Every couple I have seen for counselling struggles with the same underlying problem. Each person feels as if they don’t matter enough to their partner. They are not respected enough, desired enough, cared about enough, listened to enough, considered enough, etc. This distress always involves painful intrusive feelings from childhood being triggered. The partner may indeed behave in a way that was inconsiderate, or even abusive, but most of the distress has its origins in how they felt as children. If we want our children to grow up feeling like they matter enough we need to show them that they do, in the ways they need to see it. What we offer to them materially, for example, will have much less impact than the time we choose to spend with them, the enjoyment we take in being with them, and the responsive presence we offer when we are with them.
We often say that our children are the most important thing in our lives. Consider that statement against how much time we choose to spend with them in enjoyable activities, playing, and so on, relative to other things that we make our priorities. Consider how you react to your child when you go into his room, when he comes into the room, when he comes home from school. What are your first words to him? In Western society we are inclined to be very busy with complex lives, and we delude ourselves if we think we are making our children a priority. In reality, we are increasingly farming out our children to other caregivers. Large numbers of mothers return to work within the first year, or even the first months of a baby’s life, and the child is left with a nanny or in daycare. Very young children are increasingly being put in front of the electronic babysitter, the television or computer screen, while we delude ourselves that they will benefit from the mental stimulation of “educational” videos. (They don’t.) We then ship them off to daycare, preschool, play-dates, afterschool care, and to lessons of all types. It is NOT that any of these things are inherently detrimental for our children in small doses, but rather that the general pattern is to be involved with our own children less and less. The message our children get at an emotional level is that they don’t matter to us very much. And, much to our surprise we find that they are attached to these other things, and people, that they have been spending time with! They become increasingly focused on television, video games, or their friends, and don’t have much interest in spending time with their parents.
So, what do we need to do? Start by talking to your baby while she is still in the womb. In the last weeks of pregnancy babies in the womb can indeed hear, particularly the mother’s voice but also other voices, and will respond to the emotional tone of the voice. The baby will then recognize your voices after birth and experience them as a comforting influence. And after birth take delight in your baby. Smile at her, play with her, caress and hold her. Let her smile break your heart open. Laugh with her. Talk with her. Carry her with you. Lie quietly with her when she seems content to be quiet; make goofy sounds with her when she seems more active. Take the cue from her, but generally enjoy this beautiful being that has blessed your life. Play with her – rediscover the silly, playful side of you that seemed lost. Put green beans up your nose! Sing songs. And let her sleep close to you, next to your bed if you prefer, but close. If the person you went to sleep with was gone every time you woke up, what message would you take?! It feels wonderful waking up close to the ones we love, and if we enjoy it with our spouses, imagine how our babies feel.
Your baby is growing up! He wants to explore and play with things. Spend time exploring and playing with him! Allow yourself to rediscover the delight in seeing things as if for the first time. Do you have any idea how amazing a stick of wood is, or how tasty it is!?! It is fine to offer your child playthings to enjoy, but children get such delight from the “ordinary” things in the world, particularly if his parents are exploring them with him.
Your baby is a little girl now. She wants to watch Mommy do Mommy things, and help. Tell her what you are doing. Tell her why you are doing it. Let her help (yes, it will take you twice as long, but that’s not the point). Your little boy is interested too. He’s particularly interested in Daddy things. He watches too, and wants to learn and to help. And if you are enjoying his company he’ll want to learn and help even more.
“All the little bastard ever wants to do is play video games!” Well then, I say in my best psychologist voice, “I suggest that you play video games with him”. You just might enjoy them. And remember, it’s not really about the video games. It’s about choosing to spend time enjoying our children. I don’t mean that we should have to engage in some activity that we find truly distressing or distasteful (“Sorry sweetie, I am not going on that roller-coaster with you!”). It is also quite reasonable to sometimes encourage your child to engage in an activity that you like, even if he isn’t too keen on it. Mainly, however, it is about us venturing into our children’s worlds and experiencing and meeting them there, delighting in learning about them, and just enjoying being with them.
If your child is already beyond infancy you may protest that she or he is just not interested in you anymore, that it’s not easy to engage with her or spend time with her. When we are not very available to our children or don’t take much pleasure in them, then they turn their attention to other people and things that offer them more satisfaction. It’s really not too difficult to lure them back. The crucial aspect is taking a genuine interest in their experience and showing them that you enjoy them. Greet them when they come into the room, let your delight be apparent in your voice tone and words, be physically affectionate with them (to the extent that they are receptive!), hug him, kiss her, rub her back, caress his hair, snuggle together on the couch while you talk, or even when you watch television. Be willing to be “interrupted” by your child, meaning that they are more important than whatever else we happen to be doing. When we spend this time with our children we also get to know them intimately, contributing to our understanding and empathy for them.
Although I believe that I have done pretty well in offering healthy parenting to my children in relationship to the other principles, I have fallen short on this one. Although I typically take pleasure in them and let them see this, I have chosen other priorities (like writing for other parents) over more time with them, and sometimes when we have been together my focus on some goal has left me blind to the more important objective of simply enjoying their company.