Conditional love promises the child love, but dangles it before its eyes like the carrot and stick before a donkey until it meets the right ‘conditions’. Conditional love threatens with “the withdrawal of love when [the child] does not obey”, a powerful weapon in the hands of parents to make the child exhibit desired behavior.1
As a consequence thereof, the child must subordinate its own personality to the ideal image another holds of it. Some parents, however, set the bar so high that the love becomes unattainable—a tantalizing torment.
The counterpart of love under condition, the unconditional love, appears in two different variants, that yet have opposite meanings, namely one in the child’s benefit, the other in the benefit of the parent. The unconditional love of the child to the parents is the religious variant of the Catholic Fourth Commandment that preaches uncritical obedience. For example, in some Bible stories, God demands believers to be prepared to butcher their own child.2 The child is expected to willingly undergo this fate.
This form of ‘love’ is what pushes a Japanese kamikaze pilot to his death in order to prove his loyalty to military or societal parental figures. His loyalty really isn’t love, but mental subordination. What kind of worldview do children of kamikaze pilots grow up with?
Religious (or military, or political) leaders who understand this principle even better abuse their power to subsequently weaken the tie between parent and child. Then the authoritarian leaders—the prophets (or generals, or ministers)—can do whatever they want with the will-less “children of God”.3
The other variant, the unconditional love of parents who supports their child at all times is found in the principle of unconditional positive regard from the humanist psychology of founder Carl Rogers.4 That principle diametrically opposes Sigmund Freud’s ideas.
Central to Rogers’s concept is an equal relationship between parent and child, which children can use to strengthen themselves emotionally without having to satisfy any conditions for that relationship. This child is loved for who it is, not for what it does, or for what it yields the parents. Instead of punishing the child for everything it does wrong, its parents help it explore the world. These parents don’t retract their love in case the child makes mistakes or shows unwanted behavior.
The knowledge that children who are loved unconditionally can always count on their parents protects them against negative thoughts about themselves and others, and thereby even against depression and suicide, because as teenagers and adults they can always fall back on this cushion of love.
Even the memory of situations in which the child was loved unconditionally vaccinates against later negative thoughts.5 Unconditional love reinforces people’s self-image that they are intrinsically valuable people who deserve to be loved.