I’ve been thinking about unconditional love a lot lately. What it means to me, what it means to my son, my parents, the parents I work with, my friends, my partner, the kids I see daily, the teens who come in feeling so alone and misunderstood, the trauma survivors that have had their sense of self-worth completely shattered.
I know without a doubt that I love my son unconditionally. But does he know that? Do I show him that, or do I expect him to know it, just because I know it? Over the last few months, I have been paying closer attention to how I speak to my son. I have been hearing myself constantly at two ends of what I’ve started calling the “value spectrum”: praising or criticizing. I have noticed I am often talking to my son about his worth--his inherent value-- based on things that are conditional. “Oh my god, that drawing- it’s so good!! You’re so talented honey, I’m so proud of you!” or “you’re so cute and smart when you name all your favorite dinosaurs”. Giving him praise based on the condition that he is good at something. And then there’s this: “Another red day?? What happened now? You can’t act like that- you need to be good at school- you need to listen” or “Seriously?? How many times do I have to tell you to stop doing that?? Why can’t you just listen to me?”. Criticizing him based on the condition that he should be good/better/perfect. ((Funny how that so resembles my own inner voice))
What I find most interesting is when I first became a parent, I thought very carefully about how I wanted to show my love to my child. I thought a lot about my language-- avoiding phrases like, “good boy” or “you’re being bad”; freely giving praise for authentic traits, such as kindness, empathy, and the ability to express oneself vs. just praising based on performance or ability. I thought a lot about gender and sexuality-- steering away from gender specific toys; not labeling pink as for girls and blue as for boys; about not “pairing up” my son with the other cute 2 year old baby girl in the room, because that’s just weird. I thought a lot about teaching respect and intrinsic motivation-- staying firm yet fair, consistent yet reasonable with expectations; about learning to do the right thing because it’s the right thing- not because you might get in trouble if you do something else.
I thought a lot about my values as a parent. About giving unconditional love and fostering individuality. About raising a respectful, kind, and open-minded child. And then something happened. Looking back, I can trace it to the beginning of my son’s school career-- the very young age of 3. It started with the smiley faces and sticker charts. It started with me, as a mom, starting to feel the pressure of making sure my child lived up to someone else’s standards. My son went to a wonderful pre-k program- I wouldn’t have wanted him anywhere else. So it wasn’t anything that they did wrong; it was just the beginning of the subtle shift from a kid just being a kid ( a toddler still, really), to a young child having an awful lot of expectations placed on him.
During my son’s pre-k years, we also had quite a few shifts in our family. His father stopped being a part of his life, we moved more than once, and our family went through some major life-changing events. As a mom, my guilt-factor increased 10 fold. I was feeling more and more every day like I was failing as a mom, because I was watching my child struggle emotionally and behaviorally. I was watching my son suffer, and I could do nothing about it. So I did what I thought would help, even though it was against my better judgment. I ramped back up with the sticker charts, and the rewards and punishments. I was frustrated, irritable, and yelling; a lot. How could I not be? I was constantly setting my son and myself up for failure- by making everything a power struggle. By constantly praising and then criticizing him. Essentially leaving him constantly seeking my approval and simultaneously being afraid of my rejection. Through my actions, and even sometimes through my words, my son was getting the message that he was worthy of my love if he met these conditions I was placing on him, that school was placing on him (he’s in kindergarten now- so the expectations are even more so), that he was learning to place on himself.
This was the birthplace of the realization that I wasn’t showing my son the values that are important to me. I will never claim to be a perfect parent, and I don’t think I have to be perfect. But I want to be authentic; I want to raise my son with intention. I want to help him grow into a young man that thinks of and speaks kindly to himself, so that in turn he will do the same to others. I want him to grow into whatever he needs/wants to grow into, and have him know that his mom is on his side no matter what. Does that mean approval of every choice? No-- of course not. But I will have raised him to know that approval and love are not the same things. Approval is based on conditions-- love is based on the absence of them.
This is why I love working with parents, especially single moms. I genuinely believe that as parents we all want to love our children unconditionally. We want our kids to turn into adults who are kind and caring and respectful. We can just get so lost along the path. And hey-- this is a judgment free zone. I can promise you right now, that I still yell at my son from time to time. And I’m still trying to scale back on the “aw, that’s so cute” refrain that is so often parroting out of my mouth. And- I’m still trying to lay off parent-guilt factor and cut myself a little slack. After all, if I can’t show myself unconditional love, how can I possibly show it to my child?
This was the birthplace of The Mindful Life Series: Family Edition. This is a group that we are running twice a year that works with parents and kids in a separate setting, but at the same time. This gives the parents some time on their own to reflect on their parenting, and kids get a chance to just be kids. I am on a mission to teach parents and kids about mindfulness, in the context of the family setting. It all starts at home. We don’t need to be perfect, and neither do our kids. We all should have the space to be just as we are in the comfort of our own home. Again-- this doesn’t mean allowing and approving of all behaviors-- but rather separating out the behaviors from the child. Being mindful of our language, our messages we’re sending, our values that we are teaching and sharing.
One of my favorites, Dr. Brene Brown, sums it up much more eloquently than I ever could,
“Those who have a strong sense of love and belonging have the courage to be imperfect”.
Isn’t that ultimately what we all want for our kids? I can only speak for myself, but I’m pretty sure it resonates across most parents. I want my son to know that he will make mistakes, and that it’s ok. I want him to know that he can own up to his mistakes, not cover over them or place the blame on someone else. I want him to know that he is worthy of love, no matter what. And here’s the biggest thing that I’m learning right now: I am in control of NOTHING except my own actions-- and that includes my son. That’s super scary to process, because as a parent I want to have control over him so I can ENSURE that he will grow up to be a kind, respectful, productive member of society. But at the end of the day, I am not in control of that. So I need to do my very best right now to raise him in a manner that will most likely lead to that outcome---because I do have control over my own actions as a parent.
Peace and Good Vibes,
Kait Marcil, LPC