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The Most Powerful Tool You Have to Raise a Happy, Healthy Child

In the decade and a half that I’ve been teaching, I’ve had an opportunity to think deeply about the tools and techniques that parents need to raise happy, healthy children. Some of the tools are instinctive, and need no teaching: humor, play, hugs. Others are less intuitive and must be sought out: how to discipline, be a good listener, teach values consistently. Generally speaking, all of the tools are important, and parents must learn to balance instinct with learned skills. But if I were pressed to name one tool that stands above all others in terms of its importance in parenting, it would be one that bridges instinct and learned skills. It is the “tool” of love.

I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that parents who read articles on parenting or come to parenting workshops or lectures deeply love their children. That’s the instinctive part: that feeling of love that overwhelms us when we hold our child in our arms for the first time. Our children do not need to earn our love like others in our lives. Just the fact that they exist is enough for us to give our love away, unconditionally, in those first few moments of our lives together with them. Later perhaps we feel our love most deeply when we’re worried: “Samantha’s late coming home from school. She’s never been late before! Where is she?”; “I’m sorry, Mrs. Smith. Jeremy’s blood work isn’t good.”; “A rash of kidnappings is sweeping the country?” Most parents feel that they’ve never known a love like this before: a love so deep that we’d sacrifice our very lives for our children if it would keep them safe.

Why, then, is this a “tool” worth writing about. Why not relegate it to the realm of instinct and settle in comfortably, knowing that if love is the most powerful advantage we have in raising happy, healthy children, then most of us do not need to worry our children should turn out fine simply because we love them so much.

The answer lies in author M. Scott Peck’s wise insight: that it’s not enough to “feel” love, rather we must take action: love is a verb, not a noun. He says: “We must understand that desire to love is not itself love. Love is an act of will, “namely an intention and action.

What does this mean with regard to our children? It means that it is not simply enough to feel that we love our children. We must, instead, make sure that they feel unconditionally loved by us. To do so means that we must ACT in ways that show our love. All too often in my private practice I see children and teens who are loved, but who are acting out, taking terrible and life-threatening risks in their lives, lashing out angrily toward their parents and other family members. And the family is bewildered, “But I love her/him so much. Why doesn’t s/he know that? Why is s/he so angry?” The answer is that often, despite a parent’s best efforts, the feeling of love has not been removed from the realm of instinct, translated into action, and consistently been maintained.

So what is “love, the verb”?

* Love is time. In his book, The Road Less Traveled, M. Scott Peck says that when we love something we spend time admiring it, taking care of it, enjoying it. Love as action means taking time out of our busy lives and spending that time with our children. But I’m not talking about the time we spend in the “logistics” of parenting: making lunches, helping with homework, shuttling back and forth to soccer games. And I’m not talking about the time we spend in parallel activities with our children: watching television, running errands, “existing” in the same room while doing separate things. No, time that counts as love is different. It is time spent communicating with one another. One on one. No television in the background, no cell phone ringing. It is time during which we genuinely want to get to know who this person is that we call our child or teen: What does she enjoy doing? What things captivate his interest? I’m talking about spending time enjoying her presence and working to understand who this developing person is. Love is time: undiluted and in abundance.

* Love is listening. Brenda Euland, author of the article “Tell Me More,” says that when we listen with affection to our children they will show us their souls, and in doing so, they “will be wonderfully alive..." She says, “When we listen, there is an alternating current (between speaker and listener), and this recharges us so that we never get tired of each other. We are constantly being recreated.” M. Scott Peck says that listening is the purest act of love that we can show towards another person. Loving our children means listening to them without judgment, without preaching or teaching, without criticism.

* Love is respect. I can honestly say that most parents I know love their children more than anything in the world. Most parents, if given the choice between losing their child or losing a limb would say, “take my arm, take my leg, but don’t take my child.” Most parents love their children more than their own lives. Yet the paradox is this: Even though we love our children beyond measure, there are times when we treat them in ways we wouldn’t treat a stranger on the street. Love is acting respectfully toward our children, even when we’re angry, or tired, or exasperated. It is maintaining a level tone of voice even when we discipline them. It is refraining from using sarcasm or demeaning humor that might make them feel there’s something wrong with them as a person. In essence, respecting our children means treating them in exactly the same way that we would want to be treated.

The most powerful tool that you have to raise a healthy child is already at your fingertips. Use it wisely. Use it well. As M. Scott Peck says, “Ultimately, love is everything.