Humans are born ready to love, and to be loved. All parents recognize the adoration reserved especially for parents, the small arms reaching up, the joy of infant and parent in their cocoon of mutual delight. Babies expect to be cherished.
This cherishing, this affirmation of the infant from head to toe, teaches the baby who he is. In interaction with the parents, the baby learns "Yes, these are my toes, how good they feel when Dad kisses them!" and "Mom makes that happy noise when I smile at her!" The baby also learns "Mom and Dad love to bathe me, to feed me, to care for me: I am worth taking care of. I am lovable."
From this experience of being cherished, the child becomes capable of emotional generosity, which balances the natural instinct to "look out for number one." Being cherished as a baby is the foundation for the development of empathy and compassion.
Cherishing our babies is natural, if we listen to our instincts. It is our secret weapon, the nourishment that helps them grow inside, the source of their self esteem, the predictor of their ability to love and be loved.
The expectation of this unconditional love is what allows our children to learn so quickly. The security of knowing that someone who adores them is watching out for them, supporting their growth, allows them to risk bumps and scrapes, disappointment and heartbreak.
For the parent, to cherish is to revel in being this baby’s parent, to be grateful even in the middle of diapers and sleeplessness and colic that this baby was sent to these arms.
But if we have not been cherished ourselves, cherishing can be challenging. When we have been frustrated in our attempts to love and be loved, we may find it difficult to revel in our new baby. We may find ourselves annoyed rather than delighted by her need for our attention, angry rather than sympathetic when he howls. We may avert our eyes from her adoring gaze. We may become uncomfortable when engaged in reciprocal play with our baby and interrupt it without really noticing what we are doing, or even our discomfort.
Often, parents who have not been cherished themselves are envious of the attention the baby receives from others. These parents may insist that the baby adapt to their needs, by, for instance, refusing to adequately babyproof and then becoming angry when the baby persistently attempts to explore the dog's water bowl.
And for the baby, what happens when this need to cherish and be cherished is frustrated? Frustration, of course, is a form of anger. Lack of being cherished creates an angry child.
Most parents try to cherish their child, but we are all hostage to our own scar tissue, which means there are limits on our ability to cherish. Instead of unconditional love, we may offer conditional acceptance. A parent might adore the baby, for instance, but find it difficult to deal with her when she's angry.
What happens then? The baby simply rejects the parts of herself that haven't been accepted. The ability to love herself is compromised, shadowed with shame; she is not, after all, good enough to evoke what she needs and wants most: cherishing. As she rejects parts of herself, her emotional growth is compromised. (See the Attachment Research for more about the Resistant-ambivalent response to conditional parenting.)
The need for cherishing, like all survival needs, doesn’t vanish when thwarted. It goes deep underground. We defend ourselves against this dangerous need that would make us vulnerable; we ward it off with anger, which eventually turns into bitterness.
In extreme cases, the hope of being loved becomes too painful, and the child defends against his broken heart by consciously expecting rejection. We all know these children, who become experts at soliciting dislike. In the most extreme cases, these can become the kids who are capable, one day, of intentionally hurting others. The famous researcher Rene Spitz said it most succinctly:
"Infants without love…will end as adults full of hate."
Luckily, virtually all of us get enough cherishment that we don't end up as killers. Few of us, though, get enough of this "soul food" to keep our hearts from becoming more hungry than we would like. Few of us received enough unconditional love as children to make emotional generosity our automatic response to ourselves and others.
"Everybody's got a hungry heart."
That hungry heart, those unmet needs, are what drive all "bad behavior" on the part of our children. Sure, sometimes kids, like all humans, just want what they want. And all children have times when they're overwhelmed by emotion, or have a hard time regulating their behavior.
But children who feel unconditionally loved and accepted have fewer "bad" feelings driving their behavior. Their brains develop the ability to self-regulate earlier. They prioritize the relationship with their parent, so they're more open to the parent's influence; they WANT to cooperate. They see themselves as of value, able to make a positive contribution to the world. They're happier, more cooperative, more responsible, more emotionally generous.
Wouldn't the world be a better place if every baby and child could be cherished?
Does unconditional love sound like too big a lift? That just means you need more support. This is some of the hardest work anyone ever does. You don't need to do this alone. Reach out for the support you need to be the inspired, emotionally generous parent you are inside.
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Less drama; more love. What do you have to lose?
Cherishment, by Elisabeth Young-Bruehl and Faith Bethelard --
I love this book by two psychotherapists, and their invention of the term "cherishment".