Exercising our Social Justice Muscles at Home

How Can Parents Show Unconditional Love Transforming their Values into Action while Maintaining Emotional Boundaries?

How Can Parents Show Unconditional Love Transforming their Values into Action while Maintaining Emotional Boundaries?

By Shannon Wanless

In the past few years there has been more visible interest in disrupting racism and building a more just and equitable world. Anti-racist book lists circulate widely. Businesses and schools hire diversity and equity consultants and hold mandatory staff training. Parenting groups have guest speakers about how to talk to our children about racism. Although these actions could be productive, they remind me of tasks to check off a list rather than catalysts of the deep transformative change that is needed. Individual people accomplishing individual tasks is not enough to disrupt racism. 

Instead, we, as a collective, also need a fundamental shift in our values. We need to be firmly grounded in values of unconditional love for every person, equitable redistribution of power, and accountability to the responsibilities that come with being part of an interconnected community. When we make a deep and intentional commitment to specific values, then it becomes clearer how to make sure that all of our words, relationships, decisions, and actions will reflect them. Living a values-inspired life, together, is how we will make a more just & equitable world. 

So what will it take for the world to undergo a transformative values change? The answer is to start within ourselves. And like just about everything else, our core values start at home. Let’s take a closer look at the values we need to examine. 

  1. Being clear about what our values are.

Have we ever really named the values that are at the core of our being? Because we are living through complex times, we will be put to the test. So in order to be ready to stand for what we truly believe in, we need to name them. Only then can we develop ways to intentionally teach them and make sure they come up in our family rituals and routines. 

Most of us would probably nod if we were asked if we value love, honesty, and responsibility. But have we really thought about what those words mean to us and how they play out through our words and actions? And what other value words would we choose?

As my mentor, Michelle King, asked me recently, “What is your working definition of love?” To be honest, I was a bit stumped with this question. I couldn’t believe how simplistic my response was. Love is so complex! If I had really committed to this value, shouldn’t I have a clearer definition of it? As I thought about my working definition of love, I realized that for me love was unconditional — I was adamant about that. But there have been many moments in my life where I was not living this way. What does unconditional love look like, every day, for every person, no matter what? 

I started to look at my daily routine at home. What about when I’m getting ready for work and my kids are getting ready for school or summer camp? And then I thought about recurring moments such as birthdays, report cards, and graduations. How do I show unconditional love in each of those circumstances? Do they know that I love them even when they are making me late for work, or when they bring home low grades on their report card? I want to have high expectations but also show them that I love them no matter whether they achieve them or not. This seems like a fine line but absolutely critical to living my definition of love.

And what about how I model love for others? Do my children see that I can be frustrated with others and still love them unconditionally? What does it look like to have boundaries and yet feel authentic love in your heart for someone? 

  1. Engaging in regular reflection about how we are living those values — or not.

Everything we think, say, and do reflects a value. If we are thinking about it, then we may be reinforcing social values that we don’t actually agree with. For example, when an extended family member says something that we think is problematic or misinformed, we might tell them that if they say that again in front of us, we will not spend time with them anymore. What is our intention of saying that? Are we trying to punish them for saying what they think is true? Are we just trying to make ourselves feel better by getting away from their annoying comments? How could we rephrase this to reflect our unconditional love? What if we explained that we don’t believe what they are saying and are not going to change our minds, but want to stay in relationship and communicate with them? “Is it possible to spend time together and be our true selves if we do not agree?”

In fact, when I ask people about their values and their most common parenting practices, it is amazing how often they don’t align at all. But when we take the time to decide what values we want to commit to, then we can be intentional about checking regularly for authentic alignment.

  1. Holding each other accountable when we stray from our values.

It is particularly hard to be true to our values when we are under stress, or when we are in conflict with the values that the rest of our community holds. What is our plan as a family to be on the lookout for these moments, call each other in, welcome feedback, and help each other reconnect to what we believe is important? Maybe we should have a family ritual that makes this easier. For example, you could have one special cup that you fill with a snack and then invite the other person to sit down and share it with you while you talk through something that might not be easy to say. You might start with, “Is there a good time for us to talk about something that has been on my mind?” When the other person sees that cup, they know to give you their full attention and be open to receiving feedback. Even if you both hold differing values, you will at least know that you are speaking from a point of view that you each hold dear. This conversation can be tender yet also clear about where each of your emotional boundaries lie. Keeping yourselves accountable to respecting each others’ boundaries is a part of family love.

Tensions over homework and grades are common and can sometimes feel neverending. Even if we try to show unconditional love in the moment, stress can be high for parent and child, and the message may need more reinforcing later.  I can picture sitting down on a weekend with the special family cup full of fresh strawberries and asking your child if it is a good time to talk. Share your unconditional love and your struggle as a parent to hold high expectations but also acknowledge the reality that sometimes homework can be too much. “I love you no matter what the exam grade ends up being, and I also am going to work with you to do as well as you possibly can.” Ask your child to share their experience too. Even if you do not agree, and even if they do not value homework at all, your honest conversation about each of your values will help you both see that you are bringing your best selves to this relationship.

Before we can create a more just and equitable world, we have to begin to articulate what that world would look like, and begin to experience it in small moments so that we know what it would feel like. Beginning to envision and enact a just and equitable world can begin at home. It will likely be clumsy, and require many moments of reflection, difficult conversations, changing-course, and being vulnerable. We need to get more comfortable and skilled with all of that inevitable messiness. Home is the perfect place to practice exercising our social justice muscles. This is what deep, sustainable transformation looks like.

Shannon Wanless is an Associate Professor as well as the Director of the Office of Child Development at the University of Pittsburgh, a large university-community partnership center in the School of Education, that is focused on ensuring that all children thrive. Shannon focuses on young child’s development and the adults that help them thrive. Her current work is on social justice and equity. She explores ways that children, preservice teachers, and organizational leaders develop social justice and equity skills and how to create classroom, school, and organizational climates that reflect social justice and equity tenets. Shannon also co-investigated research with Jennifer Miller and Roger Weissberg on Parenting with Social and Emotional Learning. Shannon is the mother of a teenage son and daughter. Visit https://www.ocd.pitt.edu/ to learn more.

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