I’ve heard many concerns about parenting styles in the time I’ve been working with mums and dads, and it’s one of the reasons I don’t subscribe to a particular approach myself.
Not only do ‘gentle’, ‘peaceful’ or ‘unconditional’ ideologies often feel unrealistic – and thus laden with guilt – they’re confusing.
What does ‘unconditional parenting’ even mean?
Yes, we all agree to loving our children unconditionally, but imagine NEVER giving a condition;
Refuse to eat your dinner; that’s not a condition of getting your pudding?
No need to use your P&Q’s, you still get what you want; manners aren’t a condition?
It’s not that I don’t believe in the philosophy behind unconditional parenting; I do. We don’t want our children believing they’re valued and loved only if they meet various conditions.
And at a practical level, the other pitfalls are plentiful;
1) Achieving any form of co-operation involves an endless string of bribes, threats and ‘consequences’
2) Our child may subsequently be indulged with all the things we’d rather they didn’t have too much of; screen time, sweet treats etc.; just for being compliant or helpful
3) Our kids learn to use bribery right back at us; “I will only co-operate if you give me X/Y/Z”
4) They expect to be rewarded for just being a good human
5) If an outcome isn’t important to them, we don’t challenge them to think about why it is important to you, or anyone else.
Thus, we don’t offer the opportunity to develop empathy, and our kids learn to make choices based on what they can get out of the situation, and not what they can give to it.
But unconditional parenting isn’t necessarily the solution either.
So what is the solution? Is there one?!
By nature, very young children are egocentric, and so as they develop, it serves them well to learn that everybody else; other children as well as grown-ups; have needs too, not just them…
And that everyone deserves to have their needs met, not just them…
And that not everybody’s needs mirror theirs.
And that’s often the sticking point.
IMO, there are too many unrealistic expectations for childhood; to have little people thinking, learning and behaving like grown-ups before they’re developmentally ready; and empathy is one of those things.
Although children are, of course, able to perceive what matters to us; they mimic all kinds of behaviours right from infancy that tell us just how closely they observe that; the part of the brain where empathy is processed – the ‘pre-frontal cortex’ – doesn’t even fully develop until around the age of eight.
And why should it? In reality, understanding a perspective beyond your own experience is a very complex skillset, one that plenty of adults never achieve.
But growing brains are still hungry to learn, so there are plenty of ways we can give simple, person-centred feedback to our children, at any age.
And that doesn’t have to mean we’re ‘conditioning’ them, even when we’re being really clear and specific.
What we’re doing is helping them to understand another’s perspective, to appreciate what matters to others.
And we’re helping them learn that they can feel good about the choices they make, and feel good about choosing to be good to others.
How many people struggle over their lifespan because they haven’t mastered that?
As long as it’s given in the spirit of unconditional love, this kind of feedback can in fact be incredibly affirmative, helping to build self-awareness and self-esteem in buckets;
So instead of; ‘Thank you’, try ‘Thank you for…”
Try ”I really appreciate you because…”
Or “You really help me when…”
”You are a very special person because…”
”I felt very proud of you when…”
”You should be very proud of yourself because…”
“It makes such a difference when…”
Of course, we can – and should – express to our children that they’re special just for being them, or that they make a difference just by being part of our lives, but who doesn’t love to hear about the positive impact they have on someone else?
As long as those things aren’t expressed as a condition of our acceptance and love, that’s just part of building good self-esteem.
If that’s conditioning our kids for anything, it’s to be considerate and empathetic individuals, with the self-awareness to know what gifts they bring to the world, and how to share them, unconditionally.
Let’s not be afraid of that!
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