How to Teach Unconditional Love

I’m a big fan of Becky Bailey’s work. My daughter attended a preschool that based their teaching approach on her Loving Guidance principles. Since then Becky’s book, Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline has been my parenting Bible. This morning, I happened to flip to a page titled THE POWER OF POSITIVE INTENT. It said the following:

When you attribute positive motives to yourself and to others, you achieve an amazing number of good ends. Among them:
• You uphold the highest image of yourself and of others
• You foster cooperation by joining with others to solve a problem
• You foster a sense of security
• You foster responsibility
• You set your child up for a teaching moment
• You convey healthy responses to your child that will help him handle and embrace diversity
• You encourage your child to develop his own will by acknowledging that he does not need to obey you in order to keep your love
• You model unconditional love

Strangely enough, I was having a rather intense conversation until 1:30 am last night (or this morning) on this very subject (more specifically, the mirror you hold up for someone is who they become). I kid you NOT… coincidence… right?

So… hang on there, sister! You can actually teach unconditional love?! Like, to your children?! They don’t have to wait until they’re grown-ups and learn the hard way?! I can just see Zen Mommy laughing at me now… um, yeah… THAT IS YOUR JOB!

I’ve spent the last few months intensely processing the idea of loving without reservation and with the help of a few incredibly enlightened teachers have come to realize that this concept of positive intent is the KEY to it all. In order to love unconditionally, we have to hold the image of someone’s Best Self in our minds. We have to interact with this person as if they are already everything they could be, not necessarily how they are behaving at the moment. Like Pema Chodron alludes to in her book… the blue sky is always behind the clouds. We are already perfect. Your child is always perfect, even if they are acting like the biggest brats in the world!

So let’s take an example, your baby whacks you on the arm. You have a choice. You can get angry and say “We DO NOT hit!” or you can say, “You wanted my attention so you hit my arm.” And then follow it by saying, “You may not hit because that hurts. When you want my attention you can touch my arm or my hand or say, “Mama! Let’s try it now.” This is paraphrasing an example from the book but one that I have experienced myself many times as I redirected my own children. The success of this tactic is very much tied to the emotion that I’ve felt at the time. If I can say these words calmly, with no anger in my voice, I receive cooperation. If I feel myself tighten up and just go through the motions, these are the times when my kids (especially my son), will dig in and escalate the conflict.

So what’s the difference? If I am angry, I can usually bet that the sponsoring thought is something like, “OMG! You are driving me nuts! Why are you so difficult?” If I am centered and calm, the sponsoring thought is more along the lines of… “I’m distracted. He wants my attention and I’m not being fully present. And he is frustrated.” And I can be grateful that he wants my love! Obviously, the latter is ascribing positive intent and it changes the way I respond to my child.

What does this teach my children? It teaches them that I love them unconditionally, regardless of the choices they make. It teaches them to respect other people’s choices, even if they do not agree with them. It teaches them to take responsibility for all their choices because none of them mean that they are “bad” people (maybe just a poor choice at the time). It teaches them to discover their True Selves rather than be slaves to the approval of others.

Unconditional love. Powerful stuff. And guess what? It works with grown-ups too!


  1. Yes, Yes, Yes! As a life coach I’m always promoting self-focus and creating space to decrease reactivity. We are the people our children model their behavior after. So many “parenting styles” are about getting our children to behave well, yet those “parenting techniques” don’t reflect on the HUGE impact we have on our children. Each moment, every day is a teaching moment, and a chance to connect deeply to our children. We live in an instant gratification society, we want our children to obey Right Now! That type of parenting usually leads to poor long term relationships with the munchkins we love so dearly. It all starts with taking care of ourselves, first and foremost. I am a Certified ScreamFree Parent Leader and this is what we practice and teach. Parenting is about parents and what we need to do to create space so that we can alleviate that universal parenting anxiety. It’s that parenting anxiety that creates frustration and discord in the relationships we have with our children. We need more forward thinking, open minded parents to create a more peaceful planet!

  2. Practical mommy knows her stuff!
    A ll babies and kids deserve conscious parenting! That means that it is each parent’s job to become self aware and to learn “response-ability”. Most times when your children are acting out it is because they are feeling and reacting in the moment to their own parent’s upset! If you calm down and breathe , the entire vibe changes and everyone wins. You are teaching your child how to self-regulate. Acknowledging that misbehavior is a bid for your attention and naming it as suggested in this article is a key parenting tool. Learning how to communicate clearly and authentically is a parenting skill that serves you and your family. I am the Director of the Conscious Parenting Center in St. Louis. I teach the PARENT TALK SYSTEM developed by Chick Moorman. I encourage the art of compassionate relating which follow as from the parental model. This is an excellent article!!!!

  3. Callie Oppenheimer says:

    I JUST had this conversation last night, and got the feedback that I was being “mean” to my daughter, who’s almost 4. She has the uncanny ability to pick a tiny variation from her routine and spin completely out of control about it, and it makes me CRAZY.

    My biggest pet peeve is that she tends to wind herself up the most when looking in a MIRROR – acting on the immediate feedback loop. Any help with that, Practical Mommy? 🙂

    I feel myself getting tense and fearful as soon as it starts, and the quickest way I’ve found out of these escalations is to offer a stern choice (e.g., “get control or the ___ toy goes away….”)

    As I suspect, she usually shuts down the behavior immediately, but reading this article I KNOW it does not shut down her need. By the time of evening these things usually happen, both of us are exhausted, and want the kids in bed. And it’s so OBVIOUS she’s sensing that I am detaching from her, and acting out negatively in order to maintain my attention!

    Such great advice – sono grata! 🙂

  4. @Tara and @Becky, thanks for weighing in… cool. I know some stuff. 🙂 But you experts say it so well!!!

    And @Callie, I think YOUR answer is right there in Becky’s comment… breathe! No, seriously. There probably is this vicious cycle going on with the mirror thing, wherein a pattern has been established. Your 4-year old knows she can get your attention, albeit negative attention with this little game. Maybe you really can make it a game… be playful… make your own faces, but make them funny and have fun with it.

    I know it’s tough to do at the end of the day, especially, but we all have choices. The alternative is escalation. And it’s at that moment when we can CHOOSE (you know, love or fear… the ongoing spiritual battle, even the small ones make a difference in creating a peaceful world. Right, Tara?)

    It takes PRACTICE. For me, scripting what I would do in hypothetical situations, before they occur helps center me when they actually happen. It also helps to have a partner/spouse that centers you. I think this actually has some scientific explanation… maybe Becky can provide more enlightenment on that.

    And Tara, I LOVE that you mention taking care of yourself first. Isn’t that TRUTH?! The only effective teaching/guiding is through modeling… self-regulation and anything else. The answer is self-love… improving and appreciating YOURSELF! Your kids learn from your choices and your energy. If you are angry, bitter, resentful or even just plain unhappy and dissatisfied with yourself… expect the EXACT mirror from your kids. Don’t give them anything that you are not willing to give FREELY… it just comes back to bite you… right in the backside!

  5. I needed this right now. Thank you.

  6. Julie, thank YOU for the confirmation… of why I do what I do! 🙂