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Slow Parenting Requires Unleashing Parental Love

“Slow parenting is about giving kids lots of love and attention with no conditions attached” (Carl Honore, New York Times, Motherlode, April 8, 2009). Mental health professionals call “slow parenting” unconditional love. This article will present unconditional-love tips from a mental health perspective in an effort to support the slow-parenting movement.

As a mental health professional with forty years of experience, treating more than 2,500 kids, I enthusiastically welcome this long-overdue slow-parenting movement. A big round of applause goes to the authors contributing to this movement: Hodgkinson, Skenazy, and Honore.

The evidence is crystal clear in every mental health session: kids thrive when parents focus on and validate “who I am” on the inside (unconditional) instead of what they do on the outside (conditional)-straight A’s, ten free throws a game, and so forth. (Agassi and Woods know all about the results of too much focus on outside performance-emptiness on the inside.)

All parents love their kids and know unconditional love is the way to go. But the gap between knowing and doing can be wide, and most parents feel guilty when they fail to bridge it. Slow parenting is a learned skill, and in just a minute I’ll give you some tips about how to unleash your love. But first let’s take a brief look at this slow-parenting movement.

The slow-parenting movement is all about supporting your kid to learn “who I am” on the inside at the kid’s pace-a lot of love and attention without conditions (unconditional love). It comes in response to the troubling trend of over-parenting, or fast parenting, which focuses on what the kid does-soccer practice every school night plus ballet lessons on the weekend, or parents expecting at least two sacks a game and straight A’s in school-as well as doing everything for kids, rather than allowing them to independently learn life’s lessons. Doing, doing, doing at a fast, stressful pace-all outside performance stuff.

The previously mentioned authors (Hodgkinson, Skenazy, Honore) have done a great job outlining how to get kids out of the hamster wheel and allowing “who I am” to fully develop according the to the kid’s pace. The emphasis is on playing, enjoying the environment, family time, one-to-one with parents, learning from mistakes, minimal screen time, and so on. Maybe we as parents could learn a thing or two and step out of our own wheels a little more often.

Now let’s take a look at some mental-health, unconditional-love tips, courtesy of what more than 2,500 kids have taught me. First I’ll cover two basic needs kids have repeatedly told me are important to them, and then I’ll share how parents can unleash their love to meet these needs.

Need 1: To feel accepted and good, and avoid feeling bad. That’s what every kid tells me in one way or another within two sessions. Their most important thing in life-even more than owning an X-Box 360-is to feel accepted (good) and to avoid feeling bad.

And guess who they want this from the most? Their parents. And what they complain about most is feeling bad during discipline. You’re probably thinking, That’s just the way it is. How could anybody feel anything other than bad when a person screws up? But with the right kind of practice you can meet this need and change your child’s feelings of “I’m bad” to “I’m good.” In just a little bit I’ll give you some tips on pulling this off.

Need 2: To have their parents focus on feelings as much as mistakes, with the initial attention on feelings. Kids wish their moms and dads wouldn’t yell and look so angry when a problem comes up. (I know, you’re thinking, Get real, get used to it, that’s life.) Kids feel terrible about making mistakes. They say parents get mad at what they do and don’t understand them. And they feel extra terrible when parents get mad at them about the same thing over and over again.

There’s a way out of this: getting kids to talk about the feelings that cause the problem-feelings such as anger cause whining, arguing, defiance, hitting, and so on. When parents learn to support feelings first (it’s a learned skill) before dealing with behavior, kids feel accepted (remember, it’s their biggest motivation in life) and discipline works a lot better.

Need 3: To have their mistakes corrected respectfully. Kids want to learn acceptable behavior. Of course, they resist it at first. Remember, their primary motivation in life is to feel acceptable. An important part is appropriate behavior.

Now we’re ready to unleash your parental love to meet these three needs. First, two points to keep in mind about what tends to keep parents from fully unleashing their love.

First, parents unwittingly treat kids as if they are “mini-me’s,”-smaller versions of themselves-especially if the kid has a different personality. A mom who’s a go-getter expects her extra-slow daughter to get with it all the time. A dad who excelled in school expects his son to get A’s and B’s even though the son doesn’t have the persistence to excel at that level but is an excellent athlete. And don’t assume your child thinks and feels the same way you do. Know your child’s personality traits, accept the traits, and work your personality more into theirs. And always supportively listen to what your child feels and thinks. (That’s what kids mean when they say they wish parents understood them more.)

Second, parents tend to parent the way they were parented. Watch for this, and if the way you were parented didn’t earn the “parent-of-the month award,” make the necessary modifications. It might require some parenting classes.

Now, some tips for meeting the three previously mentioned kid needs.

Tip 1: Focus on and validate a kid’s feelings first before dealing with what the child does. If Adam hits Sarah, get him to say he’s upset, listen to what he’s upset about, and validate the feelings (not the behavior). Focusing on and validating feelings will cause your child to feel accepted and not bad (needs 1 and 2). After you’ve supported the feelings, then deal with the behavior with firm, consistent, respectful limit-setting.

Tip 2: Keep the anger mild. No mean words, facial expression, or tone of voice-at least 80 to 90 percent of the time. It’s tough to feel accepted when the other person is mad at you (need 1). Problem-solving doesn’t work when emotions are high. If frustration is past the mild stage for either you or your child, take a timeout.

Tip 3: Engage in good communication by listening to and supporting what your child feels and thinks at the beginning of a problem (need 1). Here are three steps: (1) your kid talks and you listen (don’t interrupt); (2) you repeat what is said (don’t add your point; that comes later); (3) tell your kid what you agree with (not the problem, just the thoughts and feelings), maybe her frustration or his point of view for now. And 10 to 15 percent of the time change your decision. Who doesn’t like to feel powerful once in awhile?

Tip 4: Discipline with firm, consistent, respectful limits. That’s the only way kids learn how to behave appropriately. Then they can achieve their highest need-feeling accepted and believing they are good. Always remember the most fundamental part of discipline: being respectful. That’s achieved by validating your kid’s feelings and thoughts even during tough times.

That’s my mental health contribution to the promising slow-parenting movement. When parents fully unleash their parental love through the slow-parenting approach and implement fundamental mental-health tips, kids will be happier and more resilient and respectful-a dream come true for every parent.

Gary M Unruh MSW, LCSW has been a child and family mental health counselor for nearly forty years. During that time he and his wife, Betty, have been blessed to raise four beautiful children, and he is a very proud “papa” of seven terrific grandchildren. For two years, he learned a lot about what kind of care clients respond to best when he was the CEO of a mental-health managed-care company for Colorado Blue Cross and Blue Shield.

He has just published a book Unleashing the Power of Parental Love. See deals:

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See his “Tip-of-the-Week” Monday blogs on his web site for ready-to-use-right-out-of -the-box parenting advice.

Author: Gary Unruh
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