Recently, when I was speaking with a group of parents, the term “unconditional love” kept repeating itself. Many of the parents expressed their belief that this was the most important element of the parent-child relationship. Afterwards, I continued to think about this opinion, as it rattled me a bit. I felt like it spoke to the deep and fundamental craving so many people have for unconditional acceptance. On the other hand, in my limited worldview, it appears to be rare and unusual in many relationships. How many loving relationships do we observe that seem to be genuinely not dependent on some external factor, such as pride? Obviously, none of us are privy to the inner workings of anyone else’s mind, so only Hashem can ever really know if any relationship is based upon unconditional love.
Nonetheless, the conversation made me wonder about what the practical application of unconditional love looks like every day. Unconditional love is an abstract idea, so what would or should be the practical implications of unconditional love in our interactions with our children —and what does that look like in the school setting?
In my everyday professional life, I spend a lot of time navigating a wide variety of relationships— students, classes, teachers, parents and staff members—the list goes on and on—and it is abundantly clear that relationships take work. People don’t always realize that. Sometimes they think, or say, something along the lines of how they need to be “real,” which seems to be code for it is K for them to express something hurtful to someone else, although they cannot tolerate someone ‘having’ to do the same to them.
Navigating the difference between being allowed to feel our own feelings versus the right to express those feelings or engage in actions that hurt others seems to blur for some people and be an area of struggle. Nonetheless, we know that these social and emotional skills can be taught.
Given this reality, how can we support our children and use our toolbox of strategies for relationships to build up our children and not to inadvertently destroy them? I have been exploring and reframing these ideas for more than 25 years, and it never ceases to awe me that as human beings, we always benefit from review. It reminds me of the introduction to Mesilat Yesharim where the author opines how nothing in this book is actually new, it is just that people need constant review in order to actualize the ideas! Here are some observations from this panoply of complicated human relationships.
Typically, the magic ratio that is often quoted is the 80-20 rule for children. That is, eight out of 10 interactions should feel positive to a child. For adults, closer to 95% of interactions have to feel positive in order for an adult to feel that a relationship is positive! Please be aware that asking a child to do something, even in the most pleasant tone of voice, is still in the 20% negative, because by nature, human beings do not like having to follow requirements or commands. Notice that this becomes particularly tricky for teachers. How much of their day with children is filled with commands or having to interrupt an activity they are enjoying! However, when teachers choose their language and tone of voice with intentionality and planning, they can find ways to increase their positive interaction ratios considerably.
Within those positive interactions, how much should be unconditional and what percentage should be conditional? Again, when adult intentions are genuine and for the true good of the child, children do sense that. In general, close to half of our positive expressions or interactions with children should be unconditional and the other half will be conditional. As teachers and parents, we do use conditional love expressions in order to build up our children, as it is really important for enhancing our children’s inner voice and building what the Nurtured Heart Approach terms a child’s Inner Wealth or Greatness Portfolio.
Unconditional positive interactions can be as simple as smiling and greeting students. Hearing our pleasant tones of voice and laughter promotes a positive atmosphere and is unconditional. Sharing a few minutes of genuine conversation about weekend plans or a recent sports game promotes good feelings. Even five minutes a week of consistent positive conversations like this can shift the dynamic of a relationship. Generous, global kinds of praise that comes up in the context of conversations or generally to a class also fall under this category, like a teacher telling a class how much she enjoys teaching them and spending time with them—that they are so terrific and such role models of kindness. Pleasant activities such as chesed opportunities like packing for a food bank or making cards for a classmate or teacher’s new baby build camaraderie and also fall into that unconditional love category. In general, parents have many more natural opportunities to express unconditional love than teachers, but when teachers and administrators are intentional, they can deftly weave these opportunities carefully into their warm school community.
More teacher interactions tend to fall into the conditional category with lots of opportunity to solidify their relationships. Since all learning occurs through a social transaction, having the foundation of a transformational relationship solidifies a strong academic environment.
One observation is that genuinely believing that each person has inherent worth and value as a tzelem elokim is a lifelong labor in and of itself. People do not have the capacity to give to others when they don’t first realize their own value and that they were born with innate individual greatness. There is no one else in this world exactly like them. However, when people operate from a place of fear, of “less than,” of the limited pie, they don’t value their own contributions and their own influence. Therefore, they cannot conceive that changing their own behavior will matter in anyone else’s life, let alone their own. When children and/or teachers are operating from this low place, they need what Nurtured Heart terms experiential recognitions. They need to be noticed while they are engaged in an experience and have that experience labeled. This gives a tangible connection, firsthand evidence and proof that they have this quality of greatness.
As teachers, we can shift our communication style to really energize the positive, and give intensity and connection to children when they are engaged in positive behaviors and increasing their repertoire of emotion-based language.
Teacher #1: I see you took out your pencil and your book and you are ready to begin class.
Teacher #2: I notice that you are listening to your classmate speaking to you in an angry tone and you are not saying angry words back.
Teacher #3: I notice that you are getting frustrated with this assignment and you are still in your chair doing your best to try to figure it out. This shows that your grit and perseverance are really shining through right now.
Teacher #4: Ploni, you didn’t break the no-interrupting rule when Almoni was speaking. You waited until he was done. That shows me that you have the qualities of patience and respect.
Teacher #5: I need you to put your scraps in the garbage (while the child is already starting to clean up). Thank you, I really appreciate that you care about keeping our classroom clean. You are a thoughtful classmate.
These kinds of low-key recognitions are especially effective with teens, who will resist more obvious or public kinds of recognition from adults and who may be more focused on peer recognition. For middle schoolers, it is often important to offer these quietly and know your individual students and which will prefer private versus public recognition. Finally, offering students choice whenever it is reasonable, having them assist in setting goals, offering spaces where students can post their questions and providing quick exit tickets that incorporate self-reflection, also tilt that positive ratio, giving teachers a chance to give intensity and energy to prosocial behaviors.