Affection and Approval: Two Things that Matter for Character

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Many parents truly love their children but use the giving or withholding of affection as way of motivating their children to please. While children who learn that only if they meet and heed parental expectations will they “feel the love” might very well strive to please, their compliance with parental expectations comes at a steep emotional price.

When it comes to raising children to be mature, responsible adults, and to develop both strength and integrity of character, two things really seem to matter: affection and approval, and how these things are displayed by parents. For years, a substantial amount of research indicated that the most successful and well-adjusted adults came from homes in which love was experienced both liberally and unconditionally, whereas approval (especially approval with regard to behavior) was secured quite conditionally. Recently, a couple of studies have appeared to question this premise and the whole notion of what they called “conditional parenting.” But because the authors of these studies largely defined parental “approval” as “displays of affection” (i.e., showing pleasure or displeasure with their children through the open demonstration of emotional fondness), and because their subsequent conclusions about the effects of this kind of conditional parenting style are in some ways at variance with my years of experience as a therapist, I thought it worthwhile to take a deeper look at the impact affection and approval can have on a young person’s character formation.

For most of my professional life, I’ve specialized in the treatment of personality and character disturbance. But early in my career many of my clients were troubled children and adolescents as opposed to adults. One thing my experience taught me is that kids do best in their formative years when they know not only that they are truly and deeply loved by their parents no matter what but also that when it comes to their behavior, not just anything goes. Children have to know that their parents hold certain values and principles and that those principles are worth defending. They also have to know that their parents are not just willing to outwardly stand up for those principles but are also willing to model or demonstrate their own faithful adherence to them. Children tend to be motivated to do better when they get the clear message that to earn the approval and respect they naturally seek, they need to exhibit behavior consistent with the values they’ve been taught.

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It saddens me to say that all too many times I saw first hand the negative effects on kids when they did not feel fully and unconditionally loved. Some children unfortunately knew in their guts that they were either unwanted in some way or considered too much of a burden to be fully and eagerly embraced. This sense of rejection was at the bottom of a lot of their anger, depression, and despair and fueled a host of behavioral problems. Perhaps nothing is as important to a child as knowing incontrovertibly how wanted, valued, and supported they are by their parents. I also sadly witnessed many parents who truly loved their children but who used the giving or withholding of affection as way of motivating their children to please. In such a situation a child learns that only if they meet and heed parental expectations will they “feel the love” they both need and crave. While children in these circumstances might very well strive to please, their compliance with parental expectations comes at a steep emotional price. All this goes to the heart of the “conditional parenting” some recent studies are condemning. One study suggested that only “negative conditionality” (withdrawing or withholding affection when the child does something bad) is harmful to children whereas “positive conditionality (energetically conferring affection when the child does something good or pleasing) is not damaging. But another study suggested that trying to motivate a child’s behavior by either displaying or withholding affection is emotionally harmful. My experience has taught me that displaying affection contingent upon behavior, while often effective, is a bad idea. Doing so makes it nothing more than a manipulative tool, and as I mention in my book In Sheep’s Clothing, no form of manipulation is really healthy or helpful in the long run. So, when it comes to the issue of conditional affection, the researchers and I are on the same page. Where we differ, however, is on the notion that somehow displaying conditional affection is the same as conditionally conferring parental approval.

Affection and approval are two very different things. There’s mounds of evidence to suggest that conditional approval by parents of their children’s behavior is a crucial aspect of good character formation. Love and affection naturally go together (it’s hard to really love someone and not be moved to show it in some way), but approval and affection are not inextricably bound together. Approval has to do with giving tacit endorsement of a behavior. One can approve of the person (acknowledge them as a person of worth) and demonstrate that with affection yet still not endorse, applaud, or accept certain behaviors. Parents have to be willing to stand for something — some set of principles, values, and standards of behavior. Making clear your disapproval or even disdain for a particular behavior doesn’t mean you can’t still display your love and affection. Children who know their parents love them deeply and unconditionally tend to feel an even greater degree of inner unrest when they feel their behavior has met with disapproval. Such unrest can be intensified when the child gleans that this disapproval extends to their parents’ assessment of their character. It can provide powerful motivation for the child to strive to be a better person.

When I was gathering clinical data for Character Disturbance, I was struck by how many young persons I’d counseled who reported being positively motivated by the approval of someone whose character they admired. Without exception, they seemed to know how sincerely, deeply and unwaveringly their mentors and role models they admired cared for them. Whether we adults know it or not, our young folks are always appraising us for our values and willingness to submit ourselves to them. They won’t bond to us unless they know in the deepest recesses of their soul that we love them unconditionally. But they won’t aspire to be persons of character unless they know how much our values matter.

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