Saturday, March 28, 2015

"Unconditional Love," Ch. 24 of BUT...AT WHAT COST

I love my kids more than life, but my love is definitely conditional. The emotion I was feeling when Randy was throwing rocks at his sister, or Beth was drawing on the walls with oil paints, was NOT love. And they knew it!

I actually heard a mother say, “I will always love you, but it’s not nice to bite your brother.” WHAT? Could there be a more confusing message to a two-year-old? Well, yeah, there can be. I heard another mother admonish her husband not to say, “You’re bad.” He should say, “What you did was bad,” instead. Does anyone really think a little kid will discern this subtle difference? The child-rearing “experts” of the eighties, and later, did. They wrote scripts for parents to use.

I don’t think these scripts did any real harm to the kids because most parents couldn’t stick to them anyway, but the fact that parents were trained to think they needed scripts has been rather harmful.

I can’t think of anything more natural to any species than child-rearing. We are born to procreate and raise children, yet the experts created a whole mythology surrounding this very normal and ordinary process. Yes, there are parents who don’t do a good job – often because they’re drug-dependent or have some emotional disorder. However, most people respond to their children’s antics naturally and competently. It’s not brain surgery. When they’re sad, we try to make them feel better. When they’re bad, we get mad. When they’re bored, we suggest something to do. And we civilize the little buggers to the expectations of the prevalent group (i.e., the group or sub-group to which the parents belong.)

Sure, I wanted to beat my head against the wall a few times when Randy was little, and some folks gave me dirty looks when he misbehaved, but I responded naturally and without thought. He turned out great. So do most kids. For thousands of years, most kids have grown-up to be competent, productive adults – without advice from experts. They say “please” and “thank you.” They learn to read and write. They work; they play; they marry and have kids. Most aren’t criminals and most aren’t “bad” people. Even most children who have been abused turn out to be nice people. The odds are on society’s side.

So, why all the expert nit-picking? There is no research I know of that can cite any direct correlation between past treatment of a child and his future behaviors, unless the treatment was very extreme – like locking him in a box for a few years. Abused children don’t necessarily grow up to abuse. Some might, but others might grow up to be more empathetic than the norm. At this point in time, there’s no way to easily predict or manipulate an outcome, which leads me to believe there are too many other factors in play (like genetic tendencies) to presume causes and effects.

The best and funniest research I’ve come across that seems to exhibit some predictive qualities, are those on conformity. Check them out. Many, many people will give what they know is a wrong answer just to be accepted by the group they’re with. Without instruction, most people will stand up at the sound of a buzzer or bell (whatever)… if the other people in the room stand up. It’s fascinating. Many, if not most, of us are sheep and will follow the leader – no matter how silly it seems. However, few will carry over that learned behavior into a new situation, because that would be even sillier! We live in the present tense and are most responsive to present circumstances. It’s a survival imperative.

My conclusion from personal observation and all the studies I’ve read from many different psychological, sociological, and neuropsychological disciplines is: after the age of ten (or maybe earlier), genes, peers, culture, and who you’re with at the moment will influence your beliefs and behavior much, much more than anything your parents ever said or did. It’s just my opinion, but it makes a lot more sense to me than concluding that the scripted mantras of some expert, such as saying “What you did was bad” instead of “You’re bad,” will matter in the long run.

Certainly, there are experiences from your youth that will inform your future choices, but usually only under similar circumstances and with the same or similar people. We simply don’t easily transfer or apply knowledge learned in one place to a different venue, nor should we when it comes to people. What you’ve learned about Mommy will generally only apply to Mommy. It would not work to your advantage to treat all women the same way you treat your mother. That’s called being “sick.”

Likewise, it would not be to your advantage to ignore what you’ve learned about Mommy when you’re dealing with Mommy. If Mommy doesn’t like messes, a kid will clean up his messes. If Grandma doesn’t care, a kid won’t care either… but only when he’s with her. What he does with Mommy won’t transfer (unless, of course, he’s a natural born neat-nik).
Taken to its logical conclusion, Mother Nature would have to have been very short-sighted (and stupid) to have designed survival imperatives the way the popular advice-givers saw it. We MUST live in the present tense and adapt to present circumstances. Therefore, their presumption that what parents say while the kids are little will prescribe the kids’ future emotional health or his future behavior seems quite ridiculous.

Unconditional love is an adult concept. We understand that even when we’re mad as hell, we’ll get over it and love again. And, in good time, children will come to understand that too – without being told. They’ll see it in action. “Ooh, Mommy doesn’t like me when I do that… or Mommy reads me a story and kisses me goodnight.” All Mom has to do while they’re writing on the wall with magic markers is let them know they can’t do that. Don’t confuse them with gibberish! Do what comes naturally. It’s much easier than following a script, works better in the short run, and won’t matter in the long run anyway.

Oprah’s very popular television show hit the airwaves in 1984, and our culture is still paying the consequences. My friend Alice disagrees; she does not connect many behavioral choices to cultural influences much. She blames the parents… and so do I, but through a circuitous route. The culture (i.e., Oprah and other media sources) taught the parents of that era what and how to teach their kids, and then the parents followed those rules. That’s what accounts for generational differences in child-rearing practices, and the subsequent beliefs the children might hold.

If the rules stayed the same (or similar) as they did for generations before the sixties, most parents would raise their kids the same way their parents raised them. I raised my kids the same way my parents raised me, and as their parents had raised them. We all spanked our kids. We didn’t beat them; we spanked them, but you’d better not spank (in public) now. You might be arrested. I’m fairly certain Abe Lincoln and every other hero before the 1960s was taken to the wood shed a few times, so why spanking is such a “no, no” today is a real mystery.

I don’t think it makes any difference if parents spank occasionally or not. It should and usually does depend on the kid’s temperament. Some kids need a swat on the behind just to get their attention. With others, a look will do. Shouldn’t a parent be responsive to the individual needs of each child instead of having to follow some blanket rules?

Anyway, Oprah, as a representative of the prevalent culture, dictated the rules for the next twenty years or so. How did following those rules play out? Not well, I think. There were many other culturally imposed beliefs besides those involving raising kids, but, for now, I’ll stick with that.

Mostly, the kids did fine. No better or worse than they’ve always done… except for a general delay in growing up and taking responsibility for their own actions, and perhaps a delay in developing critical thinking skills. In my opinion, from personal observation, the more closely the new rules were followed, the more ornery and the less responsible the kids turned out to be. I’m sure there are many exceptions, but excessive, unearned praise seems to beget self-centered brats. Likewise, many kids get to set their own rules due to parental neglect, but that’s not relevant to the advice-givers; that’s due to parental inadequacy or sub-cultural expectations. Absent firm moral teachings, selfish brats become selfish adults – immoral adults, because to me, selfishness is a pretty good definition for immorality.

Had the new rules, which enhance a tendency toward selfishness, not been instituted in our classrooms and elsewhere, we might have had a chance to deter the growth of immoral behavior, but nearly everything these “experts” advised was, in effect, detrimental to moral (self-less) development. You simply CAN’T instill a strong moral compass in kids when everything is geared to make kids feel good about themselves… even when they’re underachieving, misbehaving, and making excuses. They need carrots AND sticks.

When gold stars were handed out to everyone for mediocre work and discipline left the classrooms, more kids failed. Parents blamed teachers, and teachers blamed parents for the failures. My inclination was to blame the kids, but over the decades, blaming the kids stopped happening or happened less both at home and in the classroom.

Self-responsibility is seldom mentioned, let alone emphasized by the political class of the Left. It’s not good for gathering votes. Remember, Democrats need to promote dependency to achieve their political goals. This leaves them in a rather untenable position because public service unions (teachers) and the parents of minority students are two of their major voting blocs. They are sorta left with no one to blame except their own policies, but they can’t blame those either. Result? Nothing gets done. Make no mistake; Democrats control our education system from kindergarten through graduate school, so nothing will get better until our culture rejects the self-esteem nonsense. Both parents and teachers have had their hands tied. All the normal, traditional, common sense ways of making a child perform well have been removed in favor of new educational philosophies, which, in effect, give the kids a free pass. You can’t hurt the kids’ feelings.

In my day (here I go again), kids were told if they got in trouble with the teacher, they would be in trouble at home too. I never asked my kids if their homework was done; it was their responsibility, and they knew it. Granted, some kids need to be ridden a little harder than others, but parents were seldom involved with schoolwork. The kids knew it was their job to get it done.

Believe it or not, then, we believed the normal responses of most parents and most teachers to ordinary problems were perfectly acceptable. We believed most adults were competent enough to recognize what a kid needed at the moment. We left teachers to their own devices (maybe a switch, maybe a hug). We didn’t believe in one-size-fits-all rules.

One of the main differences I see between the culture of yesteryear and the culture of today is the apparent willingness of folks to assume the role of victim – the old “woe is me” syndrome. I think that “victim culture” was created primarily by the advice-givers’ lack of faith in the competence of ordinary people, and their equally destructive tendency to make a really, really, big deal out of something really, really trivial. By demonizing, or ignoring, or redefining most of the tried and true methods of civilizing our children, they created most of the behavior problems moms are now asking the experts how to solve. Well, you might better ask Grandma, because most of the experts are still stuck in the same orthodoxy they’ve always had – which was wrong-headed from its inception.

Having grown up with the family I grew up with, I simply can’t believe women today think they need to go to a psychologist to help solve ordinary problems. A life counselor? Please! My grandmother is definitely rolling in her grave and so is my mother. They didn’t feel sorry for themselves or consider themselves victims… though God knows they weren’t dealt a winning hand. They didn’t blame their husbands or their parents for their lots in life. They were self-less – they and my father were among the most moral, giving, and understanding people I’ve known. Despite any human frailties they might have exhibited, they thrived on their goodness and strength of character.

The psychological advice industry’s main concern was to raise everyone’s self-esteem. As I said before, it was the end-all explanation for “failure” (as defined by them) starting in the sixties. Their favorite advice to raise self-esteem was praise, gold stars, and mumbo-jumbo (“What you did was bad.”). Their second corollary was to blame someone else – Mommy, Daddy, husbands, teachers, society whatever – and make new rules for the offenders and the victims to follow. Common sense left the country.

Instead of using common sense and helping, or maybe even insisting Beth lose weight, I followed most of the “how to raise your kids’ self-esteem” rules provided by the pop psychologists. Randy never needed higher self-esteem. He had too much. But no amount of praise worked for Beth when she was overweight. It took peer acceptance to restore her confidence (which she had plenty of before she gained weight). As soon as she lost weight, her self-image soared. I could have told her she was beautiful and brilliant every day of the week and it wouldn’t have meant a thing if she didn’t have a date for the prom.

It wasn’t entirely the culture that demanded I reinforce Beth’s esteem; it was my natural inclination, anyway. Many cultural impositions come naturally – it’s when the “experts” lend great importance to it that things get out of hand. I told her there was nothing wrong with her and that some people are insensitive and are wrong to be unkind. True, but not at all helpful.

Parents’ opinions just don’t matter much to teenagers. Haven’t people always known this? Haven’t we always known to keep our kids away from bad influences? Haven’t we always known kids will do damn near anything to be accepted by their peers? Many girls are on the phone half the night to make sure they’re going to wear the right jeans to the movies. Why do we think they do that? Because peers matter – big time! It explains fads too. Certain fashions don’t suddenly get hot because one product is better than another. The advertisers get the ball rolling and peer pressure does the rest. Gotta have it.

Sure, parents can refuse, but most of them are living under similar pressures from their peers, so don’t refuse. This was, and is, the era of pleasing kids – no matter what. Parents were, and are, scared to death they’ll do something wrong and cause their kids great permanent distress… and they’ll jump through hoops to avoid doing that. Plus, there is the normal inclination in some to want a better life (in the form of more stuff) for one’s children.

Thanks to the sellers of the self-esteem mythology, our culture all but ignores peer influence, yet it is probably the most important influence on any decision or behavioral choice a teen might make. I wish I’d understood that when Beth was overweight. The practical, common sense solution was for her to go on a diet. Listening to her mother’s unconditional love (in effect, I love you whether you’re fat or not) didn’t do diddley.

Facts trump words. Trying to make people feel better than THEY think they deserve to feel implicitly sends the opposite message: “You aren’t measuring up.” Anyone who thinks kids don’t know if they measure up or not (or can be persuaded otherwise by a kind word or an unearned gold star) is not seeing life as it really is. What kid doesn’t know who the smartest one in the class is, or the one who hits the most home runs, or who’s “hot”? False praise is an exercise in futility. We do it, because we want our kids to feel better when they’ve suffered a blow to their self-esteem. It may make them feel better briefly, but it doesn’t stop them from knowing where they stand in the lineup. They’re not stupid.

A parent’s job is not so much to make them feel better (though we always try), as much as it is to help them perform better and achieve their goals. When they perform better, or lose weight, or hit a home run, then they will feel better. Self-esteem isn’t some mysterious or particularly permanent state, except in the clinically depressed; it automatically rises and falls as circumstances demand. You do a good job, it’s high. You get fired, it’s low. You do something good for someone, it’s high. Just as it should be. Virtue is its own reward… or at least it used to be.

Neither is the decline in morality the only effect the advice-givers have foisted on our culture: too many people today think they are incompetent to solve life’s ordinary problems without help. After being told for decades that they need expert help to do darn near everything (including how to bathe a baby) many people, especially women, have started to believe it. Isn’t that a symptom of low self-esteem?


We are serializing here Judy Axtell's memoir, which describes her evolution from liberal to conservative. Her book is available from its publisher, Outskirts Press, as well as through such on-line booksellers as I am proud to have been her coach and editor.

My writing-coaching-editing site is

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