I remember back when I was writing CHILDREN OF CHARACTER, my then six-year-old niece went to a pet store to buy a gerbil. The wise owner of the store told her, “First pick it up and hold it. It you can’t cuddle with it, then you aren’t ready to keep it as a pet.”

Hearing this story made me wonder, “How come nobody ever asks the same of potential parents before they are allowed to take kids home?” Every child deserves affection, attention, positive reinforcement and unconditional love to develop a strong sense of self-worth. I believe that only then will they be able to see other human beings as worthy of their love and care as well.

Most parents don’t make the necessary connection between demonstrating unconditional love toward their child and the building of character and an ethical consciousness. In fact, showing a child love and acceptance from her first year of life is actually the foundation of all ethical action. Holding, touching, kissing and otherwise demonstrating love for your children is the emotional glue that holds together all the other spiritual, emotional, and social building blocks of their emerging personality.

Children need to know that they are valuable. They need to know they are important enough for you to take time to be with them individually, to notice what they are doing, how they dress, what they have created, how they are growing. Such seemingly small things are more important to a child’s sense of sense than we can ever realize. The great teacher/philosopher William James once wrote, “The deepest principle of human nature is the craving to be appreciated.” When children receive consistent, appropriate demonstrations of acceptance and approval from their parents, they inevitably interpret them as signifying, “I am worthwhile, valuable, and lovable.”

There is perhaps no greater lesson that our children can learn. Belief in themselves empowers them with the inner security they need to respect and love others in return. Loving attachment to a parent figure is the crucial first step toward building the positive self-image necessary for ethical behavior as an adult.

The hardest part of communicating to your children that you love them just for who they are, is the “unconditional” part of unconditional love. It means that our love for our children doesn’t come and go depending on whether or not they remembered to do their chores or got into a fight at school. It means that we love them for who they are, not for how they act from moment to moment. It means that they are worthy of our love simply because they are our children – not because they are “good” or “obedient” children.

Now often when I tell this to parents, their first response is, “Does that mean I have to agree with everything my kids do? Do I have to show they approval even when I don’t like how they behaved?” This is not what is meant by demonstrating unconditional love, and loving your kids for who they are. Unconditional love is not the same as uncritical acceptance of behavior. Our job as parents is to criticize inappropriate behavior, to establish clear expectations of what is right and what is wrong, to be the moral mirror for our kids as they grow and learn and experiment in life.

Unconditional love does not mean that you don’t discipline your children or correct their negative behavior, at all. It isn’t so much what you do, as how you do it. Strict rules clearly and consistently enforced can communicate love to children, if you consistently demonstrate with praise and physical affection that the love you bear them is not dependent on their behavior.

Now admittedly, demonstrating such love is not always easy. When we are upset or irritated, it is often difficult to distinguish between the child and his behavior. It’s too easy to lash out with our parental-judgment reflect, inappropriately labeling him as bad, stupid, dumb, thoughtless, irresponsible, lazy or whatever. For most of us, such name-calling and labels are a natural part of our vocabulary from our own childhood.

To get across the point that we disapprove of the child’s behavior wile keeping intact the unconditional nature of our love, we must focus on the behavior and not on the child. It isn’t who he is that upsets us, it is what he has done. This may seem to many like a small thing, perhaps too subtle to be meaningful, but it makes a big difference to our children when they hear us criticizing their behavior instead of condemning them.

“It’s not okay to leave your baby brother alone” preserves a child’s emotional well being far better than, “You wicked, irresponsible idiot!” It conveys the message that we dislike what she has done not who she is. “I don’t like it when you take three cookies and leave only one for your friend,” makes the point far more effectively than “You are a greedy, selfish pig!” It criticizes the child’s behavior without demeaning the essential nature of her being.

Loving your kids for who they are, not how they act is one of the most fundamental and challenging of parent skills. Therapist’s couches are filled with those of us who got the opposite message when we were growing up, that our external behavior was a direct reflection of our inner value and quality as human beings.

Loving your kids for who they are is a gift that only parents can give. Because it is so crucial to the emotional health of every child, I recommend that you create whatever strategy or technique will help remind you to demonstrate this love every day. Some parents find it useful to keep a “Love list” for themselves where they write down at least two occasions ever day which they have found to show their unconditional love to each child. It takes some awareness I know, but it could be one of the most important investments of your time and commitment that you can make.