Much about the psychology of raising children is at best theory, and even then, it is often theory without rigorous research to back it up. If it sounds reasonable to a 40-year-old, it is assumed to be true for a four-year-old as well. But there is one thing that we know for sure: children require unconditional love to mature in strong ways with the capacity to form and maintain loving relationships.
Unconditional love is just that–unconditional. It doesn’t matter about school grades, performance on athletic teams, behavior at the dinner table, or attitude. I am convinced that unconditional love is more difficult to deliver than we may think. It isn’t easy, and it isn’t automatic. We just cannot give it all the time, in all circumstances. The good news is, it doesn’t have to be perfect or constant. It just has to be good enough and often enough.
It is unconditional love that tells our children that we believe in them and trust them regardless of how successful they may be in any particular endeavor. It is unconditional love that gives them reassurance that they are in a safe place, able to test their own limits, and explore their own feelings. It is unconditional love that makes it possible for children to develop resilience and the courage to fall, get up, dust themselves off, and try again.
Our children need to hear that we love them “no matter what.” They need the physical contact and affirmation–such as hugs–that communicate love and the message that we want to be close to them. They need for us to be clear about the difference between guilt and shame. Guilt is the condition that exists when I have done something wrong. Shame is the notion that I am a bad person because of it. Children need correction and direction; we all do. Shame is destructive.
Most of all, unconditional love is communicated by the honest act of loving without limits. It isn’t a technique. It is simply what happens when we love. Children know it when they see it. ■