Merit Based Love

We often give lip service to the idea of “unconditional love” but few fully understand or apply it. Unconditional love means that one feels and expresses love no matter the behavior of the recipient. This is the whole message of The Way Mothers Are. Of course we all love our children unconditionally. But unfortunately, we do not always express this love unconditionally. Children cannot read our minds or our hearts. We have to demonstrate how we feel about them repeatedly and persistently.

The opposite of unconditional love is something I like to call “merit based love.” This is when we withhold love until the recipient of that love complies with our wishes, reaches a certain level of competency, or in anyway “earns” the expression of our love.

When a child “performs” well (gets a good grade, is obedient, shares, sounds out a new word correctly etc) they typically experience a positive adult reaction. The adult might smile, give the child a hug, give verbal praise, or publicly congratulate the child. In these moments, children. feel. loved. When they fail, disobey, or throw a tantrum they typically experience a negative adult reaction. In these moments children do not feel loved. While our deep feelings about our children have not changed (we still love them) our expressed feelings tell a different story.

This can lead the child to believe that their parent’s love for them IS conditional upon their positive performance. Naturally, this can create a feeling of fear around trying new things. If you try something new, you might fail. If you fail, your parent might stop loving you. This line of logic might sound extreme but having lived within this framework my entire life, I can attest that it is true.

The good news is that we can become conscious about expressing love despite bad behavior or performance and reverse this trend in the coming generation! Wait, I know what you are thinking… “If we praise our children when they misbehave, won’t they just misbehave more? I’m not going to approve or tolerate bad behavior from my children.” Right? I completely agree. However, there is a difference between LOVE and APPROVAL. There is a difference between LOVE and TRUST.

We need not tolerate behavior unconditionally. We need not trust unconditionally.

Once upon a time there was a father with two sons. One son was consistently reliable and obedient. The other son was at times rebellious, frivolous, and frequently disregarded his father’s council. Both sons had an interest in borrowing the father’s car. The father happily gave the keys to the consistently obedient son. His son that performed well. However, the father refused to lend the keys to his less obedient son. His son that performed poorly. So which of these sons did he love more?

Neither. He loves them both unconditionally, but he does not have to TRUST them unconditionally. Trust is rightfully conditional.

There is great power in explaining this transparently to your children. In our home, we frequently tell our children that we love them all the way, no matter what. We love them when they are naughty, when they are out of control, when they are hitting and kicking and screaming. However, in those moments, I cannot trust that child. I am also transparent about that fact. I say things like “It seems like you are having a really hard time being kind to your brother right now. I love you all the way, no matter what, but I’m having a hard time trusting you right now. How can I help you get calm and choose kindness so that we can trust each other again?”

We have even gone so far as to give each of our children 3 blocks to illustrate this. The first block is LOVE. This block is never taken from the child no matter what. The second block is TRUST. This one can come and go based on behavior. The third block is APPROVAL. This one comes in handy when kids get a little older and are making decisions that might not necessarily decrease trust, but you aren’t super jazzed about. Taking away your approval can be a simple way of letting your child know that you don’t support them in that choice, but that you still love and trust them.

This might seem a little heady for a 3 and 4 year old, but it’s amazing how much sense it makes to them. Sometimes, when they are making good choices, they will look at me and say something like, “Mom-look how gentle I am being! Does this help you trust me?” I love these moments.

So what does this have to do with education? Well, when we explicitly teach and purposefully express true unconditional love, we make our children feel safe to try and safe to fail. Repeated trying is the key to progress in the acquisition of any knowledge or skill. Love is the foundation of all lasting growth.

“Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is love…”   -Thomas Merton

4 thoughts on “Merit Based Love

  1. I love this concept. It is one I think about as I’m disciplining my children. The foundation of love is critical for them to feel safe. It’s a great reminder for me to make this concept clear to my kids: that my love for them does not change with their behavior. What a beautiful haven this will create for their hearts if they understand this!

  2. This is exactly what this generation needs! I love this. My 5 year old son has been randomly asking me if I love him when he disobeys, etc. and I always tell him I love him no matter what. This idea of explaining the trust between us in those hard moments is just what I need to help him further understand. We also have been working on connecting with our children when they are having a hard time or acting out instead of what is typically used these days- punishing them by distancing them from us (time outs, being sent to their room, etc.) and wow, it really is blessing our lives! Can’t wait to read more of your heart based posts in the future!!

  3. I was just listening to a TED podcast where this principle at a poor performing inner city school with lots of discipline problems talked about how she turned things around. She said she started & ended everyday on the loud speaker with the line, “and if no one has told you today that they love you, remember that I love you.” And that constantly reminding the kids of this actually allowed her to discipline them more, because it came from a place of love.

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