Are Your Child’s Eyes Shining? The Practice of Unconditional Love

by Dr Angel Adams, Dr Patricia Papciak

“The child must know that he is a miracle, that since the beginning of the world there hasn’t been, and until the end of the world there will not be, another child like him.”

-Pablo Casals

Image: A big cat

by Reiner Eisenbeis

How do you make your children feel good about themselves so that they walk proud, feeling their own healthy power, with their heads high and their eyes shining?

Firstly, you need to avoid comparing your child to anyone else such as your neighbour’s kids or your best friend’s kids, or siblings, or anyone else. You may find yourself wishing that your child were like someone else, or that they achieved more academically. Perhaps you wish they were more articulate, or not quite so fiery. Maybe you are disappointed that your child doesn’t have the same religious beliefs as you do.

If a child hears you comparing her to someone else, she can feel that your love for her is driven by conditions. This can hurt a child’s ego or sense of identity. You may worry about your child’s short-falls and wish for his own sake that he was more competent in areas. Your greatest influence on your child however, is to build a trusting relationship, which offers encouragement and reflection for both their successes and their “failures”. Do you remember to hug your child for winning a tournament, but forget to hug him when he lost it? Your child will benefit from experiencing a genuine love that is not hampered by conditions.

Show your children that you love them at the core of their essence, for who they are not for what they can do. Whether your child gets top marks or average marks at school, whether she is good or not good at sports, whether he’s talented at music or can’t play a note, whether he’s got dyslexia or ADHD, let your child know by the way you regard him that he is loved. It is absolutely wonderful to recognise and comment on their achievements and talents, and it is also important to acknowledge the little successes. Too often we comment on what they are struggling with or when they make mistakes with our own agenda.

Create an environment in which your children will feel loved, respected, and valued. Take what they have succeeded in and expand on it instead. Be interested in what they find interesting and what they are naturally good at and what their own personal aspirations are. You can purposefully do things to help them feel a sense of mastery and competence. Depending on their ages, you might ask them to help you carry something because it is too heavy, or ask if they can help you fix something that might be broken, or suggest they help you unscrew a tight lid, or change a tyre, or invite them to help you cook from a recipe together. Reflect on how helpful they were no matter how small. When you are doing something together, make sure you’re not concentrating mainly on the final product. When you show that the enjoyment and interaction between the two of you is your focus, then they will feel more loved and accepted.

There is one caution about unconditional love. If your children do things that are irresponsible, risky, hurtful, abusive to themselves or others, then you need to communicate to them that you do not love their behaviour! You are differentiating between their behaviour and who they are as a precious human being. Most of all, you let them know that this is unacceptable and you will not support that behaviour by rescuing them. Thus, if they get into trouble at school, or with the police because they have stolen something, you must set respectful limits. Children must understand, and hopefully respect, the authority of school officials and law enforcement.

As a parent, you need to model the respect for these rule makers even if sometimes you don’t entirely agree. Some parents are afraid their child will get angry or hate them… well that’s tough! Rescuing will only make matters worse. Your child may say he hates you, or it may seem that he hates you when you are imposing the boundaries, but it is only temporary when he is feeling hurt and unhappy about the consequences of his behaviour. Sometimes it is important to remind your child that it is your job as the parent to teach her to live well and happily in society and that you take your job quite seriously.

The responsible way of loving your children is to set limits regarding unacceptable behaviours. Allowing them to experience the consequences is a way of helping them to become accountable. A responsible child or teen is someone with good self-esteem! You would be reinforcing irresponsible behaviour if you paid for his overdue DVD rentals, or if you bought her a new mobile if she said she lost it, or if you did his homework because he was too busy on FaceBook, or if you let her drive your car without contributing to the upkeep of the insurance. This is not to say that you couldn’t pay for something when the problem arises, but there needs to be an agreement regarding repayment. If the child doesn’t have much money of his own, perhaps chores around the house could be one possible option to pay the piper. Don’t be afraid to let others set boundaries too, such as teachers, relatives or other authority figures. Be sure you and your spouse are consistent with limit setting or it may encourage your child to try and manipulate either one or both of you.

The only exception to the “don’t rescue rule” is when it includes a safety issue. If your child has a tantrum and starts to self-harm during the process, obviously you have to intervene. If your daughter was stranded somewhere in the middle of the night, you would need to collect her. The next day however, you would need to have a very serious talk with her about how to prevent this in the future. If you find it hard to set limits; perhaps because you are a single parent for example, we would suggest that you find a buddy, or another parent, to support you. Someone who is a veteran parent who you could bounce your concerns off and who would encourage you to set consistent limits might be a good choice.

Watch out! Parents can also be unintentionally manipulative in the way they give verbal feedback. Often times the language we use can skew the way a child hears the feedback. Children who frequently hear their parent’s personal praise may learn to do things not for their own benefit, but to please others. They may begin to believe that their worth depends on the opinion of others. You want to guide your children in learning about their motivation to please others. You want them to learn to genuinely please others when they choose to, because they like others, not because they need others to praise them because they don’t like or doubt themselves.

Generally speaking, (there’s nothing wrong with occasionally saying how proud you are of your child) we are suggesting that you offer your child reflective verbal feedback whenever appropriate. You need to think about your motivation for how you praise your child. Are your reactions helping your child to feel a sense of control over her life — or is she only looking to you for approval? Is your praise helping your child to become more excited about what she’s involved in for her own sake, or is she focusing on pleasing you so she receive a pat on the shoulder? Don’t reinforce your children to grow up to be people pleasers at their own expense.

Rheta DeVries, a Professor of Education at the University of Northern Iowa, refers to some forms of parental praise as “sugar-coated control”. She indicated that praise can be effective at producing good results temporarily, but it’s very different from engaging children in conversation about what makes a relationship run more smoothly, or how other people are affected by our actions. The latter approach is not only more respectful but more likely to help kids become thoughtful and practice problem solving.

How many times do we automatically say “Well-done!” Good sitting, good working, good painting. Well done! Well done! If you think about it, do you like it when your supervisor, your boss or your director says to you “Well done!” Doesn’t that feel somewhat patronising? However if feedback was reflective, thoughtful, supportive and encouraging with no strings attached, well that’s a whole different story. Could you be unconsciously teaching your children to jump over hurdles just to please you? They may well become addicted to praise and then the opposite might occur… rebellion and anarchy!

Thus, it’s important to offer feedback in the context of genuine affection and love for who your children are, rather than for what they’ve done. When unconditional support is present verbally or non-verbally, saying “Well done!” seems to marginalise your response. There is no formula and you don’t have to sound like an art critic. Sometimes simple compliments are all that is necessary. Here are a few tips for changing the manner in which we praise our kids:

  1. Use reflective feedback. This is basically a non-judgmental statement that simply reflects how you saw what they did or said. It allows the child to take pride in what he or she did or said. You might say, for example, “I noticed how carefully you worked on that picture. It shows in the details. The colours you chose are striking. Reduce the praise and become more interested in your child.
  2. Along with encouraging descriptions use just a few inviting and open ended questions. Ask him what he likes best about his drawing. Ask how he decided to use his chosen colours or if the drawing reminds him of somewhere or someone he likes. In other words you are engaging your child in a discussion about his work not just using a brief cliché like “Good job”. This will also help your child to think about these things in his future drawings. His thinking skills will expand as well as his appreciation for your interest in his work.
  3. Reflect without words. Imagine that you are reflecting though your body language, which acts as a mirror for your children. How do they see themselves in that mirror? Is there a frown on your face because they haven’t lived up to your expectations, or is there loving acceptance of who they are. Sometimes the less words, the better. Silence and smiling with your eyes is what can warm their heart and make them feel good about themselves. Wait for them to say something so you know what they are thinking before you comment. There is something quite beautiful in stillness as you and your child internalise happiness together.
  4. Keep it simple. You don’t have to sound like you are an art critic. Keep practicing and it will come more naturally as your relationship grows.


Praise Reflective Encouragement
You’re my big boy You sure are learning to do things on your own
Daddy is so proud of you. You really practised really hard and won the tournament.
You’re the best cook in this family You didn’t give up with that difficult recipe and made a delicious dish.
I’m so proud of your artwork. It’s nice to see that you enjoy drawing.
Well done! That was really clever on your part to pick those colours.
I am pleased that you got accepted at college/university. You spent a lot of time filling out forms and gathering references and have achieved your goal.

Recently, we read something about Benjamin Zander, who is a renowned conductor. He had a realisation one day that the conductor of an orchestra doesn’t make any sound. The power depends on his ability to make other people powerful. He says that “the way that you know you are doing this is if the musicians’ eyes are shining. If their eyes are not shining, you get to ask a question: “Who am I being that my players’ eyes are not shining?” We can do that with our children too. Ask yourself, “who am I being that my children’s eyes are not shining?” Have you made your child’s eyes shine lately?

“Children will not remember you for the material things you provided but for the feeling that you cherished them.”

-Richard L Evans-

Thanks for taking the time to read this Monday’s Motivational article.

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