Unconditional love: it means you love [someone], no matter what. It is a value, an ideal. Homes with unconditional love grow kids that understand a bad choice does not define them, that they are better than that. Their parents know their potential for greatness even when they forget.
These homes grow kids that believe in themselves. Yet, few parents have actually found a way to put unconditional love into practical use when disciplining. It seems they have had to make a choice: either be loving and non-punitive, or be the strict disciplinarian. Many parents try to flip-flop between the two; staying loving UNTIL there’s a problem, then switching to the angry punisher when they hit their breaking point. Other, more traditional families divvy up the parental roles to loving mother and harsh, strict father. Yet, none of these parenting styles create unconditional love because, frankly, their love seems quite conditional! This blog is about how to practice unconditional love and be a strict, disciplined parent at the same time!
First, Why You Shouldn’t Flip-Flop
For a baby, love from a parent is solidly paired with smiles, hugs, kisses, and loving gazes. One of the first things babies learn about the world is that your adoring face IS love. They learn to trust it for nearly two years straight. As babies, when they do something “wrong”, there is redirection, not anger. But then, one day they do something “wrong” and they see frustration and yelling, sharpness and physicality. Young children interpret a parent’s anger as a sudden loss of your love. Now, of course you still love them, but developmentally speaking, they simply don’t get it. The idea that love can still exist in these moments is lost on a child. They lose trust in your love and as a result, your love just went from unconditional to conditional.
I’m not talking abuse here, though the same is obviously true in those cases. I’m talking about the little things, like when they get a slap on the butt, or a harsh command, or even a growling “NO!” I’m talking about when parents use anger to show their kids “who’s the boss”. This is called “intimidation discipline” but what the kids hear is, “I’ll only love you when you do the right thing.”
The way to “have your good kid, and love him too” can be accomplished if you separate your consequences from your love. These means you need a consequence system in place (more on these in a future blog) that stops bad behavior with punishments, and encourages good behavior with reinforcements. ALL THE WHILE, you remain a loving, nurturing parent.
“Getting mad” was always a poor and ineffective punishment compared to an established consequence system. Nonetheless, it’s common because it had been supported for generations not only by the parents, but also the surrounding community. In today’s world, the community simply does not support “getting mad” anymore. Would you let your child’s teacher try to frighten your child into behaving well? How about the store clerk? How about your neighbor? That was actually ok in our grandparent’s time. So even if “getting mad” works at home, you will be at a loss anywhere you can’t use it. Your teacher is forbidden, so bad behavior will erupt at school. And when you yourself can’t act angry enough to stop your child (say a restaurant or at Target) they will run free!
While consequence systems can vary from family to family, one rule needs to be upheld at any cost: never use your emotions as a consequence. To do so teaches your child that they control your love, and they have a lot of messing-up to do before they could ever handle that responsibility! So, if you get mad, and you will, apologize. Show them your love and adoration CANNOT BE SHAKEN, no matter what they do. When they have a meltdown, stay loving. When they make you embarrassed to be at the Starbucks, stay loving. But by no means ignore the problem. When you give a punishment, STAY LOVING.
I would love to hear your stories about either your own childhood experiences, or your experiences as a parent, regarding unconditional love. If you have questions about it, ask. I will answer.
Love up them kiddies!