Parenting and Unconditional Love

I am reading Father Richard Rohr’s book, Falling Upward. I have read several of Rohr’s books, always finding them a deep consideration of the spiritual life. They have helped me grow.

The chapter I read this morning concerns what Rohr refers to as the first half of life which he says “is constructed through impulse controls; traditions; group symbols; family loyalties; basic respect for authority; civil and church laws; and a sense of goodness, value, and special importance of your country, ethnicity, and religion.” In our early upbringing, rules and regulations represent a kind of conditional love, he says. He used his mother as an example of this. His father, he said, offered unconditional love. As an adult, he said, he came to appreciate the way the two balanced one another out.

With all due respect to Rohr, his not being a parent is showing. I am a parent and a parent-educator and I have to really take issue with him here. I think he has a misunderstanding of what it means to love unconditionally. When we set boundaries for our children and hold them accountable, we are not setting conditions on our love. A loving parent will do so to give their children tools they will need to live in the world. Children need to be taught appropriate ways to behave. They need to come to realize that their choices have consequences and this is better learned in the safety of their home than out in the world. They are members of a community in which their individual rights often come up against the rights of others and it is important to be just as concerned about the rights of others as their own. Children need to develop the skills to control their impulses and to wait which they won’t learn if parents give them whatever they demand whenever they demand it. Living in community also means sharing in the responsibilities to see that everything gets done and no one has to share the total burden of the labor. When parents set consequences for children’s failure to do their part, they are holding them accountable and teaching them an important lesson for life. The consequences for selfish and irresponsible behavior in the adult years are much harsher both to them and to the culture.

In my parenting classes, the topic of parents with different parenting styles often came up. It seems Rohr’s parents had different ideas about parenting. While Rohr seems to have survived that, in reality such differences, when extreme, can be confusing to children. When one is stern and the other soft, sometimes values get muddled. Children often learn to play one parent against the other. This is what I noticed: parents sometimes parent their children to compensate for what they consider poor parenting in their partner. So the father, most often but not always, will be especially stern because he perceives mom as being too permissive. The mother, most often but not always, tries to provide a soft place for the child who feels hurt and even fearful.

Unfortunately, most people come into parenting without much knowledge of children or of how to parent them. They end up slipping thoughtlessly into the style that was modeled for them in their upbringing especially by the parent of the same sex. I know this was true for Bernie and I. I loved the idea of being a mother, but I didn’t have a clue about the importance of setting boundaries and sensible consequences. I did set rules, but I rarely was able to follow them through. I had little knowledge of age appropriate expectations. Being insecure in my parenting, I was easy to break whenever there was resistence…and, of course, there was.

There many good things that we did, too – I have to be careful about expecting perfection. But I have seen some pretty amazing parents in my life who really understood the importance of boundaries and had what it took to be clear and consistent. They did their job so well that their children never questioned their love even when living through a consequence.