Parenting Advice – Delight

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.

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A picture I was given at my First Communion that exemplifies for me the Gaze of Delight/Love

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

Parenting Advice

This past week, a mother in a Facebook group I’m a part of posted a plea for help: her children were driving her and her husband crazy and they were at their wit’s end. The behaviour she described sounded oh-so familiar: hitting, whining, demanding, talking back, throwing, screaming, tantrums. She described these behaviours as regular in their home, and as a consequence, she and her husband were miserable (and her kids didn’t sound happy, either!). This description of a home that was a constant battlefield of conflict and wounds reminded me of my own home about a year ago, for my son (then 2/3 years old) exemplified much of it.

There were reasons for our crazy home. Foremost among them was that I was suffering deep depression from the loss of our second child. However, even if we hadn’t suffered that blow to our family, I look back and see that we were heading in the direction of chaos anyway. As the eldest in a family that erred on the side of being too strict, I’d been the kid that had perhaps suffered a little too heavy of a hand from my very well-intentioned but inexperienced parents, so even though I judge my parents as having done a truly exceptional job raising my sisters and me overall, I was reacting against those early experiences and I spent more time remembering the few times they were overly harsh rather than the other 99% of the time they got it just right. Furthermore, my husband is a very gentle man and adores his kids; he can’t bear to hear them cry, which had led to a more indulgent approach. Lastly, my sense is that child-led, gentle parenting is quite popular right now, so those are the influences I absorbed from media.

When I wasn’t too overwhelmed and exhausted, I could glimpse that, objectively, things weren’t working so well in the home. I admired my son’s independent spirit, but I occasionally sensed that perhaps we allowed him a little too much independence. Gradually, I acknowledged that his unruliness was not making me nor my husband nor even my son himself ultimately happy. I felt overwhelmed, discouraged, exhausted, and I didn’t know what to do. I was sick of the bedtime battles, the dinner dramas, the overall disrespect. What my parents had quietly been observing to themselves from the sidelines finally dawned on me: I was raising a spoilt brat, and it was making everyone miserable.

Long had I reasoned to myself that my son’s behaviour was perfectly natural according to his age. Unfortunately, my reason did not take me to the next important conclusion for some time: that, although it might be natural, as human beings we are supposed to rule over nature, to tame our wills and to use them to subdue what is wild where needed. Unlike the other earthly creatures, God gave us free will and it is in fact because of this that he gave us responsibility and vastly higher expectations. The human will is extremely strong, and it’s something we can never be deprived of. Sometimes it reminds me of a wild horse, resistant to taming, not wishing to be of use to anyone else. However, since we are profoundly relational creatures, allowing our wills to run wild is ultimately harmful not only to others but also to ourselves. Men and women are at their finest and most glorious when we have full control of our wills and passions; that is what makes us truly free, truly in control, truly powerful. I have come to understand that training my children’s natural behaviour to align with virtuous behaviour is my vocation. Moreover, I’ve come to understand that by constructing a home for them with high expectations for behaviour, rather than damaging their independence and creativity, I am doing them a favour: after all, virtues are easiest to practise when they are habitual. It’s easier to say no to chocolate cake when I’m not used to eating cake for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. One day, I hope my children will find it easy to say no to the myriad of enticing sins the devil has put on display for us, and I believe strengthening their resilience begins now.

I can confidently say that after a year of following the suggestions of my parents and having them demonstrate tactics and assist me, my home is much happier and more peaceful, and I believe this is something most parents can achieve.

As I continue this little series on parenting, I’ll address the following points:

  • Building an identity as a parent and a vision for the home
  • Setting reasonable expectations
  • Using consequences wisely and effectively
  • The importance of forming both behaviour and attitude
  • Why manners matter