Lessons on unconditional love

Learning together in tough times.

This is my second year programming with the young people in the three week Kent County Juvenile Detention summer program. For one week we go through a Michigan State University Extension program called RELAX: Alternatives to Anger. The second two weeks we focus on an evidence-based program from Hazelden called Safe DATES: An Adolescent Dating Abuse Prevention Curriculum.  Both of these programs emphasize emotional competence, self-regulation and good communication skills – all part of healthy relationships between people.

From the outside, looking in, you may think that these kids are all bad apples, lost causes or all destined on a path straight to jail or the morgue. However, even after only three weeks with them I have learned to see them through a different lens. Now, I realize that my view is limited. I have no clue why any of them are in the program, and really don’t care to know.

What I do know is that this experience has taught me more about myself, life, family, hope and the importance of unconditional love, than I could ever teach them. I’ve learned to always be cautious of my own biases. We all make mistakes in life. Some make bigger mistakes than others. We all need to have a connection to some type of family; someone who loves us unconditionally. These young folks seemed to be starving for this type of love. I found that it’s not a matter of them not having unconditional love, but maybe it’s more that they are not recognizing love for what it is.

One lesson during the RELAX: Alternatives to Anger program may have helped them to begin to see what unconditional love looks like in their own lives. The lesson focuses on learning to listen to someone who is angry. I asked them to think about the last time their mom or dad was really mad at them or yelling at them for something. I asked them to think about how hard it is to listen to someone who is angry. I suggested that they should try to focus on the feelings underneath the words. Some of the feeling words they came up with were worried, disappointed, frustrated, disrespected and sad. All of these feelings are born out of the unconditional love parents have for their children when they mess up.

A lesson in SAFE Dates shed some light on the positive things they have learned from people who love them on how to treat others, and on how they want to be treated. I asked them to give examples of ‘sayings’ they have heard on how to treat others. What they shared related directly to the core concepts I was trying to teach in the Safe DATES lessons. These are things their parents, through unconditional love, tried to impart on them with sayings passed down from generations.

  • What goes around comes around.
  • Don’t judge a book by its cover.
  • Treat others like you want to be treated.
  • You’ve got to give respect to get respect. 

I feel that my job, while I am with these young people, is to teach to the core of the good person that they could potentially be, not who they are at the moment. I choose to view their current circumstance as a temporary bump in the road, because for some, maybe even one, it might be just that. History is filled to the brim with examples of people who have achieved great things while overcoming very difficult life circumstances.

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