Unearned Love

As the old joke goes, I used to have several theories on parenting.  Now I have several children, and no theories.

This line rings because there are so many different kinds of children, and also because there are so many different kinds of parents.  If we all tried to raise our children the same way, most of us would fail miserably, because our personalities are gifts from God as much as our skills and talents are, and we are supposed to work with what we have.

Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something terribly wrong with one mother’s approach.  She wrote in to Slate’s advice column:

Q. I have been told that I am a cold and unloving mother because when my children get hurt I don’t panic. I don’t run to them and coddle them. I make them calm down and stop crying before I check them out. (I always give them the eyeball while I’m trying to calm them, I just don’t want the kids to notice.) And usually say something like, “I can’t help you until you tell me how it happened and where it hurts.” And then once they can tell me about what happened and have calmed down I give them the hugs and kisses. All of my friends run and cuddle and hold them until they stop sobbing. And I get treated like a bad mom because I am not. I just want to raise strong, individual, self-helping, little people. Am I in the wrong? Will more cuddling make them feel safer? Or, if I cuddle more will I make them into sissies?

The answer was sensible:  just make sure you’re taking care of your kids in the way that seems best to you, and never mind what your friends say or do.

Maybe I’m reading too much into it.  Maybe the other mothers do freak out, and make their children hysterical by getting hysterical—that’s never a pretty sight.  And maybe the writer shows more sympathy than she lets on—maybe she communicates love to her kids in a way that they, knowing her, understand and appreciate.

And if she doesn’t?  Well, isn’t her approach kind of bracingly spartan—exactly what’s needed in this loosey goosey world that scoffs at self-control?  Maybe raising children who are “strong, individual, self-helping” really is the best approach.

But here is the part that gives me pause:

[I] usually say something like, “I can’t help you until you tell me how it happened and where it hurts.” And then once they can tell me about what happened and have calmed down I give them the hugs and kisses.

I think that this woman’s household will be very peaceful, and her children will grow up to be strong.

But I wonder what will happen when they have children of their own.  Or when they have friends , or when they get married.  Or when they encounter genuine, overwhelming grief that has no reason to be contained.  I have met some good, decent people who have been trained (deliberately or through abuse) not to show emotion, not to lose control, and not to need help.  They are good people—but they are not good to other people.  They don’t know how.  They do not understand grief or need, and they do not know how to offer sympathy.

And they do not know how to seek forgiveness or help when they themselves are in need, because no one has ever taught them about mercy or compassion.

As we raise children, we sometimes forget that the parent-child relationship is not a closed circuit.  If all goes well, our importance in their lives will dwindle, and their major relationships will focus on other people.  They will carry with them what we teach them about themselves (which the mother in the letter understands)—but they also internalize our model of how to treat other people.

There are very few self-contained “correct” messages that a parent ought to teach.  More often (and more tricky), our job is really to teach them a range of things:  justice, but also mercy.  Self-confidence, but also compromise.  Courage, but also flexibility.  Personal responsibility, but also compassion.  We teach them that there are rules, and that there are glorious exceptions.  And that we are commanded to love, but that we mustn’t command others to be lovable first.

To each his own, when it comes to parenting.  We all have our own system.  I don’t think the mother in the letter is “cold and unloving”—but I do think she’s missing a fleeting and irreplaceable opportunity to give her children a taste of something that is straight from God: the enjoyment of undeserved love, of healing that we need but cannot earn.

For God’s sake, hug your kids when they’re hurt.