Love without conditions

After nearly a quarter of a century of sage advice on the sometimes fraught business of parenting Ian Munro, the wise old owl of The Weekend Mix is retiring his byline, with a few final thoughts.

Ian Munro
Ian Munro
The time has come to put down my pen.
My first column was published in November 1999 and, since then and my own parenting days, the world has moved a long way on.

I feel that I’m probably getting to the out-of-touch stage in parenting - I’ve never home-schooled, had to worry about keeping a mask on youngsters, managed youngsters’ online activities, cyber-bullying or many of the other issues facing parents in 2022.

Having said that, I still firmly believe that the fundamentals of raising a child don’t change, regardless of the issues or the decade.

Underpinning all is the concept of unconditional love.

If we give our children little else, giving them unconditional love is probably the most important gift. Our home should be a haven, a place of security where our youngsters can come to lick their wounds in safety.

Unconditional love is about disapproving unacceptable behaviours but loving the person.

We may have to discipline severely and let them suffer natural consequences, but we must also continually demonstrate to them that we still love and respect the person.

We all need to know that someone loves us whatever happens, and our children often need our love most when it’s sometimes the hardest to give and, as they grow into teenagers and then young adults, unconditional love means never closing doors on them along the way.

Being a parent involves time, and the greater the investment the greater the payoff.

I often hear comments from parents about the ‘‘quality time’’ they organise to spend with their children. Presumably, any other sort is cheap and nasty.

What is needed is ‘‘a quantity of time’’.

To get to know our youngsters and what’s going on inside their heads we must make a time investment and have them around us in all sorts of situations.

We can only set the standards, work ethics and values by giving them time to see these things in us on a long-term, regular, daily basis. It is this interaction with the most important people in their lives that sets them up for adolescence and adulthood.

Thirteen to 16-year-olds also need this time investment too, as they’re going back through many of the emotional stages they went through as youngsters, albeit at a higher level. They need us around just as much at 13 as they did when they were 2.

The best way of establishing good communication with our kids grows out of this time investment when they’re young and respecting their stop/start movement towards independence as they get older.

That’s when it’s important to listen carefully and to understand the hormonal upheavals even if we don’t always get the reactions and responses we want. They do grow through it.

Mealtimes provide a great opportunity for the family to be comfortably together and to chat, to share their day, to laugh, to commiserate, to plan.

Talking about our day gives them permission to talk about their day at school. We can also discuss, at an appropriate level, issues the family may be facing.

Board and card games, backyard cricket and kicking a ball around, even washing the car together provide a lot of fun and laughter. Bedtime stories and, later, bedtime chats help build and maintain bonds.

Having fun with the kids is the best way of keeping those channels open. Laugh with them. Then laugh together once they’re in bed.

Being a good or (or better) parent means leading the way. Can the things we’d like to see in our children and in the family as a unit be seen in us? Do key aspects of the relationship we’d like to have with our children exist in the relationships we have with other people we associate with?

We can only change or establish the behaviour of others by changing the way we relate to them and by acting in the very way towards them that we’d like them to act towards us.

This doesn’t mean elevating them to the status of an equal adult, but it does mean modelling qualities like respect for others, kindness, thoughtfulness, and co-operation. Demonstrating how to listen, problem-solve and deal with life without the crutch of addictive substances.

Finally, there’s discipline. Discipline isn’t punishment. Discipline is setting the limits and boundaries within which a youngster can grow up in safety and make mistakes and learn from them. Discipline gives children a secure framework on which to build their own self-control and self-confidence and enables them to fit into society without being overwhelmed by it.

It’s also about learning to take responsibility for one’s actions, so it’s actually about freedom not restriction. Discipline starts the day a child is born.

As parents, we’re the safety net rather than the jailer but, at the same time, we need to set minimum standards, allow for mistakes, clearly communicate responsibilities and limits, and follow through consistently with natural consequences.

Accidents happen. Mistakes are made by us all, but we should also learn from them positively with some appropriate consequence.

Then there’s the challenge — pushing the boundaries. They must do it, but the boundaries should hold firm if we wish to give them security and retain respect.

All consequences of boundary pushing should be age-appropriate and consistent. We must also adjust those boundaries from time to time to indicate the amount of trust we have and the responsibility we expect shown as they grow.

It’s OK to be unpopular with them. They mightn’t like a ruling and let us know it. In the end, they’ll move on and, one day, might even thank us for it.

Most of us do a pretty good job of bringing up our kids and, despite all our good intentions and any resolutions we might make, we will fail as parents most days, but we will also be successful as parents most days.

We’ll often make decisions and judgements hastily, but if we can get through the day with everyone still alive and functioning OK, then we can go to bed happy.

Unless we do something deliberately cruel or negligent, then we’ll find that, whatever else we do, our children will still trust us, love us, and miss us when we aren’t around.

There’ll be times when we would wish them off the face of the earth and times when they’ll fill us with overwhelming feelings of love and give us great joy. When things aren’t so good, we need to remember that every new day should be a new start both for our child and for us.

Parenting will always be a work in progress. Go well and stay safe.


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