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Good Counsel: Unconditional Love

Posted in Articles,School Age and Younger by Estalyn Sunday May 6, 2007 at about 6:49 pm

By Estalyn Walcoff

One of my favorite children’s books is “Mama, Do You Love Me?” by Barbara Joosse (Chronicle, $6.95). In it, a little Eskimo child imagines misbehaving in all sorts of annoying ways and asks her mother if she’d still love her. What’s interesting is that the mother says she would get angry at the behavior, but she’d still love the child.

Babies fall in love with their parents and, ideally, parents love them back unconditionally — that is, no matter how they behave. If we’re crazy about our little ones and express that feeling in words and actions, children will grow up with healthy self-esteem and the ability to love others.

As children grow, however, they often try our patience and stir us to anger. If we aren’t careful about how we express our anger, we may be giving them the message that we’ve stopped lov­ing them unconditionally. So how do we accomplish the dual tasks of raising our children to have high self-esteem and disciplining them to be­come responsible people?

One tribe in Africa has solved the problem in a unique way: The paternal uncle takes the role of disciplinarian while the parents’ only job is to nurture. The kid is pampered and adored by the parents and the un­cle is called in when the kid dis­obeys or acts irresponsibly. It’s a great idea — though impractical in our modern society where un­cles live all over the place and may not want the role as the heavy, anyway.

So what’s a well-meaning par­ent to do? Follow the example of Mama in the book. Disapproving of the action and not the kid is the trick — and not an easy one.

Let’s say your 5-year-old hits his little sister. You can say: “I don’t like your hitting behavior. You are a big boy and I know you can use words to tell your sister you’re mad at her rather than hitting her. And, of course, I still love you.”

If your teen leaves the house without doing her chores, you can say: “I don’t like that you left with­ out doing your chores. I know you’re capable of organizing your time bet­ter. You usually can ac­complish anything you set your mind to.”

The same approach ap­plies to a spouse. When we marry, we pledge to love each other “till death do us part.” Yet unconditional love seems to fly out the door the first time your wife overspends on the credit card or your hus­band prefers watching football with his buddies rather than going for a walk with you.

The way we express our hurt, anger or disappointment can make our partners feel that we’ve stopped loving them. How many of us feel unconditionally loved when our partner yells at us or silently spends the night on the far side of the bed?

A better way to handle our feel­ings is to separate the action from the person. You could try: “Honey, you know I love you. Leaving your underwear on the floor is in­furiating. But I still want to be married to you.”

Estalyn Walcoff, RCP, is a psychotherapist in private practice in Brighton.

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