Well, I’m back again with the audacity to write yet more about parenting and how to do it. I’d never claim that one size fits all when it comes to parenting, although I think certain principles might be universally applicable. Today’s topic is, I am quite confident, one of these universally applicable principles. As I’ve been reflecting on parenting for the last month or so, a theme has been recurring in my mind, one that I think must be the foundation of good parenting: delighting in one’s children.
I’ve been reflecting on this for a couple reasons. First of all, some weeks ago, I took my son to the emergency in the middle of the night, worried he might have meningitis as he had been woken by neck pain. Happily, we were not given that diagnosis, but what I was given was a great gift: a doctor-in-training who examined my son happened to have the most amazing bedside manner of any doctor I have yet met, and he showed that he not only cared for my son physically, but he talked familiarly with my not-quite-four-year-old son. He asked my son extensively about his favourite tv show and about school, and he conversed with my son in such a way that my son opened up to him completely. For me, this was a wake-up call. I had felt so guilty about the copious amounts of time I’d let my son watch tv that my censorious judgement told me not to talk about it with him, so as not to encourage an interest. How utterly ridiculous! The truth of the matter is that my son likes cartoons, and I should therefore take an interest in them and, if anything, guide him to think about cartoons and the world in the way I want him to see these things, to use cartoons as the basis of forming his perspective. But at the very least, I really must step into his world and not try to ignore it. He’s a small child so many of his interests may well be dull to me, but that’s where love steps in: we take a certain interest in the things the people we love enjoy simply because we love them. The second reason I’ve been reflecting on this topic is that, at the urging of my family who could tell I was not myself, I’ve started taking an antidepressant, and the effect has been so liberating that I find myself with much more energy and natural impulse to shower my children with affection and give them the attention they’ve been longing for.
I am one of those lucky people who grew up with parents who adored me and all of my siblings. Quite possibly the best gift my parents gave us is that they made it absolutely clear that they loved us and that we are loveable. Their love never expired, and it was unconditional, nor was it competitive: they did not choose “favourites.” Although they very much wanted and expected us to behave, we knew that even if they were disappointed in us, they would never love us any less. My parents communicated their delight in us in a number of ways. My little encounter with the medical student reminded me of one of them: taking time to talk and taking a sincere interest in us. My mother especially, as a stay-at-home mum, took on the role of entering into the minutiae of our everyday lives, but my father would also express interest and spend lots of time talking with us, albeit in a different way than my mother would.
My father has often emphasized that with children, it’s not quality time that matters so much as quantity of time. It’s the repeated, consistent, everyday engagements that build a solid foundation. How each parent does this will differ, although there are some basic patterns. If you’ve read Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages, you’ll be familiar with various ways in which you can express love, and that for each person, some ways are more effective than others. As a parent, I try to be aware of how my children best respond to love, but I also aim to cover all my bases and show them that I love them all by using words, showing physical affection, taking time with them, doing things for them, and giving them things they enjoy. The first two come most naturally to me, and the others come fairly naturally as a parent as well, although I have room for improvement.
One thing I do not remember Gary Chapman addressing, however, is the look of delight. This is something my parents excelled in, and something I learned about in words from the Sisters of Life, who actively try to bring Jesus to women who feel alone and unloved. One of the most important things that they do is delight in these women.
The way we look at people can have a tremendous impact on how they feel about themselves. Even the Gospels deemed it significant to record that Jesus looked upon people with love, a crucial detail for a people who so easily buy into the Devil’s lie that we should only expect isolated punishment from a harsh and exacting God. I remember as a child how much it mattered to me how my parents looked at me, and that they looked at me. There was even one particular moment I remember doing or saying something I hoped would get me “that look,” and, God bless my parents, I was not disappointed. I knew my parents delighted in me and saw the goodness of God’s creation in me. They looked upon me and were satisfied, and by doing so all throughout my life they imprinted deeply on my soul that I am a creature worthy of love, deserving of being cherished, simply because I exist.
Without the gaze of love, words and actions lose their efficacy. Our brains might accept that we are loved, but our souls have not felt it. Has it not been said that the eyes are the windows to the soul? For all the poetry of that expression, there is truth in it. As a parent, I aim to look at my children with love, to delight in them, to communicate to them that they mean everything to me, that they light up my world, that when I look upon their beautiful bodies, I see that they are Very Good, that their souls are worth more than all the stars in the sky, and that they (and their father) bring me more joy than anything of this world. When my children do something “cute” and seek my glance, I hope I am there, gazing upon them with love. When they try to share their world with me, I hope I give them my full attention and interest. When I look into their eyes, I hope they get the sense, even if they don’t quite recognize what it is, that I see in them the beauty and sacredness of God himself.
Now, practically speaking, I can’t look upon my children with this contemplative gaze of love at every moment of the day. I can’t even listen to my son’s chatter at every moment of the day, if for no other reason than I find it completely exhausting! That is fine; it is realistic. This is why quantity of time matters. If, every day, I spend some time with my children, looking upon them with love, spending time getting to know their little persons, they will find it hard to doubt that they are loved unconditionally.
This also lays the foundation for discipline. If I devote so much energy to demonstrating my love, will my children not understand that even when they are being corrected and even punished for their misdeeds, that I love them? There is much fear that punishing a child will lead to psychological damage. I think there is certainly a risk of this, particularly if the child does not know he is his parents’ whole world. If a child is secure in his parents’ love, though, he will ultimately understand that his parents discipline him and outline strict boundaries out of love, because they have his best interests at heart and are applying the full force of whatever wisdom they have acquired to his upbringing. This is why I am no longer afraid to mother my children with authority: because I am confident that they will know that they are loved, and that in fact it is love that motivates me to correct and discipline them. My parents always made this clear. They even made it clear by apologizing to us when they later realized that they misjudged situations or responded in ways they shouldn’t have. This is important, too: to have the humility to apologize to your children when you make mistakes. Rather than weaken your authority, I believe it strengthens it because, after all, true authority is built on love. Because we knew that our parents only wanted what was best for us, we learned to trust them. Time also taught us that although our parents aren’t right all the time, they do have a lot of wisdom and it is in our best interests to consult with them, even now as adults when we have outgrown obedience to them. The disciplinary structures that I enforce now will hopefully lead to such a beautiful and mature relationship with my children when they grow up, too.
There is such a sacredness to this life as parents. We are given precious souls to foster and guide, to shower with love and to act towards as God acts towards us. There was a time I hoped I might be a contemplative nun (even though I knew in my heart it did not suit my personality at all), and in recent weeks I’ve been discovering that the beauty of the contemplative life is not restricted to convent walls by any means. When I look upon my child, I gaze at him with a look similar to that I have received from God myself. When I spend time with him, it reminds me of time I spend in prayer: time set aside to be completely present, time during which I’m constantly swatting distractions away, time in which I abandon the constraints of chronos and enter into kairos.
May God bless you and your family!
Let all that you do be done in love. ~ 1 Cor. 16:14