“Is love the most important thing of all?” asks my five-year old boy.

“It sure is,” I answer.

Well, if it is and if I really mean what I say, why do I love conditionally?

That’s the point of an article that I read with interest and guilt over my lunch break: that even the love you lavish upon your child when he does something that makes you happy is an impure thing. For example, my son is obsessed with boom boxes, draws them all the time. So yesterday when he drew a person I praised him for broadening his repertoire. A mistake, the author would say.  Even if I want to see fewer boom boxes and more people, my praise should be equally enthusiastic (or reserved) for both.

This raises the intriguing possibility that the problem with praise isn’t that it is done the wrong way — or handed out too easily, as social conservatives insist. Rather, it might be just another method of control, analogous to punishment. The primary message of all types of conditional parenting is that children must earn a parent’s love.

For parents of autistic children the concept of unconditional love poses a difficult question: should behavioral interventions such as ABA be abandoned because they’re too controlling?

For teachers it also raises questions:

In practice, according to an impressive collection of data by Dr. Deci and others, unconditional acceptance by parents as well as teachers should be accompanied by “autonomy support”: explaining reasons for requests, maximizing opportunities for the child to participate in making decisions, being encouraging without manipulating, and actively imagining how things look from the child’s point of view.

How am I to practice autonomy support when I am being pressured by the government to raise my test scores? Would I be doing my students (or son) a disservice to pretend that educators and employers value anything but performance and control?

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the product of unconditional love would be able to bounce back from what the worst boss or teacher could throw at him. I hope my son will grow up to be such an individual: resilient and strong. And if there is such a thing as unconditional love I hope I can learn how to give it.

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