A few weeks ago, I was asked to be on a local news program to talk about parenting in the New Year. One of the anchors made a statement and asked a question that weeks later has stayed with me. He said that it annoyed him when parents talk about how much they love their children, and then asked me if love was enough. Well I wasn’t expecting that question!
The short answer to that complicated question is, “No, love is not enough."
My answer has upset many parents and grandparents. After all, isn’t it essential and critical to love our children so they can grow into loving and compassionate people? The answer to this question is “yes.” So it follows then that if we show our children love, shouldn’t they be fine? Isn't that enough? Doesn’t love conquer all? Unfortunately, the answer to both of those questions is “no.” Showing our children love does not guarantee they will be fine—and unfortunately love does not conquer all.
I have a haunting memory from graduate school where the professor was describing how children who are abused by their parents still seek their love and acceptance. I believe that piece of information was so impactful because it challenged my notions about love and human behavior. How could a parent abuse a child he loves? How can a child seek love and acceptance from a parent who is abusing her? I was in that class over 25 years ago and having worked with parents and children of varied ethnicity, socio-economic status, and diverse backgrounds, I can say with confidence that what my professor said in class that day is true. People seek love from their parents—and parents usually love their children—and yet some parents who love their children often don’t parent in ways that result in health, confidence, and stability for their kids.
But why would parents harm their children? The vast majority of the time parents don’t set out to harm their children. Parents most often do their best to get through life and deal with the reality of their present lives—job (or no job), bills, financial stress, their complicated relationships, mental and physical health, and the challenges of living and of humanity. When people become parents, whether they plan to or not, they have an additional responsibility (a big one) and job (a big one) on top of the rest of their lives. So where do we draw our parenting beliefs and behavior from? Our own childhood.
Even though the greatest predictor of how we parent is how we were parented, it doesn’t necessarily predict how we are going to parent. If we were mistreated or abused, it doesn’t mean we will mistreat or abuse our children. If we were raised by an alcoholic, it doesn’t mean we will be an alcoholic. If we had strict parents, it doesn’t mean we will automatically be strict. However, these experiences influence and dictate, usually unconsciously, how we choose to parent our own kids. We may decide to parent just like our parents, or the exact opposite. If we are being mindful, we may choose to do some things the same and some things different than our parents did.
My experience of working with parents and kids (as well as raising my three kids) is that it is easy for parents to love their kids because it is biologically wired into our DNA. However, it is not easy to consistently show love to our kids so they feel secure in the world, and develop love and confidence in themselves. For example, controlling our kids does not help them learn how to make decisions and have confidence in themselves. Putting our kids down does not help them feel good about themselves and feel that they have value. I know plenty of parents who love their kids yet control them, call them names, and intimidate them physically and mentally—“it’s because I love them so much.” On the other hand, telling kids you love them all the time and praising them for every little thing they do doesn’t create secure, confident kids either.
So, “no,” love is not enough to raise good kids. But I want to be crystal clear. Love is absolutely necessary to raise healthy kids. Then what else do we parents need to do? We need to be aware of what we think our kids need from us to grow into healthy adults. My experience is that these things include—feeling valued, learning to trust themselves, have the ability and courage to trust others, be able to solve life’s inevitable problems, and manage their emotions and behavior. Does this seem like a lot? It is.
But here is the good news: These are all the things adults need to do on a daily basis. We need to take inventory of what we are doing well and what we need to improve. Our kids are watching us and learning from us—both the good and the not so good. I suggest we all take an honest look at ourselves and have the courage to be the best people we can be—so our kids have the opportunity to be their best selves. Be honest and be vulnerable. Be willing to be wrong and be willing to give up some control (if you are doing too much of it), and be willing to provide more structure and guidance (if you are not doing enough). Be willing to apologize.
Love your kids under all circumstances but don’t think it is enough—it’s not. Raising healthy humans is not easy, but it is definitely possible. It is by far the most meaningful and important job we will ever have.