As parents, we want our children to spend time with us, talk with us, and stay close for as long as we live. More importantly, we would like for them to desire the same thing. But if we don’t love them unconditionally now, it’s unlikely they will remain nearby in the future.
“But aren’t I responsible to help them develop to their fullest potential?” you might ask. “Are there not times when I need to push a little?”
Absolutely! In fact, motivating your children to excellence and improvement is part of expressing unconditional love and acceptance to them. To allow kids simply to "get by" in life is a form of covert rejection.
Within a child's area of talent lies the greatest potential for excellence.
If you want to motivate your children without expressing an attitude of conditional acceptance, two things must be true:
First, all prodding and exhortation must be preceded by demonstrations of unconditional love for them. There must be memorials, so to speak, to their worthiness in your eyes. By “memorials,” I mean prior events or conversations that have clearly expressed your love.
Memorials are beneficial because they give your children something to recall for reassurance when you pressure them to perform. Sometimes your expectations will be too high, and they will fail. Without reminders of your unconditional acceptance, children might fear your disappointment and rejection.
Memorials can also take the form of a gift or even the bestowal of certain privileges. In presenting the gift, stress that it is not connected with any particular occasion or action on their part; you are giving simply because you love them.
Second, to properly motivate your child, you must measure him by his own ability, not someone else's. Comparing one child’s performance to that of another eventually destroys self-esteem, expressions of individuality, and creativity.
The real key here is to view each of your children as a unique individual. Every young person is gifted in some particular way. Your goal as a parent is to recognize that strength and emphasize it as your son or daughter develops, for within a child’s area of talent lies the greatest potential for excellence. By cultivating these strengths, you will also do great things for your children’s self-esteem.
When I was growing up, I didn’t do so well in high school. Everything turned out okay, but I didn’t have a good start. As a result, I never told my kids that I expected them to get As or Bs while they were in school. I didn’t tell them they had to make the baseball team or be the most popular. Instead, my question to them was, “Did you do your best?”
Unconditional love and acceptance are communicated more clearly by what we do and how we do it than simply by what we say.
One good way to find out whether or not your children feel unconditional acceptance is simply to ask them, “What do you think it would take for you to make Mom and Dad as proud of you as we could possibly be?”
Evaluate the answer carefully. Is it task-oriented? Do they feel they must do all their chores every day or be straight-A students? Do they feel obligated to make a team or squad, or perform some other task to win your approval?
Perhaps the answer is more character-related. Do your children believe that doing their best at every task they undertake is what would please you? Do they know you would be proud of them for obeying God, regardless of the cost?
Their reply will give you insight into what you’ve actually communicated, regardless of what you have said. The value system you establish will serve as a basis upon which they accept themselves and others.
Simply telling your children that you accept them unconditionally is not enough. The apostle John wrote, "Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18). Unconditional love and acceptance are communicated more clearly by what we do and how we do it than simply by what we say.
Our children must have a backlog of memories to sustain their belief that we truly love them, no matter what. Such love shows our sons and daughters that we accept them for who they are—regardless of what they do. What a sense of security and acceptance this gives them!
Do you want to encourage your kids to succeed? If we direct their focus to the Lord, then they will want to be obedient and do their best for Him.
Never take for granted the impact that you have on your children’s lives. Remember, the way you act toward them today greatly influences the way they will respond to you tomorrow.
Adapted from “How to Keep Your Kids on Your Team” (1986).