Unconditional Positive Regard sets a basis for our respectful communication with and about children and youth. Let’s break this down. “Unconditional” means that is happens all the time, not under a set of circumstances or conditions that only exist some of the time. “Positive” is just that—focused on what is going right, what the desired behaviors and characteristics are, and shifting away from negativity or criticism. “Regard” is having a sense of respect or consideration for another, to hold them in high esteem.
Essentially this concept is like the “golden rule” of old, that we treat others the way we want to be treated. Where we sometimes fail at this is when adults treat children and youth as though they are somehow less than a full person because of their youth. Adult conversation about children and especially teenagers is full of disrespect and assumption, lumping all children and youth into the same category and expecting poor behavior and bad choices. On the other hand, adults also have a tendency to expect children to know all the things that adults know and to make decisions from a similar level of life experience as adults have. This sets the child up for failure, and we then disparage children for making “bad” choices in their behavior or response because they are coming from their limited experience, skills and knowledge.
I believe that language is creative. What I mean by that is that when we say something often enough or with enough emotional intensity, the idea we expressed becomes more likely to develop in reality. In Special Education, this is called the self-fulfilling prophecy. When a child who has a specific diagnosis is told often enough or by people he holds in very high esteem (like a parent or doctor) that he will be a certain way, or will never be able to do a certain activity, in most cases the child begins to act in the predicted way or is unable to participate in the activity regardless of the physical and mental evidence to the contrary.
I believe that what children really need is supportive, thoughtful and emotionally healthy adults who can speak to and about children with respect and encouragement. When we speak to children as though they are fully capable, and we show them respect in our words, tone and body language, we build trust and positive relationships. When we make the effort to find the good in every interaction and every person, no matter what their behavior is, we demonstrate Unconditional Positive Regard. When we engage in conversations in the community and with other adults, speaking about children and teens from respect and acknowledging that most of them are doing the best they can and just want to be accepted, we demonstrate Unconditional Positive Regard.
Children and youth learn how to respect others from the adults in their lives first modeling respect and trust in every relationship. If we want our children to show respect for their elders, their community and their world, we need to demonstrate that in our words and daily actions. We all are their teachers, no matter what our actual role is in a child’s life. How are you modeling Unconditional Positive Regard, and how will you commit to use it more fully in your interactions?