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Love Without Strings Attached

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 realized.

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.

Approaching Unconditionality

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 transformative.

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 you do."

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 may dictate.

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 garbage can.

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.

1 Gordon, Thomas. P.E.T.: Parent Effectiveness Training. New York: Plume, 1975, p. 27.

Excerpted with the author's permission from Chapter 8 of Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason (Atria Books, 2005). © 2005 Alfie Kohn.

Alfie Kohn writes and speaks widely on education, parenting, and human behavior. Unconditional Parenting is his tenth book. Among his others: No Contest: The Case Against Competition(1986), The Brighter Side Of Human Nature (1992), Punished by Rewards (1993), and Beyond Discipline (2006). Mr. Kohn lives in the Boston area with his wife and two children.