Updated: May 19, 2020
In a lot of what I do as a parent coach, the emphasis is on changing behavior--parents come to me because their child is doing something they don't like, and they want to know how to make it stop.
With the focus on behavior, it's easy to overlook the importance of unconditional love. Of course, parents love their children or they wouldn't be seeking ways to be better parents, but it's important that we make sure we love them unconditionally --we have to separate the child from the behavior and what it may reflect about us, and make sure they never question our love.
This can be tricky. How do we communicate the fact that certain behavior is not acceptable, but that we love our child no matter what they do? Won't that be a mixed message, more confusing than helpful?
This possibility is why many people--including teachers, counselors, and some parenting experts -- object to the use of negative consequences, and certainly any idea of "punishment"; their thinking is that negative consequences will make the child believe they are unloved when they do certain things, and that they will have to behave in certain ways in order to gain our approval and love.
But it all depends on how you handle things. If the only interactions you ever have with your children occur when they misbehave, then of course this would be a big problem! But the fact is that MOST of your interactions with your children have nothing to do with misbehavior! Think about it: think about all the snuggles, the shared treats, the trips to the park, the bedtime stories, songs, and prayers; think about the hours you aren't even with them: when they are at school, when you are working around the house and they are playing, when they are asleep in their carseat--this is how most of your time with your children is spent.
We forget so much of this. We dwell on the times when we've had to deal with misbehavior for two reasons:
1. It really bothers us and disrupts our day
2. We very often don't handle it well
We wear ourselves out with nagging and threatening, and eventually lose our temper and yell. Unfortunately, the bad feelings that come with this tend to hang over us like a black cloud for a good while afterwards. We find ourselves sighing and scowling and snapping at our child out of irritation with ourselves and our short temper, even after the event has passed. Or, we feel guilty and bend over backward to compensate.
But you don't stop loving your child when you tell them how to behave. Gentle but firm correction is, itself, an expression of love! Our problem is we wait too long to do it, then end up frustrated, and the pattern repeats.
The most effective way to prevent your child getting the message that your love is based on their performance is "clean"; discipline:
You must correct, so be sure to do it quickly, without agonizing over it or waiting until you are at your wit's end.
When you mess up (and we all do!) shore up that foundation of unconditional love by doing the following:
Enjoy your child: laughing together, trips to the park, bedtime stories, singing children's songs, hugs and snuggles, and all the rest. Remember these times throughout the day.
Tell your child how much you love them, many times throughout the day. Make sure you say you love them just because they are yours, not because of their appearance, or just when they are "good".
Commend them for the strengths you see --are they learning to be patient, or persistent? Are they learning to overcome frustration? Are they learning new skills like dressing themselves or tying their shoes, or listening and obeying?
Tell them you see their hard work and are proud of how they are growing!
Avoid telling them they are "awesome"; or other general, over-the-top words. Instead, be specific--"I love the colors you chose for that picture!" or "I can tell you worked hard to make your bed look very neat!"
Don't talk about their misbehavior around other people, especially if they are able to hear you. Don't make them and their behavior a joke, make fun of them to others, or compare them to others--especially siblings!--treat them as you would want to be treated.
Make sure they know exactly what you expect of them--teach them how to behave in all the situations they'll encounter in the day. When they veer off course, gently but firmly correct them. It's when they don't know what you expect (either because you haven't told them, or haven't told them clearly) that they are most likely to behave in ways that are disruptive or inappropriate--and that you are most likely to lose your temper and do or say something you will later regret.
Remember--they are children. They are vulnerable. It may seem as though their misbehavior is designed to upset you (and sometimes it might be!) but you are their mother or father--be gentle, with loving looks and tender hugs.
Unconditional love is the foundation of a healthy parent-child relationship, but sometimes we don't communicate it very well to our children. Make sure they know they are completely loved, every single day, and that your correction of them is just another way you show this.