My esteemed partner/lover/child-tender/magic-maker, Natalie, and I have been talking (as some couples do…) about parenting — and other stuff — for as long as we have been together. It is something we do, like people-watching, and river-dipping, and decaf-latte-drinking. We talk and talk, and talk about the talking we did previously, and remember to update each other on the talk we had last month… We talk about the new things we’ve read and tried and seen. We talk about what happened in the park, or with So-and-so’s kid, or in this or that interaction.
Out of all this delightful jabbering comes many things. New ideas for children’s books, new ideas for Feeleez, new ideas for how to be with our children, new ideas for blog posts — you get the picture. Recently while visiting my folks, we were studying some of the adult children we were with and around, and Natalie wrote about the motifs she gleaned from them in a post she called The Bare Minimum. In it, she described four bedrock ideas for how not to blow it as a parent. Basically it was avoid the following: alcoholism/drug addiction, distance/absence, cruelty, and favoritism.
Boy, did we talk a lot about that — both about what she and I were seeing, and about other bottom line parenting minimums. In previous discussions, we had come up with “Empathy and Information” as the basic slogan for the kind of parenting we do (and advocate). But based on the talks we were now having, we found ourselves interested in reducing the scope of the process of natural connection parenting to its most basic kernel.
I suppose it’s no surprise that this most basic piece for us is Love. Lot’s of people will say, “Sure love, of course love,” but not show a whit of it to their kids. Others might say, “I show it all the time, I do this or that…” and yet their children don’t see it or feel it. Still others will scoff, and claim “discipline and self-sufficiency” are more important, or perhaps that “all this indulgent nonsense just makes for spoiled, weak adults…” And I actually can empathize (if not sympathize) with all of these perspectives to some degree.
However, when I think about what it is that children seek in their parents, from start to finish, I think it is immutable love. Love that is fully tangible, reliable, unchangeable, deep, healing, and safe. Almost all of their pre-teenage lives is centered around securing and experiencing this love from us. And if they don’t feel like they’ve gotten enough of it by then, they often spend the rest of their lives trying to fill that lack.
In a conditionally loving environment (i.e. one in which success and compliance are rewarded with affection, and failure and noncompliance are punished by withholding affection) children quickly learn to be seen doing the things that secure love and not be seen doing the things that mean love will be withheld. They then, of course, also learn lots of other things, like to lie, cheat, and steal to maintain connection with their parents and/or avoid “getting in trouble” with them; and later to rebel against such coercion in favor of following someone else with whom it is “cooler” to connect (e.g. the law-breaking hipsters at school). They also learn that their value depends on their performance, that their lovability is related to what they do and not who they are. And in later years this will apply to their self-love as well.
In an environment where love is given without condition, children learn that they are worthy of affection and connection no matter what happens. They learn that they are lovable regardless of their grades, or their performance in sports, or the state of their rooms, or their success in new endeavors. They even learn to love themselves unconditionally, which may be the single most potent gift we can give them.
For more on this phenomenon, check out Alfie Kohn’s Unconditional Parenting.
So — the bottom line? No matter what else you decide to do, or decide not to do; no matter what other parenting tactics in which you excel or fail miserably; no matter if you are a total “disciplinarian” or the most “permissive” parent under the sun; make certain you at least do this one thing and do it well: make certain that your children hear you say, feel you express, and know in their heart of hearts beyond all doubt, that you love them everyday. Quiz them on it relentlessly. Remind them to the point of annoyance. Surprise them by the ways you show them. Let it guide your intentions in every interaction with them. And never, ever, let them have even a chance to question it. If you can do nothing else for them in their lives, do this one thing with all of your might, and they will survive the rest.