Author and priest’s wife Tatiana Vigilyanskaya continues her discussion with psychologist Olga Lysova-Brodina on the upbringing of children. Today’s talk is about how parents can achieve true unconditional love for their children.
The stumbling blocks
The main issue many parents are faced with when they find out about unconditional love is that it can seem that to love with unconditional love means accepting a child as he is, including all his shortcomings. This erroneous inference becomes a stumbling block on the way to unconditional love, it confuses and complicates things when people move from theory to practice. The problem is that to love a child unconditionally means to love him just because he exists, as gratitude to God for the miraculous gift of parenthood and not for something.
A sure stone we can lay in the foundation of unconditional love is the awareness that our parental task is to love him not because he is nice, obedient and diligent but because he is our flesh and blood who needs our warmth, protection and help! And to love despite all negative things, with patience and prayer, helping him become better and kinder, without ignoring the manifestations of his passions. One of the essential components of unconditional love is wise and balanced strictness that gently yet resolutely protects the pure part of the child’s soul from the passions and outer evil. I often see the mistake when parents think that if they tell the child strictly that he shouldn’t be rude, shouldn’t hurt his neighbors and younger ones, shouldn’t ignore requests and spend whole days in idleness, and if they punish him for that, then they must not love him unconditionally. They’re wrong. Sporadic conflicts with children by no means indicate that unconditional love is automatically destroyed. Not at all!
More than that, when it comes to the negative sides that we all have, seeing them and helping a child get over them is an integral part of unconditional love! It is not strictness but parental anger, impatience and the energy of judgment that destroy it.
If we turn to Divine pedagogy, examples of which we find in the Gospel, we’ll see how exactly we should struggle with passions and sins in our children. Firstly, giving them the knowledge of human nature and telling them what exactly we need to fight with (the passions and sinful thoughts) and why; secondly, enlightening their hearts and minds with Patristic knowledge about our eternal souls. It is important to not only tell them about the passions but also to inspire them to do inner spiritual work, setting ourselves and our children beautiful and lofty goals, disclosing the theme of God’s love for us and ours for Him and our neighbors. The Lord would give us this knowledge through the parables and the Beatitudes, and we must pass it on to our kids.
But there is a secret in this: if we look how many times the Lord showed His righteous anger over three years of His ministry, seeing all human untruth, we’ll find that it was only three times: by expelling merchants from the Temple, (indirectly) by cursing the barren fig-tree and by saying in annoyance, O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you, and suffer you? (Lk. 9:41). All the rest of the time He would heal, feed, console, teach, forgive, gladden and inspire with His miracles. Some will argue, “He’s God! This level is practically unattainable!” True, but we can take at least one hundredth of this level as a norm: to be less irritated; to inspire, console and make others glad more often; to show flexibility and wisdom more often; focus on the pure part, the image and the likeness of God in the child’s soul and be happy with his good traits. Turn our and the child’s attention to something pure and wise during conflicts instead of focusing on the negative or something the child is still unable to cope with for some reason. If the child is tired or can’t control his emotions, we can draw his attention to a game, let him have a rest, read him something, take him for a walk or go to church and pray with him if a problem is serious. And once his attention is redirected, the child will become calmer and more obedient.
It is vital to let the spirit of love, joy and prayer into your relationship! Elder Paisios the Hagiorite cited the following example:
“Parents should, as far as possible, explain good things to children in a kind manner: with love and pain. I recall one mother who, seeing that her son behaved badly, was saying with tears in her eyes and pain, ‘Don’t do it, my precious child!’ Seeing this example, her children learned to struggle with joy to avoid temptations in life, to not give in to difficulties, but rather to overcome them by prayer and trust in God.”
But sometimes this is not enough, and after many reproaches a child continues to persistently ignore your request or prohibition. Then wise strictness and even tangible punishment are needed. But in order to stay within the space of unconditional love, you need to clearly identify the boundaries of what’s permitted and punish without anger or verbal abuse. There is a famous Patristic saying that concisely explains that what’s said in anger and with bitterness isn’t learned and accepted by the soul, “Truth without love is slander.”
And now we have come to the next stumbling block: parental anger that the child’s subconscious and soul perceive as a lack of love. It is the passion of anger, coupled with pride and impatience, that prevents parents from creating the space of unconditional love in the family in most cases. St. Paisios the Hagiorite would speak very figuratively about this:
“Coercive parents do not help their children—they suffocate them. Endlessly repeating ‘Don’t touch this! Don’t go there! Do it like this!’ You shouldn’t pull the bridle so hard that you break it. You should reprove your children tactfully, to help them realize their mistakes, but you should not allow a breach to form between you. Parents should do what a good gardener does when he plants a small tree—he ties it gently to a strong stake to keep it from growing crooked and from being harmed when the wind blows first to the right, then to the left. He waters it regularly, taking care to make sure that its branches grow. He may also surround it with a fence so that goats will not eat it, for if the goats eat the branches, the tree will be destroyed. A truncated tree cannot can neither bear fruit nor provide shade. Once the branches grow big and strong, then the gardener removes the fence, and the tree can bear fruit and comfort goats, sheep, and people with its shade. However, guided by excessive concern for their children, parents often try and tie them with a hard wire instead of a soft string. What is proper is a gentle tying to avoid hurting them. Parents should try and help children in a noble manner. This cultivates piety in their souls, and the children will then feel the need to do good themselves.”1
An energy of anger and pride, a pharisaical spirit in interactions with children provoke their opposition (teens are particularly sensitive and can defend themselves intensely), while an energy of humble and wise unconditional love, prayer, a good sense of humor and a creative approach brings about love, respect and changes for the better.
What can help us create a space of unconditional love? First and foremost, a desire to envelop the child’s soul with warmth, a pursuit of peaceful solutions for problems that arise, cordiality, leniency towards others’ weaknesses, magnanimity, prayerful patience, a strict attitude towards ourselves and a merciful one towards our children—also, the desire to help, sympathize with them, share their pain and support them warmly. In cases when you need to stop the child and bring him to his senses, what helps is wise strictness based on deep respect for the child’s personality, as well as tact. When creating a space of unconditional love at home, a special role is played by the enlightenment of the child’s mind and heart with wise Patristic knowledge of the soul and of the Kingdom of God in its depths, of the salvific mystery of humility and of sacrificial love.