Most of us struggle with the very real and painful condition of never feeling good enough. And it got created in childhood with the best of intentions - the desire all parents have to help our kids make friends, be good people, grow into successful adults and thrive in life.
I know you love your kids. Unconditionally.
The real question isn’t whether we love our kids, but rather – do they FEEL loved unconditionally.
You may be thinking, “Of course they do!” But so often I find that we make love and acceptance conditional—without even realizing it. Or should I say, kids come to believe that their parents' love and acceptance have strings attached. That they must behave and act in certain ways in order to feel that love and acceptance from us.
It's a tricky little dilemma - how do we show them we love them for who they are and set high standards. How do show them we love them for who they are and also push them a little bit? How do we show them we love them for who they are and also expect them to do things they have to do?
This is really “up” for me right now. My older son is off to high school next year, and I'm really curious how we’ll be able to ensure he feels loved no matter what he does and who he is, while still setting high standards for him to live up to his potential.
You see, while I've always loved my kids, my own actions haven’t always shown my love unconditionally. By realizing this, I hope to do better. Wouldn’t you like to show your kids unconditional love too?
Let’s agree on this starting point: Everything we do is well-intentioned and totally comes from the place of love.
Now stick with me when we dissect where our intentions and our kids’ perceptions differ.
We want our kids to be accepted by their friends so we encourage tweaks and adjustments to their personality (toughen up, kiddo). We want them to be acceptable in society, so we urge changes in behaviors (stop chewing with your mouth open). We want them to be successful and do great things, so we set a high bar (all A's and you’ll get that new iPhone) and rationalize that it’s our job to stretch them and ensure their success and financial independence. We want them to be responsible so we nag them about their laundry, homework, and the toilet seat.
We're trying to protect them.
But what if … to a child … those minor adjustments, pressures, and nudges are heard as you aren’t enough or I’d love you more if you… or I don’t love you as you are. Especially when we deliver them with a harsh tone or insensitivity to their tender heart.
MY HEART BREAKS A LITTLE AS I THINK ABOUT HOW MANY TIMES I’VE BEEN CRITICAL OF MY KIDS.
It’s tricky territory. We want them to be socially conditioned enough so they’ll have friends and be likable. We want them to be accepted by their peers. There’s a pretty widely held belief out there that it’s our obligation to shape them into “something better.” And, that if we don’t, our kids would surely miss the mark, end up a mess, and become homeless or live forever in our basement.
BUT, WHAT MESSAGES ARE WE REALLY SENDING?
Ironically and regretfully, in order to make them into this “better” person that will be more “acceptable” to others, I fear we actually might be creating a situation where our kids don’t feel acceptable … to us! (and then in the future, where they don't feel good enough, don't love themselves)
When we were little, the same thing happened to us. We were taught that there are parts of us that aren’t acceptable (you’re too silly, too shy, too geeky, too quirky, too bold, sing too loud, aren’t grateful, want too much, are too much . . .).
We learned to reject parts of ourselves to be accepted by our primary caregivers—we learned that in order to feel that love, we need to act the way that makes us most lovable. And that was what created our "not good enough" story in our head.
Even if you would never, ever in a million years stop loving your child no matter what he or she does, it’s possible that little messages you send are being perceived by your little one as conditional love: “I'll love you more if you stop doing x or start doing y.” Or worse, they may feel afraid that they will lose your love, affection, attention or acceptance if they don't change who they are or do what you suggest (or demand).
Ultimately, we create disconnection in our relationship. Which is the opposite of what we want.
So how do we show unconditional love? How do we rebuild the connection?
TODAY TRY THESE 8 THINGS:
1 – Bite your tongue. When you want to criticize, stop and find something you love about your child to focus on. Spend time really connecting with why this bothers you so much.
2 - Rather than criticize, try to relate to them, offer an invitation and show a path for growth. Perhaps they're struggling to make friends and you know it's because they do a few very annoying things. You want to just tell him how he can be better and do better. Perhaps instead, you could share a story about when it was hard for you to make friends. And then ask if they'd be open to some things you learned. Then maybe you can add in a few lessons that would be helpful to your child. Invite them to give it a try. Be in it WITH THEM. Ask them to report back to see if it helps. Caution: try not to encourage your child to be someone they aren't.
3 – Separate the behavior from the child. Instead of: “You’re such a slob. Why can’t you put your clothes in the hamper?” - talk neutrally only about the behavior ("the clothes belong in the hamper" or "please put your clothes in the hamper"). I know it’s tough, especially when you feel like you are constantly reminding your child about something. But try. Stop, get calm, say what you need to say about the behavior. And get over the idea that they "should" know this by now.
4 – Avoid labeling. Labels (slob, shy, lazy, athletic, funny, soooo kind, an “A student”, forgetful, too loud, too quiet, genius, wild, quiet, chatty) can stick and potentially keep our kids from becoming who they really are. And sometimes they aren’t really accurate – perhaps based on our interpretations and fears. If it’s a “negative” trait, get curious about why this trait bothers you, what are you worried about? If it’s a more positive trait, get curious why it’s so important to you that your child be [trait]. Labels limit us from seeing the real and unique child in front of us – their complex, contradictory, multidimensional little selves.
5 – Make time to be present. Our kids want time with us more than they say they do. This week, find 5 minutes free from distractions. In this time, put aside your preconceived notions of who your child is and pretend you are just meeting him or her. Each time see if you can learn something new about him or her. Perhaps sit down while they are watching a video and ask them what kind of videos they most like on YouTube. Ask them to teach you to play a game. Jump on the trampoline. Walk the dog. Eat ice cream.
6 - Be clear and explicit that your suggestions having nothing to do with your love and acceptance. While you may feel you need to discipline your child, tell her what you expect and help her to be better, you can do this with love. Never withdraw love as a strategy for compliance. Always remind them that you love them and you are there with them and for them as they learn how to grow up, relate to others and be a good citizen of the home and world.
7 - Cultivate Autonomy. Everyone wants to feel like they have volition, or control over their lives. Whenever possible, have a conversation and ask questions. Help them to come up with their own solutions and ideas for their challenges in life.
8 - Model the Behavior You Want. This is probably the most effective way to raise kids. They learn more from who we are and how we show up in the world than what we say to them. Focus more on you being the type of person you want your kids to become, than trying to tweak and adjust them. Be in it WITH them. Often we want our kids to avoid the challenges we went through so we try to protect them, or tell them how to be, think and act. Live your values and they will learn it through living with you.
And if you’re thinking, but it’s my job to teach my children how to survive in this world - I completely agree! And, I think we can love our children unconditionally, help them grow and become their best selves and guide them to thrive in a sometimes really challenging world.
WANT TO GO DEEPER?
Here’s a bigger stretch goal – accept and love yourself unconditionally. This does NOT mean that we don’t expect more from ourselves. But we don’t do better because we beat ourselves up. Face it, we’re all imperfect humans. If we can practice accepting the things about ourselves that we don’t like, it will naturally get easier to accept those things in our kids. I know this is edgy. Let’s say they’re lying. I’m not suggesting that we accept that they are “liars.” Rather, I’d like us to really examine our relationship with lying and not condemn them. The truth is that most people lie (even you). Can we honor the impulse to lie? Who hasn’t felt that impulse to defend ourselves with a lie? And then talk about why we must practice being honest so that we can have a good relationship based on trust? That’s the nuance. We don’t make our kids “wrong” for feeling the impulse to lie...we help them see the benefits of not lying and guide them to making better choices. It’s not that we don’t expect more – we just bring more conscious awareness to the discussion. We stop reacting with judgment and instead start guiding with mindfulness and compassion.
We help them to understand that life can be hard, but we are always by their side, figuring it out together.
You love your kids. Make sure they know—and feel—your unconditional love to keep your connection strong.
What's your experience around this? How have you navigated this path without being too permissive nor too strict?