My 5-year old nephew is in love. He walks around his house and finds each family member and grabs their head firmly in his hands, places his forehead on theirs, and declares, “we’re married.” He singled out his father for a more formal marriage proposal accompanied with heartfelt proclamations of affection. The dog was also happy with her marriage vows but who wouldn’t be delighted to watch a child fall in love for the first time?
The capacity to feel deep caring and to express warmth and sentimentality is a sign that a child has developed the capacity for emotional intimacy. It usually arrives between the ages of 4 and 5 if all is unfolding well developmentally. It means for the first time they can experience a sense of vulnerability at the heart level, in other words, it is a sign that the relationship is deepening.
As a parent I used to think that what mattered most was how much I loved my kids. While our love is important, attachment is a two way street and we cannot be empowered in our role without our children giving their hearts to us. It begs the question – what comes with a child’s heart that allows us to do our job as parents?
Why love matters
Attaching through deep love is an important milestone in becoming a relational being. We are not born with the ability to relate to others in a responsible and caring way and this is something that must be grown from within us. Becoming a relational being can only grown by first being invited into relationship with at least one adult in their life who cares for them. In other words, we need to lead our children in attaching to us – we can’t leave it up to chance.
How do we invite our children to give their hearts to us? By giving them more contact and closeness than they desire and a sense of belonging and loyalty. We need to convey that they matter and are significant to us by engaging fully with them and caring for them in unexpected ways. We cannot expect a child to fall deeply into attachment unless we have been generous in our care taking and have read their needs and responded.
When a child gives us their heart for safekeeping, there is a greater sense of trust, of closeness in the relationship, and it paves the way for secrets to be shared. Our relationship becomes a wonderful template on which they can judge other relationships. The writer Johann Goethe once said that a person sees in the world that which they carry in their heart.
When children come to expect emotional intimacy in their relationships and understand how nourishing it can be, they will be less likely to accept cheap substitutes as adults.
When a child gives their heart to us, they can better hold onto us when apart. Children don’t need to practice separating from us, they just need to be more deeply attached so they can withstand the distance between us. Missing is part of what comes with deep attachment, that is, we only miss the people we care for. Our children can venture forth and discover, play, imagine, and learn, when they are sure there is always a person to return home to. A child is not at home with us unless they have given us their heart.
When the attachment roots go deep there is a secure base to lean on and draw strength from. Kids who have given their hearts to their parents are shielded from the toxic peer wounding that is part of school interactions today – what their parents think about them matter more than any words from another child. Kids who are deeply attached are more resilient and withstand adversity and bounce back quicker. When they are tethered to adults, their feet are on solid ground no matter what storms they encounter in their life.
How a child’s love empowers a parent
When a child has given their heart to a parent they will be more likely to listen and attend to what is said. Children don’t listen because they are told they have to but because they want to follow the people they are attached to.
A deeply connected child will look up to their adults, like them, seek their help, and want to be with them. Children don’t seek help from someone because they are told to but because they believe that person has their best interests at heart.
Children will also work to try and please the people they are deeply attached to by helping out and by wanting to measure up to expectations for behaviour and values. As Gordon Neufeld states, it isn’t our love for a child that empowers us in our role as parents, rather, it is their love for us.
How to hold onto their hearts
When we understand the importance of having a child’s heart in being able to care for them, the question remains as to how we can preserve and protect our relationship with them?
Part of the answer lies in avoiding separation that is wounding to our relationship – like the use of discipline that divides like time outs, threats, or punitive consequences. It also means protecting our relationship from being lost to competing attachments like peers or digital devices. While friends are great to be with, they are not the answer to a child’s attachment needs. A child needs to feel anchored to an adult that is hanging on to them.
Why is our love necessary to raise a child?
If it is a child’s love for us that empowers us as parents, then why is it important for us to love our kids?
If you consider all that comes with parenting – like sacrifice, frustration, alarming feelings, the need for patience, consideration, forgiveness, and compassion – it starts to become a lot clearer. Our love for a child is what makes all of this possible. Love for our children holds the power to transform us into the parents we need to become. Parenting can be hard, love is what makes it possible to endure and to grow.
If there were a secret to parenting it would be this, that not only do our children need to give their hearts to us, but we need to our hearts over to the role of being the answer to their hunger for connection. Like a beautiful dance, parent and child relationships were meant to deepen, become exclusive and personalized, and leave everlasting fingerprints on each other’s hearts.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara is on Faculty at the Neufeld Institute, the author of the best-selling book, Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one), The Sorry Plane, and Nourished: Connection, food, and caring for our kids (and everyone else we love). She is the Director of the Kid’s Best, Bet Counselling and Family Resource Centre.