New York Times columnist David Brooks has a message for some American parents — you're doing it wrong.
Brooks wrote in a column last week that some American parents spend too much time pushing their children to succeed, whether that's in the classroom, on the soccer field or in a career down the road. He suggests parents raise their children with unconditional love instead, since too much focus on achievement hurts how youngsters develop and weakens the bond between a parent and child.
“Parents desperately want happiness for their children and naturally want to steer them toward success in every way they can,” Brooks wrote. “But the pressures of the meritocracy can sometimes put this love on a false basis. The meritocracy is based on earned success. It is based on talent and achievement. But parental love is supposed to be oblivious to achievement. It’s meant to be an unconditional support — a gift that cannot be bought and cannot be earned.”
Brooks' suggestion isn’t far off from what experts and researchers have found helps children grow physically, mentally and emotionally. Here are five ways unconditional love and affection can help children succeed.
Unconditional love helps a child’s mental well-being
Affection and unconditional love can make children emotionally happier and free of stress, according to a study from UCLA.
The study said that a lack of parental warmth can make children more stressed since parents put too much pressure on them to succeed without balancing it with affection. This then creates health risks for children, like high levels of cholesterol, cardiovascular issues and high blood pressure. But children are less likely to feel those health risks when there is unconditional love and affection from a parent, the study said.
"If the child has love from parental figures, they may be more protected from the impact of the abuse on adult biological risk for health problems than those who don't have that loving adult in their life,” said Judieth E. Carroll, lead author of the study, in a press release.
Christopher Bergland of Psychology Today wrote that this study is more evidence that children should be in warm, nurturing environments that make them feel safe and not under pressure or torment from parents.
Unconditional love makes children physically healthier
Parental affection can also help a child’s physical well-being. A study from McGill University in Montreal found that children who have authoritarian parents — parents who put too much focus on achievement and rarely show affection — were more likely to be obese than children whose parents often showed affection, LiveScience reported.
This was different among age levels. Children ages 2 to 5 with demanding parents were 30 percent more likely to be obese, and children 6 to 11 years old with these kind of parents were 37 percent more likely to be obese. The researchers said this is because authoritarians will tell their children they’re eating the wrong foods, but not explain why.
Meanwhile, authoritative parents — who discipline their children while also showing unconditional love and affection — will explain to their children why they’re eating the wrong foods and teach them right from wrong, which makes them less likely to reach for that bad snack again, the study said.
“The parenting style can still make a difference," Lisa Kakinami, the study’s author, told LiveScience.
Unconditional love increases a child's brain development and memory
Children whose parents treated them with affection and nurturing from a young age often have better brain development, according to a study from Washington University in St. Louis.
The study said that children with affectionate mothers have a larger hippocampus, which is a part of the brain that controls one’s memory, learning capabilities and responses to stress.
To measure this, researchers had parents work to complete a task while their children waited to open “an attractive gift,” according to the study. Parents had to keep their child from opening the gift before the parents finished their own task. This was to simulate the struggles of daily parenting.
The study then took brain scans of the children, and found those who had been nurtured well by their parents had a larger hippocampus.
“This study validates something that seems to be intuitive, which is just how important nurturing parents are to creating adaptive human beings,” the study’s lead author Joan L. Luby said in a press release. “I think the public health implications suggest that we should pay more attention to parents’ nurturing, and we should do what we can as a society to foster these skills because clearly nurturing has a very, very big impact on later development.”
Unconditional love creates a stronger bond between parent and child
A 2013 study from the University of Missouri-Columbia found that children and mothers had a strong bond when the mothers showed more affection.
The study measured how often mothers took control of their child’s toys and instructed their child on how to play with toys during playtime. Children whose parents spent too much time directing play showed “more negative feelings” towards their mothers, according to the study.
But children showed positive emotions when their mothers showed affection and didn’t dictate the way the chid played, the study said. Children enjoyed it when their mother offered them tips and hints with positive reinforcement.
"We know that children, regardless of culture, need to feel loved," said Jean Ispa, the lead author of the study, in a press release on ScienceDaily. Children take in the meaning of what their mothers are trying to do, so if a mom is being very directive and is generally a very warm person, I think the child feels, 'My mom is doing this because she cares about me, and she's trying to do the best for me.' If that warmth is missing, then the child might feel, 'My mom is trying to control me, and I don't like it.’ ”
Unconditional love makes your child less fearful and more well-rounded
Merit-based parenting often makes children feel unsafe in their environment since they have a fear of failure, Brooks wrote.
Children with a fear of failure are less motivated to learn in school and less interested in education overall, according to a study published by The British Psychological Society. In fact, that fear causes these children to focus on hobbies that they’ve mastered, rather than hobbies that would make them more well-rounded and more likely to fail.
Dr. Aikaterini Michou, who helped conduct the study, said children whose parents have high standards and levels of criticism often are more scared of failing. The fear of failure leaves children unlikely to learn new areas that could help them develop, Michou said.
That’s why Michou and her research team suggest parents encourage their children to pick up new skills by being more affectionate and sensitive to their child’s issues.
“Teachers and parents have to be more sensitive to the rational they provide to children to adopt a goal or engage in an activity,” Michou said in a press release. “Suggesting children improve their skills for their own enjoyment and development is much more beneficial than suggesting they improve their skills in order to prove themselves.”
Herb Scribner is a writer for Deseret News National. Send him an email at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @herbscribner.