Is “unconditional love” really what you want?

Your emails and calls are always appreciated—and they remind me that there are people out there reading this column! That fact becomes even more evident when the occasional piece gets people a little stirred up—and apparently my article a few weeks ago did just that.

The column had to do with a young man’s decision to donate (or not to donate) part of his liver to his father—particularly in light of the fact that his father had knowingly and carelessly brought his disease on himself. The risk of the young man dying during the operation was statistically high, and he would no doubt suffer a long, painful recovery (which he did) and other health problems for the rest of his life. His mother, by the way, was patently opposed to the operation. It seemed to be a high price to pay for his father’s deliberate defiance of repeated medical advice.

Most responses to the article boiled down to this: Whatever happened to ‘unconditional love?’ Several readers declared that unconditional love—especially for a child or a parent—was the highest ideal we could live up to. If that is true, then there should have been no question whatsoever that the young man was obligated to risk his life for his father, no matter what the circumstances.

People crave ‘unconditional love’ because it’s natural to want to be loved just for who you are. But doesn’t the phrase ‘for who you are’ imply, in itself, a condition—a condition that someone love you for the qualities you possess? Let’s say you’re handsome or beautiful, and you work hard to maintain these qualities. Don’t you want someone to appreciate the results of your efforts? Or let’s say you’re intelligent and courageous. Wouldn’t you prefer to be loved by someone who values intelligence and courage, rather than someone who couldn’t care less?

My point is that conditions are inescapable. You can’t love, or be loved, unconditionally—at least not if you’re an adult. I recognize that young children need a different kind of love. They need to feel just plain loved, and in the early years that’s just about the end of the story, psychologically speaking.

But older children cannot benefit from literal unconditional love. Unconditional love, in the strictest sense, would mean that parents blindly accept everything a child does, all in the supposed interest of the child’s ‘self-esteem.’ If the child lies or steals, a parent could not show anger or hurt at the child’s behavior, and risk implying that their love is in jeopardy. This would even prohibit them from telling the child that lying or stealing is wrong. If, after all, their love is unconditional, then there need be no such thing as right and wrong.

Children do require a highly tolerant form of love because of the many holes in their knowledge prior to their complete intellectual and psychological development. This type of love, however, must involve limits and conditions. If your child helps you clean up the kitchen and drops a plate, for example, you will feel temporary irritation. In such a situation, it makes total sense to tell him afterwards, ‘Yes, I was aggravated when you dropped the plate, but I never stopped loving you.’

If, however, your child does something deliberately malicious, such as stealing or initiating violence (outside of self-defense), then you should wholeheartedly withdraw your approval, at least in that particular context. You should tell him why you disapprove of his actions, and why you are disappointed in his choice to act that way. You can make it clear that you will forgive him only if he shows resolve not to repeat the behavior.

The last thing you need to teach your child is that she will (and should) always be loved regardless of her actions. A child needs to learn the distinction between innocent errors of knowledge (like how easily plates can break), and willful, destructive actions (such as lying, theft and violence).

A child certainly needs a patient parent who understands that children need time to acquire adult knowledge. Yet, precisely because children are not born with knowledge of right and wrong, it is up to a parent to teach the child such concepts, using concrete, consistent conditions and consequences.

Sometimes such lessons are difficult, and may require a temporary withdrawal of affection between the parent and the child. Such an approach is kinder to the child because it helps him learn to think beyond the immediate whims of the moment. Without such training, he is likely to remain a child, psychologically, into his adult life.

Conditions, in all relationships, are part of life, and are most often implicit. It’s phony and dishonest to claim that you love someone ‘unconditionally.’ After all, don’t you love someone because they’re special and because they stand out in some way? Aren’t admiration and respect a part of love, and don’t we admire and respect people for reasons? Parents love their own children precisely because they are their own.

Our young man had every right to carefully weigh both sides of his dangerous decision. He even made his father promise (which he did halfheartedly) that he would not go back to drinking after the operation. At least he tried to apply some conditions to his life-threatening expression of love.

Even more so with kids. By denying conditions and consequences to them as a child, they will never grow past the artificial ‘safe haven’ of unconditional love into independent and secure adulthood.