Raising Children with Unconditional Love

Have we gone overboard? Have we tipped the scale too far in the unconditional direction that we now feel the need to worship and praise our child for every word uttered and every diaper dirtied?
01/31/2012 11:02am ET | Updated April 1, 2012
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I've started jogging, an activity I vowed never to participate in. However, due to my two young offspring, I find it to be just the right exercise to distract my mind from the chaos running amok in my home. It gives me time to think about my writing, listen to music and radio shows, and release maternal frustration with each stride of my sneaker.

The other day I was on one of those jogs listening to an episode of "This American Life". As I ran away from my own demanding tots, a mother told her story of raising an adopted child with an extreme attachment disorder. At times the mother worried that her son would never actually love her, yet she never doubted her love for him. Throughout the frightening ordeal of helping him find attachment, which consisted of extreme tantrums, major physical resistance, and pleas from her husband to find him a new home, the mother never felt the love for her son divide. She loved him unconditionally.

I started thinking about this love a mother has for her children -- this enormous, all-powerful, unconditional love. While my love for everyone else in my life is somewhat conditional (if my husband cheats, I'll leave, if my friends are cruel and untrustworthy, I'll make new ones), my kids could commit multiple homicides and I would forever adore them.

Because of this unconditional love, my greatest fear is now my own mortality. I realize that one day I will die, and so will my husband, and so will the kids. Of course, like all parents, I hope that I die before my children, just not too long before. My husband and I have discussed legal guardians for the children, in case we are ever on an airplane that crashes in the Andes and our fellow passengers survive by our cannibalization. My fear, my torment and anxiety, lies in this: who will ever love my children as much as I do? There are many moments throughout a typical day when the girls behave as only a mother could love. Even though I know that they won't be toddlers forever, I do worry that they may be very small terrorists for the foreseeable future. If there wasn't this un-dividable bond connecting parent to child, I don't think that most people could weather the two-year-old storm.

Interestingly, this unconditional love we now shower on our children is a relatively new phenomenon. Only 50 years ago psychologists, including behaviorist John Watson, were advising parents not to kiss their children more than once a year (yes, that's once every 365 days), for fear of spoiling them. Parents were supposed to help children to be independent -- seen, and not heard. It was even believed that over-cuddling babies led to disease and even high rates of infant mortality.

Things began to change in the middle of the last century when Harry Harlow began researching the mother-child bond using rhesus monkeys. In his experiments he separated newborn monkeys from their mothers and placed them in a room with both a terrycloth and a wire surrogate mother. The monkeys universally attached themselves to the warm and cuddly terrycloth mother, even when the wire mother provided the milk. The cloth mother offered the babies not only warmth and snuggle time, but also comfort and confidence. When the baby monkeys were alone in a new setting with their cloth "mother" they felt secure and able to explore the setting. However, alone in a new setting (or with the wire mother) they retreated, cried, and even sucked their thumbs.

Harlow's research pioneered the modern attachment parenting movement, showing for the first time the importance of a child's attachment to her parents. Since this work, and the work of a few others in this time period, psychologists are promoting a much more compassionate, loving, and active role in parenting. Spanking is out, cuddle time is in. Kiss once a year is out, "hug it out" is in. Long gone are the days when you are told "Spare the rod, spoil the child." Now we hear "There is no such thing as spoiling an infant."

So, the question we must ask is, have we gone overboard? Have we tipped the scale too far in the unconditional direction that we now feel the need to worship and praise our child for every word uttered and every diaper dirtied? And by doing this, do we help our children gain a sense of limitations? Furthermore, dare I say that maybe we over-love our children? If not "over-love", maybe "over-adore"? As soon as a babe lets out his first scream he becomes the center of his parent's universe. Should everything else in life take a backseat to the child and his needs?

Although I mourn for a balance in parenthood, I must admit that I also fall prey to these values -- over-attending to my own children's emotional needs and wanting to provide them with total support (intellectually, emotionally, and creatively). However, through all the screaming, biting, scratching and tantrums, I wouldn't trade my girls for the sweetest, cutest, brightest, most well-mannered toddlers. Maybe it is all the time, energy, and effort I have invested in them over their short lives, or maybe it's biological -- in them I see myself -- or maybe the moments of pure joy and love are enough to sustain this bond. Whatever the reason, they are my little monsters, and I love them completely and unconditionally. (The jogging helps!)