Views on children and parenting have shifted dramatically over the years. In 1928, founder of behaviorism, John Watson, published a book warning against too much parental affection toward children, claiming that love and comfort would create unrealistic expectations and lead to adult psychological problems! As recently as the 1950’s, many in the pediatric and psychological establishments believed that there was no real purpose to showing affection toward children (this was based largely on the fact that they could not find a way to measure love, and therefore, could not vouch for its importance in human relationships.)
It wasn’t until the 1960’s when Harry Harlow’s experiments on rhesus monkeys suggested that love was vital for healthy childhood development. Attachment Theory is now a well-known psychological model that privileges relationships as fundamental building blocks to healthy development, defining attachment as a lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.
“Keeping precious others close is a brilliant survival technique wired in our evolution for survival.” -John Bowlby
As a therapist, I am often asked about the key ingredients I use to support children and families on their pursuit of mental health goals. With our ever-quickening pace of life, we yearn for quick fixes and magic bullets to solve our problems. We may seek the latest and greatest methods to supporting the children in our lives, but wind up drowning in information overload during online searches.
I like to go back to basics and remember good ol’ Harry Harlow’s groundbreaking study on the importance of parental love. Love, Limits and Guidance are the pillars to raising a healthy child:
- Love – A sense of belonging, care and cohesion between family members. An adult attachment figure serves as a “home base” that provides a child confidence to explore the world!
- I like to ask families about what they do to show love and affection for one another. Where and when do the rituals that foster connection happen? What happens during meal times and bedtime? What does love look like between various members of the family?
- Unconditional love means that the child feels worthy of love at all times, not simply when certain conditions are in place. (“Mom will only love me if I am a good boy.” “I am not going to [fill in loving action] unless you behave the way I want you to.”) It can be challenging to show unconditional love to a child at times when they are attempting to get their needs me in particularly unloving ways (whining, demanding, arguing). Yet providing consistent love serves as a protective factor for children when they are away from us and out in the world; they know to be a safe harbor from which to weather the whatever storms come their way. Even when you’re frustration levels are through the roof, it is important to remind the children in your life that they are always loved, even when you don’t love their choices.
“Experience is biology… Parents are the active sculptors of their children’s growing brains.” -Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell
Places to infuse love into your days with kiddos? Scheduling 1:1 time in which the child can choose what & how to play. By playing along with them, you demonstrate your belief in your child as capable and instill confidence in their abilities. Positive reinforcement, verbal encouragement (“You did it! You figured it out!”), active listening and physical affection are also important elements that foster connection.
- Limits: Children need rules, consistency and follow-through! Limits are followed most when kids respect the relationship and desire approval, which only happens when there is LOVE!
- Parents who wonder if there is such a thing as “too much love” are really asking “could there be not enough limits?” The answer is that children need limits, boundaries and structure in order to feel safe in the world. Predictable expectations allow children to learn personal responsibility, self-regulation and discipline. Too much choice and permissiveness from parents can feel like a burden for kids, who are not yet developmentally able to make decisions. They need to know someone is in charge and has their best interests in mind. Authoritative parenting, which is both loving and firm, warm and engaged, has been found to be the most effective parenting style due to its support for a child’s autonomy while providing nurturance and security.
Successful limit-setting in action? Create expectations around technology use (age-appropriate media, limits on screen time). Build in morning and bedtime routines that your child can take ownership in co-creating. Give them opportunities for age-appropriate responsibilities. Reflect with children after a rule has been broken to ensure they understand what happened and give them a chance to repair (through apology, acknowledgement, a task). When in doubt, check out these effective discipline tips from Conscious Discipline!
- Guidance: Age-appropriate connection within a mentoring relationship on the themes of life, self, values, responsibility, and identity.
- There’s an old adage in education that says, “Children must be taught how to think, not what to think” (Margaret Mead). Children most often look toward their relationships with teachers and caregivers to understand important values and learn about the world. I ask adults to reflect on how they teach their child values. What is important to your family? What is important in the classroom? How will the child define him or herself in the greater community? Leading by example and modeling the values & ethics you wish to instill in your children is key. Continued guidance and reflection into adolescence and young-adulthood can support thoughtful decision-making at a time when the brain is not yet equipped with the executive skills it needs to made the best choices — even when they don’t always ask for help.
What are creative ways I can guide children and teens? Youth of all ages a can get involved in volunteer activities along with their families (from planting trees to serving food at a soup kitchen). Take time to ask young people what is important to them and some of their beliefs about the world. Do activities that promote your family values, culture and spiritual/religious background (check out these awesome Gratitude Activities)!