Valentine’s Day got me thinking about something we all seem to crave: Unconditional love. Readers and clients tell me all the time how unconditional love, especially for a child or a parent, is the highest ideal we could live up to. Really? Let’s look a little closer.
People crave unconditional love because it’s natural to want to be loved just for who you are. But even the phrase “for who you are” implies a stipulation that someone loves you for the qualities you possess. Let’s say you work hard to be handsome or beautiful. Don’t you want someone to appreciate the results of your efforts? Or let’s say you’re intelligent and courageous. Wouldn’t you prefer to be loved by someone who values intelligence and courage, rather than someone who couldn’t care less?
My point is this: Conditions are inescapable. As an adult, you can’t love, or be loved, unconditionally. Of course young children in their early years need to feel just plain loved, but older children will not benefit from literal unconditional love that sends them the message that the parents blindly accept everything the child does – all in the interest of his or her supposed “self-esteem.” So, if the child lies or steals, a parent should not show anger or hurt at the risk of implying that their love is in jeopardy. Forget about telling the child that lying or stealing is wrong. If their love is truly unconditional, then there’s no need for right and wrong. That’s no way to raise a kid.
This isn’t to say that children don’t require a highly tolerant form of love. After all, their intellectual and psychological development is not yet complete. But even then, this love must include limits and conditions. If your child accidentally breaks a vase, you’ll feel temporary irritation. But you say, “Yes, I was aggravated when you dropped the vase, but I never stopped loving you.”
On the other hand, if your child does something deliberately malicious, such as stealing or initiating violence outside of self-defense, then in that particular context you should wholeheartedly withdraw your approval. You should tell him why you disapprove of his actions, and why you’re disappointed in his choice to act that way. You can make it clear that you will forgive him only if he shows resolve not to repeat the behavior. My experience over the years has shown that the last thing a child needs to hear is that he or she will (and should) always be loved regardless of actions and behavior. A child needs to learn the distinction between innocent errors (like how easily vases can break) and willful actions such as lying, theft and violence. Of course, children need patience and time to acquire adult knowledge. That’s precisely why parents must teach the child about right and wrong by applying consistent conditions and clearly stated consequences.
Such lessons can be difficult, and may require a temporary withdrawal of affection between the parent and the child. Such an approach is kinder because it helps the child learn to think beyond the immediate whims of the moment. Without such training, he or she is likely to remain a child forever, from a psychological point-of-view.
Conditions are part of life, and are most often implicit. It’s dishonest to claim that you love someone “unconditionally.” After all, don’t you love someone because they’re special and because they stand out in some way? Admiration and respect are a part of love. Parents love their children precisely because they are their own.
Be careful what you ask for! Unconditional love can include loving somebody out of pity, the need for control or for equally dishonest motives (which are, in fact, still conditions). This just doesn’t seem like the ideal relationship. There are always reasons why people are loved, whether they want to admit it or not. And the same goes for kids. By denying them conditions and consequences, they will never grow past the artificial “safe haven” of childhood and into independent and secure adults.
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