All of us know children need love. The prescription sounds simple and clear, yet countless children whose parents care deeply feel unloved.
How can this be? Because we think that loving them is enough without knowing if they feel loved at all.
It is the child’s feeling of being loved or unloved that affects how he will develop not if we love her at all. There is a big difference between being loved and feeling loved. I cannot overemphasize this. A deep understanding of this truth will enable us to direct our energies to what really matters.
But how do we begin? How do we bridge the gap between good intentions and effective actions?
There are two general ingredients, if we’ll borrow from Dorothy Briggs (1970), that will help us make sure that we are creating a climate of love and communicating this love to our children effectively: GEUINE ENCOUNTERS and PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY. Let us first take on the first knowing fully well that this is the basic foundation of our whole recipe of getting our message of love across.
Have you ever experienced getting lost in something that you do or you are involved in? To illustrate, I had a date last Sunday with my wife and we watched The Hunger Games. In the middle of the movie, I heard controlled sniffing, and when I looked at her, I saw glittering tears flowing down her eyes. I did not bother to ask why. I knew she was touched by the scene where Katniss lost an ally and had to keep herself alive all by herself again. My wife felt and experienced realistically, the moment by moment flow of emotions and the “particularness” of the situation. In other words, she was deeply engaged. She had a genuine encounter with the characters and the scene.
To feel loved, our children need a good dose of these genuine encounters. To make this happen, we need focused attention. It is attention with special intensity borne out of of direct, personal involvement. It is being in the here-and-now. It is being physically and mentally present. Doses of this genuine encounter communicate a very vital message. It says, “It’s important to me to be with you.” On the receiving end, the child concludes, “I must matter because my mommy/daddy takes time to be involved with my person.”
But mind you, it is not easy to be present. Most of us find this difficult because our brains are not wired to be present. It is built to think and wander in the future or the past. That is why we’d rather give presents than presence because it is easier.
For instance, my son Kisig is already so inquisitive, and as if testing me on purpose, he barrages me with a lot questions mostly when I am in front of my laptop. And there are times, especially when I am pressured by deadlines, I would just say “yes”, mumbles an “uh, uh” while I keep my gaze on my writing. I’ll give him a paper and a pencil so he could do something on his own, tell him to just draw, and I would continue to type. But if I go on with this, I will not be surprised if one day he will stop coming to me, not because he understands I have to work, but because he felt rejected by my indifference.
Now, if genuine encounter is focused attention, where is our focus? Do we concentrate so much on doing things for our child that we forget to focus on her as a person? Do we rush so fast to prepare the food, wash the laundry, finish the report, and make money for her education that we overlook her? Or do we take time outs – in those small moments when she brings a feeling or thought, or during a special time she can count on – to be fully open to her? We answer these questions everyday by our behavior. We can lose sight of the wonder of our child if we attend habitually to activities, the past, or the future, rather than her “particularness” at the moment. But if we attend fully to our child long enough that we create a predictable pattern, we can be assured that we get the message across.
So, let us decide to create genuine encounters with our children, may it be in small increments or a scheduled time every week that is solely for each of them. To truly learn how to be present, let us allow our children to teach us. If we take time to observe them, you will notice how engaged they are in their activities, how lost they are in what they do. We will discover how much they relish every moment and milk every opportunity. If they are happy, they really laugh boisterously. If they get hurt, they cry as if it’s the end of the world. They are real. They don’t pretend. They don’t fake it. They are simply present. That is why they are very good at knowing if our engagement is whole or divided. Since they are naturals in this arena, they expect us to at least be present, be focused, and be in their zone also.
I recommend that we parents take on meditation classes, particularly mindfulness meditation, if we want to be helped on managing the activity of our thoughts and being present despite distractions. If this is not possible, we should decide to give quality time to ourselves where we can practice being silent and attend to the moment by moment of our present experience. This is important because the more we are attuned to our very own self-encounters, it is easier to engage and be present with our children. And of course, we need to practice until this behavior becomes second nature.
Genuine encounter is a very important ingredient, but it cannot stand alone. We will tackle the other parts of the recipe and discover how psychological safety nurtures love between parent and child.