For most parents, it’s easy to feel loving towards your kids when they’re behaving well and being their happy, cheerful selves. It’s when they’re grumpy, tired, angry, sad, whiny, and not cooperating that it becomes a challenge (to say the least!).
But what does this have to do with our Teaching Kids About Character Series? The purpose of the series is to discuss ways we can encourage different positive traits in kids and this week’s trait is Loving.The real title for this post should be Loving Your Kids Unconditionally (Even When They’re Driving You Nuts!).
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As I’ve mentioned many times in this series, kids will become how we treat them. (I’ve got a lovely Parenting Creed picture to download if you want). This is as true for this trait as any.
Notice, I didn’t say how much they are loved in the quote above. We all love our kids as much as we possibly can. However, sometimes they don’t always feel that they are loved – especially if we are not giving our love unconditionally.
“How we feel about our kids isn’t as important as how they experience those feelings and how they regard the way we treat them.” Alfie Kohn, Author of Unconditional Parenting.
What Does It Mean to Love Kids Unconditionally?
The first time I heard about this concept was from Alfie Kohn. Alfie talks about how important it is for parents to consistently show their kids that they are loved, regardless of their behaviour or poor choices.
If we only show our kids love when they are behaving as we want them to, or when they are achieving as we desire, or – the flipside, we withdraw our love when they are misbehaving, then they will eventually grow to either resent us or feel rejected by us.
Now, that doesn’t mean that we have to be happy with our kids all the time, nor does it mean that we have to accept poor choices or behaviour. But, to me, what it does mean is that we have to find ways other than punishment to communicate our disapproval, and to teach our kids right from wrong.
In fact, Alfie argues that punishment of any form, including the obvious spanking, slapping, and flicking, and the not so obvious forms (time-outs or sending kids to their room) – communicates conditional love.
Basically, to a child, the translation is:
You do what I want, or I will hurt you, or reject you.
Wow – what a message to send to a child. It’s probably not a message any of us want, or intend, our children to receive from us.
Aside from that, when kids are receiving this message, they go into either fight or flight mode. Basically, they either get mad and become defiant, OR, they acquiesce and submit – do what you want and pay the price for it with feelings of low self-esteem, sadness, disappointment, and shame.
Or, sometimes they just decide to not get caught for misbehaving again and develop all kinds of sneaky behaviours as they grow!
In all 3 cases, they are far less likely to learn from their mistakes, or to want to try and change their behaviour.
Just think of any time you were punished as a child. Did it make you want to change your behaviour? And even if it did “teach” you right from wrong – were you learning that lesson for the right reason – or were you learning to act a certain way just to please someone else, or to avoid further punishment. Something to think about…
Personally, I want my son to learn from his mistakes, and I want him to learn to do “right” because it’s the right thing to do, not because he is afraid of losing my love, or because he fears reprisals.
One of my favourite Pam Leo quotes is this:
What child behaves better when they feel worse? The answer is: none.
So – What Then Do We DO Instead?
One of the things that I have personally learned in my over 20 years of working with and teaching kids, is that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Basically, there are lots of things we can do as parents to prevent or reduce the likelihood of “misbehaviour” from occurring in the first place. And they are often a lot easier than trying to pick up the pieces after a child has gone astray.
For most young children, this means making sure their needs for adequate sleep and food are met, meeting their needs for connection and unconditional love, treating them with kindness and respect, giving them some power over their own lives, having clear expectations for behaviour, and providing a predictable daily routine.
I have covered many of these strategies in previous posts.
- If you want to learn more ways to connect lovingly and joyfully with your child, then read 30 Joyful Ways to Connect with Your Child in 10 Minutes.
- To read about the importance of modelling kindness and respect, check out F is for Friendly: Encouraging Kindness, Sharing and Attentive Listening.
- To help kids feel like they have more say over their lives, read Teaching Kids Independence: Strategies that Really Work.
- To read about ways to make your expectations and boundaries clear, check out B is for Behaved.
- To find out why a predictable routine helps kids feel safe and secure, check out this article by Dr. Laura Markham.
Now let’s assume you’re doing all the right proactive things and your child still “misbehaves.” You do know that’s going to happen right?
After reading my way around the parenting experts who advocate showing unconditional love without using punishment, I found 7 main strategies to try.
If your child has done something wrong (ie. purposely thrown an object, broken something, physically hurts you or another) and appears to be angry or upset – try the Time-In instead of Time-Out.
Basically Pam’s idea is that instead of sending your child away from you, and temporarily removing your love, you find a way to connect with them instead.
When kids are “misbehaving” they are trying to communicate. According to Pam Leo, kids misbehave for 1 of 3 reasons: to release emotional pain, to communicate an unmet need, or as a result of a sensitivity to something.
Most of the time, giving them our attention and love can be all they need.
Children need love MOST when they appear to deserve it least. ~Pam Leo
If you can keep your cool and help your child calm down, you can worry about teaching them right from wrong later when everyone is feeling more positive. For the time being, find a way to connect. Check out this post for 30 terrific ideas.
Acknowledging upset feelings almost always helps and then try to find an activity together that will allow the negative feelings to pass.
For example, you could say something like: “You were really angry with me right now. Why don’t we take a minute to calm down. How about we play with your trucks/dolls/crayons together until you feel better?“
Once your child has calmed down, you can have a chat about what are acceptable ways to behave when they are angry again (see #2).
To read more about this idea, check out our post TIME-IN: A Positive Discipline Alternative to Time-Out
2. Express Your Feelings and Clarify Your Expectations
This is a good one to use almost any time that a child does something that angers or upsets you. Express your disapproval and dislike of their behaviour using an “I” statement that describes how their behaviour has affected you. Then you can clarify what you expect from them.
For example, you could say something like, “I’m really upset that you spilled your milk on the floor. I don’t like having to clean up messes. I expect you to keep your drink on the table next time.“
or, “I don’t like it when you hit your brother. I want everyone in this house to feel safe. I expect you to use your words when you are angry, instead of your hands.“Just had to include Onetime’s cute sticking out his tongue moment!
3. Natural Consequences
If you are tempted to remove a privilege or threaten a punishment in reaction to your child’s actions, try allowing a natural consequence instead.
A natural consequence is something unpleasant that happens naturally after a child’s behaviour. It is not imposed by the parent, or created by the parent as a punishment.
For example, when Onetime spilled his milk purposely on the floor, then asked for more milk. I told him that he had gotten his milk already and would have to wait until tomorrow to get some more.
I certainly didn’t refill his milk, even when he apologized (which was great, but still didn’t change the natural consequence of the milk being gone.)
By the way – this spilling of the milk thing went on for several weeks until I finally figured out to allow the natural consequence!
4. Help Your Child Make Amends
After trying the three strategies above, it is sometimes nice to have your child make amends if their behaviour has hurt someone’s feelings, or damaged something.
Basically – you state something like, “I expect you to make amends for …...(hitting Suzie, breaking the toy, saying something mean to Daddy, etc.).
If your child is unsure how to make restitution for what they have done, you can give them some suggestions (eg. say sorry, give them a hug, help fix it/clean it up/replace it). To read about the first time I tried this with Onetime, read this post.
5. Take Action
Sometimes the best way to respond to a child’s misbehaviour is to act.
If your child starts running in the grocery store after an explanation of why that’s not appropriate, put them in the cart, or take them out of the store. If your child is hitting another child, go and stop them and take them away. If a child continues to wildly splash in the bath after being asked to stop, remove them from the water.
You get the idea. Judy recommends using this strategy with kids ages 1 and up. Remember – actions speak louder than words!
This is a powerful strategy to use if a child is repeating an undesirable behaviour – even after you’ve tried all the other strategies. The authors mentioned above have different takes on how to do this, but they all agree that a problem-solving approach is a respectful, loving way to address problems while teaching kids to take ownership of their behaviour.
Elaine Faber and Irene Mazlish suggest talking with your child about what you think their feelings and needs are, then explaining your feelings and needs. Then you can brainstorm solutions together and decide together what plan you will follow.
Example: “Onetime, we need to talk about you spitting inside the house. I think that you really like spitting. It’s kind of fun to make bubbles and see it drop out of your mouth. I get upset when I see you spit in the house, because it’s not polite, and I don’t like the carpet and furniture getting dirty. Let’s come up with a solution. When would it be okay to spit?“
We talked about how it would be okay when brushing teeth, when outside in the backyard, and Onetime suggested in the tub! Eventually, we agreed it was okay during all three of those – although I wasn’t thrilled about the tub – and surprise, surprise the spitting all of a sudden stopped happening!
As you can see, this strategy can work with kids as young as 2 or 3. Certainly the younger they are, the more talking you’ll be doing, but even at a young age your child will sense that you value their point of view and that they are being treated with respect.
Judy Arnall has a slightly different approach. She suggests defining the problem, then having the child come up with a solution with your assistance. I have used this strategy also many times with Onetime and he really seems to respond.
I often start by saying, “The problem is…(you want to play outside and I need to get these groceries into the freezer/you want to stay at the park and we need to be home in 5 minutes to start dinner, etc.” and then add, “What can we do about it?“
When Onetime was younger, I would often try to offer a compromise, or come up with a choice for him. As he is getting older, I have noticed that just saying those words, “The problem is…” seems to help him be more cooperative. It’s almost as though he knows we are working on the same side and I’m not viewing him or his behaviour as the problem. It allows him to be more flexible.
7. Parent Time-Out
When all else fails and you lose your cool – try the parent time-out before you do or say something you might regret. Remove yourself from the situation for a short time (I like the bathroom personally because I can lock the door!), take some deep breaths, and remind yourself of the reasons why kids act out. Obviously, if you’re leaving your child in an unsafe situation, this is not the best strategy to try.
If you’re feeling this angry and/or frustrated, take it as a signal that you need some time to yourself, or some relief. Maybe you can get a spouse to take over for a bit, or a grandparent? Sometimes we have to take care of ourselves before we can effectively take care of our kids. (I’m still working on this one!)
As Pam Leo, says, “Let’s raise our kids so they won’t have to recover from their childhoods.”
What a “lovely” idea! Isn’t showing your kids you love them really what being a parent is all about? Sometimes it just gets lost a bit in the mish-mash of daily life and trying to bring our kids up to be who we think they should be. Hopefully, you will find the advice from these parenting experts as helpful as I have found them to be.
I would love to hear your thoughts about today’s post. Leave a comment below – they truly make my day!
With unconditional fondness,