Fill your children up with love, respect, and security. Sounds too simple? Read on.
By Shiffy Friedman, MSW
I was once asked to answer the question, “What’s the best parenting advice you ever got?” by a fellow writer who was compiling an article on the topic. Here’s an excerpt of the response I gave: “The one statement that I heard from my parenting teacher, Rebbetzin Spetner, that I find most helpful and true as a parent is that one child’s emotional needs should be tended to before another child’s physical needs. So, if the baby is screaming in the bassinet because he’s due for a feeding, but an older child comes through the door from school, her hug and ‘How was your day?’ comes first.” As a therapist, I see time and again how fulfilling a child’s emotional needs are paramount for healthy development. But where do we start? Here’s a handy emotional needs checklist for you, dear moms. These are the three things your child needs most in the world, needs that can take years of heavy inner work for a person to access later in life if she doesn’t receive them in her formative years.
When your angelic newborn is nestled in your arms, the scent of baby shampoo tickling your nose, what’s there not to love? You simply love your child as he is, with no expectation of reciprocation. Your cuddles and kisses are not even a guarantee that he’ll give you two whole hours of sleep tonight, but you do it anyway, tired and all. As your child grows older, his need for your love is still very much there—but remember, it’s love without expectation of reciprocation. These are the key words here. Not love in exchange for nachas, in exchange for helping around the house, in exchange for his approval. Get to know your child to his core so you’ll know which expression of love (gifts, physical touch, words of affirmation, acts of service, or quality time) means most to him—and keep giving it. (Read this article to learn how you can express love in each of the 5 ways.) When you shower your child with love, you’re doing your part in eliminating his fear of rejection later in life, and giving him the ability to project his love outward in a healthy way.
Before you start wondering if this article is shifting directions (Who’s supposed to be respecting whom here?), keep reading. Yes, every human being deserves respect, not the “I stand up when you enter the room” kind, but the acknowledgement of her existence as a person and her entitlement to her needs. Respecting your child means giving her her space to grow, allowing her to express her needs, and having them filled (within the boundaries of your values). If a kid is acting up and Mommy says, “Are you looking for attention?” or when a parent admonishes a child for crying for a valid reason, that’s an expression of disrespect. Disrespect may also be expressed when children get the message, “You’re only a something if you do something.” In other words, just being who you are (minus the good grades, excellent behavior, good looks, etc.) isn’t enough for me to respect you. You show respect to your adolescent when you let her develop her own taste and when you allow her to express her opinion. The only way for a child to develop self-esteem is if this key need is filled.
Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries. Today, in the tumultuous world we’re living in, the term “unconditional love” has taken on a life of its own. Parents who desperately seek to hold on to their children may be tempted to instantly fulfill their every request (read: demand), overlooking the whole right/wrong, muttar/assur predicament. Before examining whether this kind of love is truly unconditional or not, this approach is profoundly erroneous because it withholds the third vital emotional need from the child: security. While it’s fun to party for a night or two, a child thrives on boundaries, on a system. A child who knows that if he breaks certain rules he will get punished, that certain lines cannot be crossed in the home, and that he knows what to expect when he walks through the door of his safe haven, home will be the best place for him to grow. In order for parents to provide this vital need to their children, they must also ensure that there’s a healthy, loving relationship between them and that their behavior is predictable and calm (for the most part!). Growing up on volcanic territory, or on a tightrope, isn’t a good recipe for raising a secure child.
That’s the list for you. Here’s the caveat, though: We can only give love, respect, and security if we feel loved, respected, and secure within. Now, that’s where the hard work lies…