Did we know that as parents we have an awesome role to play in helping our children know and believe in the unconditional love of God? The Apostle John in his epistle, tells us simply that “God is love”. If God is love then truly God cannot stop being Himself and therefore God’s love is truly unconditional. However, have we accepted this? Do we believe that God loves us unconditionally? Most of us would likely answer yes to these questions, however there are many of us who if we look deep into our hearts, might have a hard time feeling or believing on an emotional level that God loves us unconditionally. There are multiple reasons why someone might doubt God’s unconditional love for them. Sometimes these reasons are to be found in our childhood. This article will focus on one of those reasons; when parenting occurs in such a way that we accidentally or deliberately communicate to our child that our love for them is conditional.
As parents, showing unconditional love does not mean that we can never get upset, be firm, or discipline our children. However, do we do so in a way that even though our child knows we are displeased or disappointed, they also know that we still love them? Also, that our upset is about their behavior or decision, not about who they are as a person? If as parents our expression of disappointment is too strong or if we use shame, then children or adolescents can learn to believe that they themselves are bad rather than their behavior. We therefore strive to parent and discipline in a way so that our kids can say to themselves, “I messed up” or “I made a mistake” rather than “I am messed up” or “I am a mistake”. Guilt can be healthy because it helps us feel bad about the behavior, however shame is toxic and devastating because it causes the one being shamed to believe that their whole personhood is “bad”. When shame is inflicted repeatedly in someone, it can lead to them not receiving love from others (because they feel unworthy) and it can then result in them not accepting the love of God. Once shame sets in, it weaves itself into our whole being and psyche, to the point it is hard to detect, but affects everything in our life.
If a parent expresses anger too much, too harshly, and too frequently with a child, this too can cause a child to doubt their parents’ love and inflict shame. Finally, if a parent inadvertently or intentionally makes their child believe that their love for them is based on performance, this too can lead to the child doubting the parents’ love and in turn, the love of everyone else, and even God. A young person could grow up believing that God’s love for them is based upon spiritual performance. For example, that if they fall into sin or do something wrong, then God will not love them anymore. A parent would likely have no idea that this inner process of doubting the parent’s love or God’s love is taking place or that shame is setting in, because the wounds are silent and often unseen to those on the outside. It is imperative that as parents, when disciplining, we teach our children and communicate that though we are displeased with their behavior, we still love them and then instill in them belief in their potential, that they are good and capable of good decisions. The parent also needs to weave in some affirmation into their disciplining. Our love for our child is the core of our parenting and it must be communicated regularly. Our children need to know, feel, and experience that our love for them is fixed and not variable or subject to change. Children need regular affirmation. Again, we teach them that we are displeased with their behavior, not with who they are as a person. Our wording we use in our disciplining is crucial. Indeed, not only our wording, but even our tone of voice. Even in the absence of shaming words, a shaming tone can be just as devastating. However, it needs to be said that even when we make sure they know our upset is over their behavior, we still need to make sure our upset is not disproportionate to the negative behavior.
Jesus role models this so perfectly in the gospels. Jesus never shamed anyone. When Jesus encountered the Samaritan woman at the well who had five husbands (and was living with one who was not her husband), he did not reject nor shame her. He still sat with her, engaged her, and affirmed her. The Samaritan woman was not used to this, she was used to being shamed. The fact that Jesus still engaged her, sat with her, and affirmed her (though gently made it clear that her lifestyle was not healthy) created a transformative effect. She went onto to become St. Photini. Jesus did the same with Zacchaeus the Tax Collector. He had defrauded many and collaborated with the Romans. Yet Jesus went to his home for dinner. This entering of Zacchaeus’ house was a huge affirmation for Zacchaeus who was despised by the people. This again had a transformative effect as Zacchaeus went on to become a saint. There are many more examples of this. In neither instance did Jesus use shame. Jesus used unconditional love in these interactions but often with the accompanying words “Go and sin no more”. When Jesus says “Go” he is saying “you are free, I do not reject, condemn, nor shame you, you are forgiven, and now let go of that unhealthy behavior”. Jesus knew shame was a poor motivator. If someone believes that they are bad, then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and they will do bad things. A child who is chronically shamed will have little to no hope that they can be anything other than bad, a failure, or a source of bad things. Where there is no hope, there is no motivation.
One might ask, what does my child’s perception of my love have to do with their perception of God’s love for them? Our relationships with our children are the first and earliest relationships our children will know. A child’s relationship with their parent often becomes the blueprint for future relationships. Do we not call God “Father”? It often happens that what we learn from our parents gets carried over and displaced onto our relationship with God. If a child did not experience unconditional love from their parent then there is a significant chance they will struggle with accepting and feeling God’s unconditional love for them. Doubting God’s unconditional love can negatively affect our faith, trust, and belief in God’s mercy and providence. It can also lead to us rejecting God’s love and not recognizing the love of God when we leave this world. No one is perfect and surely as parents we have all made mistakes. However, it is never too late to tend to any wounds we may have inadvertently inflicted on our children (no matter how old they are) and seek forgiveness from them. By beginning our affirmations to our children today, we can relight that ember of hope and belief in them that they can be holy and a blessing. It is how the greatest sinners became the greatest saints.