That love is the foundation of healthy families is no secret. Of course we love our children, but love is more than a feeling—it is a commitment, an action. It is the successful translation of love from feeling into action that explains why some families work and others do not.
Ross Campbell, in his book, How to Really Love Your Child, reminds us that the only kind of love that is truly affirming is unconditional love. If we express our love to our children only when they please us, we are really just loving ourselves by reassuring ourselves of our own values. Our love for our children cannot be dependent on what they do. The secure parent will risk self-doubt by continuing to love children even when their behavior is emotionally challenging.
Loving a child no matter how he or she behaves does not mean forsaking discipline—but there is a difference between disliking the deed and disliking the doer. The wise parent will recognize that a child who misbehaves is crying out for help.
TOUCHING AND UNCONDITIONAL LOVE
One of the best ways to express love to your child is by touching. Hugging, kissing, and stroking your child, holding hands, putting an arm around your child’s shoulder, and giving a back rub communicate love more concretely than any words. Look into your child’s eyes. Don’t just reserve eye contact for when your child has done something you don’t like. Maintain physical contact even as your children get older, and consciously remember to convey your love to them physically.
Part of unconditional love is giving your children more than they ask for. So often, we are encouraged to give our children the bare minimum we can get away with. If a baby seems content in a crib or swing, people will advise us not to carry her around. When she does cry, we are told to give her a pacifier or distract her with toys before nursing her. Why pack school lunches for your child, people will ask, if he is old enough to do it himself?
But what about doing those extra things that convey love—picking up your baby for a cuddle just because you love to see that smile, or sending your child off to school with a lunch that is lovingly prepared? Responding only to your children’s demands for attention may make them feel they need to step up the intensity of their demands, or, worse yet, may make them settle for less than they deserve. Consider how much more you appreciate the unsolicited attentions your spouse gives you than those you have to ask for, and consider giving your children more than they demand.
We cannot truly love our children without first loving ourselves. If we have not been well-loved as children ourselves, we may have work on our own concept of self-worth in adulthood. If we are to grow healthy families, we must begin with ourselves, and welcome the challenges of parenting as a chance to reexamine the values that we inherited from our own families. The beauty of parenting is that it is never too late to grow and change; we can make a fresh start with our children every day.
Raising a healthy family means trusting yourself to do the best job that you know how at parenting. All parents experience moments of panic—times when we wonder what we have gotten ourselves into. When this happens, the only way to carry on is to plunge in, trusting your track record. It all comes down to trust—trust in the fact that your child has a good reason for her behavior and trust in yourself to figure out what that is.
There is a danger in over-intellectualizing the parenting experience. Each “expert” promises the secret to perfect parenting, attempting to encapsulate the human experience in a single book, tape, or video. Sorting through all of this information becomes overwhelming unless you come back time and time again to your child.
Ideas are only ideas; opinions are culturally dictated. Your child, however, is one of a kind, new and unspoiled and without any of the learned trappings of modern civilization or the dichotomies of intellectual reasoning. Your child operates on an instinctive level, and if you stay quiet and listen, you will find that the answers to your parenting questions lie within you, that your instincts are alive and well too.
QUALITIES OF HEALTHY FAMILIES
Beyond the important qualities of love and trust, healthy families share certain other characteristics. Here are the traits of healthy families as adapted from Dolores Curran’s Traits of a Healthy Family:
- Appreciation: In healthy families, members show appreciation for one another on a regular basis.
- Commitment: Members of healthy families are dedicated to promoting each other’s welfare and happiness.
- Communication: Members of healthy families spend time talking and listening to one another and emphasize understanding and reconciliation. Communication flows freely and nothing is taboo. Family members can rebound from and reconcile after anger.
- Resilience. Members of healthy families are able to view stress and crisis as an opportunity to grow. Healthy families ask for help.
- Spiritual wellness. Whether or not they attend formal religious services, members of healthy families have a sense of a greater good or power in life and this belief gives them strength and purpose.
- Time. Strong families spend a lot of time with each other.
- Are too busy for one another
- Have no interest in or make no effort toward self-improvement
- Are dominated by one family member
- Victimize and shame one another
- Don’t ask for help
- Are unpredictable, inconsistent and unstable
WHAT HURTS ALL FAMILIES
- Low status of parents, e.g. lack of paid parental leave
- Consumerism, materialism, status, careerism
- Excessive demands on their time
- Unrealistic standards of behavior
THE TRANSFORMATIVE POWER OF PARENTING
Healthy societies begin at home. Raising a healthy family is an endeavor worthy of our best efforts. Developing an ethic of parenting based on trust and unconditional love can create more than a strong family unit—it can cause personal transformation. Having a child can teach you more about the nature of the human being and the power of love than you could possibly ever suspect. By giving us a sense of connectedness to and compassion for other parents and children all over the world, parenting can truly civilize us.
Peggy O’Mara is the editor and publisher of peggyomara.com. She was the editor and publisher of Mothering Magazine from 1980 to 2011 and founded Mothering.com in 1995. The author of Having a Baby Naturally; Natural Family Living; The Way Back Home; and A Quiet Place, Peggy has conducted workshops at Omega Institute, Esalen, La Leche League, and Bioneers. She is the mother of four and grandmother of two.