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The most essential thing a parent can do for a child

What do children need most from their parents?

What can we do for our children that will give them confidence, enable them to feel empathy for others, and succeed as best they can in their lives. Perhaps the most essential thing a parent can give a child is the belief that his or her presence gives joy and delight. By simply being there in the world, the child is a precious gift. He or she does not have to prove anything, do anything special; does not have to be anything extraordinary, but rather by just being who they are they bring delight to the parent's heart. To ask nothing of the child, to demand no service or special behavior but simply to react with the joy of the child's being is probably the most important thing a parent can give a child. I suppose this is called, in other terms, unconditional love.

I think of my own mother with my deaf daughter Cybele. We naturally made demands on her, wanting her to learn to speak, to read, to write, to behave correctly, to be part of society, but my own mother would just take her hand firmly and look at her so lovingly and ask, "Are you happy, dear?" The little girl's presence, tottering along with her heavy hearing aids in the little bodices she wore, was sufficient when she walked into the room to light up my mother's lovely face.

Of course this does not mean that the parent is not obliged to demand or expect things from a child, that certain behavior cannot be condoned. Parents obviously need to give a sense of certain expectations, need to establish rules and regulations, to discipline when necessary, but above all, surely, the child needs to sense that his or her presence is enough to give happiness.

All of this ( discipline, politeness, independence) should be for the child's good not necessarily for the mother or father's narcissism. How much of what we demand of children is actually for our own pride or self satisfaction, or simply to tell our neighbor? How much of a child's success at school or at sport or even in the arts, our pride even in our child's looks, in his/her body is in fulfillment of a parent' s dream he or she has not been able to fulfill?

What to do if one does not feel this joy? And there are times obviously when any parent, faced by a child's bad behavior, or when one is just too tired or too troubled to be able to respond , when one needs time on one's own, when it is difficult to feel this joy in a child's presence. Perhaps, if it is at all possible it is necessary to find a moment to be alone or away from the child to recoup, gain one's peace of mind, but always to come back with what surely exists some where in each parent's heart, the joy of a child's blessing in the home.

Sheila Kohler is the author of fourteen books, most recently "Once we were sisters" a memoir published by Penguin

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