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Unconditional Parenting - How to parent without the carrot or the stick!

As parents, we know that we love our kids unconditionally. We love them when they do what they should be doing – eating well, sleeping well, being polite and growing into good people. We also love them when they have less than perfect behavior – throwing a tantrum, lagging at schoolwork or being less than polite etc. But while we know this, it may not be so obvious to kids. As the popular quote goes “Children need the most love, especially when they appear to deserve it the least.” So when they need disciplining what is the route we as parents try and take a route that ensures that they know that we love them.

The carrot or stick approach! 

We have tried punishments and we have tried rewards. If you talk to today’s parents you will find that most of them grew up with punishments as part of their growing years. From time outs to full-fledged spankings, many adults of today have experienced these consequences to their actions.  Homework not done might have meant no playing with friends or spanking, or grounding for some time, maybe skipping a favourite food.  Youngsters, on the other hand, today have been on the other end of the spectrum where they have been encouraged every step of the way with words of praise and accolades for doing what they must or as encouragement for good behavior.  A gift for doing well at exams, every art displayed and praised, the words ‘good boy/ girl’ slipping out time and again. So which one is the right way?

Research now says ‘neither’. Yes!  Considering that we live in a conditional world and there are cause and effect to everything we do, it is important that parenting is about unconditional love. Punishments inherently appear as  not about love as they may be sending out a message that when you do something that is not expected or acceptable, the parent withholds love (Passive aggression especially where a parent withholds approval is a case in point) and while as a parent we may understand that it is the action that we do not approve of, the child may be too young to understand the distinction.  

As for rewards, it also may send the wrong message about doing the right thing only when tangible rewards are available. Real-life does not work that way and this, in fact, maybe the reason for more helicopter parenting (Read our previous blog post here) where children do not feel empowered enough to be independent.

In both cases kids might be doing something to please you – to escape punishment or to reap a reward) when they should be motivated to do it for themselves, so they learn, grow and are empowered to live happy, healthy fulfilling lives.

So what can we do instead?

Focus on connection instead of control – Topping the class in kindergarten is hardly a predictor of adult success. Children are always learning from us parents, even when we are not teaching them formally. Whether it is the ABC or the rules of polite behavior, try and have fun with them as you teach them. They will treasure the connect as will you.

Let the love be unconditional – Withholding approval may seem like withholding love especially to growing kids. So the punishment for undesirable actions and praise for what we feel is desirable are both making the love conditional. They will look for praise or rewards in the case of positive reinforcement, and look to avoid unpleasantness in the case of punishment.

Instead of praise try description – Hey, I see you did your homework! Cleaned your plate! Or whatever they did is much better than effusive praise for doing what they must do to grow up well.

Talk about problems and work out solutions together-  Lagging at school work may just be the consequence of too many activities, or just a little extra attention to a particular subject. Talk to children ( We cannot stress enough the need for keeping communication open) and see what the issue is and try solving it together.

Have faith - Use natural consequences instead of arbitrarily imposed punishments. Again through proper channels of communication, you can use reason. Don’t eat well and you will not have the energy to play. Children can be reasonable and are smart enough to see the consequences.

Respect, respect, respect – Adults deserve it and so do children. Show them the respect they deserve. Do not try and trick them as they will eventually catch on and may be even attempt to manipulate you as they grow older.

Do as you would like them to – Eat healthily, exercise, read, be polite, and work hard if that is what you wish them to do. In other words, model the behaviour you want to see in your children.

Being right isn’t the only thing - If your child hides things from you or is scared to tell you the truth about something that they believe might get them into trouble, the relationship suffers. Being right and ensuring they also do the right thing is more important. Compassion, understanding and unconditional acceptance are key.  

See it from their point of view – How does a child feel when chastised in from of others? Would playing an extra 15 minutes really matter in the long run? We can be better parents if we see the world from the child’s perspective.

Be genuine – Acknowledge who you are. Don’t pretend to have been better than them at their age. The truth will out and it's better it comes from you. Let them know it’s okay to make mistakes sometimes.

Talk less, ask more – Do you know of any relationship that cannot benefit from this one? There are no downsides to this.

Say yes, when you can – The first word almost every child understands is ‘NO’. They hear it so often and repeat it as well. Sometimes you have to say no, but there is no advantage to be had by saying no more often than you need to. Pick your battles. Say yes as often as you can especially in smaller issues and provide guidance, support, and mindful parenting.

Waive the rules- Every child is different as is every situation. Be flexible. Predictability and boundaries are good, but not rigidity.

Encourage and support their autonomy.  Children will feel better about themselves when they can decide for themselves. It is also practice for the future.

Unconditional love or parenting is not about lazy parenting or letting your children do anything they want. If they are rude to someone for instance, there is a need to step in and correct that behaviour. But the way to do it is through reason and understanding. Children will respond better to unconditional love as they no longer feel the need for approval and manipulative behaviour. It is not easy to follow the path as we do tend to resort to tried and tested methods that seemingly worked. However, like every new thing all you need is a little time and practice and we will all get good at this. Parenting is not easy as it is always throwing up fresh challenges. Imagine if we could solve them all from a place of unconditional love!! Happy parenting.

November 04, 2019 — Suchismita Pai

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