I just returned from Dr. Shefali’s 4th annual Evolve conference earlier this week. There was a word that kept showing up all weekend and that word was LOVE. I really began to think about the word and its meaning and I wanted to share some thoughts here with you.
Dr. Shefali always says “love is not enough.” She often tells her clients that they could stand to love their children a little less. “How could that possibly be?” you may be wondering. Well, the kind of love that we are used to is not a pure love. It is filled with attachments, agendas and expectations. And it tends to be very transactional.
1 – Attachments are not always healthy
Let’s look at attachments first. The kind of love that we know is usually filled with attachments. Some parents (the helicopter and lawnmower ones) among us are slow to give their child freedom to do certain things. For fear that they may get hurt. Or fear that they might not succeed. Or fear of the judgment of others if they let their child do something on their own.
They may hold their hand going up the stairs at a playground beyond the time the child is capable of doing so themselves. They may not allow their child to ride their bike alone beyond the time it is developmentally appropriate for them to do so. And worse yet, they may “help” them with their homework (i.e., do most of it themselves) well beyond when that is a good idea. In fact, the child should be responsible for attempting their homework on their own and the parent should only intervene if the child gets stuck (which is not uncommon at all). Projects should be left for the child to take the lead on.
2 – Which leads me to agendas
I remember a Thanksgiving turkey project that the kindergartners in my town do every year. I was so excited when it was handed out to my oldest son. It was to be a family project and he, myself, my husband and his then two-year-old sister helped with this project. My husband and I allowed my son to lead the way and tell us what materials he wanted us to use and where he wanted certain things to go. We had tons of fun making the turkey, but the end result was anything but “pretty.” It was a messy combination of glue blobs, feathers stuck in weird directions, googly eyes where eyes wouldn’t go and sequins all over. I felt happy when I looked at it, knowing how much fun we had creating it.
When I got to school all the turkeys hung on the wall. I think ours was the ugliest by far. There were some that were close to the messy way ours looked, but there were others that looked like they should be on display in a fine art exhibit. Everything was color-coded and placed precisely equally next to each other. Not a thing was out of place. There was not a glue blob to be seen. It was clear from one glance that the child had no part whatsoever in leading the way on that project. I almost imagined the parents taking over and doing the entire thing while the child was left to either hand them the materials or not be involved at all. Seeing that made me feel incredibly sad.
What are we really doing?
It got me to thinking about what in the world we are actually doing as parents. Why would a parent take over a 5-year-old’s school/family project? Because of agendas. Parents “love” their child and want the “best” for them (agenda). As a result, some parents can strip the child of learning, growing and messing up as they are supposed to do – this is a part of childhood – at least is should be.
When we remove obstacles, challenges and roadblocks from our children, we are not setting them up to be strong, capable, resilient and to believe in themselves. We are setting them up for quite the opposite actually. One thing that I realized when my son was young was that my job as a parent was not primarily to “parent” him the way I originally thought. My job was actually to work myself OUT of a job, trying to be mindful all along the way of how I could help him to be just a little be more independent.
When our children grow up and leave our homes and venture out on their own, they need to be prepared to do so. Too many teens are going off to college and facing a crisis, never having been expected or allowed to stand on their own and be responsible for themselves. I once heard a professor on a college tour with my son trying to explain to the parents that if they call him and want information about how their child is doing in his class, he CAN NOT and WILL NOT give it to them. By college, the student needs to be responsible for him or herself and the parent cannot think they are going to be calling to check up on their child’s progress (though sadly, some still try).
Preparing for independence
This preparation for independence that I speak of should begin when they are very young. However, it is never too late. If this is not something you have focused on all during their childhood, it is NOT too late to start now, no matter how old they are. What are they capable of doing for themselves that you currently do for them? You may need to deeply reflect, but rest assured that all is not lost. And the result will be well worth it.
3 – Expectations
The next stumbling block we face as parents is expectations. Again, we “love” our child and want them to “live up to their potential.” But is that actually beneficial? Never. Who actually lives up to their potential? Do you? I sure know I don’t. I work very, very hard but I believe that I am capable of far more than I ever do. After all, they say we only use about 10% of our brain. None of us actually lives up to our potential. So why are our children any different? Saying a child is not living up to their potential simply sets them up to feel like a failure. What would they actually need to “do” in order to “live up to their potential?”
Get straight A’s?
Make the Elite team?
Be showered with awards and honors?
And why do we even want them to live up to their potential? Because we “love” them so much? Or perhaps because we feel the judgment of others searing into us? Perhaps if our child lived up to their “potential” it would somehow make us feel like a success? Maybe if they live up to their potential, it will make up for the fact that we did not? But again, no one does so why do we feel like we should have either?
The transactional nature of it
The kind of love that we know is also transactional – “If you do this, I’ll do that” or “I do this for you, so you should do that for me.” If we wait on our children and do things for them, we may feel as if they “owe” us somehow. For example, if we make their meals and clean their clothes and put a roof over their heads and buy them the latest name brand fashions because we “love” them so much, the least they could do is clean their room, right?
But if you think about it, them cleaning their room has absolutely NOTHING to do with us cooking, doing laundry or buying them clothes. This is not a transactional situation though we may try to make it such. They do not need to clean their room “because” of all the things we do for them. They need to clean their room so that they can live in a clean, uncluttered space. Children need to learn how to be organized. Our children need to be prepared when they grow up and get a roommate or a spouse, etc. Cleaning their room has nothing whatsoever to do with what we do for them. And the sooner we can get away from the transactional nature of our “love,” the better – for us and for them. They will feel freer and we will feel less resentment.
So, what does pure love look like?
The purest kind of love is freedom. It is free of agendas, expectations and attachments. This love is not transactional in nature. It truly sets our child free.
Free to become who it is they are meant to be.
They are free to feel comfortable in their own skin.
Free to try, and mess up, to learn and try again next time.
They are free to believe in themselves and their ability.
The Buddha once said “If you like a flower, you just pluck it. But when you love a flower you water it daily.” Plucking the flower is the impure kind of love, where we want to possess and control. But pure love of the flower allows it to be free. We still care for it but allow it to be itself with no ownership or control over it.
How can we practice that pure kind of love with our children?
This is where it gets interesting. And maybe even a little scary. We can practice this pure kind of love with our children by allowing them to be in the driver’s seat of their own lives. By allowing them to do things for themselves with us nearby to assist when necessary but not to take over. By conveying our confidence in their abilities. And most of all, by staying mindful that our goal as parents is to work ourselves OUT of a job – to help them to grow into a strong, capable, resilient, contributing adult.
If you are moved by this idea but paralyzed by fear or confusion, reach out to me. I am happy to help you! This is not an easy concept to grasp and can be even more difficult to practice. But I assure you, you and your child will both benefit.