Parenting & Play

Author Alfie Kohn suggests that to practice unconditional love, parents should try to let go of control and see the world from the child’s point of view.

Too bad so few people seem interested in this advice when it comes to leisure and play.

Kohn’s article, titled, When A Parent’s ‘I Love You’ Means ‘Do As I Say,’ was the most widely emailed article for a while at the New York Times.

Kohn reviewed research that asked 100 college students whether they believed the love they’d received from their parents was dependent on their successes (at academics, sports, or even at supressing negative emotions like anger or fear). Those who believed that their parents’ love was more conditional were more likely to resent their parents. Another study of mothers of grown children found that the women who sensed that they were loved only when they lived up to their parents’ expectations felt themselves to be less worthy as adults. But sadly, these same mothers were more likely to use conditional affection with their own children.

In his article, Kohn concluded that the age-old advice about “positive reinforcement” for childhood behaviors well-enacted has a shadow side: kids learn that a parents’ love is conditioned upon a child’s “good behavior.” In other words, children learn that they’re not loved unconditionally, despite what a parent might say or even what she thinks she’s communicating. The problem with praise isn’t that it’s given too indiscriminately, as social conservatives might say. Rather, he says, even praise can become a form of control.

When author Stuart Brown advocated free play for children, he (somewhat ironically) received all manner of suggestions as to how parents could better control their children’s play time. Here’s my favorite from the comments section:

“How about throwing out the video games at home and requiring the kids to stay outdoors for at least an hour or two…the next step should be part time jobs to teach them responsibility and the work ethic…”

The problem with this suggestion is that requiring kids to do anything – in this case, “playing” in a parent-approved way of throwing out the video games and being forced to be “outdoors” – is the equivalent of taking away their autonomy. They can come to resent ‘forced play’ just as much as they’ll resent a forced march through soul-eating part-time jobs that are supposed to teach them “the work ethic.” What they’re likely to learn instead is that they can’t trust adults to allow them to grow on their own – or worse, they’ll learn that they can’t trust themselves. That’s the sad outcome of a society in which adults continue to believe that we can, and should, control our kids’ choices.

This isn’t to say that we can’t guide our children. But the issue is that many parents let themselves get overly troubled by the choices young people make, especially when it comes to the electronic media that are so much a part of their everyday lives and so different from adult experiences. And the solution isn’t going to lie in imposing some parent-approved notion of ‘play’ on our young people.

In a recently published book titled, Hanging Out, Messing Around, & Geeking Out, Mimi Ito and her colleagues take this argument even further. They argue that engagement with digital media can have some positive outcomes for young people. Ito and her colleagues note that in a society that’s increasingly worried about too much unproductive hanging out that doesn’t involve the hazily nostalgic notions of the healthy outdoors of yesteryear, we’re very tempted to try to control our kids’ leisure. But she and her team of 26 researchers found that when young people were allowed to explore and experiment on their own, they developed unique approaches to the online realm that resulted in informal learning. In fact, it could be that young people who have the greatest access to autonomy have the greatest opportunities to develop into happy, creative, and expressive individuals, they argue.

So here’s my suggestion: let’s try to encourage our young people to exercise their creative spirits on their own time and in their own ways. This may involve doing things online that seem to us silly, inane, superficial, or even downright dangerous. But when I remember how my best friend and I used to like to swing from tree branches to the roof of her house during our own halcyon “free play,” I take comfort in the fact that at least my own kids might develop some informal learning skills without breaking an arm or leg.

The point is this: learning to see the electronic media from the perspective of our kids is a first step toward letting go of our temptation to control. And more than that: trusting them and encouraging them to use the digital realm to express themselves can even end up helping them to discover who they are and maybe even who they want to be. To me, that sounds like a terrific way of telling our kids, “I love you unconditionally.”

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