Loving unconditionally is a key ingredient for our children to build up ample confidence for their adulthood. When our existence is affirmed in our childhood, when our primary caregivers are attentive and supportive, chances are we'll grow up to affirm our own selves and become relatively independent from others. Happiness as in “engaging fully in life,” openhearted, focused and free, is going to come to us with greater ease.1
On the other hand, loving conditionally -- loving in exchange for certain characteristics, pleasantries or accomplishments – might well create unhealthy patterns of trying to elicit the love we never got (see blog: “Help, I Married My Father”). However, while most who read articles like this one know of the power of unconditional love, they find it hard to realize. First of all, what does unconditional love actually mean?
It is much easier to say what love is not, even though it can be quite difficult to stay away from modern pitfalls. Unconditional love is not a passive, all-permissive state of mind which never says “No” to your kid or will not teach the necessary skills for becoming a responsible, functional, loving adult. So, unconditional love certainly does not mean to let our kids spend as much screentime as they often want. Millions of parents look the other way as their kids spend countless hours with social media and video games. We know that this is harmful. New studies show that depression, feelings of loneliness and anxiety are on the rise, especially when kids sit before media for two hours or more.
Happiness requires time: time to move, connect, develop skills, focus on goals, get lost in our pursuits, enjoy inner serenity and sleep. How could it be that allowing our kids to waste time amounts to happiness? It could not. Instead, it’s socially acceptable neglect to let our immature kid stay immature and incapable of processing feelings. (By the way, I allow my kids to have some screentime and will not be paranoid about technology. I wish I had Facebook when I was a teen…. Everything in measure, as the Buddha said.)
Unconditional love is not a condition-free zone in your house, but in your heart. Age-appropriately, kindly and preferably by setting a good example ourselves, we can ask our kids to do this chore or else forget about that party to which they desperately want to go. While incentives are better than punishments, while natural consequences are better than arbitrary or artificial ones, having conditions in the house is not conditional love. It’s called parenting. Sometimes parenting is fun and sweet and cuddly. And sometimes it is not. To love our kid unconditionally is not always rewarded with gratitude, sadly. Even though I have the best kids in the world and I love them to pieces, they might hate my guts for my excellent parenting…. However, unconditional love means that I love them anyway, even when they hate my guts, resist, rebel, complain, slack, and demand. (Not that they do that. My kids are perfect. When they sleep).
To love unconditionally is to accept the nature of our kids and their developmental age, to give attention to them and to understand them.
ACCEPT YOUR KID'S NATURE
The nature of my kid includes the particular kind of intelligence she or he has; Howard Gardner suggested there are eight types: musical, logical-mathematical, linguistic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, bodily-kinesthetic, spatial, and natural (earth smart).2 Our kids’ nature also includes their sexual orientation, personal preferences, talents and weaknesses. Rejecting our kids for their emotions is dismissing the fact that the nature of Homo Sapiens is emotional; rejecting them for their thoughts is dismissing the human need to be curious and free.
ACCEPT YOUR KID'S DEVELOPMENTAL AGE
It can be extremely painful for children to be pressured to act like little adults. Our expectations ought to be appropriate. Make sure not to project your own pressure. Kids are very sensitive and notice subtle rejections based on more or less unconscious expectations, so make sure that you feel “good enough” about your own self. If you do not like yourself, it is hard to be patient with the behaviors of any particular stage.
GIVE ATTENTION TO YOUR KID
While hyper-focusing on your kid is a recipe for disaster, giving your undivided attention is crucial. Kids need to be seen and validated, otherwise they feel empty and lonely inside. Listen carefully. Put your own phone down and slow down your mind to see your kids’ facial expressions, to notice their true feelings, to mirror back their thoughts and respond to their many needs. Sometimes giving attention to your kid means to notice that she needs to become more independent from you. Sometimes it means to realize what skills she needs to be happy in this world.
UNDERSTAND YOUR KID
I once heard from a Native American that “to love” is “to know,” to truly, full-heartedly know. This means that I might disapprove of this or that, but understand my kid, at least most of the time -- Perfection is for the gods. As it stands, I am a mother, a good enough parent, not too squeamish to apologize to my kid and make a repair when needed. -- I spend a lot of time trying to understand my kids. It is not always easy and I won’t excuse everything that I understand. But I try to “get it.”
Maybe the most important ingredient to unconditional love is to love myself in that very way. No strings attached, I affirm my nature, give myself attention and understand myself. What a way to live….
NOTE: If this post in any way “spoke” to you, and you believe in might to others also, please consider sending them its link. Moreover, if you you’d like to read other articles I’ve written for Psychology Today, click here.
© 2017 Andrea F. Polard, PsyD. All Rights Reserved.