Unconditional acceptance may be desirable, but is it possible?
Before responding to this critical question, let's be clear about
what we're asking. The issue here is not whether people can accept
themselves without conditions - that is, whether anyone has
truly unconditional self-esteem. Rather, what we want to know is
whether it's realistic to think that we can accept and love our
children for who they are, with no strings attached.
Here I think the answer is clearly yes. Lots of parents feel
that way. But is it possible, on a day-to-day basis, to act with
our children in such a way that they never doubt our love? Keep in
mind that we have to frustrate them by saying no sometimes.
Occasionally we may become impatient or even angry with them. And
children often have trouble distinguishing people's underlying
feelings from their passing moods. So can we ensure that they'll
always feel unconditionally loved?
Probably not. But our objective should be to come as close as
possible to that ideal. After all, perfect happiness may also be
an unreachable goal; it is, as one writer put it, an imaginary
condition that's usually attributed to children by adults, and to
adults by children. But that doesn't (and shouldn't) stop people
from trying to be happier than they are. The same is true of
kindness, wisdom, and other qualities that are imperfectly
The fact that so many parents seem to accept their children
only conditionally doesn't make that practice any less damaging or
any more acceptable. And remember, we're not talking about
spoiling kids or taking a hands-off approach to raising them.
Unconditional parents play an active role in the lives of their
children, protecting them and helping them learn right from wrong.
In short, the question isn't whether we should try to come
closer to being unconditional parents. Nor is there much doubt
about whether we can do so. Just because there will always
be room for improvement doesn't mean that we can't do better than
we're currently doing. We can and we should. The question is how.
The first step is simply to be mindful of the whole issue of
unconditional parenting. The more we're thinking along these
lines, reflecting on whether the things we do and say to our kids
could reasonably be interpreted as conditional affection (and, if
so, why), the more likely we are to change what we do. Consider a
parent who reports the following: "We were trying to figure
out what to do with our son, who yelled something nasty and
slammed his door after I asked him to tidy up his room. Should we
give him a few minutes to calm down? How firm should we be? I'd
never really thought about this before, but now I'm wondering
whether the things we were thinking of doing will leave him
feeling we don't love him when he's angry." My point is that
merely considering that possibility is a move in the right
direction, regardless of how this parent finally decides to handle
the situation. Second, we need to get in the habit of asking
ourselves a very specific question: "If that comment I just
made to my child had been made to me - or if what I just did had
been done to me - would I feel unconditionally loved?" It's
not terribly complicated to perform this sort of imaginative
reversal, but to do so on a regular basis can be nothing short of
When the answer to that question is clearly no, it brings us up
short. We might conclude that what we just did is something we
shouldn't do again. We might be moved to offer an apology. But if
we don't ask this question, it's easy to continue justifying
anything we do. In fact, some parents, upon realizing that what
they said or did had a negative effect, may even tell themselves
that the child is just being too sensitive. Once we ask ourselves,
"How would I have felt?" it's a lot harder to let
ourselves off the hook.
As soon as a child is born, it's time to think about our
parenting style, and specifically about the way we react when
things don't go smoothly. Do we make sure that an infant feels
loved and accepted even when she won't stop crying, even when she
promptly messes the diaper we just finished putting on, even when
she's not a "good sleeper"? Some people very quickly
become fair-weather parents, supportive and attentive only when
their children are easy to be with. But unconditional love matters
most when they're not.
As they get older, kids can try our patience in new ways. Need
we review the possibilities? They say hateful things sometimes.
They act abominably. They do exactly what we just told them not to
do, which particularly infuriates parents who, because of their
own psychological issues, insist on absolute obedience. They
conspicuously prefer one parent to the other, which doesn't feel
especially warming when you're the other. They figure out where
we're most vulnerable and use that to their own advantage. And
through it all, we not only have to keep accepting them, we have
to keep letting them know that we still accept them.
Somehow, in other words, we have to communicate that we love
them even when we're not thrilled with what they're doing.
However, the recommendation to make that distinction is sometimes
tossed around a little too casually. The fact is that it's often
hard even for an adult, much less a child, to make sense of it.
"We accept you, but not how you act" is particularly
unpersuasive if very few of the child's actions find favor with
us. "What is this elusive 'me' you claim to love," the
child may wonder, "when all I hear from you is
disapproval?" As Thomas Gordon pointed out, "Parents who
find unacceptable a great many things that their children do or
say will inevitably foster in these children a deep feeling that
they are unacceptable as persons."1 That doesn't
change just because the parents remember to say soothingly,
"We love you, honey; we just hate almost everything
At a minimum, it's necessary to realize that verbal
reassurances are not free passes to be punitive or otherwise
controlling. "Doing to" interventions are still bad
news, and they're still likely to communicate conditional
acceptance, even if we periodically utter some magic words.
What to Minimize
So, what are we supposed to do when children act in ways that
are disturbing or inappropriate? Even when we disapprove of what
they've done and want them to know it, our reactions should take
account of the big picture - specifically, the imperative to make
sure they feel loved, and lovable. The goal is to avoid crossing
over into conditional parenting. Here's how.
Limit the number of your criticisms.
Bite your tongue and swallow a lot of your objections. For one
thing, frequent negative responses are counterproductive. If kids
feel we're impossible to please, they'll just stop trying. Being
selective about what we object to or forbid makes the
"no" count for more on those occasions when we really do
have to say it. But the main point is that too much criticism and
disapproval may lead a child to feel unworthy.
Limit the scope of each criticism.
Focus on what's wrong with this specific action ("Your
voice sounded really unkind just now when you were talking to your
sister") rather than implying that there's something wrong
with the child ("You're so mean to people").
Limit the intensity of each criticism.
It's not just how many times you react negatively that counts,
but how negatively you react each time. Be as gentle as
possible while making sure the message gets across. A little
emotion goes a long way; the effect of what we say is magnified
because of the power inherent in being a parent. Even when kids
seem to tune us out, they are absorbing more of our negative
reactions - and are more deeply affected by them - than they let
on. In fact, we might end up having more of an impact precisely
when our approach isn't heavy-handed. Be aware not only of what
you're saying but also of your body language, your facial
expression, your tone of voice. Any of these can communicate more
disapproval, and less unconditional love, than you intended.
Look for alternatives to criticism.
It may make sense not only to turn down the volume, so to
speak, but to switch to a different station. When kids are
careless or hurtful or obnoxious, try to see this as an
opportunity to teach. Instead of "What's the matter with you?
Didn't I just tell you not to do that?!" - or, for that
matter, instead of "I'm disappointed in you when you do
that" - try helping the child to see the effects of his
action, how it might hurt other people's feelings or make their
lives more difficult.
Explicit negative evaluations may not be necessary if we simply
say what we see ("Jeremy looked kind of sad after you said
that to him") and ask questions ("The next time you're
feeling frustrated, what do you think you could do instead of
pushing?"). This doesn't guarantee success, of course, but it
markedly improves the chances that a child will develop a
commitment to acting more reasonably. The odds improve further if
you invite him to think about ways to make things better, to
restore, repair, replace, clean up, or apologize, as the situation
It may sound obvious, but we sometimes seem to forget that,
even when kids do rotten things, our goal should not be to make
them feel bad, nor to stamp a particular behavior out of
existence. Rather, what we want is to influence the way they think
and feel, to help them become the kind of people who wouldn't want
to act cruelly. And, of course, our other goal is to avoid
injuring our relationship with them in the process.
One very concrete way to make sure your interventions don't
communicate conditional acceptance is to try hard never to hold a
grudge. The exhortation to "be the parent!" usually is
intended to mean that you should take control, put your foot down.
But I use that phrase to mean that you should rise above the
temptation of a childish quid pro quo: "Oh, yeah? Well, if
you're not going to do your chores, then I'm not going to give you
dessert! So there!" Many books actually encourage this sort
of parental behavior (without the "Oh, yeah?" and
"So there!" of course). Once you think about it, it's
pretty obvious how unhelpful this sort of response really is.
I remember one day when my two-year-old son got tired of
waiting for his six-year-old sister to finish with a toy so he
could play with it. He attempted to wrest it away from her,
leading her to protest angrily. After she had fended him off and
reestablished possession, she announced, "Now I don't want to
give it to him at all because he tried to grab it." She was
going to teach him a lesson, and let him know that because he did
something wrong he should be punished by having to forfeit his
turn. The question is: Do we want to act with our children as
though we, too, were six years old? An awful lot of what passes
for discipline consists of tit-for-tat responses that merely give
us the satisfaction of getting even.
To be the parent means you have certain obligations, and
they're not always easy to meet. My wife is always reminding me,
especially when yet another dinner we made for our children lies
uneaten, that all we can do is prepare nutritious meals (taking
their preferences into account whenever possible) and then hope
for the best. Not only is that all we can do; it's what we have
to keep doing, no matter how many of those meals end up in the
So it is with unconditional love. You keep doing your best to
provide it even if your efforts seem unappreciated and
unreciprocated. Sometimes kids act toward us in a way that appears
remarkably similar to love withdrawal. They may spit out, "Go
away!" or "I don't love you!" when they feel
betrayed or thwarted, even over something that seems trivial to
us. But our job is to remain calm, to avoid acting the same way,
and to understand this for what it is - a passing expression of
frustration. They haven't really stopped loving us. Poignantly,
even children who are abused continue to love their abusers. We
must never forget the lack of symmetry here. This is not a
relationship between two adults of equal power. Even the slightest
indication that you are withholding love from your child has a far
greater impact than a screamed "I hate you!" has (or
ought to have) on you.
We need to do less of whatever might send a message of
conditional acceptance, but we also have to do more of whatever
could send a message of unconditional acceptance.