The problem with ‘unconditional positive regard’


If you’re a parent and your child misbehaves in public, what do you do? If you’re not a parent, and someone else’s child misbehaves in public, what would you like the parents to do? Adults are predisposed to like children, and it comes as something of a surprise when they’re unaccountably brattish and unpleasant. When children behave badly in public, people dislike them. We know it’s unreasonable, but most of us find public tantrums and rudeness irritating. If a child that’s behaved badly goes unpunished or ignored, we reserve our indignation for their parents; why don’t they do something? We finish our meal, or complete our shopping and go on our way. Once we’re out of range we calm down. Nothing happens. And that’s a problem.

Children begin to exert their independence as soon as they become conscious that there are rules and that they’re expected to follow them. Breaking the rules is fun, but it’s also an important learning experience – we are trying to work out how far we can go, what is and isn’t acceptable. If there are no consequences for our anti-social behaviour, what do we learn? And worse, if the only consequences is an adult saying ‘no’ but doing nothing to stop us, what do we learn then?

An absence of adult authority is not kind. Refusing to give children clear direction on how they should behave may be well-intentioned, but it’s an act of neglect, an irresponsible abrogation of responsibility. Children need to know why the rules are worth following and what the consequences are when they fail to follow them, if they are going to make the difficult transition to successful adulthood. Children who aren’t taught the rules by people who love them, will have the facts explained to them far more brutally by someone who doesn’t. Society is unforgiving and intolerant of anti-social behaviour and adults who are unable or unwilling to conform to society’s norms are marginalised, shunned, or incarcerated.

What then of ‘unconditional positive regard’? The idea was developed by the psychologist Carl Roger’s d in the 1950s about how best to conduct therapy sessions with children. He suggested that children ought to be shown acceptance and support, no matter what they say or do because that is the best way to get them to adjust their behaviour. Marjorie Witty expresses Roger’s reasoning here:

The central hypothesis of this approach can be briefly stated. It is that the individual has within him or her self vast resources for self-understanding, for altering her or his self-concept, attitudes, and self-directed behavior–and that these resources can be tapped if only a definable climate of facilitative psychological attitudes can be provided.

Within us all, Roger’s believed, is an untapped well of understanding that, with enough love and care from a therapist, we can learn to heal ourselves and become whatever we desire. One of Roger’s protégés, David Myers puts it like this:

People also nurture our growth by being accepting—by offering us what Rogers called unconditional positive regard. This is an attitude of grace, an attitude that values us even knowing our failings. It is a profound relief to drop our pretences, confess our worst feelings, and discover that we are still accepted. In a good marriage, a close family, or an intimate friendship, we are free to be spontaneous without fearing the loss of others’ esteem.

There’s something to this. The reason children act out at home is because they know – hopefully – that their parents’ love for them is unconditional. We can safely lash out at those closest to us without the catastrophic results that such behaviour might result in with strangers. This is an important safety valve as few of us are capable of behaving well all the time. But, the crucial point to make is that the refuge offered by a loving family does not exist anywhere else. We must adjust our responses if we want to cooperate with others and navigate our lives in the public sphere with any degree of success. The world does not, and never will, offer us ‘unconditional positive regard’.

It’s worth knowing that before we decide to adopt Roger’s ideas in schools that they have never been empirically validated, and that within the clinical psychology community it’s a controversial topic. Even within client centred therapy, ‘unconditional positive regard’ is one of the most questioned and criticised aspects. The problem with so much of the theory in clinical psychology is that the psychologist only sees their patients within the confines of the therapy sessions. They don’t what happens when they get off the couch and go off in the world, and they certainly don’t collect data on how clients do after they’ve finished therapy. As Robyn Dawes spells out in House of Cards, clinical psychologists have little or no idea whether any of their treatments make things better or worse, but they think they do. They become increasingly convinced, with no confirming data to validate their biases, that they’re helping people. In this way clinical psychology, like some aspects of teaching, is a ‘wicked’ domain.

So, of course, teachers should be compassionate to their students. No one has ever argued for anything else and saying so is dishonest. The comments reported in this article are actively unhelpful: “Those systems of rigid consistency, with no flexibility, I think it is verging on bullying.” I can just as easily say, “Those systems of no consistency, and no boundaries, I think it’s verging on neglect.” Both these statements might be true, but they’re probably not. Best not to make them unless we’re deliberately trying to spread misinformation. It’s easy to attack a caricature, but this rarely reflects what’s really going on in a school.

My view is that what you permit you promote. What you accept becomes acceptable. If we fail to hold the line, then we make all sorts of horror possible. It is our moral and professional duty to provide clear, sensible, and wise rules and then to uphold them, and it ought to go without saying that we should do so fairly and with kindness. Punishment should not be harsh, it just needs to be inevitable.
Schools should act as a proxy for the real world. The punishments for making mistakes in school are infinitely less harsh than those children will experience when they’re adults. As such, these principles might help us in our efforts to prepare children for the rigours of adulthood as best we can:

  1. Have the minimum of rules and make them easy to follow
  2. Don’t let students get away with behaviour that makes them unlikable
  3. Be kind, firm and fair in your application of the rules
  4. Accept that teachers’ judgements are sometimes flawed – give children the benefit of the doubt where possible
  5. Of course rules should always have sufficient flexibility for exceptions to be made, but these should be exceptional.

If we balk at our duty to help socialise our students we will be setting them up for a life of misery. What’s positive about that?

Interesting essay samples and examples on:

12 rules for schools: Rule 8 Tell the truth – or, at least don’t lie

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