Updated: Jan 22, 2021
[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 your expectations go.
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. Be ready to let your child's interests unfold over time. You may want to coach her soccer team, but your daughter may not like team sports. You may find yourself doing martial arts alongside her instead. 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.
Learning how to unconditionally love and accept your child is the first and 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, and what limits and 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 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. That is important! 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.
When a parent tells her son, "I love you no matter what you wear," and then gets upset when he puts on a princess dress to go to school, it's confusing to him. When a parent tells his teenager, "I love you no matter what grades you earn, as long as you do your best," and then becomes anxious when she earns a B- on a test, the disconnection between her father's words and his actions creates anxiety in her.
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'm so glad you can express yourself through the clothes you choose to wear to school. Let's get in the car and go!"
Even if you are disappointed or worried when your child makes a grade on a test you feel is "too low," that's just the time to make sure your actions match your words:
"Your grades are not a reflection of who you are and my love for you doesn't change because of the grades you make. Your grades are feedback for you to know how much you learned and if you want to improve them, I'm here to support. And if you're happy with them, I'm happy for you."
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? In my experience, it boils down to two things: fear and ego.
We're afraid to trust our kids.
We think, "We're the adults. We know better."
We fear our kids will make the same mistakes we made.
We fear our kids will limit their future options if they get poor grades.
We fear our kids are not making safe choices.
We fear our kids are making the wrong friends.
We fear we are 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--like 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 our 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 us unconditionally loving and accepting our kids is sadly endless too.
Letting go of fear and ego is the very challenging work all parents must do if we want to be autonomy-supportive parents. Both fear and ego will continue to show up throughout all our years of parenting; it takes constant vigilance to notice when fear and ego are entering our relationship with our children. We must consciously and mindfully acknowledge the ways our fear and ego are impacting our parenting, and choose to not engage. We must choose unconditional love instead.
Another one of my favorite quotes:
"When we let go of fear and ego in our parenting, only unconditional love remains."
~ Purpose Parenting
There are endless ways to SHOW our children we unconditionally love who their true selves. Both telling them often and showing them consistently is vital to our children's well being.