Conditional – Unconditional Love
There are two kinds of parental love; conditional and unconditional. Every child needs to have the unconditional love of their parents and mentors as well as a good healthy dose of conditional love. Parenting is a constant struggle to find the right balance. In my early years as a parent, I would feel like I had gained a pretty good balance and then suddenly things would go spiraling out of control again. It is part of the ebb and flow of how we are coping and how those around us are adjusting to the demands of life.
What is Unconditional Love?
We understand that being loved unconditionally means that we do not have to perform anything to be loved. We are loved just because of who we are. We don’t have to behave in any certain way to be loved. We are not really expected to obey to be loved. That is being loved unconditionally. We have heard people say, “That is a person only a mother could love.” Mother love is sometimes understood as an unconditional love.
Then what is Conditional Love?
Conditional love is the love that teachers have. This is the kind of love that coaches have. This is the kind of love that policemen and judges have. It is the kind of love that says, “You foul up, you pay the price. You learn the lesson the hard way, and then you don’t have to learn the lesson a second time.” Conditional love says, “Do what you know you are supposed to do and I will treat you just fine. But if you don’t, I will make you wish you had done it right.” It is the teaching love. Sometimes it is called “Tough Love” and other times it is called Father’s love. Don’t get tangled up with the names “Father” and “Mother” and think that one parent should have one kind and one the other. Every person has elements of both within them.
How do we know which part we should use?
When I would punish my children, I was demonstrating conditional love. They were being told, “You crossed the line. You broke the rule. You pay the price.” That is a very loving thing to teach your children! I made it a point to be so consistent and dependable that my kids would have tremendous confidence that they would be punished each time they broke the rules. I cut very little slack. I accepted no excuses.
Now some people might say, “You were just being mean or cruel.” No, it is not cruel or mean-spirited to love your children enough to punish them. Teaching children that there are limits and punishments for crossing those limits is the fundamental responsibility of parents. It is much more uncaring and unloving to refuse to discipline and teach the child what those limits are because that could cause them to spend the rest of their lives in trouble with everyone. We are always going to be tempted to explain away the problems. We have fancy names for the underlying syndromes and diagnosis. There are physical problems to deal with, but we must never lose sight of the primary reality. Behavior is either acceptable or it is not. Children will push us to let them off the hook if we let them.
Everyone needs BOTH kinds of love
Each time I would punish one of my kids, I would faithfully go to that child. I would hold them. I would talk softly to them and explain that punishment is not about anger. Punishment is about performance or behavior. I would talk about what had happened and why things turned out the way they did. I would let them know that punishment was always for breaking rules and not because they were bad kids. I reassured them that I was always going to love them and I was always going to expect the very best from them.
Each person has both kinds of love within them
At different times, however, one kind of love will overshadow the other. My grown kids think I have suffered some sort of stroke since becoming a grandparent. They think the man who had been their Father-Love parent has gone AWOL and left behind someone who still looks like their dad but acts completely different. I laugh and tell them that I did my job being the teaching parent while they were home. Now, they have kids and that job is now their job to do. My role has changed and I can be less of the “family policeman” and can become a supporter in a different way. Roles change, the needs of the individual child change, and the balance between parents also changes. We need to respond in appropriate ways to those changes.