How should a parent love their child?
Strangely, and rather awkwardly, it seems no human being can ever really grow up sane unless it has been loved very deeply by someone for a number of years in its early life. But we’re still learning what parental love might actually involve. The word ‘love’ trips lightly off the tongue and few parents – even the most disagreeable ones – would ever resist a claim that they felt the emotion deeply, but that doesn’t mean that loving behaviour is any easier to understand in theory or practice in reality.
What then might some of the requirements of parental love be? The start of a list might look like this:
A loving parent gets down to the child’s level – at times, literally dropping to their height when addressing them – in order to see the world through their eyes. They understand that a very young child cannot easily fit in with external demands and that, in the early days, they must be prioritised and placed at the center of things, not in order to ‘spoil’ them, but in order to give them a chance to grow; they will need to have been doted on unilaterally for long enough so that, eventually, they can develop into generous, empathetic and self-contented adults. Loving parents instinctively understand that what ‘attention-seeking’ children need isn’t punishment and a lecture about being difficult but the right kind of attuned care that will coax them out of their frantic bids for love.
Loving parents know the physical and psychological vulnerability of a young child and are ready to feel very sorry for them rather than use their weakness as an occasion to avenge themselves for their own privations; sorry for how much they don’t understand, for how hard it is for them to communicate, for how strange their tummies can feel or how angry they can become without any option for release other than a scream… The parent can allow them to be little for a long time, because they can see over the horizon to the eventual emergence of a capable adult.
– ‘Small Things’
Loving parents understand that their young offspring’s lives revolve around details that are, by any adult measure, very minor. Toddlers will feel enormously happy because they can dig their nails into some putty or have a chance to wack their spoon into some peas with energy or say ‘bah’ very loudly; and they will feel extremely sad because pet rabbit lost one of its buttons or a page in a favourite book now has a tear in it. These parents will know that, at moments, the whole world will seem like a tragic realm, because daddy ate one of the french fries by mistake or because there won’t be another reading of ‘Goodnight little owl’. The good parent feels resourceful enough inside itself not to hold it against the child that it is making a very big deal out of so-called ‘nothing’. It will follow the child in its excitement over a puddle and it in its grief over an uncomfortable sock. It understands that the child’s future ability to be considerate to other people and to handle genuine disasters will be critically dependent on it having had its ample fill of sympathy for a range of age-appropriate sorrows.
A loving parent will know how to put the best possible interpretation on behaviour that might seem to others unfortunate and grating: the small child isn’t ‘a troublemaker’, but it has of course been very upset by the arrival of its sibling. It isn’t ‘antisocial’ but it does find a small circle of familiar people especially soothing. It isn’t a ‘nightmare’ but it does surely need to go to bed very soon. This capacity for imaginative kindly explanations will go on to mould the workings of the child’s own conscience; it will learn the art of self-forgiveness. It won’t have to torture itself for its mistakes. It won’t suffer the ravages of self-loathing – or ever be tempted to take its own life.
– Strange Phases
The loving parent will feel sufficiently sane to allow a child to be weird for a while, knowing that so-called weird is a normal part of evolution. It won’t get flustered that the child has decided to pretend it’s an animal or wants to eat only red-coloured foods or has an imaginary friend living in the tree at the end of the garden. It will have faith in sanity emerging – and in the wisdom of exploring a lot of possible options before choosing to settle on reason. It will be able to remain calm over some intense tantrums and obsessions, it won’t need to shut down irreverence at every turn, it will be patient around low moods and unruffled by adolescent surliness. It will know how many byways of strange or unfortunate behaviour one might need to linger in before being able to accede to an authentic and decent adulthood. Along the way, the parent won’t assign labels to the child that might fix it in a role it was only trying out. It will be wary of telling a child that it is ‘the angry one’, ‘the little philosopher’ or even ‘the kind one’: it will allow the child the luxury of picking its own identity.
The good parent knows that children may well cling for a long while, and will never dismiss this natural need for reassurance in pejorative terms. It won’t tell the child to buck up and be a ‘good little man’ or ‘young lady who can make me proud’. It will know that those who end up securely attached and able to tolerate absence are those who were originally allowed to have as much dependence and connection as they needed.
However much money a good parent might have, it won’t ask the child to be grateful and believe that it has a ‘privileged’ life – just because there are lots of foreign holidays, two new shiny cars in the drive and a cleaner. Nor will a more disadvantaged parent fear that a child is damned because the finances are tight and a trip to the cinema would be a significant treat. The good parent knows that the only real privilege for a child is to know that it is profoundly wanted.
A good parent won’t set themselves up as impossibly glamorous or remote, a figure whom a child might be tempted to idealise and ruminate over from afar. They will know how to be very ordinary around the house; dignified perhaps but also on occasion ratty, forgetful, silly and greedily keen to have too much desert. The good parent will know that parental quirks and flaws are there to remind a child of the need eventually to leave home and get on with their own lives.
A good parent will know how to appear very boring. It will understand that what a child chiefly needs is a source of reliable calm, not fireworks and excitement (it has enough of these inside its own mind). It should be there, in the same place, saying more or less the same things, for decades. It should take care to be predictable and to edit out its surprising moods, the child doesn’t need a full picture of every perturbance and temptation coursing through its carers’ minds. The parent accepts that ‘mummy’ or ‘daddy’ are roles, not full representations; it should be the privilege of every child not to have to know its parents in complete detail.
– Unreciprocated Love
The good parent isn’t looking for a balanced relationship. It is happy to give unilaterally. It doesn’t need to be asked how its day was or what it thinks of the government’s new policy on insurance. It knows that a child should be able to take a parent substantially for granted. The parent’s reward for all their work won’t ever be direct; it will arrive by noting, in many years time, that their child has developed into a very good parent themselves.
Good parents know that children can wind up mentally unwell not so much because they are ignored or maltreated but because they are loved with a troubling over-intensity, by parents who are using them to compensate for disappointments in their own lives. There are childhoods where, upon arrival, the infant is quickly heralded as profoundly exceptional. It is grandly declared uncommonly beautiful, intelligent, talented and resolutely set for a special destiny. Not for this child the ordinary sorrows and stumblings of an average life. While perhaps still no taller than a bollard, the offspring is spoken of as a figure whose name will reverberate down the centuries. On the surface, this could seem to offer a route to enormous self-confidence and security. But to place such expectations on someone who still struggles with their coat buttons leaves the child feeling hollow and particularly incapable. It grows up with a latent sense of fraudulence – and a consistent fear that it will be unmasked. It winds up at once grandly expecting that others will recognise its sensational destiny – and entirely unsure as to why or how they might in fact do so. The child’s underlying longing is not to revolutionise nations and be honoured across the ages; it is to be accepted and loved for who it is, in all its often touching but unimpressive and faltering realities.
A loving household isn’t one where there is uncomplicated happiness, it is one where different members have learnt to show one another a high degree of forebearance for the profoundly grating behaviours of which they know (in their honest moments) they are all guilty. For this to be possible, the child will need to have been witness over many years to their share of parental forgiveness. The parent will need to have been indulgently kind in the face of a thousand frustrations – and have passed on the knack of letting an irritant go. Now, everyone in the family can see everyone else as fundamentally silly rather than evil. Dad’s neuroticism, mum’s obsessiveness, brother’s moodiness and sister’s sternness will be matters for amused commentary rather than rage or bitterness. The family will be an exemplar of madness well handled and absorbed.
Put simply: love is the considerate, tender, hugely patient behaviour displayed by an adult over many years towards a child who cannot help but be largely out of control, confused, frustrating and bewildered – in order that it might over time grow into an adult who can take its place in society without too much of a loss of spontaneity, without too much terror and with a basic trust in its own capacities and chances of fulfilment.
It should be a matter of global consternation that, despite all our many advances, we are still only at the dawn of knowing how to ensure that more of us have the childhoods we need.