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Unconditional love doesn't mean unconditional approval
Sharing wisdom is one of a parent's most important jobs.
Originally published in the Moultrie News.
My son insists he wants to be a professional soccer player. He’s good, but he’s not even the best player on his team. How can I encourage him to look into other professions without dashing his dreams?
My son wants to grow his hair long. I don’t think it will look good, but how can I say so without discouraging his self-expression?
Our son has saved up to buy a car. We don’t think the car he’s chosen is a good deal or a particularly good car, but he has his heart set on it. Should we let him make the purchase anyway?
At the heart of each of these questions is a disagreement between parent and child with the parent contemplating swallowing his or her opinion. That’s a relatively new phenomenon. In the past, if kids grew their hair out, dads might say, “Cut your hair, hippie, or find another house.” Today, for better or worse, we’re more sensitive.
One reason for the change is we’re afraid of our own children. We’re either afraid they’re going to throw a fit if we tell them no, or we’re afraid they’ll judge us. The worst thing some parents can imagine is being considered “uncool” by their child. That fear is an attitude trap parents should avoid. Being the “cool” parent who affirms all their child’s choices wins you no loyalty. It can also prevent you from sharing important wisdom with your child, which —let’s face it — is one of your most critical jobs.
Another reason parents sometimes shy away from telling their kids what they really think is the mistaken belief that their children will lose faith in the parents’ love. Parents feel if they tell their child his car or career selection stinks, the child might think they don’t want him to be happy or that they don’t “believe” in him. I understand the feeling, but my experience is that children who thrive have parents who understand that unconditional love does not mean unconditional approval.
Here’s an example: one day a girl showed up in my class with bright green hair. This, of course, isn’t harmful, but it’s highly unusual and attracted a lot of attention (not the good kind). Classmates reacted with gawks and taunts. Adolescents rarely conceal their personal evaluations. If they think your hair looks weird, they’re going to say so.
When the girl ended up in tears, I tried to console her. I asked her what her parents thought about her new hair. She said she asked them if she could color it, and they said sure with no further guidance.
Maybe they really were indifferent, but if they were holding back their prohibition (or at least their admonition) because they thought it might damage their daughter’s self-esteem or make them seem lame, they made a big mistake. The girl told me she wished her parents had just said no.
Obviously, as kids get older, we can’t stop them from doing everything they want to do. But there’s never anything wrong with telling your children what you truly think. If your child says she wants to be a singer when she grows up, telling her there’s a good chance it won’t work out and she needs a viable backup plan may feel harsh. But your approval will feel much harsher later on when she’s aimless, unqualified, and unemployed because she invested her whole life in a statistically losing proposition. Likewise, when your son is stranded in the middle of nowhere because his jalopy broke down, you’ll wish you had advised him to buy a different car.
It’s good to be an encouraging parent, but you don’t have to approve of every decision your child makes. You should love your children regardless of their wrong choices, but you don’t have to stand by mutely (or, worse, adoringly) while they make bad decisions.
So tell them no when it’s warranted, give them your opinion when it might help, and don’t worry about being uncool or unloved. Instead, remind your kids that your wisdom is for their greater good. Remind them — and yourself — that unconditional love does not mean unconditional approval.
Read the original column here.
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