Written by Deb Blum
I know you love your kids. Unconditionally.
The real question isn’t whether we love our kids, but rather – do they FEEL loved unconditionally.
You may be thinking, “Of course they do!” But I've seen that sometimes I make love and acceptance conditional—without even realizing it at the time.
This is really “up” for me right now. My older son is off to high school next year, and I'm really curious how we’ll be able to ensure he feels loved no matter what he does and who he is, while still setting high standards for him to live up to his potential.
The funny thing is that everything we do comes from the place of love, right? We genuinely have the best of intentions.
Stick with me while I dissect where our intentions and our kids’ perceptions may differ.
We want our kids to be accepted by their friends so we encourage tweaks and adjustments to their personality (toughen up, kiddo).
We want them to be acceptable in society, so we urge changes in behaviors (stop chewing with your mouth open).
We want them to be successful and do great things, so we set a high bar (all As and you’ll get that new iPhone) and rationalize that it’s our job to stretch them and ensure their success and financial independence.
We want them to be responsible so we nag them about their laundry, homework, and the toilet seat.
We're trying to protect them. We want the best for them.
But what if … to a child … those minor adjustments, pressures, and nudges are heard as "you aren’t enough" or "I’d love you more if"… or "I don’t love you as you are."
MY HEART BREAKS A LITTLE AS I THINK ABOUT HOW MANY TIMES I’VE BEEN CRITICAL OF MY KIDS.
It’s tricky territory. We want them to be socially conditioned enough so they’ll have friends and be likable. We want them to be accepted by their peers. Then there’s that pretty widely held belief out there that it’s our responsibility to shape them into “something better.” And, that if we don’t, our kids will surely miss the mark, end up a mess, and become homeless or live forever in our basement.
WHAT MESSAGES ARE WE REALLY SENDING?
Ironically and regretfully, in order to make them into this “better” person that will be more “acceptable” to others, we actually might be creating a situation where our kids don’t feel acceptable … to us!
When we were little, the same thing happened to us. We were taught that there are parts of us that aren’t acceptable (you’re too silly, too shy, too geeky, too quirky, too bold, sing too loud, aren’t grateful, want too much, are too much, etc.).
We learned to reject parts of ourselves to be accepted by our primary caregivers—we learned that in order to feel that love, we need to act the way that makes us most lovable.
Even if you would never, ever, in a million years stop loving your child no matter what he or she does, it’s possible that little messages you send are being perceived by your little one as conditional love: “I will love you more if you stop doing x or start doing y.”
OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH THEM IS IMPACTED
Ultimately, we create disconnection in our relationship. Which is the opposite of what we want.
So how do we show unconditional love? How do we rebuild the connection?
TODAY TRY THESE 4 THINGS:
1 – Bite your tongue. When you want to criticize, stop and find something you love about your child to focus on. Spend time really inquiring into why this behavior bothers you so much.
2 – Separate the behavior from the child. Instead of: “You’re such a slob. Why can’t you put your clothes in the hamper?”, talk neutrally only about the behavior (the clothes belong in the hamper or please put your clothes in the hamper). I know it’s tough, especially when you feel like you're constantly reminding your child about something. But try. Stop, get calm, say what you need to say about the behavior.
3 – Avoid labeling. Labels (slob, shy, lazy, athletic, funny, soooo kind, an “A student”, forgetful, too loud, too quiet, genius, wild, quiet, musical, clumsy, smart, chatty, class clown) can stick and potentially keep our kids from becoming who they really are. And sometimes they aren’t really accurate – perhaps they are own projections, based on our interpretations and fears. If it’s a “negative” trait, get curious about why this trait bothers you, what are you worried about if they behave in that way? If it’s a more positive trait, get curious why it’s so important to you that your child be [trait]. Labels limit us from seeing the real and unique child in front of us – their complex, changing, contradictory, multidimensional little selves. And they limit them from BEING their full selves and from changing and evolving because they feel confined by the limitations of the label.
4 – Make time to be present. Our kids want time with us more than they say they do. This week, find 5 minutes free from distractions. In this time, put aside your preconceived notions of who your child is and pretend you are just meeting him or her. Each time see if you can learn something new about your ever-changing child. Perhaps sit down while they're watching a video and ask them what kind of videos they most like on YouTube. Ask them to teach you to play a game. Jump on the trampoline. Walk the dog. Eat ice cream. Get curious.
WANT TO GO DEEPER? Here are the Parents' Inner Work Insights:
Here’s a bigger stretch goal – accept and love yourself unconditionally. This does NOT mean that we don’t expect more from ourselves. But we don’t do better because we beat ourselves up. Face it, we’re all imperfect humans. If we can practice accepting the things about ourselves that we don’t like, it will naturally get easier to accept those things in our kids. I know this is edgy. Let’s say they’re lying. I’m not suggesting that we accept their dishonesty. Rather, I’d like us to really examine our relationship with lying before we get into it with them. The truth is that most people lie (even you!). Even if it's those little white lies, we still seem to be able to rationalize our little lies. We often lie to ourselves. And sometimes we even tell bigger lies.
Can we honor the impulse to lie? Who hasn’t felt that impulse to defend ourselves with a lie?
When we feel ready to talk to them about lying, we may want to start by acknowledging that it's normal to feel the impulse to lie, but we must practice being honest so that we can have a good relationship based on trust. That’s the nuance. We don’t make our kids “wrong” for feeling the impulse to lie...we help them see the benefits of not lying and guide them to making better choices. It’s not that we don’t expect more – we just bring more conscious awareness to the discussion. We stop reacting with judgment and instead do our own inquiry into our judgments and begin guiding with mindfulness and self-awareness.