Parental Love versus Romantic Love

PARENTAL LOVE AND ROMANTIC LOVE ARE EVER SO DIFFERENT FROM ONE ANOTHER. For instance, there is the indisputable reality that a mother can start loving her child even before she has given birth to that child. By contrast, an analogous parallel simply does not exist with respect to romantic love. Indeed, the very idea of having romantic love for someone whom one has never even seen is essentially incomprehensible.

Romantic love is fundamentally tied to the person loved being attractive in some significant way. Physical appearance is one way. Quality of character is another way. By contrast, parental love as it should be is not tied physical appearances. And while it seems possible that years later character can turn out to be a factor, it is unquestionably clear that parental love at its best most certainly does not begin with an interest in the child’s physical appearances. Indeed, while newborns are typically said to be cute, their cuteness is essentially tied to their majestic innocence and the charming expression that their innocence typically takes and not their physical appearances.

Indeed, parental love could not be the majestic psychological gift that it is if it were the case that in terms of the psychological make-up of adult human beings, the physical appearances of a newborn were a quite relevant factor with respect to the newborn’s parents being ever so majestic in their display of love for their infant. By contrast, it is manifestly obvious that appearances typically play a quite significant role with respect to romantic love. And then, too, there is the idea of a person receiving a benefit from the other. Romantic love at its best about two individuals marvelously valuing and affirming one another.

Obviously, parental love is not at all about mutual evaluation on the part of the parent and the child with respect to one another. Indeed, it is manifestly clear that a newborn infant simply does not have the psychological wherewithal to value another human being. There is, then, a straightforward sense in which parental love at its very best constitutes a quite majestic form of altruism; for genuine parental love is not at all predicated upon the idea the parents will receive some tremendous benefit in return.

Alas, while the claim of the preceding paragraph may be true, a very poignant truth is that adults can be quite self-deceived in thinking that they are displaying magnificent parental love towards their child. Or, they may be self-deceived about what constitutes genuine parental love. An example of the point just made would be the case of parents who are far more besotted with punishing their child than affirming their child. Of course, there is no about it: The punishment of a child can certainly be appropriated. But loving parents should no more get a psychological high over punishing their child than they should think it appropriate to reject their child because the child is clearly not a genius.

What I find most intriguing is that by the time a child is well into her teenage years, the child will have a very, very, very clear sense with respect to whether or not, over all, she or he has most certainly been the beneficiary of truly majestic parental love. The wording of the preceding sentence allows for the reality that even loving parents can get it wrong upon occasion. But a clear pattern of behavior that is manifestly animated by parental love is one thing; whereas a clear pattern of parental behavior that is manifestly not animated by parental love is quite another.

Alas, a quite poignant truth about human beings is that the considerable capacity that human being have for self-deception. And an ever so painful consequence of human beings having the capacity for self-deception is that there are many cases where (a) the parents fail to treat their children in the marvelous way that their children should be treated but yet (b) the parents have nonetheless convinced themselves that they are, indeed, quite good parents. I do not fully understand why human beings have the capacity for self-deception. But I have just articulated one of the unfortunate ways in which that capacity can play itself out.

© 2016 Laurence Thomas

About Laurence Thomas

Laurence Thomas is Professor in the Department of Political Science and the Department of Philosophy at Syracuse University. His most recent book is The Family and the Political Self and his most recent article in French is "Juifs et Noirs: Au-delà du Mal" in Trigano (ed.) Juifs et Noirs: du Mythe à la Réalité. Thomas has published numerous essays on the topic of friendship. The essay "The Character of Friendship" has appeared in volume on friendship, entitled Thinking About Friendship, edited by Damian Caluori and the essay "Friendship in the Shadow of Technology" has appeared in the anthology Moral and Moral Controversies edited by Steven Scalet and John Arthur. His most recent essay--entitled "Being Moral and Handling the Truth"--is about circumstances under which it is morally permissible to lie. Indeed, an example is given in Section IV of a lie being morally virtuous.
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One Response to Parental Love versus Romantic Love

  1. Jackie Green says:

    The Thomas thesis is good here, but the conclusion on self-deception does not fly. I think true parental love and the ability for their child’s self-deception can be mutually exclusive. While an individual may have the most loving, providing parents – self-deception can happen for other reasons, including the larger environment that a child is raised in.

    Self-deception — knowingly and immorally lying to yourself about the consequences of your actions — can often be motivated by self interest, and perceived personal/professional gains. For example, in the case of a child raised in an wealthy neighborhood with loving/hardworking parents, that individual can have a sense of entitlement about their surroundings and the level of success they should achieve. That entitlement can lead to the most devastating self-deception, which while ideally rectified by parents, can often be a result of peers/surroundings and detached from the parental love they received.

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