way we can be supportive, positive, and accepting. The focus shifts to how the adult is communicating to the child that he/she loves the child. And in doing so, the adult turns his/her attention to who the child is, rather than the transitory behavior of the child. The shift from "what are you doing to earn my attention and love" to "you are loved as you are" gives the child a launchpad to living authentically, and rooted in meaning and belonging.
That is great you say, but still there is a cloud of doubt that rolls in. Won’t lavishing unconditional positive regard on your child spoil them?? It might seem so. But much of what we now know from 40+ years of research on children and parenting is that unconditional positive regard correlates to the outcomes that we most want for our kids. Things like drive, determination, grit, resilience, creativity, audacity, and gratitude.
Intrinsic motivation (aka Drive) is grounded in purpose, mastery (or fluency), and autonomy. Research has shown that carrots & sticks have limited power to motivate people through complex tasks. The more complex the task, the less traditional motivational techniques work. What research has found is that mastery and autonomy are crucial, and both are rooted in self-awareness, self-acceptance, resilience and persistence. Conditioned love does not foster any of these, but unconditional positive regard, especially by a parent or teacher, does.
A key characteristic of Growth Mindset is persistence in the face of setbacks. People with growth mindsets are able to persist because their self-worth isn’t based on performance. Don’t get me wrong, they value performance but they do not feel that their self-worth hinges on performance. They are able to embrace risk because they have an abiding self-worth that was fostered by the love and acceptance of those who they most love.
Resistance to peer pressure and a resilience in the face of bullying are correlated to a deep sense of meaning and belonging. We have many cultural myths about which kids are likely to be bullies and which kids are likely to be victims. But the truth is that most kids are at one time the bully and at other times, the victim. The role that most kids play most of the time is bystander. Many anti-bullying curricula are trying to figure out how to help bystanders become advocates, to call out bullying. They have found that the kids who are most likely to stand up to their peers when they see bullying are the kids who have the greatest sense of belonging. Children who feel accepted and significant bully others less, are less likely to be victims, and will speak up when they are a bystander.
Brené Brown, who researches vulnerability, has written, “A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong.” There are many roads to helping your child develop a sense of love and belonging. Positive discipline, attachment parenting, & mindful parenting are among some of the best. And I believe the intentionality and mindfulness of unconditional positive regard is a great way as well.