Unconditional Love & Acceptance: First (& most important) Step in Autonomy-Supportive Parenting
Updated: Jul 27
[See my previous blog how Autonomy Supportive Parenting Leads to Higher Achievement in High School and Beyond. https://www.purposeparenting.net/post/supporting-the-autonomy-of-young-children-increases-achievement-through-high-school-and-beyond ]
When you hold your new baby for the first time, you imagine all the things you will do with this amazing being. You dream ahead to books you'll read together, adventures you'll have, museums you'll visit, sports they'll play, concerts they'll perform... Time to take a big deep breath mamas and papas and let it all go.
You are meeting this brand new human being for the first time. She never existed before now. You are just getting to know her. She already has her own personality, temperament, brain wiring, ideas, strengths, interests. Let go of the dreams you had of fishing with your son or going to ballet recitals to watch your daughter perform.
I like to say:
"Parenting is all about watching and watering. Never molding and scolding."
Each child is a unique, never-before-existed human being. Our job as parents is to watch and learn how to best support each of our unique children to become the best version of themselves possible. You may want to coach her soccer team, but your daughter doesn't like team sports. You may find yourself doing martial arts alongside her instead. Be ready to let your child's interests unfold over time. Support her unconditionally. Whenever you see her eyes light up, be prepared to let go of your plan and join her on her own path.
Unconditional love and acceptance is the first (& most important) journey on the road to becoming an autonomy-supportive parent. Unconditionally loving and accepting our kids starts by deeply listening and learning who each child is, how they relate to the world, what energizes & excites them, what drains and challenges them, what limits & boundaries help them thrive? Our job as autonomy-supportive parents is to start by knowing and unconditionally loving the child we are parenting.
[Note for future blog, the journey starts all over again with each child you have because they are each their own, individual unique person. Just because your first kid likes spiders, doesn't mean your next kid will enjoy being out in nature. Let second, third and fourth kids be their own unique selves. More to come...]
[There is also the work each parent needs to do to unconditionally love and accept themselves and their unique place in the world, but that's outside my scope. That work needs to happen, but that's not what I do.]
Once you deeply know, accept and unconditionally love the child you are parenting, the next step is to clearly communicate that you love and accept who that child is deep down to their core. That communication can and should be very direct, "I see who you are and I love you exactly the way you are. You don't need to do anything to earn my love. It's there for you on your best day and on your worst day and it's never going to change." That needs to be said 'early and often' to children very consistently all throughout their lives.
Every night I told my children as they were falling asleep, "I love you no matter what and always" and we'd sing this song together.... "Everything is Possible"
But it doesn't end by just telling our kids we love them unconditionally. This IS important! AND, our unconditional love for our children also needs to be shown through our actions. When words and actions don't match up, kids notice and it creates huge anxiety. "Mommy says she loves me just the way I am, but she knows I'm scared of the woods and she keeps taking me on hikes. I'm confused and it makes me feel not just scared of the woods, but it also makes me feel afraid that I can't trust her. She says things she doesn't mean. That's scarier than being in the woods!"
Even very young children pick up on times when our actions don't match our words. Unconditional love needs to be demonstrated, not just said out loud. "I know the woods make you very uncomfortable. Tell me more about how being in the woods makes you feel. Your feelings matter to me. I love the woods but I know being in the woods makes you feel scared. Let's find ways to be outside together that work for both of us."
After compassionately listening to your daughter's fears without judgement, without shaming, it will be easy to sort out a good path forward. Only go to the woods during the day if she says the dark scares her. Play for a few weeks near the edge of the woods until she's more comfortable. Then play in the woods where you can still see the open field for a few weeks. Play in the field beside the woods and briefly enter the woods enough to gather nature objects for a fairy house your daughter is excited to build. If the woodland noises scare her, offer to go to the woods wearing noise cancelling headphones. Set a timer and be in the woods for an amount of time she chooses (could be 3 minutes). Listen to bird songs together at home so that being in the woods feels like "finding new friends."
There are literally endless ways to respond to your daughter's fear of the woods and turn it into a positive way for you both to connect. When we start at our kids' starting points, amazing things happen. They feel loved and valued, their anxiety goes way down, they feel part of the decision-making/problem-solving process, they feel heard and seen so they learn what to expect from other relationships outside their families... the list of positives that comes from unconditionally loving and accepting our kids is (again) literally endless.
If unconditionally loving and accepting our kids is so powerful and amazing, what gets in the way of knowing and accepting who our kids really are deep down? In my experience, it boils down to two things: Fear and Ego. As parents, we fear trusting our kids to guide us; we're the adults, we know better. We fear our kids making the same mistakes we made. We fear getting "bad" grades will limit their future options. We fear for their safety; we fear we're making mistakes as parents. Sadly, the list of fears is endless too. And our children sense our fear and it makes them feel "conditionally" loved. They have to do things our way to please us as parents, rather than truly being their own amazing person.
How does our "ego" get in the way of unconditionally loving our kids? It goes like this: "My dad won't like it if my son does ballet instead of soccer. He'll give me a hard time." "My friends will judge me and say I'm not a good mom if my daughter wears the same shirt all week to school." "What did I do wrong to make Jenny want to stop playing the violin?" The list of how our egos get in the way of unconditionally loving and accepting who are kids are right now is sadly endless too.
Letting go of fear & ego is the very challenging work all parents must do if we want to be autonomy supportive parents. And both will continue to show up throughout all our years of parenting, so it's constant vigilance to notice when fear & ego are entering our relationship with our children, and let them both go.
Another one of my favorites,
"When we let go of fear and ego in our parenting, only unconditional love remains."
One more thing about unconditionally loving the kid we are parenting (and there will be future blogs about each of these things...). Remember to allow our kids to evolve into their new, more fully realized selves. Just because you knew and unconditionally loved and accepted who your daughter was when she was 3, if you're truly autonomy supportive parenting her, she will be different by age 5 and 8 and 11 and 13 and 16 and 19 and 22. Keeping up the unconditional love and acceptance of who your child is today and who they are BECOMING as they emerge into adults IS the constant work/journey all parents are on - whether they know and accept that job or not. That's the job.
There are endless ways to SHOW our children we love who they actually are unconditionally. Telling them often is extremely important AND showing them consistently is vital to our children's well being.
"One generation full of unconditionally loving parents would change the
brain of the next generation, and with that, the world."
– Dr. Charles Raison/EH V2
I will blog about each of the other 9 Approaches to Autonomy Supportive Parenting in the weeks ahead.