Move your but: What you say becomes your child’s inner voice (pt 4)
Parent, move your but.
‘I love you, but…’
How many times I’ve uttered this, mistakenly thinking it will anchor my child before providing some constructive criticism…
Eli, I love you, but you need to listen the first time my boy!
Fynn, I love you, but never take something without asking.
Ivy, I love you, but I don’t like the way you talked to me.
Consider the game-changing word in the phrase. Such a small word. Only three little letters, and yet like the small rudder on an ocean liner, it has immense trajectory-shifting power. It has the power to alter the course of our words and change their meaning entirely…
So what’s wrong with putting ‘but’ after ‘I love you’?
It’s a doomed word order, tragically uttered by parents the world over.
My English teacher at school used to remind us that ‘but’ is the most powerful word in the English language. As much as I don’t mean it, the hearer knows that whatever has come before the ‘but’ is null and void at worst, or under question at best. (For example, I like you too, but… or I don’t want to alarm you, but… or Close, but no cigar.)
‘But’ throws the balance of weight. It functions in communication like the ‘smaller than’ sign (<) functions in maths. In a sense, it works like this:
I love you < You’re flawed.
Here’s a story of when Eli was three to illustrate the unintended effects of I love you, but…
Sitting on my lap he said, Daddy, I like you so much.
I like you too Eli.
Then the conversation took an interesting turn. He upgraded my answer: No, you love me.
That’s true – I love you so much.
Then the revealing ‘but’ came next: But not when I’m naughty and push other children.
What made him say that? For some reason this little dude already felt that he needed to earn my love. That there were things he could do that would make me love him less.
Wherever did my boy get the idea that my love was conditional? His use of the word ‘but‘ reveals that at least one of the culprits was perhaps my overuse of the same word.
Just how bad is it for my child to think my love is conditional?
You create a toxic family culture. In their book, The Parent You Want To Be, Drs Les and Leslie Parrot refer to the research of Dr Nick Stinnet, one of the USA’s leading clinical researchers in identifying what makes strong families. Beginning at Oklahoma State University and continuing at the University of Nebraska, Stinnett and his colleagues compiled the largest database on strong families in the world. Based on this research, they isolated six consistent marks of what he terms ‘fantastic families’. The number one mark of such a family is that each child rests in their parent’s unconditional love-commitment to them.
You might even be shipwrecking your grand-kids. That’s because conditionally loved children (despite the years of pain that result) tend to become parents who love their children conditionally too. In one study, Dr. Avi Assor and his colleagues interviewed a specially chosen group of mothers of grown children, mothers who sensed that they were loved only when they lived up to their parents’ expectations. This is what they discovered: not only did they now feel less worthy as adults, but (this comes as a shock) despite the negative effects, these mothers were more likely to use conditional affection with their own children.
Saying I love you, but deprives my child of the number one thing they need to thrive. They perceive that my love for them is linked to something they could do or not do. It programs the inner voice of the child with perhaps the most insidious of synaptic-viruses: I am only worthy of love if…
Want more evidence for the way a simple meaning-shifting phrase uttered again and again can alter the course of our child’s life? See my previous posts on the power of words (click here, here and here).
Do I really love my child unconditionally?
I know we all say we do. But do we really? Perhaps the placing of my ‘but’ exposes my actual disposition towards my child?
Don’t be ashamed. For those who have drank in conditional love as children, afflicting the next generation with it comes as naturally as breathing. If you sense this might be you, don’t despair. It’s never too late to change. As a wise Chinese proverb goes, ‘When you realise you’re asleep, you’re already half awake.’ Acknowledging and owning your current reality is half of the way to changing it.
If we do love our children unconditionally, or at least are trying to…
Is there a better way?
Most definitely. The language tweak is so small, but it makes all the difference. Simply move your but…
Eli, you need to listen the first time my boy… but I love you.
Fynn, never take something without asking… but I love you.
Ivy, I don’t like the way you talked to me… but I love you.
Used like this, it doesn’t withdraw the criticism, but underlines the more important fact of my love. Now it serves as an anchor of my steadfast commitment to my child, a love that in no way hinges on their actions or misdeeds. It also adds weight to my love. The equation is now:
I love you > You’re flawed.
Enough said, move your but.
Jigging your but is like a tiny turn of the ship-wheel of your child’s life. It will set your family, their lives and relationships on a less ice-berg dominated pathway.
But I love you is not something I envision saying all the time. But especially in the more heavyweight corrections, I certainly plan on moving my but.
And of course, unconnected to any situation requiring correction, I will sporadically look my child in her eyes and say…
I love you. But nothing. There’s nothing you can do that will make me love you more. There’s nothing you can do to make me love you less.
(This post was co-written with my lovely wife, Julie Williams.)
Also published on Medium.