Love and Merit

Parenting in America is experiencing a silent epidemic of conditional love.

Comments: 200

  1. I'm touched by Brooksian concern
    For kids which I never discern
    When Repubs cut and slash
    Social programs, while cash
    Flows to rich folk which they didn't earn.

  2. The culture of meritocracy is the culture of commerce. You buy love with good deeds, and your parents buy good deeds with love. In a commercial context you have to earn the right to exist. Either you are useful, with something to sell that others want to buy, or you are useless, an object of contempt and perhaps charity.

    Unconditional love wastes the opportunity to shape and mold the beloved. Like any waste, it is immoral. And molding your children is imperative, because if they cannot win they will lose and we have made sure that losing is a miserable experience (so that those who are losing will try harder). Children often see the folly of the whole structure and want to be free of it, but it is the game they must play to avoid the miseries we have prepared for those who try to sit the game out.

  3. sdavidc9
    What is this American seeing at a late age? It is my African friends who are holding the banner when it comes to the rearing of their children, and what a success it has been with unconditional love, fraught with worry at times while they remind their children of the importance of achieving in an increasingly competitive world. They have passed this message on to me and when I am approached by our young ones, I tell them when they complain, look high, don't play games, don't compare your life to anyone else but keep learning because we have a long way to go.

    When we cease to learn, we cease to grow, and a special note to the President and his family, it's not easy for them but they keep growing high in this old child's esteem and caring. A role model for this Irish French American to pass on to others, brought up in the luxury of the Middle Class without a penny in the till, and yet feeling rich in more important ways.

  4. From what muck-filled pond does David Brooks dredge these ideas? Not that there isn’t precedent-- Brooks always spits on the ground when he mentions meritocracy, but this is taking things a bit too far. It’s important to realize that Brooks despises meritocracy because it’s a form of liberalism. It suggests that anyone can rise to power, which might threaten the aristocracy or the plutocracy or some other less egalitarian –ocracy that he thinks should rightly run the show.

    Parents have guided and misguided their offspring for millennia, long before our last common ancestor split into humans and chimps. At one level parental love has always been unconditional, yet parents also want their children to excel and to thrive. They don’t conspire to irritate conservatives by giving undue praise to their kids. They do what they’ve always done: they look around and see what is being rewarded in the prevailing culture, and they react accordingly.

    These days it seems that a very small percentage of chimps have all the bananas. There is no safety net for those without special skills, or for those not lucky enough to be born rich. The shrinking middle class coddles and incites their kids, while far too many others sink into financial oblivion.

    This is what happens when a government ceases to be a meritocracy, and greedy zealots take the reins of power. Maybe that’s why it’s called a banana republic.

  5. You are way overreacting. Parents need to try. But many try too hard. That's a lesson for all of us, not an anti-liberal rant.

  6. I have to disagree a bit. David loves the concept of a meritocracy. He just cares little for those who are not fortunate to have aggressive parents and also the financial head start to navigate the choppy waters to get to the top of the ever narrow pyramid.

  7. @Kevin Rothstein,
    Googling 'David Brooks Meritocracy' will call up several examples of his previous columns on the topic. In one he pins the faults of of the Obama administration on his elitist background ("The Great Migration," 1/24/13). In Brooks' view, a meritocratic government widens inequality. In my comment to that column, I said that meritocracy raises the specter of elitism, income redistribution, and other socialistic bugaboos, which he then uses as reasons to attack big government.

    Smart people who value individualism and education are threats to a conservative government. They're troublemakers. That's why Brooks and Douthat shill for the Republicans.

  8. Brooks says in his last graph: " The meritocracy is based on earned success. It is based on talent and achievement " which is utter poppycock to kids who have been watching things around them as they mature through their teens, or anyone half-observant of our society through just watching our TeeVee commercials.

    This is confirmed by mountains of data showing that the best predictor of a child's economic status is her parents' economic status:

    http://www.pbs.org/newshour/making-sense/cruel-key-individual-prosperity...

    underlined by the fact that the economies/societies of Canada and most of western YURP are more economically mobile than the U.S.:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/05/us/harder-for-americans-to-rise-from-l...

    When kids understand that reality in the U.S. is so entirely different from the myth they may have been fed, cognitive dissonance is bound to result; intellectual resolution of the dissonance in young minds is obviously unpredictable.

  9. There is no doubt that parents' economic status is of great importance in creating opportunities for their children. Captains of industry seldom come from poor families. But mass quality employers, like those in Silicon Valley, have no use for computer scientists whose skills are deficient. While you're talking about jobs in the power structure, most of us just want our kids to have high quality jobs. And make all the excuses you want, if you're kids don't have talent and ambition, and you're not a Bush or a Kennedy, they aren't going to make it.

  10. michjas - the empirical data in the linked articles do not make a distinction between ' power structure ' jobs and any other type of jobs; ' talent and ambition ' are beside the point when the power structure is stacked against meritocracy, favoring socio-economic class factors that can better weather all the vicissitudes of life visited on middle class families which effect what opportunities they can provide their kids.

    Parents know this, which is why so many think their kids' futures are not as bright as past generations of Americans have thought their kids' lives would be:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/wp/2014/11/04/the-single-mos...

    True, these empiric facts don't line up with the ' pluck ' so often associated with Americans - yet another indication that the wealth/inequality issues of our New Gilded Age on steroids are destroying the country's fabric.

  11. Oh, the agony of affluenza.

    Because David Brooks isn't talking about the poor and working classes here. He's talking about the rich. In the bubble which he inhabits, the most pressing problem for families is not where the next meal or paycheck is coming from, but which Ivy will accept their child.

    The rich and the politicians they own are fond of speaking of kids as commodities. They're investments, just like pork belly futures. The rich want a return on their investments, and kids are no exception. It's no surprise that the suicide rate among young people in Silicon Valley is on the upswing. They are abused by wealth.

    So their parents need an intervention. Their excess income needs to be trimmed, and their kids need to be let out of their gated communities. The curriculum has to be modeled less on careerist success, and more on social and economic justice for all.

    Extreme wealth inequality is bad for everybody, both rich and poor. Die from indigestion or die from starvation, both are painful. So why not level the playing field and let everybody live, David? The cruel social policies born of Reagan and his paramour Thatcher have metastasized to lethal proportions. We are the sickest, most indebted, most overworked, insecure people in the civilized world, and the most pessimistic about our children's futures.

    Social Darwinism is coming back to haunt its right-wing perpetrators where they live and breed. So tax the rich. Their spawn will thank you.

  12. The society you describe is incredibly miserable. The rich are miserable, the poor are miserable. This description seems pretty extreme and, well, miserable.

  13. Why are arguments always invalidated if they refer mainly to the rich? I don't necessarily agree that he's only talking about the rich. Not all involved over-aggressive over-ambitious tiger mother helicopter parents are rich. But either way why does the existence of poor families invalidate every discussion, argument or observation that may center around the wealthy?

  14. Karen,
    As much as I agree with you comment I must point out that Social Darwinism is about as far from Darwin as one can get and its use is as perfidious as William F Buckley's use of the word conservative to describe the right wing reactionary movement he and his father had been a part of for forty years.
    Aldous Huxley was a Darwinist. When Huxley wrote Brave New World it was supposed to demonstrate the horrors of a dystopian world of incredible design and was meant to show the horrors of eugenics and the other solutions to world dysfunction offered by Europe and America's right wing.
    Social Darwinism is the exact opposite of Darwin it is a world of design it is a world where those that do well today produce offspring that do well tomorrow because unintended change doesn't happen. I am not confused by climate change denial or the anti science bent of America's right wing. I am not confused by legacy scholarships to your best universities. Random change is the enemy of power and privilege but random change is the core Darwin's science. The right wing is devoted to creating a Brave New World and that is simply not Darwin.

  15. For shame those dirty strivers, dont they know *true* success is only attainable to those born into comfortable environments?? For shame, expecting children to do better than their parents- just leave them alone and let the cards fall where they may. those at the top will stay there, those in the middle or bottom will prevent their nervous break downs and become good little worker bees.

  16. Well, gee golly gosh this column looks like it's targeted at the upper classes. In Normal World, parents don't hector their children and pressure them to get straight A's so they can get into Harvard, Princeton, or Yale; rather, they eat fast food or microwave-dinners on TV trays and watch sitcoms while their kids do homework while texting or playing computer games in their rooms.

    The people who act the way you're describing are the set who live in old-money neighborhoods, drive Volvos, and have kids who go to private schools. Not that there's anything wrong with writing a column aimed at the well-born, but I suspect Karen Garcia won't be happy about it. And what ever do you mean by that concluding bit, "the closest humans come to grace"? Is there something (or Something) that comes closer?

    I don't actually think there's anything wrong, per se, with pressuring your children to succeed, because succeeding is better than failing. But approval and disapproval should not be the same as love and hate. Your child should know that you love her (notice how I employ the feminine, so as not to be accused of male chauvinism) without boundaries or conditions; but there's nothing too very inappropriate about frowning upon her C+.

    An examen should not be in order after one's cello teacher complains to one's parents about one's lack of progress.

  17. I would argue that it's the newly monied that behave this way. Old monied have gotten it down already.

    Agree about setting standards for kids' performance. In our home, family and school came first. School was actually an extension of our values, which included hard work, doing one's personal best, valuing the opportunities one had (good schools).

    The most important thing about achievement, to me, having seen how cut-throat many could be in our wealthy suburb, was to emphasize the importance of "doing right" above getting ahead.

  18. Well-written and right on target.

  19. My children were brought up the same way that I was (and thus it makes no difference that the generation gap also involves different countries): 1. Do the best that you can 2. Laziness not allowed.

    Guidance and advice were offered, but children are brought up to be independent and find their own ways. They ultimately have to do what is good for themselves and not their parents.

    Love and support are unconditional, but it helps if they abide by rules #1-2 above. They know however that they can depend on parental support, just as I knew I could depend on my parents.

    Hopefully they will do the same for their children.

  20. Excellent piece examining American domestic culture: thoughtful and relevant. Please do more like this, and eschew whitewashing worn-out neo-con politicking.

  21. I agree with Mr.Brooks here. I find it astonishing that some parents will take issue with a teacher, or the school, for any infraction by the child. Somehow, nothing is ever the kid's fault. In public places, I notice some parents allowing behavior ( loud, argumentative, unruly) to happen without any redirection.
    I am not sure what this says. I suppose they love the child, but to me, this is bad parenting and is creating another generation of completely self absorbed individuals. Mix in the electronic device isolation and it is complete.

  22. Consider that when you see "bad parenting" the child has an emotional or mental heath problem. Rather than pointing fingers perhaps offer a smile or kind word. The parents probably are overwhelmed.

  23. Don't tell us gay kids about conditional love.

  24. Because, nothing happened in the news this week?

  25. yes, Mr Eisenberg! I am not into the push of my child into the Ivys or being a champion but my sense of the world is a lot more frightening than it was when I grew up which is if you don't have money, you won't make it. bottom line. look at the water in California. look at the poor migrants, look at how all of our resources are shrinking. who is going be above the flood? won't be the poor people. I am raising our daughter for survival.

  26. I wish someone would pay me to promulgate my presumptions and unjustified generalizations as if they were facts.

  27. The dark side always needs intelligent apologists. Step one: create your own alternate reality which justifies the plutocratic status quo. Step two: Defend it without shame, embarrassment or evidence. Do you think you have what it takes ?

  28. Isn't that the truth! Nice work if you can get it. What should I suggest my unconditionally loved children major in to become pundits - sociology or mythology??

  29. Parents would do well to foster a sense of humor in their children. It is among the most important survival skills of all. And it is in short supply these days. Robin Williams was Mork in his 20's. George Carlin was the hippie dippie weatherman. Dave Chapelle debuted his show in his late 20's. Chris Rock had ended his first SNL gig before 30. And Gilda Radner was doing her SNL shtick in her late 20's. According to New York Magazine, 88% of millennials consider humor vital. In my experience, though, millennial humor is way too much about how hard it is to get ahead these days, no doubt relecting the values fostered by their parents, as Mr. Brooks argues..

  30. Mr. Brooks, once again, I implore you to go back to University and study Cultural Anthropology. Nothing has change (even though you want it to be true) but your need to soften the hard and rough edges of conservative politics.

    Humans are mostly similar especially regarding offsprings and "by nature", competitive skill and merit based knowhow is as old as humans. Sense 100,000 years, parents and children have been having both successful and unsucceful relationships due to parenting. However, on balance, more successful overall. Else-wise, the species would have perished and become extinct. My advice is to carefully understand your genetic makeup and choose wisely regarding whom you mix your genetic soup in hopes of offspring traits. Otherwise, culture and economy rules.

  31. There is almost nothing given here to support the column's claims about how children feel in this "meritocracy." Hard to take it seriously.

  32. Until the 1980s one could made a quick run to the grocery store as his 12-year old daughter just played around in the neighborhood. It used to be that a 5 year old son could walk to his mom's neighbor's house and be there when she went to the bank to draw some cash.
    Since then we have begun to monetize every aspect of our life. The same dad would now have to pay a sitter to take care of his 5-year old son. And heaven forbid that the mom let her daughter wander around in the neighborhood. Chances are that the local police will charge her with child abuse.
    As part of the monetizing culture we now know how much every human act costs. As simple search on the internet will tell you that it costs about 250K to raise a child until the age of eighteen. And then there are four more years of college. This could set one back yet another 50K - 200K depending on various factors.
    Given this, it is hardly surprising that middle and upper-middle class parents (this would not apply as much to those in top 1% or at the bottom of the economic pyramid) have developed a "directional love" for their kids.
    Michael Sandel has written a book titled "What Money Can't Buy." He has a much deeper analysis of this trend that has resulted in a coarseness that permeates human interactions. He traces the roots to this all the way to the Reagan revolution. I urge those interested to read his book. Here is the link:

    http://www.amazon.com/What-Money-Cant-Buy-Markets/dp/0374533652

  33. Where did this extra 50-200k for college come from? My parents gave me a total of 200.00 (definitely not "k") during my college career. I went on to earn four degrees, including a doctorate in education while paying every penny not covered by the scholarships I also earned. Yet, I knew I was loved unconditionally. Not so much the multitude of classmates whose parents paid for everything and dropped out "to discover themselves."

  34. Brooks says children think or feel things like "At key decision-points, they unconsciously imagine how their parents will react. They guide their lives by these imagined reactions... They lose a sense of agency.They feel less worthy as adults." I have to ask, Mr. Brooks: How do you know this?

  35. Facile nonsense. Where's the evidence? Where's the logic—parents praising kids too much while driving them too hard? Uncritical praise and "merit-based love"? Citing three "studies" doesn't do it. C'mon, David—if you can't write a rigorous article praising the GOP's zombie policies and voodoo economics, at least break a sweat on any big idea.

  36. Based on how US kids fare on internatinoal tests of academic achievement, all this parental attention is having little positive effect on results in that area. And I haven't noticed our soccer teams being particularly outstanding, either. Among my friends the phenomenon Brooks describes seems to happen most often between mothers and daughters. The only beneficiaries, as far as I can tell, are the psychiatrists whose hours are fully booked by mothers who cann't let go even when the girl beeomes a young woman--and likewise by the young woman trying to break loose from the omnipresent mother.

  37. The mingling of two generations is always going to be this type of dance. My generation was raised to work to succeed. My generation brought in the 50-70 hour work week. My generation does not call off sick even if they are actually sick. This certainly has brought me neither wealth, happiness or health.

    To say this generation will feel less worthy as adults I think is a stretch yet to be seen. I suspect they are going to be the most self-confident of us all. My son might be the parent of the kids David is talking about. However, I see a very rich interplay between him and his daughter and not in the bad way suggested in the article. I taught my son that money does not make you rich; go live richly. I think he is doing that and showing his daughter how to live richly as well. May we all go live richly.

  38. Your (my?) generation did not bring in the 50-70 hour work week.

    People used to work long hours in mines, factories, and mills before the advent of unions and the 8 hour day, 40 hour week.

    The fact that your (my?) generation turned our backs on the achievements of prior generations is a testament to our shortsightedness and is also reflective in some in our child-rearing techniques.

    The meritocracy that David so often extols is a double-edged sword with a very sharp blade.

  39. One expects children who are made much of to be confident.

    Confident, yes. But capable? Capable of both hard, focused work and actual accomplishment?

    Praise for nothing can be almost as damaging as neglect. It comes from parents who are essentially lazy in their child-rearing practices.

    It's easy to praise a child; not so easy to teach him.

  40. Hi Greg. I think I understand and agree with what you're saying. No one in their right mind can argue against the need/virtue of working hard and honestly and teaching the same to one's offspring. what I couldn't get a clear sense of is what is your idea or notion of living richly. It could very well mean very different things to different people. Please elaborate.

  41. I like the new directions you are taking in your articles and your new book. About things we do not think about enough but should.

    . I grew up feeling that love while unconditional in most ways was also tied up in strings of expectations. You were a good girl IF. There was an underlying unspoken IF. Tried not to do that with with my own kids. There is an unspoken message that is not good --especially when learning to deal with things that don,t work, failures which are in some ways more important than success for growth.

  42. I love that you extended Mr. Brook's thinking towards women's issues! If only the criminal justice system would treat survivors of sexual assault with unconditional love rather than blames the victim mentality. The statement, "you are a good girl, IF....(then what?) can logical explain why a patriarchal system still blames the rape victim for drinking too much, wearing the wrong clothes, walking down the wrong street, talking to the wrong people, going to a boy's dorm room by herself, going out by herself at night etc. If there was unconditional love for the victim of (usually) male sexual aggressiveness towards women's bodies and a sense of male entitlement which is often reinforced by a sexist culture, the blame would be placed on the perpetrator rather than the innocent victim. Thanks for making this connection in your comment.

  43. To my mind, the "New David" columns are living proof that self-absorbed rumination and excessive interest in one's every inspiration are not confined to the Milennials and their parents. Even the emerging Medicare generation can get lost when they over-estimate their own roles and abilities.

  44. There is merit to what David is saying. Whether we want to admit it or not quite often our egos are wrapped up in our wishes and dreams for our children. It's hard to find unconditional love anywhere in this world. I feel it's a goal to strive for but we don't need to beat ourselves up if we don't completely get there. In the meantime we can let our kids (and grandchildren) know we love them even if they can't always meet our unrealistically high (at times) expectations of them. And in turn, we hope they will love us, warts and all.

  45. It is important to distinguish between love and approval. Most experienced parents would attest that it's possible, simultaneously, to disapprove and to love. The converse, that it's possible to offer approval without love, is also true. For example, one can approve of their ex's parenting tactics without loving them. So, perhaps the problem is when the recipient of love and approval begin to equate the two? This might happen when love is not freely given to a child. If it is only evident in responses to a child's actions, then the child might begin to think of love as a response. However, if love is always there for the child, shown in many ways unrelated to the child's actions such as non- contingent hugs, kisses, laughs, giggles, bedtime readings, days at the zoo and other shared experiences. Good parenting isn't pet training. It's perfectly ok for a parent to show approval or disapproval, but it's a problem if the child does not see love in the foreground.

  46. I agree, Ed.

    I remember a conversation my father opened with my brother and me. My brother was being punished (grounded) for something he had done, and he cried "You don't love me!". My dad responded "I love you. What you did was wrong and you are being punished for it. But while I don't like what you did, I love you. I will always love you no matter what you do. If you commit a crime I won't protect you from being arrested. I will pay your bail and pay for your lawyer, but you will have to live with whatever punishment the courts impose. And through all this I will continue to love you even when I don't like what you do." I have always remembered that, and as a result I love my children unconditionally even when I make my disapproval of an action very clear.

    As for parental expectations, I remember a conversation with my oldest son, a very, very bright young man then in his first year at Drexel University. I don't remember what led up to it, but he cried 'Mom, you have so many expectations and I can't live up to them. I try, but I can't, and I feel you think I'm a failure!" Sadly, he was correct. I heard him and re-evaluated my expectations. I have tried very hard to keep my expectations to a very few: (1) Do your best at whatever you try to do. (2) Try really, really hard to stay out of trouble. (3) Become a self-supporting adult. (4) And I hope you are able to form important, caring relationships. And that's what important.

  47. My parents never really hugged me, kissed me, or let me know that they loved me. I come from a middle class home. My parents did make sure to beat me, slap me, pull my hair, tell me that they were going to take me to my new parents, confide their problems in me, and always tell me that I was stupid, worthless, and needed more beatings. My mother told me that she'd stop loving me because I aggravated her so often. I was 11 at the time. I decided that I didn't need or want love. I didn't want love from anyone if it meant being hit, having my hair pulled, or being told that I was stupid.

    I did well in school. I graduated in the top 10 of my high school class. I received no encouragement from anyone to go to a great college. I felt especially stupid, rotten, and worried that someone would kill me. After all my parents threatened to. I didn't know that people weren't supposed to slap me, pull my hair, or beat me until I started working. I thought that everyone beat everyone else and that I was destined to be hit my entire life.

    I was lucky in one way. I have a brother I love. He and I stuck together. I tell him I love him so that neither one of us in doubt about it. He's the one person I allow to touch me. He knows I love him no matter what. However, I do expect him to be a decent human being to others and to me.

  48. I need to clarify. I agreed that my son was correct in saying that I had too many expectations. I did NOT think, at any time, that he was a failure.

  49. Gee, David Brooks is just discovering this method of parenting that my Jewish parents (and most of my Jewish friends' parents) practiced fifty years ago.

    Most of us turned out just fine........after a little bit of therapy, of course.

  50. Well, I see some of this coming from my daughter towards my grandson, and I wonder if she will love him as fervently if he falls short or abruptly takes a different direction. But, to her credit, she has not chosen his paths --- only works to help him realize his dreams.

    I would probably be guilty of the complete opposite, which is worse, a lackadaisical approach. I'm one of these ones that thinks things fall into place out of the sky --- at least, if they are meant to be. I guess, I grew up on too much, "que sera sera." It's either this or I grew tired of stumbling blocks --- it gets to the point where one waits for them.

  51. Now Mr. Brooks is lecturing us on raising children?

  52. An avid reader of all things Brooks, I'm driven quite mad by his conservative take on politics, but find his emotions show clearly when he writes of children. I suspect he is a wonderful, thoughtful, teaching Father. One who likely strives to provide the right balance and without a doubt unconditional love. As readers, I think we can give him this squishy side. I wish he were a neighbor, friend where we could banter on a long walk! Kids and politics - makes him a real person.

  53. Be fair: he has to lecture us on something.

  54. Is Brooks a propagandist? While 32.2% of children live in poverty, 25% of children are persistently hungry, 66% of children cannot read proficiently in the fourth grade, and 25% of American children grow up unable to read, David Brooks creates a narrative about the 1%, represents it as if it were all children. Then he spins a narrative about meritocracy? Is there any connection between the Brooks the seeker of truth and value and this fellow who deliberately neglects the visceral needs of families and asks us to focus on "the best schools" class? Does he recognize that he speaks about a minority, a small minority whose struggles are confined to their wants while basic human needs are deprived to the weakest Americans? Is cruelty sacrosanct?

  55. your are totally correct in you're demographic analysis. what also needs to be said is how steep the drop is between the people brooks is writing about and the children you mention. it is this inequality that is hurting all children those of the wealthy and the less well off for all children start out innocent. its the desperation to maintain ones status or the frustration of the lack of social mobility that twists the psychology of both rich and poor.

  56. Us folks out West are plenty into success for our kids but many of us consider the culture of success in the northeast to be way out of proportion. What most distinguishes us from you is access to superior outdoor activities. The camping trip is the quintessential family outing out here. Forbes rated the top 20 cities for outdoor activities. 18 were in the West or the South. When you have mountains, beaches, and national parks on your doorstep and the weather to enjoy them, you bring up your kids different. I think that's a whole lot of the explanation. It's not so much values as environment.

  57. I love David's editorials. But I have to say, it's based on merit; it's not unconditional. But I find two problems with the argument he's presenting: First, the underestimation of a child's perception of love vs. "conditional love". Children are much more attuned to the love, or lack thereof, from their parents than this article assumes.
    The second is the general criticism that David's line of thinking engenders: are we parents being given yet another reason to become neurotic? How can parents who do not communicate unconditional love, do so by somehow controlling their desire for their child's success and naturally demonstrate unconditional love? Whew, parenting is tough enough without this additional layer of guilt.
    To be fair, the article may only be suggesting that the right balance must be struck rather than choosing one way for parents to behave rather than another. But should we now assume that our children's successes are due to a lack of true parental love? No, I'm not going to grieve over this possibility. My children must have read the unconditional love between the lines - they turned-out to be sane. But, is there even a realistic alternative? Ignore their accomplishments? What "-ocracy" should be employed?
    David, if you're really serious about the abuse of natural love, you'll have to revisit your allegiance to the Republican Party - "social Darwinism" is the anti-thesis of unconditional love.

  58. Oh, if life were so simple!

    "Parents" are not a monolith, and neither are "children." Some parents are young and poor, with few resources. Others are young and wealthy, with luxuries all around. Some are older . . . Some are living within a world of athletic competition, some financial competition, some FOX News, some extended family get-togethers. Most are over-stressed, working long hours, and on their own in this big world. Some children are . . .
    We can go on - but the point is-- there is a great variety right now of basic parent-child relationships, and the changes over time are enormous (just think of child labor in our past and in others' present).

    What Brooks and his sources are really reflecting on is our political world of unbridled competition and survivor take all.

    If only our politicians and pundits were more respectful of the world of real folk trying to find happiness as they lived their complex lives, maybe everyone could calm down and look up from their "smart" phones telling them where to be five minutes ago.

  59. Horse feathers! What you describe is a variation of the theme of parenting which has always existed. "Unconditional" love is an ideal rarely attained by parents, siblings, lovers or anyone else. Love and expectations have always been intertwined. I grew up in the halcyon days of the 1950s (halcyon if you were a middle class or above white kid). Plenty of us were good little girls or good little boys working hard to achieve (scout honors, grades, 4-H ribbons, you name it) so that Mom and Dad would be proud and hug us and tell us that they loved us.

    Yes, the culture changes. How parenting plays out varies from generation-to-generation, nation-to-nation, and across socio-economic groups. The push for kids to succeed in life, to be the best, and make the folks proud is always an underlying theme. So is the fact that few parents will offer unconditional, accepting love no matter who there offspring is or what he/she does.

  60. Anne-Marie,
    Because I could never fit into the culture I was born into I spent much of my life in alien cultures where the expectation were very different. There are communities where the understanding that the kind of success my culture demanded would mean you would abandon your community a live elsewhere. The unconditional love accepted a desire to succeed academically and financially but there was always a sense that kind of achievement was somehow alien and dropping out of school and remaining one of us was a preferred path.

  61. In speaking to my late friend, D. Friedlander, of his son, the apple of his eye whose mother is from Africa, he taught me a lot about love and merit when it comes our children. In telling him how fortunate I was as a pup, he came to the point and told me that there had been no stability in my parental background which was true.

    My flamboyant parents divorced when I was six and visiting my father now living in Ireland, he wrote in his journal that in spite of everything, I was doing quite well at 12. The wildest, happiest man I have ever met who loved people above all, and tried to teach me to not be judgmental.

    Watching my French mother struggle without child support, I started to make some decisions during adolescence 'The Rebellious Years'. I became somewhat invisible and was adopted by many of my parents' rich friends.

    The most powerful influence in my life was my brilliant mother and before she went into another reality, she told me 'you have nothing' late in life. I was her golden 'mosquito' she would tease, when we traveled like gypsies overseas, and later when she had forgotten me, we finally came together in terms of endearment between a Mother and Daughter. "Autumn Sonata" by Bergman is about us, we agreed.

    Before you think I am a sad mop, my life is given to children in the international community. Each parent were alike in that they tried to teach compassion and understanding. I am learning. It is not easy to be a parent, or a child. Be kind.

  62. When my children were playing sports, I was amazed by the parents that considered being a spectator at these events to be all important. They would skip a school board meeting that they served on because little Suzy or Sam had a game. I thought sports were for the benefit of the students that were playing but I was wrong. I went to a boarding school and there were no parents at sporting events. I wonder why we played?

  63. A classic example of one size fits all psychobabble. I think their are plenty of parents who balance unconditional love and acceptance with clear cut expectations for achievement.

  64. The reason for this is the type of culture/economy that has been carefully promulgated by winner-take-all Republican view of the US. Because they promote extreme meritocracy in which one person (maybe the Kochs, maybe ...) will end up controlling everything, parents want their kids to be "it". Credentialism that starts in youth is seen as the only way to succeed in a winner-take-all society.

  65. Mister Ed
    Perhaps Mr. Brooks, perhaps some of us may wish to learn from an elderly and kindly Mr. Propter of the topic of Love and Merit. Singular, but the author Aldous Huxley makes his main character Joe Stoyte, ruler of the American Empire in 1939, an unattractive and pitiful middle-aged bully who takes care of children in bringing them presents, while in search of longevity and lost, so lost that it makes one feel sorry for these tycoons who were neglected by their parents, and where there is seldom to be found the love of a mother.

  66. I believe that what Mr. Brooks is saying is that if we give children unconditional love, then what they have to offer from within themselves is nurtured. I don't think he means that parents should not provide guidance. But children do need to feel that they are loved through and through, and that they are loved no matter what they do, whether they fail or succeed at this trial or that one. I know that there are only a few comments so far, but it is really shocking to me how critical this initial sample is of this article. I hope to see at least some supportive comments appear, whether mine or others, as the day goes forward.

  67. I agree with you…but David Brooks starts out with two strikes. First, he's the "conservative" columnist, so a percentage of NY Times readers don't agree with anything he writes before they begin reading. Secondly, can we assume that folks who read the NY Times opinion columnists skew higher on the economic scale? They are the parents with the children he's writing about. They will never recognize themselves, or if they do, won't admit it.

  68. I think the 1% aspect in many negative comments is justified, but I also agree with you. I would argue that unconditional love should also apply to nations. A nation should not only reward and venerate its most successful (and that unfortunately means wealthy these days) members but every citizen trying to get by and make a living within their capabilities. Mr. Brooks' fellow conservatives have utterly no love for those who are not measuring up and even question whether they belong in the family, i.e. are "true" Americans. Maybe the disdain that conservatives have for the poor is related to the conditional love they experienced in their childhood. At least that would explain the inexplicable actions of someone like Bobby Jindal.

  69. I have to day this gave me pause, because it is so true. As a parent of a young child, I always have in the back of my head the image of her graduating college, mortarboard hat in hand, beaming proudly at my wife and me. It is a worthy goal, I think, but I must guard against the expectation that the road there will be straight and narrow. As she grows up, my child will certainly stray from the path now and then, or choose her own road. My vision is my north star as a parent, but it may not be what she chooses to become.

    Whatever comes to pass, even if I do not approve, my love for her must never waver. I promise to let her know. Often. Thank you Mr. Brooks for the gentle reminder.

  70. As the parent of a child with a learning disability that slowly presented itself and was masked by high intelligence, be prepared to lay every stone in that path yourself. Sometimes the path followed by every other kid just isn't the right one for your child.

    The good news is that you're so busy finding the next stone, you don't have time to worry about conditional versus unconditional love. The very act of finding the right stone and laying it for your child to step on next is your act of love.

  71. My biggest problem isn't exposing my kid to sports, etc. as long as it's within reason. She really doesn't have to play on three different soccer teams in one season. The odds of her even playing in college are slim. But if the child shows an amazing talent and has the temperament to pursue something that young, I say go for it. And while I don't condone telling a child they did everything right when they didn't, I also don't condone pushing these kids furiously to fit some need of the parent.
    We recently had a scandal of sorts where a bunch of parents were competing to get on one of the boards for spring soccer. They all did so to make sure their kid (regardless of merit) got on the A team. Even the ten year olds were commenting on how "so and so" wasn't good enough to be on the A team and was only there because of her mother.
    It's sort of pathetic to see the two kinds of parents around town. The ones who had a bad high school experience and the ones whose life as at its peak in high school. Both living vicariously through their kids and both equally pathetic.
    I'd consider myself a failure of doing my job as a parent, which is to make them strong adults, if my daughter "peaked" in high school.
    Here's a hard fact, some kids won't be starters and some will be C students. My husband was a C student, owns two businesses and is vastly more successful than most of our friends. And his parents are 100% unconditional with their love.

  72. Can we have a single piece of data to support any of the premises in this 500-word hyperventilation?

  73. Anecdotally, in metro-NY, you can see this multiple times per day, every day of the week.

  74. Can't send you any research data, but can provide you with the names of most parents I've known (know)............pretty much everything he says is plus or minus a little, accurate.

  75. David doesn't do data.

  76. Believe me there are millions of children in this world who will take a conditional love without hesitation, otherwise they have none. Some how this column address a very narrow section of people, for the other majority this writing is just a trivia.

  77. It is the parents who are using their children's academic success to feed their own needs. Our present generation of young children are rarely given an opportunity to follow their own interests, unless they are in agreement with their parents' plan; The kids may never hear their parents express any direct wish for the youngster to do well for the purpose of pleasing them, but it is often hard for the youngster to work for high grades so that his parents may feel fulfilled.
    Mr. Brooks makes many good points while trying to not cast a negative view of the goal- driven parents. I have always found such behavior to be poor parenting, caused by immature people who hunger for their own ego needs to be filled through the work of their children.

  78. It's sad if you dedicate yourself to the things that gain you praise instead of the things you love to do. Even more, if you don't realize what things you love to do.

  79. Generally, they are linked: You do more of the things you love to do. You get better at them. Your skills garner praise. You like praise. So you do more of those things.
    There are exceptions, of course, particularly when one's ambitions exceed one's talents. If only Hitler could have been happy as a weekend painter turning out his little watercolours! Nor do all little girls and boys grow up to live their dreams: as Megan's mother in Mad Men noted, 'the world could not support so many ballerinas'.
    Ultimately praise - particularly unearned praise - rings hollow. There's only one critic you must please: 'My soul,' said Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac, 'be satisfied with fruit, with flowers, with weeds, even; but grow them in the one garden you may call your own'.

  80. David, imagine a world in which parents wouldn't be so fearful for their children's economic future, and thus wouldn't feel so pressured to carefully steer them in the right direction, lest they never be able to move out of the house or end up in our for-profit prison system?

    Imagine a world in which more parents could encourage their children to party hearty and sow their wild oats while young, knowing that daddy's and grandfather's political and business connections would naturally make everything work out in the end?

    Imagine a world in which parents could sensibly let their children find their own way, in their own time, knowing that our economy was designed to ultimately lift all boats - instead of consume young and old in an orgy of relentless creative destruction and pitiless wealth extraction?

  81. Have the parents themselves been successful? Did their parents give them unconditional love? Those grandparents may not have helicoptered their children and been so involved in their lives, but that doesn't mean that their loving was less conditional. It is unclear to me that the crucial variable in what is being analyzed across generations in the nature of the parental love. What about an increase in fear and anxiety across the board? Wouldn't that create both what we see in the parent behavior and what we see in the children? That fear and anxiety could have to do with globalization, with watching previous sectors of "good jobs" disappear, with the increase of college costs and housing costs, and so on. Why some families are more susceptible to such fear and anxiety would then be the avenue of inquiry. So I guess I am asking whether theses studies separated out the factor of fear and anxiety from the parenting equation.

  82. These observations have merit. Having grown up in, the circumstances the forties and fifties, the circumstances of parenting were quite different. Children then were permitted more physical and roaming freedom then. I did grocery errands beginning about six and would have freedoms of movement that today might put a parent in jail . There was clearly less fear about social and environmental dangers. Curiously,despite greater freedoms of movement then, I would argue that many parents of that day put stricter limits on treats and entertainment and not only because family budgets weren't able to absorb these costs. Displays of parental affection weren't so common then perhaps, or expected. Public college and university educations were attainable with summer and part-time jobs.
    No one should conclude that parenting was better in previous times. Or that there is at any time a useful metric for measuring the depth and extent of parental love. There is something to be said for the argument that parents today put more pressure on their children to succeed if only, in some circumstances, the kids don't become a permanent burden on themselves, having less then to do perhaps with " conditional love".

  83. Very good, Mr. Brooks. Parents want their children to succeed and have shaped their parenting to fit their goals.

    The "self-esteem" movement seems driven by parents who believe higher self-esteem -- children feeling "good" about themselves -- will help their children achieve more, not by parents who want their kids to actually feel good about themselves no matter who they are or what they do.

    Where this all goes wrong is when it comes to their children's learning self-respect. Parents who try to force it on their kids don't realize it has to be earned.

  84. Unconditional love is one of the greatest and most important gifts that parents can give their children. Kids should never feel that it is something that they have to earn; they should never question that they are inherently worthy of it. This is especially true if they don't succeed, if they struggle with personal issues that their parents may never understand, or for any other reason short of destructive acts that harm other people. Even in the last case, the extreme examples, the unconditional love should still be there (even if the child is not worthy of it). Unconditional love never has signal approval of a child's actions, particularly hideous ones, but it should never go away, either.

    Unconditional love is an extraordinarily difficult thing to give to someone who is not your child or adopted child (yet, miraculously, not impossible given the right circumstances). In fact, if they do not observe it from the parents' acts and behaviors toward them, children may never even know that it exists. And that would be a considerable tragedy, in part because they might have their own children and unwittingly deprive them of that great gift, just because they never learned any differently. How would their children know to pass it on to theirs? And so on... If parents truly want happiness for their children and substantial personal and professional success, the best thing they can offer them, aside from good food, shelter and clothing, is unconditional love.

  85. My maternal grandfather would greet me with, "she's a keeper." His loving comments were as reliable as the sun rising. At his funeral all of his grandchildren insisted they were his favorite. An honorable legacy for a man who didn't finish high school and grew up on a farm in rural Arkansas. To give unconditional love requires knowing we are allright just as we are. The real test for parents is letting little Johnny dream of being a garbage man and not trying to edit it. As my grandfather used to say, "if your job is sweeping floors be the best sweeper you can be."

  86. 'short of destructive acts that harm other people'.
    Uh, that smells like a condition; and who is to define the degree of 'harmfulness' in an action that crosses the line into unforgivability? 'I love you unconditionally, unless you're a serial killer, or a derivatives trader, or a Republican.' Yet it could be argued that George W. Bush did more deliberate harm to millions of people, whereas even the most prolific serial killer takes out only a few dozen; and the Wall Street Wizards who crashed the market, while not directly killing anyone we know of, destroyed the hopes and dreams of millions through arrogance, carelessness, and greed.
    Mr Guest promulgates the love the sinner, hate the sin' fallacy, the notion that there is a 'self' somehow separable from a person's actions. I'm more partial to Toni Morrison's line, 'when someone shows you who he is, believe him the first time.' And though it's true people can change, they also begin to show their true natures very early. The child who tortures the family pet. lies, steals, etc. will not be fixed by 'unconditional love'.
    All love is conditional. And it should be. And we still 'need to talk about Kevin' ... but that's a topic for another post.

  87. Yes to 95% of this comment. The one point that is wildly off-base is "Unconditional love is an extraordinarily difficult thing to give to someone who is not your child or adopted child (yet, miraculously, not impossible given the right circumstances)." Perhaps Matt Guest has never had the pleasure of really engaging with kids that aren't blood-relatives. People are people (even smaller ones) so it's not very likely that everyone is going to be an object of unconditional love. But I can tell you that if you really enjoy and truly like children, youth, and young adults, feeling parent-like affection and unconditional love can happen in a heartbeat, and lasts as long as both parties maintain a relationship. I know. My son is adopted and a few of the kids I've mentored, now in their 30s-40s will forever be loved.

  88. Last week, I shared this on cyberspace:

    Wednesday, I heard from Arizona (her real name). She is a former student from years back who is now a high school teacher. Among the things she said was, "Doc, you've written a lot lately about faith, hope, and love in the classroom….Of course, that's been your theme in everything you've put up, as you always say, into cyberspace. And, what's more important, that's what your class was for each of us in there with you, a love story. But, now I have an assignment for you. Could you do me a favor? I want you to boil all those reflections into one or two sentences that will be a tighter guide for following through on taking your 'Teacher's Oath.'…."

    This what I came up with: "Our attitudes drive our actions and our actions affect our attitudes. Focusing on and making real unyielding, unconditional, non-judgmental, committed, persistent, inclusive faith, hope, and love "de-herds" the classroom; they transform "the class" from an "is" into an "are," from a collective, generalizing, stereotyping, depersonalizing, dehumanizing, faceless, nameless singular blur into a "gathering of separate, noble, sacred, unique 'ones'" unclouded plural. When we do that, we have no choice but to find ways to make each day a moral occasion when the process of unconditionally helping each and every student to help her or him learn how to make a good living and to live the good life come inseparably together."

  89. What?

    I raised two sons on little $. We couldn't afford a car. We had no TV. I read to them, read and read. They listened to Dickens, lying on the floor with their crayons and drawing pads. They developed huge vocabularies, effortlessly.

    I took my younger son out of a high pressure kindergarten when he came home saying they were trying to teach him to read. "I want to play" he said. "Stop that" I said to the kindergarten mafia. "But he's more likely to get into Harvard if he reads early!" they warned earnestly. "Who says he'll want to go to Harvard?" I replied.

    Fast forward. My kids grew up without Volvos. They easily mastered taking public transportation to the private schools where they had big scholarships.
    The other parents were astonished: "Isn't that dangerous?" they asked. "No" I said.

    My kids knew the Greek myths backwards and forwards without ever considering them difficult or weird, they argued over their favorite heroes in the Iliad and Odyssey. One liked Ajax, the other Achilles. The one who liked Ajax said that Achilles was a bad sport.

    My older son was a natural scholar. Yup, he went to Harvard. They younger was more political and mavericky. "I don't want to take 4 years of math" he said. "Well then don't" I said. "Will I be able to get into Harvard?" he asked. "No" I said. "Will you mind?" he asked. "No" I answered "You'll get into a perfectly good college somewhere else." And he did.

    They are both thriving.

  90. I'd love to read more about this. Thank you for sharing it.

  91. Thank you. Children who early on are read the Greek myths and epics, with all their complexity -- and humanity -- develop differently and, might I add, in a better way than those fed Ninja stories.

    Books written for kids today are dreck.

    So judge I.

  92. @Mary: You mention how appalled people were that your kids took the city bus to school. I took the city bus to kindergarten by myself all the time in Columbus, Ohio. Or walked by myself. (I am 63). Never a problem.

    I do know that my mother thought it strange how much time I spent with my one child, a daughter. My mother never, ever read a book to me. I didn't even know children's books existed. I was always a reader but I started reading adult books in the third, fourth grades. So when I had my child I read and read and read to her all these wonderful books (Babar! Winnie the Poo!).

    I do believe going ga-ga over every thing a child does sets that child up for fear of eventual failure - because we all fail. If I had to do it over again, I would have been more restrained about my child's talent. She is genuinely a very creative person but she never believed me when I complimented her on her stories or art. "You're my mom. You have to say that". I would have curbed my enthusiasm with that and also trying to 'spare' her feelings of unhappiness. I was a very unhappy child and I went overboard the other way when I was a parent. It's tricky being a mom.

  93. David bases his view of "parents" on the NYTimes demographic, which is hardly exemplary. There are a subset of parents who provide their children with conditional love, but there is a larger set of parents who are unable to engage with the lives of their children because they are working two jobs, working unpredictable shifts, or absent altogether (see the Times article earlier this week on the 1.5 million "missing" African American males). There are many children in this country who have a voracious hunger for their parents's presence… and they far exceed the number who are seeking conditional love.

  94. Who are you writing about David? I think you have cocooned yourself in a very finite place where all of those around you reflect the same upper middle class values and mores, and have like family histories. There is no abuse or abandonment; no generational alcoholism; no poverty. Just winning people doing winning things with their winning families. I suppose they are NYT readers, and thus give you encouragement and comfort.

    I taught in the public school for many years, and those kids and families that you consider do exist, but only in small pockets. They are not who America is, and they are not the "culture" I knew. I saw poverty and anxiety, and lonely and lost, a whole lot more than I saw groomed and spoiled. I think you need to get out more.

  95. Patrick, I wish the Times had a "Super Recommend" button. I'd give your comment five stars if I could, 10 out of 10. Very VERY well said.

  96. "I think you need to get out more." Agreed! I think this almost every time I read a David Brooks piece.

  97. You are right. Mr. Brooks' definition fits a select group while the others frequently grow up with one parent who doesn't often have the time or education to praise, lead and direct. Those children are the lost generation who have little future or a plan for one. It is that group which needs great attention and direction or this country will never be among the top five in terms of reaching its potential. How did we get that far away from thinking and caring and doing for others? Have we become navel gazers of the ultimate kind?

  98. For once I agree with David. The every kid gets a trophy mentality has raised a generation of entitled spoiled brats. Sorry but for most of you, your kid is not now or ever will be special, they will be mediocre at best.

  99. Yes, people are mocking Mr. Brooks as an elitist, out of touch, with average families, but colleges are filled with kids who received trophies for participating and whose parents showed them with attention.

  100. AACNY,
    This sounds like The School of Westminster where parents start to drool over the trophy their young Nigel won for best in show with a bright red ribbon, while young Orwell gets a kick in the pants for being an original thinker, and leaves the joys of the elite Institute feeling like a capital failure.

  101. THE PRAISE AND LOVING OF CHILDREN . . .

    Yes, Mr. Brooks I agree with your assessment. Unconditional praise (e.g., when all members of a sports endeavor are given trophies regardless of performance). But, when the rewards are given as reward for the performance of a child because it brings the parent(s) satisfaction and portends a future for the child that becomes a status symbol for the family...

    Then all that can be destructive to the child. Kids know when awards are given to all, then no one is being given a reward. And, children who are really being manipulated to perform in a manner so as to bring status to their parents ... yes, they can eventually become cognizant of this as well.

    Much of this behavior reminds me of the "stage mother" who becomes fulfilled by the accomplishments of their child ... because they feel they have or can not themselves.

    Then there is the dichotomy of the many other variables: the wealthy give their kids more than is good for them; the underclass parent(s) or guardian(s) cannot provide the rudimentary and much needed environment due to their monetary and cultural poverty.

    The success that a genuine meritocracy provides is appropriate. But, let's face the fact that even though we say that "all people are equal" it is not true.
    As a random toss of the dice, the most important variables are a function of what no one -- parent or child -- is responsible for ... a function of genetics, the micro and macro environments, and...

    Grace!

  102. Equal rights are feasible. Equal people is a pipe dream.

  103. "Steve Bolger," Of course!

  104. The culture of meritocracy in child-rearing is limited to the affluent and the wealthy. Thanks to the gospel of now widely-discredited "trickle-down" economics most American families (when there are two parents present to share the load) work much longer hours for much less pay, consequently spending less time getting to know their children. Subtract two parents by half and imagine how single-parent households soldier on. There are no after-school soccer practices or or ballet or piano lessons. A single parent is at work and the last thing on his or her mind is your complacent concept of meritocracy and how it might find acceptance in the narrow, exclusive fissures of your approval where the privileged reside. Poor parents, in a flash, intuit the platitudes in your column, but for them, it's real life writ very large, not a mere literary exercise put down on paper at leisure.

  105. So true. I teach at a university whose students are mainly working/lower middle class, and many from housing projects in the neighboring inner cities. At the beginning of my career, I have discussed, in my sociology courses, the pressure on kids today to perfect a "passion" by age 10, to spend every spare moment prepping for SAT s, and to fill summers with college application builders,my students looked at me like I have 10 heads. That is not their reality, though it is the reality of countless suburban kids, a phenomenon much different than kids experienced two generations ago in upper middle class communities. But these pressures can't begin to compare to those of kids growing up without them.

  106. Why the hostility? Brooks is CRITICIZING the meritocratic dogma that has helped "the affluent and the wealthy" justify running away from everyone else.

  107. Absolutely. Look at the public schools...etc. Brooks is staring into an upper class mirror.

  108. I was on a plane the other day and a mother behind me was talking to her son all the way, always to impart information. As we got ready to get off the plane, she asked him what he thought was underneath the passenger compartment. I looked at him and told him there were 3 skateboarders there with an extra skateboard for him. He didn't know what to make of it. And I should have minded my own business. But after his two hour briefing, I thought a little whimsy was called for. There isn't enough whimsy in parenting these days.

  109. "There isn't enough whimsy in parenting these days."
    Again, how true and a wonderful sentiment. Many parents no longer "play" with their children but arrange an overwhelming schedule of play dates, sports, the arts, etc. The kids are on overload.
    My mother tells a story from when I was younger of how some little boys came knocking at the door and asked if Mr. O'Brien, my dad, could come out to play since they needed a first baseman, umpire for their sandlot game down the street. He put on his shoes and went down the street to play with these little boys. We went iceskating every Tuesday at the local rink. My father never missed a day. We always had a gang of kids at our house playing board games by the hour or playing pool basketball with my mom. At night she would play dodge ball with us on our dead end street. We had an idyllic childhood filled with love and no pressure. We were allowed to become the adults that we wanted to become. My brother and I excelled in school, not out of fear of punishment or for reward, but just for the pride of doing well. We weren't wealthy but comfortable, never vacationed but had a joy filled life which I'll never forget.
    My husband and I went iceskating with our children every Sunday night and we went to his pickup hockey games. Our daughters even rode the Zamboni. Some went on motorcycle camping trips with Daddy. We danced to music, or listened in the dark. We went on picnics, to the beach in January. Our adult children cherish every memory.

  110. Brava. Some day that kid may finally be able to take a deep breath - thanks to you.

  111. it's really pretty simple, the role of parenting. we don't own them, they are not an extension of us. we guide the best we can and never stop loving them.

  112. Instead of 'meritocracy' substitute 'religiosity' and you've described what has been going in families for millenia. Pure unconditional love is very rare anywhere in our species.

  113. It is an invention of Carl Rodgers, the psychologist. There is no such thing. Anything "unconditional" is pathetically amoral. Even God's love is conditioned upon repentance from sin, but "God is angry with the wicked every day." Grace, however, is the trait that supersedes the crude human love by love that is extended to those that do not merit it. God is both loving and gracious.

    When folks ask for and promote unconditional love, they are seeking permission, even approval, for their sins - and they hate the notion of being responsible for their sins.

  114. To the extent this is true - and in an anecdotal experience way, it seems somewhat true - it may be caused by diverging economic outcomes. WWII generation existed in an economy where there were multiple paths to a well-paying job. To paraphrase Tom Wolfe, one reason communism never took off here was average worker had his or her own home, a trailered boat in the driveway, and could afford a trip bck to the old country.

    Current parents that are doing well tend to feel uneasy - insecure they can remain where they are, and fearful they couldn't do it again. So it may be the drive for, e.g., making five year olds start worrying about their resumes, just reflects parents' belief that it's become more of a winner take all game than perhaps it once was. Hence they want their children to be able to compete in that game.

    Which is what the parents' job has always been: doing their best to make sure that as adults their offspring can take care of themselves.

  115. You're supposed to love your children for who they are. But when they're little kids, it's not so easy to know who they are. When my son was little, there were lots of things he didn't want to do that he liked and lots of things he wanted to do that he didn't. He had friends he didn't like and kids he said he hated who he later befriended. My son is now 28. We go to football games because we love them. He and his mother go to Comic-cons, because they love them. He plays quidditch and we go to all his games because everyone has fun. And after six years of dead end jobs, he got a great one, and I know enough to ask whether he really wants to take the job because it involves skills he's not very interested in. This loving your kid thing for who he is gets a lot easier once he starts being who he is.

  116. I don't see anything new in this. I am a child of the 70s - 80s...while I don't doubt that my parents loved me, they definitely loved me more when I did meritorious things. Believe me, I'm right on board with many of the criticisms lobbied at "today's parents" (I have an 11 year-old and am one of the older parents and am right in the midst of the mommy-wars, entitlement culture). But, I don't think this particular criticism is a recent phenomenon.

  117. Michjas~"This loving your kid thing for who he is gets a lot easier once he starts being who he is."
    What a wonderful sentiment.

  118. The truth is life has one purpose above all others: survival. But it takes more than a bow and arrow and a mule and plow to make it in this country.

  119. Parents reflect the society in which they live and we live in a meritocratic society on steroids. Parents don't set the requirements for getting into college, create excessive standardized testing, create AP courses in high school, or set up a society in which entry level job means 5 years experience.

    There are plenty of examples of over-parenting providing easy fodder for criticizing an entire generation of parents. Just as there were legions of examples of parents, especially Dads, who never spoke to their kids in the "good ole days." My father was told by his father he was crazy for going to college in the '30's, and pursuing a Masters when he could have a great job working in the Post Office.

    It is also tiring reading all the criticism of children who get an award for merely showing up. What ever happened to just rewarding those who finish in the top 3? OOPS. That sounds a bit like meritocracy and conditional praise, doesn't it?

    Every participant at the Boston Marathon (and most 5K fun runs) receives some kind of medal and I don't know a one of them that ever turns it back in because they did not win the race.

    As parents we are doing the best we can under the circumstances we were born into while there are people who criticize that most of what we do is just plain wrong. And it has always been and will always be that way for every generation.

  120. It's hard to argue that someone running a marathon doesn't deserve praise, because that is a huge accomplishment, whether you ran it in under 2 hours or not. But a friend of mine is a college english professor and says her students want to be given credit for doing the reading in class. Just having read is enough for them, not thinking about what htey read or analyzing it. This is an instance where they don't deserve accolades.

  121. All love is conditional.

  122. Not true. Love is the glue that holds the Universe together. Each time we are born, we are conditioned to forget the unconditional love that surrounded us, and that is waiting for us when we return to it.

  123. I'm so glad you chose the word "grace" to end this column, Mr. Brooks. I was reared in the United Methodist Church but haven't been religious since I was a teen, and yet I very much miss the concept of "grace" in our lives these decades later.

    Please write a column about what you mean by "grace," and how the religious sense of grace can be transferred to the secular realm. Grace is so much more capacious than "tolerance" or "civility", which often seem to denote a polite surface on a barely-checked resentment, antipathy, or downright hostility. Grace is a generosity of spirit and the deep acceptance that the Christians I grew up around called God's forgiveness, which ought to be emulated by us all. The loudest Christians today have a short supply of that. This "forgiveness" doesn't follow blame. It's the acceptance that the world isn't going to conform to your desires or perhaps misguided ideals. I sense that this forgiveness is somewhere on the path to grace, and I know that grace can't be feigned or merely performed.

    I wish I could relocate an essay I read (maybe at Aeon?) that said we need to stop trying to save the ecosphere as we know it on the basis of rationality and utilitarianism, that it's OK to say we want to save the polar bears just because we love them. I felt such a relief, such a burden lifted by the reassurance that it's OK to act on love instead of dollar signs and numbers. That gets us much closer to grace.

  124. There is a grain of truth here, but Brooks' typical focus on individual character misses more important contexts: first and foremost among them is class. While ignoring the vast majority of children of parents who are not among the upper and upper middle classes, Brooks is also blind to the meritocratic assumptions that guide his own (and his paper's) focus on appealing to readers of a certain class.

  125. David,
    As a senior citizen who was discover to have intellectual skills at an early age but who also had undiagnosed learning and functional disabilities. I most heartily endorse today's column.
    Having endured the shame and humiliation of a system that praised and rewarded the skills I did not possess I was made to feel unworthy of the unconditional love and affection I received from my parents. I am still angry at a system that made them feel guilty for my inability to live up to expectations.
    It was only in my late thirties that I was able to shed much of my self loathing and feelings of inadequacy from growing up in a society that wanted me to have so many of the skills that weren't mine to offer. I was almost 40 when I discovered how much starvation there was for the nourishment I did bring to the table and thirty years later am able to bring give and receive much love wherever I go.
    There are not many Brooks essays that don't make me angry and raise my blood pressure, so I must say thank you for this one.

  126. The present age posture on eduction supports meritocracy in that parents themselves are encouraged or mandated to deposit their children into formal education mills at very early ages. David Elkind, author of "The Hurried Child," has warned of this insanity for decades!

  127. During a recent flight on a very small regional jet, the four-year-old in the seat in front of mine decided to scream a tantrum (operatic lungs!) for about 20 excruciating minutes. The parents did nothing, perhaps wanting to show they "love" their daughter... no matter what. Nice for the kid. NOT so much for the rest of us.

  128. This is a fine column. I can relate in how I see today's kids raised by the stereotypical "helicopter" parent. And I also see, in reports of substance abuse, teen suicide, and other adolescent threats, how the love and merit pressures have led to serious emotional issues.

    There is something wrong in a society that values achievement over personal values. A kid with average grades that might grow up to be a valuable member of society because of intrinsic qualities like empathy, compassion, and outreach might be nipped in the bud if his or her parents went to ivy league schools and almost expect a "return on their investment" in their families.

    Such attitudes commoditize kids. David puts it beautifully when he writes,
    "These parents unconsciously regard their children as an arts project and insist their children go to colleges and have jobs that will give the parents status and pleasure — that will validate their effectiveness as dads and moms."

    I grew up in the 50s and I have to say, my only pressure for good grades was within me. My parents came to accept good grades but never demanded them or paid me for them. I knew I was loved, and while there were emotional tensions in the family (as in many), they weren't linked to parental expectations.

    My boyfriend never finished college but his daughter is getting her PhD in English. She is totally self-motivated: it's been her dream since high school. She has the self-assurance of a kid allowed to make her own choices.

  129. May we agree that parents want their kids to be happy?

    Next, do parents bully kids into behavior that cheapens their childhoods? Now that fewer parents initiate innocent kids into the dystopic utopia that is religious fantasy, I would suggest that the answer is "no."

    When I was trying to convince my then-ninth-grade son to give up high school football in favor of golf (they share a season) because football is dangerous and tends to attract jerks, he played offensive and defensive tackle for his four high school years and became one of the captains of the team. He didn't do what I wanted him to do, but I went to the games anyway and cheered because he made me proud. He will graduate from college next week, and though he was on the college football team his first two years, he decided at the beginning of junior year to drop the sport in favor of his biology major.

    You see, David, we modern parents are no more annoying or effective than were our parents, who pressured us toward good grades and religion. I don't think that I could ever be as dismayed by my children as my parents were with me when they found out that I deplored the institution to which they pledged their Sunday mornings and that I had become a liberal Democrat.

    Parents want what they consider quality lives for their children. Parents are rookies. We are inexperienced and often not talented, but we do our best.

    If only columnists who peddle pop sociology could and would do the same.

  130. You don't happen to have any data backing up these claims, right?

  131. Unconditional love is transcendental, as you say, a gift that cannot be bought or earned. For this reason, a progressive society, while ostensibly championing such unconditionality (eg acceptance, peace, equality), cannot actually embrace it. Progress requires incentives and power structures that can respond to what can be bought and earned, to what Ought to be. Hence the growing malaise of modernity: the harder we try to progress using the materialism of meritocracy, science and technology, the more disconnected and distant we feel from our true, untouchable "goal": What Is.

  132. I love my kids, try to balance our expectations. Two things: parents of "the meritocracy" are simply terrified for their childrens' futures.

    Perfect unconditional love is why we have a dog.

  133. The baby boomers have raised the most narcissistic batch of children in history. Because of boomers incessant desire to never grow up they have live vicariously through little Cole and Kiley's life. They have tried to protect their children from the same stupidity that they so rampantly displayed in college by outlawing anything that is deemed bad. We will see these boomer-ettes fail on most things in life; let's just hope the boomer parents are there to pick them up and support them forever.

  134. Sorry, at this point it's the children of baby boomers who are doing absurd things with their kids.

    Baby boomers were engendered and raised by WWII veterans -- bankers, surgeons, sons of senators and of American presidents, handymen, Hollywood actors, factory workers, farmers -- who fought and came home, tried to resume their civilian lives, worked hard at their jobs, and reared their sons and daughters to work hard -- some of whom went on to "conventional" lives, others who didn't.

    Today's parents, helicopter or deadbeat or otherwise, are not baby boomers.

  135. A great appraisal of what it looks like among the upper middle classes and the rich, but what about the rest of us? David Brooks is giving us a presentation only of how it looks among the people he knows. Which is the problem with everyone on the right. They don't know anyone except others who look like them.

  136. Thought-provoking and instructive...worth reading at least twice...and discussing with a spouse! Interestingly, grandparents tend to be loving without the need for the meritocracy!

  137. Freud wrote about these two kinds of love, that mother love was more or less unconditional and that father love was indeed rather conditional, in that it came with expectations. These two kinds of love combined to create a child who felt loved but also was aware that more was expected than his or her mere existence. Perhaps today, with both parents having to run on the achievement treadmill, anxiety about our children's ability to support themselves and a family in the future makes us focus more on the latter kind of love. Also, It is real that even very talented, bright, hard-working young people are having difficulties finding jobs, no matter which college they went to. Some of this "pay-for-performance" love may merely be a reflection of parental anxiety. We must also remember that we should love our children, but to be fully functioning adult members of society they will need moral, ethical social and work skills that do require an awareness of when their actions bring disapproval, and rightfully so.

  138. "There are two great defining features of child-rearing today. “

    Well. That settles it.

  139. Sometimes humans manifest unconditional love, but ours is not a static system and it does not always persist. The admonition to "love thy neighbor as thyself" is in the end unhelpful: we often do not love ourselves unconditionally, regardless of, and not because of, how we have been treated by others.

    Unconditional love comes from your pets. Or your personal Savior. Neither is touched by original sin, as some believe, and so there you have it.

  140. Your pets love you if you feed and are kind to them. Jesus loves you if you worship him.
    Conditions.

  141. You insist upon reducing our society to the terms & definitions of an "economy" and then complain about the loss of human values that the reduction entails. If you could take off your ideological glasses for 5 seconds you would see how absurd it is to call our society or our economy a "meritocracy." Love is not conditional, and merit is not based on economics. Subordinating all values & goals to the demands of the corporate economy is an inhuman conformity, not an individual aspiration. The distribution of fabulous wealth and abject poverty that distorts or lives is not a pursuit of morality or justice or quality of life; it is, for those with power, an end in itself.

  142. "These two great trends — greater praise and greater honing ..." what crap! A parents role is to raise their children such that they can function in society as it exists when the parents are dead and gone. To hone one's children is to fail them, they need to be self realized and self sufficient.

  143. Well Mr. Brooks has an interesting thesis and I feel like there may be truth in his observations, but where is the support? It has become characteristic of his columns for Mr. Brooks to turn his personal observations into sweeping statements about American society. HIs thoughts are provocative but his gross generalizations undermine his credibility. As others have noted, even if true, his statements apply only to that small percentage of American families actually living in a meritocracy. Further, even for those who do live in such a society, I would argue that one of the reasons for the described parental behavior is fear for the future of their children in a country characterized by rapidly declining opportunity. I attribute the increasing inability of the 99% to realistically hope that children will achieve higher standards of living than their parents substantially to the policies, intellectual dishonesty, and, yes, lack of unconditional love (for fellow citizens), of Mr. Brooks's party. I would like to see a column in which Mr. Brooks explores the connection between the post-Reagan American trend toward social Darwinism and the rise of the conditional love phenomenon Mr. Brooks thinks he sees.

  144. Very interesting comment and underscores Mr. Brooks fascination with the character and healthy parenting behaviors of the Meritocracy although hides his journalistic support for the Plutocracy. The Koch Brothers inherited Koch Industries from their father, Fred C. Koch. I wonder if Mr. Brooks would ever dare to bite the hand that feeds him and explore whether their upbringing was full of unconditional love (or love of Corporate America?) Social Darwinism and political processes would seem to go hand in hand, including the grafting of Corporations into the American political process which began with Ronald Reagan. How else could a minor Hollywood B actor climb to the highest political office without the immense financial backing of Corporations funding his campaigns and helping build his reputation as a heroic statesman even while suffering the beginning stages of Alzheimer's disease? Even Bill Clinton, touted as a new Democrat, was more right wing than even Richard Nixon or Eisenhower. The age of Corporate government is upon us, and I believe, as you so aptly pointed out, that this materialism trickles down to the family level of disproportionate emphasis on "getting ahead." Now the real question for Mr. Brooks is how character, unconditional love and religion will fix the corruption at the highest levels of government and why he continues to be a Hearst like mouthpiece for their rotten agenda?

  145. CD wrote: "It has become characteristic of his columns for Mr. Brooks to turn his personal observations into sweeping statements about American society."

    I've come to believe that there are two expressions of "truth" in discourse and the arts--debatable, defensible, testable truth such as found in argument and science, and a truth that is felt, discovered, and expressed as a "whole thing," as in a novel or a painting or even a sermon. (This is not a distinction based on "faith vs. science.") I also think that while the the two are built differently, those who practice the former can begin to see their constructions as unassailable as the later. I think Mr. Brooks is transitioning from the first to the second. I think it is a factor of age and the acquisition (or self-perception of acquisition) of wisdom. His difficulty can't be understated and should be recognized, whatever one's political point of view.

  146. I have this feeling, that has been gathering for several months of reading the NYT, that if you put someone else's name on David Brooks' columns, you'd get a totally different response from many people. I think there are people who go out of their way to somehow make every single thing he says some evil conservative Republican conspiracy (for the record, I'm a liberal Democrat), even if they have to twist themselves or his words into a knot.

  147. Well written and on target. Helicopter parents can drive their children to distraction, as my own mother would say if she were living. She made me take piano lessons when I was nine. I lasted four months and gave my first (and last) recital; then I asked mother, "Can I quit now?" because although I love music and appreciate being able to read sheet music, I did not relish practicing the piano when my friends were outside tossing a ball around. She said, "Ok, I just wanted you to try it to see if you like it." My sisters and I were gifted experiences, but if they didn't take, we were under no pressure to continue. My older sister did enjoy playing the piano and was a church pianist for several years.

  148. Perhaps David Brooks and a good proportion of the American population should leave the United States and work on a farm for a year in some "developing" part of the world, say Myanmar. Maybe then, perhaps, they might gain some sense of what life is like for most people on the globe, and has historically been for the vast majority of mankind.
    Anyone who has observed an "unconditionally" loving parent will note how silly and awkward most of their praise really is, and will also note how much it is resented by the children -- or worse, how much it is believed by the little dupe. Who would want to be "loved" by such parents? Isn't love something else? Anyone who knows anything about "competitive" schools also knows that their curriculum is a mile wide and an inch deep. It's fake from top to bottom, exempt that some of the "grade grubbers" manage to excel at this particular game. No wonder our troops, after several weeks or months of intense bullying and physical brutality, need a global team of hi-tech backup just to survive in a fight with a goatherd with a Kalishnakov and a life of unending toil and simple society that instills in him with the conviction that he can sacrifice his life to defend his land against strangers (i.e., Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.).
    How can we discuss love and work and discipline if we really don't know what these words mean on a physical, human level?
    Maybe there's a situation comedy somewhere here. Call it the American Tragedy.

  149. This is very insightftul - rather uncomfortably so. It has me looking back and reassessing at the way we raised our two kids.

  150. Excellent article Mr. Brooks, thank you for stating so clearly what I have felt for years as I observe these parents with their misguided efforts raise children, mst of whom will be frustrated and unfulfilled adults.

  151. Oh, no. I always thought I would be messing my children up in a million unintentional ways. Now its seems I'm messing them up intentionally too!

  152. The word "Gift" is used. I ain't even going look in my Merriam-Webster; gift is something given unconditionally. When, in the course of time, has that ever happened. Parents, children, politicians, C.E.O.'s, the trash collectors, those snooty baristas at every Coffee-Haunt, etc., etc., etc. (With apologies to Mr. George Chakiris)
    Cut me a break; it ain't ever goin' happen. How do I know? While shaving, I have to look in the mirror every morning.

  153. I'm not a parent, so I can't speak to the question of how useful this column can be for parents, but I know how much it can free we adults who were shaped by conditional love. I read Miller's "Drama of a Gifted Child" over 30 years ago and it was liberating. I still suffer some when I secretly dread displeasing someone, but I can smile at the feeling and move on.

  154. The professional men and women with whom I work as a psychoanalyst is in a setting that addresses failures in 'professionalism'. Our clients have childhoods that would appall most. How they have survived is explained in part by their astonishing intellectual gifts and their will to live amidst horrors that would profoundly maim most.

    I have come to deeply respect their resiliency but also to reconsider the role of parenting in its optimal form. Contingent reinforcement as a behavioral tool to shape desired behavior is the nature of parenting.

    Parenting modalities arise in multigenerational family systems that can entangle parenting objectives and styles. Thus, thoughtful self awareness may help.There is a simple question to be asked, "Is my daughter discovering what she wants and what she might become in pursuing her interests and talents?"

    Parents often shape their children in ways that fit the family narrative in which they were raised but is that what the parent wants to continue? Put simply, the question then becomes, "Why am I seeking to create the child I wish?" or "What will my child accomplish if she pursues what I so strongly desire?"

    The purpose in raising these questions is to disentangle the objectives of the parent arising in their lives from the possibilities that her/his child can discover on her own with parental support and affirmation.

    I am NOT seeking to proscribe parental ambition and dreams. Rather, I am encouraging thoughtful self awareness.

  155. Yeah, I am afraid your field has created a great deal of unhappiness for those who were raised in privilege and standards. Being asked to do well is not a "I don't know how they survived" childhood. It is not. And the very fact that these people don't realize this, is a far larger part of their problem. Looking around them and seeing what they really do have.

    I would also say that in the normal course of things is not unreasonable for parents who themselves are educated, and financially comfortable and experienced in a high career, to expect their children to produce a high level of work. Assuming there are no disabilities, and the children have the same level of intelligence (which they normally do), this is not a very high expectation.

    The children have no reason why they shouldn't do well in school. It is much less in fact than a working class parent pushing their kid to go to college, any college. That's a bigger leap but we would not say those children were set "high" expectations.

    Good parents teach their children to fully participate in life. If you don't learn to do that you will never be happy or successful. If you have the gifts and native nurturing to do really well in school and you don't, then you are not fully participating. Which should be disapproved of.

    Stop enabling these people to think life was hard for them. It wasn't. Happiness will come the moment they understand that.

  156. This one hits home for me, Mr. Brooks. I grew up in a household like you describe. My childhood and early adulthood were very achievement based, and I came to resent my parents greatly (and still do).

    It boiled over shortly after my first child was born (which I doubt is a coincidence), and I cut off all communication with my parents for over a year. I work hard to be a better parent to my children than my parents were to me. I think I am quite a bit better overall, but there are also moments when I "become my dad" and it horrifies me.

    I had a "career" in my 20's. I worked a lot and sacrificed my social life. It didn't make me happy. I now have a "job". I generally enjoy it, make pretty good money, and still have time for my family, friends and hobbies. These are the values that I am trying to instill in my children.

  157. I agree with you (which for me is unusual) that conditional love doled out to create meritorious children is a problem - but only for the top perhaps 20% of the families in the US. The below median wage families have no such problems - drive the kids to rehearsas and practices? In what car? To what practices?. The conditions you identify really only apply to a very small number of upper middle class White families - a group that is shrinking and not growing. The tone of this article reminds me of the problems that the wealthy embrace when they say, "It's too hard to find good help anymore.". It's probably a problem for them, but for the vast majority of American families, not so much.

  158. Help me love the child unconditionally, even as I hate some of their footprints. Mr. Brooks captures sensitively the precise tension I feel as a parent of 18 and 21 year olds. My job includes acculturation, which may be perceived to be observing their behavior patterns as a performance. Lord knows I feel compelled to react when their footprints bend toward some of the junk they are exposed to. I am truly sickened by the dishonesty as they hide some of their actions from me and become distant. I am not trying to exercise control when my love genuinely and confusedly reacts to their mistakes or youthful ignorance. I have exorcised most of my urge to control them. I have not yet figured out how to simultaneously convey disappointment as a means to acculturate AND to unconditionally love. It is easy and true to say "You finished 11th and that matters not to how infinitely I love you." Sadly, it seems awkwardly untruthful to say "You are choosing to do drugs or hook up or awkwardly rebel, and I am here infinitely loving you while being disgusted by some of your steps."

  159. Conditional love isn't new. The new entitlement is, though. We're talking two different child-rearing "techniques" here.

  160. Oh, David, David, David. I get what you're getting at, but I wish you hadn't used the phrase 'unconditional love'.
    *All love is 'conditional'.* Any coherent definition of 'love' has to be relative and specific, i.e., if 'A' is loved, there must be 'not-loved' B, C, D, XYZ, square root of Pi etc. If you love everyone, you love no one - just a sort of gassy inoffensive undirected benevolence.
    If nothing else, the love of a parent for a child is conditional on this being his or her specific child. (Witness the confusion of switched-at-birth families.) Otherwise you would love all children equally, and there would be no special valuation placed on your own child as opposed to a total stranger. But 'love' makes no sense, again, if it's based on purely existing and/or fulfilling a set of conditions over which the beloved had no control. We don't choose our parents - or kids. (One of the most painful things I ever saw on TV was an interview with Jeffrey Dahmer's father. Poor wretched man. I can't think of a better argument against unconditional love.)
    Unconditional support and tolerance for your kids? Well, maybe. But 'love', to be meaningful, must be based on having some loveable quality or qualities - it must be earned, or it's 'every kid gets a trophy' and Mister Rogers' noisome 'special just because you're you'.
    'The closest humans come to grace'? Even God's love is conditional - otherwise, to what purpose is Hell?

  161. I largely agree with you, but I part ways with the negative association of "every kid gets a trophy" (and they don't, not after 8) and "special just because you're you".

    Firstly, love exactly says what Mr. Rogers says because otherwise we could not choose between two partners who exhibited the same qualities.

    It is also a misunderstood phrase. To say that one is special and valuable as you are, does not mean that you get special privileges, or that your role in the world requires a spotlight.

    As for every kid gets a trophy, it is not necessarily a full on trophy, bobble-heads and medals is what my kids got in soccer. It was for participation. And at the age they got it, it was important. Small children, need concrete reinforcement that their participation has definable results. They are not, can not be, abstract thinkers. It is why teachers (and parents) use stickers. Yes, the importance faded. It should have. The point of it wasn't to look back on with pride for all time. The point was to make a certain connection for children that they won't even remember is there anymore.

  162. This also helps explain the "entitlement" phonomenon we are seeing played out. children who do not believe the fake praise and do not believe they could ever possibly achieve enough love and affection though merit will just give up and settle for the attention and cajoling that comes with disappointed parents. In return for settling for this substitute affection, they expect and demand creature comforts. It's as if they say to themselves, "if you won't love me for me, then you must provide the necessities of life even while being disappointed in me."

  163. As W.B Yates said, "only God can love you for yourself alone and not your yellow hair", as worldly men, we are driven by motives and love is conditional.

    If we want to do good for our children and want them to be successful, love has got to be so; a child in today's world would not even survive, forget excelling, if we stay focused on loving them the way they are.

  164. Not even God. All revealed monotheisms are based on you providing God with endless reinforcement of his narcissism and insecurity through constant praise and worship, and, at least in the early stages of a religion's development, of converting or killing everyone who doesn't accept your god. If the Father in heaven were a father on Earth, we'd probably call Child Services and have the kids put in foster care.

  165. 'As W.B Yates said, "only God can love you for yourself alone and not your yellow hair", as worldly men, we are driven by motives and love is conditional. '

    It's Yeats, but how nice of you to remember. Yeats was, of course, talking about the sad inability of most men to see beyond a woman's beauty. But the line has its other uses too.

  166. Like many, I frequently take pleasure in my morning Brooks-bash. But this time, I think the bashers have it wrong.

    While it may be accurately characterized as a high class problem, the phenomenon Brooks describes is real. The incidence of eating disorders, depression and suicide is rising among the high achieving children to whom he refers. It's not only, or even primarily, the parents who create this. For example, the silly chase for elite colleges, as documented by Frank Bruni, is created by the colleges, by US News and World Report, and by secondary schools that play into the nonsense with AP courses, stressful homework loads and a competitive school culture.

    The fact that such students are privileged doesn't invite dismissal of the sadness of their lives. Many of us are complicit in creating this situation and it is not a partisan issue. The schools in both the richest and poorest neighborhoods are doing a disservice to the children in their charge. This is a significant theme in a book I've recently completed which makes the case with real evidence.

    I'm a raging progressive, so I defend Brooks with reluctance, but he's not wrong on this one.

  167. Has there ever been a time when parents loved their children unconditionally?

    Religious traditions and values are passed on, not simply by bathing our children in them, but by the unconscious and conscious manipulation of smiles and frowns. "Stacy on my balance beam" has been the method of transferring culture since time immemorial. New prayer? (frown). New style of setting the table? (frown). He's getting married in my church? (smile). She's singing the songs I knew as a child? (smile).

    It's not conditional love that is the problem, but inflexible standards. We don't like to see religious parents disown children who change denominations and we don't like to see children humiliated over their academic performance. We should be troubled when someone sticks to a religious or an academic path only to please his or her parents.

    But, finding the right balance between guidance and smothering is as old as parenting itself. I struggle with it every day.

  168. "On the one hand . . ." You didn't say what is on the other hand.

  169. Why is it not possible to encourage your children to be their very best and, at the same time, love them madly for who they are? Regardless of school or career accomplishments we love our children. But we also encourage academic success. Both love and academic/career success can coexist.

  170. @treabeton-
    It is possible to do both, but the problem is what defines the child very best? The problem is that that 'very best' is often tied to things the parents think means very best, and that can be a negative. For example, which is the child's very best, if he/she takes an easy class load so they have a 4.0 GPA and refuses to take classes they feel are difficult, or the child who takes classes known to be difficult, works hard, and isn't the best grade in the class? I have seen this in the world of music, where a kid enters a concerto competition,plays beautifully, and the parent says "what is the purpose, you didn't win", the problem being that parents ideas of success or 'doing their best' is based on competition and 'winning'. These days the stereotype is about Asian parents, but this applies across the board. One poster above says this represents "only the upper class", but that is simply not true. How about the sports parents, who if the kid wants to play sports, the parent tells them "you aren't good enough" (to what? Make it to the NBA/NFL/MLB? ). How about the parents when a kid wants to play an instrument, and they say "I am not going to waste money, you will never be good". The mentality plays out in different ways, but the end result is the same, it is one thing to want your kid to do the best, it is another to define who they are and what that is by your own expectations.

  171. Indeed love and academic/career success can exist. The difference between unconditional and conditional love, in a theoretical context, is how the parent chooses to praise their child, which, as Mr. Brooks pointed out, can be as simple as body language or a frown vs. a smile based on a child's actions. If the child brings home an A graded paper, does the parent say, "great job!" or does the parent ask the child, "how do you feel about getting an A on your paper?" There are a range of other options for the parent like, "it's about time," "finally, what took you so long?" or "it's not the grade that matters but rather the experience of how you felt when you were writing your paper or preparing for the test."

    In other words, parents can focus on the product (i.e. grades, winning, what school their child attends, etc.) or they can focus on the process (how happy is my child, does he/she laugh alot, is she cooperative and a team player, does he have any anxiety issues like enuresis, hypochondria, cheating on tests, nail biting, self cutting or bulling issues. Many byproducts of the "hurried child" exhibit themselves and are a clear indication of too much pressure on the developing child.

  172. To the extent that this analysis is true, "the American way" of our current capitalist society of winners and losers now occupies all facets of American life, and it is a destructive thing.

  173. I have a single Mom friend who I might have considered marrying were she not doing exactly what David Brooks describes. It was unchangeable, she could not be corrected, in fact, she became very antagonistic with the slightest difference of opinion about how she was raising her children. Now she has 2 spoiled brats in their early 20s who avoid her except when they need something.

    It's called controlling. And when they were no longer physically present it was done by a constant flood of phone calls, mails, and facebook messages. Almost everyone with middle class pretentions does that today.

  174. speaking for myself I never expected my daughter to go to Harvard. She wished that I did, but now is aiming real high for wht she wants and am i proud of her. There were rough periods. I would write her letters telling her how disappointed I was for this or that. I became real tough (in a specific way), but always coming back to the fact I love her. And showing it by acknowledging her dreams and helping her achieve them the best I could. My daughter is not spoiled one bit, And she's got lots of friends from all different economic, political, cultural and ethnic and religious backgrounds (many, but not all) who've turned out ok too. The one's with diffficulties had parents who wanted what they wanted for their kids and did not grasp what the kid wanted or needed or said yes to everything. so thanks for this great article, I just thing a bit too general. and yes, life for us all is a struggle. Nice to have friends though.

  175. Is there any such thing as unconditional love? If there is no such thing as unconditional love should an adult be a slave to love or learn as best as possible to live without love?

    First, I do not really believe there is any such thing as unconditional love. At least not generally historically evident. Society is formed and parents expect things of children. We look sadly, for example, on the mother who loves her son the murderer. In other words, society devises conditions for love and society is correct to do so. That said, society is not perfect and both criminals and reformers of society should not live in expectation of love. We punish both the scoundrel and Socrates--we do not unconditionally love and the both seem to transgress our conditions and therefore do not deserve love.

    I personally have found it best to live without love. This allows me to say, for example, the considerable failings of all Middle Eastern peoples have allowed them to be easily scapegoated--even declared largely terrorists--when in actuality the Israelis have stolen land and the U.S. has manipulated them for oil. I will be loved by very few for saying that; but living without love has helped me toward truth. One must break through the top of society's conditions of love--Socrates is still the best example. We have many criminals but few people who are so great we want to punish them as criminals. Unconditional love is an ideal and only a God can rightly parcel love and rightly love himself.

  176. my dog has unconditional love for me - that's about it.

  177. Every new parent generation, believes they will do a better job raising kids than their parents did.

  178. Most parents do the best they can with what they've got. Each of us then has the opportunity to grow from where we started. Granted some of us appear to have it easier than others, and some of us thrive regardless of circumstances. I don't see an easy fix, but the sooner we get over the " he who dies with the most toys" attitude the better. Happiness isn't derived from the outside in, but even the best ways to parent and to live and grow are fraught with "difficulty". I had a Buddhist teacher who used to say, " don't worry, you have whole life time", and then with a twinkle in his eye he would say, " maybe more".

  179. David Brooks should get out more--or take a course in writing. Throughout most of this article, by "children" he means children of people like himself. "Honing" in the inner cities?

  180. One way of judging the quality of an essay such as these is by the quality of the responses it inspires. By that "metric", this was an outstanding submission.

    I've never troubled myself to delve into Mr. Brooks' personal and family background even though I was often intriqued by how he apparently bears the (mixed) blessing of a sheltered and relatively secure stable middle class suburban upraising.

    All views are limited and particularist. But Mr. Brooks seems to be growing as a writer able to use the specifics and peculiarities of his finite experience to provoke the kind of discussion and reflection worthy for any hope of a workable democracy as we muddle our way into more uncertainty.

  181. Two thoughts.
    One. There is no such thing as unconditional love. And rightly so. The need for unconditional "love" is infantile.

    Two. Once children grow up, they are simply another person in the world. One who shares memories with their parents and yet they are separate human beings. They are not 'mini-me's', projected ideals, or pet projects of their parents. Just another person in the world. Parents should look upon their experience raising another human being as just that. We are all parents in a way.

  182. This piece will probably upset your readership more than almost any other!

  183. There's nothing really new in this op-ed. Brooks could have written the same in 1960, or even 1950. Look at the Kennedy clan, driven to overachieve based on storge—and that's a pretty typical American story. One of my criticisms with Brooks's writing is that he tends to romanticize the past and damn the present, which results in artificially created talking points, substituting new terms like honing for age-old concepts like overachieving. But, if Brooks is advocating here less brains and more heart, I'm all for it. I'll look to future Brooks pieces for more talking points about unconditional love.

  184. If you have children expecting them to fulfill your own dreams, you will probably be disappointed. The is far more happiness in social engagement than there is in power. Unfortunately, excessive competition undermines social engagement.

  185. Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize winner for achievements in quantum mechanics and an engaging writer, wrote that he would be happy if his son chose to be a truck driver. It seems he got the point of David Brook's excellent essay.

  186. just a thought but, it makes you wonder what kind of love comes from the parents of so many Asian children who perform so well academically. In such a competitive and overpopulated world, meritocracy has some value as opposed to allowing children to be slack and fall into bad habits.

  187. These broad generalizations apply to how many people? Not many (any?) that I know, or see in the community around me.

  188. Poor little rich kids whose parents want them to succeed in a competitive world. Where did this myth of unconditional love come from? My parents were beaten with a belt if they talked back or failed to do their chores. My siblings and I ( in the 50s and 60s) were ridiculed, spanked and most often ignored. I did not beat or ridicule my children, but I did have high standards for their behavior (moral behavior as well as academic).

    There is a word for children whose parents shower them with love them no matter what they do: spoiled!

  189. Can't believe how close I come to agreeing with David Brooks about something.

    The only amendment I might make is to say, on the child rearing continuum, you can indeed have parents who are able to effectively and successfully combine the elements of unconditional love/regard with higher expectations. There are probably fewer parents who can do it, but there are some.

    In my experience, the "achievement motive" has also been a factor in creating some of the turmoil in the educational system. But that's another story.

  190. This seems an accurate description of some families, but begs a question: what is the merit of meritocracy? Are drone strikes on innocents, senseless wars of choice, financial shannigans, past and future (read trans-Pacific trade), increasing poverty, or pollution of the world matters of merit. Or is meritocracy simply having enough money to congratulate oneself no matter the truth?

  191. No, Lord Brooks, your whole article is fraught with upper middle-class and upper class privilege, a dramatically small part of the American reality.

    For Americans like Latiana Holmes, meritocracy is an empty word.

    But worker slavery comes to mind.

    She works at Dunkin’ Donuts and works for her aunt at night as a personal care attendant. She takes a late bus to Northeastern University for her overnight shift as a security guard. She heads home in the morning to sleep for a few hours, then back to Dunkin Donuts for a five-hour shift, home to see her 2-year-old son and take a nap, over to her aunt’s house, and then back to Northeastern for another overnight shift.

    She works 70 hours a week.

    Holmes lost her Dunkin Donuts job after she rushed her son to the emergency room and missed a shift, but was rehired a few weeks later.

    She earns less than $30,000 a year.

    “Once I get home, I’m sleeping,” she said. Or doing laundry to keep her uniforms clean: aprons and shirts for Dunkin Donuts, scrubs for personal care attendant work, and pants, shirt, and a sweater for her security guard job.

    When Holmes realized her son was talking in three-word sentences — a development she had missed somewhere between work and sleep, she said “I felt like a bad mom missing out on the growth of my son.”

    “All he sees is me working, working, working” she said. “I don’t want him to think I picked working over him.”

    http://goo.gl/NifcKQ

    Economic slavery is the great American parenting dilemma.


  192. thank you...
    a single "recommend" is far too insufficient today...
    be well.

  193. Fully agree - but it would be a lot easier if parents weren't terrified of their children and grandchildren falling into the (nearly) bottomless pit of the American economy, stuck in a minimum wage job, having to work two jobs just to pay for the rent and groceries and day-care and transportation (the latter of which also consumes literally hours per day). A better social safety net and better opportunities for education could reduce that terror but Republicans don't want to pay the taxes for that.

  194. But, Mr. Brooks, where did the concept of "unconditional love" come from? Ignoring for the moment any religious overtones, the phrase was coined by Erich Fromm and documented in the 1956 book, The Art of Loving, to counter the Freudian concept that Father's love was always condition and mothers were alway unconditional. Then it got applied by Carl Rogers in the phase, "unconditional positive regard" between a therapist and a patient, so the patient would be more forthcoming and more accepting.

    However, while the phrase is now repeated endlessly, it doesn't even make logical sense. Or even emotional sense. You would not expect to unconditionally love a spouse or a friend, in fact the variations is love in any relationship are part of what makes us humans, not pets or objects. So, why would you do so with children? You certainly should love them but if it realistic to be unconditional? How this became a postulant of child raising is something for an anthropologist to determine.

    But once you agree to children/unconditional love, then ironically, the parent will become more judgmental because their ability to distance themselves, disapprove and just act like you do in any other circumstance, is muted so the child is subject to micro-managing, overcommuncaiton and unreasonable demands. After all if you must unconditionally love someone, that person better be someone who aligns totally with your morals, taste and choices,

  195. Thank goodness the phrase is repeated endlessly along with Namaste as a counterbalance to "just do it," "forget about it" or "Luke, I am your father." The Humanist movement was born out of a need to check the traditional Psychoanalytic and Behavioral schools of thought. Instead of manipulating with reinforcement or delving into the polarity and outdated thinking of Mother vs. Father dyad, Humanism sought to inject love and genuiness into the equation. Unconditional positive regard was a model for therapist/patient is a model for the client to transfer into their own relationships outside of therapy including the ability to see beyond words and accept people for their worth as a human being thus improving the clients relationships. Transpersonal psychology focused on genuine regard as a model for healthy relationships rather than the Behavioral model of manipulation with rewards and punishment. Behavioral Cognitive psychology views a person as mere byproducts of their thoughts although overlooks the Humanistic emphasis on love and the heart. If you truly love someone, oftentimes, the heart is leading the way rather than an overemphasis or scrutiny of the person's morals, consumer tastes or choices. This is when the soul hits the rubber so to speak, and the brain is temporily silenced in a mystical dance of the ages.

  196. David, you need to get out more. Out amongst other people than rich white people. Yes, in the upper classes/middle class (what's left of the middle class) I agree that parenting is fraught with the worry of getting your child into the right kindergarten so that they can get into the right college but that is not what most people in America are dealing with. They are dealing with how to put food on the table to feed their children.

    I fear you'll never get it, David. Perhaps you should take a sabbatical for a year and go underground into a different world. You will be amazed at your current lack of understanding what life in America is about for most of us.

  197. well said Sophie; I made the same point, I hope, in a moment I posted; I would say though that Brooke is writing more for the five percent then even the middle class

  198. He'll never, truly, understand because he'll always have an out. He can escape to his cozy existance at any time of his choosing.

    This is not the case for the less fortunate.

  199. @sophia-
    It hits the lower classes, too, it may not be obsessing with getting into an HYP school, but it is still there. Have you ever been around a sports field, and seen the little league parents yelling at their kids, rather than encouraging them? The father whose son isn't a great athlete, trying to make him into one?

    Nothing David wrote about is necessarily new, parents saying "I love you, as long as you do what I want" but the world of hyper competition has hit all levels.

  200. While reading this piece I was immediately drawn back to my childhood where two parents deeply wounded by their experiences in Nazi Germany found traditional love and connection with their children to be extremely challenging or impossible. For different reasons than those cited by Mr. Brooks they opted to love me for what I did and not for who I was. The straight jacket of conditional love limited my ability to make choices I deemed "mine" to struggle with agency and to constantly filter my life through their fearful, judgmental and yes hopeful lenses all clearly influenced by the horrors of their flight from Germany, painful family histories and the molds their life were poured into during that time. I did in the end meet their expectations and make them proud but as Mr. Brooks has tried to parse in this short piece, there was a very painful and enduring price to pay.