Of course you love your children and would never consciously reward your children with love and attention when they, for example, first sit up or walk, score their first goal, or get an A on a school test, or punish their failures with anger or rejection. The challenge is to become aware of the unconscious, and oftentimes unhealthy, messages of love you may send to your children that come from what I call the “dark side.”
What do I mean by the dark side? I mean that part of you that may be insecure, perfectionistic, or have a fear of failure. That side of you that is fearful, obsessive, or worrying. Let’s be realistic. You, like most parents, bring a lot of good things from our own upbringings, but the chances are that, as a human being, you may bring some less positive attributes that you got from our parents, what is commonly called your “baggage.” Parents who were emotionally distant, provided you with conditional love, were critical or judgmental, or caused you to feel inadequate can leave deep scars that persist into adulthood and can cause you to behave as a parent the way your parents treated you as a child.
It's completely natural to get excited when your children achieve some developmental milestone, particularly if it is reached sooner than most children. And you may very well feel a twinge of disappointment or frustration when your children aren't as far along in their development as their peers. That too is a normal reaction for parents who want their children to be the best they can be. Plus, few of us are immune to the feeling that we will be judged by others based on our children or to the messages from our parenting culture that earlier and faster is better.
But if your emotional reactions are too strong, then it’s likely that your baggage is causing you to send unintended, though powerful, messages of love to your children from your dark side. When you do this, you are passing on your own baggage just as surely as you are passing on your hair color or body type through your genetics. If you are anxious or critical or emotionally cold, they will likely be as well. Your gift to your children is for you to gain awareness and control over your baggage so that your expressions of love come from your “light side” and enable them to feel loved and safe.
I experienced my own dark side of love when helping my eldest daughter learn to ride her bike when she was six years old. While running along side and supporting her, she wasn't looking where she was going, trying to pedal, or steering straight ahead. After several gentle reminders, I became increasingly frustrated and irritated by what I perceived to be her lack of effort and expressed it to her with a clearly angry tone.
Within seconds my daughter was in tears and I experienced the worst parenting moment of my fatherhood. I did exactly what I counsel others not to do; I allowed my baggage, in this case, my insecurities about being a late starter, to dictate the messages I sent her about her biking. Of course, I loved her, but those were definitely not the messages my six year old was getting from me.
I felt absolutely horrible that I had hurt my daughter. And I was afraid that she might never want to bicycle again. I was even more worried that I had scarred her for life! In fact, Catie didn't ride her bike for several weeks, but then one day she asked if I would go out with her for a ride. As we headed to the garage, she stopped, looked me in the eye, and, with an earnestness that only children can express, asked me if I was going to be nice to her this time. With my heart in my throat and tears in my eyes, I gave her a big hug and promised her that I would be very nice, and I was.
The messages of love that you send your children early in their lives are so important for two reasons. First, they may establish very early their perceptions about how you love them. If your messages of love come from your dark side, future messages they receive from you will be colored in that way.
Second, the types of messages of love you send early on may also determine the tone of the messages that you communicate to your children when they board the achievement train, including school, sports, and the performing arts, that may become such a big part of their lives. The more dark messages of love you send, the more likely you will continue to send those dark messages to your children throughout their childhood.
You want the early messages of love your children get from you to be healthy, helping them to establish that wonderful foundation of self-love (the good kind), positive self-regard, security, confidence, and simply comfort in who they are. And for that love to guide them as they grow through childhood and prepare them for the challenges they will inevitably face as they enter that “big, cruel world” known as adulthood.