The greatest gift we have to offer a child is an invitation to rest in our care. This isn’t the type of rest that comes from sleeping but from an enduring invitation for contact and closeness, a sense of significance and mattering, as well as sense of belonging and being known by the people a child is most attached to.
To invite a child to rest is about inspiring them to depend on us to meet their relational needs. As creatures of attachment we crave connection and should seek relationships in which we can become rooted and nourished. To bring a child to rest relationally is to assure them that their hunger for connection will be satiated. It means they can take our relationship for granted and that it is unwavering across context and conduct.
To bring a child to rest means they will not be driven to pursue an answer to the question – ‘am I loved and cared for?’ It means we have become the answer to their greatest hunger by assuring them our caretaking has no expiry date.
Why is relational rest important? When kids are at rest they grow. Just as arms and legs grow while sleeping, selfhood unfolds when a child is in right relationship to their adults. Research in neuroscience and attachment science are unequivocal in their findings that the brain is wired for attachment and will pursue this need above all else. When these needs are met, the energy and bias in a person will move away from seeking attachment and towards developing a separate self through play, discovery, learning, trial and error. Rest matters because it frees our attention. When we don’t have to look for love, we can start to figure out who we are.
The challenge is we cannot grow if we are not first rooted in healthy relationships. The unfolding of healthy personhood is firmly grounded and sprouts from relational rest. As Gordon Neufeld states, “We liberate children not by making them work for our love, but by letting them rest in it.”
Three Ways to Invite a Child to Rest
We cannot make a child rest in our care but we can work to create the conditions that will foster this. There are three things we can do to give our kids an invitation they cannot refuse.
- Accept the work of the relationship
When we accept that the person in charge of the parent/child relationship is us, we won’t hold a child accountable for preserving a sense of contact and closeness. It isn’t their job to mend fences or to cross bridges, but for us to hold onto them across conduct and in the face of immature emotional expression. To hold onto a relationship with our children means we can’t outsource all of their caretaking to others, we need to actively engage with our role. We need to convey to them a sense that they are valued, desired, and wanted.
Working at keeping our relationship strong means we will also find ways to hold onto them by bridging the distance when separation happens. It means we work to give them a sense of security in our relationship and convey that it is enduring.
To accept the work of the relationship is to keep our fingers on the pulse of whether our children feel close to us, depend on us, and trust us. If our relationship feels strained or weakened, we need to move to repair and protect it.
To take care of our relationship means we make it safe for a child to depend on us and refrain from using separation based discipline methods. We aim to use our relationship to influence a child and not to control them. When we understand that a child’s desire to obey, follow, attend, listen, share the same values as us, all come from having a strong relationship, we will take the lead in preserving and protecting it.
- Assume the alpha role in the child’s life
To assume an alpha role means we vulnerably accept our position as the one to lead and assume responsibility for caring for a child. We see it as our work to ensure a child has a secure home base to grow in and to keep them safe. We aim to preserve their dignity when their behaviour is difficult.
To claim an alpha role in a child’s life is to act as their compass point and to help them make sense of the world around them. It means we don’t simply meet their demands but take the lead in answering their needs. It means we don’t turn them into consultants when it comes to their caretaking by asking them too many questions.
We need to seize the lead in nurturing our kids and to comfort them when they are facing all the things that cannot change. It means we sometimes have to help them accept the futilities that are part of life – like no cookies for breakfast or our limits to technology use.
To invite a child to rest in our care we need to portray a strong alpha presence so that they feel we are in charge and can handle whatever comes our way. From their tantrums, to resistance, to emotional outbursts – there is a sense that we are holding onto them and will find a way through the impasse. To claim an alpha position in a child’s life is not about having all the answers but communicating we are the answer.
- Provide more than the child is pursuing
To fill a child’s relational needs we will need to do more than just give them what they ask for – we need to give them more. The only way rest can be achieved is through knowing there is more there than you could possibly consume. Like a banquet or buffet table brimming with food – it is generosity that puts one at rest because you can take the invitation for granted.
To help our children rest in our care we will need to give them more attention than they demand and more connection than they seek. If they ask us for a hug we can hold onto them and give them a swirl and a kiss too. We need to give more approval than they are looking for and more significance than they deserve. At every turn we need to communicate we are generous with everything they need, and they can take it all for granted. Even when we have to say no, we can be generous by giving them space to express their feelings.
Why Rest is The Answer We All Seek
Wendell Berry writes in his poem, The Peace of Wild Things, “For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.” It is this freedom, this sense of security, this idea that one can rest in someone else’s care taking that is transcendent like in nature. The reason it matters for kids is when they are at rest they are free to play. It is in the relational playgrounds we create for them where they steadily morph and shapeshift into the mature forms we long for.
We cannot control our children’s growth; we can only provide the rest they need to flourish. We cannot make our children depend on us, we can only invite them into relationship with us. We cannot make our children become their own person, we can only ensure they are at rest in the relational roots we nourish and cultivate.
To rest in another person’s care is a vulnerable place. We can get hurt, mistreated, or ignored. It is much easier to be the one to lead and to care for another than to be the recipient of that caretaking.
Our fulfillment as parents lies in inviting our children to rest in our care and having them take us up on our offer. For both caretakers and the ones cared for – this dance of relationship is where true rest lies.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara is the Director of Kid’s Best Bet, a counselling and family resource center, on Faculty at the Neufeld Institute, and author of Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one). For more information please see www.macnamara.wpengine.com or www.neufeldinstitute.org.