Two personal stories come to mind when I read this post. Well, quite a few stories, but I’ll share two with you.
The first story: I introduced a friend of mine, Jennifer, to Unconditional Parenting about a year ago. She now looks at the world through a different lens and is loving it.
A few months ago she was driving her car, with a friend in the front seat and her two children in the back. Her young child, Lucinda, was uncomfortable and started to cry. Jennifer pulled the car over, her friend looking at her a bit puzzled. She walked over to her daughter who looked up, and like her friend, with a look of confusion.
Jennifer tried to figure out what was going on for her child and guessed that she was hot and uncomfortable in her jacket and asked, “Would you like me to take your jacket off?” Her daughter looked up, eyes wide, so grateful, and said, “Yes, Mommy!” Jennifer told me, “In the past, I would have told her to hang on, we’ll be home soon.” She continued, “Why would I do that? I would take off my jacket. If my friend were hot, I’d make sure she could could take off her jacket. The only person that I the world that, in the past, I wouldn’t stop to make comfortable, would have been my own child. How crazy it that?
The second story: I was with a friend, and he was explaining something to me about being kind to ourselves. I had a cut on my finger. He said, “Be kind to it. Be compassionate.” I thought, “What is he talking about? How can I be compassionate to it?” As though he were reading my mind, he said, “Pretend the cut were on your child. What would you do?”
It hit me like a wave… I talk about liking myself and loving myself, but never in my life have I been as compassionate and soft and as gentle as I imagined in that that moment, transferring the love I give my children when they’re hurt to myself. I started to cry because I couldn’t even imagine being that loving to myself. I wondered whether we start out in life being that caring to ourselves and whether somewhere along the way we’re taught out of it. I cried because it all seemed so simple and so incredibly hard at the same time.
So, how do we learn to love unconditionally when we weren’t loved that way ourselves? In fact, we’re often taught that doing so will spoil our children and turn them into little entitled beings. And how do we learn to love our children unconditionally not only at the obvious times when they’re hurt, but at all times, like when they’re behaving “ugly” and when they need our love and for us to be present the most.
This post is so raw and so real, and as I read it, I felt fragile and grateful for what Teresa wrote and for the journey we are all on.
I Never Learned How to Love Children
by Teresa Graham Brett
In her book, All About Love: New Visions, bell hooks wrote this paragraph that has stayed with me for some time. I’ve written about it before, but for some reason I was drawn back to want to write about it again.
The first time I wrote something, I merely touched the surface of my feelings and the way it challenged me. This time, I finally got to the core of some truth, even if it took me a while to get there.
“An overwhelming majority of us come from dysfunctional families in which we were taught we were not okay, where we were shamed, verbally and/or physically abused, and emotionally neglected even as we were also taught to believe that we were loved. For most folks it is just too threatening to embrace a definition of love that would no longer enable us to see love as present in our families. Too many of us cling to a notion of love that either makes abuse acceptable or at least makes it seem that whatever happened was not that bad.” – bell hooks
I’ve read this portion of the book many, many times.
And I struggle even now with it.
Even as I wrote this, I kept typing and deleting as I desperately tried to find the words to express my thoughts and feelings, thoughts and feelings that need to come to the surface.
I took a break from trying to write and washed some dishes. I cooked a bit and noticed the ways I was feeling annoyed and short-tempered with my family. It was still sitting with me.
But then the truth hit me in a flash. It brings tears to my eyes as I write it.
The truth is I know very little about loving children.
And here’s why…
I never learned how to love children without control.
I never learned how to love children without conditions.
I never learned how to love children and not make them responsible for my happiness.
I never learned how to love children without expecting them to “do better next time.”
I never learned how to love children for just being who they are, not for what they do.
I never learned how to love children without wanting to change something about them.
As a both a child and now as a parent, I have to admit that the ways that I learned about loving children were distorted by power, control, and fear. The same things that influence our broader culture are reflected in our homes, the homes where we are supposed to learn what love is.
Until we live in a culture that not only respects but also upholds basic civil rights for children, most children will not know love.
Love is as love does, and it is our responsibility to give children love. When we love children we acknowledge by our every action that they are not property, that they have rights–that we respect and uphold their rights. Without justice there can be no love. – bell hooks
I have come to realize that because I did not learn how to love children, that I struggle with acknowledging by my every action their fundamental human rights.
I could beat myself up for not being the parent I want to be, for falling short of this ideal vision of what it means to love.
And I have certainly done this. I have been in a place of feeling shame or guilt for treating the children in my life less than lovingly, for abusing their trust and treating them with disrespect. And when I’ve been in that place, too often I get stuck.
Instead, I can be responsible for facing the internal barriers I have to being loving and decide that I have the capacity to transform my relationships with the children in my life.
And in the process of learning a new vision of love, I have to learn how to love myself.
Because we did not receive in childhood the unconditional love we needed, we have to learn how to give it to ourselves.
The process of acknowledging in our every action the right of children to be treated with respect and dignity cannot come if we do not treat ourselves the same way.
Like many people, I turned the way I was treated as a child inward and learned “lessons” about myself that I carried into adulthood and parenthood.
I learned that I must use power and control internally, with myself, in order to get the results I think I should have.
I learned that I couldn’t love myself without conditions.
I learned that happiness had to be found outside of me.
I learned that I always had to expect myself to “do better next time,” that whatever I did just wasn’t quite enough.
I learned that I couldn’t love myself for just being me, that the measure of my worth comes from what I do.
These are all lessons that I am unlearning.
As we all unlearn the lessons we took in during childhood, we have to learn new ways of loving children AND loving ourselves.
We all need to rid ourselves of misguided notions about self-love. We need to stop fearfully equating it with self-centeredness and selfishness. Self-love is the foundation of our loving practice. Without it, our other efforts to love fail. Giving ourselves love we provide our inner being with the opportunity to have the unconditional love we may have always longed to receive from someone else…. When we give this precious gift to ourselves, we are able to reach out to others from a place of fulfillment and not from a place of lack. – bell hooks
We have the capacity to face our fears and liberate ourselves from what we learned in the past.
Writing my truth today frees me to acknowledge where I have come and forge a new path. It helps me to connect to the ways I already have learned to be loving.
And most of all, when I act less than loving to the children who share my life, it allows me to be responsible for my actions, and still give myself the unconditional love that will increase my capacity to love others in direct proportion to the love I give myself.
What does this post bring up for you?
Teresa Graham Brett started life as a fairly typical child who sought to be successful in the eyes of her parents and teachers, while trying to reconcile the need to tell her own truth throughout life.
This balancing act has led to many adventures in trying to find her true path and purpose. Along the way she went to college and graduated from law school. She rejected a legal career for working as a university administrator, believing that she could make the world a better place. Teresa spent time working at the University of Arizona, the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and the University of Texas, Austin.
I found a passion for social justice education and sustained dialogue and started on the path of unlearning much of what I had learned as a child and adult.
When Martel, the first child in Teresa’s life, came along, he challenged her to grow far beyond any other experience in her life. He exposed her hypocrisy as an individual committed to justice by showing her how she continued to perpetuate oppression in her attitudes and beliefs about the parent-child relationship.
Thus began Teresa’s journey to integrate her commitment to justice, learning, and parenting through her relationship with Martel and now extended to Greyson, the second child in her life.
Rob, Teresa’s partner, Martel, and Greyson travel with her on this journey. She seek to live her purpose as a parent, author, coach and advocate for transforming childhood as the first step to transforming the world.]
Thank you Teresa for giving us permission to republish your article. I feel grateful for your insight and your willingness to contribute because it meets my need for knowledge, competence, and community.