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(From the chapter "If children live with acceptance, they learn to love") We use the word "love" to describe the most dynamic and vital human experience there is. What we call love is bigger than anything we can say about it. And most people would agree that there is nothing more important in life than to love and be loved.
When we wholeheartedly love our children and accept them unconditionally, they thrive. Love is the soil in which our children grow, the sunlight that determines their direction, the water that nourishes their growth.
Children need love from the moment they are born-and even before that. Newborns are totally dependent on our warmth, affection, and loving attention. Our active caring nurtures their feelings of being wanted and belonging. As children mature, they continue to rely on us to show them we love them. They best understand love through our kind and caring actions. Our total acceptance of them is the wellspring of our love.
While it is imperative for our children to feel loved, love is a fundamental human need that we never outgrow. As adults, we still want to be wanted. We still need human connection, closeness, affection, and a warm touch. We all want to be accepted for being who we are, and to have friends with whom we feel we belong
Our children know they are wanted and loved when we treat them kindly, and when we accompany loving actions with loving words and nurturing touch. It is not enough to say "I love you." In working with parents, I often talk about the three A's of love: acceptance, affection, and appreciation. Our children need to live in an atmosphere where they feel confident that they will always be accepted and loved despite their shortcomings. When they are loved in this way, they will be able to mature in their ability to love others.
Unconditional Acceptance Teaches Love
The root of the word "acceptance" is "to bring to ourselves"-to receive. When we are accepting, we teach our children they are wanted and loved. We convey our love with smiles, hugs, kisses, and pats, with the warmth of our affection, day in and day out, through all the years of childhood and into their adulthood.
When we accept our children unconditionally we let go of any inclination we may have to want to change their inner selves, who they are. In order to do this, we may have to let go of some of our oldest and fondest dreams. The mother whose daughter prefers reading to ballet and the father whose son decides he likes chemistry better than basketball are faced with a choice about which is more important: living out their dreams through their children or providing their kids with the emotional support and acceptance they need to find and pursue their own dreams. Seen this way, the choice should be clear, and when we make room for our children's hopes to unfold, we make our own world much bigger and richer, too.
We also need to let our children know that achievements or compliance with our requests are not prerequisites for being loved. Love should always be freely given, not offered as a reward for good behavior. We should never threaten to withhold or withdraw our love, or set conditions for it by saying "I won't love you if..." or "I'll love you when..." Some parents are concerned that if they unconditionally accept their children, the will "never have anything to strive toward." But children need to strive toward goals and achievements, not the fundamental right to be accepted and loved by their parents.
However, accepting our children unconditionally does not mean tolerating inappropriate or irresponsible behavior. We can accept our kids while rejecting their unacceptable behaviors and maintaining rules and limits.
Six-year-old Jason has left his bicycle in the driveway-again. His father has repeatedly asked him to put it on the porch, explaining that he's afraid that one day he may run over it by accident. But Jason keeps forgetting. Finally, one night the inevitable happens, and dad feels the dread crunch under his wheels.
He's angry when he walks through the front door, but with an effort he keeps his temper. Unaware of what has happened, Jason runs up to greet his father with a hug.
Dad bends down to meet his son and swoops him up. "I want to show you something," he says in a serious tone. He carries Jason to the window, where he can see the damaged bicycle.
"Oh no!" Jason cries as he realizes what has happened. He holds on tighter to his father's neck, and buries his face in his shoulder. His father continues to hold him, adding "This is what I was afraid might happen." Dad puts Jason back on his feet. He looks his son directly in the eyes and says, "You understand that it may be ruined?" The boy nods tearfully. "Let's go take a closer look at it," Dad says, adding, "Maybe we'll be able to fix it." The message dad is giving Jason is, "Even if I don't always love what you do, I still love you and will help and support you."
(From the chapter "If children live with honesty, they learn truthfulness") Truthfulness is perhaps the most difficult thing of all to teach. For while most parents would agree that honesty and truthfulness are important qualities to develop in our children, the reality is that we are all, to some degree, less than completely honest in our day-to-day lives. And determining how, when, and to what degree honesty is important is a highly complex and very personal matter. Most of us tell our children stories we consider to be harmless, like the ones about Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, but some parents believe that even this kind of storytelling is a form of dishonesty. Some parents consider it acceptable to lie about their children's ages in order to get them free travel on an airplane or a reduced admission at the movies; others do not. No matter what our own personal standards, almost all of us at least occasionally tell "little white lies" designed to simplify our lives, to save time, or to spare others hurt feelings. However, when faced with similar dilemmas, we would not make the same decisions. There is no doubt about it, telling the truth can be a very murky business.
If it is not always easy for adults to know when telling the whole truth is the right thing to do and when it is better to shade the truth or even to lie, imagine how confusing it must be for our children. They know we value honesty and expect them to tell the truth, yet they witness our own inconsistency and discover that in certain circumstances, their truthfulness seems to distress us. How can we teach them the importance of being honest, while acknowledging how complicated it can sometimes be?
The Truth of the Matter
We can start by helping our children understand that honesty and truthfulness are different aspects of the same thing. Honesty covers a broad range of behaviors, including our ability to see and experience things as they are-without distortion, wishful thinking, avoidance, or denial. Truthfulness refers to our ability to communicate what we see and experience accurately and clearly. As they grow older, we also want to help our children develop a sense of discretion-the ability to discern situations in which it is better to leave the truth, or at least parts of us, unsaid. They likewise need to come to understand the difference between a lie and an honest mistake. Lying involves intentional deception, and it is the deception that is wrong, not just that a fact has been misstated.
The first step is to teach our children to recognize and face the truth, even when it is uncomfortable or undesirable for them to do so. We want them to be able to report to us fully and accurately what has happened in a given situation, or what they have done. This involves learning to distinguish between fact and various kinds of fiction-wishful thinking, reporting what we think others want to hear rather than what is so, or simply flights of imagination.
Children who have difficulty describing honestly how something happened are usually afraid of the consequences of being truthful, and are attempting to protect themselves or others from blame or punishment. We can help them by creating an environment in which they are praised for answering truthfully, even when they have done something wrong. There is a fine balance here. On the one hand, we need to help our children take responsibility for their wrong behavior and accept the consequences. We don't want our children think that no matter what they do, as long as they tell the truth everything is okay. On the other hand, we don't want them to be so fearful of our response to the truth, that they are tempted to lie.
One way we can help in this regard is by trying to focus on what happened instead of seeking to assign blame.
"How did a tennis racket get left out on the porch last night?" Mom asks her daughters, nine and eleven years old. The girls look at each other nervously, realizing they may be in trouble.
"Well," the younger daughter begins, "I carried it in from the car along with my backpack and the other stuff. I guess I dropped it on the porch so I could open the front door."
The older daughter chimes in, "I said I'd get it, but then I forgot to go back out to pick it up."
Mom gets the picture and makes a serious appeal to both daughters. "Please make sure it gets all the way inside next time. A racket can easily be ruined when it's left out all night."
Asking how the racket came to be on the porch gave Mom more accurate information about what happened than if she had asked who had left it there. If the focus were on who was responsible, the girls would have been inclined to blame each other. This way, they answered their mother truthfully, each reporting her own experience, and Mom held them both accountable for an understandable mistake.
Excerpted from Children Learn What They Live. Reprinted with permission by Workman Publishing.