Shortly after our marriage, my husband gave me a ring that his mother had worn for many years. A few years later, I misplaced it. As I frantically searched for the safe place where I had put it (and promptly forgotten), my husband kept telling me that everything was OK.
“No,” I kept saying, “It’s a family heirloom, and you eventually wanted to give it to your children. I should have taken better care of it.”
Finally realizing that his reassurances weren’t getting through, my husband put his hands on my shoulders and spoke very calmly. “Yes," he said, "it’s a family heirloom and I do want to pass it on to my children. Yes, you should have taken better care of it. But it’s OK. It’s just a ring, and we will survive if you lose it.”
I immediately calmed down and felt better. It wasn’t because, as my sister claims, my husband agreed with me. It was because I realized that he had a clear view of my mistakes, and he still loved and accepted me anyway. (Yes, I did eventually find the ring in a very safe and obscure hiding place.)
In the years since, I’ve thought often of that incident as I parented foster and stepchildren. Our kids want from us the same unconditional acceptance and love that each of us wants in our most important relationships. Part of the equation is that our children also need to know that we see them clearly. Otherwise, they won't believe that we truly love them for who they are.
A study that I mentioned in an earlier blog post illustrates this dynamic. Researchers studied how adults praised the children in their lives who had low self-esteem. The study found that if the adults praised children for their intrinsic qualities (“you are smart”), the young people felt more ashamed if they failed. One theory the study authors proposed to explain the effect is that praise about intrinsic qualities “implies conditional regard, conveying to children that they are valued as a person only when they succeed.”
Understanding this dynamic is important because our kids inevitably will fail at something. It’s the nature of the real world. And, unfortunately, some of our kids have failed, or been told they failed, more than most kids. If they believe that our love is conditioned on their achievements or successful behavior, then they will never feel secure. Without emotional security, they will never be able to build a healthy relationship with us.
So how do we develop and communicate unconditional love for our kids? Some important tips that I have found and seen in action can help us find the best ways to do the heavy lifting of unconditional parenting.
• Know Why Unconditional Love is Important
There are numerous studies showing that unconditional love is essential to raising resilient, well-adjusted kids. Unfortunately, our stepchildren and foster kids may have missed out on that type of love from one or more of their parents. Our kids may be struggling with negative emotions and possible mental health issues. Many of them have suffered from a lack of parental warmth or loving relationships. Part of our job will be to help them through that emotional pain, and the only way to do it is to help provide that critical element of unconditional love. We can't replace their parents, but we can be an adult who shows them kind of love and acceptance that will last a lifetime.
• Know What Unconditional Love Is and Is Not
According to most definitions that you will find, unconditional love means that we recognize our kids' value apart from their behavior or attitudes. Unconditional love does not mean we accept just any sort of behavior from our kids. Part of our job is to set clear standards of good behavior and hold our kids to them. But we have to separate the kids' value from their behavior. A phrase from the Christian community sums it up as “love the sinner, but not the sin.”
This concept of separating worth from behavior is not easy, and it can be particularly hard in our current culture. Too much of our educational establishment has taught kids (wrongly) that disagreement with their beliefs or choices is a reflection on their value. That’s a very unhealthy attitude, and our kids will face unnecessarily difficult times if they adopt it. But to convince them otherwise, we first have to show them otherwise. We have to find ways of showing them that, no matter what they do, we still care about them. We may not be able to support their choices, but we love them.
In other words, unconditional love is not the same as enabling inappropriate behavior. To take an obvious example, we can unconditionally love a person struggling with substance abuse while we condemn their choices to feed their addiction. Most of us won’t face such serious problems with our children. Nevertheless, the principle is the same — our job is to provide structure to our children, and part of that structure is enforcing and letting them suffer from the logical consequences of their decisions.
I ran across a study of unconditional acceptance in the sports context that has some fascinating examples. It's a master's thesis and the research consisted of in-depth interviews of 11 former high-level figure skaters. Most of the athletes who described unconditional acceptance from their coaches also described the coaches' "not always tolerating behaviors that [the skaters] could learn to control." These skaters "described a sense of knowing that their coaches’ consequences were meant to help them become better people and athletes."
In other words, loving our children unconditionally often requires that we let them learn from their mistakes. If we bail them out every time, they start expecting to be bailed out every time. They never learn those life lessons that they can best learn from experience. But throughout their experience of making the mistakes and paying the consequences, every child needs to know that we love them and have faith in them.
• Keep Mistakes in Perspective
An essential part of unconditional acceptance is keeping our kids’ mistakes in perspective. The best ways to gain that perspective are to listen to our children, to broaden our personal experiences and to learn from the experiences of people we trust. So the next time your child does something outrageous, take a deep breath and think through how your child's misbehavior fits into the overall scheme of things.
First, take the time to get your child's point of view. Sometimes they are at a stage of child development that makes bizarre things seem logical to them. Other times, they may just have acted on negative feelings without understanding why. Or perhaps they simply lack the emotional intelligence to understand how their actions affect other people. Even if their reason is wrong or illogical, our asking before we react can at least make sure that our child feels heard and noticed.
Next, look at your experience, or even your own mistakes. My years of raising other people’s children has given me a lot of experience with bad decisions that kids can make. I joke that I have learned all about teens from having conversations ranging from “Who is this strange young man in my house at midnight?” to “No, I won’t bail you out of jail for drug possession.” With that backdrop, I don’t get very excited about a child who flunks a test.
Because I’m a lawyer, I often get requests to help extended family members with traffic tickets, car accidents, and other minor charges. Those experiences also have affected my perspective of mistakes. I often respond to a story about a new mishap with the comment, “Well, on the scale of Stupid Things My Family and I Have Done, that’s about a 3.” The broad perspective helps me reassure whoever has made the mistake that I still love and accept them.
If you haven’t had broad experience, learn from people who have. I once spoke to a foster parents’ association where one experienced foster parent described the chaos when the school reported one of her foster teens for cutting school and the police arrived to enforce the truancy law. The responses of the group alternated between shock and sympathetic head-nodding. For foster parents who had not yet faced similar problems, it was an invaluable experience in gaining perspective.
These first three tips only scratch the surface of seeing our kids clearly and loving them anyway. Watch my next post for more ways of giving our kids the gift of unconditional love.