From the moment you learn you’re going to be a parent, advice begins to flood in. Family, church members, friends, authors, and even strangers on the street all offer sage advice on how you should raise your child. This is also the same time when doubts begin to arise. The responsibility of raising a child to ensure they grow up healthy in every sense can be overwhelming. In this episode of ANN In-Depth, child psychiatrist Marissa Leslie unpacks the importance of building a relationship with your child as a necessary step in child-rearing.
No matter the generation, there is always something that makes the older generation worry about the younger. Too much radio, too much television, too much internet, too many video games, and/or too much social media. The list goes on. It is the fear that such distractions are anesthetizing them from the real world, in short, keeping our children from their childhood. This detachment from reality is definitely cause for concern, however, attention must be given to the parents as well. Perhaps parents exercise their own forms of detachment in the form of work, chores, volunteering, or ministry. It would be narrow-minded to place sole blame on either the parent or the child, however, we can acknowledge a cyclical pattern that can result in isolation between the parent and child which makes care, discipline, and relationship difficult.
A portion of the isolation that can cause a strained relationship results from parents expecting perfection from both their children and themselves. Placing such high expectations prevents a key part of a healthy relationship to develop: vulnerability. “That is actually a great way to develop a closer relationship,” observes Leslie, “that mom and dad are not pretending to be heroes. They are also flawed and broken.” Revealing this vulnerability does not mean that we must unburden every mistake and failure at the feet of children, but allow yourself to admit that you were wrong, own up to a mishandled situation, and apologize with the promised intent to do better.
The benefits of this are threefold. Firstly, you are setting an example for your child to follow. They are learning that failure is a part of life and owning up to flaws and mistakes is the first step in growing as an emotionally mature individual. Leslie states that such an example “helps them to have that progression of their own personalities”. The final two results of vulnerability go hand in hand. Leslie is quick to point out that, as much as parents are called to represent God, they cannot be God. Expressing vulnerability is crucial to building relationships and vital in representing the growth possible. By sharing past failures and struggles in their youth, it provides a level of humanity to yourself as a parent that makes you less untouchable to a child who is eager to find a space where they can be open about their struggles.
There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to people. Children, after all, are people in development, deserving of even more care and understanding because they are still acquiring the hooks to hold onto truths which will form their identity. Leslie encourages the importance of this by saying, “They may be little people but they have the same needs we do, to be respected, to be heard, to have undivided attention, to be valued, and to have their opinions heard, and within reason, honored.” Understanding how best to build a relationship with your kids requires you as the parent to step outside of your own expectations of what you think your child needs to develop a deeper relationship with you, and pay attention to what they do need. “Learn your child, study your child, we take the time to study other things that are important, our children are important to study and figure out what they need without overindulging them.” Leslie continues by saying, “Figure out what they need to develop into that person that will serve the community that will serve God.” This requires intentionality and undivided attention.
As mentioned earlier, the fear of detachment from your children can come through their focus on movies, television, school, friendships, social media or technology. In the worry that they are not paying attention and isolating them from a deeper relationship with you, your own patterns must be observed. It is easy to justify the detachments of a parent as being more important than a child’s, such as work, ministry, chores, etc. However, you cannot ask your child what you yourself are unwilling to do. You must also be intentional in carving out quality time with your child that is regular and uninterrupted. This can be sharing a chore together, sharing a meal, or simply having an hour set aside for quality time that has no agenda other than appreciating each other’s company.
The home is the first place where God’s perfect love is represented to a child. The home is where the blueprint of God’s love is lived out to the best of your ability with the aid of the holy spirit. “Childbearing isn't just structure and rules and discipline; those things don't fall into place unless there is a strong and healthy relationship.” The process of developing a healthy parent-child bond requires the intentional work of vulnerability and earning the intimacy and trust of your child. In the end, “If you want them to be more respectful, treat them with respect.” They, like you, are humans in need of grace, learning the gravity of God’s love. If you want your child to have a healthy, strong, unbreakable relationship with their Heavenly Father, set the example.