I’ve been a mother for 11 years now, and I’m convinced that childhood is too short.

It’s simply not enough time to hold, cherish, protect, and teach these amazing souls that I’ve been entrusted with.

There is not enough time with soft, new cheeks and hair that smells of baby shampoo.

Not enough days with toddler hands in mine and a tiny voice sweetly saying “mommy.”

Not enough time to carry them on my hip or hold them on my lap.

Not enough years of bedtime cuddles.

The days that my home is filled with scattered toys, fingerprinted mirrors, and the laughter of children are numbered.

There is so much I want to teach them, but one thing stands out among all the rest.

I have spent so much time trying to teach proper behavior, responsibility, manners, etc. because that’s what parents do. It’s our job, right? And that’s great as long as we don’t do it at the sacrifice of the one big, crucial lesson, as I did many years ago which is what prompted me to shift my parenting paradigm and eventually write this book.

My previous approach to parenting could be described as “behavior patrol,” but I was failing to teach the biggest and most important lesson of all. What I learned is that, when this biggest lesson is sacrificed in order to teach the smaller lessons, those smaller lessons become harder and harder to teach.

I ended up fighting against the very thing I created—a child who thought he wasn’t good enough because he was so often in time-out or losing on his behavior chart.

Of all the things I want to teach my children, the most important is this: you belong.

You are good, and you belong. Until our children fully feel and grasp that knowledge, they cannot move on to learn all of those lessons about behavior, manners, and responsibility.

Being good starts with feeling good. Belonging creates the emotional security needed to grow, learn, and thrive. Without it, people become stuck.

Leading research professor Dr. Brene Brown says this, A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick.”

We can create a sense of belonging in our children by practicing unconditional love: accepting them for who they are, at the stage they’re in, just as they are.

We accept their imperfections and immaturity because honestly, they’re going to be imperfect and immature anyway because they are human children.

If we can allow our children to show up just as they are without having to jump through hoops to earn our approval, if we can show the same amount of love in proud moments and hard moments, perhaps we can raise a generation who isn’t constantly struggling for self-acceptance.

I know we are afraid that if we show acceptance and love when our children behave badly, we fear that it will reinforce bad behavior. I was too, at first.

We fear extending belonging to a wayward child will enable him to stay wayward, but time and time again, I’ve found that providing acceptance and belonging improves behavior because it helps my children find their way back to their good, true selves.

It isn’t that I let bad behavior slide because I never do. It’s just that, within that correction is a clear message—you are still good and you still belong. It’s unconditional love, personified. It’s freeing and grounding for parents and children alike.

And yes, I think this is the most empowering lesson we can teach our children.