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The Family

The Conditions of Love

The notion of unconditional love has come to signify the ideal form of parent-child bond, to such an extent that too often the real form (in many cases), conditional love, gets ignored. The fact that conditional love tends to be shunted back into the emotional closet reflects a cultural need to avoid reality, especially when it impinges on aspects of life held to be most sacred – love, affection, protection, childrearing, family. This
intellectual weakness in the face of conditionality has blinded us to its implications and long-term effects. The use of love as a mechanism of control, while unedifying to some, is widespread and requires further investigation. The significance of conditional love is increased by the fact that, in some ways, its use makes rational sense and can even have ‘productive’ outcomes.

This double-edged nature of conditional love was the subject of Roth and Deci’s study of the emotional costs of parents’ conditional regard. According to them, the positive outcomes of conditional love are immediate and visible, while the negative outcomes are more difficult to measure but potentially serious in their consequences:

“Studies of love withdrawal and contingency-based interpersonal acceptance lead to the inference that parents’ use of conditional regard to socialize children may promote not
only immediate display of the desired behaviors but also internalization of the behavioral regulation. However, it also seems that this internalization may be accompanied by negative affect, diminished self-esteem, and ambivalence toward
the parents”.

While the relationship between forms of parenting and forms of control is an ambiguous
and emotionally fraught one, it goes without saying that control mechanisms (of whatever type) are central to the parenting armoury. The control of children is as much a necessary part of childrearing as their protection from harm. But is it too much to ask that conditionality is removed from childrearing? Should the giving and receiving of love be left unsullied by more strategic concerns? According to Roth and Deci, what they call the ‘temporary’ costs of conditional regard are not worth paying, as their research subjects “displayed the negative correlates of introjection several years after the parental-conditional-regard experiences they were recalling from their years as children and adolescents”.

The effects of conditionality on the self-esteem of off-spring would give most parents
pause for thought, personal and emotional confidence being such a prized asset
among youth (and rightly so). But there is nothing to suggest in Roth and Deci’s
research (or anywhere else for that matter), that a direct correlation exists between conditional regard and low self-esteem. It may be a contributory factor, but there are so many dark corners of family life that looking for the roots of low self-esteem can be a thankless task. The ‘giving in one hand, while taking away in the other’ approach to family life may not be perfect, but show me a family that is.

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By Mark Murphy

Mark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.