It can feel sometimes like the world has gone mad. Public discourse is filled with anger and confusion; people sit together in crowded spaces staring at their own flickering screens, isolated by the technology intended to connect them. And throughout the world, parents look for answers: How do I raise healthy, happy children in this complex world? How can I guide their behavior without punishing or spoiling them? Is it possible to build strong relationships in a fractured world?
The answer is yes—but it takes thoughtfulness and commitment. And the foundation is both simpler and more complicated than you might think. When parents are asked what they believe is most essential to raising capable, healthy children, most of them offer the obvious answer: love. But as it turns out, some of the things parents do in the name of loving their children are not helpful or effective. Children need more than love alone.
Imagine an infant lying contentedly in her crib. She may be watching her hands or gazing with fascination at her own feet when she suddenly becomes aware of a need. She may be hungry, or wet, or lonely, or tired. Whatever the cause, she cries to let her caregivers know that she needs them. And those caregivers usually rush to pick her up and soothe her. Especially when parents are new to the job, it may take several bumbling efforts before the cause of the baby’s distress is discovered and resolved. Eventually, however, the baby goes back to resting contentedly and her parents breathe a sigh of relief—until next time.
How many times in a day do you think this little scenario unfolds? Dozens, even hundreds of times—and each time, a baby learns more about trust and about the family she is now part of. If this cycle continues consistently throughout her childhood, she will develop what researchers refer to as “secure attachment”, what Alfred Adler and Rudolf Dreikurs called a “sense of belonging and significance” more than 100 years ago, and what in Positive Discipline is simply called “connection” (www.positivediscipline.org). This sense of being wanted and cared for unconditionally sets the stage for everything children will learn in life.
Responding consistently and lovingly to a child’s needs turns out to be the single most important thing parents (and other caregivers) can do for a child. Every piece of important early learning happens when a child and the important adults in her life interact face to face: How to manage strong emotions, how to learn language, how to read signals and cues from other human beings. Children who are lucky enough to have a secure attachment tend to learn more quickly, to be more cooperative, and to develop the social and emotional skills they will need to thrive. Children who do not have a strong connection may never develop to their full potential.
How, then, can you build a strong and lasting connection with your child? It’s not complicated, but it does require time, patience, and commitment. Here are six things you can do to create a sense of belonging and worth for your child.
- Spend time together. So simple—but so critically important. Life for most parents these days is overscheduled and hectic. There are bills to pay and many tasks competing for limited time. But for a young child, there simply is no substitute for unhurried, face-to-face time with caring adults. Do your best to create time for laughter, looking into your child’s face, and marveling at her growth. Take a deep breath, and slow down. These moments will never come again, and they are a precious investment in your child’s wellbeing.
- Touch gently and often. One of the simplest ways to nurture connection is with loving touch. Offer (and accept) hugs and kisses. Use bath time, diapering, and other routine tasks to massage your child’s skin, to stroke him gently, and to send the message of love and caring. When your child is upset, touch may speak more clearly than words; a hand on his shoulder or ruffling his hair says, “I’m here and I care about you” without the necessity of words. Wordless snuggles can speak volumes about the depth of your connection to your child.
- Listen with your full attention. When your child wants to tell you something, do your best to tune in. Put down the knife you’re using to chop vegetables; turn off your smart phone. Get down on your child’s level, make eye contact, and smile. You might be amazed at what happens. At the end of the day, you can ask your child to share with you his happiest moment of the day and his saddest moment of the day; then you can share yours with him.
- Play together. Most parents are good at taking children places where they can play; they’re less good at playing themselves. Children are whole-body learners. They experience their world through their senses, and getting messy together may be one of the best experiences you can share. Let your child take the lead; follow her cues about how to play. Even video games can build connection if you let your child be the teacher, but cardboard boxes, mud, paint, and blocks may be even better.
- Be curious. What does it feel like to be your child? When she looks at you, what does she see? Do you know what she loves to do, what she’s curious about, and how she feels about her own experiences? If you’re not sure, consider it an invitation to go exploring.
- Teach, don’t punish. Spoiling a child isn’t helpful. But neither is being harsh or punitive. The Latin root of the word “discipline” means “to teach”, and children thrive when the adults in their lives focus on teaching skills and character qualities. When it’s necessary to correct your child’s behavior (and it will be), set reasonable limits and then follow through with both kindness and firmness. Yelling and punishment don’t teach anything useful.
When you have a strong connection with your child, both of you can turn mistakes into opportunities to learn. You can laugh together, and enjoy the hard work of parenting—well, most of the time. After all, you and your child are human, and life together will never be perfect. Remember, as Jane Nelsen, the founder of “Positive Discipline” says, connection always comes before correction. Family life can be complicated and frustrating, but focusing on connection builds a foundation you and your child can count on.
Cheryl Erwin is the co-author of “Positive Discipline: the First Three Years” and “Positive Discipline for Preschoolers” and is a popular speaker and trainer. You can learn more about her work at www.cherylerwin.com.