Dear parents all over the world,
Whether you’re planning to start a family or have grown children and grandchildren, I write this letter to you all as a child and as a therapist… As you read what I have to say to you, please be assured that this is not a personal attack or a question mark on your style of parenting… This is not a “how-to” guide to being a parent… This letter is, at the very least, an attempt to help you identify what your children are trying to communicate to you and how you can create a conducive environment full of love, empathy, positive regard, reprimand, support, and trust.
Our families are our primary source of information for what lies ahead in the outside world. The first seven years of an individual’s life are especially important — that’s when a child is learning and growing exponentially, both mentally and physically. This is also the time when children see and accept things as they are — taking everything at face value. They don’t read between lines, don’t judge, don’t criticize, mostly they don’t even know what any of these words even mean. They are curious and inquisitive, playful and sensitive, creative and calculative, but they are not adults yet. They see you, their parents, as the Almighty — people who know everything, who are invincible and righteous. To them, you become role models because they believe whatever you say or do is it. They accept what is given to them, be it love or neglect. Their personalities haven’t even formed yet. They are just sailing through life as it comes. They have no care in the world, except when you tell them to. They mould their behaviour in reciprocation to yours and in tandem with what they have observed in you. They love to be cuddled and caressed gently, to be embraced and praised lightly. And though they may not yet understand what your intentions are, they oblige because they are in awe of you, it’s just something they don’t know how to express explicitly yet.
It is during this time that children learn about attachments. For them, the behaviours and nuances they observe at home are the exact embodiments of what lies in the outside world. If they receive love and praise from you, they expect to receive the same from everyone else they meet. If they are neglected or constantly dismissed and scolded by you, they expect everyone else to do the same. In the former case, they become more open to other people and in the latter case, they tend to isolate themselves and become fearful of others.
However, attachment styles are also influenced by the relationships children observe within their family — especially the relationship between their parents. If a child observes both parents treating each other with respect and courtesy, helping each other out, laughing together, taking care of each other when sick, greeting each other with love, the child consequently builds those associations in his mind and carries it in his subconscious throughout life. On the other hand, if a child observes his parents indulging in heated arguments now and then, raising their voices at each other, constantly blaming each other, or lying to each other then the child follows suit. A child will never intentionally develop a certain kind of attachment but will do so to be a part of whatever he’s observing. For them, if you’re doing it then that’s how you belong to the family.
As such, you must create a conducive environment for your child’s growth and wellbeing. And you can start at any given moment. None of us is perfect. We all have our fair share of flaws and we all succumb to our human nature, but that shouldn’t stop us or excuse us from being better humans and better parents. There may be times when your child may put up a question you don’t have the answer to, or they may ask too many questions because that’s what children do. Don’t dismiss them or scold them for asking questions. Instead, set an example, tell them that you don’t know the answer to that question but you can always work towards finding the answer together.
Let your child be comfortable with the grey zone. That is to say, whatever you expose your child to, make sure it’s moderated. For instance, children need to be praised and lovingly touched on many occasions throughout the day. The grey zone here would include giving praises like, “You did a good job” instead of “You’re the best” or “It’s okay, you can do better” instead of “This isn’t for you”.
For many parents, it is difficult to express the love they feel for their children, or they may believe in tough love. Not all parents are comfortable with physical touch, not all parents are comfortable with compliments, not all parents are comfortable with acts of service, not all parents are comfortable with spending too much time with children, not all parents are comfortable giving gifts. And that’s okay. However, what you need to remember is that your children need to receive love in all these ways, albeit in moderation. So if you can’t explicitly say to them “I love you” all the time, make sure you do it at least twice every day, maybe during bedtime or when they wake up, or when they’re leaving for school. Similarly, you don’t have to buy your children gifts every time they do something well, at times you can replace gifts with cooking their favourite meal, or letting them rest in your lap, or letting them have some extra time to play.
As children, we all need to spend quality time as a family. This does not mean going out to amusement parks or malls. It means being in each other’s company and interacting with each other. Therefore, it is important to have at least one meal together as a family — be it breakfast, lunch, or dinner. During this meal, make sure you keep your phones away and focus on the food and each other. Talk to each other about each other instead of talking about other people or work. Talk to your children about them. What they enjoy doing, what they would like to try, what hobbies they indulge in, and in return let them know yours. When your children are doing something they like, be around to encourage them. And if there’s something you would want them to stop doing, make sure you use assertion instead of aggression.
Listen to them when they call for you and teach them to be patient while you respond. If children feel unheard, they may resort to other means to get your attention. This causes them to associate your attention with the undesirable behaviour, so they exhibit more and more of it just so they can make you listen to them. Teach them why the undesirable behaviour is so instead of dismissing them to their rooms or scolding them. Reprimanding a child may be necessary at times, but using force or making it a habit is not.
Each one of us has a set of core beliefs. Some of them are positive and helpful, while others are negative and unhelpful. Most of these beliefs are built on the information we have received while growing up. One of the reasons why people develop low self-esteem, fear of judgement, or inferiority complex is because they have been given negative labels like “you are stupid”, “you are an idiot”, “you can never get things right”, “you are worthless”. When these labels are given to us by our parents, they become a part of our being because we look up to our parents, remember? Whatever our parents tell us, is in fact true. So we continue living our lives with these beliefs and wonder why life seems so heavy.
Don’t give your children negative labels. They are not adults yet. they are still learning. They will stumble and fall. Let them. Support them. Say, “you can do it in a better way”, “it’s okay, we all make mistakes”, “you need more practice”. If you have to use statements that start with “you are” or “you are not”, then it is advisable to use them as “you are precious to me”, “you are not going to feel left out, I’m here, I got your back”.
In order to correct your child, there are better ways of making them understand that they need to stop doing something instead of scolding them or hitting them. Just like you wouldn’t want someone to be rude to you, your children don’t want you to be rude to them either. Do not try to control your child. Instead, use behaviour modification techniques to mould their undesirable behaviours into desirable ones. Give them more experiential rewards like praise or extra playtime and less of materialistic rewards like money or chocolates. Try not to indulge in tit-for-tat behaviour with your children, it will only encourage jealousy and low morale that they might carry throughout life.
All of the things that I have written in this letter are from my observations with teen and adult clients alike. As they say, “the little things, they aren’t little”, similarly every little thing you do or say as a parent has some bearing on your children. It isn’t always possible to be on guard of your behaviour and style of conversing with or around children, but it is always possible to rectify when you realise what went wrong, and celebrate what went right. And all this is relevant for young children and adults alike.
Your children, they love you. They adore you. They might not say it often or show it in a manner that you expect them to. But if you keep yourself open to them, be creative with them, you may just end up noticing their subtle gestures every day. The best way to teach your child anything is by example. Remember, whatever you do, they follow, emulate, and consequently adopt as their own. And if you take some time to reflect, you might notice that you did the same growing up — you observed your parents, followed them, copied their behaviour as your own, and adapted to life accordingly.
As I said, this isn’t a manual. This letter is a string of observations that I’ve made in my practice and in life. And I hope that you would find it helpful in some way.