Did you see the recent Channel 9 production, “Parental Guidance”? I confess that I didn’t watch the whole program but I was interested to see how they handled the topic. For those who didn’t see it, 10 families were chosen according to their parenting style and were asked as families to do various challenges in order to demonstrate how their parenting style works in day to day situations. Unfortunately, it was treated as a competition, but it was encouraging to see how the parents themselves were more interested in learning from each other than being picked as having the “best parenting style”.
While the program intended to compare the parenting styles and make a judgement on which was the best one, this kind of focus can be very limiting. Interestingly, while all the parents involved were different in their approach, they appeared to have one thing in common that is foundational to successful parenting – they were all intentional about showing love to their kids through the ways they were involved with them. You might say that this is obvious, but I’d like to point out that the key word here is “intentional”.
I’m sure that most parents, like you and I, would say they love their children. But how can we be sure that our children know they are loved? From a parent’s point of view, in the early days, it seems simple as to how we show our love to them – by meeting their day to day needs, by feeding, holding and comforting them. But we need to remember that their greatest emotional need is love, which is key for their ongoing mental and emotional growth and health. So, if the child’s love needs are not met things will not go so well. Therefore, the love relationship between the parent and child is foundational to raising children.
So what should this love relationship look like? Children need to know that they are loved unconditionally, loved no matter what they do or don’t do. If we focus on things like their behaviour and achievements and only show approval or love when they do what we want, they learn that our love is conditional, that it is turned off when we are not pleased with them. But if we can show them that we love them no matter what, we are showing them they are loved and of value despite their failings.
But before we go any further, this is not about spoiling them. Unconditional love for our children is not saying we let them do whatever they want or behave in any way they feel like. If we do that, we are not providing age appropriate boundaries which actually give children a sense of security as well as help them grow in responsibility. To the contrary, unconditional love provides the environment for our child to grow into a giving and loving adult. This is because it affects our relationship with them, and in turn influences how they feel about themselves and how they relate to others.
Another way to look at it, is to contrast it with conditional love. Conditional love is given based on performance or what we might get out of someone, such as when we might focus on training techniques like offering rewards, privileges and gifts to get our children to behave or perform in desirable ways. Conditional love can also look like withholding love from our child by deliberately not speaking to them or being cold toward them when we are upset with their behaviour, or when we are disappointed with their performance. Imagine the rejection the child feels when treated like this.
Alternatively, there might be times where we just don’t feel genuine in showing love, or it feels that we don’t have any love to give because of our own emotional tiredness or the challenges we face with situations in our life. But this is where we need to realise that unconditional love can be acted on no matter how we feel. Unconditional love is about letting your child know you love them, even when you don’t feel it, and even when you don’t like their behaviour. It’s about showing them you value them, despite their behaviour or the fact that they have not lived up to your expectations.
You might now be asking, how can I try to make sure my child knows that I love them unconditionally? How can I communicate this to them even when I’m not feeling up to it? I’d like to recommend you get hold of a book that has very practical ideas on how to communicate your love to your children. It’s an easy read and it also gives insights into how to handle some tricky situations. It’s called “The Five Love Languages of Children”, written by Gary Chapman and Ross Campbell (available at Amazon and on Audible). Putting the principles of this book into practice will not only enrich your relationship with your child but also has the potential to enrich your relationships with other significant people in your life.
Mrs Yvonne Crawford / Counsellor