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Episode #9 | Love + Attachment (part 2)
“Let your children feel and see and be quite sure that you love them…. dear mother, take your big schoolgirl in your arms just once in the holidays, and let her have a good talk, all to your two selves; it will be to her like a meal to a hungry man. For the youths and maidens — remember, they would sell their souls for love; they do it too, and that is the reason of many of the ruined lives we sigh over” (Charlotte Mason Vol. 5, p. 117)
Many of the behavioral problems parents face, during all generations of time, all stem from one thing: attachment. A healthy attachment to a parent affects everything from learning to to self-regulation. But why is attachment so important? How do we nurture a healthy attachment with our children? And how do we know if our attachment is suffering?
In this episode I’ll answer these questions and more as we explore the big idea of attachment.
“The part of the brain most affected by early stress is the prefrontal cortex, which is critical in self-regulatory activities of all kinds, both emotional and cognitive. As a result, children who grow up in stressful environments generally find it harder to concentrate, harder to sit still, harder to rebound from disappointments and harder to follow directions.” (Paul Tough, How Children Succeed, p. 17)
“But there is also some positive news in this research. It turns out that there is a particularly effective antidote to the ill effects of early stress, and it comes not from pharmaceutical companies or early-childhood educators but from parents. Parents and other caregivers who are able to form close, nurturing relationships with their children can foster resilience in them that protects them from many of the worst effects of a harsh early environment.” (Paul Tough, How Children Succeed, p. 28)
“When mothers scored high on measures of responsiveness, the impact of environmental factors [family turmoil, chaos, crowding] on their children seemed almost to disappear. High-quality mothering, in other words, can act as a powerful buffer against the damage that adversity inflicts on a child’s stress response system.” (Paul Tough, How Children Succeed, p. 32)
“The values a child adopts have more to do with to whom they are attached than with the outcome of learning.” (Deborah Macnamara. Rest, Play Grow. pg 83)
Read the Episode
“The mother is qualified,” says Pestalozzi, “and qualified by the Creator Himself, to become the principal agent in the development of her child; … and what is demanded of her is––a thinking love … God has given to the child all the faculties of our nature, but the grand point remains undecided––how shall this heart, this head, these hands be employed? to whose service shall they be dedicated? A question the answer to which involves a futurity of happiness or misery to a life so dear to thee. Maternal love is the first agent in education.”
Why is it so difficult to teach my own children?
It feels like my child is emotionally distant. How can I repair our relationship?
Why has my child become so defiant?
How can I help my child become more resilient?
What makes some children curious and teachable, and others resistant?
Originally I planned on creating one episode for the topic of love and attachment, but there is so much to this topic that I had to split it into two episodes. In this one I’ll focus on the spiritual side of relationships and why it is the foundational principle of parenting. In the next episode I’ll dive deep into the scientific side of attachment theory and what research reveals about the importance of attachment on brain development and socio-emotional well-being.
It truly all starts in the premortal realm, before we were born. Satan had a knowledge of eternal truths, and wanted to assert his authority by forcing the rest of us to obey those truths. On the other hand, Jesus Christ had a knowledge of truth and he loved those around him. Heavenly Father chose Jesus Christ’s plan and to be our Savior because He knew that authority is nothing without a foundation of love, and character cannot be developed without a knowledge of the eternal laws plus the agency to act on it.
Interestingly, social scientists have identified three basic parenting styles, and two dynamics that underlie those parenting styles: warmth and expectations. For the rest of the podcast I’ll be referring to them as love and authority.
The first parenting style is authoritarian. Parents that use this style, called authoritative parenting, show a lot of love and establish authority, or have high expectations for their children’s behavior. The less successful styles of parenting are authoritarian parents, which show very little love and use their authority to force certain behaviors the deem appropriate. Permissive parents show a lot of love, but don’t establish authority and have few expectations for their children’s behavior.
If we want to be a Christ-like parent, we need to nurture loving relationships before we can ever establish boundaries and authority as a parent. The moment we value outcomes and obedience more than the person, we resort to punishment and threats (authoritarian), which is more equivalent to Satan’s style than it is to Jesus Christ’s.
Finding balance between authority and love is extremely difficult to achieve, and I believe that this one purpose of coming to earth: to learn how to balance expectations and love at the same time. Ultimately, our purpose is to become like our Heavenly Parents. Every moment spent with our children is extremely valuable because its an opportunity to practice this delicate balance of love and authority. There is no formula to memorize, no cheat sheet to look at when we don’t know the answer. It is a matter of becoming, not checking items off a list.
“Never let a problem to be solved become more important than a person to be loved.”
(Thomas S. Monson)
It starts with unconditional love. Dr Gordon Neufeld, psychologist and author, noted that “Unconditional parental love is the indispensable nutrient for the child’s healthy emotional growth. The first task is to create space in the child’s heart for the certainty that she is precisely the person the parents want and love. She does not have to do anything or be any different to earn that love — in fact, she cannot do anything, since that love cannot be won or lost. It is not conditional. It is just there, regardless of which side the child is acting from — “good” or “bad.” The child can be ornery, unpleasant, whiny, uncooperative, and plain rude, and the parent still lets her feel loved.” (Hold on to your Kids, Gordon Neufeld)
There was a point in my life that I realized I put more value on my child’s behavior than on them as people. I struggled to find joy in my children when their behavior wasn’t up to my expectations.
When I realized this I asked my husband how I can love our kids for who they are and not for their achievements and behavior. To me, that is what makes a person who they are, so how can I love them despite that? My husband simply replied, “You can’t. That kind of love is a gift.” After pondering that for a while, I realized that as parents we have been endowed with the beginnings of love, an instinctual love, but we do not automatically love our children unconditionally. Heavenly Father created us with the instincts to protect and care for our children, but ultimately the pure love of Christ is a gift. A gift that is given to those who truly desire it above all else. A gift that is essential to the finest of the fine arts: teaching.
Without unconditional love, the power to discipline and teach our children is ineffective. If we think we can teach our children solely based on instinctual love we will fail. While many parenting books focus on fixing behavior, as disciples of Christ our number one priority should be nurturing relationships before correcting behavior. So how does love (or lack of it) affect teaching and learning? And how has Jesus Christ taught us to nurture loving relationships?
Nurture a Tender Heart
It all begins in the heart. When I say the heart I mean the desires, affections, and emotions of a person. The things that cannot be measured and quantified, but influence everything we do.
“Sincere expressions of Christlike love have great power to soften the hearts of [children] who are struggling with the gospel. Often these individuals simply need to know they are needed and love.” (Teaching in the Savior’s Way)
For years I’ve read the scriptures and heard the term “hard heart” but I didn’t understand the significance for parenting until I read Dr. Gordon Neufeld’s book “Hold On To Your Kids.” In his book he relates many experiences of working with hardened youth in juvenile detention centers. These youth rarely showed emotions, like empathy, sorrow, guilt, love, and humility. He said that these young men and women lost their tender hearts through years of criticism, rejection, disappointment, and hate. Their once tender hearts that were capable of feeling these emotions were hardened to reduce the pain they felt on a daily basis. As a result, they struggled to function in many areas of life.
In the scriptures, these words are used to describe people with hard hearts:
The opposite of these words could be used to describe a soft, or tender, heart:
Unconditional love nurtures a tender heart, while the lack of love hardens it. Although we don’t have complete control over the condition of someones heart, there are still a lot of things we can do (or not do) that will harden or soften it.
First, Invite Rest
Jesus invited all people to “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me, for I am meek and lowly in heart. And ye shall find rest unto your souls.”
One way that Jesus offers rest is by serving and allowing us to be dependent on him. For example, after dinner with his disciples, Christ picked up a bowl of water and a towel and washed his disciples feet. He said “Know ye what I have done to you? Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you.” (John 13:5-14)
To follow Christ’s example we show our children that we love them by serving them. This doesn’t mean we do everything for them, it means being sensitive to their needs, and sometimes this means serving them. We may think Jesus had much more “important” things to do than wash people’s dirty feet, but the principle he taught was that nurturing relationships is the most important thing we should be doing. When we do something for our children they can do for themselves we are saying “I know you can do this, but I want to do it for you to show how much you mean to me.”
In American culture we put a lot of priority on independence, to say the least. We want our children to be responsible, hardworking, and resourceful. The word “dependence” has a negative connotation, but dependence is actually vital for maturation. A person must feel free to be completely dependent before they are capable of developing independence. However, parents cannot push children to become independent before they’re ready; it is something that develops with time and experience.. It may seem counterintuitive, but the more we allow our children to be dependent when they need it, the more independent they will become.
Psychologist and author, Dr. Gordon Neufeld said “A master teacher, rather than pushing pupils toward independence, supplies them instead with generous offerings of assistance. A master teacher wants her students to think for themselves but knows the students cannot get there if she resists their dependence or chastises them for lacking maturity. Her students are free to lean on her without any sense of shame for their neediness.”
It is an eternal truth that when we feel loved we can rest. And only when we feel at rest are we free to learn and grow. When children feel that their parents love is conditional on behavior, or feel unsure of parents affection, it will come out in negative, clingy behavior, and a difficulty to focus and learn. And when children feel they can’t depend on parents for help, they are usually more timid, anxious, and less likely to attempt tasks above their skill level.
Second, Do Not Revile or Condemn
When the Pharisees brought Jesus a woman caught in adultery Jesus did not say to her “This is your fault, you broke the commandment” or “You knew what the consequences were when you made the choice.” He simply said, “Woman, where are those thine accusers? Hath no man condemned thee?” She said, “No man, Lord.” And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.” He did not condemn her. He did not give her a long sermon about the law of chastity. He showed that he loved her as a person and showed faith in her ability to be better.
When our children make the wrong choice we should not be the first person waiting to cast stones and condemn. We should be down at their level, looking them in the eyes and showing them our unconditional love, followed quickly by encouraging them to go and be a better person than they were before. There are laws and commandments that must be obeyed, but when those laws are broken we can come alongside our child in their guilt, shame, and sorrow and show that they are loved. They need to know that their worth is not tied to their choices, and that we have faith in their ability to be better.
Another relationship lesson we can learn from Christ is not to revile against our children. To revile is to criticize in an abusive or angrily insulting manner. This can be a challenge for parents, especially if you believe that children should be punished for reviling against authority. I believe there is a misconception among parents that if our children, in their frustration and anger, say disrespectful things, it is our duty to fight back and punish them for it immediately. However, the Savior has given us an example to ignore the reviling, and Peter clearly states that we are to follow it: “For even here unto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps: Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously:” (1 Peter 2:21-23) Remember, to discipline means to teach and lead by example, not to punish.
“Fathers, provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged.”
Colossians 3: 21
Third, Connect Before Correct
When someone is angry and frustrated, they are not teachable. Likewise, when we argue, force apologies, or lecture our child’s heart begins to harden.
When we revile against our children we are actually robbing them of an opportunity to comprehend their mistake, feel remorse, and a desire to make amends Many times our children actually know what they are doing is wrong, but lack the reasoning capabilities to act on what they know to be right in the moment. When we start to lecture or attempt to teach a lesson in the heat of the moment, they will most likely justify their behavior, blame others, and feel no remorse.
Whether it’s nature or nurture, criticizing, reviling, and condemning feels like the most natural thing to do when our children misbehave, but this only hardens their heart. Instead, we should focus on reconnecting with our child before correcting them. Make sure they know they are still loved and valued will maintain a tender heart, one that will be open to listening to correction. Later, when emotions aren’t high we can talk about the incident.
This kind of parenting is difficult. It goes against the natural man who wants to punish, seek revenge, and mend wounded pride. Some days I feel like I ran a marathon from all the energy it took to maintain self-control in the heated moments that I encounter every few minutes. I have realized that a lot of my previous “parenting” was actually just me releasing steam. It wasn’t intentional or loving. I parented based on what made me feel good after things didn’t go my way and my pride was wounded.
As parents we were first commanded to love our children, and then teach them. We were never commanded to judge our children’s actions and punish them accordingly. That responsibility is left to only one person: Jesus Christ.
Fourth, Avoid Punishment
“Imposed sanctions, artificial consequences, and the withdrawal of privileges–are self-defeating. Punishment creates an adversarial relationship and incurs emotional hardening.” (Hold On To Your Kids, Dr. Gordon Neufeld)
Whenever a person loves someone or something, they open their hearts and become vulnerable. Children are especially good at opening their hearts and loving completely. Common “discipline” tactics of many parents are based on taking advantage of this vulnerability through time-outs and grounding.
These may not seem like a terrible way to correct behavior, but the long-term result can actually be devastating. When a child is punished by being separated from a parent, despite the child seeking for connection, the child is hurt, feels rejected, and must find a way to cope with the pain. The result is indifference. If a child is grounded from riding his bike, playing soccer, etc. they learn to not feel so deeply for these things as a way to cope with the hurt and vulnerability, not to mention the resentment they feel for the parent that is choosing to take away these beloved items. The more a person is forced to feel indifference, the more hardened their heart and the less vulnerable they become.
Finally, Mourn With Those That Mourn
“As ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light; Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort…” (Mosiah 18:8-9)
The Savior came alongside people when they were mourning and were in need of comfort. He wept with them. He did not give them advice or lecture them. He simply showed them they were loved and understood. Most of the time people already know what they should do, they just need to feel loved before they can move on.
When children feel safe to show vulnerability they are more able to accept responsibility for their mistakes, ask questions, love deeply, and show an interest in learning.
A tender heart is needed for a person to be teachable. Christ admonished us to become like little children for many reasons, but one reason is that they have tender hearts. They are willing to make mistakes, take chances, and ask questions, even if the questions seem silly. Our job is to maintain their tender hearts by validating their emotions, making our love unconditional, relying on natural consequences, and holding back condemnation. Maintaining a tender heart does not mean giving in to demands, it does not mean we dissolving rules that might cause frustration, and it certainly does not mean letting our children grow up in ignorance. Maintaining a tender heart means finding a balance between expectations and love. In other words; impose limits, set high expectations, and then show love and understanding when our children fail to meet those expectations, and encourage them to do better.
When we blame and resent our children we have a hard heart, and when we try to discipline with those negative feelings we push our children into blaming and resenting us as well. Our feelings toward children make all the difference when we talk to them. When there is a loss in connection (whether that is physical or emotional), it is rarely the child’s fault. As the mature adult in the relationship, it is your responsibility to maintain a healthy connection with our child if we expect to parent them.
Our behavior toward our children will either nurture the relationship and keep our child’s hearts tender, or place a wedge between us and harden their hearts. If we want our children to learn, progress, and develop character a tender heart is essential.
According to Dr. Gordon Neufeld, to maintain a tender heart, all people must encounter futility, which is acknowledging that we cannot change something. This comesThis means that parents need to have high expectations for our children; we need to set limits and maintain structure in our homes so children can encounter futility and develop self-regulation. However, this can backfire on us if we are not there to show an outpouring of love when our children realize their desires are futile. To feel deep disappointment is very vulnerable, even more so when they visibly show their feelings through tears. When we come alongside our child during their time of vulnerability and show them they are accepted and loved as they are, we are keeping their hearts soft.
Ultimately, our goal is to point them to Christ, and we can do that by giving them a small sample of what Christlike love feels like.
- Put down the phone! Look your child in the eye when they’re talking to you. Watch them play, watch them practice or play in their activities.
- Physically touch your child each day. Hug them when they wake up, sit close together and read a book, put your hand on their shoulder, scratch their back,
- Spend 15 minutes one-on-one with your child each day, unstructured, do whatever they want and don’t ask them questions! Let them lead the conversation.
- Express gratitude, be specific and point out the effort and/or sacrifice it requires.