The Learning Process: Refuge Before Discipline (Ep. 25)

This week, Jennifer explains how conditional love and support sets up others for performance anxiety and contingent self-esteem.

All quotes by Alfie Kohn, Unconditional Parenting.

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Watch the video here.

I work with toddlers, so I’m reading this great book called Unconditional Parenting, and chapter one freakin’ looked me square in the eye and said my love and support for others come with strings attached.

First off, unconditional love is similar to constructivism in that we focus on who people are. Conditional love, like behaviorism, focuses on what people do.

Behaviorism is all too common because we are taught that “good things must always be earned, never given away.” (I detest that carrot-and-stick philosophy, but I betcha didn’t know that by now.

Here’s an example: a friend of mine has a boyfriend who recently attempted suicide. She has been working with him to find the right medications, therapy, and anything that will help him stay alive. However, he relapsed. My friend told him that, as long as he didn’t comply with their plan, she felt uncomfortable with him living in their home. I thought: it is absolutely wrong to shun someone when they are at their lowest. But I do that shit too!

If our presence and attention for others “depends on their performance,” people feel “they’re accepted only when they act the way we demand.” A child is called ‘disgusting’ for pooping their pants and gets candy for using the toilet; a depressed boyfriend is kicked out for relapse and receives comfort for feeling better. This not only makes our love look distant whenever others fail to please us, it often “morphs into conditional self-approval” for them, disowning “the parts of themselves that aren’t valued.”

This is a heartbreaking and common development, so, especially in their moments of insecurity or tantrum, we need to first show our “unshakable love” by providing refuge.

But wait a minute, offering refuge before discipline reinforces negative behavior, right? Whenever someone is acting out, we typically try to help with the best of intentions, but if we create the wrong setting, our feedback and advice could look like shame. This is especially possible if we jump into a battle of wills; the focus should not be on “who’s right, which, where feelings are concerned, is usually unanswerable” anyway. The focus should be on providing a safe setting to explore “what’s going on underneath the visible behavior.” If we assume rude behavior is the “outward expression of feelings and thoughts,” our mindset can guide others to “accept themselves as fundamentally good people, even when they screw up or fall short.” So, really, it matters less that we “believe we love them unconditionally,” and it matters more that “they feel loved in that way.”

And no, this doesn’t mean you gloss over their behavior or issues with cupcakes and kisses; you’re providing the essential space to truly open up. It’s taking that ‘I’m proud of my child who was student of the month’ bumper sticker and snipping off the bottom half so it reads: ‘I’m proud of my child.’ That is good love, it’s unconditional, and it’s true to the constructivist philosophy that battles contingent self-esteem.

Watch the video here.

I dedicate this video to my friend Justin, who, over a year ago, encouraged me to consider a past insecurity that might help me find direction. I now believe behaviorism is the root cause of most, if not all, of my problems. I’m truly sorry for disrespecting you.

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