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 fathers 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 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 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?”
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.