The Truth About Unconditional Love
Unconditional love is so valuable for our emotional, spiritual, and relationship health that its true meaning needs to be rescued from common misconception.
The great misconception about unconditional love is that it pertains to behavior. And nowhere has this misconception been more harmful than when it comes to parenting. Unconditional love does not mean accepting unacceptable behavior! Too many parents have been misled to believe that disapproval and discipline are harmful to children’s self esteem and mental health. This is utter nonsense.
Unconditional love has nothing to do with behavior, but everything to do with people, regardless of their behavior (i.e. loving the sinner while not accepting their sins). Correcting misbehavior helps kids adapt to societal norms and develop healthy relationships. Unconditional love is what reassures children that they remain lovable even when their behavior is not.
Parenting has always been fraught with confusion over how to express love and exercise discipline effectively. Some parents are more comfortable emotionally nurturing their child(ren) but are uncomfortable disciplining them (especially if they were on the receiving end of abusive discipline during their own childhoods). Other parents are effective disciplinarians but are uncomfortable as emotional nurturers. Sometimes the roles of love and discipline are divided between the parents, which is fine as long as children realize their parents are united in both their love for them and their behavioral expectations.
Make no mistake - nurturance and discipline are both expressions of parental love. It’s just that their natures and effects are so contrasting that many parents don’t know how to switch and combine these roles. Nurturance emphasizes acceptance and approval, while discipline emphasizes what is unacceptable and disapproved of. Nurturance makes kids feel better about themselves and discipline often makes them feel bad about themselves. But parents need to learn how to combine unconditional love with discipline, not replace discipline with unconditional love.
Parents who fear that discipline will harm their children can take comfort in this truth: when children feel loved unconditionally, they respond better to discipline, are more eager to please their parents, are more remorseful when their behavior displeases their parents, and are more willing to change their behavior in response to discipline. These are the marks of successfully integrating love and discipline.
Integrating unconditional love and discipline starts by emphasizing to children the distinction between who they are versus how they act. Their natural belief is that when mommy and daddy say their behavior is bad, that means that they are bad. So parents need to tell them that they are loved no matter what, even when their actions require correction. They need to be taught that all children (and adults) misbehave in different ways for different reasons, but that doesn’t make them unlovable.
Parents can also teach their children how to love others unconditionally by admitting to their parental mistakes and apologizing for them. This sends the message - We love you even though you make mistakes and we need you to love us when we make ours.
Unconditional love ultimately refers to the compassion and respect at the heart of the Golden Rule. All of us need to love and be loved as human beings in spite of our differences and failings. We all need to correct our misbehaviors, and we’ll be more successful doing so when our corrections are infused with this true spirit of unconditional love.