In the 12 years since my son Cooper was born, I’ve had a lot of parenting mistakes.
Since I only have one child, my experience of raising little humans is admittedly limited to a universe of one.
I recently had a friend who’s expecting a child ask me, “what’s the one piece of advice you would give a new parent?”
He’s met Cooper many times, and has regularly commented on how well adjusted and polite Cooper is. I am incredibly proud of the kind, funny, honest and intelligent young man that we’ve raised to this point.
Most of the things we did as parents were trial and error. Like most parents, we followed random and arbitrary advice from experts, other parents, and our own experiences being raised as children.
But without a doubt, there is one single thing that I have relentlessly taught and reinforced in my son that I believe is going to serve him well as he grows up.
When he was just learning to talk, I used to ask him how much I loved him. He would look at me curiously, and I would stretch my arms straight out to the side, reaching my finger tips out as far as I could.
As I pretended to struggle to reach out further and further, I would say “I love you THIS much!”
And he would giggle and smile, anticipating the big hug he knew was coming.
It only took a few times of this before he knew the answer to the question.
Soon, when I asked him if he knew how much I loved him, he would quickly reach his own arms out wide and squeal, “THIS much!”
He was perhaps 4 when I started asking him what he could do to make me love him more.
It was a trick question.
Using his soccer game as an example I said, “if you score 3 goals in your game today, do you know how much more I would love you?”
I remember the puzzled look he had when I said it.
“A lot more?”, he asked with great hope.
“Nope. I couldn’t love you any more if I wanted buddy. I will always love you, no matter what happens.”
I could see the little wheels turning inside his head.
“And Cooper, what happens when you make a mistake or do something you’re not supposed to? Do I love you any less?”
He thought in silence for a minute, and sheepishly said, “No?”
I quickly smiled and my eyes lit up. “You’re right buddy! It doesn’t matter what you do, because I can’t love you any less!”
I went on to explain that my love is unconditional for him, and that it will never change.
He couldn’t do anything to make me love him more, and he also could never lose my love, no matter what.
I explained that some things that he would do would make me really proud.
Sometimes, he would do things that I would not be proud about. Disappointment and frustration would happen. But those were about behaviour, not the character of the person behind them.
No matter what, my love would always be full and complete for him.
I could see the relief and the peace in his eyes when he made this connection.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but what’s become clear to me over the years is how few children ever learn that their parent’s love is unconditional.
Most parents have good intentions when they raise their kids and would quickly say their love is unconditional.
You’d see a different story if you watched them parent their kids. Most parents are oblivious to the emotional damage they cause when they place conditions on their love for their child.
When a child makes this connection in their mind — that in order to be accepted or to be loved, they have to be and act a certain way — it sets them up for a lifetime of craving and pursuing acceptance from others.
They learn that their value and worth is only as high as their ability to meet the conditions other people place on them.
They become acceptance addicts, looking for external validation and ignoring their own inner guidance. Eventually, they come to a point in their life where they hit a wall and realize they’ve chosen to be accepted by others, and ignored who they truly are.
There are a lot of things I would change about how I’ve parented my son if I could go back in time.
But I got this one thing right, and I believe that it’s the most important and powerful life lesson that I could have ever gifted to my son. Teaching your children you unconditionally love them, no matter what .. offsets a lot of the minor parenting mistakes along the way.
Even though he’s now 12, he will still hold my hand when I walk through the mall with him. In fact, he’ll occasionally reach out and take my hand himself. My heart melts every time.
When we’re watching a creepy movie, he’ll come over to the couch, smile and ask “can I cuddle with you?”
Teaching your child that, without a doubt, you love them no matter what happens, seems to be a pretty good equation for raising a good human.