By Joseph Sacks, LCSW
An emotionally healthy person loves, approves of and respects himself unconditionally. That means that he recognizes his intrinsic value as a person, and he does not allow his mistakes to take away from his own self-estimation of that value. Furthermore, he does not make that approval or respect dependent on superior achievement or especially good deeds, rather on the authenticity of his feelings and his faith that overall, he is a decent, worthwhile person. His default setting, so to speak, is “I’m Ok just the way I am.” Such thought patterns are extremely healthy and beneficial. They give a person the strength to persevere through adversity, the happiness to succeed, and they protect him from all sorts of emotional illnesses.
How do we raise a child to possess this wonderful trait?
The answer lies in the fact that children learn to perceive and treat themselves the way their parents perceive and treat them. That means we have to be aware of the effects of conditional love, and we need to treat them with unconditional love, unconditional approval, and unconditional respect. This means we don’t limit our approval, affection and love only to certain times or situations, such as when the child does something good. Doing so would teach him that “I am only worthy of approval when I do something good, but when I make a mistake or am simply not doing anything good in particular, I’m not Ok.” Instead for example we need to go out of our way to show approval, love and acceptance specifically when the child makes a mistake or performs poorly. Thus the child learns, “I am worthwhile at all times, even when I make a mistake.” Children make constant mistakes. They need to make volumes and volumes of them in order to learn. It is critical that we do not make them feel bad for making mistakes, and to even celebrate them for the wonderful learning experience that they are.
Unconditional approval of school performance
It is so important that children feel we value them simply for their existence and the authenticity of their feelings, even when they perform poorly in school! You can’t let your affection, approval and love be contingent on good academic performance. Even if the child does well, he will think, “I am only worthy because I did well, but if I hadn’t I wouldn’t be.” Emotional health is anyway so much more important that good school performance for success in life! In fact, emotional health is what sets a child up for success.
The pitfalls of praise
It is very tempting to use praise, approval, rewards and affection to condition children to perform well or do what we want them to do. It is simple behaviorism, if you give praise or affection for good effort, they will be encouraged to perform well more in the future. But it comes as a cost as I said above, because the behaviorism works if you only give the reward for good performance, and that teaches them that they don’t have intrinsic value, but only on condition that they perform well.
Don’t praise, describe.
In addition to unconditionally approving of the child directly at all times, you can get him or her to unconditionally approve, respect and love him or herself by using a technique developed by famed psychologist from the 70’s, Haim Ginott, called describing. When a child does something, don’t judge it as good or bad, don’t praise it or criticize it. Simply describe what the child did. Instead of “Good boy, you got it in, you’re a great shooter,” which will lead the child to think he is only good when he gets it in, simply describe, “You got it in,” celebrating his accomplishment with him, but allowing him to himself conclude, “It’s good that I got it in, but it’s Ok when I don’t.” Do you see the difference? Describing doesn’t force a belief in any erroneous values on the child, it allows him himself to conclude the most logical truth, that getting it in is nice but not getting it in is acceptable too!
Let’s say a child helped you set the table. Instead of praising, “What a good girl you are, you really did a great job,” leading her to believe she is only good when she helps and does a great job, but when she doesn’t she’s not, describe, “You set the table, you were really helpful to me, I appreciate that,” and she will herself conclude that she can be helpful when she wants to, but if she didn’t do it she’s Ok too.
If the child spills something or makes some other mistake, don’t criticize, get angry or put him down, just describe, “The cheerios spilled, the broom is over there,” and the child will learn, “It’s Ok when I make mistakes.”
If a child comes home with a bad grade or report from school,
don’t criticize, get angry or show disapproval. Instead ask the child, “How do you feel about what happened?” and help him or her to develop his own desire to do better, out of a genuine desire for the pleasure of achievement, and not out of the fear of disapproval! When the child sees that you approve of him even when he performs poorly, this will provide him with great happiness and pleasure, and that satisfaction will give him the strength to desire and pursue better performance from the motivation of a healthy enjoyment of achievement.
Let your love pour out to your children at all times unconditionally, and he or she will surely thrive!
Feel free to peruse my interesting blog, download one of my informative free reports, or view my video. If you would like tolearn more about the effects of conditional love, and would like guidance or treatment from a child therapist in lower Manhattan, you may call me at 646-681-1707 for a complementary 15-minute consultation. I look forward to speaking with you!