“Do your parents love you unconditionally?” That was the question asked of a group of teenagers in the video from a class I was leading. We had just watched footage of the parents of these teenagers. The question for the parents was “do you love your children unconditionally?” These were Christian parents raising their children in the faith and seeking to emulate the unconditional love of God. One by one, each with their own explanations of why, the parents all answered yes. Now, the video shifted to the children of these parents who all just said they love their children unconditionally. “Do your parents love you unconditionally?” One by one, each with their own explanations of why, the children of those parents all said no. The teenagers all thought there were conditions on the love from their parents.
I still remember how jarring it was to me to watch that video. I was just like those parents. I loved my children unconditionally and felt it in my core. I couldn’t imagine a situation where my children would get on camera and say that somehow there were conditions to them being loved like getting good grades, being “good,” or obeying home rules. That jarring reality made the simple teaching something that still affects my parenting. If you want to communicate unconditional love to your children, the video leader said, do three things.
Look them in the eyes
Our children want us to see them. Really see them. The eyes are the window of the soul. Meaning and motive are both read through the eyes. When our children see us looking at them they are validated. We are signaling to them that they matter enough for us to take our eyes off of whatever other important things we grown ups look at — our work, our phones, television, house work — and see them.
Looking them in the eyes can be done at any distance. We can look them in the eye right next to us, across the room, or across the stands for a band concert or the field for a sporting event. When we smile, nod, or some other way acknowledge that you see them from near or far they feel that validation and love.
Give them positive physical touch
Positive physical touch is easiest when they are young and behaving. When they are young, they crave positive physical touch to give them a sense of security. When parents hug, kiss, or hold hands when children are in the stage of exploring new places and boundaries it communicates they are supported and loved. It is also easier to feel loving toward a child when the child is behaving and not being a little terror to you or the rest of the family.
Give them positive physical touch when they are young and behaving, but remember it matters just as much when they are older and when they are not behaving. As children get older they become more aware of the opposite type of touch. Negative, unsafe, physical touch. They become aware of their peers who will hit, bite, push, or pull others. They become aware of bullying. At some point, they become aware of physical and sexual abuse around them. They need to know they are safe. When parents provide positive physical touch, it sends a message. The message is their parents love them unconditionally. With older kids, it may not be a hug or kiss — not many teenagers want that outside the locker room or when picking them up from school — but rather a pat on the back along with the “well done” or “hey, buddy.”
Give them focused attention
This was the one that got me. I’m an active person, constantly doing things at work and home. I seldom stop, don’t take naps, and enjoy projects. Children want us to stop and give them the gift of our focused attention. That is hard to do, especially when what we are working on is important to us. But our children are only young once. That is our time we have with them. Put down the tools, put down the phone, put down the book. Look your child in the eye. High-five or hug or kiss them. And then spend time with them with focused attention while you still have them with you. In the blink of an eye, they will be on their way to college or a career, starting a family of their own, and building their life. While you have them, give them you. Give them your focused attention.
Parents of adult children, all of this applies to you too. It’s different when they are adults, but the principles are the same. Look them in the eye, give them positive physical touch, and give them your full and undivided attention.
Do you love your children unconditionally? Do you want them to know you do? Do you want them to know about the unconditional love of God through your example? If so, you can start with three things; look them in the eye, give them positive physical touch, and give them your focused attention.