Everyone knows that something is wrong with the way Americans bring up their children. Compared with their peers in other countries American schoolchildren are seriously underperforming. The millennial generation is doing worse than most of the rest of the world.
One suspects that the answer lies in the fact that American parents prefer the “wisdom” of psychological science to their own judgment. Parents who do what the developmental psychologists tell them to do believe that they are doing the best for their children. Apparently, this is not the case.
Now, David Brooks has chimed in on this subject. By his lights American children are underperforming because their parents are too concerned about performance and are not offering enough unconditional love.
Taking a cue from psychologists Brooks says that American parents, with their zeal to provoke their children to perform, have chosen to make their love conditional. They grant more love to a child who performs well and less love to a child who performs poorly.
Brooks does not say so, and he may not even be thinking it, but his call for parents to love their children unconditionally feels like an attack on the Tiger Mom.
Of course, that assumes that the Tiger Mom was withholding love from her children when they underperformed. Surely, Amy Chua was a strict disciplinarian but that does not mean that she rejected her children when they failed to do their homework or to ace a test.
She may have been disappointed, but one does not understand how it helps a child to be praised or loved for failing.
As sometimes happens, Brooks is demonstrating his own deficiency as a moral thinker. At the least, he ought to know the difference between love and pride.
A parent can love a child unconditionally without being proud of the child’s classroom or playground performance. A parent cannot and should not feel proud of a child who has failed.
Traditionally, mothers used to offer their children unconditional love and fathers used to discipline and motivate their children.
Thus, a mother’s love was a constant. A father’s pride was a variable. A child could lose the latter without losing the former. It’s the reason why children do best with two parents fulfilling different roles.
By failing to distinguish between love and pride Brooks paints himself into a conceptual corner. In the first place his description of American parenting practices is far too generalized to be useful. It reveals a theoretical bias, not reality.
There are two great defining features of child-rearing today. First, children are now praised to an unprecedented degree. As Dorothy Parker once joked, American children aren’t raised; they are incited. They are given food, shelter and applause. That’s a thousand times more true today. Children are incessantly told how special they are.
The second defining feature is that children are honed to an unprecedented degree. The meritocracy is more competitive than ever before. Parents are more anxious about their kids getting into good colleges and onto good career paths. Parents spend much more time than in past generations investing in their children’s skills and résumés and driving them to practices and rehearsals.
Children are bathed in love, but it is often directional love. Parents shower their kids with affection, but it is meritocratic affection. It is intermingled with the desire to help their children achieve worldly success.
Very frequently it is manipulative. Parents unconsciously shape their smiles and frowns to steer their children toward behavior they think will lead to achievement. Parents glow with extra fervor when their child studies hard, practices hard, wins first place, gets into a prestigious college.
This sort of love is merit based. It is not simply: I love you. It is, I love you when you stay on my balance beam. I shower you with praise and care when you’re on my beam.
The wolf of conditional love is lurking in these homes. The parents don’t perceive this; they feel they love their children in all circumstances. But the children often perceive things differently.
Children in such families come to feel that childhood is a performance — on the athletic field, in school and beyond. They come to feel that love is not something that they deserve because of who they intrinsically are but is something they have to earn.
I have no idea what Brooks means by talking about who children “intrinsically are.” He doesn’t either.
More significantly, if children are showered with unearned praise, the better to enhance their self-esteem, they are receiving far too much unconditional love. They cannot take pride in their achievement when they are told that all children should receive a trophy. They cannot learn how to overcome failure when they are never told that they have failed.
In certain precincts, parents do try to overcome the culture of self-esteem by being overly concerned with scholastic and even athletic performance. As it happens, these parents are the exception, not the rule.
When the Tiger Mom uttered her battle cry, American parents rose up to attack her for being too concerned about performance and not concerned enough about her children being well-rounded and having fun.
America’s real problem is an excess of unconditional love, thus, too much mothering, too much protection, too much coddling.
When Brooks prescribes more unconditional love he is, unintentionally aggravating the problem.
One imagines that he has just discovered the concept of love and has chosen, like a bright undergraduate, to show how well he can apply it. The answer is, not very well. As for the meritocracy, if David Brooks is taken to be an important moral philosopher, there is no intellectual meritocracy:
Parents desperately want happiness for their children and naturally want to steer them toward success in every way they can. But the pressures of the meritocracy can sometimes put this love on a false basis. The meritocracy is based on earned success. It is based on talent and achievement. But parental love is supposed to be oblivious to achievement. It’s meant to be an unconditional support — a gift that cannot be bought and cannot be earned. It sits outside the logic of the meritocracy, the closest humans come to grace.
Since Brooks knows that he is not allowed to distinguish fathers from mothers, he fails to notice that it is only a mother’s love that is supposed to be “oblivious to achievement.”
And yet, as a child grows up and accomplishes things, a mother will also take pride in her child’s successes.